Review: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius provide a peculiarly chilly kind of comfort. Blake Morrison enjoys a new translation

Meditations: Living, Dying and the Good Life
by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays
191pp, Weidenfeld, £6.99

What do the classics offer in a time of crisis? Can the wisdom of poets, philosophers and emperors console? At the front, in 1915, Robert Graves turned to Keats ("the most soothing poet going"). In the Gulf, in 1991, the US marine Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead, read Homer and Camus. But for instruction in the art of forbearance, many readers down the ages, including Frederick the Great, have chosen Marcus Aurelius (AD121-180).

Marcus had little specific to say on the subject of war. But two decades overseeing the Roman empire brought him his share of conflict and suffering, and there are passages in his Meditations, newly translated for the first time in a generation, that suggest a close acquaintance with the battlefield: "Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head, just lying somewhere far away from the body it belonged to? That's what we do to ourselves - or try to - when we rebel against what happens to us... Or when we do something selfish."

It's hard to envisage the book being issued as a self-help manual to coalition forces. At least one aperçu appears to endorse the hand-to-hand fighting our generals are so anxious to avoid: "The fencer's weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer's is part of him. All he has to do is clench his fist." Marcus isn't always on-message. But he has important advice to give on pain-management: "Nothing happens to anyone that he can't endure." As for non-combatants depressed by the carnage, the message is to count our blessings: "It's unfortunate that this has happened. No. It's unfortunate that this has happened and I've remained unharmed by it." Cynical? Selfish? Just common sense.

Marcus wrote his Meditations as a series of pensées or spiritual exercises. How far they can make you feel better will depend on your belief in human progress. Marcus is clear on the point. All of this has happened before - the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. People repeat themselves from generation to generation - "marrying, raising children, getting sick, dying, waging war, throwing parties, farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping others will die, complaining..." Nothing new under the sun, and nothing we can do to change it: "You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they'll still go on doing it." Life isn't pretty. It's like rotting meat in a bag. Or like the baths - "oil, sweat, dirt, grayish water, all of it disgusting". In short, it's a "wretched, whining monkey life". But once you accept this, says Marcus, you'll cheer up.

Everything was born to die: that's his second great theme. Dying is a natural process, as necessary as sex and childbirth, and whether we die today or 50 years from now doesn't much matter, since we're just a drop in the ocean of time: "Before long all of us will be laid out side by side." Celebrities, presidents, doctors furrowing their brows at endless deathbeds - they all have to go. From Pompeii to Herculaneum, cities too must meet their end. "Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash." Why bewail death? Life is so petty and wearying - "pointless bustling of processions, opera arias, herds of sheep and cattle, military exercises, a bone flung to pet poodles, a little food in the fish tank" - death should be welcomed as a precious release. It's the spirit that matters, not the "battered crate" of the body. "You boarded, you set sail, you've made the passage. Time to disembark."

Shit happens. The gods are unfathomable. No one's to blame. Marcus's line on this might seem to induce a certain passivity. But stoicism doesn't mean quiescence. "Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life," he advises - you can commit injustices by doing nothing. Above all, strive to make yourself a better person. Control your arrogance. Stop getting angry with stupid and unpleasant people. Be upright, modest, straightforward and cooperative. When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that what makes you human is working with others. And when people become a pain, and you want to get away from it all, to the country, beach or mountains, remember you can escape any time you like, by going within, to "the back roads of your self".

In Marcus's universe, everything has a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. Man's purpose, as a thinking animal, is to clear his mind of junk - to rid himself of illusions. The acclaim of peers is one illusion. The acclaim of posterity - "people you've never met and never will" - is another: "To be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything." Discard your vain ambitions, accept that you're "minuscule, transitory, insignificant", and you can begin to play your little part in the interconnected whole: "Things push and pull on each other, and breathe together, and are one."

Helping us endure is Marcus's priority, but he also teaches us how to enjoy. "The way loaves of bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just by-products of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they rouse our appetite without our knowing why. Or how ripe figs begin to burst. Or olives on the point of falling: the shadow of decay gives them a peculiar beauty." Observation and contemplation are to be commended. Not so the pleasures of the flesh, which he regards as mere sensation. Art, too, disappoints him - he's dismissive of the fripperies of "pretty singing", and says there's a time when even books must be laid aside.

Some of Marcus's moral judgments are batty, including his claim that wrongdoing harms the agent more than the victim (is that true of rape, torture or murder?) and his idea that sins committed from desire are worse than those committed in anger (which makes it worse to sleep with your neighbour's wife than to stab her to death). Some of his entries read like new year's resolutions: "Not to be constantly telling people (or writing them) that I'm too busy, unless I really am." Others require a leap of the imagination, such as the injunction "Not to be obsessed with quail-fighting" - few of us are, but we know about addiction. At least one maxim is lost in translation: "Don't gussy up your thoughts" - I wouldn't know how to. The translation doesn't shrink from anachronism (there's talk of atoms) and sometimes verges on the new age: "Stay centred on that", "Let it hit you". But it's sparky and slangily readable, and for those who know Marcus only as the Richard Harris character in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, this is a chance to become better acquainted.

As a critic once said, the Meditations are an "unassailable wintry kingdom". But in the desert of 2003, their icy blasts are refreshing and restorative. They tell you the worst. And having heard the worst, you feel less bad.

· Blake Morrison's memoir Things My Mother Never Told Me is published by Chatto


Blake Morrison

The GuardianTramp

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