Hey! I rolled into my hidy hole with a copy of MA! I was 22; I was doing boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood,MO. Or rather, "hidy hole" is an exaggeration: my "hole"was a bunk bed in as barracks full of new recruits, so it wasn't exactly "hidy," but nobody paid much attention to me so I was able to achieve a bit of privacy. And what a pleasure it was to discover that I was part of the invisible choir of sensitive souls honored in literature, if not on the firing range!
Like I say, I was 22, which was probably already pushing it a bit. I should say the maximum respectable age for actually reading Steinbeck is about 19--anything after that is a case of arrested development. Same with Atlas Shrugged. But I was a slow starter (in fact, I never did get around to Atlas Shrugged).
It took me a while to grasp the point that Steinbeck is for the young. It to me longer to figure that something of the same sort may be true of Marcus Aurelius: his natural audience may be proud, lonely, sensitive (post-) adolescents in dusty Army camps or forlorn hidy holes the world over (I'll bet you a crumpled packet of Camels that Plato in Beetle Baily read the Meditations). I do remember marvelling over the book. And I do remember wondering--how did this guy find fhe time for all these lucubrations, what with running a great Empire and all?
Comes now Mary Beard to explain that it wasn't that big of a deal.
If a text like this were to be discovered today in the sands of Egypt, not tied to the name of an emperor, we would almost certainly interpret it as a set of fairly routine philosophical exercises--the kind of thing that a philosophically trained member of the Roman elite would compose to keep himself in good intellectual shape. Although we often choose to read it in a narrowly personal way, much of the material draws on a fairly standard repertoire of ancient hilsophical theory.See "Was He Quite Ordinary?" London Review of Books 8-9, 9 (23 July 2009)
Oof. I guess that is not quite the same thing a saying that he did not write them at all. Still, she suggests, the way that we relate to them is defined by the fact that they are attributed to an emperor:
[P]art of the contemporary appeal ... lies in the feeling that the Meditations offer us a a rare glimpse into the personal dilemmas of the man in charge of the Roman world.She also points out ho much of our encounter with the Meditations is determined by the work of later editors:
We now read Marcus' Meditations as a coherent work organized in 12 separate books, further subdivided into separate sections, under an overall title. All these features are modern, and combine to give us the impression that we are dealing with a private introspective work of literature, somewhere on the spectrum between Augustine's Confessions, the theological theorising of Pascal's Pensées and an 18th-century commonplace book. In fact, we have no information on the origin and purpose of the work at all....And she also--a final blow--suggests that it isn't really all that readable. "[N]o one except an academic philosopher could possibly read the original from start to finish." By "original," I assume she means Marcus' "rather thorny" (as she calls it) Greek. Can't say, haven't tried. I do admit that even in my enthusiasm, I found large parts of the Meditations ro be pretty much of a slog. I read the old Casaubon translation, an Everyman's Library edition pinched from my girlfriend's roommate. It has an air of quaint obscurity which can be both attractive and repellent at the same time. Still, there are passages that struck me like lightning and stay with me today.
The time of a man's life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to corruption. His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; to be brief, as a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a smoke, so are all that belong unto the soul. Our life is a warfare and a mere pilgrimage. Fame after life is no better than oblivion. What is it then that will adhere and follow? Only one thing, philosophy. And philosophy doth consist in this, for a man to preserve that spirit which is within him, from all manner of contumelies and injuries, and above all pains and pleasures.To young men everywhere finding their "soul[s] restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful," I suspect the Meditations will continue to appeal, and the fact that Mary Beard finds them a mere copy book exercise--while a plausible claim--is not likely to dent their enthusiasm.--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II, XV
(tr. Méric Casaubon, Everyman's Library 1906)