Book Club: The Inner Citadel, 2, A first glimpse of the Meditations

Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel, an in-depth analysis of the Stoic philosophy of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, is one of those landmark books that one fully appreciates only in retrospect. It contributed greatly to put the whole concept of philosophy as a way of life back to the forefront of public discourse. In the previous installation of this series we have looked at chapter 1, mostly focusing on Marcus’ teachers. We now tackle chapter 2, which provides a preliminary glimpse at the structure and content of the Meditations.

Apparently, Marcus’ personal philosophical diary was known relatively soon after his death, as it is, for instance, mentioned by Themistius about two centuries after. But we have to wait until the 10th century to find solid testimonies to the widespread copying of the work. The Meditations quickly became a staple of the Byzantine world, yet the first quotation of it in the Western world is as recent as the 16th century, in De Arte Cabalistica, by Johannes Reuchlin, published in 1517. The first printed edition appeared in 1559 in Zurich, based on a now lost manuscript. The only complete manuscript surviving is the Vaticanus Graecus 1950, dating from the 14th century. In other words - just like for so many other works of antiquity - it is by mere happenstance that we have Marcus’ work at all.

We are accustomed to the relatively convenient structure of the Meditations in modern editions, organized as it is in 12 books, but in fact neither the manuscripts nor the first edition are divided into chapters, the familiar layout dating to a Latin translation published in Cambridge in 1652.

Marcus, of course, didn’t call the book the Meditations, and Arethas (9th to 10th centuries), who was probably responsible for the preservation of the work, simply referred to it as “the very profitable book of the Emperor Marcus.” It is still Arethas that elsewhere uses the phrase “the ethical writings addressed to himself,” while a Latin translation with accompanying Greek text dating from 1559 proposes the title “On Himself or on His Life.” By the time of the English translation in 1634 the title had been rendered as “Meditations Concerning Himselfe.”

Despite its enduring popularity, the book is notoriously difficult, repetitious, and characterized by a “preachy” tone, which is no surprise, given that Marcus was writing for his own benefit, not for an audience. We should really think of it as a dialogue that Marcus had with himself, about himself - a spiritual diary, if you will. As Hadot puts it:

The contents of the work are rather disconcerting as well. After Book I, which presents an undeniable unity in its evocation of all those, gods and men [and women, since Marcus mentions his mother], to whom Marcus is expressing gratitude, the rest of the work is nothing but a completely incoherent series - at least in appearance - of reflections which are not even composed in accordance with the rules of the same literary genre.

We gather from the Meditations that Marcus had been collecting a series of quotations from various authors, for use in his old age. But in the book itself, which was written late in life, he arrives at the conclusion that he no longer has time to continue gathering and reading other people’s works. The decision is made to write only with the objective of influencing himself, to become a better person while he still has time, by concentrating on fundamental principles. Hadot comments:

From the point of view of the imminence of death, one thing counts, and one alone: to strive always to have the essential rules of life present in one’s mind, and to keep placing oneself in the fundamental disposition of the philosopher, which consists essentially in controlling one’s inner discourse, in doing only that which is of benefit to the human community, and in accepting the event brought to us by the course of the Nature of the All.

Marcus was not the only one to write notes to himself for the purpose of self improvement, so much so that there was a word in Greek to indicate the genre: hypomnemata. We know, for instance, of a woman named Pamphila, who lived in the 1st century, at the time of Nero, and wrote her own hypomnemata. They concerned whatever she had learned about philosophy, history, poetry, or other subjects from hosting visitors in her house, and she explains: “I wrote them down in the form of notes, in no special order, and without sorting them out and distinguishing them according to their subject matter. Rather, I wrote them down at random, in the order in which each matter presented itself to me.”

In the following century it was the turn of the Latin author Aulus Gellius to write his hypomnemata, which became known with the title of Attic Nights. In the preface he explains: “Whether I was reading a Greek or Latin book, or whether I had heard someone say something worthy of being remembered, I jotted down what interested me, of whatever kind it was, without any order, and I then set it aside, in order to support my memory.” That, then, is the spirit of the Meditations, and the way it should be understood.

Another important example of a similar type of inner dialogue is Augustine’s Soliloquies. He thought it a valuable exercise because only when we are in the presence of ourselves we are capable of reflecting on the issues that are most intimate for us. Of course, in Augustine’s case it is his soul that is listening to his reason, rather that - as in Marcus - reason exhorting the soul.

But there is a major difference between the Meditations and most other examples of hypomnemata: the book was written as a set of spiritual exercises practiced in agreement with a particular method. Which is the topic of the third chapter of The Inner Citadel, to which we will turn next.

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