6 min read
Prose for emergencies
For solace and for counsel, I have several books I find myself returning to again and again, and to this one, most recently, as my third child prepares to leave home.* For today’s letter, Marcus Aurelius’s personal journal gave me the answers I needed. When he wrote down his thoughts, he did so for himself and they were not intended for public viewing. So, there is an intimacy and immediacy of language and cares of a man who faced a period of plague and war throughout his reign over the Roman empire (161-180 A.D.). And, in spite of it, history has dubbed him the Philosopher King and his rule as the last of the Golden Age of the empire.
The work is rare in writings of antiquity and unspoiled by the idea of fame or theater, the pandering or style meant for outside eyes. This was for himself alone, as he struggled with the challenge of empire, the court, family and succession. What is apparent, naked in its style, is the quality of his character, his steadiness of mind, and his sense of decency and kindness.
I have three translations of what history has called, Meditations, and I may need to check on other editions recommended by the translator Gregory Hays: by Farquharson (1944) and Staniforth (1964). I have read the slim volume of 12 books numerous times; it’s 100 or more pages depending on the version.
The former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis famously said he carried a copy throughout his deployments as a Marine Corps officer, and former Prime Minister of China Wen Jiabao has read it over 100 times. I wondered if women embraced the Stoic’s writings and learned that Beatrice Webb, English sociologist and economist, dubbed it her manual of devotion.
I am not a scholar on stoicism. I am a student and imperfect practitioner of this man’s one thousand eight hundred year-old writing, which has become a bedside counselor and desk-top reference for life’s emergencies. The tenth passage from Book 2 was what I needed to cope with that most common of peeves, teenage insouciance. I learned that Needleman’s translation, The Essential Marcus Aurelius, did not have this particular passage. And so, that version has dropped in status. And leaves me with two translations to share.
Book 2, passage 10 (Gregory Hays translation, 2002, recent translation, 124 words)
In comparing sins (the way people do) Theophrastus says that the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger: which is a good philosophy. The angry mans seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked by pain to anger. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire.
Book 2, passage 10 (George Long translation, 1862, older translation, 147 words)
Theophrastus, in his comparison of bad acts–such a comparison as one would make in accordance with the common notions of mankind–says, like a true philosopher, that offenses committed through desire are more blamable than those committed through anger. For he who is excited by anger seems to turn away from reason with a certain pain and unconscious contraction; but he who offends through desire, being overpowered by pleasure, seems more intemperate and more womanish in his offenses. Rightly then, and in a way worthy of philosophy, he said that the offense committed with pleasure is more blamable than that committed with pain; and on the whole the one is more like a person who has been first wronged and through pain is compelled to be angry; but the other is moved by his own impulse to do wrong, being carried toward doing something by desire.
The diction and syntax (word choice and order) of Long’s translation suits his namesake in its wordiness–Long is long–and a nineteenth century sensibility: such a comparison as one would make in accordance with the common notions of mankind. Contrast Long’s translation of for he who is excited by anger with Hays’s angry man. The word Womanish appears sexist by today’s standards but women hadn’t earned the right to vote until half a century later. Hays used the word manly. Gender issues aside, translations are different and it is easy to see the decisions the translator made when the text is side by side. Here are three more.
Comparing sins versus bad acts. Hays surprised me with his use of the word sin with its connection to religion and I felt the words bad acts to be more modern. This may have to do with the translator and his attitude towards translation, the writing, and stoicism.
Anger makes a man turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion, versus turn away from reason with a certain pain and unconscious contraction. Convulsion is a better word, at least in its connotation as reflexive and without thought. Contraction is used in the early version and needs the modifier unconscious; the better word carries both meanings.
The man motivated by desire or by pleasure seems somehow more self-indulgent versus seems more intemperate. Indulgence is a word in frequent use today and intemperate has a hint of a bygone era and the American Temperance Society, with its causes of women’s rights, abolition, and abstinence.
The meaning behind the words is the lesson. Translations remind me of different makers of the same ice-cream; we recognize the flavor but the taste may vary widely. The Roman emperor wrote his meditations in Greek because it was the language of philosophy and of his studies. I imagine translations will continue long into the future, because language evolves and changes. More importantly, the substance of Aurelius’s reflections are eternal. This passage compares sins committed out of anger to those committed out of desire, or for pleasure. Both are bad, but doing so out of desire is worse.
As for me, my sins as a parent–if they could be tried or discussed in a personal tribunal with the Roman philosopher–were found substantive but petty, having nagged and chastised out of anger.
When my teen leaves out the bowl and spoon after I made a breakfast of oatmeal with bananas, brown sugar and nuts with vitamins and milk on the side, I am frustrated. When the teen discards the foil that kept it warm onto the counter, I am more frustrated. When I find the mochi container left out from the night before, with one of six remaining in the tray, I am most frustrated. What is this, a restaurant or a horse’s stable, to discard trash and container and leftovers for others to pick up? Have I not taught them better, my children, fruit of my womb, love of my life?
My sniping at such disregard, disobedience, and disrespect is likely felt as a rebuke of the person. Yet it is also a result of a kind of pain and inner convulsion towards a long pattern of such incidents, and doing so in a fit of pique as the teen is leaving for school. The truth is the disregard lacks the malice and intent I so keenly attribute it with. And, my rebuke says as much about me as the offense.
If I must split hairs on sins and I have, this intemperate and verbal joust lacks the intention and motivation of the greater sin, to nag out of pleasure or desire. My wish is to teach my children to clean up after themselves, to learn good habits. I fall into a pattern of nagging and we dance an old dance, but it’s time to change the tune. And the only thing I can change is my behavior.
When I grabbed the book that night off the desk to read, I hoped to find a reason or explanation for the trials of motherhood, for the chasm in parenting styles between my husband and me. Maybe what I wanted was to see that I was not alone, to seek commiseration and comfort in the face of insolence and youth. Aurelius did not disappoint. The antidote for outer turmoil is inner peace. And by the time I finished Book 2 or the second chapter, I realized I could have committed worse sins. And that is a sad kind of comfort but the broader advice is sound. What was comforting, was I grateful to be alive, to be a mother to a healthy and good child.
*Aside from Meditations, other books of solace and wisdom include Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path, White Clouds, the Bible, literature, and poetry. These latter two are numerous but I am pleased with how often what I’m reading, especially when it is literature, resonates with aspects of my life at the time.
*Gregory Hays translation, 2002. I recommend this translation.
*George Long translation, 1862.
*Meditations by Aurelius is available free on Project Gutenberg, the first translation by Meric Casaubon, 1634. It is starkly different to the more recent translations above, nearly four hundred years old. Here is the Casaubon translation for the curious.
Theophrastus, where he compares sin with sin (as after a vulgar sense such things I grant may be compared:) says well and like a philosopher, that those sins are greater which are committed through lust, than those which are committed through anger. For he that is angry seems with a kind of grief and close contraction of himself, to turn away from reason; but he that sins through lust, being overcome by pleasure, doth in his very sin betray a more impotent, and unmanlike disposition. Well then and like a philosopher doth he say, that he of the two is the more to be condemned, that sins with pleasure, than he that sins with grief. For indeed this latter may seem first to have been wronged, and so in some manner through grief thereof to have been forced to be angry, whereas he who through lust doth commit anything, did of himself merely resolve upon that action. (Casaubon translation, Book 2, VII–different numbering–pub 1634, 157 words, longest of the three)