The second book I want to share brief thoughts on here (the one I referenced in my earlier post on Wolfe’s A Man in Full) is a modern translation of The Emperor’s Handbook by Marcus Aurelius. Translated by David V. Hicks and his brother C. Scot Hicks, this modernized version of the meditations of a Roman emperor and general is something I’ve been tweeting about for months as I slowly read through it. If you follow me on Twitter (@asbiv) or if you read my blog post about this book back in January (http://wp.me/p2BePD-2X) you know that I have found Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts on life, suffering, character, and purpose interesting even when I disagreed with him. I have also really enjoyed the pithy and modernized language that the Hicks brothers use in their translation; it makes this book of Stoic philosophy easily approachable for contemporary readers. And as I mentioned in the other book review I recently wrote, I was delighted to see how intertwined some of the themes in The Emperor’s Handbook were with those of Thomas Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full – though perhaps I would not have been surprised if I had remembered that both books were on the same list of recommended books found here (http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/10/11-books-every-young-leader-mu/) and that I blogged about here (http://wp.me/p2BePD-W).
There are of course some keys areas on which I differ from Aurelius in looking at life. I don’t believe in Zeus or the other gods he references (although the fact that he uses Zeus, God, the gods, and Providence almost interchangeably may suggest that Aurelius also didn’t take these deities too literally). I think pain, disappointment, heart-ache, and suffering are real and not simply a matter of an inaccurate perspective on the world and our experience of it that we can change at will. Beyond this I fundamentally disagree with the inherent dualism in Marcus Aurelius’ worldview – the notion that the mind is true and eternal while the flesh and all physical existence is fleeting, unsubstantial, unimportant, and ultimately something to be denied and risen above. My own view is that life must be understood as it is experienced: as holistic and corporeal beings whose bodies are just as much a part of us as our hearts and minds. We cannot ‘rise above’ our bodies and the physical aspects of life because we are our bodies and we live as physical and spiritual persons in a world with real substance.
In spite of this significant philosophical disagreement with Aurelius and the wider Stoic perspective, I still found this book encouraging, interesting, and thought-provoking. As I read this book I regularly tweeted quotes from it, mostly about the simple joys of being alive, our ability to choose virtue and wisdom even in the face of hardship, and the importance of keeping our own brief lives and pains in wider perspective. I like the idea that no matter what we go through in life we have a fundamental ability to choose how we respond and that with those choices we can display our true character even when confronted by oppression or suffering. I appreciated Aurelius’ repeated declarations that life is short and we are far less important than we tend to think of ourselves; this attitude reminds me to be humble and to take myself and my concerns less seriously. And I resonated with his assertion that we should never allow other people and our desire to please them to control our lives or diminish our goals. Plus I found many of his ancient observations both relevant and humorous in our post-modern context.
So while I cannot embrace everything from The Emperor’s Handbook I did truly enjoy the meditations on life, leadership, and character that Marcus Aurelius offered in his writing. He didn’t make me a Stoic, but he did remind me to take myself and my problems less seriously, to remain true to my character in the face of both suffering and flattery, and to strive for a virtuous life no matter what obstacles I encounter. Like most books I read (or movies I watch) I found elements I liked as well as those I disagreed with, but that should come as no surprise because in truth it’s not that simple.