The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and was, indeed, the last of those. Having followed such Emperors as Caligula and Nero, Marcus Aurelius, a stoic general, fair but fierce, was well-respected in his time and remained so afterward, although his son Commodus thought he was weak (mistaking patience, poise, and temperament for weakness). My edition is the Penguin Classics Clothbound, which has both a brilliant introduction and exceptional end notes. 

The Meditations are essentially a collection of diary entries. Marcus Aurelius takes a philosophical and introspective approach to assessing his own personal and political life, including his relationships with family, friends, and teachers. He treats his daily and his whole life as a constant work-in-progress. One of the more unique aspects of this text is that they were never meant for public consumption, so one might argue that they have a rare honesty  and vulnerability in comparison with other classical texts.

When I first read the Meditations, I took them one at a time. This was a slow process, as each entry tends to be just a few lines in length, and there are hundreds of them. This time, I read them rather quickly, as a refresher/re-introduction to Stoic philosophy, which I am practicing much more practically and conscientiously this year (I am reading a variety of stoic writings but also engaging in a year-long daily stoic reading and writing exercise). Reading Marcus Aurelius was a helpful start because, like many of us (and probably more than most), as an Emperor and general, he was an extremely busy man. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and had to spend a lot of time on others’ needs. As a stoic, he often reminded himself to distinguish between what is necessary and what is frivolous, what he could control and what he could not; and he maintained perspective by writing daily, whenever he could find the time (usually in the morning or the evening).

In that spirit, I have been doing the same: reminding myself to control what I can, and to let go what I cannot. It has also been important to find time to write every day. Most of Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem to be reflections, which means he probably wrote them at night before bed; I have been trying to write briefly in the morning, pondering a particular stoic teaching and beginning my day with it in mind, and then writing briefly at night, reflecting on where I was successful or where I could do better. The exercises have been helpful in my personal and professional life so far, and thinking about them in context with one of the original and most prominent stoic philosophers has been an interesting experiment.

The Meditations are separated into twelve books, each with its own theme (sometimes tightly woven, sometimes a bit looser). They range from reflections on politics and his role as Emperor, to lessons learned from the important people in his life, to thoughts on religion and spirituality, atheism and the afterlife. Whether taking a single entry at a time, or one book at a time, or any combination thereof, the Meditations reveal the perpetual process of a thoughtful man determined to live a good life, to treat others better (though that was a daily struggle), and to find peace in the chaos.

Some of my particular favorite entries:

“It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.” (7.71)

“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.” (6.13)

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

“Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.” (6.39)

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5 Mini-Reviews: From Willa Cather to Hillary Clinton

I’ll never catch-up on all the reviews I need to write for books I’ve read in the last 5 or 6 months. That’s that. But, I am going to make an effort to catch-up on the recent and then stay current moving forward. I do not intend to write a full review for every book that I read (I just simply do not have the time for that, and sometimes I don’t think the book needs it). Instead, I might write mini-reviews, like the ones below, so that I’ve at least shared some thoughts about my recent reading with you all and so that I have some record for myself, which was the whole point of beginning this book blog almost a decade ago! So, that being said, onto my thoughts for these three most recent reads:

Origin by Dan Brown: 3.0 out of 4.0

Origin is the latest in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, following Angeles & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol, and Inferno. I really enjoy this series. The premises are usually clever and interesting, and of course I love the way the stories are steeped in history (apocryphal or not) and often pit science versus religion. There’s just something fascinating about that seemingly eternal struggle and the lengths to which some people will go to protect their particular worldview (or, in the case of this series, eliminate the “competition” altogether).

That being said, I think Origin is my least favorite of the series. It seemed to me to be trying too hard, and the plot spent a long time stagnating (the “big mystery” is built up for something like 200 pages before going anywhere). This is also the rare instance where I knew from the first few chapters both what the secret was and who the villain was, which made the unfolding of it all rather anti-climactic. I did want to love this book because the topic itself is certainly timely and relevant, but I think that was also part of the problem. It was, for me, too current. It seemed like the imaginative leaps Brown had to take in previous books were unnecessary, here, so the thrill was gone. 

There were some things I did enjoy, though. Brown rather sensitively treats a non-traditional romance, for one, and he also incorporates some interesting thoughts from people like Sam Harris. On page 290, for example, he writes: “The term ‘atheist’ should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘nonastrologer’ or a ‘nonalchemist.’ We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive, or for people who doubt that aliens traverse the galaxy only to molest cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” This particular passage triggered a thought experiment that I haven’t had nearly enough time to ponder; it made me wonder about the natural state of human existence and whether, if left to our own devices, separate from a social environment, would individuals default to religious belief to explain things like thunder, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc? Historically, we know that many cultures have created gods to do just that, but is that a social construct or an innately human one? Dan Brown’s Origins, in this way, did leave me with plenty to think about.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd: 3.5 out of 4.0

I received this little gem from Melissa, who knows I’m a fan of Poe. To be honest, I didn’t even know this book existed! Peter Ackroyd is a world-class biographer who has won awards for his work on figures such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. I was curious to see what he would do with a figure like Poe, whose life and times are much more a thing of legend than fact. There are so few extant (that we know of) factual records about Poe’s life, and much of what we do know has been exaggerated over the years, in keeping with the gloomy and mysterious aura surrounding the man. The first major post-Mortem written about Poe, for example, was a scathing, hyperbolic account of his personality, addiction, and talents, written by a man whom Poe had eviscerated in the press (as he did so often, to so many). The majority of that “biography” was wildly inaccurate and totally vindictive, and yet it is on this account that many have continued to base their opinions of Poe.

Ultimately, Ackroyd relies heavily on Poe’s works and letters to attempt to uncover the “real” man, beneath the facade. He also uncovers other written accounts of Poe, testimony from people who knew the author at various stages of life, such as former teachers, lovers, school “friends” (that term used loosely because Poe really did not get very close to many people, as he so often reminded everyone), and colleagues. The problem with these records is two-fold: first, that there are so few of them; second, that they are often contradictory. Some were even written or recorded well after Poe’s death, at which point time, distance, and the fact of Poe’s celebrity would all have influenced people’s perceptions. Was the myth making the man, or the man making the myth?

This little book of less than 200-pages is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a particular time period in Poe’s life. With titles like “The Victim,” “The Bird,” and “The Women,” it is clear to see that Ackroyd did uncover certain themes and momentous occasions which help to explain who Poe was, what was important to him, and how he became the legend that he is today. By all accounts, Poe was very well-regarded by the literati and critics alike. He was considered, even in his time, as the father of American literature, the first true “American” voice of the new continent, wholly distinct from our British forebears. So, where does the idea come from, that Poe died forgotten, under-appreciated? Well, as Ackroyd explains, Poe himself had a whole lot to do with that final assessment. Ackroyd’s biography is, I think, a must-read for any true Poe fan. Still, someday, I dream of discovering a cache of Poe history that will help illuminate so many of the unexplained questions about Poe, his life, and especially his final days.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton: 4.0 out of 4.0

Is my affinity for Hillary Clinton coloring my review? Probably, in part. I admire this woman, I always have, and I found much to connect with and appreciate in her latest memoir about the 2016 election. But, there is so much more to it than the title suggests, and much more than the “liberal media” (ha!) suggested in their never-ending attempts to stir the pot and grab the ratings. It’s pretty disgraceful, really, to think about the way they treated the release of this book, but it’s also completely unsurprising considering the way they have treated Hillary Rodham Clinton for the last 30 years, since she first entered the spotlight as First Lady of Arkansas.

Clinton covers a number of topics in this book, things that are important to her and which should also be important to us. She has a chapter on “Perseverance,” for example, which outlines the long and arduous process of deciding to run, and run again, when she may have much preferred to stay at home with her grandchild and garden. There’s a section on women, including historical influences and current issues for women in politics. There are thoughtful, painful, crucial explanations about how our election process has been compromised by domestic and foreign influences, and warnings about the continuing danger of big money influence in our politics. She talks about the very real divisions in our country and shares some of her thoughts as to why and how these things have come to be, and how we need to self-assess before it is too late.

Finally, though, she ends with a section titled, “Resilience.” She writes about Love and Kindness. She writes about her faith and her continuing attempts to grow and evolve and do better. And she ends with a chapter titled, “Onward Together,” wherein she asks all of us to keep going and keep trying, even when all seems lost, even when we are at our lowest, because that’s when the world needs it most. She closes by quoting Max Ehrmann, who said, “Whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul” (468). I think Clinton is trying to do just that in writing this book and inviting us into what must have been a terribly difficult time and process.

People who already like Hillary Clinton are bound to like this book, and to experience the deep pain of her loss all over again. But they will also be reassured that their vote was the right one, and in more ways than most of us could have realized in the first place. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably won’t give this book a chance; but if they did approach it with a truly open mind and sense of fairness, I think even they would come to see that what she writes about is true and honest, that she admits to many of her failings while raising the alarm about many of our failings, and that it is indeed possible to do both of these things at the same time.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson: 3.0 out of 4.0

I’m so thrilled to be seeing more and more diversity in YA literature, and especially titles with main characters who are transgender, bisexual, and persons of color. Philip Pullman called this one, “a life-changing and life-saving book,” and I can see what he means. For a lot of people, especially young transgender teens who are beginning to understand what their feelings mean and to articulate to themselves just how they are different, books like this are incredibly important. Representation, feeling like you are a valid and “normal” person, rather than some bizarre aberration, can certainly be more than affirming, it can be everything.

Everyone thinks David Piper is gay. He is effeminate, he likes to wear girls’ clothes, he enjoys doing stereotypical girl things. Only his two best friends realize, though, that while David does like boys, he is not gay: he is transgender. When a new kid named Leo shows up to their private school, David feels an immediate affinity for him but can’t explain why. He’s not really attracted to him, and yet he can’t seem to shake the feeling that they share something, that they should be friends. Soon enough, David (and the readers) learn that Leo is different in his own way, too.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of both David and Leo, some chapters being told from one point of view, and some from the other (conveniently labeled “David” or “Leo” to let us know). While I appreciate the subject matter and Williamson’s smooth narrative style, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, here. I think the goal was to suggest some of the very real struggles that transgender people face in their daily lives and in the transition process, while maintaining an uplifting tone and commitment to a positive and affirming message. This makes complete sense to me, but it seemed to get in the way of the story-telling, somewhat. David and Leo have their struggles, there are definitely some dark elements and disappointments, but for the most part, the characters seem constructed to fit a role rather than to develop a story. I just couldn’t connect with David or Leo, and most of the secondary characters (parents, friends, siblings) seemed there only because they needed to be there (because people have friends and families, so it’d be odd not to write them in?).

The Art of Being Normal is a quick and easy read, oftentimes sweet and sometimes maddening, and it is an important addition to the YA LGBTQ+ library as well as the YA offerings more generally. But it’s not something I would read again.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather 3.5 out of .0

Oh, my dear, sweet Willa Cather. How do I love thee? Okay, pardon the sap. I do enjoy Willa Cather so much, though. This novel was the September selection for the Classic Book-a-Month Club. I have to say, I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. I always enjoy Cather’s writing style, and this time was no different. She somehow combines naturalism with a rare, auditory elegance. Her descriptions of the land are beyond compare, so much so that her characters almost always come second to the landscape. I enjoyed this one in particular because it is set in the American southwest, a region that I love and that I just recently moved to myself; there was much to relate to. 

On the other hand, the story itself felt extremely distant this time. I just couldn’t connect with it, though I recognize it was beautiful and recounts an important history. At the center is the story of two Catholic priests who come to minister to the native people of the greater-New Mexico area. They must learn how to communicate with Native Americans and Mexicans, to tame the land, and to respect local customs while fulfilling their roles as missionaries. The book is split into nine separate sections, each with a particular focus, so that the novel reads more like an extended play with nine acts. To some extent, I appreciated this because it allowed me to focus on each individual scene, beautifully crafted, and to try to appreciate the purpose of that scene as I was experiencing it; on the other hand, unlike the dichotomy set-up by the structure of Cather’s A Lost Lady, for example, I did not find these segments particularly helpful in telling the priest’s story. And maybe that’s my issue. If I were to go back and read this again, I think I would approach it as a story about the land, and not a story about the Archbishop.

The narrative digressions, flashback recollections, and fictional accounts of actual historical figures and events added interesting context and complexity to an otherwise leisurely Cather work. I find in Cather’s works that she wants, more than anything, to tell the tale of a land, a time, and a people, and that is certainly the case here. The Hopi and Navajo people are treated sympathetically, and the recounting of the “Long Walk of the Navajo,” is both important and brave. Cather does not dull her criticism of the American government and rightly calls them to account for the way they treated our native populations, shuffling them around from one increasingly barren and uninhabitable region to the next. She also makes suggestions about the intimate and powerful relationship between religion and politics. Ultimately, I think I’m going to have to read this one again to fully appreciate it, preferably during a break when I can really sink into it.

Thoughts: Sodom on the Thames by Morris B. Kaplan

1025812Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times by Morris B. Kaplan
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 20

Sodom on the Thames is a descriptive and argumentative essay divided into four chapters, each of which focuses on one element of male same-sex love and/or sex in the late-Victorian period.

Part One, “Sex in the City,” deals with the infamous Boulton and Park case.  In it, the history of two men (Ernest Boulton and Frederick William Park) who were also crossdressers and likely prostitutes, known as Lady Stella Clinton (Boulton) and Fanny Winifred (Park), is given and their trial for intent to commit the act of sodomy is relayed.  Kaplan employs readings from court records, newspapers, personal correspondences (diaries, letters, etc.) and a famous pornographic novel written by John Saul to reconstruct the world of Boulton and Park, including the way male-male love and sexuality manifested itself.

Part Two, “Love Stories,” recounts the story of William Johnson Cory, a master at Eton College who had intimate relations with some of his students.  It also relays the story of those students’ relationships with each other (and other male and female lovers) as they aged and moved on from college (high school).  Kaplan again relies heavily on primary source documents, such as letters and diaries, to reconstruct their friendships and romantic and sexual relationships.  He also discusses linked fears and perceptions between the Boulton and Park case and the pederasty and effeminizing nature of all-boys schools (where boys were encouraged to play the role of women in plays, for instance).

Part Three, “West End Scandals,” and Part Four, “Wilde’s Time,” both deal with sexual and romantic scandals of the period, not all of which were homosexual in nature (many were about Irish divorce cases, for instance).  His primary investigation here is not just how homosexual acts were persecuted and prosecuted, but how class and wealth impacted one’s treatment by the law and by the press.  Kaplan makes the case that the aristocratic and powerful “criminals” were often given preferential treatment under the law, but the press at this time became more publically outspoken against such biased treatment and often pushed prosecution of offenders when the legal authorities might have otherwise turned a blind eye.  Such realities set the scene for Oscar Wilde’s trial and are likely why he was eventually convicted and sentenced to such severe punishment.

The introduction, epilogue, and conclusion are, like the intermediary chapters, very interesting and add much to Kaplan’s overall argument.  He discusses in these sections, for instance, the role that queer and feminist theories play on the construction of this work.  He also supports his decision to relay these histories in story form as a way to add depth and honesty to the discussion, elements which historical analysis or theoretical approaches might typically lack.  Kaplan is clearly passionate about the subject material –sometimes arguably to the point of bias- and anyone interested in sexuality and gender issues of the late-Victorian period will likely gain much from reading this book.  Though it is not in the strictest sense a historical synthesis (the lack of a works cited/bibliography speaks to this), Kaplan’s argument for adding storytelling narrative to historical analysis is well-taken and well-received.

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

Review: Five Dialogues by Plato

Summary:

Plato’s Five Dialogues includes essays which recount the days leading up to Socrates’ trial for “corrupting the youths of Athens”, as well as Socrates’ defense (apologia) to the jury, and his final conversation with his closest friends before his induced suicide by hemlock. The essays are an exploration of the man and his methods, as well as an historical account by Plato of the time period and its dangers (during the transition from oligarchy to democracy there was a tension between the government and its people – the government being always weary of its own weaknesses).

The Good:

My particular favorites of these five are: “Euthyphro,” “Apology,” and “Phaedo.” I found the first dialogue, “Euthyphro” to be the most true to Socratic Method and to my understanding of the kind of man Socrates was likely to be – humorously humble. He allows Euthyphro, in their discussion of piety, to back himself into corners, find new footing, then get turned around all over again, before finally Euthyphro gives up and ends the discussion (never admitting defeat, of course). “Apology” was, perhaps, the most moving and inspirational; that a man could stand such injustice, look into the faces of his prosecutors and still be empathetic and forgiving – interpreting with distinction the law as the law, and human fault as human fault, is impressive and powerful. Finally, though I found some fault with “Phaedo” as being largely a fiction placed with (supposed) true or nearly-true historical dialogues, I also found it to be truly thought provoking. What is death, really? What does it mean for the human soul, and how can we, in waking life, ensure that our souls will live on in a greater and better way, after separation from the bodily shell? Whether one is atheist, religious, or agnostic, it is fascinating to watch the discussion and to begin to test one’s own beliefs in terms of the afterlife and, in a way, immortality.

The Bad:

I did not particularly enjoy “Crito” or “Meno,” perhaps because I found the philosophical argument too heavily scaled in Socrates’ favor. This is, to an extent, to be expected – the dialogues are about Socrates and the Socratic method, after all; still, that Socrates would go on and on for paragraphs at a time, with the only rejoinders from these supposedly equally learned men to be one or two words, or a sentence perhaps, typically in agreement or submission, seems to be a bit dishonest. I also found some fault with “Phaedo,” perhaps because I knew it was more hearsay than the other dialogues. I understand that they are all reinterpretations, as Socrates never wrote his own essays (his life and lessons were relayed through Plato, largely), but knowing Plato was not even present during the time of Socrates’ death, and that the back-and-forth among Socrates and the other philosophers was largely imagined and based off what Plato would assume to be true to Socrates’ vision (with a bit of Plato mixed in), makes “Phaedo” harder to appreciate – a pity, as it is, really, the most important.

The Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0

Published by Hackett, 2002

ISBN: 0872206335
Challenges: N/A
YTD: 33
Source: Owned Copy