A Meditation on the Meditations


I respect the Meditations, but I'm more at home among the Eastern traditions. I don't think I've read more than a few pages. But what astounds me is the history of it.

You likely know the story: the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations over the course of twenty years. We call it the Meditations out of convention, but the work has no title.

What's so astounding is that Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations over a twenty year period, alone, with no thought of an audience or any reader other than himself. He had no eye or ear to impress, no heart to satisfy, save his own.

I don't know if such a thing could ever be possible again. Post-Gutenberg, any would-be writer could nurture the fantasy that someone, somewhere, would discover her writings and publish them for the world to see. How much more so in our viral era, where content practically spreads on its own? What person could write a private sentence without wondering, at some level, if someone might find and share it with the world?

I think Marcus Aurelius would have found the thought laughable. We forget how expensive it was to transmit knowledge in ancient times, how heavy the cost in papyri and scribes. Perhaps in his wildest fancy he imagined an audience of a few dozen.

How extraordinary that such an unselfconscious work has spread so far.