Thursday, January 19, 2012

The One Book Everyone Should Read

People who want to break away from religiously based literature ask what books they should read. Before pointing them to Darwin, Dawkins, Coyne, Russell, Hume, Bayle or most anyone else, recommend them to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Meditations is the preeminent work of reason. Fewer educated people have read it today; it's not universal in literature survey courses, and Classics courses continue to disappear. This is unfortunate. Our world would benefit greatly if politicians, teachers, lobbyists, and dissidents regularly adopted the Meditations in their discourse.

Sample three passages from Book 1:
From Diognetus, [I learned] not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.
Everyone should read the Meditations. More should discuss it. It will not make one an atheist, nor will it make one a skeptic. It does not even challenge or criticize religion. Yet Meditations surpasses all in framing thought and in setting reason above desire.

We struggle to manage desire's rule, especially if we have been told that God or Jesus loves us. Especially if we enjoy being with friends and family at worship services. Especially if we like the architecture and atmosphere of a religious building. We want to feel personally empowered, loved, and connected.

The power of Meditations is to moderate desire. In fact, it puts desire in the service of reason. Until this happens, one cannot be persuaded that Jesus really isn't Lord, that God really isn't great, that Mohammed isn't Allah's prophet, that we are not sinners, that we do not have souls, that our dead loved ones reside neither in heaven nor hell, and that devils and angels are not fighting over us.

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