Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Emperor's Handbook

The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations
© 2002, translated by David and Scot Hicks.
160 pages

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I first read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations in 2007 and have returned to selected passages from the book time and again. The good emperor is often in my thoughts, a severe figure attempting to live and govern wisely, but beset by the vastness of his responsibilities as ruler of the Roman Imperium. I’ve been looking for quality translations of both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus to purchase this year, and I was excited to learn of the existence of The Emperor’s Handbook, a modern-English translation of Aurelius written by two brothers. One brother translated the literal Greek, while the other used the literal translation to convey the passages’ actual meaning as they understood it. The result is direct, simple, and unadorned to the point of austerity.

I predict this book will have two audiences:  those interested in Aurelius’ philosophy and thoughts, and those interested in how those thoughts have been rendered here. I especially enjoyed reading this for its straightforwardness and lucidity. Aside from the occasional allusion, I had no difficulty in understanding what Aurelius was attempting to say to himself here. I compared various passages from more formal translations, and their substantive integrity appears to be intact. Although some shorter statements fall a little flat,  this is an overall improvement to other versions I've read. While I sometimes missed more elegant phrasings* from other translations,  this translation is more communicative. I think  The Emperor's Handbook will be well-received, particularly for those exploring the philosophy of the man.

Speaking of those explorers, what is it about Marcus Aurelius that compels translations and commentaries of his work today, hundreds of years after his death?  He seems the model of a philosopher-king, a ruler governing with wisdom and virtue. As Roman emperor, Aurelius' power is unparalleled and unchecked: if potential excesses are to be prevented, he himself must prevent them. As a Stoic, Aurelius believes that his life must be guided by Reason -- keeping in mind not only his duty to his people and the gods, but the difference between what he can control and what he cannot. Aurelius may be emperor, but his primary focus is governing himself well to prepare him for that task.  He does this through extensive self-counsel: he reminds himself constantly of his principles, reflecting on his life as it relates to the greater pattern.

The crisp passages vary in size from one-liners to page-long reflections, serving both to remind Aurelius of general ideas and explore ways of putting those ideas into action. For instance: since we are not truly bothered by men's actions, but by our reaction to them, what reason is there for growing angry about others' shortcomings, like poor personal hygiene?  Aurelius emerges as a fascinating character -- a pious monk, a dutiful soldier, and a patient administrator who longs for a quiet life of contemplation and philosophy but who is compelled to take on the heavy mantle of responsibility amidst the  stressful circumstances of war, natural disasters, and difficult people. It is a marvel to me that he withstood the pressures as well as he did, and The Emperor's Handbook reminds me why I was attracted to Aurelius' Stoicism in the first place. I recommend it with ease.

You can preview some of the book's language here, or browse selections from more formal translations here and here. The latter links to my personal favorites from my first time reading Aurelius.

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* Compare the Hicks': "This world is change; this life, opinion.” to “the universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.” I prefer the latter expression: it seems to communicate more. This was the weakest passage in the book for me, and the only one I took any real exception to.

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