Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on March 3, 2020
I bought three translations of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations: Martin Hammond (Penguin Classics), Robin Hard (Oxford World's Classics), and Gregory Hays (Modern Library). Each has its merits, but I like Hammond's the best. What I particularly like about the Hammond edition, besides the piquant and muscular translation itself, are his erudite endnotes. These notes serve as a sort of concordance (tracing themes and threads running throughout the meditations) and commentary. Unlike others, Hammond isn't afraid to take the occasional critical eye toward the emperor: he notes Marcus' difficulties maintaining compassion and forbearance toward his fellow human beings, his contradictions, his indulgences, his obsessions, his very human hypocrisies and shortcomings. At the same time, Hammond avoid vulgar cynicism and doesn't shy away from expressing admiration for Marcus' many moments of poetic beauty, eloquence, and humility.

What emerges is not the lionized "philosopher king" (ala Plato's Republic), the idealized paragon of Stoic virtue he has become in the public imagination (I like to call this reductionist version of Stoicism "Bro-icism"), but rather a human being struggling everyday to apply rigorous philosophical injunctions to his wayward, often frustratingly recalcitrant humanity and to use that philosophy to assuage his anxieties about public life and the inevitability of death. The Meditations are a rare document, thus, because it preserves the candid struggles of a fallible human being to apply a school of philosophy to his life, rather than the perfected rhetoric and polished dialectic of philosophical treatises.

Hays' translation may be more accessible and Hard's is occasionally more beautiful, but Hammond's is the one I feel most accurately represents the contents of this unusual artifact of noble ambition, strife, and suffering. It is the most human of the three, in my opinion.
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