Summary: Sometimes a musar schmooze needs to be dressed up in a toga. In his Meditations, second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) provides penetrating insights into the human condition. While the author may have a complicated relationship with the Jewish people, his work reflects the goals of what we came to know – centuries later – as the musar movement. Therefore, Meditations is worthy of our attention even if we do not accept the recent suggestion that its author may possibly be identified as the Talmudic Antoninus. Meditations is divided into a meandering discourse of twelve short “books”; each chapter contains a record of Aurelius’ personal reflections, and averages out to ten pages, paralleling our Pirkei Avot in many ways.
Why this is “The Best”: Meditations emphasizes internality. For those who equate strength with impulse control and wealth with contentment (Avot 4:1), this stress on the internal is second nature. Aurelius lists several benefits that derive from a concentration on the inner self. Since it is always “in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself” (38; quotes from this edition), one perpetually has the opportunity and freedom to reach a place of tranquility. In addition, happiness and efficiency accompany those who turn inward in lieu of clashing with an inevitably uncontrollable outside world. Successful living then depends on the choice to react serenely to negative stimuli. For example, Aurelius suggests the following response to adversarial behavior: “To the jaundiced honey tastes bitter, and to those bitten by mad dogs water causes fear; and to little children the ball is a fine thing. Why then am I angry? Dost thou think that a false opinion has less power than the bile in the jaundiced or the poison in him who is bitten by a mad dog?” (78). Aurelius guarantees that he who follows these instructions will “begin at last to be a man while thou livest” (147).
Notwithstanding the similarities between Meditations and musar, two differences must be noted. Firstly, as Ramban forcefully points out in his criticism of Socrates and other Greek philosophers (introduction to Torat HaAdam), viewing emotion as irrational or weak is opposed to the position staked out in Kohelet, which designates times to both weep and mourn. Intense emotional engagement is ultimately critical for the proper religious experience. Secondly, as R. Aharon Lichtenstein observed, in contrast to the Stoic minimization of history’s value, Judaism “insists that history is decisively important, its events effecting major changes, generating real turning points,” which in turn creates obligations on the individual towards the past and future (Leaves of Faith II, 202). This is far from the chronologically narrow and egocentric posture portrayed by the Meditations. To properly take hold of Meditations while maintaining our rootedness in Torah, these contrasting perspectives must be accounted for and meditated upon.
Ephraim Fruchter is studying Geoinformatics and Business Administration at Hebrew University and learning towards semikha. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.