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The Spiritual Teachings of Marcus Aurelius

Mark Forstater

Hodder & Stoughton (UK). Harper Collins (US)

Practical Philosophy  (Book Reviews) November 2000 Volume 3.3

Reviewed by: Keith Seddon

This is a thoroughly engaging little book, and aims to tell us not what Marcus merely said, but aims to show us how to live the philosophic life as Marcus and other ancient philosophers understood this. To this end, the book devotes only about half its pages to Forstater’s very readable and clear paraphrases of Marcus’ words (about half of Marcus’ complete text). The rest of the book contains supporting material that has been very carefully written for the reader with no knowledge of philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius’ little book of Stoic philosophy was written in many short paragraphs, with no sustained treatment of any of its subject matter. In fact, the text leaps about from topic to topic without any rhyme or reason, and this probably indicates that Marcus’ book really was just a notebook of reflections and recollections. Forstater has extracted about half of this material and organised it under eight broad headings, such as ‘Cultivating the Self’, ‘Contemplating Death’, and ‘Peace is in Your Hands’. His is certainly a worthy attempt to impose some sort of organisation on the material, which helps the individual paragraphs support and clarify each other. And for further organisation, Forstater has invented titles for each of the paragraphs, including ‘Perfect Security’, ‘The Illusion of Possessions’, and ‘Sensible Living’.

Forstater’s background is not in philosophy - he is a producer of films and TV documentaries, his most well known work being the Monty Python films. Not being a philosopher is Forstater’s strength, because he occupies the same ground as his reader: his ‘supporting material’ reveals his own coming to grips with his material and his efforts to interpret it and understand it. His writing here very much gives the impression that he has himself only just taken the journey that he is encouraging his reader to take.

And this journey is one that leads to wisdom and insightful living, as the ancient Stoics conceived it. It is a journey many of us need to make, not only for personal well-being and for a spiritual engagement with the world, but to empower us in our stand against those forces which, unless checked by wisdom, will destroy the very environment we all ultimately depend on. We need to start living as philosophers, before it is too late.

Forstater places Marcus’ Stoicism in its milieu, introducing us to Socrates and his influence on the subsequent Hellenistic schools, including the Stoic school of Zeno of Citium. Stoicism is an integrated and technical system of thought, which relies on specialist terminology for its exposition - yet Forstater skilfully shows us the basic framework of Stoic philosophy in a few brief pages which are almost completely jargon-free.

The middle section of the book, before we come to Marcus himself, explains the ideas and perspectives that each of the eight sections of Marcus’ paragraphs aim to teach us.

What will Marcus’ Stoicism do for us? It will show us a path to inner freedom by controlling our desires and mastering our passions; it will show us how to face change (including the ultimate change we all face - death). The Stoics ‘tried to replace the uncertainty of fleeting pleasure with a more enduring feeling of joy in pure existence. Their methods aimed at infusing the mind with serenity, calm and tranquillity to replace the chaos, frustration and anguish that represents existence for many people.’

The UK edition is bound in highly appropriate Imperial purple. The American edition (easily obtained in the UK from UK warehouses at the usual websites) is printed on acid-free paper, and has a slightly larger typeface. It also prefaces each chapter of the teachings with a list of the paragraph headings for that chapter (these are omitted in the UK edition).

Both UK and US tapes are narrated by Derek Jacobi, and include only the texts of the teachings (not Forstater’s supporting material), omitting some of the less engaging ones. There are two tapes that altogether run to about two hours. The standard of the narration is extremely high.

This book is an excellent introduction to Stoicism generally, and obviously to Marcus Aurelius, for both practical philosophers and for the general public. For anyone hooked on Stoicism, an obvious follow-up would be Penguin's Letters from a Stoic (Seneca). The best introductions to Hellenistic Philosophy as a whole, including Stoicism, for the specialist philosopher, are: Long & Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers, Vol. 1 (extensive primary sources plus commentary) and Algra et al., The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy, both CUP.

Overall verdict: brilliant.