Saturday, July 14, 2007

Marcus Aurelius The Dialogues by Alan Stedall

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 112 pages
Publisher: Shepheard-Walwyn, 2006
List Price: $17.95
ISBN-13: 978-0856832369

It was that kind of Sunday. Slow and easy, just warm enough spring breeze, dappled sun between first pale green leaves across my deck, and hours of quiet solitude stretching ahead of me. Perfection. The kind of day that begs a good read. I settled into a deck chair with Alan Stedall's Marcus Aurelius – The Dialogues, a slender volume with an eye-appealing cover: a drop of water just before it enters a pool of clear blue, sending off ripples. I wondered, as I opened the book, would the text, too, send off ripples?

I knew within a few lines this was going to be treasure. The kind of book that demands a pencil in one hand, checking off this, underlining that. These are words I want to remember. Yes, Stedall is a word master, and without any cheap tricks or somersaults, he had me instantly intrigued. Outlining his personal search in the Introduction for that eternal question we all surely ask (or should) about the meaning of life, Stedall ponders what Marcus Aurelius might have said on the matter. Called "one of five good Roman Emperors" (AD 121-180), Marcus Aurelius was known for his philosophical Meditations, a treatise he had written about his own search for meaning, for the definition of right and wrong without religious constraint, and for the value of a good man. Centuries later, author Alan Stedall finds himself pondering these same questions, wishes the Roman emperor had written more about his own answers, then imagines what those answers might have been had he been overheard discussing such matters among his closest confidantes. This slender volume is the result of these imaginings.

My pencil tip checked off a line and I was still only in the Introduction: "The concept of a life and cosmos without purpose is one I find fundamentally obscene." And is that not what many of us say ails our society today? A lack of a value system? As if having values was in and of itself politically incorrect or, worse, unfashionable? I sensed I'd found a compatriot in philosophical arms here, and eagerly read on…

To have a value system means that first we must examine our lives with an unflinching inner eye. Stedall had been attracted to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations for their "vigorous engagement in life" rather than living a life by default, and by his reputation for being a good man, yet not made so by a faith outside of himself. Without a divine power handing down to us a series of commandments to follow, defining good and right, can these concepts still exist? If we have no fear of hell and no desire for heaven, only a wish to live a life of value, what might those values be? What makes a good man good?

My pencil was no longer making checks in the margins. I was underlining.

"Increasing the richness of the tapestry of one's understanding must inevitably increase the comfort (or discomfort) or our awareness of the material world. Knowledge, therefore, is not only power but, of its nature, it modifies action and behavior."

You cannot know and not respond to that knowing. Even to do "nothing" with one's newly acquired knowledge, or awareness, was, after all, a choice, a decision made and acted upon. But any knowledge adds richness to life, and so I read on, this engaging series of discussions of a somewhat fictionalized Roman emperor in friendly debate with his friends and military comrades. From chapters headed "On the Brevity of Life and the Need to Seek Meaning," "On the Pursuit of Purpose," "On the Supreme Good," and "On the Pursuit of the Virtuous Life," I was drawn deeper and deeper into the simple but solid reasoning. My pencil seemed by now to have a life of its own, drawing entire rectangles around paragraphs, marking dancing plus signs in margins, scribbling squiggly lines alongside already favorite passages. Stedall's imagined dialogue had me fully in the present, and, as he writes, it does not matter if life is brief or long, for all that any man truly has is the present.

On the pursuit of purpose, Aurelius contemplates if there is such to a man's life, and concludes, in clean forward-moving lines of reason, that there is. Without giving away candy for free – how he arrives at the conclusion that life is and must be purposeful, "… for a person to be a worthwhile member of society, he or she must have a contribution to make to it. It follows that a life led without social purpose is, from the perspective of one's fellow man, worthless." Based on reason alone, a man must do good, and not only please himself, but care for his cohabitants of the planet, and in caring for them, do most good for himself. It is a refreshing view in a modern time so often sunk in the throes of hedonism. With one generation referred to as the "Me" generation, another merely as "X," as if merely blind organisms bumping into each other in the dark, it is high time we think beyond our own immediate gratification, alas, so soon imploding on its own emptiness into dissatisfaction. The contented and happy need not read on. For the rest, there's delicious more:

What might that purpose be? Same for all? In equal proportion? But we are all wonderfully unique, in unique configuration of idiosyncrasies and talents, and in ignoring our own individuality, we only steer towards purposelessness. Aurelius argues that for a man to follow his own being is to follow his own purpose, identifying with that measured introspection just what it is that he does best – and then doing it. Therein lies satisfaction, not only for the individual, but for the society of which he is part.

So now I'm circling. Large loops. As we delve into supreme good, and what brings a man deep and lasting contentment, Aurelius tries on for size his friends' guesses. Perhaps good health? Or might it be great fortune? Does pleasure add real good to our lives? Would it be love that so often fades and is disappointed? It is a blessing, Aurelius teases, that cannot perish, not even in death. When at last we come upon it, I loop my pencil around the reply – and laugh out loud. Of course! "Once this treasure is our complete possession, no loss of fortune, wealth or health can trouble us. Death itself will not disturb us…" and I realize he is right. Reader, you may find this little book worth its price for this alone, and I will not give away the answer here.

But what of value? If we have purpose, and we have blessing, what do we value? As for those who value nothing, Aurelius remarks pointedly: "If nothing is valued, one does not risk losing anything of value. However, it seems to me that this philosophy promotes an unbecoming lack of engagement with life, a general retreat from life. Indeed, such a philosophy would perhaps hold it best not be born in the first place… engagement places us at risk of disappointment in our endeavors, and grief at our loss of persons and things we love, but this is the price we pay for being born with natural gifts and accompanying obligations."

A life well-lived is not measured by success in our endeavors, in fact, but in the endeavoring itself. It is the journey, and not the destination. It is the process, and not the end result. The blessing that does not perish is what comes from a life so lived, and is, finally, unscathed by success as modern society would measure it.

Now Aurelius sinks his teeth into the meat of the issue: values. And from those values – morals. He does so with no holds barred.

"The judgments of others are fickle. Today's acclaimed hero will soon be cast down by public opinion as yesterday's fool or villain. The only judgment we need to consider is that of our own conscience… If others conduct themselves badly, so be it. The condition of each man's soul is his own responsibility."

If any reader thinks that is letting you off easy – no burning hell fires to consume the wrongdoer – think again. There is no harsher master than one's own conscience, certainly not when one has a working mind. It sees all, and it forgives nothing. Aurelius (that is, Stedall) takes on the dissection of good and evil here, and it is fascinating to watch the concepts take shape without various religious laws to fall back upon. He does it skillfully, with reason as his tool of precision, and there are few things more beautiful than logic falling neatly into place like an intricate puzzle. There is room here for pain, and there is room for tragedy. That inevitable question of "why me?" is addressed as well. Joy has its place, and so does peace, as each sends out ripples to begin another ripple in neat succession.

By end of Epilogue, my pencil, worn down to the nub, could only scratch out: Bravo!

Sunday, being in the present, most well spent.