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On translations of Marcus Aurelius, dealing with difficult circumstances and acquiring wisdom (or not)

Here's an example of why I vastly prefer Robin Hard's translation of Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" (over Gregory Hays' translation): 

First Gregory Hays' translation of Meditations 9.6: 

"Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need."

Next, Robin Hard's translation of the same passage:

"It is sufficient that your present judgement should grasp its object, that your present action should be directed to the common good, that your present disposition should be well satisfied with all that happens to it from a cause outside itself."

In my opinion, Hard's translation is more in line with Stoicism. Stoicism is not about passively accepting external circumstances but about always actively wanting them to be exactly as they are.

"Let us arrange our minds in such a way that whatever circumstances require is what we want." 

 - Seneca, Letters 61.3

"Don't seek that all that comes about should come about as you wish, but wish that everything that comes about should come about just as it does, and then you'll have a calm and happy life."

- Epictetus, Enchiridion 8

Another problematic thing about Hays' translation ("That's all you need") is that it could be read as implying that acquiring wisdom is not all that difficult to achieve. In the style of: just do the right thing and you'll be fine. Marcus himself - in a famous passage (Meditations 10.16) - says something seemingly to that effect: 

In Hard's translation: 

"No more of all this talk about what a good man should be, but simply be one!" 

This is one of the most shared quotes in Stoicism groups on Facebook - and the popularity seems very much to rest on the conception that Marcus in that quote extemps us from working hard at achieving wisdom - almost to the point of allowing us to assume that we have already reached that goal.

Just a few paragraphs before that passage (in Meditations 10.11), however, Marcus, writes:

"Acquire a method to examine systematically how all things are transformed from one to another, and direct your attention constantly to this area of study, and exercise yourself in it, for nothing is so conducive to elevation of mind. Someone who does this has stripped away his body, and, reflecting that in no time at all he will have to leave all this behind and depart from the company of human beings, he offers himself up without reservation to justice as regards that which is accomplished by him and to universal nature as regards what happens otherwise."

What Marcus says here is not just that it can be really lovely to study the nature of the universe for someone who has the time and the inclination to do so - but that is an indispensable study for every person who wants to act justly.

In other words, the point Marcus is making a little later - in 10.16 - is that we should be careful not to forget that the purpose of our studies is to become good, wise persons and to offer ourselves up without reservation to justice. Not that we don't need those studies at all. 

The Glytoptek here in Copenhagen has one of the largest collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman art in the world - among which is a nice selection of Marcus-heads.


Comments

  1. Lovely photo Jannik! =) Thank you for the post - a good translation is crucial for providing context around philosophical studies.

    I felt a lot of The Meditation, as well as a lot of Seneca's writings, seemed to urge us to study (almost) feverishly while life was at peace, thereby accumulating as much knowledge as possible, because you never know what fortune has in waiting - tomorrow one could be at war and needs to apply all one knows to the circumstances. After all, what circumstances require is in fact what we want, and it's better that we come prepared. =)

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