Meditations: Interview with Gregory Hays

I think I might have written about Meditations by Marcus Aurelius on this site a few times so I can probably skip most of the introduction. It is the greatest book ever written. As I’ve said before, if you’re going to read it, you absolutely have to go with the Gregory Hays translation. A couple weeks back I dropped Greg an email about asking him a few questions. With my reading list and books over the years, I’ve moved quite a few copies, so for those of you that have read it–and if you’ve touched any of the other versions, you know how special it is–here are some words from the translator.

Your translation of Meditations is more accessible than other earlier translations. Did you set out to do that on purpose or is this how Aurelius intended it?

I think different translations reflect different aspects of the original, like looking at a sculpture from various angles (you can’t see all sides at the same time). I was deliberately trying to move away from the rather stodgy feel of some earlier translations, which I think make Marcus sound too much like a sage. I wanted to reflect the fact that this is a text compiled for his own use, not with any expectation of other readers. He’s writing memorandum for himself, not handing down wisdom-with-a-capital-W.

What source did you derive your translation from? I assume the Vatican didn’t allow you to peek at their copy.

Actually the Vatican is quite generous about allowing scholarly access (they’ve been very helpful with my current project). But you’re right that with the Meditations I wasn’t working directly from original manuscripts. I used several modern editions of the Greek text, of which the most recent is by the German scholar Joachim Dalfen. There’s an old but still very helpful commentary on the Greek text by A.S.L. Farquharson. I also consulted other translations for specific passages. There are a number of cases where the text has become confused in the process of copying and different scholars and translators have reconstructed the original in different (sometimes very different) ways.

We tend to see the same themes and metaphors popping up over and over again–time is like a river; this will only affect you if you let it, and so on. Do you think this is an attempt at emphasis through repetition or is there a subtleness that the depth of Greek (or Latin) allows and English does not?

I think the repetitions give us clues to the things that Marcus found especially difficult or troublesome. The way he keeps coming back to certain images or points suggests that he found them helpful, but also that he needed reinforcement on those points. Things like not giving in to anger, not being afraid of death–those are things that he seems to have really struggled with.

You’re working on a translation of the works of Fulgentius? He’s more of an obscure historical figure, what are you trying to accomplish in bringing his voice to a wider audience? Why him?

Well, he’s a very different sort of writer–he’s several centuries later than Marcus Aurelius, writing in a much more ornate style (and In Latin, not Greek), and much more literary, even comic and playful. And it’s a very different sort of project, much more technical and meant mainly for academic readers; I doubt it will sell more than a few hundred copies, mostly to academic libraries. He’s not someone whose work is likely to resonate with people in the same way that the Meditations seems to do, but I think he’s fascinating from a historical point of view: he’s really someone who’s on the cusp between classical culture and the Christian middle ages and he reflects aspects of both.

Stoics like Seneca disregarded a lot of their teachings on restraint when they came to power. Marcus had more than any of them, why was he so different? And Commodus, his son, appears as such a strange contrast.

I think Marcus was a person of unusual integrity and he was also lucky in having good role models, people like Antoninus Pius, his predecessor as emperor. (This is something he alludes to himself, of course, in Book 1.) But I think what also comes through in the Meditations is that even for him it wasn’t easy. Not being a tyrant was something he had to work at one day at a time, and writing down these injunctions for himself was part of that effort.

Lastly, what passage is your favorite?

I don’t know if I have a single favorite. I like some of the briefer entries, like the image of human beings as lumps of incense burning on an altar (4.15): “one crumbles now, one later, but it makes no difference.” I think he’s also very good on transience, as in 5.23:

Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone–those that are now and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the ‘what’ is in constant flux, the ‘why’ has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us–a chasm whose depths we cannot see.”

That feels very Buddhist to me.

Pick it up if you haven’t already. I’m on my third copy. And here is Professor Hays’ website.

For more on Stoicism, visit The Daily Stoic

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