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‘Not to Be Led Astray’
Mike and James On Marcus Aurelius
James,
I have read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations and have been struggling with this quote :
''...not to be led astray into enthusiasm for rhetoric, for writing on speculative themes, for discoursing on moralizing texts.... To avoid oratory, poetry, and 'fine writing.''
What could be the reason for the Emperor's distrust of literature - specifically poetry and what he calls 'fine writing'? His disdain for rhetoric is understandable; it distracts from action and leads one down verbose (and often convoluted) thought experiments that seldom produce anything of actual value. But what of poetry, novels and other works of fiction? I myself find great value in them as they feed my imagination and offer different perspectives on various subject.
What is your take on this quote, and should one really be weary of literary works of fiction?
Best regards,
- Mike

Mike, I am not an expert on Aurelius, only read his meditations twice and for one of these reads was poorly focused. He was, furthermore, not perfect, but rather seems to have sought this through his stoicism. He was the last of the Five Good Emperors, choosing his son instead of the most worthy successor, breaking with the examples of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and Antonius Pious.
Perhaps that was wisdom.
Perhaps he looked around and found no successor able to cope with the increasingly insurmountable problem of the barbarians without and the degenerates within.
Nerva the administrator had chosen Trajan the soldier, who chose Hadrian the builder, who chose Antonius the pious who chose Marcus the philosopher—our only Philosopher King in the antiquitous West so far as I know. Perhaps he knew the gig was up and might as well either give his son Commodus the best chance or sacrifice him on the altar of Time…
Marcus was very much a man of a time similar to ours.
His distaste for writing on speculative themes sounds like an attempt to keep the sharpest minds from retreating into fantasy. His age needed men of action and such men tend to disdain speculative musings. I might find such things fascinating, but I am not a man of political, social or military action.
Discoursing on moralizing texts is something I have long found distasteful in that it brings us forever a step or two away from reality and into the fields of utopia, just like the speculative pursuits bring us to dystopia. Marcus’ suspicion of the value of these pursuits rings true in this world we live in where reality is forever under assault by the rapacious pack of lies wielded by our masters. Currently, the people I know who are most miserable and indecisive in their lives, are those deeply philosophical and read in the sissy literature of the philosophers. Might Marcus have known the like minds of many in his age of gathering troubles?
Oratory and fine writing tend to be static pursuits.
As far as poetry, much of poetics consists of the inward musings of alienated souls, which can be quite useful meditational tools for the rulers of a society not in crisis. We can’t forget Marcus was the king of the world’s greatest nation to date.
The epic poems were nearly a thousand years old and Marcus lived in a time when aside from some experimentation in prose, such as the Acts of John and Thecla, that poetics consisted mostly of satire, comedy and rewriting of ancient Greek texts. His age lacked originality. In much the same way as the many music lovers I know, into all manner of music, complain that nothing really original has been recorded in the past 20 years and that moviegoers note that most movies are sequels, reboots or rewrites of earlier movies, I would take Marcus’ advice on avoiding poetics as an admonition not to descend into naval-gazing introversion or swim with the sewer-like stream of popular culture.
Thanks for checking the refresh setting on my brain, Mike.
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Add Comment
Utter ContemptJune 27, 2020 1:02 PM UTC

I think one way to view this quote from Aurelius is to contrast what he's describing with the terseness of Hemingway, or Flaubert's "mot juste." The Emperor's not anti-literature, he's anti-bullshit.
responds:June 28, 2020 1:07 PM UTC

Yaas!