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Reviewed by:
  • The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
  • John D. Baird (bio)
James Moore and Michael Silverthorne, editors. The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Liberty Fund. xxxiv, 214. $14.50, $24.00

Not the least of the services performed by the Liberty Fund in recent years has been its ongoing edition of the works and correspondence of Francis Hutcheson. Long overshadowed by his younger contemporaries David Hume and Adam Smith (one of Hutcheson's successors in the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow), the Irish-born Hutcheson is at last being restored to his proper place in the history of the Scottish Enlightenment. This edition of the translation by Hutcheson and his colleague James Moor of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is the latest step in this renovation of the intellectual history of the first half of the eighteenth century.

Stoicism has always drawn disciples and admirers. Samuel Pepys records a meeting with Sir Philip Warwick, whom he found 'a most pious good man, and a professor of a philosophical manner of life and principles like Epictetus' (28 May 1665). In the eighteenth century a broader revival of interest developed, amid some controversy. Could a professor of principles like Epictetus really be pious, as Christians understand piety? What could Christians learn from the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who was certainly a heathen, and who had condoned if not encouraged the persecution of Christians? Nothing good, thought the sterner Calvinists of the Church of Scotland. To study the Meditations was thus to step outside the narrow strictures of officially approved moral teaching; to publish a translation was to issue a public challenge to those strictures.

Little wonder, then, that with his university chair and his status as a Presbyterian minister to protect in an age that did not shrink from heresy trials, Hutcheson published this translation anonymously. Even in a letter to a friend in Ireland he obfuscated his part in the work, leaving a trail of confusion resolved finally only by the present editors, who establish that Hutcheson was responsible for books 1-8, 11, and 12, James Moor for 9 and 10. Both translators supply footnotes highlighting places where the emperor's meditations coincide with passages in [End Page 350] scripture or the accepted teachings of Christianity. Thus when Marcus writes that it is 'the part of a man to love even those who offend him,' Hutcheson annotates, 'Here the divine precept of loving our enemies, or such as injure us.' Marcus continues, '[A]nd this one may do, if he would consider that those who offend are our kindred by nature; that they offend through ignorance,' whereupon another footnote refers the reader to Luke 23:34: 'Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.' By detailing such coincidences, the translators tend to draw Marcus closer to the Christian tent, at the same time stretching the tent to accommodate him. A Calvinist hardliner like John Witherspoon might scoff at the idea of the emperor as a new-found saint, but to Hutcheson and Moor he supplied reinforcement of those elements in Christianity that they most valued: a positive view of human nature and its relation to the divine, and a commitment to the common good in human society.

The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was published in 1742 by Hutcheson's former student Robert Foulis and his brother Andrew, who were then establishing themselves in the book trade; it was in fact the first book printed by them, taking its place at the head of the long line of handsomely printed books of the Foulis Press. The Foulis brothers would appreciate the accuracy and elegance of the present edition. Hutcheson was a graceful writer, and his translation of the emperor's spiritual diary reads well, despite the difficulties of finding English equivalents for ancient philosophical terms, and the disconnections and awkward transitions of the original - inevitable in a work composed in the intervals of uncongenial military campaigns. The editors' thorough explanatory notes and concise but comprehensive introduction make this book a useful version of the Meditations for modern readers as well as a valuable contribution to...


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