Here is the final installment of my reviews of books read in 2013.
Marcus Aurelius was the last of five good Roman emperors (the previous four being Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius). He reigned from AD 161 to 180, and so he would have been a contemporary of Irenaeus. He is shown at the end of his life as an old man campaigning against the German barbarians at the beginning of the movie Gladiator (one of my favorite movies). Unfortunately, he did persecute Christians. In his Meditations (11.3), he has one brief disparaging remark about Christians, whose willingness to accept martyrdom was, in his view, “prompted by mere contumacy,” rather than being an act of true courage. But setting aside his criticism of Christianity and the pantheistic error of his Stoic philosophy, the Meditations are worth reading. Marcus Aurelius has some good reflections on the brevity of life, the vanity of seeking applause and fame, and the importance of following your own convictions and conscience.
Here are a few tidbits to give you a taste:
“Or does the bubble reputation distract you? Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind; mark how hollow are the echoes of applause, how fickle and undiscerning the judgements of professed admirers, and how puny the arena of human fame” (4.3).
“The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death does not reflect that out of all those who remember him every one will himself soon be dead also, and in course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final spark of memory is quenched” (4.19).
“Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true’” (7.15).
“Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforward regard what further time may be given you as an uncovenanted surplus” (7.56).
“Within its own domain, there is nobody who can frustrate the mind. Fire, sword, oppression, calumny, and all else are powerless to touch it” (8.41).
This is an inspiring book for those (like me!) who have a Ph.D. but do not have a faculty appointment at an institution of higher learning. You don’t need a faculty appointment to be a scholar. You really don’t even need a degree (although doctoral training itself is valuable). If you have a passion about a subject, and you are motivated enough, you can still do great scholarship and even get it published. Gross interviewed a number of independent scholars who either lost their faculty appointment, or left academia, or who never wanted to be a professor but just wanted to study their chosen field. This book is for any scholar who, for whatever reason, just doesn’t seem to fit well in the established institutional structures. These stories are all very inspiring and encouraging. He also gives advice on how independent scholars can get access to libraries, how they can get published, and how they can connect with other independent scholars. The only drawback of the book is that it was written in the 1970s, long before the Internet, and so much of the specific advice and lists of organizations and addresses is outdated. But don’t read it for that. Read it to get inspired to be a scholar for the sheer love of knowledge. Sometimes I worry that the whole tenure system itself can work against true scholarship, because assistant and associate professors who do not yet have tenure are tempted to self-censer and publish on safe topics rather than pursue truth wherever it may lead.