Chosen for August 2009 People’s Book Prize Collection for Non-Fiction
Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest Roman emperors*, is remembered less for his military exploits than for his private reflections. His Meditations, as they became known, have been a major influence on Western thought and behaviour down the centuries – the pen is mightier than the sword.
Seeking an alternative to faith-based religion, Alan Stedall came across the book and found rational answers to questions about the meaning and purpose of life that had been troubling him. Here too were answers to his concern that, in the absence of moral beliefs based on religion, we risk creating a world where relativism, the rejection of any sense of absolute right or wrong, prevails. In such a society any moral position is considered subjective and amoral behaviour is unchallengeable.
Because the Meditations, the personal reflections of a busy man ruling and defending a huge empire, were jotted down in spare moments, they lack order and sequence. Inspired by the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, Stedall has sought to present the contents in a more contemporary and digestible way. To achieve this, he employed the Greek philosophical technique of dialogue to create a fictional conversation between five historical figures who actually met at Aquileia on the Adriatic coast in AD 168.
The Dialogues afford Marcus and his guests the opportunity to express their views on such topics as the brevity of life and the need to seek meaning; the pursuit of purpose; the supreme good and the pursuit of a virtuous life – issues as relevant today as they were in antiquity. By a gentle process of question and answer, Marcus shows up the weakness of his guests’ arguments and reveals how a virtuous life may be lived without the threat of eternal damnation or promise of salvation to enforce compliance. Alan Stedall’s Marcus Aurelius argues that:
“…to flinch from an attempt to establish a good purpose for my life, and meaning for the universe in which I find myself, is for me no more acceptable than to lay down arms in the middle of battle. And the arms that we each possess in our battle for such understanding are reason and philosophy.”
*In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon wrote: “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the succession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.” The last of those Emperors was Marcus Aurelius.
Alan Stedall is an IT director believing in principle-centred leadership. This has involved leading teams through projects effecting major and business-critical change.
“A re-introduction to Marcus Aurelius is long overdue. Alan Stedall satisfies this deficiency in an interesting and stimulating way … The Dialogues are eminently readable and immediate … in places irresistible.”
“I was drawn deeper and deeper into the simple but solid reasoning. Stedall’s imagined dialogue had me fully in the present.”
Midwest Book Review
“I knew within a few lines this was going to be a treasure … Stedall is a word master … Aurelius (that is, Stedall) takes on the dissection of good and evil here, and it is fascinating to watch the concepts take shape without various religious laws to fall back upon. He does it skilfully, with reason as his tool of precision, and there are few things more beautiful than logic falling neatly into place like an intricate puzzle.”
The Smoking Poet
“Alan Stedall has done something remarkable; he has taken his own doubt about religion, searched for alternatives, and created a compelling philosophy out of the notes by Marcus Aurelius. His approach is compact, yet easy to read and flawlessly argued. He integrates moral and spiritual issues, and comes up with real-life advice. For me, this is the best book I’ve read in a long time, as it addresses issues and concepts that have been swirling as a nebulous mass in my brain and organises them coherently. Because of the issues Alan addresses, and the clear, elegant way in which he presents his thoughts, I’d say that this book is compulsory reading for anyone who has ever had thoughts and/or doubts about “life and the universe” – and who hasn’t?”
Robert Helle on Amazon.co.uk
“Overall, this book presents a splendid compression and a compelling synthesis of Marcus Aurelius’s thought (and something of the author’s own too) … This accessible, elegantly designed volume is, quite simply, a blessing.”
The Compulsive Reader
“In this delightful and well-written book … Alan Stedall has done an important service in making some of Marcus Aurelius’s reflections very accessible to the modern reader.”
Faith and Freedom
“I found much to inspire me in this small, easy-to-read volume. It was helpful too that the Author sets the debate into context, offering the reader both a lightning tour through Marcus’s life and experiences, and casting some light on his own attempts to rationalise an early belief in God with a need for purpose and meaning which was never fully realized within conventional religion.”