Time to start reporting my thoughts about the recent biography of Marcus Aurelius, by Frank McLynn (Da Capo Press, 2009). I am about halfway through it, and will comment on a number of aspects of it, but I can already tell you that it is a missed opportunity. McLynn both hates (with gusto!) and does not understand Stoicism. And it is next to impossible to do justice to Marcus from that point of view.
I’m not suggesting that a biographer of an emperor-philosopher ought to buy into his subject’s philosophy. Far from it. Indeed, one does not even need to be particularly sympathetic to his subject in order to write a good biography. But one does have to make an effort to be charitable, which McLynn simply refuses to do, as far as I can see.
This post will focus on the Introduction to the book, which sets the tone for what’s to come. I hope to then come back and comment on selected chapters, and certainly on the first Appendix, entirely devoted to Stoicism.
McLynn rightly asks why we are still fascinated with Marcus, whose persona and writings — the famous Meditations — have been a reference point for countless people over the centuries. Preliminary answers include that it is not easy to find good role models among rulers both ancient and modern (good point), and that especially nowadays academic philosophy has retreated into sterile specialization (partially good point), so that the “oracular utterances” of the Meditations are one of few options available to people who are not attracted by organized religion or by “Oriental mysticism.”
McLynn also suggests that perhaps Stoicism finds favor in modern society because it echoes American Pragmatism (the philosophy, not the generic attitude), and even goes so far as making a parallel between the three major Stoics whose works have come to us (Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus) and the three major American Pragmatist philosophers, C.S. Pierce, William James and John Dewey. (Though, other than the numerology, it is hard to find any other one-to-one correspondence.)
For McLynn, Pragmatism is a philosophy based on the idea that truth can be judged by its consequences (a decent approximation, though with major differences between James and Dewey). But if so, then it is hard to see the proximity with Stoicism, which of course is a virtue ethical philosophy.
McLynn ventures even further: “pragmatism in the U.S.A. functions as an ideological ‘support’ for the social and political system, just as Stoicism did in Roman society. Stoicism was a primitive form of pragmatism.” Uhm, no, it wasn’t, and to claim so is either to misunderstand Stoicism or Pragmatism, and possibly both. The disanalogy should be even more obvious once we consider that there was a large number of fiercely competing philosophies during the time of the Roman Empire, some more popular with the aristocracy, others with the military, yet others with different social strata. That’s a very different situation from contemporary USA, where most people wouldn’t be able to mention even the just the name of any philosophy at all.
Yet another reason for modern appreciation of Marcus, the biographer proposes, is the Emperor’s feelings for nature, which are compared to “Wordsworth’s position in the Prelude and the ode Intimations of Immortality — a deep appreciation of sensuousness tinged with melancholy.” This too seems to be off the mark. When Marcus writes about the beauty of baked bread and ripe figs he is praising the Logos as the rational principle permeating the universe, and anyone who has read the Meditations will be hard pressed to picture Marcus as a Romantic.
McLynn is more credible when he mentions the parallels between Stoicism and Buddhism, of course, which he again uses to explain the (relative, really, compared to Buddhism) popularity of Stoicism in recent decades. Marcus has, in fact, sometime been referred to as “the Roman Buddha.”
In the end, McLynn suggests, Marcus holds out the possibility of spirituality for atheists, since his writings — despite repeated mention of Providence (“or atoms“) — are compatible with the idea of “joy without heaven and morality without religion.”
Nonetheless, “despite his huge influence, Marcus is a hard act to follow. His actual lesson was that one has a duty to involve oneself in everyday life while seeing it for what it is and holding it at bay with mental reservations; this is not the same thing at all as reclusive withdrawal or the life of the artificial solitary.” There I agree: Marcus is a tough role model, but isn’t that precisely what we want from role models, that they set the bar high for the rest of us?