It has been a while since I published my first thoughts on Frank McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius. As you might recall, the initial impression wasn’t too positive, especially with regard to the author’s highly uncharitable, and somewhat misinformed, treatment of Stoicism. One doesn’t have to like or endorse the philosophy, but rejecting it out of hand will lead one to a very strange view of Marcus himself. Things haven’t improved much while proceeding with the rest of the book, though it does remain a valuable entry in the canon of biographies of ancient Romans.
I’m going to focus here on chapter 3, which deals with Marcus’ education, and in particular with his interest in Stoicism. We learn that one of the early influences on the emperor-to-be was Cinna Catulus, from whom he learned “Not to shrug off a friend’s resentment — even if it is unjustified — but to try to put things right. To show your teachers ungrudging respect and your children unfeigned love.”
Then there was Apollonius of Chalcedon, who taught Marcus Stoic “indifference” (which McLynn insists in misconstruing by using the modern English meaning of the term) to worldly success, pain, illness, and even the loss of a child — something that Marcus will have repeated occasions to experience in the course of his lifetime.
A third Stoic influence was that of Claudius Maximus, who taught the importance of self-mastery and inner balance, not to mention of generosity, honesty and forgiveness. Hardly worthless precepts, seems to me.
Antoninus Pius, who was emperor when Marcus was young, also imposed on the latter some teachers the Marcus really didn’t take to, most famously Herodes Atticus, whose prima donna behavior likely is the reason he didn’t make it into Marcus’ famous list of people he was grateful to at the beginning of the Meditations. In fact, Herodes was a critic of Stoicism, stating that: “These disciplines of devotees of the unemotional, who want to be considered calm, brave and steadfast because they experience neither desire nor grief, neither anger nor pleasure, are people who strangle the vitality of the spirit and gradually live out their days in a torpor of bloodless, enervated negativity.” It seems that mischaracterizations of Stoicism got an early start, and the future emperor was, apparently, not amused.
But when and how did Marcus “get” into Stoicism? McLynn points to the age of 12 and the influence of Diognetus, his painting master, and then to the looming personality of Junius Rusticus. As McLynn summarizes: “Marcus tells us that the single key event was that Rusticus introduced him to the works of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whom he always preferred to Seneca as a guide to Stoicism, even though Seneca enjoyed by far the greater fame.”
Another of Marcus’ tutors, and one with whom he will correspond for a long time afterwards, was Marcus Cornelius Fronto, a grammarian and rhetorician who was in turn not at all friendly to Stoicism: “He condemned Stoicism as the arch-enemy of common sense, and urged Marcus to relax and forget about it: ‘Even your Chrysippus himself [the founder of Stoicism], they say, used to get drunk every day.'” [Notice McLynn’s embarrassingly bad scholarship: even Wikipedia can tell you that Chrysippus was not the founder of Stoicism.]
At this point in the chapter McLynn launches in an incredibly vicious attack on the philosophy itself. Here is an extended sample:
“It is deeply sad that Marcus Aurelius should have subscribed to such a bleak and ultimately nihilistic view of the universe and mankind’s place in it. Stoicism was an arid doctrine that tried, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, to ‘do the dirt on life’. It is a world view in which nothing unexpected can happen, and noble things like desire, fantasy, adventure, initiative, creativity, hope, cultural life and, ultimately, civilisation itself all disappear. That it should have any modern adherents is almost incredible.”
Actually, what seems incredible to me is that a serious biographer of Marcus would write anything like the above. Moreover, McLynn concludes the chapter with the highly dubious statement that Stoicism did not help Marcus during his reign as emperor, which not only flatly contradicts what Marcus himself wrote, but is in fact inconsistent with the picture of his reign, the events that characterized it, and the depiction of the emperor’s handling of various situations that we get throughout the middle section of the book.