Marcus Life: the Meditations and Epictetus

EpictetusI have recently summarized Frank McLynn’s take of how Marcus Aurelius got into Stoicism during his early formative years. I also mentioned that McLynn offers a highly critical and uncharitable view of Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Here there is more, much more on that, from chapter 9 of his book, dealing with the Meditations and the influence of Epictetus.

McLynn begins by acknowledging that while Marcus is often revered as a good ruler (one of the so-called five “good emperors“) his immortal fame is linked to his image as a philosopher-king, which turns not just on his openly professed practice of Stoicism, but in particular on the Meditations, his personal diary of philosophical reflection.

Correctly, McLynn points out that Marcus ignores the early Stoics (Zeno, Chrysippus, Posidonius, and so forth), relying instead on a number of non-Stoics (Socrates, Diogenes) and on Epictetus. McLynn finds “bizarre” Marcus’ admiration for Diogenes, and in describing the latter he repeats the incorrect story that Diogenes went around Athens in daytime using a lamp to seek an honest man.

(As my colleague Nick Pappas recently pointed out, Diogenes was actually seeking a human being, not an honest man. The joke was at the expense of the Platonists, who attempted to come up with a definition of a human being, most famously proposing “a featherless biped.” When Diogenes heard of this, he got hold of a chicken, plucked its feathers, and threw it at the Academics, shouting “Here’s the Platonic human!” After that, he went around the city in daylight, using a lamp to seek a human being. He was making the point that that way of proceeding wasn’t any more absurd than the disquisitions of the Platonists. Talk about no-nonsense philosophy!)

I’ve already noted in the last post McLynn’s ignorance, for instance when he writes that Chrysippus (rather than Zeno) was the founder of Stoicism. In this chapter he keeps displaying his sloppiness, stating that Diogenes was “preaching the Stoic doctrine of the supremacy of ‘virtue.'” (Notice the “virtue” in scare quotes.) He was certainly doing that, but to call it “Stoic” is anachronistic, since that philosophy appeared on the scene about 23 years after Diogenes died.

Here, perhaps, is a clue to McLynn’s antipathy for Diogenes and Epictetus. He tells one of the many stories about Diogenes, which I always liked: “Seeing temple officials arresting someone for stealing a bowl, he exclaimed, ‘Big thieves are arresting a little one,'” adding shortly thereafter: “Both [Marcus] and Epictetus lionised a man who argued that virtue essentially meant that he should take while others worked and gave to him.’ Whiff of neo-liberalist ideology?

From this point on in the chapter McLynn gets down to work on Epictetus. Marcus got from his tutor, Rusticus, the latter’s notes on Epictetus’ classes, which is significant since Epictetus was, by that time, considered the Stoic philosopher par excellence, admired also by Galen, who later became Marcus’ personal physician.

But here is how McLynn sees Stoicism: “A more priggish, inhuman, killjoy and generally repulsive doctrine would be hard to imagine, but it will be abundantly clear why the programme appealed to Marcus Aurelius.” Please, do not pull your punches!

McLynn goes on to criticize Epictetus for being “more radical” than Chrysippus, as the latter at the least acknowledged that the normal human aspirations of health, wealth and so forth (Stoic “preferred indifferents”) were reasonable choices under normal circumstances. This, of course, is true, as Epictetus leaned more toward the Cynic end of the Stoic spectrum than, say, Seneca, who definitely was closer to the Aristotelian extreme (see this essay to make more sense of this classification).

McLynn accuses Epictetus of advocating political quietism because he taught his students that not even tyrants can do them harm, and because he said that we should wish things as they are and not as we would like them to be (“it is here that Stoicism once again lurches into absurdity”), claiming that Epictetus violated linguistic usage, engaging in “semantic nonsense.”

I’m not going to offer a point-by-point defense of Stoicism in general or Epictetus in particular (pretty much the whole of this blog and my forthcoming book are devoted to that), but reading McLynn charitably (which in itself requires an exercise in Stoic virtue) he appears to simply be confused by the notoriously challenging Stoic terminology. “Indifferents” are not such in the ordinary English meaning of the term; “follow nature” doesn’t mean going around hugging trees (as McLynn himself actually acknowledges); seeking apatheia doesn’t mean relishing apathy; and so forth. Plenty of people have had problems with the Stoic terminology, going back to Cicero. But if one wishes to seriously engage with any philosophy one has to take whatever terminology that philosophy uses on board and treat it seriously, at risk of coming across as an uncharitable fool.

(Besides, as I’ve written before, I actually relish the terminological challenge posed by Stoic vocabulary, since it forces one to immediately explain what the Stoics actually meant, which precludes reducing their ideas to a bunch of bumper sticker mottos: “follow nature,” yes, but here is what that actually means…)

McLynn does point out that Epictetus seems to oppose capital punishment, on the grounds that criminals act because they give “assent” to a wrong interpretation of the “impressions” (two more Stoic-specific words!) they get from the world (such as that wealth is a good thing). This, seems to me, is a very good aspect of Stoicism. Yet, the biographer goes on to state that “in the final analysis, a Stoic could always avoid commitment by citing his contempt for the external world.” I’d like to see a single historical Stoic figure who did. Certainly not Marcus.

McLynn also gives (due) credit to Epictetus for emphasizing “the mind’s capacity for autonomy to a degree without parallel in previous Stoic tradition,” as well as for the introduction of the three disciplines of action, assent and desire.

A bit later on McLynn makes another historical faux pas when he says that the Stoics were the first to introduce the idea of the Logos. While that notion was indeed crucial to Stoicism, a simple Wikipedia search clearly confirms that the term preceded Heraclitus, who himself died almost two centuries before Stoicism got started.

The chapter ends with a reasonable discussion of Marcus’ attitude toward the “atoms or Providence” issue, as well as with the strange charge that one cannot use mythological stories — like that of Medea — in moral philosophy, which misses the point that such stories were used by Epictetus, Seneca and others to illustrate concepts, not because they took them literally.

5 thoughts on “Marcus Life: the Meditations and Epictetus

  1. dsf

    I think it is not possible to say (with absolute certainty) that Marcus Aurelius ignored Zeno, Chrysippus and the early Stoa, because he has probably received a formal stoic education, which included reading many of the ancient works.

    Speaking about myself, a very flawed and undisciplined proficiens, I don’t consider the stoic doctrine “killjoy” at all: I derive great pleasure from it. I think it is somewhat ridiculous to reject a philosophy because it is killjoy; it is something a teenager would say about an important moral issue.

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  2. synred

    From an otherwise interesting AEON essay:

    Most of us are Stoics. We think that happiness is something that individuals find for themselves: the key is to work hard for a good life, and to face adversity with defiance. This ‘rugged individualism’ might fit the American ethos, but it is at odds with a growing body of empirical research that shows that some kinds of societies produce a great deal more satisfaction with life than others. Happiness, in other words, is more social than psychological

    The author seems to conflate stoicism with libertinism., As he capitalized ‘Stoics’, I guess he didn’t just mean ‘stoics’.

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