I 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.
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.
If you are interested in Stoicism you have likely heard of the story of the so-called “Pseudo-Seneca,” but just in case, here it is. Stoicism had ceased to be an independent school of philosophy in the ancient world well before the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476 (and of course some of the other schools lingered only a bit longer, until the Byzantine emperor Justinian I closed the last of them, the Academy in Athens, in 529). But the philosophy had influenced a number of figures, including prominent Christian theologians, throughout the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.
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.
The ongoing attempts to revive and update Stoicism for the 21st century go under a number of names, usually along the lines of “Modern Stoicism” or “Stoicism Today.” But people don’t use the obvious term: neo-Stoicism.
There is a reason for that. “Neo-Stoicism” actually describes an earlier project for the revisitation of Stoicism, mostly associated with Justus Lipsius, who in 1584 published a book entitled De Constantia (“On Constancy”), which tackled the issue of how to reconcile Stoic philosophy with Christianity, and which ended up influencing a number of other important figures, including most famously Michel de Montaigne.
I’m almost at the end of Irvine’s delightful book, A Guide to the Good Life, and the following notes are about chapter 20, “The Decline of Stoicism.”
There are several possible explanations — not necessarily mutually exclusive — for why Stoicism fell out of favor after Marcus Aurelius (unlike, say, the continued expansion and vibrancy of Buddhism, a few thousand miles to the east). They include the idea that Roman society had changed in a way that stern calls to virtue didn’t resonate any longer, as well as the lack of charismatic teachers that would equal Musonius or Epictetus (in this respect, it is interesting to note that Stoicism had already experienced an early decline immediately after its founding, when Zeno was succeeded by the lacklusting Cleanthes; it was only because of the energy and charisma of the latter’s successor, Chrysippus, that the whole thing survived anyway). And of course there was the rise of Christianity, which actually absorbed significant portions of Stoic thought and practice.
Chapter 2 of the excellent Cambridge Companion to the Stoics is by Christopher Gill, and it covers the post-Republican Roman period of the Stoa. Gill does much to undo the stereotype that nothing novel happened to Stoicism during this period, and that people like Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus were simply rehashing stuff they got from the earlier, Greek period, or else bringing Stoicism to the masses, but with no further elaboration.
One of the nice things to learn from this chapter is that Marcus Aurelius actually set up four chairs of philosophy in Athens, one each for the four major schools vying for prominence at the time: Stoicism (of course), but also Epicureanism, Aristotelianism and Platonism.