We now get to the third of the three great Roman Stoics as seen from a Christian perspective, following along C. Kavin Rowe’s One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions. (Part I on Seneca is here; part II on Epictetus here.) Of course the analysis is based entirely on the Meditations, about which Pierre Hadot said: “Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations … are not the spontaneous outpourings of a soul that wants to express its thoughts immediately, but rather an exercise, accomplished in accordance with definite rules. … [The Meditations ] presuppose a pre-existing canvas, upon which the philosopher-emperor could only embroider.” And a significant part of that canvas was provided by the work of Epictetus, which Marcus had read and studied. Also keep in mind, throughout the following, that the Meditations are characterized by Marcus going back over and over to the three Epictetean disciplines of desire, action, and assent.
I have been studying Stoicism somewhat seriously for a while now, and in particular, of course, the three great Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus. Although all three of them espouse the same fundamental philosophy, there are, of course interesting differences among them, which attest to the fact that Stoicism was and is a vibrant set of ideas and practices, not something perennially and unalterably written on a stone tablet.
It is also very clear to the reader of the Letters to Lucilius (for instance), the Discourses, and the Meditations, that the three in question differed markedly in terms of their personalities, which in turn affected the way they understood and practiced Stoicism. Here I’d like to explore what I find captivating in each of the three great ones and what I’m learning from them in terms of my own practice.
One more on Frank McLynn’s lopsided biography of Marcus Aurelius, which the author uses in part to lob serious — and largely unfair and badly informed, I think — criticisms to Stoicism, a doctrine he clearly loathes. Still, the intellectually serious, and in fact Stoic, thing to do is to take a look at what an unsympathetic commentator has to say about the philosophy and use the occasion to reflect and learn. (Previous commentaries on the book have appeared here, here, and here.) The most comphehensive attack that McLynn mounts on Stoicism is contained in the first Appendix to the book, entirely devoted to demolish the Stoic way of thinking, and it is to this appendix that I devote my attention.
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.
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.
It seems clear that Marcus Aurelius believed in god(s). It is possible to rationalize some of his generic references to them as not necessarily reflecting faith, but rather a generic piety. This one, for instance: “To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.” (I.17).