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).
Here we are, then, at the end of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, though I’m sure I will have more to say about both the emperor himself (I’m currently reading his recent biography, by Frank McLynn, which incidentally appears to be both unfriendly and woefully ill informed about Stoicism).
Near the beginning of the chapter, Marcus reminds us (himself, really, since this was not originally meant for publication) of what is truly important: “if you shall be afraid not because you must some time cease to live, but if you shall fear never to have begun to live according to nature — then you will be a man worthy of the universe that has produced you, and you will cease to be a stranger in your native land.”
Let’s take this week of Saturnalia to finish up our readings of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I’ll tackle book XI today and book XII on Thursday. Not that either book has anything to do with the festivities (though Seneca wrote a letter to Lucilius about it).
Somewhat uncharacteristically, Marcus criticizes a group of people, the Christians, which he mentions a few other times throughout the Meditations. It is within a passage (#3) where he discusses one’s readiness to die: