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.”
Pythagoreans at sunrise
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:
a Denarius coin featuring Commodus, Marcus’ son
Continuing my commentary on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, we have arrived at book X. The first observation I find interesting comes at #2, where Marcus writes: “the rational animal is consequently also a political (social) animal.” Which accords nicely with the common interpretation of the famous Stoic motto, “follow nature,” meaning in particular follow human nature, which in turn translates to try to apply reason to improve society.
(Relatedly, my new favorite motto is from Seneca: “Adhibe rationem difficultatibus,” bring the mind to bear upon your problems.)
It has been some time since I’ve tackled a book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, so let’s get back to it, with some highlights from book IX.
The book begins with an interesting passage: “Injustice is impiety. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.”
Temple of Hercules, Amman citadel, Jordan
The first section of the eighth book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations features a question we should all ask ourselves, at several points in our lives:
“You have had experience of many wanderings without having found happiness anywhere, not in syllogisms, nor in wealth, nor in reputation, nor in enjoyment, nor anywhere. Where is it then? It is in doing what man’s nature requires.”
Marcus distributing bread to the people
We are now more than half way through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, or at the least what I think are the best highlights from that foundational Stoic book.
Near the beginning we find two statements of crucial Stoic precepts. At #5, Marcus says: “in whatever I do, either by myself or with another, I must direct my energies to this alone, that it shall conduce to the common interest and be in harmony with it,” and at #11 he writes: “To the rational animal the same act is at once according to nature and according to reason.” The two combined are a good reminder of the Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism (and its associated virtue of justice), as well as of what it means to live “according to nature“: it means human nature, and human nature is the nature of a social animal capable of rationality.
Stoic Camp New York 2015, the first and hopefully not the last of its kind (fate permitting) was a resounding success. My friend Greg Lopez, who runs the New York City Stoics meetup, and I guided twelve people interested in learning Stoicism for three full days in the beautiful setting of Stony Point, NY, on the Hudson River.
We had a full schedule, beginning on the first evening with a discussion of why one might want to adopt, or develop, a philosophy of life (not necessarily Stoicism), followed by an overview of Stoic philosophy. From the beginning, we encouraged our students to keep notes, and in particular to build their own “handbook” (inspired by Epictetus’ Enchiridion, of course), where they would write down Stoic quotes they found particularly inspiring. We also advised them to keep a daily journal (modeled after Marcus’ Meditations), writing down their thoughts about the challenges of the day and how they handled them.
We are half way through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at this point. The second entry in book VI is perhaps the quintessential example of Stoic attitude of endurance:
“Let it make no difference to you whether you are cold or warm, if you are doing your duty; and whether you are drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else.”