June 22, 2010


Stoicism Is Just So Yesterday: a review of Marcus Aurelius: A Life, by Frank McLynn (Emily Colette Wilkinson, 06/14/10, In Character)

Between the hyper-intellectual abstractions of university philosophers and the calculating, materialistic schemes of self-help gurus, lies another philosophy. This is the philosophy of the ancients, of Marcus Aurelius. It is a practice that intends to help individuals answer life's great metaphysical questions in both material and spiritual terms: What is my place is the world, the cosmos? What is the purpose of existence? How do I live a good life? What is happiness and how do I achieve it?

Marcus Aurelius' contribution to this philosophy has come to be known simply as the Meditations, though the title Marcus gave the work-more a private collection of self-examinations and moral exercises than a systematic philosophy or spiritual autobiography intended for publication-was "The matters addressed to himself." And it is as much a model of moral self-examination as a demonstration of Stoic principles. The work's subtitles suggest that Marcus wrote some portion of the text during Rome's Marcommanic wars, a long, brutal series of military campaigns prompted by the invasions of barbarian German tribes on the northern boarders of the Roman Empire during the 160's.

These wars occupied most of the last two decades of Marcus' reign as emperor (160's and 170's), but to read the Meditations, you would not imagine them to be the writings of a man encamped in barbarian lands in the midst of war, nor of a man commanding the largest army ever assembled on the frontier of the Roman empire, nor of a man whose empire and army were in the grip of the Antonine plague (believed now to have been smallpox or measles, possibly both), that lasted from 165-180 and killed, by some estimates as many as 18 million people, including, in 180, Marcus himself (notwithstanding Ridley Scott's fanciful version of Marcus Aurelius' death in Gladiator-smothered by his son, the psychotic future emperor Commodus). The Meditations' lack of political or worldly anguish and anxiety is a mark of the philosophy they profess: Stoicism.

As McLynn explains, our modern conception of Stoicism consists mainly in colloquial expressions such as "be a man," "take what's coming to you," "roll with the punches," and "make the best of it." Such expressions communicate the Stoic insistence on acceptance and steadfastness in the face of whatever life presents, no matter how calamitous. One of the most famous lines from the Meditations is, "Remain ever the same, in the throes of pain, on the loss of a child, during a lingering illness" and many modern readers, including McLynn, find the Stoic creed-that virtue is the only good and the source of happiness and that we should train ourselves to rise above emotional, physical, and material concerns-inhuman, even monstrous.

It is one of the curious features of McLynn's biography that he is openly hostile his subject's philosophy: "A more priggish, inhuman, killjoy and generally repulsive doctrine would be hard to imagine," he writes at the beginning of a caricatured exposition of the precepts of Marcus Aurelius' Stoic predecessor Epictetus. And in an appendix on Stoicism, McLynn contends that "one could just as well derive this cracker-barrel philosophy from the maxims of old-fashioned tea chests."

This authorial frankness certainly makes for entertaining reading. Many a scholarly pose of objectivity belies an unprofessed agenda and it's to McLynn's credit that he lets his readers know exactly what he thinks about Stoicism (little of it good) and everything else that makes its way into his sweeping, highly readable account of Marcus and his age (though the lay reader might find herself nodding a bit at the book's extensive accounts of military campaigns and other extra-biographical digressions, while readers familiar with classical scholarship may be annoyed with McLynn for not offering his conclusions with a bit more circumspection. Classical scholarship deals in fragmentary, uncertain evidence but McLynn never lets on that much of what he presents as foregone can only be tentative).

Putting aside the charm of this curmudgeonly bombast, though, McLynn's hostility to the animating intellectual ethos of his subject's life seems something of a failure. Certainly, Stoicism, like most of the world's other great philosophies and religions, has its logical inconsistencies, and it insists on a grim, difficult worldview. Marcus' creed held that virtue was its own reward and the only life goal worth pursuing. On the Stoic view, we have no power to determine whether we'll be rich or poor, famous or infamous, sick or healthy, but we can control whether or not we are good. Thus, life's pleasures and pains-poverty, disease, fame, death-become "indifferents" to the Stoics-i.e. matters that have no direct bearing on our moral wellbeing and so are irrelevant. As a Stoic, I might be poor and sick and my family might die, but none of this hurts me because it does not impair my ability to be good, which consists in working for the good of my fellow human beings.

Oddly enough, modernity has offered up one great Stoic, Tom Wolfe

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 22, 2010 6:49 PM
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