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Stoicism and Us

Marcus Aurelius: A Life
By Frank McLynn
(Da Capo Press, 684 pp., $30)

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
By William B. Irvine
(Oxford University Press, 314 pp., $19.95)

Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book, Bright-Sided, offers a damning indictment of the ideology of positive thinking, which she sees as the fundamental flaw in American life. When she found herself diagnosed with breast cancer, Ehrenreich was shocked to discover that doctors, fellow patients, and counselors all urged her to treat the diagnosis as a blessing in disguise and an opportunity to enjoy a range of infantilizing consumer products (such as teddy bears adorned with pink ribbons)--to embrace the idea that cancer might be “the best thing that ever happened to her,” rather than respond with any of the emotions that Ehrenreich herself found natural, such as horror, grief, and anger. Ehrenreich suggests that the problem of relentless positive thinking, and the corresponding refusal to acknowledge reality, is largely responsible for all kinds of social ills, including our current financial mess. She argues that only if we begin to recognize hard facts--such as the presence in our society of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and debt, as well as cancers that can kill us no matter how much pink we wear--will we get sufficiently angry about these things to fight for a cure.

If Ehrenreich is right--and, broadly speaking, I think she is--then it makes sense to start looking for alternative ideologies with which to equip ourselves more adequately for hard times. Ehrenreich herself traces the roots of American positive thinking back to American Calvinism: she sees our insistence on mindless cheeriness as a backlash against the gloom of our forefathers. But pure gloom, of this particular Christian variety, is not the only philosophy designed to help people respond realistically but calmly to suffering. There is another obvious alternative, a more ancient one: it is Stoicism, a philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno in the fourth century B.C.E. as a version of the philosophy of Socrates. Stoicism developed and flourished for at least another five hundred years, into the later Roman Empire. The last major ancient Stoic was the emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.), whose Meditations amply demonstrate his deep engagement with the philosophy that he learned with Rusticus, his tutor.

Ancient Stoicism was not identical with “stoicism” in the modern sense, although the concepts overlap. A modern “stoic” is a person who puts up with pain or suffering without complaining, without expressing any sign of emotion. The Stoics, by contrast, did not aim at emotional repression--as Margaret Graver’s excellent study Stoicism and Emotion recently reminded us--but at retraining our emotional responses. They thought that one could achieve a state of consciousness such that the things most people mind about--such as physical pain, and all the things that usually cause us anger, grief, frustration, and so on--would no longer feel important. The point is not to pretend that sickness, death, and dishonor do not exist, or to deny the facts of loss, as in modern positive thinking. Instead, a true Stoic would be genuinely unaffected by the undeniable reality of such external losses. In modern terms, your lost job and lost career prospects, your now-worthless 401(k) account, your professional and social humiliation and isolation, your bankruptcy, your foreclosed home, your cancerous breasts, your dead children--all are, from a Stoic perspective, “indifferent.” What matters, in good times or bad, is not whether you have a job, an income, a family, or a home, but whether you have the inner strength to realize how little such things matter.

The Stoics taught that reason is the guiding force of the world, and ought to be the guiding principle of each human being. Thinking, and trying our best to discover the truth about the universe as well as about human life, is part of our duty as Stoics. Rather than shut our eyes to the truth, we must work to make it acceptable emotionally. Everything happens for a reason, and if we could only align our feelings and actions with our reason and with the forces of the universe--“live in accordance with Nature,” as the Stoic slogan had it, or “want what is”--we could live a life of perfect virtue, and hence, perfect tranquility.

One of the most interesting questions about the perennially fascinating Marcus Aurelius is how his Stoicism--explored privately in the jottings that he kept as philosophical reminders to himself, which we know as the Meditations--related to his public actions as the ruler of a vast and complex empire, which included about one-fifth of the total population of the world. Was he, as historians have traditionally claimed, the last of Rome’s “good emperors,” a rare example of a truly successful philosopher-king? The Meditations are a favorite of Bill Clinton’s: would the world be a better place if all world leaders imitated Marcus’s Stoicism?

The question seems particularly relevant at the moment, since Marcus Aurelius faced problems that are strikingly similar to those of our own time. The events of his rule included a severe economic crisis; a growing gulf between rich and poor; a series of apparently endless, costly, bloody, and controversial wars in multiple parts of the empire; new plagues bringing death and terror to the domestic population; a culture increasingly addicted to violent and mindless forms of entertainment; and growing religious fanaticism, including the presence of a new cult that encouraged its members to martyr themselves for their cause. It all sounds darkly familiar. Was his Stoicism a help or a hindrance in his attempts to manage these social and political dilemmas?

The Meditations themselves suggest a complicated answer. On the one hand, Marcus urges himself not to be corrupted by court life and by the distractions of power. “Watch out, don’t get Caesarified,” he tells himself, coining a verb. On the other hand, he remembers the Stoic idea that “where life is possible, it is possible to live well”--even in a palace, and even, presumably, on campaign in the cold distant provinces of Germania, away from sunny Italy. Philosophy is Marcus’s true mother, the rival to imperial power, his “stepmother”; but philosophy is also invited to inform every aspect of his life, including his imperial duties.

But now a sprawling new biography, pasted together by Frank McLynn, a non-specialist freelance writer, paints a very different picture, presenting Marcus’s philosophy as the root of all his troubles. McLynn is sympathetic to Marcus himself, as a ruler and as a human being, but he is bitterly hostile toward his Stoicism. “A more priggish, inhuman, killjoy and generally repulsive doctrine would be hard to imagine,” he declares.

McLynn is no philosopher, and his account of the supposed contradictions within Stoicism is unreliable and muddled. He says, in one of his more lucid moments, that Marcus, “as a Stoic emperor,” faced the problem that he had to love mankind, but also to despise what they wanted and hate what they loved. McLynn intuits--although without putting it in these terms--that there is a tension in Stoicism between our duty to other people and our duty to ourselves. The Stoic ought to feel that nothing is of real value for her, except being good; but she also has a duty to help other people in all kinds of ways that may have nothing to do with increasing their virtue.

The paradox here, I would argue, is only apparent. Stoics could draw a fairly commonsensical distinction between the way a person ought to feel about her own poverty or bad health (namely, calm in the knowledge of how little such things matter in the general scheme of things) and the way she ought to feel about somebody else’s suffering (namely, duty-bound to help). Stoics could also draw an essential, and again obvious, distinction between past, future, and present suffering. If my child has already died, I may well need advice on how to avoid going mad with grief. But this does not imply that I ought to do nothing to prevent her future death.

One might still wonder why Marcus Aurelius adopted Stoicism in the first place, and whether it helped him to be a better emperor, or to bear more calmly the pressures of his role. McLynn oddly sidesteps these questions, and instead often writes as if all the essential facts about his subject had been predestined. He sneers at the Stoic belief that “the only journey worth taking was an internal one,” and comments that this was “not a good mindset for one fated to spend frozen winters campaigning in the desolate northern wilderness.” This formulation entirely neglects the fact that both the Stoicism and the wars were Marcus’s own decision, not his “fate.”

When he was about eleven, Marcus was inspired by a tutor to take up philosophy. He began sleeping on the ground, until his mother persuaded him to quit. But unlike most fads adopted by eleven-year-olds, Marcus’s commitment to philosophical asceticism turned out to be lifelong. In later adolescence, he turned away from the training in rhetoric offered by one of his tutors and instead became committed to Stoicism. Marcus himself, in the Meditations, expresses gratitude to his early philosophical teachers, who blessed him with the capacity for genuine self-awareness, and with “moral freedom, the certainty to ignore the dice of fortune, and have no other perspective, even for a moment, than that of reason alone; to be always the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, the loss of a child, in lingering sickness.” Stoicism was a philosophy that could confer upon him a sense of equilibrium, even in the worst of times.

Being the emperor of Rome was not an easy task, especially in a time of economic crisis, rebellion, plague, and war--at the moment when, according to Gibbon, the Roman Empire was beginning its precipitous decline and fall. Whether or not Marcus himself wanted power, greatness was thrust upon him at a young age. When the emperor Hadrian, who had no son, adopted Antoninus Pius as his heir to the throne in 138 C.E., he made it a condition that Antoninus must adopt both Marcus--who had long been a favorite of his--and Lucius Commodus (later Lucius Verus) as his own sons, ensuring a stable future for the empire. Thus Marcus became, at the age of seventeen, the second in line for the empire; and he would spend the next twenty-three years at Antoninus’s side.

The anticipation seems to have filled him with a combination of pride and dread. We have one clue to his mental state at the time. An ancient historian tells us that after the adoption, Marcus dreamed of having shoulders made of ivory. E.R. Dodds suggested long ago that the dream suggested an acute “identity crisis,” a sense that his public and private personae could not match up. This interpretation was recently challenged by Pierre Hadot, who argued that Dodds was indulging in an anachronistic projection: to a person in antiquity, the idea of ivory shoulders would immediately have suggested the story of Pelops, whose body was served up to the gods. His shoulder was eaten by Demeter, and he had to have an ivory one substituted, when he was rescued and revivified by the goddess of fate. Hadot concludes that the dream was a good sign: the shoulder of Pelops was notoriously beautiful, inspiring admiration and desire in the god Poseidon.

McLynn asserts that Dodds was right, but he makes no mention of the story of Pelops. Instead, he insists that it is not anachronistic to apply psychoanalytic tools to the ancients. This may be true, but it is hardly the point. A better counter would have been to notice the imaginative complexity of the myth itself, which suggests that the ancients themselves did not necessarily think it always a blessing to be desired by a god. The dream implies that the adolescent Marcus imagined his future life with some ambivalence: becoming emperor was like being made one of the company of the gods, but it also involved being slaughtered and eaten, and as a result becoming not quite fully human.

Marcus became emperor on the death of Antoninus Pius in 161 C.E., when he was forty years old. He immediately appointed Lucius as his co-emperor, in loyalty to the wishes of Hadrian--and as a way to co-opt a potential rival. The gesture was a signal of Marcus’s commitment to “consensus building” and teamwork: the new emperor was willing to join forces even with the party-going playboy Lucius. It was the first time Rome had been ruled by two emperors at once.

It was also a time when Rome’s troubles seemed to double, or quadruple. In 162 C.E., Rome was flooded, and the city suffered famine. The imperial treasury was more or less bankrupt. Marcus made the impressive gesture of selling off palace property in the Forum, and he debased the currency multiple times--perhaps the ancient equivalent of offering repeated stimulus packages.

At the same time, the new emperors were confronted by rebellions in several regions of the empire. The Parthians were resisting Roman power in the east, while the Britons and the tribes of Germania were becoming restless in the west. Marcus was arguably unprepared for war, a point emphasized by McLynn: he had never been abroad, having spent the whole of Antoninus Pius’s reign by his side, so that at the age of forty he was trained only in domestic policy. Lucius was sent in Marcus’s stead to campaign against the rebellious Parthians in Syria. He was triumphant--but the returning army brought back plague as well as victory. The plague spread through the whole empire in the years 165-180 C.E., and about five million people died. The resulting shortage of manpower increased the difficulties of Marcus’s long campaigns against the Germanic tribes in the west.

Marcus spent most of his last decade, until his death in 180 C.E., out in barbarian territory. The Meditations were composed while on campaign. This strange and beautiful book--mistakenly described by McLynn as Marcus’s “diaries”--is not an autobiography, a memoir, or a set of “confessions”; and, despite the disjointed feel of the writing, Marcus probably did arrange his work with some kind of publication in mind. The Meditations are unlike any other text from antiquity, in that they are addressed not to an audience, a reader, a friend, or a patron, but to the writer himself. They offer a fascinating, but also puzzling, glimpse into the private mind of a public man.

The Meditations say almost nothing explicitly about contemporary events, but they are full of references to disease, to war, to anger and conflict, to death. If Marcus’s life had been easier, presumably he would not have needed to write them. The only direct reference to his public work as a warrior-emperor suggests that on some level the emperor regarded his triumphs as not merely trivial, but also as borderline wicked: “A spider is proud when it catches a fly, a man when he snares a hare, another when he nets a fish, another wild boars, another bears, another Sarmatians. If you test their principles, aren’t they all pirates?” Perhaps he regretted the fact that he had devoted his own life so consistently to warfare. The Greek historian Cassius Dio recorded that in his last illness, as the story went, he repeatedly called out: “This is the kind of thing that terrible war achieves!”

Yet McLynn rightly emphasizes that we should be wary of seeing Marcus Aurelius as a modern humanitarian, and he was certainly no pacifist. Marcus apparently had no objection to practices that would seem like war crimes to most of us, including the use of torture and the execution of prisoners in order to save supplies for the Roman troops. War was also an essential element in the emperor’s public self-presentation: the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (which may have been erected in his lifetime) depicts the emperor presiding over the destruction of Germanic villages and the slaughter of the male inhabitants--acts apparently blessed by the gods, who authorized the “rain miracle,” averting a storm to rescue the Roman troops. It seems to me likely--although McLynn does not draw this conclusion--that Marcus believed that violence, cruelty, and enslavement were justifiable, but only in the service of Rome.

Marcus was, at a fundamental level, a Roman patriot. In some passages of the Meditations, he urges himself to act as a “citizen of the universe,” and to “live as if you were on a mountain.” But Rome was far more than just one place in the world. It was an idea, and one which was intimately connected with Marcus’s sense of his dignity and his integrity. “Every hour, give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task at hand.” In theory, a Stoic might have regarded nationality and gender as mere indifferents: a non-Roman woman ought to be quite capable of acting with virtue. But for Marcus the interrelated qualities of being male and being Roman lay at the heart of what he was most proud of in himself. Marcus had no thought of giving up any of the old traditions or possessions of Rome: even if the provinces of Germania proved enormously troublesome and expensive, no part of the empire could be abandoned.

In the service of the empire, Marcus was an extremely diligent ruler, often staying up late at night working on his official duties. His health was poor--he suffered from stomach pains, aches, and insomnia--and his personal physician, Galen, prescribed a drug to help him get to sleep, which contained opium. Predictably enough, much has been made of this. McLynn, probably rightly, is skeptical about claims that the metaphorical flourishes of the Meditations are symptoms of opium addiction. He takes a similarly dismissive attitude toward various other tabloid-ish modern theories, including the idea--which has been suggested on the basis of the endearments expressed in their correspondence--that Marcus and his tutor Fronto might have been lovers.

The passion with which Marcus struggled most seems to have been not love, but anger. He writes: “Say to yourself at dawn: I shall come across people who are interfering, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, envious, unneighborly. All these things have happened to them because they do not know good from evil.” Marcus concludes that he, blessed with superior understanding, ought to be tolerant toward those who don’t get it. This unclubbable attitude did not inspire love from the troops with whom he campaigned, and Marcus was aware of his own distance from his men. In a suggestive passage of the Meditations, he imagines that at the deathbed even of a “noble and wise man,” there is likely to be some naysayer who will comment, “At last we can breathe again, free from this school-master! Of course he was not harsh on any of us; but I always knew he silently despised us.”

But in theory, Marcus, like all good Romans, valued community very highly, and was conscious of the danger posed by those who failed to be properly integrated into the group. He claims in the Meditations that there is really no significant difference between the individual and the community: “What does not benefit the hive, does not benefit the bee.” This is one angle through which we can understand one of the most controversial facts of his reign: the fact that under this philosopher-emperor, more Christians were persecuted and martyred than ever before. It is possible to argue that the increase was pure coincidence, not the result of Marcus’s own policies; but it seems more likely that the emperor really saw something problematic and dangerous about the presence, within the enormous multicultural community of the empire, of people who obstinately refused to worship the usual Roman gods. The Christians were the religious fanatics of their day. In the Meditations, Marcus comments that a true philosopher’s courage in the face of death should be quite different from the brainwashed “obstinacy” of the Christians. Their willingness to die, he suggests, is not the result of thoughtful decision and daily practice, but mere brainwashing and “histrionics.”

For Marcus--as for other Roman Stoics, such as Seneca--one of the most important goals of philosophy is to face death with equanimity. Lucius, Marcus’s co-emperor, died of the plague in 169 C.E., and Marcus must have known that the same could easily happen to him. In the Meditations, one of his most important rhetorical moves to make exile, war, death, disease, and dismemberment less scary is to turn them into metaphors. Wickedness is a “mental cancer”; dismemberment is an image for “failing to accept one’s lot”; “life is like war and a sojourn in a foreign land.” Metaphor shifts the wars and the mutilations that Marcus had conducted away from the sphere of reality: the real things are the abstractions, not the material facts of the body. One might speculate that Marcus’s struggle to overcome an intense fear of death was at the root of both his Stoicism and his warmongering. In one passage, he reminds himself that “Alexander, Pompey and Caesar devastated whole cities, any number of times, and cut to pieces thousands of cavalry and footsoldiers in battle; yet they too eventually died.”

The constant contemplation of other people’s deaths must have been one reason why Marcus thought so much about his own. Nine of his children, and eventually his multiparous wife Faustina, died before him. In living through years of plague at Rome and battle in Germania, he lost many friends and comrades. In the Meditations, Marcus commemorates the early deaths of his loved ones, but tries to transform these losses into acceptance. A notorious passage of the Meditations advises, “As you kiss your son goodnight, whisper to yourself that he may be dead in the morning. ‘Don’t tempt fate,’ you may say. By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?”

Clearly, there is sleight of hand in the shift from dead child to harvested grain. There is, at the heart of Stoic consolation, an unlikable tendency to claim that the sense of loss is really a delusion (“though it may look like--write it--like disaster”). But the practice of imagining one’s child’s death, training oneself in the art of losing, is not, in itself, a sign of being unfeeling, but the opposite. You would not bother preparing for the possibility of your child’s death if the death of a child were easy to bear. Rather, the Stoic practice of imagining future loss is designed to help a person prepare for events that might prove devastating--and which may be unavoidable. “Pray not for some way to save your child,” Marcus urges himself, “but for a way to lose your fear of this.”

There is a sharp contrast here with the “positive thinking” identified by Ehrenreich as a psychological maneuver that induces a false sense of security rather than real calm. Ehrenreich tells the story of the father of a missing soldier who declared on CNN that “the positive thoughts are very important right now”--and she mordantly comments that “positive thoughts notwithstanding, the soldier’s body was found in the Euphrates River one week later.” Perhaps that father would have been better equipped to deal with his grief if he had allowed himself some negative thoughts in advance. Or perhaps nothing can prepare one for such loss.

The fear of loss is so intense in Marcus Aurelius that it sometimes overwhelms many avenues of possible joy. An uninspiring theme of the Meditations is the idea that life holds no promise of happiness, or beauty, or any kind of discovery. Marcus urges himself to remember that sex is only a little friction, then a spurt of mucus. “A man of forty, if he is slightly intelligent, has seen everything there has been and everything there will be, because of the uniformity of things.” McLynn rightly contrasts this attitude with that of Plato’s Socrates, who realized every day how little he knew.

But there is another strong argument for negative thinking, and it is that it may encourage a sense of gratitude and appreciation in the present. A new pop-philosophical defense of Stoicism as a modern way to live, William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, argues that “negative visualization” is one of the most useful techniques that we can adopt to encourage a realistic sense of joy in what we have, while we have it. Stoics learn to “love that well which thou must leave ere long.” In remembering the precariousness of all our happiness, we may feel it all the more intensely while it lasts. This need not be doom-mongering, but a genuine source of gratitude for what we have, while we have it.

When Marcus Aurelius died in 180 C.E., he left his beloved empire to his only surviving son, Commodus. In Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator, Marcus makes a vain attempt to deflect the succession of the empire away from his wicked son Commodus to the upstanding figure of Russell Crowe, who plays the fictional character Maximus. In real life, we have no evidence that Marcus wanted anybody other than his own horrible son to succeed him. Perhaps he did not really have a choice: in the presence of a surviving son, the appointment of anybody else would surely have resulted in civil war. Commodus immediately abandoned most of his father’s projects, including the long war in Germania.

Marcus Aurelius’s reign achieved nothing of permanent value for Rome--except the Meditations. Unlike most conquerors, he knew that his work would come to nothing. He was conscious of the impermanence of his own achievements. “Little then is each man’s life, and little the corner of earth he lives in, and little even the longest survival of his fame with posterity, and that too passed on through a succession of poor mortals, each one of them soon to die, with no knowledge of themselves even, let alone of a man who has died long ago.”

Marcus also advises himself, in the Meditations, to beware of excessive reading. “Get rid of your thirst for books, if you don’t want to die muttering, but with good grace, with a truthful and heartfelt gratitude to the Gods.” A clear case of a book you do not need to waste time reading is Frank McLynn’s Marcus Aurelius. It adds no new scholarly insight, and at almost seven hundred dense pages it is not a good use of your time. It is over-footnoted and under-thought. Life, as a Stoic should know, is too short. If you want to learn about this man who died long ago, your best bet in English is still the fine short biography by Anthony Birley, Marcus Aurelius. But better than either, in these hard times, is to return again to the Meditations. For all its fragmentariness, repetitions, clumsiness, and evasions, this extraordinary book is still capable of making one feel inspired to live through hardship with courage and joy, and to be always willing to change one’s life. Sudden moments of pithiness fight even against Marcus’s own tendencies to repeat and embellish: “Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one.”

Emily Wilson is associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania.