Thursday, March 11, 2010
Marcus Aurelius: Philosopher-King by Frank McLynn
Cecil Rhodes and Jan Christian Smuts
The Victorian era was the high-water mark of Marcus Aurelius's reputation. One can see why he was so much admired by enthusiasts for the British empire like Cecil Rhodes, and why, by contrast, a Stoic ruler had far less to offer the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. No one any longer takes seriously the idea of benevolent empires and the pax Britannica is usually considered just as much an engine of exploitation as the pax Romana. The co-optation by Mathew Arnold, Ernest Renan and other Europeans in the nineteenth century led Americans to swing away from Marcus and towards Epictetus, who seemed a Stoic untainted by 'imperialism' ; certainly it is striking that it is Epictetus who features as a major influence on Walt Whitman, whose 'holistic' thought might be otherwise be thought more in line with Marcus.
Despite its occasional eruption on the silver screen, the Roman world in general seems less interesting to the modern sensibility. The Victorians prized duty as the highest moral responsibility, whereas the entire thrust of modern thinking is towards rights, usually so-called 'rights' with no duties attached. The entire modern therapy industry would be in danger if people took seriously the idea that only fools blame others for their failure. To an egotistical, hedonistic modern audience, Marcus's strictures on pleasure and the indulgences of sleeping, copulating and over-eating seem neurotic, and Stoicism itself seems over-rational and joyless. Marcus still has a certain vogue, but only because his so-called modern admirers tend to cherry- pick the convenient parts of his doctrine and ignore the rest.
Moreover, the twentieth century was par excellence the century of the great dictator. Max Weber made a famous threefold distinction in types of ruler: the traditional, the rational-legal and the charismatic. Whereas Marcus was the best example of a traditional ruler, all the great dictatorial figures of the twentieth century ( Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Peron, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and so on) were charismatic rulers. In such a context studying Marcus Aurelius as a guide to how to rule well seems absurd.
This connects with a more general consideration. Rationalism, or the idea that reason (rather than feelings, sense-experience or authority) is the only true guide to knowledge, probably reached a peak with Kant and Hegel, and has been in decline ever since. This is why the distinguished American philosopher Brand Blanshard lamented the decline of such men in ethical theory, instancing Renan, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick and Marcus himself as the finest of this breed. To a large extent the post-1900 trends in philosophy have all been in directions where Marcus's thought seems irrelevant: pragmatism in the USA, logical positivism in continental Europe, linguistic analysis in Britain. Only in three philosophical areas can one discern a continuation of the themes of Marcus Aurelius: in the work of 'time-obsessed' philosophers such as Henri Bergson and J.M.E. McTaggart, in the neo-utilitarian and deontological work of Henry Sidgwick and his handful of followers, and in some of the recalcitrant metaphysicians like Samuel Alexander and A.N. Whitehead.
It has been suggested in some quarters that the end of the road that leads from Epictetus and Marcus is Freud, but this seems less than convincing. In modern literature, however, Marcus's influence continues strong: here one might mention such figures as Maurice Maeterlinck, Anatole France, Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Brodsky and Tom Wolfe, but there are many others.
In assessing Marcus Aurelius as an emperor the question of milieu and culture is crucial. Perhaps the most famous and most quoted of all passages from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the following:
"If a man were called to fix the period of history during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." ( M. Aurelius' son and heir).
There are not many propositions of famous historians that one can unhesitatingly dismiss as nonsense, but this is one. Hobbes's famous categorization of the life of Man in the State of Nature- 'nasty, brutish and short'- applies just as well to the Roman Empire. Quoting poignant testimonies to the horror of life for the vast majority of people during the 'grandeur of Rome"- even in normal years consisting chiefly of famine, plague, pestilence, slavery and oppression- quickly becomes wearisome. The absurdity and myopia of Gibbon is clear, but his Panglossian comments alert us to an important point about Marcus and the empire.
Eighteenth-century England had clear parallels with the Roman empire, even though the grandees of the Hanoverian periods chose to see themselves as Periclean Athenians, battling against either Persia or Sparta in the shape of the great Satan, France. Gibbon, Hume, Adam Smith, Johnson, Boswell and the other great figures of London's salons and the Scottish Enlightenment resembled Marcus and his coterie in that they discussed knotty philosophical problems that still trouble us today. They lived in an Augustan elegance and privilege, based on the fruits of an expansionist and predatory empire, which they took to be the natural order of things, yet their society was one characterized by the most draconian legal codes, the Waltham Black Act, the Riot Act and above all the Bloody Code, which could consign a starving man to the gallows for stealing an apple.
This schizoid nature of Georgian society in England found a pre-echo in the Rome of the Antonines. Marcus was a man who could preach wisdom, enlightenment and tolerance in the privacy of his diaries while being content to sanction hideous deaths- in the arena, in the jaws of wild beasts, on the cross- in the everyday life of Rome. His career highlights, above all, a failure of imagination- a failure imbricated in the very education, culture and assumptions of the aristocratic Roman. The Roman upper class had so little imagination that, even when the senatorial class plotted against an emperor, their only thought was to replace him with another one. Root-and-branch social change was beyond their universe of discourse. Innovation was something the Roman classes always dreaded.
Yet another aspect of Marcus's unimaginative approach the problems of the empire was his background as a cloistered, pampered heir to the throne, never ranging beyond the environs of Rome (or being allowed to by Antoninus Pius). Even rulers tend to take the line of least resistance and draw facile conclusions from what is apparent in their immediate environment, but which may be completely atypical. Marcus was not the only culprit. Tertullian, from his eyrie in North Africa, produced a pre-echo of Gibbon when he said that the world in his day was better known, better cultivated and more civilized than ever before; he spoke of cities where there had once been cottages, and of roads and trade everywhere in evidence.
"Marcus Aurelius: A Life" by Frank McLynn Da Capo Press, Perseus Books, 2009