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


  1. " What if Marcus Aurelius's sense of duty and resignation were, in the first place, products of his individual temperament, of the melancholic disposition, if one wants to be precise; combined perhaps with the man's aging? There are, after all, only four main humors; so at least the melancholics among us can take "Meditations" to heart and skip the bit about historical perspective nobody possesses anyhow. As for the sanguinics, cholerics, and phlegmatics, they, too, perhaps should admit that the melancholic version of ethics is accommodating enough for them to marvel at its pedigree and chronology. Perhaps short of compulsory Stoic indoctrination, society may profit by making a detectable melancholic streak a prerequisite for anyone aspiring to rule it. To this extent, a democracy can afford what an empire could. And on top of that, one shouldn't call the Stoic acceptance of the perceptible reality resignation. Serenity would be more apt, given the ratio between man and the subjects of his attention, or- as the case might be- vice versa. A grain of sand can't resign itself to the desert; and perhaps hat's ultimately good about melancholics is that they seldom get hysterical, By and large, they are quite reasonable, and, "what is reasonable," as Marcus once said, "is consequently social." Did he say this in Greek, to fit your idea of antiquity?"-

    Joseph Brodsky in "Homage to Marcus Aurelius"

  2. " fairly hits one in the face that Sidgwick had worked out, on various levels, a philosophical approach to the question of sexual orientation and to the problematic of coming out. [...] Sidgwick's was a philosophy so completely framed by the problem of hypocrisy and the double life that it fitted his personal situation as neatly as Stoicism did the slavery of Epictetus...Though the time was not, in Sidgwick's judgment, appropriate for same-sex desire to break surface, he did support causes such as women's higher education, where the public was likely to be more responsive."

  3. McTaggart, although radical in his youth, became increasingly conservative (perhaps influenced by Hegel) and was influential in the expulsion of Bertrand Russell from Trinity for pacifism during World War I. But McTaggart was a man of contradictions: despite his conservatism he was an advocate of women's suffrage; and though an atheist from his youth was a firm believer in human immortality and a defender of the Church of England. He was personally charming and had interests ranging beyond philosophy, known for his encyclopaedic knowledge of English novels and eighteenth-century memoirs.

    In ' The Unreality of Time" he argued that our perception of time is ultimately an incoherent illusion

  4. Samuel Alexander OM (6 January 1859 – 13 September 1938) was an Australian-born British philosopher. He was the first Jewish fellow of an Oxbridge college.

    Two key concepts for Alexander are those of an "emergent quality" and the idea of emergent evolution:

    " As existents within Space-Time, minds enter into various relations of a perfectly general character with other things and with one another. These account for the familiar features of mental life: knowing, freedom, values and the like. In the hierarchy of qualities the next higher quality to the highest attained is deity. God is the whole universe engaged in process towards the emergence of this new quality, and religion is the sentiment in us that we are drawn towards him, and caught in the movement of the world to a higher level of existence."

    In 1933, he published Beauty and other Forms of Value, mainly an essay in aesthetics, which incorporated passages from papers that had appeared in the previous 10 years. Some of the earlier parts of the book were deliberately meant to be provocative, and Alexander had hoped that artists of distinction in various mediums might be tempted to say how they worked. He had, however, not reckoned with the difficulty most artists find in explaining their methods of work and the response was comparatively meagre.

    Alexander was a contemporary of Alfred North Whitehead, whom he influenced, and mentored others who went on to become major figures in 20th century British philosophy.

  5. Henri-Louis Bergson ( 18 October 1859–4 January 1941) was a French philosopher,

    Creative Evolution, undoubtedly the most widely known and most discussed of his books, appeared in 1907. It constitutes one of the most profound and original contributions to the philosophical consideration of evolution.

    Laughter (Le rire),is one of the most important of Bergson's minor productions. This essay on the meaning of comedy stemmed from a lecture which he had given in his early days in the Auvergne. The study of it is essential to an understanding of Bergson's views of life, and its passages dealing with the place of the artistic in life are valuable. The main thesis of the work is that laughter is a corrective evolved to make social life possible for human beings.

    Bergson travelled to London in 1908 and met there with William James, the Harvard philosopher who was Bergson's senior by seventeen years, and who was instrumental in calling the attention of the Anglo-American public to the work of the French professor. The two became great friends. James's impression of Bergson is given in his Letters under date of 4 October 1908:

    "So modest and unpretending a man but such a genius intellectually! I have the strongest suspicions that the tendency which he has brought to a focus, will end by prevailing, and that the present epoch will be a sort of turning point in the history of philosophy."

    While social revolutionaries endeavoured to make the most out of Bergson, many leaders of religious thought, particularly the more liberal-minded theologians of all creeds, e.g., the Modernists and Neo-Catholic Party in his own country, showed a keen interest in his writings, and many of them endeavoured to find encouragement and stimulus in his work. The Roman Catholic Church however took the step of banning Bergson's three books, accused of pantheism (that is, of conceiving of God as immanent to his Creation and of being himself created in the process of the Creation ) by placing them upon the Index of prohibited books (Decree of 1 June 1914).

  6. Percy Brand Blanshard (August 27, 1892 – November 19, 1987) was an American philosopher known primarily for his defense of reason. A powerful polemicist, by all accounts he comported himself with courtesy and grace in philosophical controversies and exemplified the "rational temper" he advocated.

    Strongly critical of positivism, logical atomism, pragmatism, and most varieties of empiricism, he held that the universe consists of an Absolute in the form of a single all-encompassing intelligible system in which each element has a necessary place. Moreover, this Absolute—the universe as a whole—he held to be the only true "particular", all elements within it being ultimately resoluble into specific "universals" (properties, relations, or combinations thereof that might be given identically in more than one context). He regarded his metaphysical monism as essentially a form of Spinozism.

    "Many philosophers of the present day are convinced that every existing thing and event is logically unconnected with any other and could disappear from the world without necessarily affecting anything else. Such a rubbish-heap view of the world I cannot accept."

    a conversation with Blandshard: