Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed by William O. Stephens
William O. Stephens gets no farther than paragraph two before he lands himself in the soup. Marcus Aurelius, he writes, is ‘the only full-blown philosopher ever to have been a king’. Really? Putting aside the vexing question of what it might mean to be ‘full-blown’ in this context, in what sense was Marcus a philosopher at all? He didn’t teach, and The Meditations is essentially the notes of a pious student of Stoic ethics – Memoranda, as Stephens sensibly re-titles them. Never intended for publication, the notes can be repetitive, and at times refer to events and people lost to posterity. There is a lot of personal admonishment: ‘Get a move on’; ‘You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow’. It is a devotional diary, in which the philosophical content is entirely derivative. Calling The Meditations the work of a philosopher, full-blown or otherwise, should sound to modern ears like undue praise. But according to the lights of his own time, Marcus’s status as a philosopher was a very different matter, and that distinction can’t be ignored.
To be a philosopher in ancient Rome was to adhere to a way of life. Consider the contrast between two notables from the last years of the republic, the intellectually brilliant novus homo Cicero and the reactionary Cato of Utica. Cicero’s writings on philosophy were admired in their day and remain one of our most important resources on ancient thought. Cato neither wrote nor taught. Yet it was Cato who, in imperial Rome, was admired as the philosopher, because his life appeared to have embodied the Stoic virtues. He was unusually scrupulous as a provisional administrator and exhibited an almost ostentatious modesty, dressing in a rough cloak and jogging alongside other senators when they chose to ride. Importantly, he was a determined suicide. He disembowelled himself with his bare fingers when a surgeon stitched him up after his initial attempt at self-murder failed. To the pragmatic Romans, this was hard evidence of a philosophical attitude to death. In contrast, Cicero was a cream puff. Plutarch tells us that when Cicero was in exile he ‘became more dejected than one would have thought possible for a man who had enjoyed such advantages in training and education.’ Philosophical study was expected to have a demonstrable effect on the behaviour of the student.
Stephens’s lack of attention to this point is only the start of his problems. His approach generally is to explicate The Meditations as if it were something impenetrable. He rarely quotes from Marcus, whose writing is rendered in multiple translations with a compelling urgency and brilliance of phrase. The result brings Stephens up hard against a barrier to appreciation that blocks many readers when they come across the Stoics: Marcus, like Seneca and Epictetus, can sound a whole lot like your dad. ‘Bad luck borne nobly is good luck’ is an axiom from The Meditations, but it could be Polonius. Marcus can seem horribly sententious, unless one grasps that his determined emphasis on virtue as the key to happiness is the product of an impressively unified and all-encompassing system of thought, one perceived only in tantalizing glimpses in The Meditations.
Where context is required, Stephens gives us paraphrase. Take for example this gloss on Book 6, Passage 13: ‘[Marcus] rejects the notion that fancy food, fancy drink, fancy clothes, sexual activity, or sex appeal are weighty, important things to be proud of.’ Well, sure, he says something like that. Marcus writes that whenever he starts to place a high value on mundane objects, he should remind himself of the ignoble parts of which they are comprised. Sex is ‘the friction of a piece of gut’, and so on. But he’s not an ascetic. (After the death of his wife, Faustina, he took a mistress.) Passage 13 is what the classical scholar Pierre Hadot called a ‘philosophical exercise’, designed to prevent Marcus giving assent to erroneous ideas arising from sensual pleasure. ‘For pride is clever at cheating by false reasoning’, as Marcus puts it. He is employing a behavioural technique intended to bring about a state of mind. The Meditations bears witness to the practice of ancient philosophy; it contains little actual philosophy.
Trudging through this Guide to the Perplexed, it is impossible to believe that the author wasn’t intensely bored as he ground his source material into thin pabulum. I’m sure we can agree that nothing is more tedious than a list of abstractions, and this book is infested with them. Here is a representative quote:
He reminds himself what the people who are so loud in praise or blame of others are like as they sleep and eat, how they behave, their fears desires, thefts, and plunders [sic] perpetrated not physically but by what should be highest in them – the right mind that creates, when it chooses, loyalty, humility, truth, law, and inner well-being.
I challenge anyone to maintain their interest in the face of this onslaught of redundancy and syntactic confusion. (What, exactly, is the object for the verb ‘perpetrated’ in this sentence? The newly minted countable noun ‘plunders’ alone, or the three preceding nouns as well? Because ‘perpetrated’ doesn’t collocate with any of these words apart from ‘theft’. One could go on.)
After 160 uninspired pages, the appendix, which republishes an essay on Stoic philosophy in the film Gladiator (2000), is conclusive proof that here was a man desperate to reach the page count agreed with his editor. Essentially, the appendix argues that sometimes the characters in Ridley Scott’s movie act in a way that would meet the approval of Stoic philosophers, and sometimes they don’t. Are you not entertained?
The best thing about this book is the bibliography. There a reader whose curiosity survives might be guided to Pierre Hadot’s wonderful book on Marcus, The Inner Citadel. If this seems harsh on Stephens, take comfort from the fact that he has all the resources of a Stoic to fall back on.