Book Review: “Marcus Aurelius” by Frank McLynn

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Any work by historian Frank McLynn is destined to be a decidedly mixed bag. On one hand, McLynn clearly undertakes a gargantuan amount of research, and any reader will not want for sources. He is undoubtedly an intelligent writer, with a strong (though occasionally archaic) command of the English language. He is able to describe not just the individual subject of each biography, but also the wider world in which they operated, thus offering us a better understanding of the geo-political context than we would otherwise have.

On the other hand, he can be biased; allowing his prejudices or preconceptions to shape the narrative. This can give some passages an arrogant flavour. Frequently he appears to use evidence to fit his foregone conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the evidence. A strong ability to research does not imply a strong ability to interpret. Once he has made up his mind, he will not budge, the result of which is proclaiming opinions as facts. Finally, (in my opinion, for fear of hypocrisy) he has limited aptitude for describing battles, a significant disadvantage when examining great military commanders like Marcus Aurelius and Napoléon I.

McLynn’s biography of Napoléon was my introduction to his work. Although the author made one or two elemental errors (propagating the now-discredited myth that Napoléon was ridiculously short), and delved a little too often into the unconvincing world of Jungian psychoanalysis (with every decision invariably being described as the result of some baseless complex or another), I nonetheless found it very well researched down to the most personal details (he seemed to have pinned down every dalliance the Emperor ever had, for example, no matter how casual), and despite its length, well-paced. He skilfully kept track of a huge cast of generals, relatives, and assorted hangers-on. He gave equal attention to Napoléon the Emperor, the General, and the Man. The book offered a fairly balanced view of the great leader, never overlooking his faults and never denying his achievements. I hoped to find the same qualities in his examination of Marcus Aurelius. Sadly, I did not.

First, we must consider the reasons why a reader would be drawn to a book about Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps they are interested in Ancient Rome in general. Perhaps they are interested in military and political leaders. Let us especially consider those who are interested in Marcus as one of the most noted Stoic philosophers, a man whose Meditations, despite never being intended for publication, offers wisdom and guidance to modern readers, almost two millenia after being written. In my estimation, any advocate of Stoicism will be dismayed at this book (or rather they would be dismayed if they did not reject this emotion as they should). It is clear from the earliest chapters that McLynn detests this great – and proven – philosophy.

While I can accept a difference of opinion, even a difference of philosophy, it seems that the author hates Stoicism for imagined reasons. His dismissive treatment of the entire school of thought appears to stem from a simple lack of understanding, as evidenced by his assertion that Stoicism “denies human nature by recommending what most sane people would regard as chimerical: braving torture, mocking death, conquering sexual passions. It subscribes to the dreadful doctrine that if someone suffers misfortune, he himself is responsible.”

I am unaware of any Stoic tenet which demands the practitioner to mock death, nor does the philosophy blame anyone for having suffered misfortune. Perhaps McLynn has misinterpreted Epictetus’ saying “If any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone” as meaning “If anyone has suffered a misfortune, let him remember he brought it on himself, and we have no sympathy for him”. This of course would be a ridiculous reading of the philosophy.

As for braving torture, stoic philosophy has indeed helped people in such dreadful situations. Let us take an example from the Vietnam War. In 1965 American fighter pilot James Stockdale, having ejected from his plane and parachuted to the ground, was taken as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese. He was in captivity for the next seven and a half years, during which time he was denied medical care, and regularly tortured. He specifically credited Stoicism with helping him to survive the ordeal.

The author fares much better when he deals with the culture, politics and history surrounding Marcus. This is not a blinkered biography of the kind obsessed with just one person at the expense of the wider world. It could read as an insightful overview of the history of Rome during Marcus’ reign as much as a history of the man himself. That is not to say Marcus is neglected; we are presented with a lot of information about a person who lived so long ago, for whom limited sources exist.

Unfortunately, these virtues do not excuse the wrong-headed attack on an entire school of thought. It is hard to imagine why someone who holds Stoicism in such low regard would choose to write a book about one of its leading proponents. It is equally hard to imagine why someone who advocates stoicism as a timeless and practical guide to living would choose to read it. I cannot recommend this book.

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