Book Review: Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor

AFTER BILL CLINTON SLAPPED HIS head, cried: "D'oh" and finally realised that inviting a chubby intern into his private study might just cost him the presidency, he sought comfort in the wise words of Marcus Aurelius.

Meditations, the little book of philosophical musings and pithy maxims, written by the 15th Roman emperor (AD 121-180) has been by the bedside of presidents and prime ministers, as well as millions of us ordinary pilgrims all struggling to pick our way along life's stony path.

A philosopher of the Stoic school, Marcus Aurelius believed much of the pain and distress of life could be, like poison drained from a wound, leeched out by correct thinking, which, in reality, meant a combination of acceptance of that which one cannot change, rigorous discipline, a humbled ego and generous spirit.

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Philosophy, to his mind, was to be used like a shield to fend off and block the troubles of man, which are universal. Fear of the future? "Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present." Worried about your reputation? "How much time he saves who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks."

Snug under the duvet and can't face the day? "At day's first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that: 'I am rising for the work of man.' "

So Frank McLynn, author of this magisterial new biography of the great man, must verily have leapt out of bed each morning, eager to grapple with the Latin and Greek primary sources and countless volumes of archaeology, numismatics and epigraphy that form the bricks and mortar of this towering edifice.

McLynn has clearly taken Marcus Aurelius's words to heart, for the emperor wrote: "Was it for pleasure, then that you were born and not for work, not for effort?"

Over a long career, McLynn has pounded out over 20 massive tomes and while the current volume may not find as many readers as his books on Napoleon, Bonnie Prince Charlie or Robert Louis Stevenson, for anyone comforted and intrigued by this ancient sage, it is a must.

While reading Marcus Aurelius's book, Meditations, one imagines the emperor as calm and content, penning these self-evident truths while stoically enduring the long campaigns against the German tribes of the north which made up so much of his time.

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Yet McLynn convincingly paints a portrait of a troubled man striving to do his best and apply his own rules to a difficult life. Many of his philosophical notes revolve around the prospect of death, which clearly frightened him as it does all with imagination, but he battened down his concerns under the weight of words. To be fearful of death, he explained, was like a child fearful of a mask he had made himself.

As he wrote: "Don't look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age."

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Pleasingly, Aurelius does appear, at least in the historical text, to have applied his thoughts to his own demise, as when struck down by smallpox, he recognised the inevitability of his fate and hastened it through self-starvation and chastised those who grieved as behaving unphilosophically. Although charmingly portrayed by Richard Harris in Gladiator, and Alec Guinness in The Fall of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius was, in fact, humourless, prudish and distant, but his legacies are his words, which echo down the millennia to still provide comfort.

Meditations is a flickering torch in the darkness, and with his fine biography, Frank McLynn tends the flame.