The emperor of self-control

The Inner Citadel
October 9, 1998

Clinton has not learned from Marcus Aurelius, writes Peter Stothard

In the days following the Starr report it did not take long for the first commentator to recall the book which, according to President Clinton, had influenced his life the most, the Meditations of an earlier much-afflicted superpower leader, the 2nd- century Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. The critic Garry Wills gleefully restarted the quiz-game that was briefly fashionable in Washington after the 1992 election: what lessons, asked Wills, did the philosopher emperor have for the president? Did Bill identify Marcus as some 2,000-year old JFK? Which Meditations did Clinton really reread "every few years", as he claimed? Had he honestly ever read anything from the works of the man who, of all known rulers, seemed best to fit the idea of Plato's philosopher king? And if he had read from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in any serious way, had it ever done him any good?

Most of the answers now seem all too clear. If Bill Clinton ever read from the man who praised virtuous behaviour over political outcomes, he cannot have been concentrating too hard. Marcus Aurelius preached the irrationality of sexual passion. Bill Clinton practised it. As Wills pointed out, the emperor dismissed the sex act itself as "friction with a woman's innards and spasm of jetting slime". But the emperor also enjoined himself - in a book written for self-instruction rather than teaching or propaganda - not "to desire what can only be indulged behind hiding walls and curtains". A key part of Marcus's Stoic doctrine was self-control, independent self-examination and the need to eschew the easy paths of temptation: "even in a palace, life may be led well", the emperor wrote.

For students of ancient philosophy the sincerity of Bill Clinton is perhaps of no concern. The president's campaign claims do, however, say something about the enduring reputation in English of a work which, while originally written in Greek as a Roman emperor's private notebook, has become a bran-tub of aphorisms for all political seasons. Clinton sincerely wanted to be thought of as a reader of the Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius was an influential Stoic. But he was by no means the first ruler who professed Stoic principles. Almost as soon as the Cypriot Zeno had set out the ideals of his new philosophy in the 3rd century BC, its soupy mix of heavenly determinism, flexible free will and virtuous personal conduct caught on quickly among autocrats of all kinds. Marcus learnt his creed from the works of Greek professors and from the example of earlier Roman Stoics such as Seneca. It is through the lottery of textual survival from the ancient world and the distinction of its author that the Meditations have won their fame.

For the French scholar, Pierre Hadot, the importance of Marcus Aurelius is a given. So too is the emperor's sincerity. He has no time for the idea, most vigorously expressed by Bertrand Russell, that Marcus was a miserable phoney, covering up his inadequacies with an intellectual veneer. He cites with approval the view of the writer, Ferdinand Lot, who places Marcus Aurelius among the "supermen" who during the decline of the ancient world "abandoned themselves fearlessly to their tragic destiny".

Hadot also sees his subject as a great artist. He rejects the view of those for whom the divided Greek text of the Meditations is a hodge-podge of notes and doodles. Hadot sees Marcus as creator of a highly refined literary form, a set of spiritual exercises with a specific philosophical method. Just as there are rulers who want to be seen as philosophers, there are philosophers who want real philosophers to rule. Hadot desperately wants Marcus to have been a real philosopher: and he struggles to prove his point.

The real Marcus, as no one disputes, was a wealthy brick-factory owner's son who in his teenage years attracted the discerning eye of the Emperor Hadrian. What Hadrian saw in the boy (he had a Clintonish approach to interns of both sexes) is not wholly clear, but he insisted that his successor, Antoninus Pius, adopt him and thus build the basis of an Antonine dynasty.

Marcus received his inheritance in AD161. Thereafter he was in constant struggle to keep it together against the pressure from Persians, Germans, plagues, earthquakes, floods and fellow Romans who were unconcerned with philosophy and convinced they could do a better job on the throne. His home was more often a military tent than a palace. His wife was even more famous for adultery than Clinton. In as much as Stoicism meant the denial of personal comfort and the elevation of virtue over happiness, it was a well-chosen creed for the wretched man.

For Hadot it is rather more than that. He sees the Meditations as proof of an intense moral effort, a life-long battle to achieve a moral nature. He sees Marcus as a man not merely wanting to be good but wanting naturally to be good. Sincerity is one of the hardest virtues to evaluate at any time. To decide whether Marcus truly lived up to his ideals in the 2nd century is even harder than deciding whether Bill Clinton ever intended to live a virtuous life. The most likely answer to both suggestions is a negative. Hadot, for all his erudition and fervour, is fundamentally unpersuasive.

His task is particularly hard because Stoicism was more a guide to the manner of being a leader - with dignity, independence, strong will and virtue - than a guide to what needed to be done. We know that, as emperor, Marcus must have carried out all sorts of policies - from building roads to defending provinces - whose success had to be judged wholly by outcome. And yet he affected a philosophy of life under which a virtuous failure was to be preferred to a vicious success.

We have some idea of what Marcus did during his period of power. We know much less about how he comported himself in the conduct of empire. Hadot is free to imagine virtue in Marcus in the same way as rulers are apt to imagine virtue in themselves.

The Inner Citadel was first published in France in 1992, a year in which it won almost as much critical acclaim as the American election winner. In Harvard, where it is published now in 1998, this book, like Bill, can expect a more sceptical response.

Peter Stothard is editor, The Times.

The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Author - Pierre Hadot
ISBN - 0 674 46171 1
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 351

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