Customer Review

47 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An Analysis of Philosophy, August 3, 2009
This review is from: Marcus Aurelius: A Life (Hardcover)
Frank McLynn is an author that you either love or hate. He is very opinionated, self-satisfied, and confident in his opinions and he likes nothing better than to dismiss other author's works as being wrong. He also likes to use large words and complicated sentences. Normally that last wouldn't bother me, but I'm a fast reader and when you have to spend ages on every page since each sentence is so convoluted it becomes problematic. Not everyone will have problems with this. It encourages you to take your time so if you enjoy really savoring a book then you might prefer it this way. McLynn isn't an expert in this field. I think he likes it that way since he's written most of his books in fields he isn't an expert in. Personally, I think he feels he has something to prove but whatever it is he does research the periods he writes about well. Along the same line he also has a tendency to include comparisons to somewhat obscure historical figures that many of his readers will not recognize. It seems to fall under his desire to prove how smart he is. I'm sure that there could be another explanation for all of his writing quirks but that is the way that I interpret them.

Now onto the book. First off this is a really big book. I know that you can see that by just looking at the page numbers on this site but you don't always appreciate that till you see it. I think that each one of his books gets bigger and bigger, which is a shame since I prefer some of his shorter writings like 1066: The Year of the Three Battles. Now I'm not intimidated by a book's size but this one can be a chore. There is already an excellent biography on Marcus Aurelius by Anthony Birley which is about half the size of this one and is written by an expert in the field. Having read that I was rather curious what McLynn could say that would take up so much extra space. Would it be a more in-depth and detailed look at the era that he lived in? Would it include details about his life that Birley left out? Would it include a detailed analysis of his personality, a subject that McLynn is particularly strong at? I have to say that when it did either of those things it was a very enjoyable read, but most of the book seemed to focus on his philosophy. Now, I suppose that this is to be expected when the subject wrote his own philosophy on life down, but I'm really not interested in a discourse on philosophy and a comparison of how Aurelius matched up with later philosophers. I'm even less interested in hearing McLynn's views on philosophy as he states that several beliefs are wrong or show poor reasoning. Frankly, the reason that there are so many different philosophies out there is that every philosophy appeals to a different aspect of the human experience. There is no single philosophy that can make everybody happy. Stating that philosophical beliefs are wrong shows the most arrogant presumption I've seen in a long time. Just because you disagree with a philosophical concept doesn't make it incorrect. I certainly don't agree with all the philosophers he mentions but that doesn't mean that I'm going to call them mistaken. I know that the author is intelligent and that he presumably has a philosophy of beliefs, but he doesn't need to keep showing off the former and I couldn't care less about his opinions on the latter. As far as his analysis of Aurelius' philosophy goes this book is an utter failure. It is McLynn at his worst: uninteresting, arguing ideas of interest only to himself, and unspeakably arrogant. Quite frankly, a little of McLynn goes a long ways. When he keeps it short his works usually deliver.

So, the good news: The rest of the book is pretty good. It suffers from all of the faults I mentioned when discussing his writing style earlier, but it is also well researched and interesting. First off, his interpretation of Aurelius' personality seems pretty much spot on. His insight that a certain humorlessness can lead to difficulty handling depression seems to fit Marcus quite well. He doesn't go into quite as much annoying psychoanalysis as he did in his book on Napoleon, and the absence of such extremely questionable neuroses is very welcome. Actually, since he has the discourse on philosophy early on it leaves the rest of the book reasonably free of such annoyances. Characterizations have always been McLynn's strong point and his vivid characterizations in this book are interesting, and he expresses them quite clearly even if he is extremely blunt in his personal judgments. Some of the characterizations are odd though, such as when he refers to Hadrian as a psychopath. I don't know what information he's looking at but there is nowhere near enough data to make that sort of a statement. In "Napoleon" he stated that nearly every leader in history could be considered a psychopath which has always kind of rankled me. Even assuming a generous definition of psychopath, I wouldn't call any harsh action that they take psychotic. Leaders have to make hard decisions, but that isn't the same thing as saying that they get some sort of sick thrill out of it. The section on Marcus' life is certainly worth reading and I only wish that it wasn't preceded by such a pretentious distraction. I honestly think that the rest of this book is worth the purchase price. Still, the book can't just be divided into good and bad sections and reviewed separately, so I'm giving this book three stars as an average between them. That's probably being overly generous since the good section doesn't deserve a full five stars but the book deserves better than a two. I have a feeling that future reviewers will not be so kind, but I definitely recommend reading this if you're at all interested in the subject matter and don't mind a long slog.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 28, 2009 5:47:35 PM PDT
This was a truly helpful review! I had intended to buy this book eventually, but now I think I'll look first at the other biography you mentioned.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 16, 2009 2:05:28 AM PDT
Great review. you are quite right about philosophy.

Posted on Dec 20, 2009 8:18:33 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 20, 2009 8:53:57 PM PST
Vince says:
A discourse on philosophy seems appropriate since that is what distinguishes Marcus Aurelius and warrants the biography.

As for the author calling Hadrian a 'psycopath', his reasons for doing so are made very clear.

Overall, this review was long-winded and misleading.

Posted on Dec 21, 2009 6:18:51 AM PST
Frank Day says:
I think Stuart should check out the story of Churchill and Coventry. I think the story is wrong.
Frank Day
fraday@bellsouth.net

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 21, 2009 7:56:18 AM PST
I know a little bit about the Pacific war, not much about the European war, but I think I remember that the Enigma affair was a very long effort.
If we are talking about the first Coventry bombing, the Enigma machine would not have been used.
Later on, the British government had to put aside some Enigma informations, but the most important interested the submarine warfare and the Nazis kept
on using their codes (in constant changes, delaying the Bletchley decoders)to inform their diplomatic personnel and resupply their submarines.
For the air and land warfare, a "discovery" could always be made by planes or patrols.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 12, 2010 4:36:10 PM PST
Pietr Hitzig says:
You are absolutely right. This is an urban legend.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 22, 2010 4:55:53 PM PDT
Arch Stanton says:
Oops, yeah. I looked it up and it is an unconfirmed statement by a not necessarily reliable source. It's too bad really. I remember my dad telling it to me when I was a kid and it always seemed such a perfect example of the complexities of morality. Well, I deleted that section from my review.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 5, 2010 11:38:20 AM PDT
RA Meeks says:
I, too, liked the review but I found Birley's biography of the Emperor tedious, dry, and complicated beyond understanding. That may say more about me than Birley as a writer (he's very well thought of) but I finished the book feeling I'd learned nothing about Marcus Aurelius. For what it's worth...

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 3, 2011 2:27:26 PM PDT
Arch Stanton says:
But if you're going to read a dry, tedious book would you prefer the shorter one or the longer one? :-D

Honestly, that's one of my biggest quibbles with academic writing these days. They used to have to make it well written, now they just need to state the facts. Not that there's anything wrong with doing that, but more work should be put into making them readable as well. Even if you're only reading them for educational purposes and not just for pleasure it helps if the book isn't fighting you every step of the way.
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