There is reading and then there is researching. When you find a book that you really like, you owe it to yourself to do the research.
Tucker explained much better than I can. He said “ideas have consequences” and we have to look at the person that birthed and embodied the book. Just looking at the ideas themselves isn’t enough, you have to look at what those ideas have done. It’s not always the case, but still–it’s short sighted to act as though the author exists in a vacuum where they can separate their ideas and their personal lives.
The easiest way to combat this is to find the work’s place in history and then explore both backwards and forwards. This is something I have done for a while. After I read Seneca, I kept wrestling with the idea that he may have been an enormous hypocrite. So I started with Wikipedia. There wasn’t much there. Then I went on JSTOR and found a paper called “Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic” that gave a lot of perspective. (Basically, our notion of his hypocrisy can be traced backed to a single begrudged person) Then I talked about it with Robert Greene and he told me what he knew–his personal history of the work. From there, I got to The Annals by Tacitus which spends a ton of time dissecting Nero and the influence of Seneca. Now, I feel like I can make some conclusions.
If you want to try it with Marcus Aurelius, you should read some of these:
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume I, Chapters III to IV (which cover Marcus and Commodus)
Marcus Aurelius by Mathew Arnold
On Liberty – John Stuart Mill (mentioned briefly but significantly in the middle of the essay)
The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot
The introduction and the last two chapters are crucial to understanding Marcus. The concept of an “inner citadel” was a brilliant metaphor for Marcus’ philosophy. Hadot says that Marcus worked to create a core that fate, hysterics, vice and outside influences could never penetrate. And that he wrote to himself to strengthen the walls. . He warns against the psychological historianism–the idea that we can judge Marcus as a person solely through his work is false. There is no way it embodies all of him, just like this site is only a small part of me. So we have to go deeper, at his rule, his letters, what he strove for. (This is essentially what I am saying here) Hadot is also critical, he examines the passages where Marcus literally begs for death, why he surrounded himself with such awful people, and so on.
The History of the Origins of Christianity Vol. 5 & 6. (I haven’t read these yet but I plan to. Renan is quoted throughout The Inner Citadel and I liked what he had to say)
I am going to start doing this with all my books. It coincides with a project Tucker and I are working on to make sense of his library (with my paltry contribution). If anyone has read deeper on anything I’ve put into my book list, it’d be great if you could email them to me. I am trying to find some way to organize the casual chain of books…