Tracing the Ideachain
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 Opium Addiction of Marcus Aurelius
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…
I may not get this 100%, but assume for the sake of argument that Aurelius was a shitty person. I haven’t read any of the books analyzing his life, I don’t know. But that doesn’t necessarily negate the ideas that he presents.
Tucker has a point, and yeah, I can definitely see how further insight into a person’s life would give you a better understanding of the ideas they’re presenting, but it doesn’t negate them, it only enhances them.
I mean, isn’t it just as important to think for yourself and take what you can from their ideas as opposed to blindly following them? This may be the same thing you’re saying, the only difference being you’re showing the method of doing this.
The ideals that Aurelius lives by aren’t the easiest to follow. Yet he still knows that’s how he wants to live his life, and he still presents those ideas, even if he doesn’t hypothetically follow them.
Of course. But think about it this way: Tim Ferriss gives all sorts of advice about your career, office politics, life and travel. What if you found out he was miserable, poor and obnoxious? Wouldn’t that invalidate his advice? (Of course he none of those things and the whole reason his advice is solid is because you can look at the results)_
Hypocrisy is one thing. But that’s not what I’m talking about. In the cases where the authors lived by their ideals, you should check to see if they WORKED.
Btw, my conclusion about Marcus is the same. Now it is backed by fact and perspective.
Do you think this is the best approach for someone who does not have a good “overall” knowledge of philosophy, history, economics, etc?
That is to say, if I have only so much time to read 20 books, would I be better off reading 20 books on a similar subject, to have a deeper understanding of the subject matter, or 20 books on less related subjects, to gain a broader perspective?
Based on my experience, I’m inclined to say the former, but then I start to think of all the areas of knowledge that I know nothing about and I wonder otherwise…
In college, when I found an author I liked, I pretty much went through his entire canon in about two weeks. I looked up biographies, looked at related works and even poked through a couple of literary analysis books if they were out there (ie. McCarthy or Walker Percy).
Thing is that these days, I don’t often have the time to go do that vertical integration-type thing. What I’ve learned to do is to either scrounge what I can from the Innernets, compose an e-mail and send it to three or four smart people and senior-citizens I’m in constant touch with, or put it up on a list of “Things to be done when free time opens up”.
The second option is simultaneously the most and least useful – because I may get a response that’s right on target or something with several tangents and interesting points that lead me down multiple other trails and away from what I originally wanted to know.
So this is the Freudian brain-child of Tucker? A causal flow of thought through his library, representing the foundation of his own? I always wondered how insane I’d become if I were to receive an incessant flow of mail from people totally misinterpreting my words…
Seriously though, this sounds like an amazing project to approach and actually categorize. I wish you patience.