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Category Archives: Stoicism

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Can Marcus Really Help?

by October 8, 2020

Marcus Aurelius is a pop icon. Well, almost
Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely a fan of this up and coming trend. I like to think of him as a gateway drug to philosophy and the classics.
I’m also not one of ‘those’ classics lovers who only like obscure references and lesser known historical figures. Just because Marcus Aurelius is popular, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something to contribute. In fact, I think he is enjoying success for the very reason that he is so relevant, despite being basically a king who died over 1800 years ago.
I know some ask, how can a Roman emperor be helpful to us in the here and now? What does his life have to do with ours?
Well, more than you might first imagine.
It’s actually something that cognitive psychotherapist and one of our keynote speakers at Classical Wisdom’s Inaugural Symposium, Donald Robertson, explains eloquently in his widely successful book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
As many of you know, Marcus Aurelius was the final famous Stoic philosopher of the ancient world and The Meditations, his personal journal, survives to this day as one of the most loved self-help and spiritual classics of all time.
Marcus Real

Modern super realistic depiction of Marcus Aurelius from https://cesaresderoma.com/

In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson weaves the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius together seamlessly to provide a compelling modern-day guide to the Stoic wisdom followed by countless individuals throughout the centuries as a path to achieving greater fulfillment and emotional resilience.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor takes readers on a transformative journey along with Marcus, following his progress from a young noble at the court of Hadrian―taken under the wing of some of the finest philosophers of his day―through to his reign as emperor of Rome at the height of its power.
An impressive feat, of course… but what does his life have to do with us, you may ask?
Robertson does an excellent job in showing just how Marcus used philosophical doctrines and therapeutic practices to build emotional resilience and endure tremendous adversity…. He goes even further to guide readers by applying the same methods to their own lives.
Combining remarkable stories from Marcus’s life with insights from modern psychology and the enduring wisdom of his philosophy, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor puts a human face on Stoicism and offers a timeless and essential guide to handling the ethical and psychological challenges we face today.
And let’s be honest… we could all use a bit more emotional resilience these days!
You can also watch Donald speak LIVE at the Classical Wisdom’s Online Symposium, taking place October 24-25.
Donald Robertson will be speaking LIVE at our Classical Wisdom Symposium both in his own presentation on Politics and Anger in Marcus Aurelius and on the panel discussion: What power does the individual have in Politics?
Make sure to check out all the details of our Symposium below!

How to Deal with Change: Advice from the Stoics

by September 4, 2020

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
‘’You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength’’ ~ Marcus Aurelius
Are you finding yourself struggling with both expected and unexpected changes in your life? Change is common to the human experience, and no one understood this better than the ancient stoics.
Stoicism was a philosophy that spread throughout ancient Greece and Rome from the 3rd Century BC and was popular among all classes of society for around 400 years.  The three most prominent stoics of the time were Seneca the Younger, a playwright and empirical advisor; Epictetus, who rose from slave to teacher; and last but certainly not least, Marcus Aurelius ‘The Philosopher Emperor’ who ruled Rome between 161-180CE.
The stoics were no strangers to unwelcome change. Stoics had their fair share of opponents and more than once found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Emperor Nero particularly opposed the Stoic thinkers, despite the fact that he was once a student of Seneca. Those that Nero did not sentence to death were banished from Rome, where they further developed Stoic philosophy in exile.
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca, by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez.

During his exile in Corsica, Seneca wrote that his change in circumstance was not at all that bad. Seneca believed that change is nothing but a change of place, mentally or physically. And you will often find people in the same place of their own free will.
According to Stoic Philosophy, it is a state of mind, rather than circumstance, that creates the true challenges and adversities associated with change.
Common resistance to change
The problem with change is that most of the time, we like things the way they are. Even if your life is not a comfortable one, most people prefer to stick with the ‘Devil They Know’ than to venture out into the great unknown.
It is tempting to cling to daily rituals. Having systems and routines in place provides a sense of security. We are not taught to see the growth that can be had in change, instead, we are told to try to get things ‘back to normal’ as closely and as quickly as possible.
Seneca

The Death of Seneca, Simon Francios Ravenet I , 1768.

The Stoics knew that without change, none of us would exist. The universe itself had to undergo several stages of change before Life itself could be allowed to exist. Marcus Aurelius wrote that ‘Change is natures delight’ meaning that change is actually woven into the universe. We humans are built for change and embracing new challenges is an opportunity for growth and development.
“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.” ~ Meditations, Book VII.18
Most of the fear around change is that we often fear that change is bad. Seneca once wrote, ”We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Most often it is our thoughts, rather than the change itself, that is the source of our resistance to change.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

As humans, we have a tendency to run scenarios through our heads before the event itself actually happens. This is great for preplanning and strategy, however, we run into problems when our minds automatically run through the ‘worst-case’ scenarios that may or may not actually happen.
Most fears around change come from our in-built aversion to suffering and our tendency to over-plan for suffering avoidance.  Suffering and change are often linked – or at least we perceive that they are always linked. But don’t worry, the stoics have a remedy for that too!
Change and Suffering
The relationship between change and suffering is often described in two phases. Firstly, that we suffer in our anticipation of change and the shift away from our routine or the anticipation of loss (e.g., a loved one, a job, a home).
The second phase is the reaction to a change that has already happened. It is about coming to terms with a loss (person or circumstance) and the anticipation of finding balance or carving a new path for ourselves out of the chaos.
aurelius on horse

Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.

The stoics overcome this by reminding themselves about how relatively small and unimportant we are as individuals. Sounds harsh and counterintuitive right? Yes. But when you consider the grand tapestry that is life and universe, our part is rather small.
“Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt.” ~ Meditations, Book IX.30
This is what today’s society refers to as the ‘Ego check’. In other words, who are we to expect to go through life without any changes or challenges?
Epictetus advises that we play fate at its own game. Instead of resisting and battling change (which is a waste of time if the change has already occurred), we should learn to embrace change and make an opportunity out of adversity.
This is easier said than done of course, but you’ll find that working this mindset into your daily life will make the process of change run a whole lot smoother.
Epictetus

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch.

Improving your relationship with change
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters’’ ~ Epictetus
The bottom line, according to the stoics, is that the best way to deal with change is to try to change your mindset. Happiness depends more on values than the current state in which you reside.
Of course, basic needs must be met such as food and shelter, but the Stoics argue that change itself is not able to deprive you of the ability to endure.
Change has changed people for the better. It was exile from Sinope that lead Diogenes of Sinope to Athens where he went on to become one of the founders of the Cynic School of Philosophy. Had he remained in Sinope he likely would have continued his life as a banker and his name would have disappeared into obscurity.
No matter the circumstance brought about by change, your place in nature and your virtues still remain. Even in the most challenging of times, true friends will not refuse to associate with you and change does not stop you from associating with new people. In other words, the change may come as a pleasant surprise, if you keep an eye out for silver linings.

How to Eat Like a Stoic: The Ancient Diets of Cynicism and Stoicism

by April 22, 2020

Donald J. Robertson, Writer and Cognitive-behavioural Psychotherapist, author of “The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy”

The Early Stoic and Cynic Diet

Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school, had for many years been a Cynic philosopher. “Zeno”, we’re told, “thought it best to avoid gourmet food, and he was adamant about this.” He believed that once we get used to eating fancy meals we spoil our appetites and start to crave things that are expensive or difficult to obtain, losing the ability to properly enjoy simple, natural food and drink.

Eating with Attention and Moderation

Musonius also thought we should train ourselves to avoid gluttony:

Recipe for Stoic Soup

In Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece, Eugenia Ricotti describes the following recipe called “Zeno’s Lentil Soup”. It’s a modern recipe loosely based upon ancient sources, including remarks attributed to Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoic philosophy, which are found in the Deipnosophistae (or “Dinner Experts”) of Athenaeus of Naucratis.

[First seen on Medium.com]

Dale Carnegie and the Stoics: How to Handle Financial Worries

by April 15, 2020

Written by Alex Barrientos, Senior Editor, Classical Wisdom
In his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie recommends 11 rules to follow in order to lessen our financial worries. Most of the rules are purely financial:
Rule No. 3: Learn how to spend wisely.
Rule No. 4: Don’t increase your headaches with your income.
Rule No. 5: Try to build credit, in the event you must borrow.
Rule No. 10: Don’t gamble—ever!
These rules are in many ways still relevant and helpful. However, what caught my attention most was the 11th rule:

Rule No. 11: If we can’t possibly improve our financial situation, let’s be good to ourselves and stop resenting what can’t be changed.

Carnegie

Dale Carnegie. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

This rule, perhaps unsurprisingly, has its roots in—you guessed it—Stoic philosophy! I say perhaps unsurprisingly because, when it comes to learning how to stop worrying, the Stoics are the heavyweight champions of putting our lives in perspective.
Carnegie begins explaining rule 11 by writing,
“If we can’t possibly improve our financial situation, maybe we can improve our mental attitude toward it.”
The Stoics, as you might know, thought this approach to be the best approach to life in general. As Epictetus began his Enchiridion,
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

Artistic impression of Epictetus

While there are certain aspects of one’s financial situation that are within one’s control, there are certainly many aspects that are not. And recognizing when we are in a financial situation that leaves us without the possibility of improving it through our own means, all we can do is focus on what is within our power—that is, our mental attitude toward the situation.
Yet, even people who are doing well with their finances face an issue: wanting more. Constantly wanting more is a recipe for unhappiness and distress. After all, as Carnegie puts it,
“We may be worried because we can’t keep up with Joneses; but the Joneses are probably worried because they can’t keep up with the Ritzes; and the Ritzes are worried because they can’t keep up with the Vanderbilts.”
In other words, the same people you want to have as much as—the same people you financially envy—want to have as much as someone else, and so on. And though one may climb this endless ladder, thinking greater wealth awaits them, all they will really encounter is the highest form of poverty. This is something the Stoics knew quite well:
“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” ~ Seneca, Letter II
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca by Domínguez Sánchez, Manuel

And I’m not just inferring the Stoic connection here! Carnegie makes it explicit himself:
“If we can’t have all we want, let’s not poison our days with worry and resentment. Let’s be good to ourselves. Let’s be philosophical.”
Be philosophical… what did he mean by that? He meant what the Stoics meant by it. As Carnegie continues,
“And philosophy, according to Epictetus, boils down to this: ‘The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.’ Here is what Seneca said about it: ‘If you have what seems to you to be insufficient, then you will be miserable even if you possess the world.’”
From Epictetus we are reminded that happiness shouldn’t be tied to external things, and from Seneca we are reminded that to be unsatisfied with what we already have, is to be unsatisfied with whatever we might come to obtain.
But Carnegie drives the point home even further, in a way that I had never thought of before:
“And let’s remember that even if we owned the world with a hog-tight fence around it, we could eat only three meals a day and sleep in one bed at a time—even a ditch digger can do that; and he will probably eat with more gusto and sleep more peacefully than Rockefeller.”
Carnegie

Photograph of Dale Carnegie doing his NBC show, ‘How to Win Friends and and Influence People,’ January 25, 1938. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Carnegie notes that to have more things in your possession is not to have more happiness. This is because happiness is not tied to external things, and simply having more stuff won’t make you happy if you weren’t happy with what you already had.
In fact, as his example illustrates, one who has learned to be happy with little will likely lead a more tranquil life than one who is unhappy with a lot; the ditch digger will probably sleep better at night than the Rockefeller.
I know many of us right now might be going through tough times, financially speaking and otherwise. I hope reading this helps. I hope that it also doesn’t offend. It’s certainly not intended as a, “Just get over it!”, type of article.
There is no “just getting over it” for something like this, but there are healthier and unhealthier ways to handle certain situations. I’m inclined to think that Carnegie and the Stoics are right here: that when something is no longer in our control, all that’s left to do is to focus on what is. It might not be the most comforting answer, but it might just be the one we need to hear.

How Stoicism Cured My Depression

by March 10, 2020

Written by Pete Lewis, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Long ago and far away, laws of physics sent an asteroid hurtling through space. It collided with a planet in its equally predetermined orbit.
That is how the theory goes.
Neither the asteroid nor the planet is at fault for wiping out the dinosaurs. It was a purely natural event. Some might even say that it was almost destined to occur, due to the chain reactions that govern the universe.
As with physics, so it can be with personalities.
A person crashes into the life of another, rocking their world and wiping out some of their ‘dinosaurs’: the things that seem biggest and most powerful in their life, including happiness. Neither of the people is purely at fault: they just happen to cross paths and – given their individual natures and circumstances – something has to give; maybe it was always going to happen.
Fates

Gottfried Schadow, Fates Sculpture (1790). The three Fates spinning the web of human destiny, part of the tombstone for Count Alexander von der Mark; in the Old National Gallery, Berlin (Cr: Andreas Praefcke).

It took four years to arrive at that interpretation of what I call ‘people paths’ that may be as unavoidable as natural celestial events. That might sound a bit fatalistic, but it does help to cope with emotional trauma following such an event.
In 2014, I was diagnosed with severe depression. For four years, I was prescribed many kinds of medication and remedial therapy, including counseling and CBT (twice). CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) only worked in the short term and I believe that is because it could be fundamentally flawed. The last thing a person with depression needs is to focus their attention on the supposed causes of depression. It ultimately made it worse, for me…!
However, as it had been somewhat successful in the short term, twice, I began thinking that there must be something to it. Thus, I started researching and came upon Stoic Philosophy, which is – apparently – the theoretical basis of CBT.
Aaron Beck

Aaron Temkin Beck (born July 18, 1921), is the American psychiatrist widely regarded as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

*NOTE: I do not recommend that anyone should do what I did next.
I am no Astro-physicist, Doctor or Philosopher but I could clearly recognise the benefits of a practical philosophy, from the very first time I read about Stoicism. Within days, against my doctor’s advice, I had stopped taking medication and was reading as much as I could find online about the ancient Stoic wisdom.
Support and healthcare workers could not believe how rapidly and profoundly I was changing for the better. The seismic shift in my core beliefs are what brought that initial change about – and it all began with “Some things are within our control and some things are beyond our control”; the basis of Stoic philosophy.
Seeing the world in that new perspective, I realised that I cannot change how other people sometimes collide with my life…but I can control my response and stop it from destroying me.

Artistic impression of Epictetus.

That was two years ago and I have not looked back since. I have had no medication, either for depression or for any of the psychosomatic disorders that accompanied it. Within two days of being medication free, I remember looking out of my bedroom window one morning and seeing features that I had not noticed before; it was a wonderful experience.
Around that time, I was sitting upstairs in a bus, traveling to an appointment with a support worker. What happened then was a momentous occasion for me because it was the first time since being diagnosed with depression that I found myself thinking of a future, instead of dwelling on my past. I suddenly realised that – in that moment – my long, dark day was over.
I met the support worker and the first thing I said went something like this…
“You know what, I’ve just been thinking to myself; it would be good if I could do something that I would do for nothing and still get paid for it”. She suggested that I should start coaching, using my lived experience of depression – and how I was dealing with it – to help others.
Seneca

Baroque marble imaginary portrait bust of Seneca, by an anonymous sculptor of the 17th century. Museo del Prado.

Thus, I went home and devised a plan.
I wrote a short course. The course is called Positive Poetry. It begins with a basic description of Stoic fundamentals and then relates it to poetry. The poetry aspect introduces mnemonics, making the learning easier and longer lasting. It is designed to complement professional healthcare, not be a substitute for it. I plan to write more short courses in the future. First, however, I must get the fledgling venture – Zeno Coaching – up and running.
Oh! As for the depression? Well, it now seems like it was long ago and far away!

Having a Healthy Debate: Three Tips from Marcus Aurelius

by November 27, 2019

Written by Alex Barrientos, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
As a Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius faced many instances of adversity, not only from the Germanic tribes to the north, but from his generals and members of the Roman Senate as well.
So it is no surprise to find in his Meditations various reflections on how a rational person—the type of person the Stoic strives to be—must react to disagreements with others.
Though no one reading this is an emperor, we face disagreements everyday with our family, friends, and even strangers on social media. There’s no avoiding that (not that you have to argue with people on social media, but it will be difficult to avoid seeing things posted on there by family and friends that you don’t agree with!).
What we can try to avoid, however, is having these disagreements in an unhealthy manner, and in a way thats gets us nowhere.
Marcus Bust

Bust of Marcus Aurelius.

One could spend a lifetime learning from the wisdom contained in the Meditations (I know I plan on it!).
Yet, I’ve taken up the much smaller task of providing you with just three pieces of advice from Marcus Aurelius that will, hopefully, allow you to begin having healthier, more productive debates.
1. Being open to change

If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. Book VI, 21

The first thing is to begin any debate or argument with a devotion to truth. You must say to yourself, “It’s the truth I’m after.” With the truth as your aim, you’re prepared to see where someone might be wrong, where you might be wrong, or where you both might be wrong. 
And, of course, sometimes there may be no “Truth” with a capital “T” to the issue in question, in which case the intellectually honest thing to do is to simply say, “I don’t know.” Being able to say those three words is not something everyone has the humility and honesty to do, but it is required more often than not, given how nuanced the world is. 
Equestrian statue

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

The next thing is to keep in mind that “the truth never harmed anyone.” Now, you might say, doesn’t it often hurt to hear the truth? Yes, it definitely can hurt!
But Marcus is working within the Socratic framework which holds that the truth, however painful (in Plato’s analogy of the cave, the truth is portrayed as the sun, which pains the eyes of the man who has lived his life in the shadows of ignorance), is a good in itself worthy of striving after. 
Whatever seems “harmful” or painful about the truth, in reality is good, whereas the only true harm comes from persisting in “self-deceit and ignorance.” 
Once you’ve devoted yourself to the truth, and recognized that true harm only comes from persisting in one’s own ignorance, then you’ll be open to change, which is a prerequisite for any healthy debate. 
First english translation

First English translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; 1634.

2. Be patient : 

The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t. Book VI, 47

So, great, now you’re open to change. But your interlocutor isn’t. What do you do? 
Well, it should not be a shock to learn that most people aren’t open to changing their minds. Reading any Facebook thread serves as a great example of how futile it can often be to try to change someone else’s mind, no matter how many facts or sources you provide that back up your own view. 
In fact, sometimes, simply showing someone that they’re wrong can make them more zealous about their beliefs! 
This doesn’t mean you should just give up. There is definitely some amount of discerning you must do when deciding who to get into an argument with. If they’re not devoted to the truth, you might be best off to leave it alone. After all, if you’re going to play chess with someone, there’s not much of a point in playing someone who has no interest in playing by the same rules as you. 
Cicero

Cicero attacks Catilina at the Roman Senate, from a 19th-century fresco.

However, if you do choose to debate this person, you must do so with patience.
Sure, it might be frustrating. But weren’t you, at some point, resistant to change, ignorant of the facts regarding some issue or other, or in a situation where you felt your beliefs threatened and so clinged to them tighter? 
If you’ve devoted yourself to truth, then all that you need to be concerned with is your own disposition, living “life out truthfully and rightly.” Regarding those who haven’t done so, be patient. 
As Marcus writes later on, People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. Book VIII, 59

3. Be kind, humble, and consistent

Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy. Book VIII, 5

“Be a good human being”: simple enough, right? Well, not quite. 
When someone you love is espousing views you detest, it can be easy to get angry, to lose your place, and to forget what nature demands of you. That is, it can be easy to forget your duties as a rational creature. 
aurelius on horse

Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.

Now, perhaps speaking “the truth as you see it” doesn’t sound too difficult. But it’s how you do it that’s important. 
You must speak it with kindness. No one wants to hear what you think if you say it with disdain or contempt. When you speak with kindness you separate yourself from those who speak with anger or hatred, and you let the truth of what you have to say stand out more. 
You must speak it with humility. People are more likely to be receptive to what you have to say when you speak your mind acknowledging that you could be wrong, that you are open to changing what you believe if good evidence or reasons are provided. 
You must speak it without hypocrisy. Be consistent, apply the same standard to yourself that you do to others. Don’t get angry with someone who is being stubborn about changing their mind, when you’ve been stubborn in the past yourself. If you would have wanted someone to be understanding and patient with you then, be understanding and patient with others now. 

Marcus Aurelius and myself, taken at the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Some concluding reflections
These are just some of the many bits of advice Marcus Aurelius has to offer us when it comes to dealing with our fellow human beings in a healthy and productive way.
Those familiar with the Meditations will know that what I have listed above is a mere fraction of what Marcus had to say.
Yet, I think you’ll agree that it is very helpful advice.
Whether it’s your family, a friend, or a stranger on social media, the words of Marcus Aurelius can guide you to having healthier and more productive debates.
You’re not always going to win everyone over. You’re not gonna change everyone’s mind. Nor should that be your goal, since sometimes it is your own mind in need of changing.
The point is to try to get closer to the truth, or to realize how far away from it you are.
At least, that was what the great minds of the classical world hoped to do.