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Category Archives: Stoicism

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Carnuntum: Where Marcus Aurelius Wrote The Meditations

by April 5, 2019

(Thanks to Landessammlungen Niederösterreich, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum for permission to use photographs of their exhibits.)

If thou would’st master care and pain,
Unfold this book and read and read again
Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see
The past, the present, and the days to be
With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief,
Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.

– Epigram found at the end of a Vatican manuscript of The Meditations and in the Anthologia Palatina.

Wandering Carnuntum – possibly passing over an area where Marcus Aurelius once stood

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept private notes of his philosophical reflections, which survive today.  We know them as The Meditations, although the earliest Greek manuscript bears the title Ta eis heauton or “To Himself”.  The Meditations has become one of the most widely-read spiritual self-help classics of all time.  The Prussian king Frederick the Great was a big fan, referring to Marcus Aurelius as his “exemplar” and his “hero”.  The English philosopher and nobleman Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, actually wrote his own version of The Meditations called The Philosophical Regimen.  The author John Steinbeck was a fan and mentions The Meditations in his novel East of Eden (1952).  More recently, former US President Bill Clinton named it as his favourite book and former US defense secretary General Mattis said it was the one book he’d advise every American to read.  Sir Alec Guinness depicted Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).  Richard Harris later played him in the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which inspired a new generation of readers to pick up The Meditations.  A script is currently in development for a sequel concerning the story of Marcus’ descendants, which may perhaps cause another wave of interest in Marcus Aurelius, his life, and his philosophical writings. 
However, we know frustratingly little about the origin of The Meditations.  There are a couple of intriguing notes, or headings, in the text which helpfully tell us where Marcus was writing.  Between books one and two are the words “Among the Quadi, at the Gran”, a tributary of the River Danube located on the enemy side of the frontier, almost a hundred miles east of Carnuntum.  Between books two and three it simply says “At Carnuntum”. Because of the odd position of these words in the manuscript, it’s not entirely clear to which books he’s referring. My belief is that the first location mentioned is where book one of The Meditations was written.  I suspect this was toward the end of the First Marcomannic War when he had crossed the Danube into the lands of the hostile Quadi and was negotiating peace with them.  This part of the book is sometimes believed to have been written last and added as a sort of preface. I think it’s likely the rest of The Meditations, book two onward, was written at Carnuntum by the banks of the Danube, the capital of the Roman province of Upper Pannonia.  
The Roman historian Cassius Dio confirms that Marcus “fought for a long time, almost his entire life, one might say,” with the tribes in the region of the Danube, both Marcomanni and Sarmatians, one after the other, “using Pannonia as his base”.  For much of the Marcomannic wars Marcus presumably stationed himself in upper and lower Pannonia, at the major Roman military camps in Carnuntum, Aquincum, and Sirmium. (Located on modern-day Austria, Hungary, and Serbia respectively.) The modern town of Petronell-Carnuntum in Austria is the location of the Carnuntum Archeological Park, consisting of three museums, several archeological sites, and detailed reconstructions of Roman buildings, including a functioning Roman bathhouse.  It extends over an area of 10 km². I visited the area recently to find out more about the setting in which The Meditations was written, in the lead up to the publication of my own book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

The Legionary Camp and Roman City of Carnuntum

The story of Carnuntum really begins with the fifteenth legion (Legio XV Appollinaris) founding a legionary fortress there in 40 AD.  Shortly after this it became the headquarters of the Pannonian fleet, which patrolled the Danube. The fourteenth legion (Legio XIV Gemina) were subsequently garrisoned there, adopting it as their permanent base.  Over the years a civilian settlement grew up beside the military camp, which had evolved into a major city, and become the capital of the province by the time of Marcus Aurelius.

Study and contemplation in an ancient place

The Roman city of Carnuntum had an estimated population of 50,000.  It thrived because it sat at the intersection of trade routes on the Roman frontier, by the banks of the Danube where the Amber Road crossed the river.  The huge army camp which sprawled beside the city had a legionary fortress at the centre where the provincial governor and presumably also the emperor resided.  It was of enormous strategic importance to the Roman military.
At the start of the First Marcomannic War, in the Spring of 170 AD, the Romans suffered a major defeat.  An invading army led by the Marcomanni, accompanied by allied tribes, reputedly slaughtered 20,000 Roman soldiers in what became known as The Battle of Carnuntum.  King Ballomar of the Marcomanni then led his army down the Amber Road, across the Alps, and through Italy until they reached the Roman city of Aquileia, which they besieged.  Eventually they were driven back by Marcus and his generals Pompeianus and Pertinax, who gradually succeeded in liberating Pannonia and the other provinces from the invading tribes.  It’s believed Marcus stationed himself at Carnuntum from around 171 to 173 AD. A funerary stele commemorating a member of the emperor’s praetorian guard has been unearthed there inscribed with the date 171 AD, proving that Marcus must have been in Carnuntum around that time.  Recent archeological evidence therefore lends support to the note in The Meditations where Marcus suggests that he wrote part of the text there.  

Carnuntum and the Symbolism of The Meditations

That heading is the only explicit references to Carnuntum in The Meditations.  Nevertheless, it’s tempting to relate some of Marcus’ remarks to the setting in which he appears to have been writing.  I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Marcus could easily have been describing his situation, stationed far from home on the front-line of the Marcomannic War in Pannonia, when he wrote to himself that “life is warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land” (2.17).  However, here and throughout the rest of The Meditations the things he sees and hears around him every day are elevated into philosophical metaphors about the meaning of life in general.

Statue of the Danube River God

For example, Marcus refers several times to the image of time as a river.  Like other Stoics, he was influenced by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who famously said “Everything changes and nothing remains still” and “You cannot step into the same river twice”.  Although the Heraclitean metaphor of time as a river flowing past was almost a cliche, it does acquire more resonance if we think of Marcus writing these words beside the Danube. The Romans personified the Danube in the form of a river god, a bearded middle-aged man, whose image appears on the Aurelian column at Rome and also in an exhibit at the Museum Carnuntinum.  The River Danube was of immense importance to the Romans and must have featured very prominently in Marcus’ life, commanding the troops along its banks.
It’s easy to imagine that he had the Danube in mind, therefore, when he describes Nature as “a rushing torrent”, which “carries all things in its stream” (9.29).  All bodies, he says, are swept through the substance of the whole “as through a winter torrent” (7.19).
Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too. (4.43)
At one point, speaking of the river as a metaphor for change, Marcus also brings to mind the little birds who can be heard in the trees and bushes along the banks of the Danube.
At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young. So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price? It is as though one began to lose one’s heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight. (6.15)
There are other references to animals that seem to evoke his surroundings at Carnuntum.  For instance, he says that someone who wishes for wicked people to do no wrong is asking the impossible, like wanting horses not to neigh, “or anything else that cannot be otherwise than it is” (12.16).  The sound of distant neighing would often have intruded on his meditations while stationed in the military camp at Carnuntum, I think, where thousands of horses were stabled nearby for the use of cavalry units, etc.

Architecture in Carnuntum

There’s surprisingly little reference to warfare in The Meditations, given that at least some of it appears to have been written at a major military camp during a prolonged war.  However, Marcus appears to mention having witnessed the gruesome sight of severed hands, feet, and heads lying at a distance from their bodies (8.34).  Perhaps he was describing the remains on a battlefield in the aftermath of combat. However, he uses it to illustrate the unnatural way in which someone alienates himself from the universe when he refuses to accept his fate, or from the rest of humankind when he acts in ways that are at odds with the common interest.  
There are two amphitheatres at Carnuntum, a military one at the legionary camp and a civilian one near the city, each with a gladiatorial school beside it.  We know Marcus wasn’t remotely interested in the gladiatorial games. Perhaps because of his Stoic philosophical values, he appears to have found the displays of violence both distasteful and monotonous.
Just as you are sickened by the displays in the amphitheatre and such places, because the same scenes are forever repeated and the monotony makes the spectacle irksome, so you should also feel about life as a whole; for all things, high and low, are ever the same and arise from the same. For how long, then? (6.46)
Indeed, Cassius Dio confirms that Marcus insisted that gladiators, at least at Rome, should fight with blunted weapons.

Carnuntum Museum

Marcus, indeed, was so averse to bloodshed that he even used to watch the gladiators in Rome contend, like athletes, without risking their lives; for he never gave any of them a sharp weapon, but they all fought with blunted weapons like foils furnished with buttons.
Nevertheless, Marcus felt obliged to attend the gladiatorial bouts at the amphitheatre because the public expected it of him.  He almost certainly, therefore, would have attended games at the amphitheatres in Carnuntum, albeit begrudgingly. Nevertheless, we can stroll among the ruins of those two amphitheatres today, contemplating the notion that we may be where Marcus Aurelius once sat reflecting on the principles of Stoic philosophy and trying to apply them to the everyday sights and sounds around him.
Donald Robertson is a cognitive psychotherapist and writer, living in Canada.  His new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius explores the ways in which events in Marcus’ life can be related to his philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Pain

by March 15, 2019

By Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, discusses strategies for coping with pain derived from the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.

The physical frailty of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was notorious, and of great concern to his subjects.  Around 174-175 AD, he was in such poor health that false rumours that he was dying, or already dead, actually spread throughout the empire. These were taken seriously enough for his most senior general in the eastern provinces, Avidius Cassius, to have himself acclaimed emperor, leading to a short-lived civil war in which Marcus and his loyalist army were victorious.

We know that Marcus suffered from chronic chest and stomach pains, problems sleeping, and poor appetite, among other symptoms. While it’s not clear what illness he suffered from, modern scholars have speculated he may have been describing the symptoms of stomach ulcers, among other things. Curiously, the historian Cassius Dio praises Marcus Aurelius for the remarkable physical resilience that he showed despite being “extremely frail in body”.


Bust of Marcus Aurelius

To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance.
He concludes his account of Marcus’ reign as follows:
He did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.
Indeed, Marcus lived to be nearly sixty, at a time when war or plague claimed many of his contemporaries at a younger age. For example, his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, despite being a stronger, fitter man, dropped dead aged thirty-eight, and Marcus’ son Commodus was assassinated at thirty-one.

Bust of Seneca, a Stoic philosopher.

So how is it possible that Marcus Aurelius could both be renowned for poor health and yet praised for his endurance?  We can find an answer in his personal notes practicing Stoic philosophy, The Meditations, where he refers many times to psychological strategies for coping with pain and illness.
Stoic philosophy had a sophisticated repertoire of psychological therapy techniques at its disposal. Indeed, it was the inspiration for modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which first appeared in the 1950s. CBT is currently the dominant evidence-based form of psychotherapy, and provides some surprisingly robust techniques for coping psychologically with chronic pain and illness.
However, one of the best illustrations of the basic Stoic approach to pain actually comes from an early 20th century psychotherapist called Paul Dubois. Dubois used to assign his patients homework that involved reading the letters of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. One day when Dubois was explaining to a young patient how Stoic philosophy could help him cope better with illness, the man interrupted, saying: “I understand, doctor; let me show you.”
And taking a pencil he drew a large black spot on a piece of paper. “This,” said he, “is the disease, in its most general sense, the physical trouble – rheumatism, toothache, what you will – moral trouble, sadness, discouragement, melancholy.
“If I acknowledge it by fixing my attention upon it, I already trace a circle to the periphery of the black spot, and it has become larger. If I affirm it with acerbity the spot is increased by a new circle. There I am, busied with my pain, hunting for means to get rid of it, and the spot only becomes larger.
“If I preoccupy myself with it, if I fear the consequences, if I see the future gloomily, I have doubled or trebled the original spot.” And, showing me the central point of the circle, the trouble reduced to its simplest expression, he said with a smile, “Should I not have done better to leave it as it was?”

Image of Epictetus, another Stoic philosopher.

Dubois adds:
“One exaggerates, imagines, anticipates affliction,” wrote Seneca. For a long time, I have told my discouraged patients and have repeated to myself, “Do not let us build a second storey to our sorrow by being sorry for our sorrow.”
He says this diagram illustrates the Stoic doctrine that “He who knows how to suffer suffers less.” The burden of physical pain or illness is lightened when we are able to look at it objectively, without drawing concentric circles around it and multiplying our suffering by adding layers of fear.
Here is a rough outline of some of the key Stoic psychological techniques that Marcus describes using to cope with his own chronic pain and illness:
  1. Carefully distinguish what’s directly under your control from what isn’t. This is really the basis of the Stoic approach. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” That became the basis of the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Marcus likewise tells himself, “It is necessary that those who wish to follow Nature and be of one mind with her should also adopt a neutral attitude” toward things like pain and illness, by accepting the sensations and focusing instead on their own response to suffering (9.1).

Stoic philosophy inspired the serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous.

  1. Compare the consequences of struggling versus acceptance. The Stoics liked to say that it’s not really pain that’s our problem but rather the fear of pain. Struggling against things we can’t change can add to our emotional suffering. They want us to learn a healthy and rational attitude of acceptance instead. Of course, if there are practical steps that could potentially help your condition then take them. However, Marcus reminds himself, in vivid terms, of the futility of struggling against suffering that is beyond our direct control: “Imagine every man who is grieved at anything or discontented to be like a pig which is sacrificed and kicks and screams” (10.28). We commonly intensify our emotional suffering by struggling against events in futile ways and growing frustrated with life.
  1. Remember that it’s not events that upset us but our judgements about them. This ancient Stoic doctrine became the fundamental premise of modern cognitive therapy. Pain and illness are unpleasant but you add another layer of suffering when you allow yourself to indulge too much in negative thinking about your condition. We can learn a great deal from those admirable individuals who are able to view physical illness more constructively.  Marcus says that we should remember that unpleasant physical sensations, such as pain, are natural and inevitable in life, but that our conscious mind should not, “add to the sensation the opinion that it is either good or bad” (5.26).
  2. Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. (4.7)

  1. Practice letting go of the inner struggle and actively accepting painful sensations. The Stoics compared life to a dog tied to a moving cart. If the dog tries to struggle and resist it will be pulled along roughly by the cart anyway. However, if it chooses to run behind at the same speed as the cart, things will go smoothly. If we struggle against unpleasant experiences such as pain and try to resist them or become frustrated or resentful toward them then we often just make our lives worse.

Practice letting go of the inner struggle…

  1. Contemplate how others cope well with pain and illness and model their attitude and behavior. Marcus must have seen countless examples of others coping with pain and illness throughout his life during the plague and wars that afflicted the empire. Some people cope with such adversity better than others, of course. The Stoics advise us to learn from the example of those who face adversity with wisdom and courage, and emulate their behavior.
    Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear. The same things happen to another person, and either because he does not notice that they have happened, or because he wants to show off his strength of character, he is firm and remains unharmed. (5.18)

    One of the Stoics’ favorite strategies is to ask what virtue, or resource, nature has given us to cope with a challenge such as facing chronic pain or illness. Contemplating the example set by others is one way of reminding ourselves of potential strengths and coping resources that we already possess.


If you want to learn more about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and how techniques from Stoicism can help you to deal with bad habits, manage anger, overcome worry and anxiety, cope with pain and illness, and even come to terms with your own mortality, check out How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Anger

by February 22, 2019

By Donald Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, discusses strategies for coping with anger derived from the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was renowned for his ability to remain calm in the face of provocation. On one such occasion, a notoriously hot-tempered, and extremely wealthy, aristocrat called Herodes Atticus lost his temper with Marcus, who was presiding over a legal dispute between him and the citizens of Athens. Herodes did the unthinkable and lunged at the emperor as though he intended to strike him. The praetorian prefect guarding the emperor, instinctively reached for his sword. He would have cut Herodes down in an instant but Marcus quickly signaled him to step back. The emperor rose from his chair completely unfazed and said only “My good fellow, an old man fears little”, before declaring the hearing adjourned. He meant, perhaps, that having come to terms with his own mortality he wasn’t easily flustered by threatening behavior.
We can surmise that Marcus’ lifelong training in Stoicism contributed to his remarkable composure in tense situations like this. Indeed, we know that as a young man he struggled to control his temper because he tells us so at the beginning of The Meditations, the private record of his reflections on Stoic philosophy. Marcus says that he frequently became angry with his beloved Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, and was grateful that he never lost control and did something that he would have regretted. Marcus had probably heard the notorious story about his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Hadrian, who once flew into a rage and stabbed some poor slave in the eye with the point of a metal stylus. When Hadrian finally calmed down and came to his senses he apologized for this horrific act and asked the man if there was anything he could do to make amends. The slave, however, said that all he wanted was his eye back. That was something even an emperor couldn’t grant him. Although our anger may sometimes be fleeting, the harm done by it can nevertheless be permanent.
Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Indeed, the Stoics described anger as temporary madness. It’s perhaps no surprise therefore to find Marcus returning to psychological strategies for managing anger over and over again throughout The Meditations. At one point, though, he actually provides a list that he describes as ten “gifts from Apollo”, the god of healing, and his Muses (11.18). All of these are arguably still relevant today. Indeed, some of them resemble techniques used in modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anger management. When you’re offended by someone else’s actions, he says, consider the following…

1. We are naturally social animals designed to help one another.
The Stoics believed that humans naturally form communities and have deep-seated social instincts. We should always bear in mind that we’re adapted to work together for mutual benefit rather than conflict and destruction. Elsewhere, in one of the most famous passages of The Meditations, Marcus tells himself to prepare each morning for the day ahead by imagining all sorts of encounters with troublesome individuals while reminding himself “Neither can I be angry with my kinsman nor hate him for we have come into being for cooperation” (2.1).

Marcus Aurelius on Horseback

2. Consider their character as a whole.
Marcus thinks we should imagine the person with whom we’re feeling angry in different situations – eating meals, sleeping, relieving themselves, having sex, etc. We should particularly bear in mind how their opinions and values shape their behavior throughout the day. When we broaden our perspective beyond the behavior that’s annoying us, we tend to dilute our feelings of anger. We also understand their actions better by placing them in a wider context, and to understand all is to forgive all.

3. Nobody does wrong willingly.
This is one of the central paradoxes of Socrates’ philosophy, which greatly influenced the Stoics. Socrates believed that no-one does wrong knowingly. It arguably follows from this that nobody does wrong willingly either. This ancient principle of moral psychology is hard for many people to accept but it’s the basis of Stoic forgiveness and empathy, and a key part of their remedy for anger. Marcus notes that everyone is offended when accused of wrongdoing. Even murderous dictators typically believe that their actions are justified, though they may seem morally egregious to everyone else.

Murderous Dictators

Even murderous dictators typically believe that their actions are justified

4. Nobody is perfect, yourself included.
It’s hypocrisy to criticize others without recognizing your own imperfections – a double standard. Marcus actually said that when you notice yourself becoming angry with another person you should take it as a signal to pause and examine whether or not you’re guilty of similar, wrong-headed thoughts or actions. Acknowledging our own flaws, and bearing them in mind, can moderate the anger we feel towards others.

5. You can never be certain of other people’s motives.
Marcus had studied jurisprudence and acted as a judge in many legal disputes. He therefore knew very well how difficult it can be to know another person’s intentions. Anger, however, assumes an unwarranted certainty. Keeping an open mind, by contrast, will help weaken these feelings so that we can deal with the situation more calmly and rationally.

As the old saying goes, ‘best to walk in a mile in their shoes’

6. Remember we all will die.
The Stoics like to remind themselves that all things are transient, nothing lasts forever, including our own lives and those of the people with whom we’re angry. Before long both of you will be dead and the whole thing long forgotten. When we think about the bigger picture, it doesn’t seem worth getting very flustered about other people’s actions.

7. It’s our own judgement that upsets us.
This is perhaps the most famous doctrine of Stoic psychology. It became the philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive psychotherapy, which is based on the principle that our emotions are determined to a large extent by our underlying beliefs (cognitions). Marcus reminds himself that it’s not really the actions of others that make him feel angry but his own opinions about them, more specifically, opinions that are based upon negative value judgements. Noticing this fact alone can weaken the hold that strong emotions have on our mind but it should also encourage us to examine our beliefs and question whether there might be more healthy and constructive perspectives that we could adopt concerning the same situation.

8. Anger does us more harm than good.
This was another very common Stoic technique. Other people’s actions might harm us physically, damage our property, or our reputation. However, anger injures our own moral character. According to the Stoics, therefore, it hurts us much more deeply than another person’s actions ever could. Anger does us more harm, in other words, than the things we’re angry about. Focusing on the negative consequences of our anger can help motivate us to let it go.

Anger does us more harm than the things we’re angry about…

9. Nature gave us the virtues to deal with anger.
The Stoics frequently reminded themselves to contemplate how a wise person, such as Socrates, would deal with challenging people or events, and what strengths or virtues he might employ in specific situations. We all have inner resources that can be used to deal more constructively with difficult people, such as the capacity for patience, tolerance, empathy, and kindness. Reminding ourselves of these positive qualities and contemplating how they could be applied, can help us find an alternative to anger, and a better way of coping.

10. It’s madness to expect others to be perfect.
The Stoics were determinists who believed that the wise are seldom shocked because they view whatever happens in life as inevitable. There’s good and bad in the world. Marcus tells himself that “to expect bad people not to do bad things is madness because that is wishing for the impossible.” It’s therefore irrational to act surprised but when we’re angry we say things like “I can’t believe someone would do that!” Marcus thinks that’s naive and foolish. When someone acts in a way that’s objectionable we should tell ourselves that is to be expected from time to time. It’s just a part of life. Acting less shocked makes it easier to respond calmly and rationally to events that might otherwise make us feel enraged and offended.

It really does seem that Marcus dedicated himself to practicing psychological techniques like these every day. It’s easy to see how they could have helped him overcome the quick temper of his youth and transform himself into the embodiment of Stoic equanimity that he reputedly became. There are no accounts of him losing his temper despite the enormous challenges he faced throughout his reign. Instead, we’re told that he earned a reputation among Roman citizens for having been an exceptionally wise and gentle ruler.
If you want to learn more about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and how techniques from Stoicism can help you to deal with bad habits, manage anger, overcome worry and anxiety, cope with pain and illness, and even come to terms with your own mortality, check out How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.

The Spirituality Of Seneca

by December 22, 2018

Seneca Before we go any further, you really ought to click here and read the thing so you have a grasp on what we are talking about.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.

You back? Good! That wasn’t so bad. So, where to start?
Perhaps it is important to note that Stoicism as a philosophy taught, above all else, that we ought to live according to nature. It is this sentiment more than anything else that is the goal of any Stoic follower. And it is this notion that has been repeated again and again, from Zeno to Seneca to Marcus Aurelius. 
But what do we mean by “nature?” We see that Seneca makes reference to altars built upon the sources of great rivers. He recounts how men have worshipped hot geysers and describes with great admiration the power of nature in creating mountain caverns. Seneca tells us that if we were to truly examine nature in all its glory, we would be stirred by religious awe.

And so we see that Seneca is likening the idea of nature to an imposing sort of spirituality. This is perhaps unsurprising because as far as the Stoics were concerned, nature was not only related to God, it was synonymous. 

Seneca the younger
We also must understand that the Stoic tenant “live according to nature” not only refers to the divine nature within the universe, but it suggests that we ought to live according to our true human nature, which Seneca believed to be a potentiality for absolute reason.

A Stoic soul would be one that views the hardships and superficial trivialities of modern society with an aloof detachment. Gazing upon the world and all its desires and fear with absolute indifference. And in this way we see that the Stoic’s soul can be elevated above those who would reject wisdom.
“If you see a man undaunted in danger, untouched by passion, happy in adversity, calm in the raging storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, will you not be moved by veneration?” -Seneca (God Within Man)
Additionally, Seneca tells us that too often we concern ourselves with what we own rather than what we are. It is foolish, stupid even, to praise a man for what he owns. His house, his money, his possessions are merely things around him. They are not within him, they are around him. And so they are not him in any meaningful way. It matters not whether you are a king or a peasant, for it is your inner self, not your possessions, that represents who you really are.
And so, this radiantly perfect being would remain unfettered by danger, unconcerned with passion, and supremely content when faced with adversity. It is from this idea of resigned detachment that we get our modern understanding of the word “stoic.”
Seneca tells us that if we were ever to encounter such an imposing soul, we would be moved to awe and wonder just as we are when we gaze upon a vast ocean or pristine forrest. How can it be that such a grand and lofty spirt be contained within something as fragile as a human body?
Just as the radiance of the sun warms the earth, but originates from a heavenly source, so to does a Stoic soul exist among us, but is prompted by a divine force.
“A soul which is of superior stature and well governed, which deflates the imposing by passing it by and laughs at all our fears and prayers, is impelled by a celestial force. So great a thing cannot stand without a buttress of divinity.” -Seneca (God Within Man)

To further his case, Seneca compares lions submitted to lionthe arena. The first lion is one that has been trained and worn down so as to submit to grooming and pampering.
It enters the arena tame and unimpressive. Then there is another lion who enters the arena whose spirit is unbroken, his mane untrimmed, and his ferocity unfettered.

How very impressive would the second lion be when compared to the quiet and worn down animal? His ferocity would be both terrifying and awe inspiring. As Seneca puts it, “The terror he inspires is the essence of his attraction.”
Seneca means to tell us that it is a far more impressive thing to remain true to your nature, rather than to be beaten down and made tame by superficial desires or trivial fears.
However, it is important that we remember that the nature of a lion and the nature of a human being are very different. A lion is no more a lion than when he is wild and fierce, but a man must remain true to his nature, which is a potentiality for reason.
And so to conclude Seneca’s argument, the perfection of nature is synonymous with God. The potentiality for reason within mankind is also a part of nature and therefore is, at least partially, a part of God. And so we see that God exists within all of mankind.
Seneca concludes his letter by noting that while it would seem obvious that we ought to attain wisdom for the sake of self-betterment, the realities of society often make it difficult.
“General derangement makes this difficult; we shove one another into vice. and how can people be recalled to safety when there is a crowd pushing them and nobody to hold them back?” -Seneca (God Within Man)

Marcus Aurelius
This final sentiment was most likely mentioned as a way of reflecting on the difficulties that the Stoics encountered when attempting to implement their philosophy within society.

Unlike other, earlier philosophies like Cyrenaic Hedonisor Epicureanism  that focused on ethical fulfillment for the individual, Stoicism endeavored to achieve nothing short of a societal revolution.
It would become quite clear, starting within the age of Hellenistic Greece and into the early days of the Roman Empire, that such a revolution would never occur. The Stoics would settle for attempting to teach influential figures their philosophy in hopes that philosophical perfection within an emperor would permeate, even slightly, to the citizens of a society.
Such an endeavor was undertaken with varying success. Marcus Aurelius being the obvious example of a truly Stoic leader while Nero, who was educated by Seneca himself, is often pointed to as a man with whom Stoicism simply didn’t take. 
All this aside, Seneca’s God Within Man remains one of the best illustrations of the cosmology and ethics that was so dearly cherished by the Stoic philosophers. Concise and unambiguous, God Within Man is Seneca at his philosophical best. And it would be in your best interest to really consider what is said.

Seneca and “On The Shortness of Life”

by November 24, 2014

Okay, so we are going to be talking about some pretty heavy stuff today. For starters, we are going to examine the looming prospect of our inevitable demise, our inability to picture time as a limited resource, and our unhealthy obsession with frittering our years away enthralled to our labors.
SenecaSeneca the younger, who is the author of On the Shortness of Life is not one of those philosophers to tackle insubstantial questions. As a stoic, he was committed to nothing short of a societal revolution that would see people abandon their superficial ways and embrace the tenents of stoicism not merely as food for thought, but as a viable way of life.
The problem with societal revolutions is that they can be kind of hard. It is likely then that the stoics, who were nothing if not flexible, decided that the best way to endow stoicism upon the Roman population would be to supplant the philosophy within the minds of Rome’s most notable figures.
It is possible that it was this thought that prompted Seneca to take a position as the tutor, and later an advisor, to a young Emperor Nero. Seneca wrote extensively to the young emperor, attempting to spur him in the direction of philosophy and away from political demagoguery.
Now I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but let’s just all agree that it didn’t really work out. Nero has been called a lot of things, but a “thoughtful, philosophical leader” was never one of them.
But now I am getting away from the subject at hand. We were talking about Seneca’s letter known as On the Shortness of Life or De Brevitate Vitae. The letter is addressed to Seneca’s friend, Paulinus who held the rather important position of supervisor of Rome’s grain supply.
As I mentioned, Seneca touches on a few topics that, at the very least, might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. For starters, Seneca tells us that most people refuse to accept the prospect of death and that we waste our lives on useless endeavors as a way to blind ourselves from the inevitable.
And so I thought it might be a good idea if we started with a joke instead, preferably one about the unavoidable darkness that awaits us all.
A priest stands before his congregation and warns them of the brevity of life and the suddenness of death. He declares to them all, “Before this day is done someone in this very parish might be dead!”
A little old woman in the front row stands up and shouts “Ha!”
“What is so funny?”, asks the priest.
“Well” said the old woman, “I’m not a member of this parish!”

Now that joke is from the book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Them Pearly Gates, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, and it accentuates one point very well.

Seneca bust
Most of us, if not all of us, do not accept that we are going to die. Oh sure, we can come to grips with the notion of death in a quasi-objective, 21st century-rationalist sort of way. We have empirically concluded that everybody from Sinatra to Seneca was once alive and now they are dead, so it logically follows that we will die as well.

However, we usually don’t KNOW that we will die. We don’t always BELIEVE that we will die with the same conviction that we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow or that our favorite sports teams will be forever cast into obscurity. Seneca tells us as much when he writes…

“You live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

Seneca argues that we fall into this delusion of believing that we shall live forever. We treat every day as if there would assuredly be another to follow. We view time as if it were an unlimited resource rather than a restricted commodity.
Seneca continues by telling us that we not only refuse to accept our limited time, but that we waste away what little time we do possess. The philosopher declares that we shackle ourselves to our labors, our professions.
Whether we are laborers or emperors, we willingly give parts of ourselves to others or to the faceless masses. And at the end of our days, we might drop dead while calling on a customer or arguing before a court. We will die as if we were children, never having learned how to live.

“How seldom you have enjoyed full use of yourself, how seldom your face wore an in artificial expression, how seldom your mind was unflurried, what accomplishments you have to show for so long a life, how much of your life has been pilfered by others without your being aware of it, how much of it you have lost, how much was dispensed on groundless regret, foolish gladness, greedy desire, polite society-and then realize that your death will be premature.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

In short, Seneca is telling us that we don’t want to be the kind of guy who dies, and upon his gravestone it is written “He always filed his expense reports”.
AugustusAs if to accentuate this point, Seneca begins to speak of Emperor Augusts who was deified by the Roman population, but who would be burdened by the responsibilities of his post. Seneca tells us that Augusts longed for the leisure that might come with old age, and that it was this thought alone that gave solace to his labors.
We then might be sorrowful to think of Augusts on his deathbed and that his final words were “Did I play the part well? Then applaud as I exit”, as if his life were a role he played for the benefit of the audience.
Seneca continues that even Cicero, who is remembered for posterity as one of Rome’s greatest politicians and orators, declares in a letter to his friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus that he feels as if he were “half a prisoner” while lounging in his Tuscan estate.
Perhaps it is because he was so entangled within his duties, so burdened by his commitments and authority, that even while in leisure Cicero felt as if he were a prisoner. And that, at least according to Seneca, is no way to live.
Okay, so we haven’t been discussing the most pleasant topics. So far Seneca has reminded us that we are all going to die and then he accused us of wasting our mortal life on professional endeavors.
So what should we be doing?! Give me a sign, Seneca! I want to live, Clarence!
Well, Seneca is, after all, a stoic philosopher at heart. So he tells us that the way we can learn to truly live is to, obviously, study philosophy! Seneca states rather bluntly that “The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live.”

“Only men who make Zeno and Pythagoras and Democritus and the other high priests of liberal studies their daily familiars, who cultivate Aristotle and Theophrastus, can properly be said to be engaged in the duties of life.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

It is important to remember that philosophy during the time of Seneca was not part of a structured course curriculum at a university. Seneca is not telling us that, if we want to learn to live, then we ought to go enroll in philosophy 101 at our local college.
Instead, we must realize that “philosophy”, at least according to Seneca, was a very conscious and deliberate pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. It is only by endeavoring to uncover true wisdom that we are properly engaged in the duties of life.
This sort of sentiment is to be expected, especially when we remember that Seneca was a stoic philosopher. The Stoics taught that we ought to live according to nature, that humans ought to live according to our human nature. And it is our ability to learn and become wise that is most natural and most pleasant within our lifetime.

“There is nothing that the lapse of time does not dilapidate and exterminate. but the dedications of philosophy are impregnable; age cannot erase their memory or diminish their force.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

I do have a small objection to this whole pursue-philosophy-or-you-are-not-really-living thing. Keep in mind that the person Seneca is addressing this letter to is responsible for managing the entirety of Rome’s public grain supply. Arguably, this man is the one chiefly responsible for ensuring that citizens are fed and that starvation and famine don’t run wild through the city.

Seneca drawing
And yet, here Seneca is arguing that being shackled to such responsibilities is no way to live ones life. If I had a family to feed back then, I would have been none too happy to hear that Seneca was attempting to incite an existential crisis within the man responsible for feeding an entire society!

Try to imagine if the entire IRS or the FDA collectively through up their hands and said “Screw this stuff, I’m going to go learn philosophy!” Yeah, you bet their would be some consequences.
Still, the heart of Seneca’s message is one I can support. And if you are looking for a bottom line, then here it is- we ought not to fear death, but accept it as an inevitable conclusion to life. Live every day as if it were your last, because it might just be.
Remember to put aside the expense reports and shut your computer every once in a while (a piece of advice that I have a hard time following) and take some time to live, really live your life.
We ought not to languish about our lot in life, but rather take time to cultivate our inner selves. And when we die, and die we will, we should die content with our lives, with ourselves, and with the beauty of our souls.

Living Stress-Free And Stoically

by September 15, 2014

Feeling stressed? Well, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Last year the American Psychological Association conducted a survey of levels of self-reported stress amongst adults in the United States. The results were, unsurprisingly, not so great.
XXXSeventy eight percent of adults surveyed reported that their levels of stress have either increased or remained about the same over the past five years. Sixty one percent of adults say that managing stress is very important, however only 35 percent say they are doing a good job of managing stress. The top reasons people feel stressed were concerns over money, work, and the economy.

If you are looking for advice on the economy, money, bulls, bears, and the global market, then you came to the wrong place. You really ought to go talk to our friends over at The Diary of a Rogue Economist for that sort of thing.
Our business is classical literature and finding ways to live better through an understanding of ancient wisdom.

Let’s move on. Shall we?
Okay, okay, so people are stressed, what’s a philosopher to do? Drink another Red Bull and just power through? Well, you could do that, but let’s find a method that won’t cause inevitable heart failure.
Stoicism! Now that’s the ticket.
What is Stoicism? How did it come about? What are the ins and outs of this complex philosophy? Where did I put my cup of coffee? These are the types of questions that I often ask myself whenever I sit down to write on a topic of philosophy.
And while we could spend hours and hours going over the specifics of Stoicism, I think too much information at once can often lead to an undue amount of stress. That would, obviously, defeat the purpose of our whole investigation.
So let’s settle for an abridged definition of Stoicism and then we will go right into a few stoic lessons that you can apply to your every day life to become just a little less anxious.

What Is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a brand of philosophy that focuses almost exclusively on the areas of ethics, virtues, and the very difficult task of living a good life. Stoicism as a way of life would originate in Greece, as most philosophy does, in the later years of the Hellenistic age and would gain momentum right up to the height of the Roman Empire.

The founder was Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher who began his lecturing days not long after the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE. While Zeno was the founder of the Stoicism, he is often eclipsed by some of the more prolific stoic authors of the Roman empire. Among these are Epictetus, Seneca the younger, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism taught, above all else, that we ought to live according to nature. They believed that there was a great design to the universe and that nature was the highest form of perfection. Nothing inconsequential happens within the world, everything is, in one way or another, part of some perfectly constructed plan.
Additionally, living according to nature means that we ought to live according to our human nature. What is our human nature? Well, it is our ability to think rationally and our need to pursue wisdom and understanding. We will be supremely happy when we are living according to our human nature. All other things we might find, wealth and money for instance, will never truly make us live a good life.
Sound good so far? Of course it does. So if you want to live stress free and stoically, you might want to follow these simple rules.

Rule #1 Recognize that which you have control over

Do you want to know who is very good at living a stoic life? Recovering alcoholics have this down pat. If you have ever spent time around recovering alcoholics or, like me, ever worked in a facility for addiction treatment, then you have probably heard the following phrase:
God grand me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
What is interesting about that expression, is that it almost perfectly summarizes our first rule of living a stress free, stoic life. The first thing we have to do is recognize what we have control over and what we do not.
Let’s say you are stuck in traffic, the cars are stacked one on top of the other for miles. Now, you could very easily become disheartened by such a situation. Perhaps the stress could get to you and you could start tearing out your hair. But now let’s ask another question.
XXXDo you really have any control over the traffic?
Of course you do not. There is nothing in your power that you can do. You cannot split the traffic as if you were Moses splitting the Red Sea. You cannot fly out your window and escape I 95. We must recognize that the situation is out of our hands, there is nothing to be done.
We can apply this principle to all sorts of things. Whenever you are in a stressful situation, we must ask if we have any meaningful control. The answer, very often, is no.
We, as individuals, can no more meaningfully effect the economy or world affairs any more than we can effect the rotation of the earth. Believe me, I have friends who are brokers in New York City. They tell me the same thing.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus said as much as this within his Discourses. The philosopher suggests that much of our anxiety stems from our desire to have things that are not within our power to give.

“A lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power.” -Epictetus (Discourses)

So we are often wracked by anxiety when encountering situations whose outcome we cannot control. Will we ever escape the gridlock heading north out of Miami? Will the lute player receive an applause after playing the lute?
We don’t know. More importantly, we can’t know. All we can do is manage our reactions and maintain our stoic demeanor. Oh, and we could just try to play the lute as best we can. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen.
Rule #2 Recognize real problems from imaginary problems.
Taking another tip from Epictetus, we know that…

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems” -Epictetus

“But what if…” is a rather popular statement for the more anxious among us. “But what if…” give us an excuse to worry over problems that have not arisen yet. It gives us an excuse to stress.

When we consider problems that are very real, that are happening here and now, what do we really have? Perhaps there are actual concerns, but more often than not they are simply concerns of what MIGHT happen rather than what IS happening.

Recovering alcoholics, once again, learn this lesson one way or the other. What is truly a problem for us right now? We might be homeless tomorrow, but we aren’t today. We might not have a penny to our name next week, but for now we are doing alright. All we really have is right now, and right now we are doing okay.
A man in recovery once told me…
I realized eventually that I was just creating problems to get drunk off of. I don’t know where my children are. That will be a problem one day, but it isn’t right now. Even if I could find my children, I wouldn’t know what to say. I would run.
I don’t have any money. But that isn’t a problem right now because I have a roof over my head, a meal on my plate, and I can always get cigarettes. I might be lost and alone tomorrow, but I’m not today.”
So if you want to live stoically, and apparently you do, then you really ought to consider which of your problems are real and which are inventions of an overly anxious mind.
Rule #3 Learn what you can live without
What do you really need? Have you ever thought about that? Insofar as you are a human being, what do you need? Are you more successful as a rational individual if you have a flat screen television? Are you more noble or glorious as a person if there is a Mercedes Benz in your drive way?
In the course of Discourses, Epictetus comments on how he finds it strange that we continue to attach ourselves to more and more things, even when these things very often bring us misery.

“But now when it is in our power to look after one thing [our minds/ rational soul], and to attach ourselves to it, we prefer to look after many things, and to be bound to many things, to the body and to property, and to brother and to friend, and to child and to slave. Since, then, we are bound to many things, we are depressed by them and dragged down.” -Epictetus

Living stoically is not easy. It asks us to surrender many of our desires; chief among these are our desires for luxury and wealth. While we may want these things, our desire for them very often lead to disappointment and sadness. We continuously look toward what we want and refuse to recognize that which we already have.
A philosophy professor explained this idea to me in the following way…

“If you are the type of person who just won’t be happy until you are a millionaire and spend every night partying at Playboy mansion, then you are bound to be disappointed. The Stoics would tell you to wake up! Recognize the good things you already have and set some reasonable goals for yourself.”

Put more succinctly by Marcus Aurelius…

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” -Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)

Rule #4 Cultivate your inner self
Okay, so this has been a rather difficult process for some of us. All we have done so far is talk about things that we should stop doing. Stop worrying about things that are beyond our control. Stop creating problems that may happen in the future. Stop creating unnecessary desires that you think will make you happy.
So what can we actually do?
XXXWell, the Stoics would tell you that you ought to cultivate the one thing that you actually do have control over, your inner self. When it comes right down to it you are not in control over the economy, the world, or even your body. You are, however, in control of the state of your mind and your soul.
If we are most human when we are actively pursuing knowledge or understanding, then we will also be happiest while performing these tasks. Who you are, the only part of you that is of any real consequence, is your inner self. It is the part of you that comes to understand virtue through doing virtuous acts, wisdom through pursing true understanding.
The Stoics believed that a peasant could be happy so long as he was a sage, but a king would be miserable unless he was also a sage. And while the king might have more markers in the game of life, more cards up his sleeve, what is of real importance is how you play, not if you win or not.
And I know that some of these rules are rather difficult for us. It is not an easy thing to let go all of our desires, our woes, our fears just because some philosophers thousands of years ago said that the universe had a plan for us.
Believe me, I know.
Still, if you could follow even one of these rules within your daily life, I think you might find that you become just a little less anxious. And you might soon be on your way to living a stress-free, stoic existence.