Interview: Tom Butler-Bowdon on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m Tom Butler-Bowdon, author of the “50 Classics” books (Hachette) which look at the key writings in self-help, motivation, spirituality, psychology, and philosophy.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

Tom Butler-BowdonI first learned about Stoicism, as many people do, through The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The edition I had was one of the tiny Penguin 60s. At the time I didn’t realise it was only a few extracts from The Meditations, not the whole text, but it still blew me away.

At the time I was writing a book called 50 Self-Help Classics, about the key texts in the personal development genre. Naturally I looked at titles like How To Win Friends and Influence People, and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, but I was also looking around for older wisdom. This pulled me towards Marcus Aurelius. Later, it was interesting to see Marcus depicted in the film Gladiator.

It just amazed me that a Roman emperor could have this kind of philosophical insight. But the more I learned about Stoicism, from other books and authors, I could see that Marcus Aurelius was simply a great exponent of a whole body of thought.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

I see a lot of similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism, and one of the key ones is the emphasis on impermanence. Stoics, and some schools of Buddhism, like to focus on death, knowing it brings some clarity about our purpose while alive. It stops us from getting too prideful, or obsessed with wealth, fame or glory, or take ourselves too seriously. We know these things are so ephemeral. There’s a passage I love from The Meditations:

Expressions that were once current have gone out of use nowadays. Names, too, that were virtually household words are virtually archaisms today. All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as to the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer’s words, they are ‘lost to sight alike and hearsay’. What, after all, is immortal fame? An empty, hollow thing. To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

As well as that one just mentioned, I love this one:

Love nothing but that which comes to you woven in the pattern of your destiny. For what could more aptly fit your needs.

Marcus Aurelius’ reign was a difficult one. He was constantly at war with Germanic tribes to try to protect Rome, and had to deal with all the usual intrigues and crises that came with being Emperor. Yet he did not shirk from his role. This line also reminds me of the existentialist view of Jean-Paul Sartre. Whatever happens to you, even if it is finding yourself in a war, don’t resist it. Because it is happening, it is yours. Own it, and make the most of it.

Today it’s fashionable to say that “everyone has a purpose”, and to “pursue your dream”, but this pursuit is not always easy or fun. My reading of Stoicism is that it is not so much about looking for happiness, but being sure your life is meaningful. Duty is a big part of that. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

Everything – a horse, a vine – is created for some duty. This is nothing to wonder at: even the sun-god himself will tell you, ‘This is a work I am here to do,’ and so will all the other sky-dwellers. For what task, then, were you yourself created? For pleasure? Can such a thought be tolerated?

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Just start reading The Meditations, or Seneca, or one of the other Stoics. Writing honestly and simply was part of the Stoic ethos, in contrast to the sometimes complex and flowery rhetoric of the classical world. This means that Stoic books are very accessible and easy to read today.

When you’re reading The Meditations, it doesn’t seem possible that Marcus Aurelius was sitting by a campfire penning it close to 2,000 years ago. Humans have not changed much in that time. We are still social, emotional animals that seek to live by higher moral standards.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

This technique is more from Epictetus than Marcus I believe, but I learned it from Massimo Pigliucci’s How To Be A Stoic. It’s called “dichotomy of control”, and simply means that some things are up to us, and other things are not. All we can do is focus on what we can actually do, and resign ourselves to the unfolding of everything else. The result is that we will waste less mental energy worrying, projecting, and fearing, and are able to focus on the task at hand.

To create the future, we have to accept reality fully in the present, and not be too swayed by emotion and circumstances. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest.

In short, don’t get caught up in trivia or pettiness; appreciate your life within a larger context.

Tom Butler-Bowdon

Tom Butler-BowdonTom is the author of eight books including 50 Economics Classics (2017), 50 Psychology Classics (2017, second edition), and 50 Philosophy Classics (2013). His 50 Classics series has sold over 400,000 copies and is in 23 languages. Tom’s ninth book, 50 Business Classics, was published in 2018.

Bringing important ideas to a wider audience, the 50 Classics concept is based on the idea that every subject or genre will contain at least 50 books that encapsulate its knowledge and wisdom. By creating a list of those landmark titles, then providing commentaries that note the key themes and assess the importance of each work, readers learn about valuable books they may not have discovered, and save a lot of time and money. Tom’s work began in the personal development and success fields with his bestselling titles 50 Self-Help Classics and 50 Success Classics. Second editions of these titles were published in 2017.

Tom is a graduate of the London School of Economics (International Political Economy) and the University of Sydney (Government and History). He lives in Oxford.

Website: www.Butler-Bowdon.com
Twitter: @tombutlerbowdon

 

Interview with Gregory Lopez about Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Greg LopezI’m on the Modern Stoicism team, founder of the NYC Stoics, co-founder of The Stoic Fellowship, co-facilitator of Stoic Camp NY, and was co-organizer of Stoicon 2016, where I presented a workshop on Stoic versus Buddhist mindfulness and wrote an article for Stoicism Today on the topic. I also presented at Stoicon-x Toronto 2017 on the whys and hows of starting your own Stoic community.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I’ve always had an interest in philosophy, but somehow missed the Hellenistic period during my studies. I volunteered for, and ultimately became president of, SMART Recovery NYC. There, I was trained in aspects of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy and discovered that its founder, Albert Ellis, was heavily influenced by Stoicism. I decided to fill the gap in my philosophical knowledge, and discovered online communities, like the New Stoa (now The Stoic Registry) and The International Stoic Forum that were attempting to practice this philosophy in the modern world. Given the lack of in-person meetings about Stoicism at the time, I decided to start one in New York City to help myself and others learn more about Stoicism and how it could be applied in the modern world.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

That keeping your own Meditations-style journal is a powerful Stoic technique. It can be easy to slip into the mindset that Marcus is speaking to you as a reader in The Meditations. But if you keep in mind that it was his personal diary, the techniques he was using there, and why he was writing what he was writing, become more apparent. Framing The Meditations in this way can unveil Stoic techniques that Marcus was using, and that you can attempt to mimic. Marcus’ entries follow several patterns, including reminding himself of basic Stoic theory, arguing with himself, and reframing situations. If you carry your own journal or writing app around with you, you can do the same and see how it works out!

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

I find “Let no act be done without a purpose” (Meditations, 4.2) is useful to keep at hand.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

In terms of books, my favorite overall intro to Marcus and The Meditations is currently William O. Stephens’ Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed. It gives a solid biography of Marcus along with a useful analysis of themes within The Meditations. After having taken your online course on Marcus, I suspect that your upcoming How to Think Like a Roman Emperor will be very worthwhile, too. But since it’s not out yet and I haven’t read it, that’s not a kataleptic impression, so I’ll withhold judgement. 😉

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Stoic community is very important for practicing Stoics in my view. If you’re looking for an in-person Stoic community in your area, or want to start your own, check out The Stoic Fellowship. We’ll also help you throw your own Stoicon-x if you want a homegrown Stoic conference near you! Or, if you like supporting Stoic things, sign up to volunteer or throw a few tax-deductible bucks our way.

Also, if you’re in New York City, feel free to check out the NYC Stoics.

In addition, I’ll be at Stoicon 2018 in London on September 29th giving a (hopefully practical) workshop on prolepseis, or “preconceptions”. This is a core concept in Stoic psychology, and a major theme in Epictetus’ Three Disciplines, but it doesn’t get much press. If Epictetus is to be believed, though, the misapplication of preconceptions is at the core of all human ills, so it’s kind of a big deal!

Finally, Massimo Pigliucci and I are co-writing a book tentatively entitled A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control—52 Week-by-Week Lessons. It’s expected to be released in Spring 2019 by The Experiment.

Interview: Justin Vacula on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Justin VaculaI’m Justin Vacula, host of the Stoic Solutions Podcast where I offer practical wisdom for everyday life focusing on topics including gratitude, acceptance, overcoming adversity, finding meaning in life, moderation, dealing with change, friendship, loneliness, and anger.

Podcast guests include counselors, academics, authors, mixed martial artists, and musicians. I currently serve as counselor-in-training intern working with elementary school students in a community and school-based behavioral health program while pursuing my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I found Stoicism through the Rationally Speaking Podcast formerly co-hosted by Massimo Pigliucci and the Thinking Poker Podcast hosted by Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis. Andrew and Nate spoke of Stoicism as a tool to improve one’s mental fortitude at and away from Poker tables following encountering many adverse events in Poker. I stated to read Epictetus’ Discourses, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic and began applying Stoicism to my life.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus’ work continually touches on themes of acceptance – that things we view as misfortunes in life, negative experiences, are inevitable and should not lead us to despair. We can question our impressions, our opinions about happenings in the world, and work to change our mindset to not be consumed by intense negative emotions. We can see death as a part of change in life and be grateful for having been born making the most of the precious time we have. We can recognize many situations, death included, in which we lack a large degree of control, and be content with outcomes focusing on what we have power over. Rather than overly blaming ourselves, lamenting the state of the universe, or being resentful, we can work to come to peace with the world seeing a larger picture including positive happenings in our lives.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

Marcus encourages us to take action in the world, to be an active participant in our lives and society not squandering the time we have on a day-to-day basis – “have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm?” We can rise to face challenges in our lives to better ourselves and the world around us – learning, growing, working toward self-mastery, and enthusiastically taking on roles performing to the best of our ability finding purpose in what we do rather than viewing our lives as miserable toil.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Stoic Solutions PodcastI would encourage people to take a critical evaluation of their own lives and discover areas in which they can find improvement. Identify goals and work toward a modest plan of making progress. Examine your thoughts and see if they are productive or self-defeating. Progress is possible especially when considering areas of life where you can shine – particular skills where you can experience joy and accomplishment.

Interview: Walter J. Matweychuk on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Walter J. MatweychukI am a clinical psychologist and work at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice psychotherapy and train psychologists to do psychotherapy. I teach, at New York University, a graduate-level course on cognitive behavior therapy. I author books on this therapy and maintain a website REBTDoctor.com aimed at disseminating this useful philosophy and psychotherapy. I also am a consultant on a project with the United States Navy where we are teaching rational thinking and problem-solving skills to enlisted personnel. What all these roles have in common is I teach people how to help themselves and others to cope with adversity.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I practice a form of psychotherapy known as Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). It is the original form of cognitive behavior therapy. Dr. Albert Ellis, a famous psychologist now deceased, created REBT. I studied with Ellis for many years. He based REBT on ancient and modern philosophy and behavior therapy. REBT heavily borrows from Stoicism. I am always looking to improve my effectiveness as a psychotherapist and communicator of REBT. I assumed that by studying the underlying ancient philosophy upon which Ellis built REBT, I could deepen my understanding of it, better communicate its core ideas and perhaps enhance my clinical effectiveness.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I integrate quotes from Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius into my REBT sessions. Stoicism mixes nicely with REBT, and the aim of using these quotes is to induce a philosophical shift that helps the patient cope with the adversity that originally leads them to seek psychotherapy. I also use these same quotes to assist me in coping with the adversities I face and to develop my character and lead a meaningful life.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

To prepare ourselves in advance for adversity, especially adversity caused by others. To expect it to happen so as not to be thrown by it. To see that when obstructed by others, we can more effectively address the challenge by not disturbing ourselves about what has happened. Marcus teaches that humans largely hurt ourselves. I agree. We hurt ourselves largely by the attitudes we choose to hold towards what others do to us. Marcus reminds us to remember that people do bad things largely out of ignorance or emotional disturbance not because they are bad people. I believe this about people. Seeing people as flawed, ignorant and emotionally disturbed makes sense to me. I then go on to remind myself that I too am a flawed human. With this mindset, I work to control and improve my behavior and also resist what people do so that I can accomplish my goals. In so doing I try very hard to work with people as opposed to work against them. I try to accept people and not condemn them, although I may very much dislike what they are doing. Not condemning people as people allows me to avoid self-defeating anger and to deal with them constructively. Aurelius also helps me to see and remember that I live in a social world and it is important that I try to get people to work with each other rather than against each other. As I see it, people too easily work against each other. He helps me maintain the perspective that it is good and natural to see ourselves as part of a whole, not isolated individuals. With all this said, I try to keep other people’s interests a close second to my interests.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

There is great value in holding ourselves responsible for our emotional reaction to other people rather blaming them for our reaction. Others may obstruct us, but we hurt ourselves about what they do. We control our emotional destiny regardless of what others do or fail to do. When we master this simple idea, we liberate ourselves.

Do you have a favorite quote from The Meditations?

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Take your online course on Marcus Aurelius and read the Meditations.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

I believe people are well advised to study both Stoicism and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. They complement each other nicely because Ellis crafted REBT from Stoic ideas and sentiment. Stoicism is a wonderful philosophy, but REBT can be more accessible, at least initially. Use both tools. To this end go to my website REBTDoctor.com and watch my free audios and videos and learn about REBT and how to put it to use in your life. Register for my Intermittent Reinforcement emails, and you will receive on an intermittent basis useful emails on how to deepen your understanding of REBT and how to use it to cope with adversity and change your unwanted behaviors. If you are a mental health practitioner, coach, or philosophical counselor, consider reading my book Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – A Newcomer’s Guide. It will teach you how to use REBT in your counseling and coaching work with others. Finally, I will be doing a workshop at Stoicon 2018 in London which I have titled “Stoic and Rational Thinking in an Irrational World.” I plan to show how both Stoicism and REBT and be used in today’s challenging world and to facilitate a lively discussion with those who attend!

Interview: Jules Evans on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Jules EvansI’m a British writer, author of Philosophy for Life (2012) and The Art of Losing Control (2017), and one of the original organizers of Modern Stoicism.

I’ve done Stoic-themed workshops with lots of audiences, including Saracens rugby club, who I’ve worked with for the last four seasons.

I blog at www.philosophyforlife.org

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

I got into Stoicism via Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helped me when I suffered from PTSD and social anxiety in my early 20s. CBT reminded me of Marcus Aurelius, who I had read as a teenager. I went to interview the founders of CBT, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, and heard how they had been directly inspired by Stoicism. Then I started to interview contemporary Stoics, writing up the interviews for an online magazine called the Stoic Registry. Through that, I helped organize the first gathering of Stoics – in San Diego, in 2010.

I also met Donald during that time – we must have met in, like, 2010 or something. We were researching along similar lines, both very inspired by Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. Anyway, I wrote up my stories of modern Stoics in the book Philosophy for Life in 2012, and then in 2013 the Modern Stoicism project started and Stoicism really started to revive. I don’t consider myself a card-carrying Stoic, but I still think it’s an incredibly helpful and wise philosophy with some excellent methods for transforming the self.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

I guess two things. First, how our emotions come from our opinions or perspective. And second, to remind oneself of the limit of one’s control over the universe, and focus on our own moral agency. It’s fascinating how Marcus constantly reminds himself that he’s not a God, he can’t control the universe – unlike his predecessor, Caligula, who declared war on the sea and made his soldiers attack it!

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

Our mind becomes dyed with the colour of our habitual thoughts.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Well, read the Meditations or Epictetus’ Discourses. They’re very accessible. Find a modern translation. And then, try a modern intro to Stoicism like those by Donald or me!

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Philosophy for LifeI’d like to speak up for an eclectic approach to Greek wisdom – that’s my approach. I don’t think Stoicism has to be an ‘all or nothing’ philosophy. I find some of its insights into the mind and reality deeply wise, but other philosophical approaches are also very helpful for me, particularly Buddhism at the moment. I think Stoicism can sometimes lead to an overly self-reliant and overly-rationalist approach to life. We’re flawed humans with messy emotions and that’s OK – it’s better to admit that rather than pretending to be some super-rational sage.

I find Buddhist loving-kindness meditation is a good supplement to Stoicism, so one practices being kind and gentle to oneself and others. How kind was Marcus? I feel he related to other beings with a sense of fastidious duty, but I don’t get a sense he was a tremendously warm person, do you? Maybe that’s what his son Commodus felt!

Interview with Massimo Pigliucci about Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am the K.D. Irani professor of philosophy at the City College of New York. My background is in evolutionary biology and philosophy of science, and my professional interests include the logical structure of evolutionary theory and the nature of pseudoscience.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

Funny thing. I was going through a bit of a midlife crisis a few years ago, as well as doing my PhD in philosophy. Had figured out that virtue ethics was in the right ballpark of what I needed, but neither Aristotle nor Epicurus clicked with me. Then one day I saw this on my Twitter feed: “Help us celebrate Stoic Week!” And I thought, who on earth wants to celebrate Stoic week, and why? But I signed up, and the rest is history, as they say…

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

Massimo PigliucciThat even the most powerful man in the world can benefit from philosophical reflection, although of course just doing so does not make him a sage. Reading the Meditations one gets the palpable impression that Marcus was a man honestly trying to do his best with the incredibly onerous task he had assumed. And it’s clear he got comfort from his philosophy, from reflecting on Heraclitus and Epictetus, among others. But, understandably, he was also a man incapable of escaping the constraints of his own culture (e.g., he couldn’t conceive of questioning the institution of slavery), as well as a fallible man (e.g., though there are, as you know, attenuating circumstances, the choice of Commodus as his successor wasn’t exactly the most brilliant move of his life). That’s why we common folks, almost two millennia later, can relate to him. He is thoughtful, and human. As we all aspire to be.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

Yes: “Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (II.1) It has so much wrapped in it! (Especially if you look up the full quote.) It is a realistic assessment of life and people. And yet a compassionate one. It is humble, and eminently reasonable. It kind of embeds, for me, the very best of Stoic philosophy.

How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

I use Stoicism at work and in life in general. I find basic Stoics precepts, and pithy phrases to remind me of them, incredibly useful to navigate the small and sometimes big problems of life. I get less angry at people by telling myself “it seems so to him”; I keep in mind that my plans might need to be changed because of contingencies by saying “fate permitting”; and I try to steer away from damaging thoughts by repeating (usually internally) “you are just an impression, and not at all the thing you portray to be.” Reading the Stoics and studying their philosophy has also changed my priorities in life and at work, making me focus on what is really important, as well as prompting me to question whether something is, in fact, important. I spend more time with my best friends, because friendship is crucial to cultivate one’s virtue and become better people. It is no exaggeration to say that Stoicism has changed my life since I started studying and practicing it.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

Write your own philosophical diary, which is, in an important sense, what the entire Meditations is. While one can extract several other exercises from the text (see here), I found that writing an evening journal of reflection is helping me immensely in being more attentive to what I do and why, and in trying to do better the next time around. And after all, since sages are as rare as the mythical Phoenix, doing better is really all we can strive for.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

How to be a StoicYou mean other than downloading your book, which has been waiting on my queue for a few weeks? On Marcus specifically, I really like William Stephens’ Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury). It has a nice structure, which includes a look at Marcus’ life and time, an in-depth discussion of its main influences (the above mentioned Heraclitus and Epictetus), but also an informative analysis of the main philosophical themes of the Meditations. Turns out, Marcus was a pretty decent philosopher in his own right, and Stephens manages to actually reconstruct some of the formal arguments scattered throughout the Meditations, and which may not be apparent to the casual reader.

In terms of Stoicism more broadly, I’d say to get hold of a good translation of the three major authors. I suggest Robin Hard’s version of Epictetus’ Discourses, Enchiridion, and Fragments (Oxford Classics), Hard’s version of the Meditations (also Oxford Classics), and the recent complete series of Seneca put out by University of Chicago Press (seven books, including the tragedies and the Natural Questions, though someone interested in Stoicism as an ethical philosophy might do without these latter).For modern texts, I’d say your Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (the first book I read on modern Stoicism!), for the advanced students Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism, and – if I may – my own How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

I would also suggest to join or get started a local group of practitioners, perhaps using the meetup.com platform, and making sure to use the resources of the Stoic Fellowship. Finally, your Stoicism Facebook Group is a great, and very large, virtual community. But as you know, it’s not for the faint of heart: while one can find excellent advice and support, there is more than the occasional troll or snarky commenter. Then again, I guess that’s one way to practice Stoic patience and endurance…

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Well, I have already plugged my book above. My informal writings on Stoicism can be found at howtobeastoic.org, but I’m especially happy with my recently launched mini-podcast, Stoic Meditations (13 platforms so far). At last count it had 500,000 downloads, which I’m frankly astounded by. Each episode lasts about two minutes, and is basically a short meditation, based on a quote from Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, or Marcus, which I then explain and elaborate upon.


Massimo is the author of How to be a Stoic.  You can read many articles on his blog and website, and his new podcast.

Interview: Chuck Chakrapani on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Chuck ChakrapaniI am a psychologist by education and a data scientist by profession. I have also been a long-term, inconsistent Stoic practitioner of no particular distinction or significance.

I’m reluctant to call myself a Stoic for two reasons: One, I feel it’s presumptuous on my part to claim such a lofty title. Two, I feel labels discourage crossing boundaries and hamper free thinking. It is really interesting to note that the beloved Stoic Marcus Aurelius does not refer to himself as a Stoic. As the Stoic scholar Brad Inman (2018) points out, Marcus refers to Stoics as “they” rather than “us”.

My work in Stoicism centers around making Stoicism accessible to those who could benefit from it. For the past 18 months, I have been writing plain English versions of the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Musonius Rufus. Substantial parts of my work are available for free as blogs and as book extracts from my Stoic website, thestoicgym.com.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

When I was still in my teens, I happened to pick up a book called To Himself (now more commonly known as Meditations) by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I had no idea who he was but when I read the first paragraph of the second chapter, where he talks about preparing himself for the day and says that no one can force him to choose ugliness by their unpleasant behavior, I was hooked. I kept returning to this book for several years. Then I discovered Enchiridion. I was captivated by the very first paragraph where Epictetus talks about what is in our control and what is not and why it makes no sense to worry about things not under our control. It was probably the single most powerful idea of Stoic philosophy. However, many years passed before I realized that they were talking about a philosophy known as Stoicism.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a curious document. Its tone is melancholic, yet the message is upbeat. Different people can easily take different things from reading Marcus Aurelius. The recurring theme of Meditations, as I see it, is this:

Don’t get hung up on reputation, fame and fortune. They are so fleeting and so insignificant when you contemplate the infinity of time before and after you. You are less than a speck in the vast universe. Don’t wonder whether the world is controlled by the gods or by randomness. So,
a. Do what needs doing.
b. Be just in your dealings.
c. Be kind – even to those who are unkind to you.

And relax, everything is, has always been, and will be, as it should be.

By putting our lives in such a perspective, Marcus Aurelius shows how comical our sense of self-importance is.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

No, I don’t have a favourite quote from Meditations. I have many. So here is one of my many favourite quotes:

The cucumber is bitter? Then cast it aside. There are brambles in the path? Step out of the way. That will suffice, and you need not ask in addition “Why did such things ever come into this world?”

How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

My website (thestoicgym.com) describes me as “an embarrassingly inconsistent practitioner of Stoicism.” I don’t think I am a good example. I am not big on practicing Stoicism when things go well and I don’t practice premeditatio malorum. I figure, for instance, if I starve myself for a day to practice being hungry, it may never come to pass and I would have unnecessarily passed up an opportunity to eat well. But If I didn’t practice being hungry and if I am forced to starve, then I can always use that as my practice session. Or I can go back to Epictetus – some things are not in our power, so there’s no point in worrying about the discomfort. In my work I remind myself that things are not under my control when they go wrong. This keeps me from getting upset. I presume this is not how most people practice Stoicism. I wouldn’t recommend anyone to follow my model.

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

See the stretch of time behind you and ahead of you. Realize that in a blink your life will be over. Contemplate the hugeness of the universe. Realize that you are not even a speck. When you see that clearly you will not get upset by anything that life presents you with. You will not complain or be in conflict with anyone and you won’t be unjust.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

I am not sure if I am in a position to advise anybody. But if someone asked me, perhaps I would suggest to them to start slowly. Don’t try to learn about Stoicism. Pick up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Epictetus’ Handbook. If you have choice, pick up a translation or rendition that is easy to follow. Read it slowly and see if any of it applies to your own life. If it does, read more of it. Once you find these principles make sense to you, try to understand more about Stoicism by reading a simply written book such as Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inman. If you are interested in Marcus Aurelius, you may want to read How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson. (As I write this, this book is not out yet. But I am presuming that this book will be similar to his other well-written books.)

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Unshakable FreedomNow that you ask, here are my books in the Stoicism in Plain English series:

  • The Complete Works of Epictetus, a set of five books covering Discourses, Fragments and Enchiridion. (Stoic Foundations, Stoic Choices, Stoic Training, Stoic Freedom and Stoic Inspirations)
  • The Complete Works of Musonius Rufus in a single volume (Stoic Lessons)
  • The Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius (Stoic Meditations, The Unknown Marcus Aurelius)

In addition, I have also written a primer on the application of Stoic philosophy to modern life, Unshakable Freedom.

Interview: John Sellars on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

John SellarsI’m an academic who writes about Stoicism and the later reception of Stoicism. My first book The Art of Living (2003) was about the way in which the Stoics saw philosophy as something expressed in one’s way of life. My second book Stoicism (2006) was a general introduction to Stoicism, aimed at university students rather than general readers. My most recent book Hellenistic Philosophy (2018) is an overview of philosophy in that period; an academic introduction, but hopefully accessible to general readers, that also stresses the practical dimension in much of Hellenistic philosophy.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

It was while I was an undergraduate student of philosophy. I was reading a wide variety of things and references to Stoicism kept cropping up. It soon started to feel like the secret thread connecting all my disparate interests. Independently I was also reading Marcus Aurelius around this time, not necessarily thinking of him as a Stoic. He was certainly the first Stoic author I read.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

I think there are a couple of things. First is the resolutely practical attitude. He’s not talking about philosophy, or even about how one might put philosophy into practice in his own life; he’s directly confronting difficulties in his own life. His response draws on Stoic philosophy, which is sometimes only implicit, but it’s not a book explicitly outlining philosophical ideas; instead it’s a model of how one might go about shaping one’s life in the light of philosophy. I think this is one of the reasons why Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus complement each other so well: Epictetus gives you the philosophical ideas, while Marcus gives you a practical example of how someone might try to act on them.

The second thing is his intellectual modesty. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He suspends judgement on some issues where he is not sure. There’s no dogmatic ‘this is what a proper Stoic would do’ rhetoric. There’s no claim to be a sage. Instead he’s just a flawed human being trying to work out how to become better. It’s also worth noting that he doesn’t seem to be primarily motivated by overcoming his own distress, becoming happier, or any of those things: the focus is primarily on being a good, ethical human being, doing the right thing, behaving decently to those around him, and so on. The project isn’t self-centred self-help; it’s ethical self-improvement.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

It’s hard to choose, but I think it must be this (2.17): “Of man’s life, his time is a point, his substance flowing, his perception faint, the constitution of his whole body decaying, his soul a spinning wheel, his fortune hard to predict, and his fame doubtful; that is to say, all the things of the body are a river, the things of the soul dream and delusion, life is a war and a journey in a foreign land, and afterwards oblivion.” It’s pretty blunt stuff and when I first read it, many years ago now, it felt like a slap across the face! We are all merely momentary accumulations of matter, soon to be dispersed and forgotten.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

If you’ve already read Marcus, then I’d say read Epictetus, for the reason I gave earlier. If you want an account of how the two fit together, then Pierre Hadot’s book The Inner Citadel makes the case for Marcus’s debt to Epictetus. I’ve tended to resist biographies of Marcus because inevitably they tend to focus on his career as Emperor. If you are more interested in learning how to put Stoicism into practice then you should try Stoic Week (of course!) and look at some of the many popular books on Stoicism. Of these I’d probably recommend A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by some guy called Donald Robertson!

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Hellenistic Philosophy Book CoverThere are lots of things coming up. At the moment I’m in the final stages of organizing Stoicon 2018, which will take place in London on 29th September.

I’ve just been asked to write a short book on Roman Stoicism for a general audience, which I hope to do this summer, and should be out next year. I also have a long-standing contract to write a book on Marcus Aurelius, which I hope to complete this coming year, the aim of which will be to make explicit all the philosophical ideas that lurk beneath the surface in the Meditations.

Interview: Scott Perry on Marcus Aurelius

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

Scott PerryI’m a husband, father, teacher, and musician from Floyd, VA USA.

My lifelong study and affection for Stoic philosophy benefits my life, relationships, and work including my book, The Stoic Creative Handbook, my coaching practice, my membership site, my podcast, and my work as a coach in Seth Godin’s The Marketing Seminar. You can learn more about me and all these projects at BeCreativeOnPurpose.com.

How did you become interested in Stoicism?

My adventures in Stoicism began in a 7th grade Latin class where I was introduced to Marcus through translating passages from Meditations from Latin to English from my textbook (although Marcus originally wrote them in Greek). Encouraging my interest, my teacher gave me his copy of Meditations. I read and reread it until the book was tattered.

At the time, I didn’t know I was reading a definitive ancient Stoic text. I just loved the way Marcus spoke to himself. It was the same way I talked to myself. This is one thing purposeful work can do, it connects people disconnected by time and place.

What’s the most valuable thing we can learn about Stoicism from the life or writings of Marcus Aurelius?

This has changed over time. As a teenager, I was most affected by Marcus’ reminders to curb unhealthy desires and impulses. As a young adult, Marcus’ urging to apply oneself intentionally and generously to meaningful work became more important. As I enter middle age, it is the call to approach mortality with grace and to serve others while I still can that most resonate.

Do you have a favourite quote from The Meditations?

I have dozens of favorite quotes from Meditations, but the one I cite most frequently is, “Love the humble art you have learned and take rest in it.” – Meditations, 4.31

It is the art of living that I believe we are here to learn. Crafting our excellence through meaningful endeavors that serve others and a greater good is not the work we have to do, but the work we get to do. For this gift, we should be grateful and approach it with humility and purpose. This quote by Marcus above helps me keep this top of mind.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism?

Although there are many great modern works about Stoicism, I find the primary ancient texts of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are easy to access and understand. Why not begin with those?

What do you think is the most important psychological technique or piece of practical advice that we can derive from Marcus’ Stoicism?

Again, for me, this has changed as I’ve aged. As a young man premeditatio malorum, Hierocles Concentric Circles of Influence, journaling gratitudes and lessons, and other Stoic exercises helped me immensely. As a middle-aged person, memento mori has served as a call to action to focus on the here and now and do everything I can to enhance the lives of others while I still can. I reflect on my mortality and am inspired to do work that matters during my daily cemetery run.

Recently, I’ve meditated on this advice from Marcus, “People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them.” – Meditations, 8.59 This has lead me to begin a new project called Wicked Conversations. Wicked Conversations challenge our beliefs and assumptions, but instead of spiraling into arguments, Wicked Conversations help us set aside agendas and cultivate understanding and the pursuit of deeper truths.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

The lessons of Stoicism are as pertinent today as they were in ancient times. Through the millennia, we’ve asked the questions “What does it mean to be human?” “What does it mean to be happy?” and “How can I be more of both?” Stoicism encourages us to answer these questions not just with ideas, but with action. In this way, we are afforded the opportunity to improve ourselves and enhance the lives of others.

All of my work at BeCreativeOnPurpose.com is informed by my longtime interest and study of Stoicism in general and Marcus Aurelius in particular. I’d love to have you join my newsletter and stay in touch there!

The digital age has added innumerable new Stoic resources, some more worthy than others. I advise starting with a thorough and thoughtful reading of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and applying this wisdom to your daily life, work, and relationships.

That said, here is a document where I share links to some of my favorite Stoic-related books, blogs, sites, videos, and apps. I’m always happy to connect via email with fellow Stoic travelers. You can reach me at scott@becreativeonpurpose.com.


The Stoic Creative Book CoverFor more information check out Scott’s Creative on Purpose website and podcast, which has featured interviews with me and other members of the Modern Stoicism team.

His book The Stoic Creative Handbook is available from Amazon.  Look out for his upcoming Stoicism Today article on Stoicism & Creativity publishing, due to be published in August 2018.