Stoic Resilience Blog Posts

Free Crash Course in Stoicism

Below is the transcript of the main video from my Crash Course in Stoicism.

You can watch the video online at my e-learning site by following the link below, where you will find a quiz, Stoic quotes, reading list, and lots of other resources for people new to the subject who want to learn more about Stoicism.

Click the button below or this link to access the rest of the free course:

This is both fun and beneficial. Can we put it in every congressman’s mailbox?tpetrocci

Thank you for this course. It really piqued my interest in Stoicism and provides great resources for learning more.Paul LaFleur

This is a great introduction to Stoicism by Donald Robertson. I recommend reading his books Stoicism and The Art of Happiness and The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Both of these books have helped me develop Stoicism as a philosophy for a better way of living and have inspired me to study CBT as a career path.Mark Husher

Thank you Donald for this free course which is a short but very comprehensive introduction to Stoicism. Familiarising myself with The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and focusing on meaningful passages was the start of my Stoic journey a few years ago. Having experience of your SMRT course on two previous occasions I can highly recommend them.Alison McCone

I found this course an interesting and easy to understand introduction to the study of Stoicism. It has given me a taste to learn more. Thanks.Colin Conway

Amazing! I always wondered what Stoicism was all about. This is a crash course! Thanks a lot, Donald! Stay blessed.Nuruddin Abjani

Transcript of Video

Hello and welcome. My name is Donald Robertson and this is my five-minute introduction to Stoic philosophy. I first became interested in Stoicism myself in 1996, after doing my philosophy degree. Later, as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, I found it helpful to incorporate Stoicism into my work with clients. In 2005, I published an article on Stoicism in a British counseling journal. Then a book called The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, comparing all the psychological strategies found in ancient Stoicism to ones used in modern psychotherapy. I also wrote a self-help book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, explaining in plain English how ancient Stoicism can be applied to modern living. In the video you’re watching I’m going to try to explain who the Stoics were, what Stoicism is, and to describe two of Stoicism’s most beneficial psychological exercises.

Where does Stoicism come from?

Today the word “stoicism” (with a small s) denotes a personality trait that involves remaining calm in the face of adversity, or having a stiff upper lip. That’s not the same thing as capital S “Stoicism”, the ancient Greek school of philosophy, which teaches a whole way of life and set of ethical values. Stoicism was founded at Athens, in 301 BC, by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, who was influenced mainly by Socrates and the Cynic philosophers. The early Stoics wrote over a thousand books but only fragments survive today. Interest in Stoicism later spread from Greece to Rome. Most of the writings we have come from three Stoics who lived under the Roman Empire: Seneca, who was speechwriter to Emperor Nero; Epictetus, a freed slave who became a famous teacher; and Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors. After his death we hear virtually nothing more about Stoicism; Christianity gradually eclipsed pagan philosophy. However, the ancient Stoic school was therefore active for nearly 500 years.

What is Stoicism?

The central doctrine of Stoicism is that the goal of life is virtue, and that virtue is the only true good. “Virtue” is the conventional translation of the Greek arete, which actually means “excellence of character”. The Stoics argued that, understood correctly, what’s healthy or in our self-interest as rational beings coincides perfectly with what’s honourable or genuinely praiseworthy. They also expressed the goal as “living in agreement with nature”, by fulfilling our natural potential, much as a seed does by growing into a tree and bearing fruit. For Stoics, virtue applies to three main areas of life. 1. Our own mind: as animals with the capacity for reason, we should try to fulfil our potential by living rationally and wisely. 2. Other people: as social beings, who naturally care about each other, we should try to live in harmony with other people, in a way that’s conducive to the common welfare of mankind. And 3. The Universe: as citizens of the vast cosmos, we should live in harmony with Nature, calmly accepting the external events that befall us and responding to them wisely.

The Handbook of Epictetus contains a simplified guide, to living in accord with Stoic philosophy. It opens with the words: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” This mindfulness of our sphere of control is the cornerstone of Stoic resilience. It’s often compared to the famous Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant 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.” Another well-known quote from the Handbook has long been taught to clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgements about events.”

What do Stoics do?

The Stoics also used many contemplative exercises. One involves picturing events from high overhead, like the gods atop Mount Olympus. Modern scholars call it “The View From Above.” This helps people to see distressing events as temporary or to place them within a broader context, in a way that can moderate strong emotions. For the Stoics this is also a more realistic perspective because it’s more complete. Psychologists know that when people are anxious their field of attention automatically narrows down. We focus on perceived threats, taking things out of their wider context, and that tends to amplify our feelings. When we pause and encourage ourselves to look at the bigger picture, in terms of both time and space, it can help us remain more composed.

The Stoics also advised us frequently to imagine the worst things that could happen in life as if they were already happening, to practice mentally preparing for them. Therapists today call this “De-catastrophising”. The ancient Stoics would imagine poverty, famine, exile, and plague befalling them. Every day they’d rehearse ways of coping with them, responding with courage, self-discipline, and wisdom. Psychological research has now shown that the modern fad for “positive thinking” can easily turn into an unhealthy form of avoidance. Cognitive therapists therefore encourage clients to visualize upsetting events, and practice building resilience through emotional fire-drills. Negative is the new positive. Or rather it can be healthy to confront negative thoughts patiently, in the right way.

Conclusion

To sum up, what I think appeals most to people about Stoicism is the fact that it provides a guide to life that’s rational, and based on philosophical reasoning rather than one resting on faith or tradition. It’s down-to-earth philosophy, for the man or woman in the street. And it gives us a powerful toolbox of psychological techniques, which are similar to ones now proven to be effective by modern research in psychology. People are also drawn to the beauty of the writings. Indeed, Seneca is one of the finest writers of antiquity; it’s almost as if we could read a cognitive therapy or self-help book that was written by Shakespeare. For example, Seneca once said: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” So what next? Well, I’ve put some extra bonus resources on the following pages to help you learn more about Stoicism… I hope you find them helpful, and please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions…

Webinar: Marcus Aurelius on Anger

This is a Facebook Live webinar I did on Stoicism and Anger, based on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The audio is good (remember to turn up the volume) but a bit out of synch with the video so I’ve published the transcript of the main section below…

So let’s dive right into the topic of anger… The Stoics were very interested in anger. We actually have an entire book by Seneca called On Anger. However, I’m going to be talking today about what another famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, has to say about managing anger. We know Marcus himself initially struggled with angry feelings, because he tells us so. He was worried at times that he’d lose his temper with those close to him and maybe even do something he regretted. He probably knew the notorious anecdote about his adoptive grandfather Hadrian, who lost his temper with a slave and stabbed the man in the eye with a metal stylus used for writing. Later, when Hadrian had calmed down and come to his senses, he felt deeply ashamed and asked the slave what he could do to make amends. The man said all he really wanted was his eye back. Of course, even the Emperor Hadrian couldn’t fix that. The Stoics believed that anger is essentially a form of temporary madness. And they were right about that, in a sense. We know today that anger tends to distort and bias our thinking, which explains why we often do things when angry that we regret later – anger literally makes us stupid. And sometimes what we do in anger can’t be undone, it can often cause lasting damage, as in the story about Hadrian. Marcus, by contrast, was renowned for his composure in the face of provocation. We hear several anecdotes about him keeping his cool under pressure, where other people would have been furious. And we never hear of him actually losing his temper, although he tells us he wasn’t just calm by nature, he had to work on it, through years of rigorous training, with the guidance of his Stoic tutors.

Marcus GraffitiNow, I should emphasise that the Stoics have a whole system of psychological training. So they would approach anger using a variety of techniques and we can only touch on a few of those today. Stoic therapy of the passions is about overcoming pathological or unhealthy passions, including anger, which Stoics interpreted as the desire to harm others. For instance, Stoics would train themselves to carefully monitor their feelings, catching anger early before it has a chance to escalate, so they could easily nip it in the bud. Marcus like other Stoic students had a mentor, in this case Junius Rusticus. He probably underwent this training under the close personal supervision of Rusticus whose job it was to observe his character and actions, and gently point out his errors. The Stoic teacher Epictetus told his students that when they spot a passion like anger they should challenge their underlying thinking, asking themselves whether it’s about something that’s actually up to them or something not up to them.

The Stoics believed that external things, things not under our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves. So we should address our own initial impressions saying “You are just an impression (of something being bad) and not really the thing you represent” – “You are just a thought and not the thing itself.” Values like that don’t really exist in things, we just project them onto things. However, Epictetus also says that if a passion is very strong we may find it difficult to challenge our thinking until we’ve recovered our composure, so we should postpone doing anything until we’ve calmed down and can think clearly and rationally about the problem. That’s a well-known ancient strategy for dealing with anger. Today therapists do similar things for anger management, and we might call it a “time out” or “postponement” strategy in modern CBT. So the Stoics trained themselves very rigorously in these and many other psychological skills for coping with anger. Today we’re going to look at just some of the additional cognitive or thinking strategies described by Marcus Aurelius.

Overcoming anger is actually one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations. The very first sentence of the book opens with Marcus reflecting on the example his natural grandfather Annius Verus provided. Verus was someone who seemed to be totally free from anger, in stark contrast to his adoptive grandfather, Hadrian, who was a slave to his own temper. There’s one passage in particular about anger that I want to look at, though. Marcus lists ten gifts from Apollo, or from Apollo and his nine Muses. Apollo was the god of healing so it’s appropriate that Marcus would dedicate these psychological remedies to him. So what are they? Well Marcus says that when we begin to grow angry we should do one or more of the following things:

  1. Remember that you were meant to live in harmony with other people – that’s the goal of life
  2. Think of their character as a whole, particularly their flaws, their ignorance and how they are misled by their own value judgements
  3. Either what they do is right or wrong. If it’s right, you should accept it and learn from it. If it’s wrong, however, then it’s surely not intentional, as nobody is willingly deceived or deprived of the truth, according to Socrates. (Epictetus tells his students to say: “It seemed so to him.”)
  4. Pause to recognize your own flaws – you’re no different from the people you’re angry with: none of us are perfect
  5. Remember you can’t read their mind, and people often do the wrong thing for the right reason, and vice versa – you can’t be sure of their motives
  6. Remember that all things are transient, including both yourself and the other person
  7. Realize that you’re not harmed by their actions but only by your own value judgements, and it’s those that are making you angry
  8. Remember that anger hurts us more than the things we’re angry about do
  9. Ask yourself what virtue, resource, or ability Nature has given you to respond to the other person – Stoics call the virtue of “kindness” an antidote or remedy for anger because anger wishes harm on others whereas kindness, or goodwill, wishes them well
  10. To expect bad men never to do bad things, is both naive and foolish – it’s feigned surprise, we should be more prepared than that

Marcus actually returns to the topic of anger many times throughout The Meditations and gives several shorter lists of techniques, so in addition to this nice overview of ten gifts from Apollo, Marcus basically tells us which ones are his favourites and his various remarks help to clarify what he means. So let’s just briefly recap the five strategies we’re going to talk about and then go into them in more detail.

The two he seems to place most emphasis on here and elsewhere are the first one and the last one:

  • We’re naturally social creatures and flourish when we try to live in harmony
  • The misdeeds of others are as inevitable as the seasons and the wise man is never surprised by foolish or vicious people’s actions because he anticipates them.

However, three others are also particularly emphasized by him.

  • That it’s not other people’s actions that upset us but our judgements about them, which comes mainly from Epictetus.
  • That everything is transient and when we remember this and look at the bigger picture we typically feel less attachment and distress, an idea derived from Heraclitus.
  • That our anger is itself a vice and does us more harm than the external things we’re angry about.

So let’s look at those one at a time in more depth…

1. We’re naturally social creatures

The Stoics believed that the distinguishing feature of human beings is that they’re language using, self-conscious, thinking beings. They’re rational in the sense of having the capacity for reason. They believed that to reason at all is to wish to reason well, and that we therefore have a duty to make good use of our capacity for thinking rationally. When we reason well we become wise, and so that’s basically the goal of Stoicism. The other virtues consist in wisdom applied to our actions, or to our fears and desires. So we’re capable of reason, we have a duty to reason well and become wise. But the Stoics also argued that human beings are inherently social creatures, like ants or bees. We’re inclined by nature to form bonds of natural affection with our partners and offspring, our families, and also with our circle of friends – we care about these people. We’re also naturally inclined to form communities and to want to live with other human beings in villages, towns and cities. (At least that’s generally true.) The Stoics therefore argue that man is by nature both rational and social. We should cultivate reason so that we become wise but we should also cultivate social virtues like justice, fairness, and kindness to others, so that we’re better able to live in harmony with other people. Even if we encounter vicious or foolish people, or people who act like our enemies, there are good and bad ways of dealing with them. The Stoics thought we should try to educate our enemies and turn them into our friends wherever possible, or learn to tolerate them insofar as that’s appropriate, rather than becoming frustrated with them and alienated from them. That doesn’t mean the Stoics were pushovers, Marcus presided as a judge and sentenced people for their crimes, but he was generally perceived as doing so after very careful consideration of each case, and to lean toward more lenient penalties where appropriate. He didn’t get angry with people, though. (Likewise, as military commander, he exiled enemy leaders, for instance, rather than executing them – but he also fought tenaciously against them.)

So, in a nutshell, Marcus repeatedly tells himself to remember that humans are naturally social and that nature intended us to work together rather than to be in conflict. So he’s reminding himself that he sees it as his duty to try to live with other people, without becoming angry toward them, which he sees as unnecessary and unhelpful. He wants to avoid being alienated from others, by learning to forgive them or at least tolerate them, while nevertheless asserting himself and opposing their behaviour, where necessary.

In 175 AD, Marcus was faced with a civil war when his most powerful general in the eastern empire, Avidius Cassius, had himself acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion. The Senate’s knee-jerk reaction was to declare Cassius public enemy and seize his property and that of his family. This threw the whole of Rome into total panic because people feared Cassius would retaliate by marching on the city of Rome and sacking it. Marcus was several weeks away, fighting a major war on the northern frontier, but when he heard the news he shocked everyone by announcing that he was prepared to forgive Cassius and the others involved. Ironically, that probably led to Cassius’ death because he refused to stand down but his legions no longer had any motive to fight, knowing that they were facing a superior force, so they beheaded Cassius and surrendered to Marcus. Marcus was as good as his word and actually protected Cassius’ family from persecution following the end of the rebellion. He considered it his duty to try to understand his enemies and defuse conflicts where possible, and that worked out pretty well for him in practice. So remember that we’re naturally social creatures, not antisocial.

2. Bad people inevitably do bad things

Although Marcus begins by emphasising that we’re naturally social creatures, paradoxically, he also emphasises that the majority of people inevitably act in antisocial ways. The Stoics believed that by granting us the ability to reason, nature has given us the potential to become wise, but nevertheless we’re all fools, the wise man is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix. Like most of Marcus’ strategies for coping with anger, this is a special application of a general Stoic principle. The Stoics astutely observed that when people are upset they tend to say things like “I can’t believe you’re doing this” or “I can’t believe this is happening”, as if they’re shocked or surprised. However, they shouldn’t be. We all know what sorts of things happen in life. We all know that other people often do foolish or selfish things. So why should we act surprised when these things happen. Acting surprised exaggerates our feelings – it makes us more angry – and it’s kind of phoney if you think about it. The Stoic wise man says “I saw this coming” or at least “I should have seen this coming – it’s no surprise.” Shit happens. That’s life. When someone else’s house is burgled we think: “These things happen sometimes.”

When I worked in central London, I saw pickpockets every single day. They used to stand facing the barriers in the underground station at Oxford Circus. When someone used their ticket to open the barrier, they’d watch them take out their wallet or purse and put it back again. If they put their wallet in an outside pocket they’d follow them upstairs. Then when they were crossing the street in the crowds, at the traffic lights, someone would bump into them – they’d turn round and go “Hey, watch where you’re going!” While they were distracted doing that, an accomplice, walking on their other side, would be picking their pocket. So I was more careful but I told myself I was bound to get my wallet stolen eventually. I had my mobile phone stolen once and my wallet twice, in about ten or fifteen years of working there. When it happened, though, I was able to say “Oh well, I knew it would happen eventually.” There’s no point being angry about it. That’s life. These things happen. To pretend otherwise would just be a form of self-deception, playing dumb. But people deceive themselves in this way all the time in order to amplify their anger. The Stoic wise man tries to view life rationally and that means accepting that all people are flawed, and selfish, to some extent, so it’s inevitable that sometimes they’ll lie, steal, cheat, betray, etc. It would be foolish to think otherwise. So Stoics are ready for these things when they happen – they’re prepared for them emotionally and refuse to act surprised. That’s just what it means to view life realistically, as far as they’re concerned. So remember that bad people inevitably do bad things.

3. It’s our own judgements that upset us

Again, this is a general Stoic principle. Epictetus famously said that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things. That quote has been taught to many thousands of clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy, following Albert Ellis. So it’s become almost a cliche in modern psychotherapy. However, here Marcus applies it specifically to anger. Anger is the desire to harm others, according to the Stoics, typically because we believe they’ve somehow harmed or threatened to harm us. But Marcus says that it’s all in our minds, ultimately. Other people can’t harm us as much as we can harm ourselves. They can insult us, but we don’t have to take offense. They can steal from us, but we don’t have to be shocked or dismayed at the loss. They can lie to us, but we don’t have to trust them in the first place, or be surprised when they let us down. Thrasea used to quote a saying attributed to Socrates, which he modified slightly: “The tyrant Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” He can destroy my body but he can’t degrade my character, unless I allow him to, which is the most important thing to a Stoic.

The real harm comes from our own judgment that we’ve been harmed, ironically. We’re upset, at least to some extent, because we choose to be upset. Now the Stoic position is actually much more nuanced than this slogan implies. They recognize that we all have natural automatic, reflex-like reactions to external events. So we’re bound to feel upset and angered if someone punches us in the face, that’s just natural. However, the difference between the fool and the wise man, is that the fool continues to be angry about it whereas the wise man steps back from his initial impressions, his feelings of anger, and questions them, telling himself that the thing he’s angry about only seems bad because of his value judgements and not because it’s intrinsically bad. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”, as Hamlet says. We’re naturally predisposed to take offence or be angry about certain things but as the Stoics put it, we don’t need to then give our assent to those initial impressions and go along with our angry reaction. We can pause and rethink our response. Remember that it’s our own judgement that upsets us.

4. Everything is transient

The previous strategy is very much associated with Epictetus whereas this one seems very aligned with the thought of the presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can’t step into the same river twice because new waters are constantly flowing in. His philosophy was summed up as “everything flows”, nothing lasts forever, everything is continually changing around us. Nothing remains the same. Marcus very frequently makes use of this strategy in The Meditations, contemplating the transience of material things but also his own mortality and that of the other people who offend him. When we view the bigger picture in this way, and realize that things are transient, we tend to feel less upset and less attached to them. Once again, though, anger tends to do the opposite and amplify itself by focusing on the most upsetting part of a situation, narrowing our attention, concentrating itself, and ignoring the bigger picture. When we think about the span of events – beginning, middle, and end – and their place within the bigger picture of our lives, and the history of life on earth, then our feelings are diluted and weakened. Things seem more trivial and less worth getting upset about. But that’s the truth. The totality is reality.

When we focus on events in isolation we’re committing a lie of omission, taking them out of context. That’s the very nature of anger, though. We do it every day. It’s selective. It focuses on isolated events or aspects of a situation, or of a person’s character, as opposed to the whole picture. There’s a famous Stoic technique called The View From Above that encourages us to imagine events within the totality of space and time. However, Marcus is here just referring to one aspect of that: the realization that things don’t last forever. This too shall pass, as the saying goes. Likewise, cognitive therapists often ask clients “What next?”, “And then what?” over and over, to encourage them to get beyond the worst part of an upsetting event and think also about how it will de-escalate and things will inevitably move on, eventually. That tends to make us less upset but, once again, it’s just the truth – it’s just being honest with ourselves, and looking at things more objectively and in a more complete manner. Anger is selective attention, which ignores the transience of events. Marcus even reminds himself that one day he will be dead, and long forgotten, as will the person with whom he’s angry, so there’s no point dwelling on it and aggravating himself further. Remember that everything is transient.

5. Anger does us more harm than good

Anger is temporary madness. It skews our thinking and makes us stupid. Seneca actually began his therapy for anger by drawing attention to the ugliness of anger, how unnatural it looks when someone grimaces, scowls, their temples throb, and their face turns purple. How their voice becomes ugly and it’s very unpleasant to listen to an angry person speaking because their voice grates. Anger makes monsters of us, they might say. It harms our thinking and our character more than the very things we’re angry with ever could. Other people’s vices are their problem, not ours, ultimately. However, when we get angry, we’re committing a vice ourselves, and then it becomes our problem because we make it so.

If every morning someone told me I was an idiot, would that in itself do me any harm as long as I learn to view them with indifference? Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never harm me, right? But if I go along with my first impression that I’ve been insulted or harmed in some way, and get angrier and angrier, how much harm will I be doing to myself? Anger does us more harm than the thing we’re angry about. It makes our soul shrink. Marcus says that people think anger is a show of strength, but they’re wrong. Anger is every bit as much a form of weakness as weeping and cowering in self-pity. Marcus says true strength consists in overcoming our anger, and employing the antidote to it, by having the courage to treat other people with kindness and understanding, even when they appear to be our enemies. Marcus says that’s what he admires: the strength to forgive others and exhibit goodwill toward them unconditionally, rather than being angry with them.

Now, I should say that the Aristotelians had a different view. They believed that moderate anger could be healthy and it could motivate us to do certain important things in life. The Stoics dispute this, though. They argued that anger isn’t just a feeling, it’s also a value judgement that underlies the feeling. The judgement is that something intrinsically bad has happened but the Stoics argue that’s an error, it’s a mistaken judgement because the badness is merely projected onto things by us – it doesn’t really exist independently of our minds. So all anger is fundamentally misguided in that respect – it places too much value on things outside of our control. Moreover, the Stoics point out that anger distorts our thinking, as we’ve seen, so love and reason are much healthier attitudes that better motivate us to make sound decisions in life. The Stoic soldier doesn’t fight because he hates the enemy, and wants to destroy them, but because he loves his family and his country, and wants to protect them – and those are two very different things. So remember that anger does us more harm than good.

Conclusion

So those are just five of the ten gifts from Apollo that Marcus described, and just one small part of the Stoic therapy of the passions. Let me recap them briefly:

  1. We’re naturally social creatures
  2. Bad people inevitably do bad things
  3. It’s our own judgements that upset us
  4. Everything is transient
  5. Anger does us more harm than goodSo I hope you’ve found that helpful, please post your comments and questions and I’ll try to respond to them in the thread as soon as we’ve finished.

Facebook Live Webinar on Stoicism and Anger

Facebook Live Webinar on Thursday.  Free of charge.  Everyone welcome.  I’ll be talking about Stoic remedies for anger, drawing mainly on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

Hit the Get Reminder button below to receive notification. You should see the time displayed in your current timezone but it’s 8pm Atlantic Time.

Video: Introduction to Stoicism

You can now watch my fifteen minute Introduction to Stoicism talk here:

Introduction to Stoicism

This talk was the opening presentation at the recent Stoicon 2017 Modern Stoicism conference in Toronto. It covers who the Stoics were and what they believed, and is intended to bring complete newcomers up to speed so they’re ready to learn more about the subject.

In addition to the video of the presentation, I’ve also included a complete transcript of the talk and an embedded version of my slideshow.

Online Introduction Stoicon

The Metaphor of the Sun in Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Fire MemeWhen Marcus Aurelius lay dying he turned to the guard of the night watch and said, cryptically, “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.”  We can only speculate as to the meaning he intended.  For instance, it may have sounded to Romans as if he were alluding to the mystery religion of Mithraism or some other solar cult.  However, it’s fair to say, though, that consistent with his approach throughout The Meditations, he appears to be portraying death as a process both natural and inevitable, just like the setting of the sun.

As I reflected on the meaning of this remark, it struck me that there are several passages in The Meditations which refer to the mind of the wise man using the metaphor of sunlight and, apparently related to these, several additional references to the mind as a lamp or blazing fire, casting light on the objects of the world.  Indeed, according to their Physics, the Stoics believed that the intellect of man was composed of a subtle fiery substance, pneuma or spirit, the same substance from which the sun, the stars, and the other gods are made.  The human mind, indeed, is a divine spark, a fragment of the Logos or cosmic fire that constitutes the Mind of Zeus.

Marcus continually reminds himself that the human mind has a duty to fulfil its own true nature, to become rational and wise, and not to be distracted or swayed from its path, something he likes to compare to the simplicity and purity with which the sun and stars shine forth in the sky.  He says the sun does not undertake the work of the rain but fulfills its own nature.  Each particular star is different from the others and yet they are all working together toward the same end (6.43).  We should strive to do the same by cultivating the divine spark within us, fulfilling our human potential for wisdom and virtue.  Everything in nature has come into being for a purpose.  According to Marcus, the Sun himself would say, ‘I was born to perform a function’, and so would the rest of the gods (8.19).  So it’s likewise our duty to know what our own true purpose is in life, something we try to discover through philosophy, the love of wisdom.

Marcus likes to refer to the stars as natural models of purity and simplicity.  We should meditate, he says, on the the stars above as though accompanying them on their course through the night sky because thoughts such as these purify us from the defilements of our earthly existence (7.47).  Even though the stars are separate and distinct they also form a natural unity together in the constellations of the night sky (9.9).

Marcus particularly attributes this idea of contemplating the orderliness and purity of the stars to the Pythagoreans, about whom Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had long ago written a book.

The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. (11.27)

The Pythagoreans believed that the stars and other heavenly bodies were divine.  (They appear to move all by themselves, which to many ancient thinkers was a sign of life.)  For Stoics they were gods but also merely fragmentary aspects of a greater divine Nature, or Zeus.

The Mind as the Sun

However, the nature of sunlight in particular becomes an important metaphor for the Stoic concept of mind throughout The Meditations.  Marcus repeatedly stresses to himself that the light of the sun pours down in every direction and yet it is not exhausted.  Its beams of light are merely an extension of its being.  Sunlight is something very familiar to us.  We see its beams entering a darkened room through a narrow window.  It stretches out in a straight line and comes to rest on any solid body that intercepts it, cutting it off from  whatever lies beyond.  Sunlight appears to our eyes to rest exactly where its rays fall, without being deflected by its objects, like the wind, or being absorbed by them like water.  It touches upon things lightly and illuminates them, without being contaminated by them.  The pouring forth and spreading abroad of our mind should follow a similar pattern, extending itself without being exhausted or diminished.  It should, like sunlight, not land with the force of a violent blow on the obstacles that it encounters nor dissipate, but steadily illuminate the objects before it.  For what doesn’t welcome the light condemns itself to darkness (8.57).

Put very simply, I think Marcus would say today that we should think of our judgements, particularly our value judgements, as beams of light shining forth from our mind onto objects in the world.  Values don’t exist in the world, we project them onto things.  For the Stoics it’s therefore important to be aware of this and suspend these judgements or make them only lightly.  Marcus consistently refers to this as the purification of the mind from being blended with externals, or its separation from things that belong to the world, or to the body.

From a more metaphysical perspective, Marcus reminds himself that sunlight is, in a sense, a single thing even though it is obstructed by walls, and mountains, and countless other obstacles.  Likewise, for Stoic Physics, there is one common substance, though divided into countless individual bodies. There is one mind, even though it appears to be divided among countless creatures, each with its own characteristics. Material objects are senseless and have no affinity of this kind.  But mind alone is naturally social, it tends towards what is akin to it and forms friendships and communities with others, and apparent divisions are overcome by the sense of common fellowship (12.30).

Likewise, he elsewhere says that one animal soul is distributed among irrational creatures, and one rational soul has been divided among rational creatures; just as there is one earth for all things formed from earth, and there is one light by which we all see and one air from which we all breathe (9.8).  Fire tends to rise toward the heavens, with which it has an affinity, consuming whatever kindling is thrown upon it.  So likewise, the mind naturally strives with even greater eagerness towards what is akin to itself, through the grasping of philosophical truths (9.9).  The mind naturally loves virtue, and as social beings we aspire to make friends and form communities with other human beings, who share our capacity for reason.  This is the bond of natural affection that Stoics believe exists between all rational beings, and which it’s our duty to cultivate into a sense of being at one with the rest of mankind, viewing them as our brothers and sisters, and fellow citizens of the cosmic city.

Virtue as Sunlight or a Blazing Fire

Marcus also likes to describe virtue as a light blazing forth.  A good, straightforward, and kindly person, he says, reveals these qualities in his eyes, they shine forth unmistakably in his gaze (11.15).  In the mind of one who has been chastened and thoroughly purified, perhaps by Stoic mentoring and therapy, there nothing he says which would not bear examination or which hides away from the light (3.8).

Hence, there is nothing more wholesome and delightful, he says, than the sight of virtue shining forth in the characters of those around us.  So we should be sure to keep these images ever at hand (6.48).  Indeed, virtue is just like the light of a lamp which shines forth until it is extinguished, light extends itself afar without losing its radiance.  In the same way, the cardinal virtues of truth, justice and self-control should shine forth without being exhausted (12.15).

Moreover, the mind of the wise man is like a blazing fire.  All things human are mere smoke and nothingness, they continually change and then are gone forever. Don’t be troubled about them, Marcus says, but view life as a training ground for reason to examine things truthfully and objectively.  The mind is naturally capable of assimilating the truth about everything that befalls you just as a robust stomach assimilates every kind of food and a blazing fire turns whatever you cast into it into flame and light (10.31).

The preconceptions Nature planted within our souls are like sparks of wisdom, which need to be given fuel and fanned into a blazing fire.  Hence, Marcus says the sparks of his Stoic principles need to be constantly fanned into new flames, such as that things that lie outside our intellect have no hold whatever over us.  Once you renew these principles, which once you knew, then you will cease to be troubled, he says (7.2).

People seek retreats for themselves in the countryside, by the seashore, in the hills –a theme he returns to several times.  You can retreat into yourself wherever you are and remember your Stoic principles, though.  When your mind is in harmony with nature, it adapts itself readily to whatever befalls it.  It’s not attached to any specific thing but rather prefers whatever is reasonable, and with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  If it encounters an obstacle, it simply converts that into more material for the exercise of reason and virtue, much like a fire when it masters the things that fall into it.  Piling up too much wood often extinguishes a little flame, but a blazing fire engulfs it all in an instant, and consumes it, making its flames burn even higher (4.1).

The Empedoclean Sphere

Marcus also makes very similar remarks about the mystical “sphere” of the presocratic philosopher Empdocles, who was closely associated with the Pythagoreans.  This sphere represents the divine in perfect harmony but the mind of the wise man possesses similar qualities.

For if, supported on thy steadfast mind, thou wilt contemplate these things with good intent and faultless care, then shalt thou have all these things in abundance throughout thy life, and thou shalt gain many others from them. For these things grow of themselves into thy heart, where is each man’s true nature. But if thou strivest after things of another kind, as it is the way with men that ten thousand sorry matters blunt their careful thoughts, soon will these things desert thee when the time comes round; for they long to return once more to their own kind; for know that all things have wisdom and a share of thought. (Fr. 110)

Marcus likewise says that we have a body and feelings that our ours to take care of but only our intellect is truly our own.  You will live a pure and unrestricted life if you will let go of everything that falls outside your own true nature, doing what is just, desiring what befalls you, and speaking the truth.  If, that is, you will purify your ruling centre from everything external that becomes attached to it from the body, and everything in the past or future.  Make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, as Marcus puts it, “a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it”, striving to live only the life that belongs to you here and now, then you will live out the rest of your days with peace and kindness, at peace with the divine spark within you (12.3).

Marcus appears to refer to this image of the Empedoclean sphere three times altogether.  Elsewhere, he notes that neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way when it has become a ‘well-rounded sphere’, and it is capable of always remaining so (8.41).

Finally, he says that the sphere of the soul remains true to its natural form  when neither stretching itself out towards anything outside itself nor contracting itself inwards, and when it is neither dispersed abroad nor shrinks back into itself, but shines forth with a steady light by which it sees the truth of all things and the truth within itself (11.12).  Here, the image of the Empedoclean sphere appears to merge with that of the sun shining its pure light onto objects without being defiled by them.

The poet Horace, in Satires (2.7), employs the same image of the perfect sphere in relation to Stoicism.  He describes a speech delivered to him during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.

Who then is free?  The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.

 

Socrates and Forgiveness

Socrates Wanted PosterThis is the text of a ten-minute talk I gave about Socrates to an audience of people who were mostly new to philosophy…

My daughter, Poppy, is six years old. She loves Greek mythology. She’s Nova Scotia’s leading expert on Hercules and she loves Wonder Woman – an Amazonian princess created by Zeus. Poppy also loves Greek philosophy.

While we were walking round town, or on the bus, she used to constantly pull my sleeve saying “Daddy, tell me stories!” I don’t read fiction; I’ve only read about four novels in my entire life. So the only stories I knew were about Greek philosophy. And this is one of them…

A long, long, time ago, almost two and a half thousand years ago, a very wise man lived in the city of Athens. His name was Socrates and some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived. He said he was just a “philosopher”, though. That word means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself. Philosophers are always seeking wisdom, like children, they’re always asking questions…

But Socrates wasn’t always a philosopher. His father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason and sculptor who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis. When he was a young boy, his father taught Socrates how to cut stone to make buildings and beautiful statues. That’s what he did for a living for many years and he became really good at it. Some people say he made a famous statue of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.

Socrates tried really hard to make his statues perfect. He wanted them to physically embody wisdom and virtue. He thought that would be the most beautiful and inspiring thing anyone could possibly create. He tried and tried but he was never happy with the results. He always felt something was missing. So he went to the older and more experienced sculptors, seeking their advice. He was disappointed, though.

They made very beautiful statues depicting virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline However they couldn’t really explain what these qualities were or where to learn them. Socrates said they had become like blocks of stone themselves: blockheads, lacking wisdom and self-awareness. He realised they were looking too much at the outside, at statues, rather than looking deep inside themselves. They were experts at creating the appearance of virtue but they didn’t really embody it in their own lives.

Then Socrates had a great idea. He did something that I’ve seen many therapy clients do over the years, and it often dramatically improves their lives… He quit his job. He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped sculpting stone and began sculpting himself instead, his own mind, his character, trying to develop wisdom and virtue. He wanted to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues. Everyone thought this was hilarious because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at. He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his student Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat! It’s not a compliment. Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character. He liked to say that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he should be the winner because his character was much more beautiful than theirs. His friends weren’t convinced; they weren’t sure if he was joking or serious.

Anyway he gave up being a sculptor and instead of doing his father’s job he decided to switch to doing his mother’s job instead. Now, Socrates’ mother was a midwife. But instead of helping pregnant women give birth to their babies… he wanted to become a midwife for wisdom… to help men and women alike to give birth to the ideas inside them, so that they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them. We call that “Socratic questioning”.

Socrates helped people to give birth to their ideas by asking them lots of really difficult questions about what it means to be wise and good. He asked soldiers “What does it really mean to be brave?”, he asked politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is the essence of wisdom?” He asked lots of questions but he always pretended he didn’t know the answers. That’s called Socratic irony – the word “irony” actually means ignorance. He used to say “I know only that I know nothing”, feigning ignorance, although he was much wiser than the people to whom he was talking. If you ask Poppy, she’ll explain that’s the secret of Socrates’ wisdom. He used to ask lots of questions, and then he’d listen really carefully to the answers people gave. That’s how he became the wisest man in history.

However, sometimes when you ask too many difficult questions to powerful and important people they get upset. That’s what happened to Socrates. He rocked the boat and they came after him. Two men called Anytus and Meletus put together a trumped up charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. Socrates was found guilty and executed, forced to drink hemlock. But nearly two and a half thousand years later, we still remember the things he said…

Once, Socrates asked his friends “what is justice?” and it led to a really long and really famous conversation, which was described in Plato’s book The Republic. One of Socrates’ companions said justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies. Even in ancient Greece that was a popular idea – it’s Donald Trump’s worldview, good guys versus bad guys. It makes sense. Help your friends; harm your enemies… Socrates said that was wrong, though. He said justice consists in helping your friends and helping your enemies. Everyone thought he was crazy.

So this was his argument… Wisdom is the most important thing in life. It’s much more valuable than material possessions. Why? Well, for example, wealth is only as good as the use we make of it. In the hands of a fool, money is used foolishly. In the hands of a wise man, money can be used wisely. So wealth is neither good nor bad in itself, what matters is the use we make of it. And to help someone is to do them good. So Socrates argued that if we really wanted to help people we would educate them and lead them toward wisdom rather than just giving them money, or other external things. And if our enemies genuinely become wise then they’ll cease to be our enemies and become our friends instead. So justice should consist in helping, or educating, both our friends and our enemies. Maybe that seems idealistic but I agree with Socrates.

So this is my take home message… It may surprise you, but the main lesson I learned from Socrates was forgiveness. We blame people when we don’t understand them. To understand all is to forgive all. And so the closer we get to wisdom, I believe, the more forgiving we become. Socrates even forgave Anytus and Meletus the two men who had him executed. Indeed, he said something truly remarkable at his trial: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” That’s how firmly he believed that the most important thing in life is our moral character, the one thing that nobody can ever take away from you unless you let them. So I hope that now you all know as much about Socratic wisdom as Poppy does.

New Facebook Page for Marcus Aurelius

I’ve just created a new Facebook page to share resources about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius.  I’ve been posting links to free courses, videos of talks on Stoicism, graphics and famous quotations, free prize draws, free e-books, and other giveaways.

If you’re interested, just like or follow the page below:

Feel free to share online. Hope you enjoy and look forward to seeing you there!