Marcus Aurelius and Junius Rusticus

Some notes on the relationship between Marcus Aurelius and his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus.

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

The Roman statesman Quintus Junius Rusticus (100 – c. 170 AD) was one of the pre-eminent Stoic philosophers of his day, and the main philosophical teacher of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD).  He was a powerful member of the Roman political elite, and served twice as consul, the highest elected position in the Empire.  In fact Rusticus was first appointed consul in 162 AD, the year after his student Marcus Aurelius became Emperor.

The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio says of Marcus:

His education was of great assistance to him, for he had been trained both in rhetoric and in philosophical disputation. In the former he had Cornelius Fronto and Claudius Herodes for teachers, and, in the latter, Junius Rusticus and Apollonius of Nicomedeia, both of whom professed [the founder of Stoicism] Zeno’s doctrines.  As a result, great numbers pretended to pursue philosophy, hoping that they might be enriched by the emperor.  Most of all, however, he owed his advancement to his own natural gifts; for even before he associated with those teachers he had a strong impulse towards virtue.(Epitome of Book LXXII)

The biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta says that as a youth his enthusiasm for philosophy was so great that he insisted on attending the lectures of several Stoic philosophers after being adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius.

He received most instruction from Junius Rusticus, whom he ever revered and whose disciple he became, a man esteemed in both private and public life, and exceedingly well acquainted with the Stoic system, with whom Marcus shared all his counsels both public and private, whom he greeted with a kiss prior to the prefects of the guard, whom he even appointed consul for a second term, and whom after his death he asked the senate to honour with statues. (Historia Augusta)

It was customary for the Emperor to bestow a ceremonial kiss upon the highest-ranking members of the senate.  The author goes on to say that Marcus held his teachers in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

This reverential attitude is likewise reflected in Marcus’ Meditations, where it’s implied that Rusticus was honoured in his household shrine, along with members of his own family.  In the opening chapter of the Meditations, Marcus recalls, in a contemplative manner, the virtues of his family, teachers, etc., and what he’s learned from their example.  The seventh passage summarizes the main virtues he observed in his main Stoic teacher:

From Rusticus [I learned] to become aware of the fact that my character needed improvement and training; and not to be led aside into an argumentative sophistry; nor compose treatises on speculative subjects, or deliver pretentious sermons, or show-off with ostentatious displays of self-discipline or generosity; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and refined language; and not to lounge about the house in my toga, or to let myself go in this sort of way; and to write letters simply, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to show oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as ever they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial bird’s-eye view; nor to be too quick to go along with smooth-talkers; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me without of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

The advice to refrain from over-indulgence in abstract philosophical debate, or sophistry, and to keep the focus on the practical application of philosophical principles, was characteristic of Stoicism.  So also the notion that a wise mentor can help us first of all by raising our awareness of our own flaws or, as we’d say today, our “blind-spots.”  Overall, Rusticus seems to have urged Marcus to adopt simplicity in his lifestyle and speech, something which, as Hadot notes, seems to have clashed with his training with the rhetorician Fronto.  The first chapter of the Meditations concludes with a long passage in which Marcus thanks the gods for having such good teachers and for the opportunity to know Rusticus and the others.  Marcus also thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17).  These and other comments throughout the Meditations suggest that Marcus struggled with occasional feelings of anger and frustration, perhaps in response to the plain-spoken criticisms of his Stoic tutor.

It’s not certain but seems very likely that in the passage above Marcus is referring to the Discourses of Epictetus (55 -135 AD), as we know them today.  Throughout the Meditations, he appears very acquainted with that text and arguably bases his own philosophical position mainly on his reading of it.  Marcus was about thirteen years old when Epictetus died, so it’s perhaps unlikely that they met in person.  However, Rusticus may well have studied under Epictetus, so it’s also possible that in the passage above Marcus is referring to personal notes made by Rusticus at these lectures.

Marcus was certainly greatly influenced by the teachings of Epictetus and the influence of Rusticus may help to explain the link between the two men.

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta

What do we learn about the life and character of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, the author of The Meditations, from the Historia Augusta?

Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and BeyondThe Historia Augusta is a somewhat unreliable Latin history, supposedly compiled from the writings of different authors.  It appears to contain a mixture of authentic historical facts derived from other sources, and fictitious elaboration added by one or more later authors.  However, it is one of the few sources of information about the life of Marcus Aurelius, the author of the famous Stoic journal, originally entitled To Himself but better known today as The Meditations.

It contains a chapter dedicated to the life of Marcus, which appears reasonably plausible and may be one of the more reliable parts of the text.  Indeed, several of the details given about Marcus’ life in this text appear consistent with biographical fragments in The Meditations.  This potentially lends the rest of the biography some credibility as  historians consider it unlikely the author actually had access to a copy of The Meditations.  A detailed scholarly analysis of the text has recently been published by Dr. Geoff W. Adams, of the University of Tasmania, called Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and Beyond (2013).

So what does the biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta say that may be of interest to us in terms of his Stoicism?  The opening sentence states that Marcus  “throughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.”  We’re told Marcus was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to “notable instructors”, embarked on his study of philosophy.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Stoics and Cynics.  The history continues:

Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius’ house for instruction.  He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch’s nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus – all Stoics.  He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School.  But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed – a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practiced in the Stoic discipline.

Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

We’re told of his character: “He was austere, but not hardened, modest but not timid and serious, but not grim.”  He’s praised as a benevolent and wise ruler:

Indeed, toward the people he behaved no differently than one behaves under a free state.  He was in all ways remarkably moderate, in deterring people from evil and encouraging them to good, generous in rewarding, lenient in pardoning and as such he made the bad good and good very good – even suffering with restraint the criticism of not a few.

We’re told he was not quick to punish anyone, and that although resolute he was always reasonable and restrained.  He was renowned for acts of kindness and compassion.  For example, apparently Marcus was the first to order that tight-rope walkers, often young boys, should be protected from injury by placing mattresses beneath their ropes, since which time nets have been used to reduce the risk.  Presumably he felt that the spectacle of children risking their lives was unnecessary and their skills could still be entertaining enough, though the performance was made safe.

The war in Germania is portrayed as necessary to defend Rome against incursions and difficult because the armies were seriously depleted by plague.  Marcus took the controversial, but perhaps prudent decision to order slaves and gladiators to be armed and trained for military service.  We’re told he auctioned off the treasures of the imperial palace selling robes, goblets, statues, and paintings, to raise funds for the war in Germania.  Perhaps his comment about his indifference to his purple imperial robes, described as just wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore, in The Meditations, can be linked to the sacrifice of such precious garments.

But because Marcus appeared severe in his military discipline and in fact in his general lifestyle, as a consequence of his philosophical practices, he was angrily criticized; but to all of those who spoke badly of him, he responded in either orations or in brochures.

In other words, despite his supreme power, he did not have his outspoken critics punished, or even killed, as emperors such as Nero did.  It seems his austere lifestyle led both to prudence in running the state but also to some anxiety among the population.  We’re told that when he recruited the gladiators to serve in the army, “there was gossip among the people that he sought to take away their amusements and so force them to study philosophy.”  Again, though, with regard to his concern with justice, we’re told:

It was normal for [Marcus] to penalize all crimes with lighter sentences than were generally imposed by the laws, but at times, toward those who were obviously guilty of serious offences he remained unbending.  […] He meticulously observed justice, furthermore, even in this contact with captured foes.  He settled countless foreigners on Roman land.

Curiously, we’re told Marcus was “exceptionally adored” by the eastern provinces of the Roman empire, and that he somehow “left the imprint of philosophy” upon them.

For Marcus’ own serenity was so great, that he never changed his expression (either in grief or in joy) being devoted to the Stoic philosophy, which he had learned from the very best teachers and had acquired himself from every source.

This is another typical characteristic attributed to Stoics: the wise man has a fundamental constancy, and is unchanged by external circumstances, whatever his fate.  Whether he meets with outward success or failure, he is always the same, because these things are ultimately “indifferent” to him, only his own virtue (or vice) really matters enough to influence his state of mind.  When Marcus became seriously ill he ended his life by refraining from eating and drinking, which we’re also told Zeno the founder of Stoicism did when he wished to end his life.

Stoicism has a military flavour, both in its language and in the lifestyle and attire adopted by its adherents.  Stoic leaders, perhaps for that reason, were sometimes popular with the Roman troops.  Marcus is portrayed as a man dedicated to the military and adored by them, not unlike the Stoic hero Cato before him.  Hence, “The army, when they heard of his illness, cried noisily, for they loved him alone.”

When near death, he called his friends around, showing, we’re told, a lofty indifference to his own impending demise.  He said: “Why do you cry for me, instead of considering the pestilence and the death that is the common destiny of us all.”  This is a standard Stoic formula, in fact.  Contemplating the universal and inevitable nature of death is supposed to help us accept it with indifference, as determined by Nature.

Introduction to Stoicism: The Three Disciplines

An introduction to Stoicism, or applied Stoic philosophy, focusing on the “Three Discplines” found in the writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, as explained by the modern French scholar Pierre Hadot.

An Introduction to Stoic Practice:
The Three Disciplines of Stoicism

Epictetus-Enchiridion-Poster[Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved. Based on material from the forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism (Hodder, 2013).  See also A Simplified Approach to Modern Stoicism for a brief introduction to Stoic daily exercises.]

From its origin Stoicism placed considerable emphasis on the division of philosophical discourse into three topics called “Ethics”, “Physics” and “Logic”.  Philosophy itself was unified but theoretical discussions could be broadly distinguished in this way and the Stoics were particularly known for their threefold curriculum.  Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose work survives in significant amounts, we have four volumes of his Discourses, recorded from his public lectures by his student Arrian, although another four volumes have apparently been lost.  We also have a condensed version of his teachings compiled in the famous Stoic “Handbook” or Enchiridion.  Although Epictetus lived about four centuries after Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, and by his time the formal institution of the Stoic school had apparently ceased to exist, he appears to have been particularly faithful to the early teachings of the school’s main founders: Zeno and Chrysippus.

However, Epictetus also describes a threefold division between aspects of lived philosophical practice, which scholars can find no trace of in previous Stoic literature.  (Hence, another famous Roman Stoic, Seneca, won’t come into this discussion because he basically lived before Epictetus and never mentioned these three disciplines.)

  1. “The Discipline of Desire”, which has to do with acceptance of our fate
  2. “The Discipline of Action”, which has to do with philanthropy or love of mankind
  3. “The Discipline of Assent”, which has to do with mindfulness of our judgements

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic best-known to modern readers, was taught by philosophers who possibly studied with Epictetus, although he never met him himself.  One of Marcus’ teachers gave him a copy of notes from Epictetus’ lectures, almost certainly the Discourses recorded by Arrian.  Indeed, Marcus refers to the teachings of Epictetus repeatedly throughout The Meditations and it’s clear that he’s primarily influenced by this particular form of Stoicism.  He also makes extensive use of the Three Disciplines described in the Discourses, which provide one of the main “keys” to interpreting his own writings.

So how are we to interpret these Stoic practical disciplines?  The French scholar Pierre Hadot wrote a very thorough analysis of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations called The Inner Citadel (1998), in which he explores the Three Disciplines in detail, employing them as a framework for his exposition.  If we follow Hadot’s interpretation, it actually provides a fairly clear and simple model for understanding the teachings of Stoicism.  The way of Stoic philosophy was traditionally described as “living according to nature” or “living harmoniously” and Hadot suggests that all three disciplines are intended to help us live in harmony in different regards, and that they combine together to provide the secret to a serene and harmonious way of life, practical philosophy as the art of living wisely.

1. The Discipline of Desire (Stoic Acceptance)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “desire” (orexis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “physics”, which includes the Stoic study of natural philosophy, cosmology, and theology.  The discipline of desire, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with the Nature of the universe as a whole, or in the language of Stoic theology, with Zeus or God.  This entails having a “philosophical attitude” toward a life and acceptance of our Fate as necessary and inevitable.  It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly entailing the cardinal virtues associated with self-control over the irrational passions, which are “courage”, or endurance in the face of fear and suffering, and “self-discipline” (temperance), or the ability to renounce desire and abstain from false or unhealthy pleasures.  (Hence, Epictetus’ famous slogan: “endure and renounce”.)  Hadot calls the goal of this discipline “amor fati” or the loving acceptance of one’s fate.  This discipline is summed up in one of the most striking passages from the Enchiridion: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely.”  But Stoics are not “doormats”.  The Stoic hero Cato of Utica famously marched the shattered remnants of the Republican army through the deserts of Africa to make a desperate last stand against the tyrant Julius Caesar, who sought to overthrow the Republic and declare himself dictator of Rome.  Although he lost the civil war, he became a Roman legend and the Stoics dubbed him “the invincible Cato” because his will was completely unconquered – he tore his own guts out with his bare hands rather than submit to Caesar and be exploited by the dictator for his propaganda.  Centuries later, the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, despite a devastating plague and countless misfortunes beyond his control, led his weakened army repeatedly into battle to defend Rome against invading barbarian hordes.  He prevailed despite the many obstacles to victory.  If he’d failed, Rome would have been destroyed.  As we’ll see, the discipline of action explains this strange paradox: how can the Stoics combine acceptance with such famous endurance and courageous action in the name of justice?  I’ve described this discipline simply as “Stoic Acceptance”, meaning amor fati.

2. The Discipline of Action (Stoic Philanthropy)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “action” (hormê, which really means the inception or initial “impulse” to action) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “ethics”.  Stoic “ethics” which includes the definition of what is good, bad, and indifferent.  It also deals with the goal of life as “happiness” or fulfilment (eudaimonia).  It includes the definition of the cardinal Stoic virtues (wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline).  According to the central doctrine of Stoicism, virtue is the only true good and sufficient by itself for the good life and fulfilment (eudaimonia).  Likewise, Stoic ethics covers the vices, opposing virtue, and the irrational and unhealthy “passions”, classified as: fear, craving, emotional pain, and false or unhealthy pleasures.  The discipline of action, according to Hadot’s view, is the essentially virtue of living in harmony with the community of all mankind, which means benevolently wishing all of mankind to flourish and achieve “happiness” (eudaimonia) the goal of life.  However, as other people’s wellbeing is outside of our direct control, we must always wish them well in accord with the Stoic “reserve clause” (hupexairesis), which basically means adding the caveat: “Fate permitting” or “God willing.”  (This is one way in which the philosophical attitude toward life reconciles vigorous action with emotional acceptance.)  In other words, Stoics do their best to act with virtue while accepting the outcome of their actions in a somewhat detached manner, whether success or failure.  Moreover, Stoics must act according to their rational appraisal of which external outcomes are naturally to be preferred.  Hence, Marcus Aurelius appears to refer to three clauses that Stoics should be continually mindful to attach to all of their actions:

  1. That they are undertaken “with a reserve clause” (hupexairesis)
  2. That they are “for the common welfare” of mankind (koinônikai)
  3. That they “accord with value” (kat’ axian)

It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal virtue of “justice”, which the Stoics defined as including both fairness to others and benevolence.  Hadot calls this discipline “action in the service of mankind”, because it involves extending the same natural affection or care that we are born feeling for our own body and physical wellbeing to include the physical and mental wellbeing of all mankind, through a process known as “appropriation” (oikeiosis) or widening the circle of our natural “self-love” to include all mankind.  I’ve described this as “Stoic Philanthropy”, or love of mankind, a term they employed themselves.

3. The Discipline of Assent (Stoic Mindfulness)

According to Hadot, the discipline of “assent” (sunkatathesis) is the application to daily living of the Stoic theoretical topic of “logic”.  Stoic “logic” actually includes elements of what we would now call “psychology” or “epistemology”.  The discipline of assent, according to this view, is the virtue of living in harmony with our own essential nature as rational beings, which means living in accord with reason and truthfulness in both our thoughts and speech.  It’s tempting to see this discipline as particularly associated with the cardinal Stoic virtue of “wisdom” or truthfulness.  Hadot calls the goal of this discipline the “inner citadel” because it involves continual awareness of the true self, the faculty of the mind responsible for judgement and action, where our freedom and virtue reside, the chief good in life.  According to Hadot’s analysis, although the Stoics refer to “judgement” in general (hypolêpsis), they’re primarily interested in monitoring and evaluating their own implicit value-judgements.  These form the basis of our actions, desires, and emotions, especially the irrational passions and vices which the Stoics sought to overcome.  By continually monitoring their judgements, Stoics are to notice the early-warning signs of upsetting or unhealthy impressions and take a step back from them, withholding their “assent” or agreement, rather than being “carried away” into irrational and unhealthy passions and the vices.  The Stoics call this prosochê or “attention” to the ruling faculty of the mind, to our judgements and actions.   I’ve described this as “Stoic Mindfulness”, a term that can be taken to translate prosochê.

The Goal of Life (Follow Nature)

As you can probably see, these three disciplines overlap considerably and are intertwined, just like the three traditional topics of Stoic philosophy, which Hadot claims they’re based upon: Logic, Ethics, and Physics.  However, in unison, they allow the Stoic to work toward a harmonious and consistent way of life, in accord with nature.  By this, the Stoics meant a life in the service of the natural goal of human nature, the attainment of fulfilment “eudaimonia”, the good life, achieved by perfecting moral reasoning and excelling in terms of the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

This article provides a brief description of a simplified modern approach to Stoic practice, designed for anyone to follow, even if they are completely new to this subject.

A Simplified Modern Approach to Stoicism

Stoicism and Stoic PhilosophyCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

(This is a draft version so we’ll try to incorporate your comments and suggestions.  See my forthcoming book Teach yourself Stoicism, or my previous books on Stoic philosophy and CBT, The Philosophy of CBT and Build your Resilience, for more information.  You can also follow @Stoicweek on Twitter or check out our new Facebook discussion group for Stoicism.)

Please post your comments and questions below or reblog this article on WordPress…

This article is designed to provide a very concise introduction to Stoicism as a way of life, through a simplified set of Stoic psychological practices.  The first few passages of Epictetus’ Handbook (Enchiridion) actually provide an account of some fundamental practices that can form the basis of a simplified approach to Stoicism and this account is closely based on those.  We’d recommend you treat it as an introduction to the wider Stoic literature.  However, starting with a set of basic practices can help people studying Stoic philosophy to get to grips with things before proceeding to assimilate some of the more diverse or complex aspects found in the ancient texts.  Both Seneca and Epictetus refer to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which happens to provide a good framework for developing a daily routine, bookended by morning and evening contemplative practices.

Teach Yourself: Build your Resilience (2012)Zeno of Citium, who founded Stoicism in 301 BC, expressed his doctrines in notoriously terse arguments and concise maxims.  However, Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school, wrote over 700 books fleshing these ideas out and adding complex arguments to support them.  Let’s focus here on the concise version but bearing in mind there’s a more complex philosophy lurking in the background.  For example, Epictetus, the only Stoic teacher whose works survive in any significant quantity, described the central precept of Stoicism to his students as follows:

And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own, and what are not. (Discourses, 4.5.7)

The practical consequence of this distinction is essentially quite simple:

What, then, is to be done?  To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Discourses, 1.1.17)

The routine below is designed to provide an introduction to Stoic practice for the 21st Century, which can lead naturally into a wider appreciation of Stoic philosophy as a way of life.  The instructions are designed to be as straightforward and concise as possible, while still remaining reasonably faithful to classical Stoicism.  The most popular book for people to read who are new to Stoicism is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, so we recommend that you also consider reading a modern translation of that text during the first few weeks of your Stoic practice.

The Basic Philosophical Regime

Stage 1: Morning Preparation

Plan your day ahead with the Stoic “reserve clause” in mind.  Decide what goals you want to achieve in advance and make a decision to try to achieve them but with the caveat: “Fate permitting.”  In other words, aim for success and pursue it wholeheartedly while also being prepared to accept setbacks or failure with equanimity, insofar as they lie outside of your direct control.  Try to choose your goals wisely, picking things that are rational and healthy for you to pursue.  Your primary goal throughout these three stages should be to protect and improve your fundamental wellbeing, particularly in terms of your character and ability to think clearly about your life.   You’re going to try to do this by cultivating greater self-awareness and practical wisdom, which requires setting goals for yourself that are healthy, while pursuing them in a sort of “detached” way, without being particularly attached to the outcome.

Stage 2: Stoic Mindfulness (Prosochê) Throughout the Day

Throughout the day, continually pay attention to the way you make value-judgements and respond to your thoughts.  Be mindful, in particular of the way you respond to strong emotions or desires.  When you experience a distressing or problematic thought, pause, and tell yourself: “This is just a thought and not at all the thing it claims to represent.”  Remind yourself that it is not things that upset you but your judgements about things.  Where appropriate, rather than being carried away by your initial impressions, try to postpone responding to them for at least an hour, waiting until your feelings have settled down and you are able to view things more calmly and objectively before deciding what action to take.

Once you have achieved greater self-awareness of your stream of consciousness and the ability to take a step back from your thoughts in this way, begin to also apply a simple standard of evaluation to your thoughts and impressions as follows.  Having paused to view your thoughts from a distance, ask yourself whether they are about things that are directly under your control or things that are not.  This has been called the general precept or strategy of ancient Stoic practice.  If you notice that your feelings are about something that’s outside of your direct control then respond by trying to accept the fact that it’s out of your hands, saying to yourself: “This is nothing to me.”  Focus your attention instead on doing what is within your sphere of control with wisdom and to the best of your ability, regardless of the actual outcome.  In other words, remind yourself to apply the reserve clause described above to each situation.  Look for ways to remind yourself of this.  For example, the Serenity Prayer is a well-known version of this idea, which you might want to memorise or write down somewhere and contemplate each day.

Give 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.

You may find that knowing you are going to review these events and evaluate them in more detail before you sleep (see below) actually helps you to become more mindful of how you respond to your thoughts and feelings throughout the day.

Stage 3: Night-time Review

Review your whole day, three times, if possible, before going to sleep.  Focus on the key events and the order in which they happened, e.g., the order in which you undertook different tasks or interacted with different people during the day.

  1. What did you do that was good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went well?)
  2. What did you do that harmed your fundamental wellbeing?  (What went badly?)
  3. What opportunities did you miss to do something good for your fundamental wellbeing?  (What was omitted?)

Counsel yourself as if you were advising a close friend or loved one.  What can you learn from the day and, where appropriate, how can you do better in the future?  Praise yourself for what went well and allow yourself to reflect on it with satisfaction.  You may also find it helps to give yourself a simple subjective rating (from 0-10) to measure how consistently you followed the instructions here or how good you were at pursuing rational and healthy goals while remaining detached from things outside of your direct control.  However, also try to be concise in your evaluation of things and to arrive at conclusions without ruminating over things for too long.

If you’re interested, you can complete The Stoic Attitudes Scale and rate how strong your belief is in different aspects of Stoic theory.

Appendix: Some Additional Stoic Practices

There’s a lot more to Stoicism, in terms of both the theory and practice.  You might want to begin with a simple approach but you should probably broaden your perspective eventually to include the other parts of Stoicism.  Reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and other books can provide you with a better idea of the theoretical breadth of Stoic philosophy.  Here are three examples of other Stoic practices, followed by a link to a longer and more detailed article on this site…

  1. Contemplation of the Sage: Imagine the ideal Sage or exemplary historical figures (Socrates, Diogenes, Cato) and ask yourself: “What would he do?”, or imagine being observed by them and how they would comment on your actions.
  2. Contemplating the Whole Cosmos: Imagine the whole universe as if it were one thing and yourself as part of the whole, or the View from Above: Picture events unfolding below as if observed from Mount Olympus or a high  watchtower.
  3. Premeditation of Adversity: Mentally rehearse potential losses or misfortunes and view them as “indifferent” (decatastrophising), also view them as natural and inevitable to remove any sense of shock or surprise.

Follow this link for a much more detailed account of Stoic practices with a wider range of techniques…

Please post your comments and questions below or reblog this article on WordPress…

Were Hand Gestures a Technique of Stoicism?

Short article describing the potential use of a series of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno, as a psychological exercise or coping strategy in modern Stoicism.

Hand Gestures in Stoicism

Were they a psychological technique?

Chrysippus Gesturing

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

[This is still a draft, using material I’m researching for my next book, so please feel free to comment or raise questions, and I may revise the content accordingly.]

The early Stoics reputedly said that “knowledge is the leading part of the soul in a certain state, just as the hand in a certain state is a fist” (Sextus in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, The Stoic Reader, p. 27).  This analogy between secure knowledge, having a firm grasp on an idea, and the physical act of clenching the fist seems to be a recurring theme in Stoic literature.

And Zeno used to make this point by using a gesture.  When he held out his hand with open fingers, he would say, “This is what a presentation is like.”  Then when he had closed his fingers a bit, he said, “Assent is like this.”  And when he had compressed it completely and made a fist, he said that this was grasping (and on the basis o f this comparison he even gave it the name ‘katalepsis’ [grasp], which had not previously existed).  But when he put his left hand over it and compressed it tightly and powerfully, he said that knowledge was this sort of thing and that no one except the wise man possessed it.  (Cicero in Inwood & Gerson, 2008, p. 47)

The sculpture of Chrysippus in the picture above, from the 3rd century BC, shows him holding his hand out with open fingers, in a similar posture.  So we have a series of four hand gestures:

  1. The hand is held open, at a distance, with palm upwards, to symbolise a superficial impression or “presentation”.
  2. The hand is closed loosely, to symbolise initial “assent” or agreement with the idea.
  3. The hand is squeezed tightly into a fist to symbolise a firm grasp (katalepsis) or sense of certainty.
  4. The fist is enclosed tightly in the other hand, to symbolise the perfect “knowledge” of true ideas attained by the ideal Sage, which is elsewhere described as an interconnection of firmly-grasped principles and ideas, forming the excellent character of the wise.

Marcus Aurelius explicitly refers to the Stoic clenching his fist as a metaphor for arming himself with his philosophical precepts or dogmata:

In our use of [Stoic] precepts [dogmata] we should imitate the boxer [pancratiast] not the swordsman [gladiator].  For the swordsman’s weapon is picked up and put down again.  However, the boxer always has his hands available.  All he has to do is clench his fist. (Meditations, 12.9)

For the Stoics it was important to memorise the precepts and integrate them completely with one’s character in order to have them always “ready-to-hand” in the face of adversity.  It’s possible that the physical act of literally clenching the fist, like a boxer, was used as a mnemonic to recall principles required in difficult situations.

It’s possible perhaps to construct a modern Stoic psychological exercise out of this symbolic set of hand gestures.  While repeating a precept of Stoicism (“the only good is moral good”, “pain is not an evil”) the Stoic student might initially hold his hand open as if toying with the idea and then progressively close it more tightly, while imagining accepting it more deeply, until he finally clenches his fist tightly to symbolise having a firm grasp of the idea, and closes his other hand around it, to symbolise integrating it more deeply with his character, and contemplating how the Sage might hold this belief.  This might be compared to the use of “autosuggestions” or rehearsing “rational coping statements” in modern psychological therapies.

There may also be an additional use, in relation to false or irrational ideas.  In the Enchiridion, Epictetus says that the first thing a Stoic should do when encountering a harsh (problematic) impression is to remind himself that it is merely an impression and not at all the thing it claims to represent.  This sounds very much like an important psychological strategy used in modern CBT and behaviour therapy, called “cognitive distancing” or “defusion”.  As it happens, Cicero says that the hand gesture demonstrated in the sculpture of Chrysippus above was used by Zeno and other Stoics to symbolise entertaining an idea, such as an “automatic negative thought”, in the form of a superficial “presentation” or impression.  Hence, a modern Stoic might make the same gesture when he notices an unhelpful or irrational thought occurring spontaneously, and entertain it a while longer, as if holding it loosely in an open hand, at a distance, while repeating “This is just an automatic thought, and not at all the thing it claims to represent” or “This is just a thought, not a fact”, etc.

We don’t know whether the set of symbolic hand gestures described by Zeno was meant originally as a psychological technique of this kind.  However, the quote from Marcus Aurelius above could perhaps be read, if taken very literally, as a description of an actual physical practice employed by Stoic students: clenching their fists to arm themselves, like a boxer, with their philosophical precepts (dogmata) in the face of adversity.