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?
I 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 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.