How to Think Like Marcus Aurelius

Three Simple Ways that Stoicism can Change your Mindset

Three Simple Ways that Stoicism can Change your Mindset

The Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of the most cherished and widely-read self-help classics of all time. His personal reflections contain a lot of good advice based on the ancient Stoic philosophy that he followed.

Below, I’ve outlined three of the most simple and practical Stoic exercises that you’ll find within the pages of The Meditations.

I’ve been researching Stoicism for nearly a quarter of a century, from my early days as a student of academic philosophy to my later career as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist deeply engaged with psychological-resilience training. I’m the author of several books on Stoicism, including a recent one on Marcus Aurelius called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Over the years, I’ve observed that although people love The Meditations they often struggle to know how to put Marcus’ psychological wisdom into practice. Below, I’ve outlined three of the most simple and practical Stoic exercises that you’ll find within the pages of The Meditations.

1. Living in Accord with Virtue

This is arguably the single most important strategy used by Marcus. Stoic philosophy was based on the premise that the fundamental goal (telos in Greek) of life is “living in agreement with Nature”. That doesn’t mean hugging trees, though. The Stoics believed that our ability to think is what really defines human nature. So the goal of their philosophy is living consistently in accord with reason. The word “philosophy”, φιλοσοφία in Greek, means “love of wisdom”. Stoicism therefore, as a philosophy of life, means actually putting this into practice by trying to live wisely. Reason, for the Stoics, is the foundation of all the other virtues.

Easier said than done, right? What matters most, though, is the intention to be guided consistently by your better wisdom. Marcus appears to have regularly checked whether his actions were in alignment with reason and his core values, perhaps several times per day. He frequently asked himself whether individual acts, or even thoughts, are actually necessary for a creature living in accord with reason. Much of what we think to ourselves and do outwardly, he said, is totally superfluous on closer inspection, and merely diverts us from our true purpose.

There are interesting variations of this technique in The Meditations. We’re to pause and ask ourselves of any action how it reflects on our character — “Am I acting like a wise Sage right now,” for example, “or like a childish, foolish or vicious person?” We’re to ask ourselves what the likely consequences of our actions are and whether we might regret them later.

Perhaps the most dramatic version advises us to radically question the importance of what we’re seeking:

On the occasion of every individual thing that you do, pause and ask yourself if death is a dreadful thing because it deprives you of this. — Marcus Aurelius

Are you afraid of dying because you’ll miss an episode of your favourite soap opera or because you’ll not be able to go on Facebook any more? Presumably not, right? It’s a roundabout way of asking: “This thing I’m doing right now — does it really add value to my life?” How important, ultimately, is it to you? This is a profound type of self-discipline and it requires sacrifice: letting go of things that you desire but which aren’t really important in the grand scheme. Cutting away the dead wood by quitting all those activities that feel attractive but aren’t really doing you any good in the long-run.

2. Suspending Judgment

Living consistently in accord with wisdom and our core values, and fulfilling our fundamental goal in life, is a tall order, isn’t it? The two biggest obstacles, arguably, are fear and craving. Replacing these with more rational and healthy emotions was the basis of what’s sometimes called the ancient Stoic “therapy of the passions”.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of modern psychotherapy was originally inspired by Stoicism. Albert Ellis, the New York psychotherapist who developed the earliest form of CBT, in the 1950s, used to teach a quote from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus to most of his students and therapy clients:

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them. — Epictetus

Marcus Aurelius, who was heavily influenced himself by Epictetus, paraphrases this saying several times:

If thou are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs thee, but thine own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. — Marcus Aurelius

Indeed, those very words from The Meditations were quoted by Aaron T. Beck, the other main founder of CBT, in his first book on the subject Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (1976). So although our first strategy above was arguably more fundamental to the philosophy, this concept has become the most influential aspect of ancient Stoicism’s legacy.

We call this “cognitive distancing” today, meaning the ability to separate your thoughts from the external events to which they refer. The basis of Stoic therapy is the ability to suspend our value judgements, by realizing that “there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet. At least, that’s true with regard to external events, for Stoics what’s truly good or bad isn’t what happens to us but how we decide to respond. Marcus frequently reminded himself of this in order to maintain a healthy sense of cognitive distance from and flexibility toward external events.

3. The View from Above

Lastly, we come to one of the most striking contemplative exercises found in The Meditations, dubbed “The View from Above” by modern scholars. Marcus refers to this several times, especially toward the end of the book.

He who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place. He should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labors, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.

This exercise involves visualizing your life as though seen from high above. The obvious analogy, from Greek mythology, would the perspective of Zeus looking down on mortals from atop Mount Olympus.

More fundamentally, though, the Stoics believed that the truth consists in the whole picture. When we forget this, and view events more selectively, we take them out of context, and inflate their significance in a way that causes all sorts of emotional upset and confusion. We could even call this a “lie of omission” that we commit, toward ourselves. In contrast to this, broadening our perspective, in terms both of time and space, allows us to see things more objectively.

Psychologists know today that strong emotions such as fear and anger cause people to narrow their field of attention, and to focus more selectively on the things that are upsetting them. In anxiety, that’s called “threat monitoring”. It probably served some evolutionary purpose but it comes at a hefty price. If we’re not careful, we lose perspective by entering into a form of tunnel-vision about the problems we’re facing in life. The Stoics, on the other hand, realized that wisdom consists in seeing the bigger picture.

What else?

Many more psychological strategies and techniques, such as these, are clearly described in the ancient Stoic texts. In my first book on Stoicism, The Philosophy of CBT, eighteen altogether were identified. However, I think living in agreement with virtue, suspending judgment, and the view from above, are three of the most fundamental and important ones. Doing these regularly, maybe every day, would provide anyone with a solid foundation for training themselves in Stoicism as a philosophy of life.

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