Book Review: Backbone by Karen Duffy

Karen DuffyKaren Duffy, or “Duff”, was kind enough to send me a review copy of her new book Backbone: Living With Chronic Pain Without Turning Into One (2017) because it contains a chapter on Stoicism. It’s a book about developing a backbone, and a sense of humour, and not allowing chronic pain or illness to get you down.

I wish I could write like Duff. Her style is witty banter and yet there’s a profound message of hope in there as well as the wisdom of experience. I postponed reading Backbone for about eight months because I was “too busy”. When I finally got round to it, I read it in a single evening and thoroughly enjoyed it. (I’ve already sneaked the PDF to some of my friends!) Duff has an autoimmune disorder called sarcoidosis of the central nervous system. It’s not very nice.  She’s had to learn to cope with a lot of health issues, as well as severe chronic pain. She talks about how it was as though “old age” hit her in her early thirties in the form of chronic illness. She’s tough, though, and full of gratitude for life. Duff’s pretty into Stoicism already, and maybe I’m biased, but I reckon she could be even more Stoic than she realizes.

Her basic attitude that “happiness is a byproduct of being useful”, that it comes from what we give rather than what we get, is pure Stoicism. It’s our own actions that lead to personal fulfilment not just the chance events that happen to befall us in life. She’s of the “you make your own luck” school of thought, which is totally derived from Stoicism as well. “What is bad fortune? Opinion.” (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.3). Duff says that it seems to her that things turn out for the best when we try to make the best of our situation. Epictetus calls this philosophy of life the magic wand of Hermes.  According to legend, it has the power to turn anything it touches into gold. What he means is that if we have the right attitude we can flourish even in adversity, by showing our resilience, and turning bad fortune into good. “I believe”, says Duff, “that when we face obstacles and adversity in our lives we have an opportunity to strengthen our courage.” She’s clearly talking from experience so I think we should listen…

One of the many unexpected things I learned from this book is that hockey may be the most Stoic game. Apparently there’s an “embellishment penalty” for players who take a dive and fake injuries on the ice. If there’s one thing the Stoics like to tell us it’s that we only make things worse by complaining too much about our suffering. It just adds another layer to our misery. As Paul Dubois, a famous Stoic-influenced psychotherapist everyone’s now forgotten about, liked to say: “He who knows how to suffer suffers less.” (Obscure therapy reference #1.) That could pretty much be Duff’s slogan as well. She describes her illness as, in some ways, a gift. Not a gift she’d have picked out for herself but she’s found an upside in discovering her own backbone, or inner resilience. Her advice that pain is inevitable but suffering is optional is (you guessed it) also pure Stoic.

When I read Duff’s remark “I believe that we are never too sick or too old to set another goal”, for some reason it reminded me of one of my favourite passages from ancient philosophy, found at the very start of Plato’s Republic. It’s a conversation between Socrates and a venerable old man, a wealthy immigrant living in Athens, called Cephalus. I first read it as a teenager and it just stuck in my mind. Socrates says that as life is a journey, he thinks it’s only sensible to ask those who have gone before us what the territory ahead is like: is it rough or smooth going? Cephalus gives him a surprising answer. First he explains that just as birds of a feather flock together so, he finds, old men like each other’s company. He hears all his friends complaining about old age, and their various aches and pains on a regular basis, and if you listened to them you’d think it’s a terrible curse. But Cephalus says they’re all wrong.

He says that what matters is your attitude and that if you’re the sort of person who complains about old age then he reckons you probably complained almost as much in your youth when the going was easier anyway. He looks on the positive side of things. As he gets older he’s lost his sex drive but that’s okay because it’s one less thing to worry about. He quotes Sophocles’ saying that it’s like being unshackled from a madman. In fact, Cephalus says that as he’s grown older he feels like he’s been gradually unshackled from several madmen. He looks at young people and feels that they spend a lot of time and energy chasing after things that just don’t matter to him anymore and worrying about superficial concerns that one day they’ll forget about. He can’t travel much anymore because he’s frail but he finds that he obtains more pleasure from conversation than he ever did in the past.

This is all prelude to the Stoics. Epictetus said “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about them” and not a lot of people know this but he immediately follows it by saying that death can’t be terrible because if it were everyone would be scared of it whereas Socrates viewed it with noble indifference. Epictetus probably learned this strategy from reading about Socrates. Does something upset you? (Yes!) Does everyone else feel upset about it or do some people view it differently and cope better? (I guess so.) Well, in that case, could it be that it’s not the thing itself that’s upsetting but your way of looking at it?

In the conversation in the Republic the roles are reversed for some reason and it’s Socrates who’s learning this from Cephalus. What’s nice about this discussion is that he’s not entirely convinced, though. You see Cephalus owned a huge factory producing weapons and armour and so he was a wealthy businessman. Come now, says Socrates, surely people will think that’s easy for you to say because you’ve got loads of cash. Cephalus is very relaxed. He replies with a story. The Athenian general Themistocles, who had accomplished great things and won tremendous acclaim, once met a rude man from the relatively small and undistinguished Greek Island of Seriphos, who wanted to take him down a peg or two. The Seraphean remarked rather cynically that Themistocles was only famous because he had the good fortune to be born in Athens (the big smoke) and so he had a head start in life. “True,” replied Themistocles, “but if I had been born in Seriphos and you in Athens, neither of us would have achieved anything.” Touche! Cephalus brought up this anecdote to make the analogous point that wealth, though an advantage, only goes so far in making life more comfortable. At the end of the day, you need the right attitude as well. He’s already implied the same thing earlier when talking about the advantages of youth and good health. Someone with a negative attitude often won’t be happy even with all the advantages money, youth, and health bring. Cephalus admits that poverty, old age, and sickness are obviously disadvantages. However, even when faced with these challenges, a truly wise man, with the right attitude toward life, can perhaps flourish in his own way and find a degree of happiness. As I was reading Backbone, it occured to me that Duff might like that story too.  (So that’s my feeble excuse for a massive digression!)

Anyway, how did she actually get into Stoicism in the first place? Well, one of her friends pointed out a bust of Marcus Aurelius to her in the garden of Sylvester Manor, an 18th century house on Shelter Island, in New York. Not to be outdone, Duff decided she better find out who this guy was and brushed up on her knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, including Stoic philosophy. Now she carries a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in her purse and reads from it every day. As she puts it, it was actually her competitiveness and a kind of intellectual envy that inspired her to get into Stoicism. As she learned more about Stoicism, though, she realized that, ironically, it’s a philosophy that teaches us to value improvements in our own character (virtue) and indifference toward these sort of comparisons with other people (externals).  She plunged into Stoicism in any case because it was obviously very relevant to the challenges she was facing in life.

She went from reading Marcus to Epictetus whose endurance of chronic pain and disability she admired. Epictetus was lame and according to one account this was because, as a slave, his master cruelly snapped his leg. It’s surprising how many people find Epictetus relatable because of his gammy leg – it may explain why he comes over a bit cranky sometimes. Duff took from him the doctrine that none of us are free unless we master ourselves. She’d already taken up the challenge of mastering herself, particularly how she coped with pain and illness. Stoicism added some validation perhaps and she says it gave her a way to rise above the suffering of her body while focusing instead on the care of her soul.

Duff says she was very receptive to the core idea of Stoic philosophy, which she correctly sees as being that happiness, or fulfilment, comes largely from within, from our own way of thinking. Epictetus actually attributes this maxim to none other than Zeus himself: “If you want any good, get it from yourself.”  Duff rightly views Stoicism as a practical philosophy emphasizing discipline and duty, something which complements her own values. She says, “The Stoics inspired me to meet the everyday challenges of my life and showed me how to deal with inevitable losses, disappointments, and grief… I find Stoicism a great resource that fills me with resilience and vigour.” Chronic pain can become a teacher and she learned that trying to control her pain, when she couldn’t, sometimes just backfired by making it more intense. A certain type of acceptance can be a pathway to emotional resilience in coping with chronic pain and illness, as the Stoics taught. She therefore follows Marcus Aurelius’ advice to reject any sense of injury to herself, despite the physical limitations imposed by her illness. There are a whole repertoire of pain management techniques tucked away in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, from special ways of accepting the sensation to learning to forego unnecessary complaining, which the Stoics believed often only made things worse. One of the most fundamental things Stoicism teaches, though, is a particular way of looking at pain as being neither good nor bad but “indifferent”, which can help us accept that it’s there and get on with our lives. When we’re able to stop hating our pain and struggling with it internally, we often suffer less, which is a kind of paradox really.

Today we talk about grasping a nettle – if you do it confidently, without hesitating, you’re less likely to get stung. The Cynic philosophers, who were the forerunners of the Stoics, had a whole barrage of similar metaphors for accepting pain and hardship. They talk about our pain being like a pack of wild dogs threatening us. If we panic and try to run they’ll just chase us down and we’ll literally end up a dog’s breakfast – that’s just what they’re waiting for us to do. The wise man turns to face them, looking at them calmly and confidently, which hopefully causes them to back away. (At least according to the Cynics!) They also compare it to grabbing a snake. The nervous person who tries to pick it up by the tip of its tail or the middle will get himself bitten. An ancient snake handler would go straight for the scary end, grabbing it confidently behind its head to avoid being bitten. Their point is that if we voluntarily face our pain, and accept it, we’ll often suffer less than if we try to struggle or avoid it. Someone who tries to stamp out a fire gingerly is more likely to get burned, they say, than someone who just tramples on it confidently. And then they’ve got another one about a timid boxer who backs away and ends up getting more of a beating than if he’d moved toward his opponent, and had the confidence to fight more aggressively. Therapists today often say that coping with pain is like standing up to a bully. We have to stop running away and trying to hide from him, although that might seem scary at first. We might get hurt, it might be painful at first, but in the long-run we’ll often suffer less by standing our ground and facing what’s threatening us, actively accepting the reality of things like pain and illness.  That seems to be what Duff is saying in Backbone as well.

She also says that her appreciation of Stoicism led her to develop a “pantheon of heroes”, individuals whose resilience in the face of adversity she’s inspired by and who have become her role models in life. She says they’re carved into her own personal Mount Rushmore. They include Peg Leg Bates, a one-legged tap dancer from the 1920s.  Studying role-models who exemplify strength of character and resilience is a major technique in (wait for it) Stoic philosophy as well.

She emphasizes the importance of friendship which is not only good psychology, for building resilience, but it’s also a major theme in Greek philosophy. Socrates loved nothing more than bragging about his skill as a matchmaker of friends and he was adept at reconciling friends and family members who’d fallen out after a quarrel. He said some really cool things about friendship. The son of one of his wealthy companions was worried about making friends and he knew that Socrates had loads of friends from all walks of life so I think he was sneakily trying to get himself introduced to some of them. Socrates, in his usual style, gets a dialogue going about what qualities we should look for in our ideal friends. Seems pretty banal at first. But in typical Socrates-style he’s got a hidden agenda, and he plans to turn the whole conversation on its head. He explains that he’d be delighted to introduce the lad to all the best people in Athens and he knows the secret – he’ll just heap praise on him in their presence. There’s a catch, though, Socrates wants him to promise he’ll actually do all the things he’s just described the ideal friend doing because then he won’t be lying when praising him as someone who would make a great friend. That makes the boy hesitate. Socrates says there are only two parts to this process. Introducing him around Athens is the easy part and anyone should be delighted to do that once they see he’s such a great guy. That’s the only part the boy’s worried about but he needn’t be. The real problem is actually making himself a good friend to begin with, the sort anyone would want to have, and he admits that’s something he’s not really thought about enough. So he goes off to work on himself a bit more. Like most people facing most problems, he’d kind of got the whole thing back to front.  Socrates is also trying to get him to realize that his goal shouldn’t just be appearing like a good friend but actually being one.

Duff quotes Aristotle’s saying “A friend is a second self”, literally an alter ego. (Alter ego est amicus.)  That saying was also attributed to Zeno, the founder of Stoicism – maybe something the Stoics and Aristotle agreed on. Many of the other quotes and sayings are consistent with Stoicism even if that’s not where they came from. Duff quotes C.S. Lewis saying “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” That’s Stoicism central. Epictetus said we should avoid becoming overly-attached to external things and let nothing cleave to us or grow on us that might cause us emotional pain when it is torn away (Discourses, 4.1). That doesn’t mean that Stoics don’t love just that they’re prepared in advance to endure the losses inevitable in life. Duff also talks about how people say things like “I’m not good at this. I’m so upset about your illness, I can’t handle it.” That jumped out at me incidentally because there’s a Discourse of Epictetus where he grills some poor guy who’s been talking just like that about his sick daughter. Epictetus shows him how absurd this is. I’ve been wondering how many people actually say things like that but it sounds like Duff’s met a few so they do exist.

As you can tell, Duff’s a connoisseur of fine quotes. I’ve never heard this one from Mark Twain: “The fear of death follows the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” That really resonated with me, though. Duff’s learned not to be cowed by suffering and her book reminded me of Vespasian’s saying that an emperor should die standing, i.e., never give in. (“Die with your boots on”, I think, is the American version.) She’s also a bit of an etymology geek, noting that the word “disaster” comes from Greek, via Latin, and originally meant “bad star”, or as Shakespeare would say “ill-starred”. It’s a stroke of bad luck. Well I’ll see her “disaster” and raise her one “tragedy”, which comes from the Greek meaning “goat song”. We’re not sure if it was originally a song about a goat with a particularly tragic life or if the highly-contested prize for the most tragic song at Greek festivals was originally a splendid goat. Anyway, when wallowing in tragedy, I find it helps to remember this fact because it’s puzzling enough to serve as a convenient distraction.

Duff says that what matters isn’t that you live, or survive another day, but rather it’s how you live. The Stoics would say that the goal isn’t just to live but to live well, i.e., wisely.  I think her book will probably help a lot of people who are suffering to live through it a bit more wisely. Her voice really comes through loud and clear. It’s easy to write books that everyone sort of likes because they’re bland and inoffensive. This book’s a lot more in your face, and that’s a good thing. It reminded me a little bit of Andrew Salter, the guy who invented assertiveness training. (Obscure therapy reference #2.) Duff concludes the whole thing by saying: “I have a serious illness, but I don’t have to take it seriously. I have found an upside in having my life turned upside down. I have learned acceptance and resilience and have created a whole new life. In short, I grew a backbone.”

Book Review: How to be a Stoic (2017) by Massimo Pigliucci

How to be a StoicNB: See my video below for a discussion of the twelve practical techniques listed at the end of this book.

Massimo Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living. For that reason, I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book.

The main part is divided into three sections.  These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions.  Pigliucci concludes by describing a list of a dozen Stoic exercises:

  1. Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
  2. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
  3. The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
  4. How can I use virtue here and now?
  5. Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
  6. Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
  7. Speak little and well – the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
  8. Choose your company well.
  9. Respond to insults with humour.
  10. Don’t speak too much about yourself.
  11. Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
  12. Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.

I would suggest some people might actually benefit from reading these first.

The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.

What books to read next on Stoicism

Mock up of books by StoicsPeople sometimes ask what books on Stoicism to read next after they’ve read the “Big Three”: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Of course, opinions are going to vary about this.  There are lots of things we could suggest reading.  Setting aside modern books on the subject, though, these are the first six I normally recommend…

Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions

You don’t need to read the whole book.  The long chapter on Zeno contains a summary of early Stoic teachings.   However, you may want to read the whole of books six (Cynicism) and seven (Stoicism).  This contains second or third hand information summarized from earlier texts in the 3rd century AD by a biographer who wasn’t himself a Stoic or even a philosopher.  Nevertheless it remains one of our most important sources for information on the teachings of the early Greek Stoic school.

The Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Musonius was the teacher of Epictetus and reputedly the most important philosopher of his lifetime.  He was the mentor of key members of the Stoic Opposition.  A collection of his lectures and several fragments still survive today, which are similar in some ways to the teachings of Epictetus.  If you like Epictetus, you should certainly read this, although it’s really an essential source for anyone interested in Stoicism.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates

Our other major source for information on Socrates, beside Plato.  Xenophon paints a simpler and more Stoic picture of Socrates’ philosophy.  It was reputedly hearing a reading of Book Two that inspired Zeno to become a philosopher and ultimately to found the Stoic School.  That part of the Memorabilia contains Socrates’ version of a famous oration by the Sophist Prodicus, called The Choice of Hercules, which was designed as an exhortation for young men to embrace philosophy as a way of life and places considerable emphasis on self-mastery.  Xenophon’s version of Socrates is more concerned with the virtue of self-discipline and it’s easy to see this as an important influence on Stoicism.

Plato’s Apology

We could cite all of the works of Plato as relevant but the dialogue that seems to have most influenced the Stoics is the Apology.  The concluding sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook, for example, paraphrases from it.  It provides a vivid example of Socrates’ commitment to philosophy and his courage facing execution but there’s also considerable discussion of his attitudes toward death and positive teachings about morality, which coincide very closely with later Stoic teachings.  Death is neither good nor evil and it’s important to overcome our fear of dying; wisdom and virtue are the highest goods and we should never value things like wealth more highly than them.  Stoic-sounding teachings can be found in many other Platonic dialogues – including the Euthydemus, Gorgias, Meno and Republic – but the Apology is the best place to start looking.

Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

Cato is one of the less well-known Stoics because we don’t have any writings by him today but he was a great hero of the Roman Republic because he defied the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Our best account of him comes from Plutarch’s Lives, which is a biography but contains several interesting anecdotes about his character and values, although not much philosophy.  If you’re interested in Stoicism, though, you should know about Cato, and also about the Stoic Opposition, which followed later, under the principate.

Cicero’s De Finibus

Cicero was an Academic philosopher but he had studied philosophy at Athens and was exceptionally well-read on the subject and very familiar with the teachings of Stoicism.  He’s also quite sympathetic toward the Stoics, though not one himself, so his writings provide one of our most important sources for early and middle Stoicism.  Stoicism is mentioned, or is an influence, throughout many of his works, but the most important is undoubtedly De Finibus, which portrays Cato the Younger summarizing early Stoic ethical teachings, which Cicero compares critically with those of the Epicureans and Academics.  This is our most systematic account of Stoic ethics, so it’s extremely valuable in providing a context for the more conversational and fragmented version we obtain from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Honourable Mentions

It should go without saying that this is the tip of the iceberg.  There are many other ancient texts of relevance to Stoicism.  Xenophon’s Symposium and Apology are also very important as are all of the Platonic dialogues and many other writings by non-Stoics such as Cicero and Plutarch.  There are many fragments from early Stoic texts available in several compilations.  There are also less well-known Stoic texts, which still survive today, like the Greek Theology of Cornutus and the Pharsalia of Lucan.  The poems of Horace also contain many Stoic influences.  The Roman histories are also extremely valuable, especially in relation to understanding the life of Marcus Aurelius.  My goal here isn’t to provide a survey of everything, though, just a quick introduction to the texts I normally advise people to read first, after finishing Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism and Parenting (Stoic Mums and Dads)

Poppy

I have a seven year old daughter and since she was born I’ve been interested in how Stoicism relates to parenting.  People sometimes ask me if there’s anything “out there” on Stoicism for parents.  There are a growing number of resources online so I thought it was time to do a blog post listing some of them in one place, for convenience.  Please let me know of any articles or other resources that I’ve missed and I’ll try to add them to this post!

First, though, I thought I’d say a little bit about kids’ books…  Poppy is only seven but we discuss philosophy a lot.  She loves the Percy Jackson movies and so I’ve told her lots of stories about Greek mythology.  There are lots of great kids’ books available.  She particularly likes the Early Myths series by Simon Spence.   Her favourite Greek legends are about Hercules and she’s heard them hundreds of times!

Talking about Greek myths led to stories about Greek philosophers.  Most of the best anecdotes are about Diogenes the Cynic (not all suitable for kids!) and Socrates.  There are some great kids books available on Diogenes (Poppy calls him “the Dog”) and Socrates by M.D. Usher.  There’s also a great series of books for small children called Little Stoics.  Poppy watches Kids YouTube and she told me one day that she wanted to make her own videos.  So we started doing some book reviews.  She’s done videos on Diogenes by M.D. Usher and the Little Stoics series.  We’re hoping to do another soon on M.D. Usher’s Wise Guy, about Socrates.

Articles / Video / Podcasts

Here are some article from the Modern Stoicism blog Stoicism Today:

Some more articles from the web:

One of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues has Socrates talking to his eldest son Lamprocles about his relationship with his mother.  I wrote an article analyzing the philosophical content from a Stoic perspective.

Parenting: What Socrates Said

People often ask about Marcus Aurelius’ relationship with his son Commodus, so I wrote a fairly detailed article discussing this from a historical perspective.

Why did Marcus Aurelius Allow Commodus to Succeed Him?

Groups and Blogs

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Second Edition)

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised)I wrote a book for Hodder’s popular Teach Yourself series about five years ago called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013).  (I tend just to call it Teach Yourself Stoicism for short.)  It was a real challenge to write because I was quite constrained by the series format, which is carefully designed to help readers learn by drawing their attention to key points and providing regular summaries, etc.  I wasn’t sure how people would respond to this way of presenting Stoicism as a form of self-help, drawing on modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) but also placing a lot of emphasis on a thorough understanding of the range of ancient Greek and Latin sources available.

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised) on Amazon

Well, it seemed to work!  My editor at Hodder contacted me a while back asking me to create a second revised edition of the book.  I’ve been keeping notes on feedback from readers over the years so I went through the entire text making pretty extensive revisions, improving the readability, adding details, and finally including the “lost chapter” on Stoicism and death.  The scheduled publication date for the second edition is around August 2018.  You can now pre-order a copy but be careful to distinguish it from the first edition.  The new revised edition has the ISBN numbers below:

  • ISBN-10: 1473674786
  • ISBN-13: 978-1473674783

Here are some links:

  1. Amazon US
  2. Amazon UK
  3. Hodder & Stoughton (Publisher)
  4. Barnes & Noble
  5. Book Depository
  6. Google Books
  7. GoodReads

It will appear in the inventories of other online bookstores over time so you should be able to find it by searching for the ISBN.  I’ll add more links, though, as they appear.

As always, thanks for your support,

Donald Robertson Signature

 

New Book: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorI’m delighted to announce that my new book about Stoicism is now listed for pre-order from all major bookstores.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019) is available for in e-book, hardback, and audiobook formats.  It is scheduled to be published on January 29th 2019, by St. Martin’s Press / Macmillan Publishing.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor uses anecdotes about the life of Marcus Aurelius, drawn from Roman histories, to teach lessons about his use of Stoic philosophical precepts and psychological techniques in daily life.  Each chapter focuses on a different period in Marcus’ life and a different personal development topic, relevant to modern readers.  These include dealing with desire, anger, anxiety, pain, illness, sadness, loss, and coming to terms with our own mortality.  I’ve drawn heavily on my own experience as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist to explain Stoic psychological exercises in a way that’s workable for readers today who want to use Stoicism to make practical changes in their own lives.

You can also pre-order How to Think Like a Roman Emperor from:

If you want to learn more, you might be interested in listening to my recent interview about Marcus Aurelius’ life and philosophy for Scott Hebert’s Stoic Mettle podcast.

I’ve already written a general introduction to Stoicism for personal improvement: Teach Yourself Stoicism (2013).  There are many other good books around on Stoicism so I wanted to write something completely different.

I hope you enjoy reading my new book!  Please let me know if you have any questions about it in the comments below.  As always, thanks for your support!

Regards,

Donald Robertson Signature

PS. Links to the book listing on the websites of Macmillan Publishing, AmazonGoodReads, Chapters, WorldCat, Google Books, Book DepositoryKobo, Books-a-MillionBarnes and Noble.  You can also search for the book using the ISBN numbers below:

  • ISBN-10: 1250196620
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250196620

PPS.  You can become a patron and sponsor my work on Stoicism and psychotherapy via my new Patreon page.

The Life and Opinions of Socrates

Life of Socrates CoverThe Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius is one of our main sources of anecdotes about ancient Greek philosophy.  It was written around the first half the 3rd century AD but draws heavily on earlier sources. The information Diogenes gives us isn’t always reliable.  Nevertheless, he remains one of our most important sources for information on many of these schools of philosophy.

There are ten volumes, each containing chapters dedicated to a different group of philosophers.  Diogenes dedicated the second volume to Socrates, including several of his predecessors and the main philosophers in his circle of followers.  However, Plato gets a chapter to himself and Antisthenes is included in the chapter on Cynicism.

I have just created a new e-book that contains the chapter on Socrates and four of his most influential students: Antisthenes, Aristippus, Xenophon, and Plato.  You’re welcome to download a free copy from my e-learning site.  It comes in EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF formats.

Here are some of the most interesting quotes from the chapters mentioned above:

Socrates

  • He is nearest the gods who has fewest wants.
  • He used to say it was strange that, if you asked a man how many sheep he had, he could easily tell you the precise number; whereas he could not name his friends or say how many he had, so slight was the value he set upon them.
  • There is, he said, only one good, that is, knowledge, and only one evil, that is, ignorance; wealth and good birth bring their possessor no dignity, but on the contrary evil.
  • And, being once asked in what consisted the virtue of a young man, he said, “In doing nothing to excess.”
  • He had invited some rich men and, when Xanthippe said she felt ashamed of the dinner, “Never mind,” said he, “for if they are reasonable they will put up with it, and if they are good for nothing, we shall not trouble ourselves about them.”
  • He would say that the rest of the world lived to eat, while he himself ate to live.
  • To one who said, “You are condemned by the Athenians to die,” he made answer, “So are they, by nature.”
  • To one who said, “Don’t you find so-and-so very offensive?” his reply was, “No, for it takes two to make a quarrel.”

Antisthenes

  • When he was being initiated into the Orphic mysteries, the priest said that those admitted into these rites would be partakers of many good things in Hades. “Why then,” said he, “don’t you die?”
  • He used to say, as we learn from Hecato in his Anecdotes, that it is better to fall in with crows than with flatterers; for in the one case you are devoured when dead, in the other case while alive.
  • When he was asked what advantage had accrued to him from philosophy, his answer was, “The ability to hold converse with myself.”

Aristippus

  • Being asked what he had gained from philosophy, he replied, “The ability to feel at ease in any society.”
  • It happened once that he set sail for Corinth and, being overtaken by a storm, he was in great consternation. Some one said, “We plain men are not alarmed, and are you philosophers turned cowards?” To this he replied, “The lives at stake in the two cases are not comparable.” 
  • Being asked how Socrates died, he answered, “As I would wish to die myself.”

Xenophon

  • The story goes that Socrates met him in a narrow passage, and that he stretched out his stick to bar the way, while he inquired where every kind of food was sold. Upon receiving a reply, he put another question, “And where do men become good and honourable?” Xenophon was fairly puzzled; “Then follow me,” said Socrates, “and learn.” From that time onward he was a pupil of Socrates.
  • On this occasion Xenophon is said to have been sacrificing, with a chaplet on his head, which he removed when his son’s death was announced. But afterwards, upon learning that he had fallen gloriously, he replaced the chaplet on his head. Some say that he did not even shed tears, but exclaimed, “I knew my son was mortal.”

Plato

  • They say that, on hearing Plato read the Lysis, Socrates exclaimed, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” For he has included in the dialogue much that Socrates never said.
  • A story is told that Plato once saw some one playing at dice and rebuked him. And, upon his protesting that he played for a trifle only, “But the habit,” rejoined Plato, “is not a trifle.”
  • One day, when Xenocrates had come in, Plato asked him to chastise his slave, since he was unable to do it himself because he was in a passion. Further, it is alleged that he said to one of his slaves, “I would have given you a flogging, had I not been in a passion.”

Free download. I’ve just created a new e-book containing excerpts about the life and opinions of Socrates and his most prominent students, from Diogenes Laertius. It’s in EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) and PDF format. Feel free to comment and share your favourite quotes. I’ll be updating it in the future with additional notes. Enjoy! 🙂

Free E-book: Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories

Roman Histories MockupFree download available for one week only!

Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories is a new e-book that I created, which contains the main excerpts from historical sources describing the life of Marcus Aurelius and his reign as emperor of Rome. This mini-course contains download links that you can use to obtain copies of the EPUB, Kindle (MOBI) or PDF versions of the book. This text has been carefully edited and proofread to make it more accessible to modern readers.

There are several excellent modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius available. However, most of the material they draw upon can be found in a handful of ancient histories, which are relatively brief and fairly easy to read. This e-book brings together the main sources for the life of Marcus Aurelius in a new edition, specially designed to be read online or on mobile devices. The chapters included are small excerpts, containing the passages most relevant to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, from the following three histories.

The History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus by Herodian of Antioch, a minor Roman official who witnessed the reign of Commodus first-hand.

The Roman History (Historia Romana) of Cassius Dio, who served as a senator under Commodus. I’ve also included Cassius Dio’s chapter on the life of Commodus as an appendix, as it provides a valuable addition to the writings that more directly address the reign of his father, Marcus Aurelius.

The Augustan History (Historia Augusta) is a collection of biographical chapters, attributed to four different authors. In addition to the chapters on Marcus Aurelius I’ve also included those on his co-emperor Lucius Verus and the usurper Avidius Cassius as they pertain directly to the relationship between these men and Marcus.

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The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Older Marcus Marcus Aurelius died on 17th March 180 AD.  Excerpt from Herodian of Antioch’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus.  

Download the whole book free of charge.

When Marcus was an old man, exhausted not only by age but also by labors and cares, he suffered a serious illness while visiting the Pannonians. When the emperor suspected that there was little hope of his recovery, and realized that his son would become emperor while still very young, he was afraid that the undisciplined youth, deprived of parental advice, might neglect his excellent studies and good habits and turn to drinking and debauchery (for the minds of the young, prone to pleasures, are turned very easily from the virtues of education) when he had absolute and unrestrained power.

This learned man was disturbed also by the memory of those who had become sole rulers in their youth. The Sicilian despot Dionysus, in his excessive licentiousness, had sought out new pleasures and paid the highest prices for them. The arrogance and violence of Alexander’s successors against their subject peoples had brought disgrace upon his empire.

Ptolemy, too, contrary to the laws of the Macedonians and Greeks, went so far as to marry his own sister. Antigonus had imitated Dionysus in every way, even wearing a crown of ivy instead of the Macedonian hat or the diadem, and carrying the thyrsus instead of a scepter.

Marcus was even more distressed when he recalled events of recent date. Nero had capped his crimes by murdering his mother and had made himself ridiculous in the eyes of the people. The exploits of Domitian, as well, were marked by excessive savagery.

When he recalled such spectacles of despotism as these, he was apprehensive and anticipated evil events. Then, too, the Germans on the border gave him much cause for anxiety. He had not yet forced all these tribes to submit; some he had won to an alliance by persuasion; others he had conquered by force of arms. There were some who, although they had broken their pact with him, had returned to the alliance temporarily because of the fear occasioned by the presence of so great an emperor. He suspected that, contemptuous of his son’s youth, they would launch an assault upon him; for the barbarian is ever eager to revolt on any pretext.

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Death of Marcus

Marcus Young and OldTroubled by these thoughts, Marcus summoned his friends and kinsmen. Placing his son beside him and raising himself up a little on his couch, he began to speak to them as follows:

“That you are distressed to see me in this condition is hardly surprising. It is natural for men to pity the sufferings of their fellow men, and the misfortunes that occur before their very eyes arouse even greater compassion. I think, however, that an even stronger bond of affection exists between you and me; in return for the favors I have done you, I have a reasonable right to expect your reciprocal good will.

And now is the proper time for me to discover that not in vain have I showered honor and esteem upon you for so long, and for you to return the favor by showing that you are not unmindful of the benefits you have received from me. Here is my son, whom you yourselves have educated, approaching the prime of youth and, as it were, in need of pilots for the stormy seas ahead. I fear that he, tossed to and fro by his lack of knowledge of what he needs to know, may be dashed to pieces on the rocks of evil practices.

You, therefore, together take my place as his father, looking after him and giving him wise counsel. No amount of money is large enough to compensate for a tyrant’s excesses, nor is the protection of his bodyguards enough to shield the ruler who does not possess the good will of his subjects.

The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance.

When a man holds absolute power, it is difficult for him to control his desires. But if you give my son proper advice in such matters and constantly remind him of what he has heard here, you will make him the best of emperors for yourselves and for all, and you will be paying the greatest tribute to my memory. Only in this way can you make my memory immortal.”

At this point Marcus suffered a severe fainting spell and sank back on his couch, exhausted by weakness and worry. All who were present pitied him, and some cried out in their grief, unable to control themselves. After living another night and day, Marcus died, leaving to men of his own time a legacy of regret; to future ages, an eternal memorial of excellence.

When the news of his death was made public, the whole army in Pannonia and the common people as well were grief-stricken; indeed, no one in the Roman empire received the report without weeping. All cried out in a swelling chorus, calling him “Kind Father,” “Noble Emperor,” “Brave General,” and “Wise, Moderate Ruler,” and every man spoke the truth.