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In one of the most famous passages of The Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writes that everything physical is as transient as a stream rushing past us, everything belonging to the mind is as insubstantial as vapour and deceptive as smoke or mist, and that…
…life is warfare, and a sojourn in foreign land. — Meditations, 2.17
Only one thing can save us from all this confusion: philosophy, the love of wisdom.
He goes on to say many striking things about the philosophy he followed, called Stoicism. However, many scholars have been struck by the oddness of this apparent allusion to his own situation, in a book that’s notoriously vague about time and place.
Indeed, Marcus was literally engaged in warfare, in a foreign land, when he wrote this. Nearby in the text we find the rubric “At Carnuntum”, the name of the Roman legionary fortress in Upper Pannonia where Marcus had stationed himself during the early stages of the First Marcomannic War. (Today Carnuntum is in Austria, near Vienna.)
As emperor, and commander-in-chief, he was responsible for the largest army ever amassed on a Roman frontier, numbering approximately 140,000 men altogether. Throughout his reign, Marcus was engaged in almost constant warfare, following the Parthian invasion of Armenia in 161 CE, and the invasion of the Danube provinces, and northern Italy, by the Marcomanni and their allies in 167 CE. The Meditations is believed to have been written some time between the years 170 and 175 CE, which happen to coincide with the middle and end of the First Marcomannic War. There don’t seem to be direct or explicit references in The Meditations to the war. Nevertheless, there are several curious allusions to military life.
Tim Ferriss recently brought out his own edition of the letters of Seneca, called The Tao of Seneca, which includes an interview I did about Stoicism. He also included Stoicism and the Art of Happiness in his recommended reading list:
Donald Robertson’s book [Stoicism and the Art of Happiness] was highly recommended by the Stoic community on Reddit. The book has great reviews and as one reader wrote, “In my opinion, Robertson is superior to Hadot, Long, or any other writer on Stoicism because of his psychotherapy background and his ability to reach the common man.”
Ferriss also gave a shout out to one of my other books on an episode of his show called Favorite Books, Supplements, Simple Technologies and More:
Across the board, I would say the most useful tool that I have found for impulse control or emotional reactivity where you get steered by your emotions, as opposed to the other way around, is looking at Stoicism and something called CBT, which is cognitive behavioral therapy. There’s actually a great book on this, which I recommend called – it’s a bit of a mouthful, so don’t mind the title – The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Subtitle: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy.
It’s written by Donald J. Robertson. You can just look up Donald Robertson. The cover has what looks like a bust of Marcus Aurelius in the middle of two chairs, one on either side. But it’s a fantastic book. I would suggest people check it out. If you want an overview of Stoicism which is used by top NFL teams right now, a lot of the CEOs I know of the fastest growing companies in Silicon Valley because it makes them better competitors, you can check on Tao of Seneca. It’s a free introduction to all of this stuff that I put out there, which has no trick, no nothing. It’s just something I think is valuable and should be out in the world.
I’ve just read the op ed Why Is Silicon Valley So Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering? by Nellie Bowles in The New York Times.
This won’t be a long response. The essence of her argument appears to be that Stoicism advocates self-inflicted suffering and that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are obsessed with it for that reason. Of course, the premise is false. Stoicism does not advocate self-imposed suffering. Her examples are things like the following:
They [Silicon Valley types] sit in painful, silent meditations for weeks on end. They starve for days — on purpose. Cold morning showers are a bragging right. Notoriety is a badge of honor.
Stoics didn’t sit in painful, silent meditation for weeks on end. They didn’t normally seek notoriety either. Some modern followers of Stoicism, myself included, fast. That’s not the same as starving yourself. Lots of people fast for health reasons and thereby develop self-discipline and acquire other benefits. The Stoics would be against unhealthy forms of fasting, which is what I take “starving” yourself to mean. The ancient Stoics didn’t take cold showers but they did sometimes bathe in cold water. Some modern Stoics, myself included, regularly take cold showers. That’s hardly unusual either – so do lots of other people. It’s healthy, it wakes you up better than a cup of coffee, and it arguably leads to a greater ability to endure cold and other forms of physical discomfort. (I’m pretty happy walking around Toronto without a jacket in the snow because it doesn’t feel very cold to me, although everyone else seems to be wrapped up in thick jackets.) So people don’t do it just to “suffer” but because it’s good for them both in terms of physical health in terms of developing strength of character and self-discipline, etc.
Not all modern Stoics take cold showers or fast, though – I’m guessing less than 5% of them do. The ones who do are no more “obsessed with suffering” than are people who do Pilates, lift weights, walk long distances, go camping in the wilderness, or follow diets. Lots of people do things that require self-discipline and endurance because they consider them healthy or beneficial in certain respects. The Stoics don’t follow regimes in terms of eating, sleeping, or exercising primarily to improve their physical health. They’re supposed to be doing it mainly to improve their character by developing self-control and endurance, etc. However, they choose disciplines that are healthy rather than ones that are unhealthy because physical health is a “preferred indifferent” in Stoicism, i.e., something that’s preferable to its opposite despite not being among the most important things in life. If you’re going to develop self-discipline, in other words, you might as well train yourself to do something healthy rather than unhealthy, even if health isn’t your main reason for doing it.
Anyway, we’re clearly told that this is an article about Stoicism…
So the most helpful clues to understanding Silicon Valley today may come from its favorite ancient philosophy: Stoicism.
A word of advice to readers… Articles like these which claim to be discussing Stoicism (or any similar topic) but make no reference whatsoever to the relevant primary sources should set alarm bells ringing. It’s not clear that the author actually researched the subject by reading the Stoics as there’s literally no mention of anything they wrote. Seriously, there’s not a single quote from a Stoic in the entire piece. Yet their philosophy is being criticized. It is, in fact, being totally misrepresented.
As for the other mistakes in the article, I’ll just cover those by providing a list with brief comments:
- “Virtue of suffering” – Suffering is not a virtue in Stoic ethics; it would either be classed as something bad or indifferent depending on whether we’re talking about emotional suffering (pathos) or unpleasant physical sensations such as pain, cold, or discomfort.
- Cicero – Cicero was not a Stoic but rather a follower of the rival Academic school, albeit one who admired some aspects of Stoicism. The article almost acknowledges this but not clearly enough as it seems to focus on him as its main example of a historical proponent of Stoicism.
- “tenets of stoicism” – The word “stoicism” (lower-case) denotes the modern concept of a psychological personality trait or coping style in which upsetting emotions are concealed or suppressed, like having a stiff upper-lip. The word “Stoicism” (capitalized) denotes an ancient Greek school of philosophy. They’re two very different things.
- “Stoicism has been the preferred viral philosophy ‘for a moment’ for years now — or two decades, by one count.” – I don’t know how you’d quantify this but Stoicism has gone through various periods of popularity. I’d say the seeds of it’s modern resurgence were planted in the late 1950s with, among other things, the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy, during which authors such as Albert Ellis drew inspiration from Stoicism in developing modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). That reinvigorated interest in Stoicism as a form of psychological self-help from the 1980s onward around the time CBT went mainstream. (Indeed, publication data from Google Ngram shows that the popularity of Stoicism began rising in the late 1970s, four decades ago.)
- “Stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome” – There’s no question that Stoicism was popular with wealthy and powerful Roman elites. However, it’s not a “Roman” thing. Right from the very outset, early Greek Stoicism was popular with the ruling elite. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, taught King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia and other early Greek Stoics had wealthy and powerful students. Moreover, Stoicism was not confined to the elite. Zeno, by some accounts, lost his fortune at sea and lived like a beggar. Cleanthes, his successor as head of the school, was an ex-boxer who watered gardens at night to earn a living. Epictetus, the most famous Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, was a crippled former slave who lived in relative poverty.
- “Joe Lonsdale […] sexual abuse” – This comes across as an ad hominem argument against the philosophy, i.e., one of the figures the author associates with Stoicism in the article has been criticized on the grounds listed. How does that actually reflect on Stoicism, though? Is Joe Lonsdale even a Stoic? (Not as far as I’m aware after searching on Google.) Is this meant to discredit Stoicism through some kind of guilt by association?
- “Cicero Institute” – The whole article seems to be premised on the notion that the Cicero Institute has got something to do with Stoicism. Does it, though? I can’t actually see any mention of Stoicism anywhere on their website despite using a Google site search for the keyword .
My new book about Stoicism comes out soon so I thought I’d say a bit about the process of writing it. (Sometimes people ask me how I ended up writing these books or what the process is like.) The book’s called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. You can pre-order it now from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores. (Incidentally, I’m writing this blog post during a layover at Frankfurt airport on the way from Athens to Toronto – I thought I’d try to do something constructive with the time!)
Let’s start at the beginning… When I was a little boy I really wanted to be a writer. At primary school in Scotland, when I was about ten years old, we used to write short stories. The kids would get to vote for which ones the wanted to hear each week and the “winner” would stand at the front of the class and read their creation aloud. Mine were quite popular so the other kids kept asking me to do more. It was kind of addictive. And I wasn’t much good at anything else, to be honest.
Somewhere along the way I lost interest in writing, though. Or rather I became more interested in reading philosophy. Then I wanted to become a counsellor or a psychotherapist. So after finishing my degree in philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, I moved to London and before long started working as a counsellor in high schools and with a youth drugs project. After a few years I became a psychotherapist with a private clinical practice in Harley Street. Then one day someone called me out of the blue and asked me to run a training course for other therapists. So I wound up as a trainer and for about fifteen years, in addition to treating clients, I ran a training school in London teaching other therapists, counsellors, and life coaches.
I’ve been studying, writing about, and talking about Stoicism for roughly twenty years as well. I’ve written five books, on philosophy and psychotherapy, and dozens of articles in magazines and journals. The books were all quite different. First of all, I edited the complete writings of James Braid, the Scot who invented hypnotism. My first book as an author, though, was just an attempt to make sense out of hundreds of pages of notes I’d compiled about Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). (At one point my Psion computer died and I completely lost years of notes – poof!) Then I was asked to write a self-help book on emotional resilience for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series, which follows quite a strictly organized format. That was good but it didn’t really allow me to write in my own style. I also wrote a book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness for the same series. And a manual for the evidence-based practice of clinical hypnosis, based on a cognitive-behavioural approach. I put a lot of work into that but it wasn’t the sort of book that I really wanted to write either.
The first book proposal that I ever wrote was for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which the publisher turned down twice. I asked them what sort of books they wanted people to write and they replied saying they wanted a book called The Philosophy of CBT. So that’s how my first book (as an author) came about. (Incidentally, you hear a lot about authors struggling to get their first book deal but publishers are sometimes begging for people to write books on certain subjects and can’t find anyone to do it.) Over a decade later, though, I still felt the Roman Emperor title was good and had a ring to it. So I decided to write it. There are already several good introductions to Stoicism and books on Stoicism as self-help. I wanted to write about Stoicism but it had to be a different sort of book.
Since she was about three or four years old, I’ve been telling my daughter, Poppy, stories about Greek heroes and philosophers. I realized that other people liked these stories too. In the ancient world, philosophical wisdom was often communicated in the form of anecdotes about the lives of famous philosophers such as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic. For example, we have a treasure trove of this stuff in a book called The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius. So I decided to write a book about Stoicism that focused more on stories about the lives of philosophers.
Marcus Aurelius is the Stoic about whom we know the most. That’s simply because he was a Roman emperor. There are several histories (Cassius Dio, Herodian, the Historia Augusta) that survive today and describe his reign, and a few other minor sources. However, I found it frustrating that modern biographies of Marcus didn’t really try to interpret his life in relation to his philosophy, which we know so much about from his private notes The Meditations. So I finally set about writing a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which describes events from Marcus Aurelius’ life and links them to concepts and practices from Stoic philosophy. I also drew on my training in psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), to help me explain how these could help people today.
So how did I actually go about writing the book? What was the process like? Well, I’d already been researching this subject for about twenty years: gatherings notes and writing shorter pieces, giving talks, etc. I began by writing two sample chapters based on major events in Marcus’ life to see if I could make them work as stories: the Antonine Plague and the civil war with Avidius Cassius. I wanted to stick as closely as possible to the historical information available but didn’t want to spoil a good story. So I inserted pieces of dialogue or minor details where necessary and in cases where there’s some ambiguity in the historical account I’d settle on one interpretation rather than disrupting the narrative by worrying about which was right. My goal wasn’t to “do history” but to inspire readers and provide them with one possible account of Marcus’ life that would help them visualize his philosophy more clearly as a way of life. So I’d describe these as works of historical or biographical fiction, albeit so faithful to the surviving Roman histories that they’re probably about 99% history and about 1% fiction.
I also compiled a huge document organizing all the key information about Marcus’ life that could potentially be used to write the book. I planned everything in (too much) detail. Then I started again from scratch, confident that I had all the key facts, that I could now picture the overall structure of the book, and that I could weave the events into stories, which I’d describe as a series of historical vignettes about major events in Marcus’ life. I reread The Meditations several times in different translations, brushing up on my (pretty sketchy) ancient Greek and studying the parallel Greek and English texts to tease out subtle connotations where possible that would complement my narrative. Sometimes people ask me how many times I’ve read The Meditations. I’ve honestly no idea; I’ve lost count – lots and lots of times. I also read all the available English biographies of Marcus Aurelius’ life and made detailed notes on anything that could be incorporated into the book I was planning. (One of my favourite books about Marcus is an obscure 18th century French work of historical fiction called The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius.)
I find it difficult to write at home so I’d often go away for a week or more and stay in the countryside or anywhere I could focus completely on my research and writing. I try to minimise distractions so I’d eat very simple food each day that didn’t require much preparation, e.g., boiled eggs, peanuts, coffee and apples. Sometimes I booked into AirBNBs that were actually just a fifteen minute or so walk from where I live because I found that being in another environment helped me focus even if it were just a few streets from home. It also gave my girlfriend a break because I’m pretty sure she was fed up hearing about the Antonine Plague and intricate details about Roman military formations.
I find that after months of writing it becomes difficult to concentrate when reading through a chapter for the zillionth time. So I would print each chapter and read it aloud from the hard copy. For some reason, I find that timing myself reading or writing with a stopwatch also helps remind me to stay focused. When the final draft of the manuscript is nearly ready I like to read the entire thing cover to cover to make sure that the whole book is coherent and there’s no unintentional repetition. Sadl, though, that’s beyond my ability in terms of concentration. So I paid a local bartender who’s interested in philosophy, Maria, to read it to me while I made notes on a second paper copy. After each chapter, she’d also silently mark up a printout to indicate which parts she felt were good and which might potentially be removed. Her comments were very helpful. (Sometimes I’d even read a chapter to our dog just to trick myself into concentrating for a bit longer, although Mookie wasn’t able to offer very helpful feedback.) My editor and agent also helped a lot with advice and feedback, of course.
I’ve practised self-hypnosis for many years, since I was about fifteen years old. So I made a recording that I would listen to for twenty minutes each day, designed to help me become more focused on writing and to view the book from different perspectives to help my creativity, etc. I don’t think I’d have managed to write this book without using that method.
Regarding the content, I wanted to begin the book with something dramatic. After some initial thought, I realized, paradoxically, that I should open with the death of Marcus Aurelius. Then I could return to his childhood and work through the major events of his life as if he were remembering them in subsequent chapters. That created a problem, though. How would the book end? I started writing before I knew the answer to that question because I felt sure that somehow a solution would present itself along the way. And it did. At least, I found a way to end the book that satisfied me as the author. Spoiler alert: The final chapter is written in a very different style from the rest of the book. It was actually intended to be read aloud or listened to in an audio recording. It’s intentionally written to resemble a guided meditation exercise. I read it aloud many times until I was completely satisfied with how it sounded. It weaves together many different Stoic ideas from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, as well as a few from other sources.
So I hope you enjoy what I’ve written. It was a long journey. At times I felt quite exhausted but I’m glad I made it to the end. I’m confident that I’ve created something very different from anything I’ve ever written before. And anyone can read this book. If you’re completely new to Stoicism it will provide you with a compelling introduction, and inspire you, I hope, in the way that only the life of a great philosopher, like Marcus, really can. If you’ve read lots of books on Stoicism I’m sure you’ll find this is an original perspective and that it contains many details about Marcus’ life and his philosophy that aren’t well-known. I know from my research that people who read this book find that they’re able to get a lot more out of reading The Meditations. It makes me very satisfied to think that a book which has already benefited so many people so profoundly could be introduced to the reader afresh by exposing new layers of meaning.
If you like the sound of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius you can pre-order it now from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores. So buy a copy if you want to encourage me to go through the whole process again next year by writing another book!
Diogenes Laertius several times mentions a mysterious unnamed old woman associated with Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school.
Of Chrysippus the old woman who sat beside him used to say, according to Diocles, that he wrote 500 lines a day.
The Greek could also mean that the old woman attended to or looked after him. The next sentence reads:
Hecato says that he [Chrysippus] came to the study of philosophy, because the property which he had inherited from his father had been confiscated to the king’s treasury.
Are we perhaps meant to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two sentences that the old woman had the financial means to look after Chrysippus who was left penniless?
She seems also to have observed his output as a writer, and perhaps read his books. The remark attributed to her here seems to refer to Chrysippus’ writing in the past tense, though. Indeed we’re actually told she outlived him, although Chrysippus reputedly made it to seventy three. How much older than him could she have been then? It’s implied by several authors that Chrysippus liked wine and here that he may have died from alcohol consumption:
Chrysippus turned giddy after gulping down a draught of Bacchus; he spared not the Porch nor his country nor his own life, but fared straight to the house of Hades. Another account is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.
We also seem to be told that he addressed some of his philosophical writings to an old woman and sought her opinion on them, as though she were his patron.
He [Chrysippus] appears to have been a very arrogant man. At any rate, of all his many writings he dedicated none to any of the kings. And he was satisfied with one old woman’s judgement, says Demetrius […].
This last remark seems to follow on from the previous sentence, implying that Chrysippus was arrogant because addressed his writings to (presumably) the same the old woman, whereas other authors would often court the approval of powerful rulers.
It’s therefore curious that although many of Chrysippus’ works listed by Diogenes Laertius are explicitly dedicated to someone by name, none of them seem to bear a female name. However, perhaps there’s another clue to her identity. He immediately follows the passage above by mentioning Chrysippus’ sister:
When [King] Ptolemy [IV Philopator of Egypt] wrote to Cleanthes requesting him to come himself or else to send someone to his court, Sphaerus undertook the journey, while Chrysippus declined to go. On the other hand, he sent for his sister’s sons, Aristocreon and Philocrates, and educated them.
This first remark portrays Chrysippus as being arrogant, back when he was a promising student of Cleanthes, for refusing to become an ambassador for Stoicism to the court of King Ptolemy. His fellow Stoic, Sphaerus of Borysthenes, had to go instead. We’re perhaps meant to connect this with the passage above about his arrogant disregard for the patronage of kings and preferring the judgement of the “old woman”.
Could the “old woman” in question, therefore, have been Chrysippus’ sister? We’re told that her sons became students of Chrysippus. We hear nothing more about Philocrates but Aristocreon clearly became a dedicated and enthusiastic follower of Stoicism. Indeed, we know that Chrysippus dedicated dozens of books to his sister’s son:
- Introduction to the Mentiens [the Liar] Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, one book.
- Of the Mentiens Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, six books.
- To those who solve the Mentiens by dissecting it, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
- On the Solution of the Mentiens, addressed to Aristocreon, three books.
- Solutions of the Hypothetical Arguments of Hedylus, addressed to Aristocreon and Apollas, one book.
- Of the Sceptic who denies, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
- Of Dialectic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
- Of Art and the Inartistic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
- Of the Good or Morally Beautiful and Pleasure, addressed to Aristocreon, ten books.
And for all we know he may have dedicated other books to Aristocreon that aren’t mentioned here. There was clearly a very close intellectual bond between Chrysippus and his nephew so it would make sense if Diogenes Laertius had intended to imply that the young man’s mother, Chrysippus’ sister, was the “old woman” who attended to Chrysippus and to whom his works were dedicated, rather than to a king. Indeed, it’s quite possible the works named above could have been written in honour both of Aristocreon and his mother.
The philosopher Plutarch elsewhere mentions in passing that Aristocreon later erected a bronze statue of Chrysippus, upon which he had engraved the verse:
Of uncle Chrysippus Aristocreon this likeness erected;
The knots the Academy tied, the cleaver, Chrysippus, dissected.
These words obviously celebrate Chrysippus’ success as a critic of Plato’s Academy and perhaps relate to the arguments contained in some of the books dedicated to Aristocreon, such as his surprisingly extensive writings on the solution to what’s called in the translation above the “Mentiens Argument”, better known today as the Liar Paradox. When a person says “I lie”, the puzzle is whether he actually lies or not in doing so. If he lies, he speaks truth; if he speaks truth, he lies. Epictetus mentions several times in the Discourses that his students are familiar with Chrysippus’ (now lost) answer to this paradox.
So, cautiously, I’m tempted to speculate as follows… It’s possible Chrysippus’ sister lived in his house and attended to him. Chrysippus was born in the city of Soli in Cilicia, so his sister probably also came from Soli. They probably had the status of foreign residents (metics) in Athens.
Perhaps she attended his lectures. Philosophical discussions in ancient Athens were often held in the gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. However, the Stoic school was located in the Stoa Poikile, a public building on the edge of the agora or city-centre, to which women were potentially admitted during the Hellenistic period.
We’re told Chrysippus became a philosopher after his family fortune was seized by a king. However, Chrysippus’ sister may have married into wealth in which case she could have acted as a patron, explaining his controversial preference for the old woman over the patronage of kings such as Ptolemy IV. Chrysippus clearly dedicated many of his works, perhaps those criticizing the Academy and Skeptics, to her son Aristocreon, a dedicated student of Stoicism. If his sister was the “old woman” then presumably he also sought her approval for the teachings expressed in them. Although most of those works appear to be about logic, one of them is also about art and another about ethics, particularly the role of pleasure, which we can assume contained a critique of hedonism dedicated to his nephew.