In February, I had the pleasure of being invited to give a talk on Stoicism and mental resilience to the US Marine Corps University in Quantico. While I was there I went into their studio to record an interview for their podcast Eagles, Globes and Anchors. You can listen via any of the links below.
New Facebook discussion group for Stoicism Boston and New England.
Discussion of Stoicism on the Hidden Why Podcast.
Follow our Facebook event page for the forthcoming talk and book signing event about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius at Ben McNally books in Toronto.
Excerpt from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: the Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019). Copyright © Donald Robertson. All rights reserved.
The year is 180 AD. As another long and difficult winter draws to a close on the northern frontier, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius lies dying in bed at his military camp in Vindobona (modern-day Vienna). Six days ago he was stricken with a fever, and the symptoms have been worsening rapidly. It’s clear to his physicians that he is finally about to succumb to the great Antonine Plague (probably a strain of smallpox) that has been ravaging the empire for the past fourteen years. Marcus is nearly sixty, physically frail, and all the signs show he’s unlikely to recover. However, to the physicians and courtiers present he seems strangely calm, almost indifferent. He has been preparing for this moment most of his life. The Stoic philosophy he follows has taught him to practice contemplating his own mortality calmly and rationally. To learn how to die, according to the Stoics, is to unlearn how to be a slave.
This philosophical attitude toward death didn’t come naturally to Marcus. His father passed away when he was only a few years old, leaving him a solemn child. When he reached seventeen, he was adopted by the Emperor Antoninus Pius as part of a long-term succession plan devised by his predecessor, Hadrian, who had foreseen the potential for wisdom and greatness in Marcus even as a small boy. Nevertheless, he had been most reluctant to leave his mother’s home for the imperial palace. Antoninus summoned the finest teachers of rhetoric and philosophy to train Marcus in preparation for succeeding him as emperor. Among his tutors were experts on Platonism and Aristotelianism, but his main philosophical education was in Stoicism. These men became like family to him. When one of his most beloved tutors died, it’s said that Marcus wept so violently that the palace servants tried to restrain him. They were worried that people would find his behavior unbecoming of a future ruler. However, Antoninus told them to leave him alone: “Let him be only a man for once; for neither philosophy nor empire takes away natural feeling.” After losing several young children, Marcus was once again moved to tears in public while presiding over a legal case, when he heard an advocate say in the course of his argument: “Blessed are they who died in the plague.”
Marcus was a naturally loving and affectionate man, deeply affected by loss. Over the course of his life, he increasingly turned to the ancient precepts of Stoicism as a way of coping when those closest to him were taken. Now, as he lies dying, he reflects once again on those he has lost. A few years earlier, the Empress Faustina, his wife of thirty-five years, passed away. He’d lived long enough to see eight of their thirteen children die. Four of his eight daughters survived, but only one of his five sons, Commodus. Death was everywhere, though. During his reign, millions of Romans throughout the empire had been killed by war or disease. The two went hand in hand, as the legionary camps were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of plague, especially during the long winter months. The air around him is still thick with the sweet smell of frankincense, which the Romans vainly hoped might help prevent the spread of the disease. For over a decade now, the scent of smoke and incense had been a reminder to Marcus that he was living under the shadow of death and that survival from one day to the next should never be taken for granted.
That was an excerpt from the opening chapter of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which follows a short introduction about how I came to write the book and my work over the years on Stoicism. It opens with the death of Marcus Aurelius. I wanted to start the book with something dramatic. Each chapter begins with a story about some major event in Marcus’ life, based on the information we have from the various Roman histories of his reign. In most of the chapters that leads into a discussion of Stoic philosophy and psychology and the concepts and techniques he used to cope with various problems such as anger, anxiety, pain, and so on. Then there’s a detailed discussion of how Stoic techniques can actually be applied today, drawing on my experience as a cognitive-behavioural therapist and the relevant scientific research. However, the first chapter is slightly different because after describing the events surrounding Marcus’ death in some detail, it proceeds to give the reader a short introduction to Stoic philosophy – an overview.
The story of Stoicism begins with Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, and so you’ll be introduced to various anecdotes about him and other famous Stoics. Then we focus on what the Stoics actually believed: the core doctrines of the philosophy followed by Marcus throughout his entire adult life. And we’ll address some common misconceptions about Stoicism, such as the idea that Stoics were unemotional or joyless, which is false. I tried to keep the explanation of Stoicism in this chapter as simple as possible but after reading it you should have a pretty clear idea of who the Stoics were and what they believed. Then you’ll be well prepared to begin delving into the application of Stoicism to different areas of life. For example, in the next chapter we’ll be looking at how Stoics used language and in subsequent chapters you’ll learn how they overcame unhealthy desires and bad habits, conquered anxiety, managed anger, coped with pain and illness, came to terms with loss, and even faced their own mortality.
I’ve told this story so many times now that I thought I might as well just do a quick blog post about it…
In 2013, I was interviewed by Carrie Sheffield for an article about Stoicism in Forbes magazine:
Robertson, a Scottish-born therapist and classics enthusiast, led workshops on psychological resilience for managers at oil giant Shell called “How to think like a Roman Emperor,” based on the life of stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius.
I’d been asked to deliver some workshops for STASCO, Shell Trading and Shipping, back in 2006, which talked about Stoicism and stress management. I wanted to make it attention-grabbing so I called it How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which seemed to go down well with the audience.
A few years later, around 2008, I was invited to submit a proposal for a book on psychotherapy for a panel organized by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) in conjunction with the publisher Karnac. I sent them a proposal for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The UKCP panel rejected it, though, because they didn’t like the title (or the subject matter).
The acquisitions editor, liked the proposal, though, and suggested I forward it directly to Karnac, which I did. They rejected it as well. So I got in touch and asked them if there was something else they’d prefer instead: “What sort of books do you want?” They said they’d like to publish a book by the title The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. So that’s how my first real book was published. (I’m about to begin work on a revised second edition, for the publisher Routledge, who now own the rights.)
However, I kept thinking about that title: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. It just seemed to stick in my mind for some reason. So when I had an opportunity to develop a proposal for a new book on Stoicism, about a decade later, I thought I’d try again. This time my publisher, St. Martins Press, were persuaded to give it a go. Well, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is now available from all good bookstores, and some bad ones, as the saying goes. It’s doing very well. Today we had a favourable review in The Wall Street journal.
Mr. Robertson […] displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought. The author’s accessible prose style, well-suited for recounting both philosophical concepts and arcane Roman history, contributes to its appeal. As an introduction to Stoic philosophy, it’s hard to beat the “Meditations,” which deserve to be read ahead of any commentary on them. That said, Mr. Robertson’s book succeeds on its own terms, presenting a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.
So the moral of the story? Well as a kid growing up in Scotland, of course, I had the story of Robert the Bruce drummed into my from an early age. The Bruce had been sorely defeated by the English army in battle and was hiding in a cave to avoid capture.
Depressed and alone he gazed at a spider climbing the wall. Over and over again, as it tried to spin its web, it was blown down by a gust of wind but, relentless, it kept trying until eventually it succeeded. Bruce was inspired and famously exclaimed “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” He reformed his army and would engage the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314 AD, where the Scots were finally victorious.
So don’t give up, if you think you might have a good idea!
I’m very grateful to Donald Robertson for allowing me to appear on his great blog! I’d like to use the chance to show you Stoically-inclined readers a bit from my new book The Practicing Stoic; perhaps some will find it interesting enough to check out the whole thing. The excerpt below suggests that Stoicism usually seeks to help us toward the sensibility, and toward the kinds of reactions to things, that would come naturally if we had longer experience of them. In effect the philosophy is a substitute for the passage of time. This helps explain the Stoic approach to emotion and compassion. A good Stoic reacts to suffering in the way that a veteran of it would be expected to react: with feeling and action, but probably without much emotion. That’s the synopsis; here’s the discussion—
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I’d like to discuss a criticism that is sometimes made of Stoics. The criticism comes in response to this advice from Epictetus (or to other Stoic claims that resemble it):
When you see someone weeping in sorrow, either because his child goes abroad or his property is lost, don’t let yourself get carried away by the impression that he is suffering because of those external things. Hold this thought in mind: “what afflicts him is not what has happened, because it wouldn’t affect someone else the same way; what afflicts him is his opinion about it.” So far as words go, don’t hesitate to sympathize with him, or even to groan with him if he groans. But take care not to groan inside as well. —Epictetus, Enchiridion 16
That passage provoked this response from Joseph Addison much later:
As the Stoic philosophers discard all passions in general, they will not allow a wise man so much as to pity the afflictions of another. If thou seest thy friend in trouble, says Epictetus, thou mayst put on a look of sorrow, and condole with him, but take care that thy sorrow be not real. . . . For my own part, I am of opinion, compassion does not only refine and civilize human nature, but has something in it more pleasing and agreeable than what can be met with in such an indolent happiness, such an indifference to mankind as that in which the Stoics placed their wisdom. —Addison, The Spectator no. 397 (1712)
Addison’s claim epitomizes a standard criticism of the Stoics—that their philosophy is heartless and at odds with compassion. The accomplished Stoic, if such a person ever did exist, might offer words of consolation but would feel nothing (it is said) for anyone else. The Stoic cannot care about others, or about the world, because that is a form of attachment to externals. This is all a misunderstanding. The Stoics do not condemn feeling. In important ways they endorse it. Stoics value compassion, detest indolence, and are committed to service to mankind—the opposite of what Addison thinks they want. But the Stoic would unhook these commitments from inner distress over any given case. For why stop with that case? There is cause for such distress in every direction, and meanwhile it distracts from the big picture and from anything constructive one might do about it. So yes, the Stoics consider feelings of pity unhelpful to anyone; but their aim is to do the same things without such pity that others would do on account of it. Epictetus’s way of putting the point might sound a bit harsh, but his conclusion isn’t much different in substance from this gentler line from Epicurus:
Let us share our friends’ suffering not with grief but with thoughtful understanding. —Epicurus, Vatican Sayings 66
Still, I would prefer not to defend the Stoics by saying that Addison didn’t read enough of them. There is plenty to refute him in what the Romans said, but diligent searching might find language elsewhere that gives support to some variation on his case. We at least have seen that Stoicism need not entail any of his conclusions. Instead of dwelling further on comparisons of one quotation to another, I would rather use his criticism as a chance to think further about the place of feeling and compassion in Stoicism, or anyway in the variety of it this book offers.
What Stoics wish to avoid are emotions or other states that interfere with the ability to see the world accurately—states of feeling, in other words, that get in the way of reason and arise from (or create) attachment to externals. Stoics have no difficulty with states that do not have those sources and effects. As a convenience, I refer to the good or unobjectionable states as feelings as distinct from emotions. The difference between feeling and emotion is important—or the difference, however it might better be worded, between those states that oust reason and those that are no threat to it and so do not trouble the Stoics. It matters because states of feeling, as so defined, may well be necessary to motivate compassion and otherwise contribute to admirable character. Emotion probably isn’t.
Let’s consider more closely the intended effect of Stoicism on the inner life of the student, and especially on the emotions, by comparing it to the effects of time. Start with the case that Addison describes: a friend stricken by terrible loss. Suppose you lived a life long enough to experience such grieving friends 1,000 times, and imagine your likely reaction when approached by the next friend—number 1,001. Not everyone reacts to repeated experience the same way, so take the most appealing scenario. Your attitude might resemble that of a doctor—a very good one, let’s say—who has had a long career of working with dying patients and their families. In the best doctor of that sort we would find kindness, warmth, and compassion. There would be feeling. But emotion would be unlikely. You would sympathize but you would not go through mourning of your own. You would have seen it all too many times for that.
So far these speculations involve no Stoicism. They are just observations about the way that long experience might affect the sensibilities of anyone. But the result of this thought experiment, if accepted, is a state of mind about the same as what the Stoics seek. The resemblance is natural. Time and experience are the teachers of life. They gradually bring about wisdom. Adam Smith said it this way:
Time, the great and universal comforter, gradually composes the weak man to the same degree of tranquility which a regard to his own dignity and manhood teaches the wise man to assume in the beginning. —Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)
My claim here is the converse. If the Stoic says we are fettered to externals, or vice, or emotion, it may be as accurate to say we are fettered to our inexperience. Only the novice is inflated and grasping and fearful; but we are all novices. Life is regrettably short because it does not allow us enough trials to become as wise as we would wish. Stoic philosophy is a compensation—a substitute for time, or simulation of it. Stoicism means to offer the wisdom while skipping the repetition; it tries to get by contemplation some of the lessons, immunities, and other features of character we would acquire naturally if we lived long enough. The “wise man” of the Stoics thus resembles one who has had long experience of life—far longer, perhaps, than anyone is able to have in fact. Stoicism is the philosophy of a thousand trials.
The connection between Stoicism and the consequences of time can be extended. Think of the effect that repetition has on other emotions. What is frightening at first usually becomes nothing, or loses force, with long enough exposure. The source of the fear doesn’t change; the mind does. Or imagine making a fortune and losing it a thousand times over, or loving and grieving a thousand times. You might not stop caring about these things, and might not want to. But you would probably gain a sense of equanimity about them and meet them with a certain detachment—with feeling but with reason, and thus without emotion. Little would likely be left of greed and vanity, either, after so much gain and loss. Experience is humbling. Instead you might have other types of joy—the calm kind that comes from appreciation and understanding.
To return to the point: the absence of emotion prescribed by the Stoics in response to a thing is also what we would expect naturally from long enough exposure to it. Feeling and compassion can survive and even grow with long repetition and experience. Emotion does not. The sifting between emotion and feeling that comes naturally with experience resembles what the Stoic aims to achieve by the practice of philosophy.
Connecting the Stoic disposition to the quality of character that arises from long experience is productive in several ways. First, it helps make the Stoic ideal less otherworldly. The long-experience view allows Stoicism to be viewed as an extension of the life we know—an effort to go farther down the road of being human, not to affect godliness. Stoicism tries to give us what we would gain with more difficulty, but naturally enough, if we had more time.
Second, the experience-based view makes the goals of Stoicism more familiar and easier to understand. Everyone has had small experiences of inurement by experience and the difference between feeling and emotion that can result. We don’t need a dozen lifetimes to get the idea of it. One can compare the first experience of grief with the tenth, or the first encounter with an amusement with the fiftieth, or the first kiss with the hundredth. These experiences need not lose their meaning or be had without feeling. We might say instead, in the most attractive case, that the feelings at stake mature and change. But even then such events do eventually lose their emotional charge and become no threat to reason. There are cases in which emotional inurement is harder to come by, of course. I only mean to say that the process of it, and the qualities of the Stoic “wise man,” are familiar enough to most people on a modest scale.
Third, the long-experience view of Stoicism clarifies the Stoic ideal as admirable. In the personality formed by many trials we find the qualities of the finished Stoic represented in an attractive way. There is nothing ugly in the type of character produced by long experience, or at least nothing necessarily so. It can be unattractive; sometimes experience jades us and dulls our capacities. But there is nobility in it when joined with compassion. Stoicism demands this. It seeks to create not just the mind matured by many trials, but the best version of it—the doctor who has learned with the passage of much time to care well and energetically for the patient, not the doctor who is bored.
Fourth, viewing Stoicism as similar to long experience can help to solve some conundrums. Sometimes the general principles of the philosophy can seem tricky to apply to particular facts. Stoics discourage the emotion of anger, but what if you are the victim of some grotesque injustice? Isn’t it then right to be angry—and maybe even important, since the anger will motivate efforts to stop the injustice from happening again? One can reason through that kind of problem with precepts that this book has discussed. You might say that the Stoic cares about justice and doesn’t need anger to motivate a reply to a violation of it, etc. But our current idea offers a shortcut. If you want to react to injustice like a Stoic, react like someone who knows it by long experience—not someone who has adapted to injustice and no longer cares, but perhaps someone whose life’s work is the correction of it. Those sorts of people, in my own experience, tend to meet injustice with feeling but little emotion. Their equilibrium isn’t upset by a fresh case of wrongdoing. They deal with it too often to respond that way. They are resolute, tough, and active in style; and (to return to our question) when the injustice afflicts someone else, they are highly compassionate. They have, for these purposes, become natural Stoics. The best lawyers can be like this.
We can end this part of the discussion by reversing our earlier thought experiment. You are grieving and can be consoled by either of two friends: one for whom your calamity is a new experience, and who is full of emotion about it on seeing your grief; or one who has seen it a thousand times, and so has warm and caring feeling but not emotion. I would take the second, but at any rate see no basis for admiring the first one more. The second one is the Stoic.
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That is enough about heartlessness. By way of addendum, though, I wish to spend a few more words on the relationship between Stoicism and experience; for the discussion a moment ago mentioned some tradeoffs that deserve further comment. If experience erodes emotion, some might consider the erosion a loss, and then dread repetition precisely because emotions don’t survive it. One can think of cases where those who have been through an experience many times may seem less wise with respect to it. They can’t see it freshly; they barely notice it; they don’t appreciate it. They have been corrupted by adaptation.
It might be fairest to say there are different types of wisdom, or sensibilities helpful on different occasions. There is the sensibility of the veteran who has seen it (whatever it is) too many times to be emotional but has other advantages: perspective, good judgment, and the ease and warmth that arise from long familiarity and knowledge. Those are great virtues. They are central to Stoicism. But they aren’t the only ones, and aren’t always the ones most wanted even by a Stoic. There is also the sensibility of the newcomer to a subject—one who has the advantages of the amateur, such as appreciation of what is at hand.
These claims about the effects of experience and inexperience can be restated in terms referenced earlier in the book. The Stoic seeks the most useful perspective on all occasions. I have emphasized here that, with respect to emotion and adversity, Stoics want the kind of wisdom that we associate with long experience. But in certain settings they seek, in effect, the attitude of the newcomer.
“When then shall I see Athens again and the Acropolis?” Wretch, are you not content with what you see daily? Have you anything better or greater to see than the sun, the moon, the stars, the whole earth, the sea? —Epictetus, Discourses 2.16.32
Don’t imagine having things that you don’t have. Rather, pick the best of the things that you do have and think of how much you would want them if you didn’t have them. —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.27
In effect we can distinguish two kinds of mistakes. We fail to appreciate some things because they are too familiar. We overreact to others because they aren’t familiar enough. In the first case we suffer because we can’t see old things as a first-timer would. In the second we suffer because can’t see new things as a long-timer would. The Stoic is more concerned with the second kind of mistake than the first, but understands them both and tries to move from one point of view to another as appropriate to the situation.
One can revisit many topics in this book and reinterpret them according to how much repetition (of a hypothetical kind) would be found in the ideal mindset for dealing with them. Acceptance and satisfaction, and therefore detachment from desire, can often be furthered by the newcomer’s perspective—by learning to see familiar things as if they weren’t familiar, and to touch them without callouses on our fingers. That same perspective can help us see that a convention is idiotic or unjust in ways too familiar to be commonly perceived. Emotion and adversity (and sometimes desires, too) call for the opposite view—that is, for an attitude toward the subjects of those states that would be found in someone with long experience of them. When considering whatever one loves or hates—when considering any reaction to anything—it is instructive to ask how much of it is owed to the number of times one has encountered the subject, whether it be many or few.
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Stoicism should not be overestimated. Reflection cannot produce all the qualities of character and feeling that long experience does, nor can it reverse them, which may be harder still. But Stoicism should not be underestimated, either, because reflection can help with some of this. The point may be seen in settings that do not involve emotion as well as in those that do. When one has studied novelty and thought about it for a sufficiently long time that it loses charm and is less likely to cause you to do foolish things, that is Stoicism, and it is to the good. (Or replace “novelty” with “luxury” or “status”—all the same.) The alternative is to be taken in by novelty again and again until it is finally drained of its charm by many hard lessons about its unimportance, maybe late in life. The sage saves the trouble.
Today I visited the Theatre of Dionysus, the place where Athenians once gathered to laugh at Socrates. Aristophanes first presented his satirical play The Clouds at the City Dionysia festival of 423 BC, and it was most likely performed on this very stage. (Here is a photo I took of the theatre and a close-up the crouching Silenus, also a later Roman Silenus mask, which obviously resembles Socrates.)
The stage was later restored by the Romans who added the reliefs that now stand at the back of the stage, depicting scenes from the myth of Dionysus, including a crouching Silenus, his drunken tutor. Plato’s Symposium depicts Alcibiades comparing Socrates to Silenus. There is indeed a striking similarity between most depictions of Socrates and of Silenus. This association was well-known so generations of theatre-goers looking at this crouching bearded figure must have been reminded, to some extent, of Socrates, especially if the satires Aristophanes and others, mocking him, were performed here. As we’ll see, though, Socrates was ultimately depicted as exhibiting complete philosophical indifference to being ridiculed in public, like a true forerunner of Stoicism.
Socrates is one of the central characters of The Clouds where he’d depicted as a pompous buffoon, apparently a cross between a natural philosopher like Anaxagoras and a Sophist like Prodicus. He’s depicted running a philosophical school called The Thinkery where he charges high fees to reveal his wisdom. Pallid long-haired young men dressed in dirty rags like beggars, and bearing staffs, hang on his every word, as if they’re members of a cult.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is depicted defending himself during his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. He mentions that these charges aren’t the real reason he’s being brought to trial. Among other things, he’s unjustly acquired a bad reputation among the Athenian public because slanderous rumours have spread about him fuelled by the plays of Aristophanes.
Well, what do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: ‘Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.’ Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he walks in air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to speak disparagingly of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could bring so grave a charge against me. But the simple truth is, O Athenians, that I have nothing to do with physical speculations. Very many of those here present are witnesses to the truth of this, and to them I appeal. […] As little foundation is there for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; this accusation has no more truth in it than the other.
Aristophanes also mentions Socrates in two of his later satires: The Birds and The Frogs. Three satires competed for the prize at the annual City Dionysia festival. Remarkably, in the year The Clouds was performed one of the other two plays was also about Socrates, the Connus of Ameipsias. Socrates was clearly a popular target for satire in 423 BC.
A: Socrates – shining in a small gathering, eclipsed in a large – have you come to join us as well? Tough, eh? Where did you get that coat? No shoes on your feet. You’re bankrupting the cobblers with your insults!
B: Still he’d rather starve than flatter!
It’s striking that Ameipsias portrays Socrates as strangely dressed, shoeless, and starving – in a manner that seems very consistent with Aristophanes’ depiction of him. Likewise, another poet called Eupolis, of uncertain date, was clearly more acerbic in his criticisms: “Yes and I loathe that poverty-stricken windbag Socrates who contemplates everything in the world but does not know where his next meal is coming from.” Socrates arguably sounds more like a forerunner of the Cynics in these plays: he’s consistently portrayed as someone who voluntarily dresses like a beggar, embraces poverty, and eats sparingly.
However, according to Diogenes Laertius, Socrates said “We ought not to object, he used to say, to be subjects for the Comic poets, for if they satirize our faults they will do us good, and if not they do not touch us. There’s also a story that during one performance of The Clouds foreign visitors to the Athenian festival could be heard whispering “Who is this Socrates?” Socrates silently rose from his seat making himself visible to the rest of the audience. Although they didn’t know him, the foreigners would probably have been able to recognize his features from those caricatured on stage by the actor’s comic mask. In other words, he wasn’t ashamed of being ridiculed as a pompous buffoon on stage but took it with good grace.