Holiday and Hanselman are well-known to many as the authors of the bestselling The Daily Stoic. Holiday is also the author of a trilogy of successful books inspired, among other things, by his interest in Stoic philosophy: The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key.
Lives of the Stoics is due for publication in the US on September 29th, by Penguin Random House, and will be available in audiobook and ebook as well as hardback format. I was fortunate enough to receive an advance review copy. I’m an author myself and so I receive a lot of new books to review but I can honestly say this is the one I was most looking forward to reading.
If thou would’st master care and pain, Unfold this book and read and read again Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see The past, the present, and the days to be With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief, Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.
This epigram is found at the end of a Vatican manuscript of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, one of the most widely-read spiritual and philosophical classics of all time. Readers of The Meditations are usually aware that Marcus was a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. However, they often don’t realize how much more we know about him.
Marcus studied rhetoric under Fronto for many years, and learned certain techniques from him that appear to have shaped the writing of The Meditations.
In my recent book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, I drew upon the surviving evidence to make connections between Marcus’ life and thought. We have three main contemporary biographical sources: The Historia Augusta, Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana, and Herodian’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus.
In addition to these, one of our most important sources is a cache of letters belonging to Marcus’ family friend and rhetoric tutor Marcus Cornelius Fronto. These were discovered in the early 19th century by the Italian scholar Angelo Mai. They give us a remarkable window into the private life of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher.
We learn, for instance, that Marcus was, in private, an exceptionally warm and affectionate man. He also shows evidence of being adept at diplomacy and at resolving conflicts between his friends. As we’ll see, Marcus studied rhetoric under Fronto for many years, and learned certain techniques from him that appear to have shaped the writing of The Meditations.
“It is that I learn from you to speak the truth. That matter (of speaking the truth) is precisely what is so hard for gods and men…” — Marcus
Come and join our free Zoom webinar hosted by Matt Sharpe at Deakin University, Melbourne.
The Stoics considered anger to be the main focus of their therapy of the soul. We’re lucky enough to have an entire text by Seneca, On Anger, but Marcus Aurelius also talks extensively about anger in The Meditations. In one key passage, he lists ten distinct cognitive strategies for coping with anger, which can be compared to strategies employed in modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).
When: Friday August 28th, 10.30am (Melbourne, Australia time)
If you don’t already have a copy, check it out, as the paperback is almost half the price of the original hardback edition. Amazon are also currently offering a discount off the price. In fact, if you order now you’ll benefit from the Amazon pre-order price guarantee, which basically means you’ll get it for the cheapest price offered between now and the publication date. So you might get a bargain!
When it was released in April last year, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor became the #1 top-selling book on philosophy in the US. It’s recently been #1 new release on Amazon for Greek and Roman philosophy. It’s already available in eightdifferent languages, with more to follow. It’s since been reviewed/rated by over 340 people on Amazon, and over 2,370 people on Goodreads! The audiobook has also been reviewed/rated by over 1,550 listeners on Audible.
Philosopher Marcus Aurelius urged people to get rid of ‘needless actions.’ Here’s how to do that today.
“I just didn’t have the time.”
That’s one of the most common phrases I hear from my psychotherapy clients who’ve neglected to do the exercises we talked about — things like keeping a record of upsetting thoughts or practicing a mindfulness meditation technique. Over and over again, people call me and apologize uncomfortably for ignoring their homework, as though I’m there to scold them instead of help them.
I can certainly understand being stretched thin right now. We’re all living under pressures we’ve never experienced before. But in my own clinical practice, I’ve found an effective way to help my clients find more time, and that’s to challenge them to stop doing the things that do not serve their deeper goals in life.
It’s a tool I borrowed from the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. In Meditations, his collection of writings, Marcus cites a quote from the Greek philosopher Democritus: “Do little if you want contentment of mind.” However, Marcus puts a Stoic twist on this ancient maxim, suggesting that we should do only what is necessary for achieving our fundamental goals in life:
For this will bring not only the contentment of mind that comes from acting aright, but also that which comes from doing little; for considering that the majority of our words and actions are anything but necessary, if a person dispenses with them he will have greater leisure and a less troubled mind.
Marcus describes a very simple technique for achieving this, one that we all can practice: Before engaging in an activity — at least one that might be of questionable value — ask yourself:Is this really necessary?Pause and consider whether doing it will actually be good for your well-being. He writes:
And we should dispense not only with actions that are unnecessary, but also with unnecessary ideas; for in that way the needless actions that follow in their train will no longer ensue.
It’s a powerful strategy that’s not unlike ones we use today in cognitive-behavioral therapy. (I recently wrote about Marcus’ influence on cognitive psychotherapy in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.) Here’s how to do it in practice.
Nobody likes being wrong, we’re told. Least of all those individuals who suffer from pathological narcissism. They have to believe that they were right all along, even when it becomes obvious they are very much in the wrong.
Figures who live in the public eye, such as celebrities and politicians, if they become overly-incentivized by praise, risk turning this into a habit. As Aristotle once said, habits become our “second nature”. They solidify into character traits if we’re not careful.
Perhaps sometimes the person who gains the most is the one who loses the argument.
So do we always have to be right? The ancient Greek philosophers — who loved paradoxes — said the opposite: maybe true wisdom requires the capacity to delight in being proven wrong. My favourite expression of this idea comes from Epicurus:
In a philosophical dispute, he gains most who is defeated, since he learns the most. — Epicurus, Vatican Sayings, 74
How crazy is that? Perhaps sometimes the person who gains the most is the one who loses the argument. The one who wins the argument gains nothing, except perhaps some praise — but what does that matter? The one who loses, though, gains knowledge, and perhaps gets a step closer to achieving wisdom. It wasn’t just Epicurus who had this paradoxical insight. The rival Stoic school of philosophers taught essentially the same thing.
I’m pleased to announce that the paperback of my latest book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, is now available for pre-order and will be published on 4th August by Macmillan. When it was released last April, the hardback remained at #1 in Greek and Roman philosophy on Amazon for several weeks. It’s already available in hardback, ebook (Kindle/EPUB), and audiobook formats, and has been translated into seven languages so far.
If you order the paperback now, you’ll benefit from Amazon’s pre-order price guarantee, which means you’ll pay the lowest price offered for the book between now and the publication date. (It’s currently 10% off on Amazon US.)
Hope you enjoy the book. I’m currently working on a graphic novel about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius for Macmillan, which will be available some time next year – stay tuned for more info!
I run several online groups, including the largest Facebook group for Stoic philosophy — it currently has over 78k members. I’ve been running large online discussion forums since way back in 1999, when I created my first Yahoogroup. Since then I’ve written several books on applying Stoic philosophy to modern life. The most recent was called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. A good Stoic would follow Epictetus’ famous slogan when on social media: endure and renounce. So when it comes to getting sucked into arguments online or wasting too much time on Twitter and Facebook — I should probably know better by now.
I am convinced that Stoicism is especially relevant to the challenges of coping with social media.
I guess I do have the excuse that social media has been an important part of my job for as long as I care to remember now. So maybe I can’t avoid it completely. I’ve been thinking for a long time now, though, that I should be applying the teachings of Stoicism more consistently to my own online behaviour and the way I deal with trolls, etc. I get plenty of practice. If you write books trolls will eventually come after you online. Also, if you run forums often you’ll have to ban people for becoming abusive, usually following complaints from other group members. Most of the time they’ll be angry and you’ll get quite a few abusive messages from them, etc. In this article, I’m going to explain why I think this is really just a modern version of an age-old problem and how some specific techniques from ancient Greek philosophy can help us.