Stoic Blog Feed

History Repeating Itself: “You are nuts.”

This is the opening passage from Chapter 7 of my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, titled “Temporary Madness”:

May 175 AD. A nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Syrian legions and governor general of the eastern provinces. It contains only a single Greek word, which to his consternation reads emanes (“You’re mad”—you’ve lost your mind).

This is today’s news:

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius and the Little Birds

Marcus Aurelius often seems to turn everyday observations into philosophical metaphors, throughout his personal reflections in The Meditations. One of my favourite examples is the way he refers to sparrows and other birds, which were surely a very familiar sound and sight to him, especially while campaigning on the northern frontier, such as at Carnuntum where he wrote part of The Meditations.

In one such passage, the suddenness with which little sparrows flit away and vanish from sight is treated as a symbol for the fragility and transience of all material things.

At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young. So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price? It is as though one began to lose one’s heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight. (6.15)

He says that even our own lives are as transient as this flitting sparrow. In his letters, Marcus refers to children as little sparrows. Of his fourteen children, only five outlived him. So in this passage watching the little sparrows vanishing from sight may even be a metaphor for the loss of his own children.

In another passage, the birds he sees become a reminder of what it means to follow our nature, and work tirelessly at fulfilling our role in life.

Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for? Or was I created for this, to lie in bed and warm myself under the bedclothes?’ ‘Well, it is certainly more pleasant.’ ‘So were you born for pleasure or, in general, for feeling, or for action? (5.1)

Do you not see, he asks, how “little birds”, and other animals, do their own work and play their part in the unfolding of universal Nature? Like the little birds we should be working away at playing our part, doing the work of a human being, without hesitation or reluctance.

Elsewhere he meditates on how “birds caring for their young” show a form of natural affection (philostorgia) for their own kind (9.9). The Stoics believe humans likewise have a natural instinct to care for their offspring, and their friends and loved ones, and to form communities and societies for their protection and mutual benefit. Human beings, despite their intelligence, often seem to forget this natural instinct, which even the little birds exhibit, toward caring for their own kind. It’s therefore our duty to remember and fulfil our natural potential for living harmoniously among others by cultivating the social virtues of justice, fairness, and kindness toward them.

Win a Free Stoic Meditations Calendar

Amber Lotus Calendar

I’m giving away five free copies of my Stoic Meditations 2019 calendar to celebrate the forthcoming release of my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Follow the link to the Amazon Giveaway offer right now for your chance to win a free copy of the Stoic Meditations calendar.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Offer ends Mar 14, 2019 11:59 PM PST. See Official Rules.

Requirements for participation:

New – Marcus Aurelius: Life and Stoicism

I’m delighted to announce that the updated and revised version of my flagship eLearning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, is now enrolling again. Along with other changes, the course now has a new name – Marcus Aurelius: Life and Stoicism.

Enrollment is now open for the course commencing Sunday 17th April 2019, the anniversary of Marcus Aurelius’ death.

To celebrate the publication of my new book on the subject, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I’m offering you $50 off the standard course price, for a limited time only. So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part!

If you would like a course on Stoicism which provides an overview of the philosophy, historical context, real-world examples to learn from, different types of media and an incredibly interesting character from history, then this course is for you! I highly recommend it for the new Stoic looking for information and techniques to apply their philosophy to their life!

Adam Piercey

Follow the link below for more information:

Marcus Aurelius: Life and Stoicism

Thanks Donald for your personal perspectives, the anecdotes and breadth of applied experience with Stoicism; the practical and historical perspectives, using Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations , were very insightful and valuable also for long-term retention. Lots of thought-provoking material here to read and re-read. Many thanks. The course concept and contents are highly recommended. (I came close to turning this course down – but am greatly relieved now that I registered at the last minute!)


I look forward to meeting you on the course,

Donald Robertson Signature

Other Books on Stoicism: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Here are some other modern books on Stoicism that Amazon says are popular with people who pre-ordered my How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber

The Inner Citadel by Pierre Hadot

A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine

The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth

Live from Carnuntum: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Carnuntum Museum in Austria

I’m delighted to announce a special event to celebrate the publication of my latest book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

I’ll be travelling to Austria for the anniversary of Marcus Aurelius’ death on 17th March and staying in Vienna, where he died (according to some accounts). I’ll also be staying at the Marc Aurel hotel at nearby Carnuntum, the site of the Roman fortress from which Marcus commanded the legions during the Marcomannic Wars, the location where he says he wrote The Meditations.

I’ll be broadcasting videos, creating exclusive content, and doing Ask Me Anything events live from these locations in Austria. (Thanks are due to Adam Piercey, who will be assisting me and shooting video during the trip.)

I’ll be in Vienna on 15th and 16th March. I’ll then in Carnuntum, from 17th-22nd March. Carnuntum is the site of several archeological sites and a museum whose staff have agreed to provide support and answer interview questions about the history of the site for this event.

If you’re a podcaster, vlogger, or blogger, and want to interview me about Marcus Aurelius, or Stoicism, live from either Vienna or Carnuntum, please get in touch now to make arrangements.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor