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Jon Meacham on Marcus Aurelius

While I was researching my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I stumbled across a Newsweek article about Marcus Aurelius, from 2010, written by author and political commentator Jon Meacham.  Meacham won a Pulitzer prize in 2009 for his biography of US president Andrew Jackson.

Meacham’s article, A Case for Optimistic Stoicism, was inspired by the attempted Al Qaeda bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was bound from Amsterdam to Detroit Metropolitan Airport in the US.  I wanted to write a little about this article because I think it deserves to be read and because it seems to me that Meacham has actually understood the essence of Stoicism better than many others who have attempted to write about it.  Though he’s not a scholar of this particular subject he clearly “gets it” and the Stoic doctrine he gets is one that’s really quite central to the whole philosophy.

Meacham was reading the Gregory Hays translation of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius when he heard about the attack.  He was immediately struck by the relevance of Marcus’ Stoic reflections as America once again faced the renewed threat of terrorism.  In particular, the following words resonated with him at that moment:

If you’ve seen the present then you’ve seen everything—as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever.  The same substance, the same form. All of it.

Meacham sounded jaded by the “mindlessly divided” nature of the political response to the incident.  The same old finger-pointing and political point-scoring.  Politicians using a threat as an opportunity to squabble among themselves rather than addressing the real issues at stake.

He reasoned that threat is always present, lurking somewhere during times of apparent peace.  Americans were deluding themselves to think otherwise.  Crises are inevitable.  With The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in his hands, Meacham could only wish that instead of the embarrassing display of Democrats and Republicans scrambling to opportunistically exploit the event Americans should learn, like the Roman emperor, to embrace a philosophy of optimistic Stoicism.

Meacham understands Marcus Aurelius.  He says that a proper grasp of the Stoic philosophy of The Meditations would require adopting a world view which calmly accepts the stubborn intransigence of human affairs, and their darker side, but also retains a hopeful sense of their possibilities.  Not just Stoic acceptance of a passive kind, as people sometimes assume, but an attitude of hopeful and determined action.  True Stoics balance resignation and calm realism, the Stoic Discipline of Desire, with relentless idealism and a serious commitment to moral principles, the Discipline of Action.  That paradox is the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.  Stoics quietly accept life’s misfortunes without complaint but they nevertheless remain committed to doing good, for the common welfare of mankind.

As Meacham notes, Marcus Aurelius wrote that human beings were made to help one another – a theme that he returns to many times throughout The Meditations.  The wise man, Marcus says, can be recognized by the affection he exhibits toward his neighbours, and through his humility and truthfulness.  The only true good is virtue, which leads to universally admired character traits such as justice, self-control, courage, and freedom.  The only true evil is vice, the opposite frame of mind.

Meacham also spots the Roman emperor’s striking remark that we cannot go around expecting to achieve Plato’s ideal republic in political life – it’s unrealistic to demand that we live in a Utopia.  Nevertheless, says Marcus, rather than simply abandoning our ideals – like so many people do when they become disillusioned with modern politics –the Stoics advise us to work toward justice and our political ideals more patiently.  We should accept the imperfections around us while maintaining our goal of making progress toward something far better, even if it’s only one small step at a time.  Indeed, Marcus says that this Stoic willingness to keep working steadily toward a beautiful ideal while nevertheless accepting reality warts and all, is the secret of fulfilment in human life.

Meacham realized as he watched the news that day that despite the duty of government to strive for its people’s safety, America was facing the horrifying reality of a war without end against enemies who could appear anywhere:

No matter how many camps we blow up, no matter how many operatives we kill or imprison, and certainly no matter how much screening we do at airports, we will never render America totally safe. No matter. We must press forward on all fronts. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. […] As Marcus Aurelius would understand, a never-ending war is not a war we should not fight: it is just a war that never ends. The sooner we accept this, the better.

That’s what I would simply describe as a philosophical attitude toward the stark reality of terrorism.  One type of folly denies the reality of these threats and buries its head in the sand.  Another type of folly accepts them but exaggerates our inability to cope and throws its arms up in the air in despair.  What people find so difficult about Stoicism is that it does neither of these foolish things.  Stoics like the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius could walk and chew gum.  They could calmly accept adversity while nevertheless patiently fighting back against it, even though the odds seemed stacked against them or the battle seemed interminable.  Life, as Marcus said, is warfare.  It never ends.  The good man accepts this, without complaint, and he remains at his post anyway, standing guard against the enemy.

In 1712, Thomas Addison wrote a play called Cato, a Tragedy, which celebrated the great Roman Stoic hero, Cato of Utica.  It contains many Stoic themes including the striking lines:

Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius – we’ll deserve it.

George Washington was reputedly so inspired by this play that he had it staged for his army camped at Valley Forge.  That was the philosophy he felt they needed to inspire them.  We don’t give up just because we’re facing an overwhelming threat.  The goal of life isn’t to win, because that’s not always up to us, but rather to deserve to win, something eminently under our control.  We can be victorious over fortune in that respect, right now, even when engaged in a war without end.  As soon as we turn our back on the true goal, though, we’ve already lost everything for which it’s worth putting up a fight in the first place.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Don’t Miss Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018 is now enrolling and due to start on Sunday 25th November, when enrollment will close.  Every year we get people contacting us to say they missed the enrollment window so please don’t miss out!

SMRT is a FREE four-week course provided by Modern Stoicism, a nonprofit organization run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers.  It’s an intensive skills training approach to Stoicism.  Visit the website for more information.

Click the button below to enroll now or to learn more…

So far 2,544 people have registered in advance so we’re aiming to reach three thousand by Sunday.  We’ve been running SMRT since 2014 and it keeps on growing into a bigger event each year.  Last year we had about 1,800 participants so we’ve already gone way beyond that number this time round.

Set a reminder for the introductory live webinar:

Writing “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor”

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorMy 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!

NEW: Free Email Course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The MeditationsI’m delighted to announce that I’ve just launched a brand new email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  It’s completely free of charge.  Everyone is welcome.  You can join at any time and you’ll start receiving the first email.

Enroll now to obtain a whole bundle of extra freebies.  You’ll receive weekly emails with passages from The Meditations, including my commentary on the text.  See the course website for more details or click the enroll button below:

You’ll also be granted free access to the following bundle:

  • The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (George Long trans.) eBook
  • The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius eBook
  • Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories eBook
  • Marcus Aurelius HD Wallpapers

I’m very excited about running this course because The Meditations is easily my favourite text on Stoicism.  I’ve been pretty immersed in the text recently, while working on my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.  It’s great to have the opportunity to study it even more closely, though, going through it passage by passage with a group of students.  I hope you enjoy reading the lessons as much as I enjoy writing them!

Regards,

Donald Robertson Signature

Now Enrolling: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

We’re pleased to announce that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) will be running this year starting on Sunday 25th November.   This is a free course, open to everyone.

The course lasts four weeks and enrollment has just opened but will close shortly.  So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part.

About SMRT

SMRT is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  We therefore advise people not to enroll unless they’re sure they can commit the time and effort to complete the program.

SMRT was designed in 2014 by cognitive therapist, Donald Robertson.  Over 500 people took part in the initial program, and thousands more have completed SMRT since then.  It runs once or twice per year.

We collected data and analysed it, which showed fairly impressive improvements in established psychological measures of mood and quality of life.  Recent follow-up data show these improvements were maintained at three months.

SMRT was deliberately designed not as a general introduction to Stoicism but as focused skills training, modelled on the type of protocols used in clinical trials on CBT.  Stoic Week, our seven-day course provides more of a general introduction to Stoicism, if that’s what you want.  SMRT is for people who really want to focus on developing basic Stoic psychological skills through daily practice, over a sufficient period of time to show significant changes.

Free Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management (Beta)

Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management

The beta version of my new Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management is now available for those who want to enroll, test it out, and provide feedback.  Just follow the link to enroll – everyone is welcome.

This is a free mini-course on Stoic techniques for pain management. It’s designed to provide a simple introduction to Stoic psychological techniques for coping with physical pain or discomfort.

The main resource is an 18 min. audio recording of a guided Stoic exercise for pain management. You’ll learn about how the ancient Stoics coped with pain and how those techniques can be adapted for use in the modern world.

Book Review: Unshakeable Freedom by Chuck Chakrapani

Chuck Chakrapani, Unshakeable FreedomUnshakeable Freedom:Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life (2016) by Chakrapani is a recent book on Stoicism, written as in introduction to applying the philosophy as a form of self-help or self-improvement.  Chuck’s also published his own editions of several Stoic classics and a book about the origins of the philosophy called A Fortunate Storm (2016).

The first thing I wanted to say is that this book is probably one of the best introductions to Stoicism that I’ve read.  I think it’s very well-written.  The philosophy seems crystal clear and the use of examples from various famous philosophers and modern role models makes it engaging and easy to read.  I really think Chuck has a way of expressing Stoic ideas that’s very clear and concise.  I would definitely recommend that people who are new to the subject start with a book like this.  I read the whole book in an afternoon, on my Chromebook Flip, while wandering around Athens.  (Between chapters, incidentally, I had a chance to visit the Benaki Museum, where they have a statue of an unnamed Athenian philosopher from the reign of Marcus Aurelius.)

Unknown Athenian PhilosopherI find that some self-improvement books have one idea, which they flog to death.  Chuck’s book manages, though, to present lots of different ideas very simply and effectively.  Some books on Stoicism also short-change the reader, I feel, when it comes to the actual psychological techniques used in the ancient philosophy.  Chuck includes quite a variety of Stoic exercises, though, both old and new.  I’m not sure how he managed to cover so much ground so well in so few pages but he did, and I find that very impressive.  He even includes a review of the ground he’s covered, and the exercises, in the final chapter.

The whole book revolves around the central theme of inner freedom, and what that means for Stoics.  For instance, the six “Big Ideas” he lists in the book include:

  1. Problems are only problems if you believe they are.
  2. Leave your past behind.
  3. Don’t let the indifferents rob your freedom.
  4. Where there is fear, freedom is not.
  5. You can never lose anything because you don’t own anything.
  6. Life is a festival.  Enjoy it now.

The twelve psychological exercises he includes are called:

  1. The anticipatory prep technique (“Morning Meditation”)
  2. Course correction (“End-of-day Meditation”)
  3. Passion counter
  4. Pause and examine
  5. Two handles (not to be confused with fork handles)
  6. Entitlement challenge
  7. Praemeditatio malorum (“Negative Visualization”)
  8. Impersonal projection
  9. Cosmic view
  10. Marcus’ Nine
  11. Sunbeam visualization
  12. South Indian monkey trap visualization

Chuck ChakrapaniI also wanted to mention that despite being a fairly simple (I suppose “non-academic”) introduction this book presents Stoicism in a pretty accurate manner.  Some of the introductory books and articles really bastardize Stoicism pretty badly, unfortunately, and that spreads a lot of confusion among people in online communities.  But Chuck’s book is spot on because it’s written by someone who actually cares about the philosophy and has taken time to try to understand how to live in accord with its principles.  I always feel you can tell whether an author is just winging it or if they’ve really put their own ideas into practice.  A lot of self-help books, including some on Stoicism, don’t pass the smell test in that regard.  You can tell that Chuck’s book is based on his experience of Stoicism, though, and that he’s sincere in his attempt to look at life through a Stoic lens.

He addresses some common misconceptions.  For example, he makes it clear that Stoicism isn’t about repressing all of our emotions but rather replacing unhealthy emotions with healthy ones.  And he clearly explains the tricky Stoic concept of “preferred indifferents”.  Although things like health, wealth and reputation are “indifferent” in the sense that they don’t contribute to the goal of life nevertheless it’s natural and rational to prefer health over sickness, wealth over poverty, and so on, within reasonable bounds.  Stoics do care about these “externals”, in a sense, but not enough to get upset about losing them.  Many people ignore that concept although it’s really the very essence of Stoic Ethics and therefore the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.   That leads them to exaggerate the “indifference” of Stoicism in a way that invites criticism (and is really more like earlier schools of philosophy such as Cynicism).  Chuck’s book presents a more accurate, balanced, workable, and realistic version of Stoicism, though.  That’s another reason why I think it’s a good introduction.

So I better conclude…  I once had a friend who worked in the British Library who thought that there were far too many books in the world and it would be better if most of them were just shredded.  Although I can’t bring myself to advocate book burning nevertheless I have felt myself becoming ever so slightly more sympathetic toward his point of view over time.  I’m in good company at least, because our Stoic friend Marcus Aurelius also thought he’d do well to put his books away for a change and get on with life.  I’ve had to read too many books as a student and then for my research as a writer and trainer.  This one was not a chore, though, but a pleasure to read.

Professional film critics, I notice, are rather preoccupied with the length of films.  Just as the time flies by in some movies, though, some books are quicker and easier than others to read.  I read this book in a few hours because it was worth reading, and a pleasure to read, and not overly-long either.  That matters to me because I know that if I recommend The Road Less Travelled to someone, they’re unlikely to get past the first few chapters.  (And that’s a hugely overrated book anyway, IMHO.)  Chuck’s book is a page-turner that gives you more bang for your buck.  Sorry to have wasted your time but it’s probably easier to read than my review to be honest!  I know that if I can persuade someone to read this – and they should – then they’ll probably get through it in a few hours, enjoy the whole thing, and come away with an accurate and workable idea of Stoic philosophy.  So please do just go and read it. 

(After watching this video of Chuck talking at Stoicon in Toronto….)