I’m delighted to announce that a new edition of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, with which I was involved, is due for publication in December 2019 by Capstone, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons.
Capstone Classics is a series of deluxe hardback editions of classic texts. This special edition of The Meditations is beautifully bound and contains a modernized version of the George Long translation accompanied by my detailed introduction to the text.
This book is eligible for Amazon’s pre-order price guarantee so you should find that by ordering now you’ll get the book at the lowest price offered prior to its release. So that’s a great way to pick up a bargain.
We begin our conversation discussing the history of Stoicism and the overlooked beliefs the Stoics had. We then discuss the end goal of Stoicism and how it differed from other ancient philosophies like Aristotelian virtue ethics. Donald then explains the Stoic approach to emotions and the common misconceptions people have about Stoicism in that regard. We then dig into Stoic practices taken from Marcus Aurelius and discuss how modern cognitive psychology backs them up. Donald shares how the Stoics used language and daily meditations to manage their emotional life, and how they went about the psychology of goal-setting and dealing with success and failure.
The origins of Stoicism — Where did it start? Who were the founders?
Comparing Stoicism to Aristotelian ethics
How did the Stoic way differentiate between good and bad actions?
The connection between Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
The Stoic approach to emotions (and misconceptions about it)
How our language can help us manage our emotions
How Stoics view anger and why they use so much space talking about it
Marcus Aurelius’ story, including his circuitous route to becoming emperor
What does Stoic meditation look like?
Was the Apostle Paul a Stoic?
What do Stoics say about changing or moderating our desires?
What about worry and anxiety?
Balancing successful outcomes with successful tactics (and dealing with setbacks)
Read more on the Art of Manliness website. Hope you enjoy! Please feel free to leave comments – I’m always pleased to read your thoughts.
In his Attic Nights, the grammarian Aulus Gellius relates the following anecdote in which Herodes Atticus, a famous Sophist, criticizes the Stoic concept of apatheia, or freedom from irrational passions. However, Herodes was a notoriously quick tempered and violent individual, who stood trial (and was acquitted) of kicking his pregnant wife to death. So his own life may not be the best advertisement for his theory of the passions.
A discourse of Herodes Atticus on the power and nature of pain, and a confirmation of his view by the example of an ignorant countryman who cut down fruit-trees along with thorns.
I once heard Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, holding forth at Athens in the Greek language, in which he far surpassed almost all the men of our time in distinction, fluency, and elegance of diction. He was speaking at the time against the ἀπάθεια, or “lack of feeling” of the Stoics, in consequence of having been assailed by one of that sect, who alleged that he did not endure the grief which he felt at the death of a beloved boy with sufficient wisdom and fortitude. The sense of the discourse, so far as I remember, was as follows: that no man, who felt and thought normally, could be wholly exempt and free from those emotions of the mind, which he called πάθη, caused by sorrow, desire, fear, anger and pleasure; and even if he could so resist them as to be free from them altogether, he would not be better off, since his mind would grow weak and sluggish, being deprived of the support of certain emotions, as of a highly necessary stimulus. For he declared that those feelings and impulses of the mind, though they become faults when excessive, are connected and involved in certain powers and activities of the intellect; and therefore, if we should in our ignorance eradicate them altogether, there would be danger lest we lose also the good and useful qualities of the mind which are connected with them. Therefore he thought that they ought to be regulated, and pruned skilfully and carefully, so that those only should be removed which are unsuitable and unnatural, lest in fact that should happen which once (according to the story) befell an ignorant and rude Thracian in cultivating a field which he had bought.
“When a man of Thrace,” said he, “from a remote and barbarous land, and unskilled in agriculture, had moved into a more civilized country, in order to lead a less wild life, he bought a farm planted with olives and vines. Knowing nothing at all about the care of vines or trees, he chanced to see a neighbour cutting down the thorns which had sprung up high and wide, pruning his ash-trees almost to their tops, pulling up the suckers of his vines which had spread over the earth from the main roots, and cutting off the tall straight shoots on his fruit and olive trees. He drew near and asked why the other was making such havoc of his wood and leaves. The neighbour answered; ‘In order to make the field clean and neat and the trees and vines more productive.’ The Thracian left his neighbour with thanks, rejoicing that he had gained some knowledge of farming. Then he took his sickle and axe; and thereupon in his pitiful ignorance the fellow cuts down all his vines and olives, lopping off the richest branches of the trees and the most fruitful shoots of the vines, and, with the idea of clearing up his place, he pulls up all the shrubs and shoots fit for bearing fruits and crops, along with the brambles and thorns, having learnt assurance at a ruinous price and acquired boldness in error through faulty imitation. Thus it is,” said Herodes, “that those disciples of insensibility, wishing to be thought calm, courageous and steadfast because of showing neither desire nor grief, neither wrath nor joy, root out all the more vigorous emotions of the mind, and grow old in the torpor of a sluggish and, as it were, nerveless life.”
In this excerpt from Attic Nights, the grammarian Aulus Gellius, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, relates an amusing anecdote. Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Sophist, known for his eloquence but also his violent temper. He was family friend of Marcus Aurelius, but also a critic of Stoicism.
The apt use made by Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, in reply to an arrogant and boastful young fellow, a student of philosophy in appearance only, of the passage in which Epictetus the Stoic humorously set apart the true Stoic from the mob of prating triflers who called themselves Stoics.
While we were students at Athens, Herodes Atticus, a man of consular rank and of true Grecian eloquence, often invited me to his country houses near that city, in company with the honourable Servilianus and several others of our countrymen who had withdrawn from Rome to Greece in quest of culture. And there at that time, while we were with him at the villa called Cephisia, both in the heat of summer and under the burning autumnal sun, we protected ourselves against the trying temperature by the shade of its spacious groves, its long, soft promenades, the cool location of the house, its elegant baths with their abundance of sparkling water, and the charm of the villa as a whole, which was everywhere melodious with plashing waters and tuneful birds.
There was with us there at the time a young student of philosophy, of the Stoic school according to his own account, but intolerably loquacious and presuming. In the course of the conversations which are commonly carried on at table after dinner, this fellow often used to prattle unseasonably, absurdly, and at immoderate length, on the principles of philosophy, maintaining that compared with himself all the Greek-speaking authorities, all wearers of the toga, and the Latin race in general were ignorant boors. As he spoke, he rattled off unfamiliar terms, the catchwords of syllogisms and dialectic tricks, declaring that no one but he could unravel the “master,” the “resting,” and the “heap” arguments, and other riddles of the kind. Furthermore, as to ethics, the nature of the human intellect, and the origin of the virtues with their duties and limits, or on the other hand the ills caused by disease and sin, and the wasting and destruction of the soul, he stoutly maintained that absolutely no one else had investigated, understood and mastered all these more thoroughly than himself. Further, he believed that torture, bodily pain and deadly peril could neither injure nor detract from the happy state and condition of life which, in his opinion, he had attained, and that no sorrow could even cloud the serenity of the Stoic’s face and expression.
Once when he was puffing out these empty boasts, and already all, weary of his prating, were thoroughly disgusted and longing for an end, Herodes, speaking in Greek as was his general custom, said: “Allow me, mightiest of philosophers, since we, whom you call laymen, cannot answer you, to read from a book of Epictetus, greatest of Stoics, what he thought and said about such big talk as that of yours.” And he bade them bring the first volume of the Discourses of Epictetus, arranged by Arrian, in which that venerable old man with just severity rebukes those young men who, though calling themselves Stoics, showed neither virtue nor honest industry, but merely babbled of trifling propositions and of the fruits of their study of such elements as are taught to children.
Then, when the book was brought, there was read the passage which I have appended, in which Epictetus with equal severity and humour set apart and separated from the true and genuine Stoic, who was beyond question without restraint or constraint, unembarrassed, free, prosperous and happy, that other mob of triflers who styled themselves Stoics, and casting the black soot of their verbiage before the eves of their hearers, laid false claim to the name of the holiest of sects:
‘Speak to me of good and evil.’ — Listen: The wind, bearing me from Ilium, drove me to the Cicones. Of all existing things some are good, some evil, and some indifferent. Now the good things are virtues and what partakes of them, the evil are vice and what partakes of vice, and the indifferent lie between these: wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain.— ‘How do you know this?’ — Hellanicus says so in his Egyptian History. For what difference does it make whether you say that, or that it was Diogenes in his Ethics or Chrysippus or Cleanthes? Have you then investigated any of these matters and formed an opinion of your own? Let me see how you are accustomed to act in a storm at sea. Do you recall this classification when the sail cracks and you cry aloud? If some idle fellow should stand beside you and say: ‘Tell me, for Heaven’s sake, what you told me before. It isn’t a vice to suffer shipwreck, is it? It doesn’t partake of vice, does it?’ Would you not hurl a stick of wood at him and cry: ‘What have we to do with you, fellow? We perish and you come and crack jokes.’ But if Caesar should summon you to answer an accusation…”
On hearing these words, that most arrogant of youths was mute, just as if the whole diatribe had been pronounced, not by Epictetus against others, but against himself by Herodes.
Something about the chivalric codes of the Middle Ages seems curiously akin to the ethical ideals of Stoicism. Ancient Stoic philosophy didn’t have an explicit code of honor, as far as we know. However, a basic code of ethical conduct is clearly implicit in the surviving writings of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and our other sources for the philosophy.
Stoics liked to have lists that could be easily committed to memory. Most obviously, there is their list of four cardinal virtues, which goes back at least as far as the portrayal of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato: Wisdom (sophia), Righteousness (dikaiosune), Fortitude (andreia), and Temperance (sophrosune); or Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation, in more modern language.
The doxographer Diogenes Laertius said that the Stoics described the supreme good as “honourable” because it consists of the four factors (virtues) required for the perfection of human nature: wisdom, justice, courage, and orderliness (self-discipline). The “honourable”, he says, denotes those qualities which make their possessor genuinely praiseworthy, by allowing him to fulfil his natural potential as a human being. The Stoics that the wise man alone is honourable and “that only the honourable is good”. The good and the honourable are synonymous, in other words, as far as the Stoics are concerned. However, the good is also that which is beneficial. The Stoics believed that doing what is honourable is in our own best interests because it allows us to flourish as human beings.
We might briefly summarize the Stoic code of honor described below as follows:
Every so often I receive emails from people who have struggled to cope with their own alcoholism or that of their loved ones. They tell me how they’ve found great support and consolation in the writings of ancient Stoic philosophers, such as The Meditations of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The ones who have experience of the Twelve Step Program know that The Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, neatly encapsulates one of the most characteristic doctrines of Stoic philosophy.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught his students the same thing:
What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. — Discourses, 1.1
The Stoics can teach you how to find a sense of purpose in life, how to face adversity, how to conquer anger within yourself, moderate your desires, experience healthy sources of joy, endure pain and illness patiently and with dignity, exhibit courage in the face of your anxieties, cope with loss, and perhaps even confront your own mortality while remaining as unperturbed as Socrates.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius was a #1 best seller in philosophy, has been nominated for two literary awards, and has received an average five star rating from reviewers on Amazon, leading it to be listed as one of their “top-rated” ancient philosophy titles by Amazon. The audiobook edition also became a best seller on Audible.
Robertson distills the emperor’s philosophy into useful mental habits… displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought… accessible prose style contributes to its appeal… a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.
The Wall Street Journal
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