Ten Practical Tips from Marcus Aurelius
What does Stoic philosophy tell us about how to control our tempers? When we began working on our graphic novel, Verissimus, the illustrator, Zé Nuno Fraga, and I decided to show how colourful and action-packed Marcus Aurelius’ life really was. We also liked the idea, however, of leaving our readers with a good amount of practical advice from Stoicism, which they could take away and use to help themselves and others.
I chose to focus on Stoic advice about anger — the royal road to self-improvement.
I chose to focus on Stoic advice about anger — the royal road to self-improvement. We know that this was a problem for Marcus because he tells us in the Meditations that he struggled, at first, to master his own temper. Later in life, Marcus had a reputation for remaining completely level-headed, even in the face of extreme provocation. So it appears that he succeeded in using Stoicism to master his natural quick temper. He did this by employing Stoic psychological practices, over and over again, on a daily basis. I can see parallels between many of these strategies and those employed in modern cognitive therapy. So I think that, with practice, they may help the rest of us cope with our feelings of anger too.
It was one of the men who provoked Marcus’ temper the most, ironically, who also taught him how to restore calm and rebuild friendships after an argument — his Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus. We therefore speculated, in our illustrations, that it could have been Rusticus who taught Marcus the ten anger-management strategies he describes using in the Meditations (11.18). Marcus, curiously, refers to these as ten “gifts” from the god Apollo, and his nine Muses. Apollo, Lord of the Muses, was the god of the arts, including the arts of medicine and, in a sense, also philosophy. It’s perhaps fitting, therefore, that Marcus would call these therapeutic strategies, or self-help tips, gifts from the god of healing.
Marcus describes things he should tell himself whenever he noticed he was growing annoyed with someone. I would call these cognitive (thinking) strategies for anger-management. In this article, I’ll discuss each of his ten strategies in turn, adding a few comments, here and there, from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist.