How to Think Like a Roman Emperor - The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
How much do I want to read more? 8/10
Such a nice book about stoicism, combining modern psychology and psychotherapy with it. The author has a deep sense of need behind studying and practicing it, and transmitting it to others. It feels like we can taste the truth of his living experience.
the four cardinal virtues of Greek philosophy: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. (Wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, if you prefer more modern terms.)
For Socrates, philosophy was not only a moral guide but also a kind of psychological therapy. Doing philosophy, he said, can help us overcome our fear of death, improve our character, and even find a genuine sense of fulfillment.
Rather than apologize, though, or plead for mercy and parade his weeping wife and children before the jury as others did, he just carries on doing philosophy by questioning his accusers and lecturing the jury on ethics. At one point, he explains in plain language what it means to him to be a philosopher:
"For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: “Wealth does not bring about virtue, but virtue makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively.”
We are to place more importance upon wisdom and virtue than anything else. A “philosopher,” in Socrates’s sense, is therefore a person who lives according to these values: someone who literally loves wisdom, the original meaning of the word.
once I started working as a psychotherapist, it became evident to me that most of my clients who suffered from anxiety or depression benefited from the realization that their distress was due to their underlying values.
Everyone knows that when we believe very strongly that something very bad has happened, we typically become upset as a result.
Likewise, if we believe that something is very good and desirable, we become anxious when it’s threatened or sad if it has already been lost.
For example, in order to feel social anxiety, you have to believe that other people’s negative opinions of you are worth getting upset about, that it’s really bad if they dislike you and really important to win their approval.
Even people who suffer from severe social anxiety disorder (social phobia) tend to feel “normal” when speaking to children or to their close friends about trivial matters, with a few exceptions.
Nevertheless, they feel highly anxious when talking to people they think are very important about subjects they think are very important. If your fundamental worldview, by contrast, assumes that your status in the eyes of others is of negligible importance, then it follows that you should be beyond the reach of social anxiety.
Anyone, I reasoned, who could adopt a healthier and more rational set of core values, with greater indifference toward the things most of us worry about in life, should be able to become much more emotionally resilient. I just couldn’t figure out how to combine the philosophy and values of Socrates with something like the therapeutic tools of CBT.
everything changed for me because I suddenly discovered Stoicism.
The potential value of Stoicism struck me immediately when I stumbled across the French scholar Pierre Hadot’s What Is Ancient Philosophy? (1998) and Philosophy as a Way of Life (2004).
My eyes were opened to a whole treasure trove of spiritual practices, tucked away in the literature of Greek and Roman philosophy, which were clearly designed to help people overcome emotional suffering and develop strength of character.
The Stoic school in particular focused on the practical side of Socratic philosophy, not only through the development of virtues such as self-discipline and courage (what we might call emotional resilience) but also through extensive use of psychological exercises.
It very soon became evident to me that Stoicism was, in fact, the school of ancient Western philosophy with the most explicitly therapeutic orientation and the largest armamentarium, or toolbox, of psychological techniques at its disposal. After scouring books on philosophy for over a decade, I realized that I’d been looking everywhere except in the right place. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (118th Psalm).
As I began to devour the literature on Stoicism, I noticed that the form of modern psychotherapy most akin to it was rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), the main precursor to CBT, first developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950s. Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, the other main pioneer of CBT, had both cited Stoic philosophy as the inspiration for their respective approaches.
particularly the “cognitive theory of emotion,” which holds that our emotions are mainly determined by our beliefs. Anxiety largely consists of the belief, for example, that “something bad is going to happen,”
Ryan Holiday embraced Stoicism in The Obstacle Is the Way (2014) and The Daily Stoic (2016, coauthored with Stephen Hanselman).
In the UK, the illusionist and television celebrity Derren Brown later published a book called Happy (2017)
The scientific skeptic and professor of philosophy Massimo Pigliucci published How to Be a Stoic in 2017.
In the same year, Republican politician Pat McGeehan released Stoicism and the Statehouse.
The NFL executive and former New England Patriots coach Michael Lombardi embraced it.
TELLING THE STORY OF STOICISM
One of her favorites was about the Greek general Xenophon. Late one night, as a young man, he was walking through an alleyway between two buildings near the Athenian marketplace. Suddenly a mysterious stranger, hidden in the shadows, blocked his path with a wooden staff. A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora, the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, and so on. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?” Xenophon was dumbstruck. He had no idea how to answer. The mysterious figure then lowered his staff, stepped out of the shadows, and introduced himself as Socrates. Socrates said that they should both try to discover how someone could become a good person, because that’s surely more important than knowing where to buy all sorts of goods. So Xenophon went with Socrates and became one of his closest friends and followers.
I told Poppy that most people believe there are lots of good things—nice food, clothes, houses, money, etc.—and lots of bad things in life, but Socrates said perhaps they’re all wrong. He wondered if there was only one good thing, and if it was inside of us rather than outside. Maybe it was something like wisdom or bravery. Poppy thought for a minute, then, to my surprise, she shook her head, saying, “That’s not true, Daddy!” which made me smile. Then she said something else: “Tell me that story again,” because she wanted to continue to think about it. She asked me how Socrates became so wise, and I told her the secret of his wisdom: he asked lots of questions about the most important things in life, and then he listened very carefully to the answers. So I kept telling stories, and she kept asking lots of questions. As I came to realize, these little anecdotes about Socrates did much more than just teach her things. They encouraged her to think for herself about what it means to live wisely.
The following chapters are all based upon a careful reading of history. Although I’ve drawn on a wide range of sources, we learn about Marcus’s life and character mainly from the Roman historical accounts in Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta, as well as from Marcus’s own words in The Meditations. Sometimes I’ve added minor details or pieces of dialogue to flesh out the story, but this is how, based on the available evidence, I imagine the events of Marcus’s life to have unfolded.
This entire book is designed to help you follow Marcus in acquiring Stoic strength of mind and eventually a more profound sense of fulfillment.
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.
As Marcus wrote to himself: "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; just be one."