Life Hacks from Marcus Aurelius: How Stoicism Can Help Us

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Author and psychotherapist Donald Robertson discusses how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can be applied to modern day life.

Stepping back from emotional and physical chaos to reach a state of calm, clear-headed thinking is the bedrock of Stoicism, a philosophy famously practiced by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although Stoicism was conceived in ancient times, its guiding principles are very relevant today, according to cognitive behavioral psychotherapist Donald Robertson.

His new book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, examines how Stoicism informed the leader’s personal and political life. It also shows how the philosophy can help with the challenges of modern life, including work. Robertson, a practicing Stoic, visited the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to share his story and discuss the power of Stoicism. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

 An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does Stoicism work in the business community?

Donald Robertson: It’s a strange thing. I didn’t anticipate this, but one of the biggest groups of people interested in it seems to be millennials who work in the tech industry. I feel like it can take root in Silicon Valley. Where I live in Toronto, I meet a lot of young people working in software development or the tech industry in general who are particularly drawn to this philosophy.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us the story of Marcus Aurelius and how Stoicism became his philosophy for living and ruling in the Roman Empire.

Robertson: Marcus Aurelius is one of the good Roman emperors. He lived in the second century A.D., and his reign was subject to many problems. It came after a peaceful period in history. As soon as he became emperor, there was a war with the Parthians, then the Roman Empire was invaded again by barbarians from the north. There was a famine, the River Tiber flooded, and he had a plague called the Antonine Plague, which was thought to have killed as many as five million people. He had a really hard time of it and had to lean on this philosophy that he studied when he was a young man in order to cope with it. We’re blessed to have his personal record of how he coped with adversity, the psychological techniques and strategies that he used derived from Stoic philosophy.

“Things happen to us, but what we can really control is the way that we respond to those things.”

Knowledge@Wharton: It is interesting that his book, Meditations, still holds importance to people who read it today.

Robertson: Meditations must be one of the most popular self-help spiritual guides of all time. It’s always been a popular book, and it’s gone through a resurgence of popularity today. From my perspective as a cognitive therapist, that’s because the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy in the 1950s drew heavily on Stoicism for inspiration as an alternative to [Sigmund] Freud and all that kind of stuff. The new model of psychotherapy was influenced by Stoicism, and that’s filtered down through self-help and psychological literature in general.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is Stoicism the reason why Marcus Aurelius was able to rule for the length of time that he did and have the impact that you alluded to?

Robertson: One of the historians actually comments on that. He said that even though Marcus was a notoriously frail man and had a number of health problems, he still managed to outlive a bunch of other people around him in an incredibly tough time. People were dropping like flies because of the wars and the plagues, and Marcus nearly reached 50, which isn’t exceptionally old, but that’s fairly good for that particular period in Roman history. He was tougher than he looked, you could say. We think that was because of the psychological strategies that he developed to cope with his emotions and to cope with the physical pain and illness that he had to endure.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you talk about understanding that there are going to be times when things are beyond your control. I think that’s an incredibly important idea to bring into personal and business life today because of all that we have going on.

Robertson: Absolutely. Some people think it’s even more timely now because we’re so bombarded with information. We’re constantly being told about the bigger picture in the world and things going on in other countries that we have very little control over. The Stoics realized a long time ago that the trick was learning to make a clear distinction in our mind between what’s under our direct control and what isn’t.

Ultimately, the only thing that’s really under our control is our own will, our own actions. Things happen to us, but what we can really control is the way that we respond to those things. Stoicism wants us to take also greater responsibility, greater ownership for the things that we can actually do, both in terms of our thoughts and our actions, and respond to the situations that we face.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you’re somebody who doesn’t have a handle on that concept, life can feel incredibly stressful, right?

Robertson: In my clinical practice, I’ve worked with many people who suffered, for example, from generalized anxiety disorder or GAD. Most of the things people worry about tend to be outside their direct control — the distant future, or events in politics, stuff like that. Often when they’re doing that, they neglect to do the things that they could be doing that are under their control.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re telling the story of Marcus Aurelius and correlating it with today’s world. For example, you talk about how to speak wisely. Do you think there is a significant issue surrounding speech and how it is used now?

Robertson: It’s one of the things that people often overlook about Stoicism and what it can teach us. People use flowery, emotive language a lot of the time, and they curse and swear when they’re faced with problems. If someone is anxious in a meeting, they’ll say, “That guy shot me down in flames.” They could just say, “Oh, he expressed disagreement with me.” This is very obvious when you’re working with clients in therapy, but when you describe the same situation in more value-free, more objective, matter-of-fact terms, it often seems much less distressing. We unconsciously, unintentionally make ourselves even more worked up about things when we use rhetoric on ourselves in this way. And the Stoics were very aware of this problem.

“If we want to suffer less, we need to learn to embrace our pain and live with it without struggling against it as much.”

I’ve worked with so many people over the past 20 years or so who are into Stoicism. There’s a growing community around it now, and I hear over and over again the same thing. People will say, “Well, it’s like academic philosophy, but it’s more practical.” They’ll say it’s like Buddhism, but it’s a Western alternative to it. They’ll say it’s like Christianity but more secular and more rational and philosophical. It seems to fill a gap in our culture at the moment, providing a philosophical down-to-earth and rational way of life that can help people find meaning, but also to become more emotionally resilient.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also talk about anger, which also feels like an emotion that’s rising in society now.

Robertson: There’s anger everywhere, and the Stoics were particularly interested in it. It’s the main emotion that bothers them. We have an entire book that survives today by Seneca called On Anger about the Stoic therapy of anger. But it’s also the main emotion that Marcus Aurelius is interested in dealing with. We know that he had problems with his own feelings of anger, at least as a young man, because he mentions that in the beginning of the book. In a way, Meditations is partly a book about him learning to deal with his anger and becoming more empathetic to other people. He describes so many techniques that would be relevant today and are some of our modern therapy techniques. At one point he gives a list of 10 separate Stoic techniques that stand up today to be used to help with anger.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there times where Stoicism is misinterpreted as disinterest?

Robertson: There are many common misconceptions. In fact, it’s in the language that we have. The English language has caricatures of many concepts in Greek philosophy. What we mean by cynicism with a small “c” is very different from Cynicism in the Greek philosophy with a capital “C.” The same goes for epicureanism, skepticism and stoicism. Lower-case stoicism is a coping style or a personality trait where we conceal or repress emotions, and that’s not what the ancient Stoics were talking about. They have a whole system of philosophy that’s much more sophisticated psychologically than that.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned Marcus Aurelius dealt with illness and pain. How does Stoicism correlate to pain in modern life?

Robertson: Because of our sedentary lifestyle, and also because people are living longer, we have a lot of people now struggling to cope with chronic pain and discomfort. Back pain is kind of an epidemic. The Stoics give us these strategies for learning to cope with pain. The interesting thing is they’re mainly acceptance-based strategies. There’s a large, growing body of research that shows that emotional acceptance seems to be a powerful strategy in cognitive therapy for coping with upsetting or unpleasant feelings, particularly as a way of coping with pain. If we want to suffer less, we need to learn to embrace our pain and live with it without struggling against it as much.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are one of the founding members of the organization Modern Stoicism. How has the practice of this philosophy affected your life?

Robertson: It’s helped me to cope with a lot of things, even relatively trivial things. The last time I went to the dentist, I’m sure I was using Stoic pain management techniques. It becomes a habitual thing. Coping with some of the stress that therapists have when they’re dealing with clients who sometimes describe very traumatic problems, and the stress of working with other people who have their difficulties and stresses. [I moved] to Canada a few years ago, and that was a big upheaval for me. As for many people, a life-changing event like that can require a lot to deal with. Learning to think about things like a Stoic has helped me to negotiate all of these things in life.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the other areas you talk about is desire and conquering desire. How did that play out with Marcus Aurelius, and how do you see it in business culture today?

“Stoicism is something that people get tattooed on their bodies.”

Robertson: Marcus Aurelius, like all of the Stoics, was quite cautious about the danger implicit in certain pleasant feelings or positive feelings, or feelings of happiness. The Greeks, in general, were quite conscious of this. If we get too carried away enjoying certain things, sometimes we make bad decisions, so we need to retain our senses. We need not to lose it when we’re having too much of a good time. Sometimes we can act irrationally when we’re happy.

Marcus wanted to cherish life and enjoy an experience of joy and fulfillment from it, but in a healthy way. That’s really what he’s talking about. He would think about the consequences of his desires. The key for the Stoics is thinking about the long-term consequences of acting on certain desires and asking ourselves whether they’re reasonable and balanced, and whether they’re in our long-term interests, or if they’re perhaps harmful to indulge in too much.

In terms of modern society, I suppose the modern kind of cliched thing that people talk to me all the time about is their habitual use of the internet and social media, in particular. That’s something that comes up a lot. Learning to take a step back from our feelings, rather than act on them, is integral to Stoicism — almost an observational perspective, then thinking about the bigger picture and evaluating whether what we’re doing is healthy or not. It’s learning to put limits on things that we might feel like doing but that maybe aren’t working out well for us in the long run.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does technology make it difficult for us to follow the path of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism?

Robertson: There’s definitely a sense in which social media and advertising, by their very nature, are designed to suck us in and manipulate us a bit, so it takes an effort to resist that. But it was the same, in a different way, in the ancient world. There were professional public speakers or orators who spent their life studying rhetoric in order to manipulate audiences and play on their emotions. We have something like that today, but in a different, maybe more intrusive form. It’s in our living rooms now. But I think the Stoics definitely can teach us ways of coping with that. It does require a little bit of self-discipline to live like a Stoic, but they will teach us strategies that will help us to step back.

Knowledge@Wharton: What kind of role do you see Stoicism playing in the United States? Is it becoming part of the culture?

Robertson: I think people just learning that Stoicism is out there is actually a big deal, because I feel like people culturally are looking for something to fill this void that’s left by Christianity. Buddhism filled in a way, as did other Eastern religions, but not to everybody’s satisfaction. Some people want something that’s more familiar to European culture and values, and that seems to be what they are getting from Stoicism. They want a big philosophy. They want something bigger than cognitive therapy. That’s just a bunch of techniques, right? It’s not a way of life.

Stoicism is something that people get tattooed on their bodies. It’s something they identify with at a deeper kind of more spiritual level, almost like a substitute for religion. I think that’s kind of what people really need, something to identify with at a bigger and deeper level. They need a whole way of life that’s going to help protect them against the effects of advertising and social media and celebrity culture and all of these toxic influences we have around us.

Knowledge@Wharton: In your book, you also write about the importance of following your own values — and that Stoicism is a personal choice.

Robertson: That’s a great thing to talk about because it’s a resurgent idea in modern psychotherapy as well, particularly in the evidenced-based treatment of clinical depression, which is an epidemic. One of the things that we find is that people who are increasingly driven by their feelings are usually doing things like using social media, partly to avoid unpleasant feelings that they’re experiencing. People today are constantly trying to distract themselves, to numb themselves from unpleasant emotions that they’re feeling.

In the past or perhaps in an ideal world, people would be doing things that are more fulfilling, that are more consistent with their core values, that are more aligned with their true self. And therapists today are increasingly encouraging clients to identify their true inner values and do things that serve those more fully. The big problem here is that most people don’t know what those values are. It takes an effort for them to get clearer about what they want to be remembered for after they’re gone, what they want their life to represent, rather than just falling in with the herd and what everyone else is doing and what the media brainwashes them into thinking their life should be about.

(Image by Eric Gaba, Wikimedia Commons user Sting, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58554116)

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