How is your work relevant to historical ideas?
Sure. In 175 AD, after Marcus had reputedly been very ill, his most senior general in the eastern provinces, Avidius Cassius, had himself acclaimed emperor by the legions there. Rumours had circulated that Marcus had actually died but even after it became evident they were false Cassius refused to stand down, thereby instigating a civil war between his rebel legions and Marcus’ loyalist army. Marcus was at the other side of the empire, fighting the Marcomannic War on the northern frontier.
What is your work about?
How does it fit in with your larger research project?
It opens by telling the story of Marcus Aurelius’ death then proceeds to go through the major events of his life. The external story of his life as emperor is interwoven with the story of his inner journey as a Stoic philosopher, struggling to master his own emotions and live a good and fulfilling life, in accord with his ethical values. The chapters are closely based on what we know about Marcus’ reign from accounts in Cassius Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta, as well as other historical evidence. In the course of the book, drawing on The Meditations and other ancient philosophical sources, I explain the underlying ideas of Stoicism and how they’re relevant today, particularly in terms of their psychological value as a way of building mental resilience and overcoming certain types of emotional problems.
I hope it inspires people who are new to the subject to learn more about Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy. I also hope that people who are already familiar with The Meditations find that understanding more about its relation to the events of Marcus’ life enriches their experience of reading the text and allows them to get twice as much out of it. I think it will help people to see how ancient philosophy can be highly relevant to modern self-help and psychotherapy.
Despite his health problems and the inhospitable environment, Marcus would spend over a decade commanding the legions along the Danube. In The Meditations, he thanks the gods that his body held out for such a long time under such physical duress. He survived the two Marcomannic Wars and the Antonine Plague, nearly making it to the age of sixty at a time when the odds of doing so were poor. Indeed, although he suffered from recurring health problems, he managed to live longer than most of his contemporaries. Still, the sudden transition to a military life must have been a tremendous physical challenge for him. It’s therefore no surprise that his writings frequently reveal evidence of his psychological struggle to cope with physical problems.
What effect do you hope your work will have?
How do we explain this seeming paradox? How did a man so weak and sickly become known for toughness and endurance? Perhaps the answer lies in his attitude toward pain and illness, and the Stoic techniques he used to cope with them.
It begins by explaining who the Stoics were and what they believed, of course, to set the stage for what follows. Then each chapter deals with a different stage of Marcus’ life and the application of Stoic concepts and practices to a different psychological problem. Those include overcoming unhealthy habits and desires, coping with pain and illness, conquering anxiety, managing anger, coming to terms with loss, and even facing our own mortality. These are ethical and psychological challenges we all experience in life, from the ancient Stoics down to their modern-day readers. Today psychotherapists help clients to deal with issues such as these but the Stoics were among the first thinkers to provide therapeutic techniques for dealing with irrational desires and emotions, in order to improve our mental health.
I’ve recently published an article on Stoicism and CBT in the journal The Behavior Therapist, in which I argue that Stoicism may be of particular value as a preventative approach, i.e., a way of helping people to build general emotional resilience so that they become less likely to suffer from severe anxiety or depression in the future. I’m also working on a graphic novel about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which I hope will introduce a wider audience, including younger people, to Stoicism.
Marcus was nearly fifty, an old man by Roman standards, at the outbreak of the First Marcomannic War. Nevertheless, he donned the military cape and boots, rode forth from Rome, and stationed himself on the front line. He spent much of his time at the legionary fortress of Carnuntum, on the other side of the Alps, by the banks of the Danube in modern-day Austria. Cassius Dio tells us that at first Marcus was too frail to endure the frigid northern climate and address the legions assembled before him.
How do you think Stoicism compares to other psychological treatments (relaxation therapy, hypnotherapy, group therapy, meetings with individual counselors, etc.)?
We use SABS, along with several validated scales used in mainstream psychological research, to gather data from participants in our online courses and publish reports each year on the findings. For instance, Tim Lebon’s 2018 report on Stoic Week found that 62% of participants were male, although our data show the percentage of women taking part has risen slightly each year. SABS scores showed that older participants were more likely to score higher in measures of Stoic attitudes and behaviours than younger ones. The most Stoic countries were Singapore, Mexico, the Irish Republic and the United States. The least Stoic were the Czech Republic, the Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance.
It was a dangerous and physically grueling environment, even for an emperor. Life at the front was particularly hard for Marcus because he suffered from chronic pain and illness. To make things worse, with large numbers of men living in close proximity to one another, the military camps were especially vulnerable to outbreaks of the plague. Nevertheless, Marcus typically shrugged off the hardships of life on the northern frontier by quoting the poet Euripides: “Such things accursed war brings in its train.” They were to be expected, in other words.
Modern Stoicism doesn’t really comment on modern living itself but it encourages other people to apply Stoicism to their life and to today’s challenges. For example, there are over 500 guest posts on the Stoicism Today blog, which is part of modernstoicism.com, from dozens of different people around the world. They describe applying Stoicism, in their own way, to everything from parenting children to coping with surgery or mental health problems.
Well, you can try to draw analogies with other forms of therapy but the most obvious similarity is between Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy. That’s because Stoicism influenced the pioneers of CBT, Beck and Ellis, and their approach shared the cognitive theory of emotion, which holds that our emotions are primarily (though not exclusively) determined by our underlying beliefs. From that shared premise you’re bound to arrive at similar conclusions about therapy strategies and techniques. There are some other forms of therapy which resemble Stoicism but they’re closely related to CBT. One is the early “rational psychotherapy” of people like Paul Dubois, who were very well-known and influential at the start of the 20th century. Dubois drew heavily on the Stoics and used to assign reading Seneca’s letters to his clients as homework. His work was an important, though largely forgotten, precursor of CBT. Much more recently, we also have the “third wave” of CBT approaches, a new generation of therapies which are sometimes dubbed the “mindfulness and acceptance-based” approaches. These don’t make any explicit reference to Stoicism but they actually have more in common with Stoic psychology than the pioneers of CBT, such as Beck and Ellis, did. Third-wave therapies focus on mindfulness, being present in the here and now, accepting our feelings and unpleasant sensations, and living in accord with our core values – all themes that are clearly prominent in ancient Stoic writings.
What directions would you like to take your work in the future?
For those of us who are unaware of the nonprofit’s work, can you describe one or two of the ways it has utilized Stoicism to comment on modern living (e.g. the SABS scale)?
Marcus gathered the troops before him and gave a speech in which he announced that if he’d been given the chance he would actually have considered stepping down as Emperor so that the Senate could hear Cassius’ arguments against him fairly and decide whether or not he should continue to rule. As a Stoic, he always reminded himself that he wasn’t perfect, and was prepared to listen to criticism from others. It was too late for that now, though, as the civil war was already underway. So Marcus announced, presumably to the astonishment of his legionnaires, that it was his intention to pardon everyone involved in the uprising against him. He mentions the famous Socratic paradox, adopted by the Stoics, that no man does evil knowingly, or willingly therefore. For that reason, he was ready to forgive and try to understand his enemies.
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Marcus Aurelius was renowned for his physical frailty, due to chronic health problems, but he was also known for his exceptional resilience. For instance, the historian Cassius Dio wrote:
I’ve already written a couple of books about Stoic philosophy. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010) is about the relationship between ancient Stoicism and modern psychotherapy. Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013) is a self-help guide to applying Stoicism in modern life. I wanted to approach the subject from a totally different perspective this time. I’ve been telling my daughter, Poppy, stories about famous philosophers since she was about five years old. (She really likes stories about Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic.) I was drawn to the idea of writing a book that teaches people how Stoicism can be relevant today by using stories about Marcus Aurelius, the most famous Stoic of all. We know quite a lot about Marcus because he was a Roman emperor and several accounts of his reign survive today, as well as other pieces of historical evidence. Excerpt from Ch. 5: Grasping the Nettle
I’m one of the founding members of a nonprofit organization called Modern Stoicism, which was set up in 2012 by Christopher Gill, professor emeritus of Ancient Thought at Exeter University in England. Modern Stoicism is run by a multidisciplinary team of volunteers: psychologists, therapists, classicists, and philosophers. We organize the annual Stoicon international conference on modern Stoicism and, among other things, an online event called Stoic Week, in which over eight thousand people took part last years. We gather data from participants using several established measures of mood and life satisfaction, used in psychological research, as well as our own Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS). Being so involved with the philosophy and its practical applications to modern living has given me the opportunity to talk to hundreds of people over the years about the ways in which Stoicism has benefitted them personally.
The purpose of the Recently Published Book Spotlight is to disseminate information about new scholarship to the field, explore the motivations for authors’ projects, and discuss the potential implications of the books. Our goal is to cover research from a broad array of philosophical areas and perspectives, reflecting the variety of work being done by APA members. If you have a suggestion for the series, please contact us here.
Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and writer. He is the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019).
The Senate, back at Rome, panicked and had Cassius immediately declared a public enemy, seizing his assets, a knee-jerk response that just escalated the crisis further. Marcus, by contrast, responded calmly and did something that surprised everyone. He’d been mentally rehearsing coping with misfortunes such as this with a philosophical attitude for many years. Indeed, in The Meditations, he describes how he would imagine being betrayed or deceived by others each morning and practice responding as a Stoic, in accord with wisdom and virtue.
He’d been preparing himself to face this inner battle for most of his life, though. Over the years, Marcus had gradually learned to endure pain and illness by utilizing the psychological strategies of ancient Stoicism. During the war, in writing The Meditations, he reflected on these techniques as part of his ongoing practice. These notes reflect a state of mind attained from more than three decades of rigorous Stoic training. In other words, his attitude toward pain and illness during the northern campaign didn’t come naturally to him; he had to learn it.
That sounds fascinating. Would you be willing to share one of the stories in your book and the relevant idea you draw from it?
It’s a book about the life and Stoic philosophy of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and how these ideas and practices can be of psychological benefit to modern readers. It uses historical anecdotes about Marcus’ life, from the Roman histories, to illustrate Stoic philosophical ideas from his book, The Meditations, and I explain how these are relevant today by drawing upon my experience as a cognitive psychotherapist.
What topics do you discuss in the work, and why do you discuss them?
Why did you feel the need to write this work?