Stoicism, according to Donald Robertson, is experiencing a resurgence. As we come to realize that not only does this philosophical approach to life offer a greater connection to our virtues and values, we also become aware that some problems have deeper roots that modern therapeutic solutions will allow.
Robertson writes, “Techniques and concepts from CBT have been adapted for use in resilience-building, to reduce the risk of developing serious emotional problems in the future. However, I believe that, for many people, a combination of Stoic philosophy and CBT may be even better suited for use as a long-term preventative approach.”
In his new book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Robertson shows us how, in thinking like a Stoic, we can better face adversity, overcome conflict within ourselves, endure pain and illness, contain our desires, and find true joy and happiness.
While some philosophies adhere to strict rules and practices, such as doing away with “external goods,” the true measure of a philosophy is how it affects our character.
Robertson writes, “He (Marcus) repeatedly warned himself not to become too distracted with reading too many books — thus wasting time on trifling issues in logic and metaphysics — but instead to remain focused on the practical goal of living wisely.”
One similarity Robertson draws between CBT and Stoicism is their paradoxical nature. Often, what could conceivably be construed as bad fortune turns out to be the best thing that ever happened.
Robertson explains, “What the Cynics meant was that our character is the only thing that ultimately matters and that wisdom consists in learning to view everything else in life as utterly worthless by comparison.”
Living wisely comes from protecting one of our most sacred abilities — to think rationally and apply reason. By living in agreement with nature, accepting the natural course of life and death, and practicing the cardinal values — wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation — we flourish as human beings.
Robertson uses the experience of being in a boat in the open water caught in a storm to describe how, according to Stoicism, there are two stages of any response to such events. In the first stage, we, much like animals do, become startled and frightened in a way that is involuntary. In the second stage, however, we add voluntary judgements to our automatic reactions.
Robertson writes, “Epictetus says the Stoic should neither assent to nor confirm these emerging impressions, such as anxiety in the face of danger. Rather, he rejects them as misleading, views them with studied indifference, and lets go of them.”
One step we can take toward separating ourselves from our emotional reactions, notes Robertson, is to begin deliberately describing events more objectively and in less emotional terms.
In CBT terms this is known as “decatastrophizing,” or representing events without emotive language, strong value judgements, and unrealistic assumptions.
“Normally, once you’ve arrived at a more realistic description of a feared situation, you will consider ways that you could potentially cope and get through it,” writes Robertson.
Following our virtues also comes from daily practice. When we can list the values that are important to us, and identify them in mentors, it becomes much easier to visualize and embody them within ourselves.
One question Robertson suggests we ask ourselves: What qualities might we hope to possess in the distant future?
Overcoming desires, for example, begins with first evaluating the consequences of our habits, spotting early warning signs, separating our impressions from external reality, doing something else, such as practicing healthy activities, contemplating qualities we admire in others, and cultivating gratitude.
Robertson writes, “Some philosophers, as we’ve seen, claim that the mere act of exercising moderation could become more gratifying itself than indulging in bad habits.”
On coping with challenging situations and pain itself, Robertson suggests employing the philosophy of Aurelius, and focusing on the limits of the pain, as opposed to the inability to cope with it. He offers the following quote from The Meditations, “On pain: if it is unbearable, it carries us off, if it persists, it can be endured.”
Our bodies may fail us. We may have pain. We may encounter obstacles that seem insurmountable. However, our intellects are our own to cultivate, to adapt, and use to respond. And when we sever our attachments to external things, to painful pasts and unrealized futures, we find that we are free to invest fully in fulfilling our own nature — and our own happiness.
Bridging timeless wisdom with modern day application, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is an invaluable guide for anyone seeking a more fulfilling, purposeful, and happy life.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
St. Martin’s Press, April 2019
Paperback, 304 pages