The audio companion to DailyStoic.com's daily email meditations, read by Ryan Holiday.Each daily reading will help you cultivate strength, insight and wisdom necessary for living the good life. Every word is based on the two-thousand plus year old philosophy that has guided some of history’s greatest men and women.Learn more at: dailystoic.com
It’s unlikely, given his feelings about the Christians, that Marcus Aurelius ever read any of the books in the Old Testament, but if he had read Ecclesiates he might have liked what he saw. Because like the Stoic observations that fill Meditations, over and over again, this book of the Bible comments on the timeless repetition of history. “The thing that hath been,” we read in one part, “it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” In another: “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” In another: “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past."Whatever happens has always happened,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this." So maybe he did read Ecclesiates? Or maybe that’s actually the point? Which is that we are constantly discovering the things we forgot and thus independently coming to the same conclusions over and over again. Marcus wanted to remind himself that his reign was not any different than the reign of Vespasian. It was filled with people doing the same things: eating, drinking, fighting, dying, worrying, and craving. And the future, even with its magnificent technological advancements, would be much the same. Forever and ever. "Time is a flat circle,” Rustin Cohle says in the first season of True Detective. “Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again forever." And so it was that another generation found out about Nietzche's idea of "eternal recurrence," which is itself that same idea we find in Marcus Aurelius, which is the same idea in the Bible, which probably, and humblingly, goes back even further than that. But that’s life, the same thing happening again and again, always and forever.
Seneca wrote eloquently about how absurd the need to “get even” is. No one would think to return a bite to a dog or a kick to a mule, he writes, but when someone hurts us or pisses us off, that’s exactly what we do. We smile and laugh at this clever analogy. He’s right, we think, no one would bite a dog.Except anger actually does do stuff that dumb to us all the time—or worse! Who hasn’t thrown a television remote that wasn’t working or smacked a vending machine that took your money? Who hasn’t banged on their keyboard when it froze or kicked a child’s toy across the room after painfully stepping on it in the middle of the night? Who hasn’t shouted obscenities at their headphones when your hand gets caught in the cord and you accidentally rip them off your head while walking through an airport or getting into a car? Who hasn’t had to resist the urge to throw their smartphone in the ocean or their golf club into a lake when these objects refuse to do what you have directed them to?If there weren’t plenty of reasons to be suspicious of anger already, the fact that it compels you to try to physically punish inanimate objects is a pretty good one. The fact that, in anger, we often break or damage our own property—essentially punishing ourselves to send a message to something that by definition cannot receive it—tells us everything we need to know about anger. Mainly, that it’s blinding, that it’s hard to control, and that it’s shamefully stupid. So avoid it as much as you can.
“Where are all the Stoic women? Surely this is not a philosophy only for and by men.” It is a common and reasonable criticism of this philosophy, one that Daily Stoic seeks to understand and ameliorate whenever possible.Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Lauryn Evarts Bosstick, a wellness influencer who reaches millions of people—mostly adoring young women—through her blog, social media, and podcast. Lauryn is a vocal advocate of Stoicism, so we asked her about why the philosophy can seem so male-centric and and what might be done about it:I WANT TO CHANGE THIS. It’s so interesting to me how it’s seen as a male dominated philosophy. It has nothing to do with gender, it has to do with just being a better person and being the best version of yourself. My brand ‘The Skinny Confidential’ is all about being the best version of you. It’s not about being someone else, it’s about taking what you have and creating your own strategic future. Anyone can benefit from stoicism because it teaches invaluable lessons like perseverance, serenity, and resilience.The Stoics believed that philosophy transcended any individual human being or society. It’s not rooted in any one gender, but in the universal principles of life, the human experience. Musonius Rufus—Epictetus’s teacher—was one of the pioneers of gender equality, at least in philosophy. “It is not men alone who possess eagerness and a natural inclination towards virtue,” he said, “but women also. Women are pleased no less than men by noble and just deeds, and reject the opposite of such actions. Since that is so, why is it appropriate for men to seek out and examine how they might live well, that is, to practise philosophy, but not women?”Stoicism isn’t male or female. It’s human. It’s for anyone trying to get better. It’s for all of us—since everyone needs more perseverance, serenity and resilience. It’s even for you.
The Cynic philosopher Diogenes was once criticized by a passerby for not taking care of himself in his old age, for being too active when he should have been taking it easy and resting. As per usual, Diogenes had the perfect rejoinder: "What, if I were running in the stadium, ought I to slacken my pace when approaching the goal?" His point was that we should never stop getting better, never stop the work that philosophy demands of us. Right up until the end Diogenes was questioning convention, reducing his wants, challenging power, and insisting on truth. The Stoics agreed with his view, that old age was no excuse for coasting. In fact, we get the sense that many of the strongest passages in Meditations are written by an older Marcus Aurelius, one who is still frustrated with himself for his anxiety, for his passions, for his less than flawless record when it comes to upholding his positions. In one passage he says it more or less outright: How much longer are you going to keep doing this? You’re old and you still can’t get it right. But he wasn’t just kicking himself to feel better. He was trying to get himself to be better. He refused to take his foot off the gas. He was going to keep going right on through the finish line, and so should we. No matter how old we are, no matter how long we’ve been at this, it’s far too early to stop now, to say “close enough.” No, we are going to give our best effort. We’re going to give everything we have, with every day that is given to us...
Life is full of suffering, acute and benign. We come down with the flu. We are hit with a costly expense. Someone with power over us abuses their responsibility. Someone we love lies or hurts us. People die. People commit crimes. Natural disasters strike.All of this is commonplace and inevitable. It happens. Everyday. To us and to everyone else. That would be bad enough, yet we choose to make this pain worse. How? By pretending we are immune from it. By assuming we will be exempted. Or that only those who have somehow deserved it will find themselves in the crosshairs of Fortune. Then we are surprised when our number comes up, and so we add to our troubles a sense of unfairness and a stumbling lack of preparedness. Our denial deprives us even of the ability to tense up before the blow lands. “You should assume that there are many things ahead you will have to suffer,” Seneca reminds us. “Is anyone surprised at getting a chill in winter? Or getting seasick while on the sea? Or that they get bumped walking a city street? The mind is strong against things it has prepared for.” This is premeditatio malorum. What is likely to happen? What can possibly happen? What are the tortures that life inflicts on human beings? And then, more importantly, am I ready for them? Have I strengthened my weak points? Do I have what it takes to endure this suffering?
According to the philosopher Blaise Pascal, at the root of most human activity is a desire to escape boredom and self-awareness. We go to elaborate measures, he said, to avoid even a few minutes of quiet. It was true even of the people you think had all the reasons to be happy and content. "A king is surrounded by people,” Pascal wrote, “whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."It’s an observation that puts Marcus Aurelius in an even more impressive light. Think about it: Marcus Aurelius was surrounded by servants and sycophants, people who wanted favors and people who feared him. He had unlimited wealth but endless responsibility. And what did he do with this? Did he throw himself endlessly into the diversion and distraction these blessings and curses offered?No. Instead, he made sure to carve out time to sit quietly by himself with his journals. He probed his own mind on a regular basis. He thought of himself--not egotistically--but with an eye towards noticing his own failings. He questioned himself. He questioned the world around him. He refused to be distracted. He refused to give into temptation. People in his own time probably thought he was a bit dour. They wondered why he did not enjoy all the trappings of wealth and power like his predecessors. What they missed, what’s so easy to miss today in our own blessed lives, is that the true path to happiness is not through externals. It’s found within. It’s found in the stillness. In the quiet. With yourself.
“What would you do if tomorrow you were diagnosed with terminal cancer?” We’ve all had a hypothetical question like that thrust in front of us at one point or another. It’s supposed to make us consider how different life might be, how drastic a change we might make if we were suddenly told there was a limit to our time here and that limit was no longer over the horizon but within sight.It’s a ridiculous thought exercise, not only because every human being already has a terminal diagnosis, but also because living with cancer does not have to ruin your life or even necessarily upend it.Jonathan Church has brain cancer. He wrote about it in an incredibly powerful article on Quillette about how his study of Stoicism had long prepared him to cope with his mortality—be it a brain cancer diagnosis or otherwise. In a follow-up interview with Jonathan for DailyStoic.com, we wondered if there were any specific practices or daily exercises that help Jonathan continue to live a happy and productive life and not succumb to anxiety and depression:No lessons, practices, or rituals. No magic trick. No device to be employed in a duel to the death with death itself. Just continuing to read, think, write, and put things into perspective…I long ago acquiesced to the inevitability of death. I have been thinking about mortality for a long time, not out of morbid interest, but as an outgrowth of philosophical curiosity. That said, I would be remiss not to acknowledge that there is no preparation for the moment when the grip of death is upon you. It will be terrible. No avoiding that. But it’s beyond my control. Best to focus only on optimizing the time I have, rather than wasting it worrying about how to avoid the inevitable, or how to assuage the terror of the moment when it’s upon you. Put off depression and anxiety until that one brief instant when death is upon you, not the life you have to live between now and then. No seismic revelation, no life-altering changes then, no grand gestures needed. Just the kind of reading and thinking and hard work on one’s self that we should all be doing, whether we’ve staggered out of a doctor’s office with terrible news or not. Marcus Aurelius said, "Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you're alive and able, be good." That’s it. Today and every day.It’s hard to do, but we have to try.
There’s a great lyric in the bridge of the new Bruce Springsteen song, Tucson Train: We fought hard over nothin'We fought till nothin' remainedI've carried that nothin' for a long timeDoesn’t that just perfectly capture—in such a sad and telling way—many of our relationships and grudges? We turn nothing into something and then hold onto it like it’s everything until there’s nothing left. Then we wonder why we’re unhappy. We wonder why we’re lonely. We wonder where people we used to love have gone. We wonder where the good times went. The answer: We drove them away. We ground them into dust. Marcus Aurelius struggled with this, too. He had a problem like we all do with anger and taking offense and getting into arguments and needing to prove people wrong. If he hadn’t, he would have never had to write this little reminder in Meditations.“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”It’s heartbreaking. It’s true. And all of us are guilty of it in our own way. What are we fighting about? Why do we so passionately need to be right? Why can’t we just let things go?If only we could change…
Here’s a way to feel good every single day, no matter what happens. A way to appreciate even a day stuck in the airport or putting out fires. It’s an exercise from Seneca. He said that a person who wraps up each day as if it was the end of their life, who meditates on their mortality in the evening, has a super power when they wake up. “When a man has said, ‘I have lived!’,” Seneca wrote, then “every morning he arises is a bonus.” And you know how it feels when you’re playing with house money or when your vacation is extended. In a word? Better. You feel lighter. Nicer. You appreciate everything. You are present. All the trivial concerns and short term anxieties go away—because for a second, you realize how little they matter. Well, that’s how you ought to live. Go to bed, having lived a full day, appreciating that you may not get the privilege of waking up tomorrow. And if you do wake up—which we hope for all of you—it will be impossible not to see every second of the next twenty four hours as a bonus. Because they are.
The philosopher and writer Nassim Taleb once said that, “Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel, or a private jet.” His point was that certain accomplishments are within the reasonable grasp of someone making incremental gains each day. Outsized success and outlier accomplishments require that and extreme luck or timing. This is worth considering for all of us who grew up being told the world was a meritocracy. Of course, it isn’t. Plenty of brilliant people fail to succeed for all sorts of reasons, and plenty of not-so-brilliant people find themselves successful beyond their wildest dreams. The world is a random, even cruel, place that does not always reward merit or hard work or skill. Sometimes it does, but not always. Still, perhaps a more usable and practical distinction to make is not between hard work and luck, but between what is up to us and what is not up to us. This is the distinction that the Stoics tried to make and to think about always. Pioneering new research in science—that’s up to us. Being recognized for that work (e.g. winning a Nobel) is not. A committee decides that. The media decides that. Becoming an expert in a field, that’s up to us. We do that by reading, by studying, by going out and experiencing things. Being hired as a professor at Harvard to teach that expertise is not (think of all the people who weren’t hired there over the years because they were female, or Jewish, or Black). Writing a prize-worthy piece of literature—up to us. That’s time in front of the keyboard. That’s up to our genius. Being named as a finalist for the Booker Prize is not.It’s not that luck, exactly, decides these things, but it is very clearly other people that make the decision. Marcus Aurelius said that the key to life was to tie our sanity—our sense of satisfaction—to our own actions. To tie it to what other people say or do (that was his definition of ambition) was to set ourselves up to be hurt and disappointed. It’s insanity. And it misses the point.Do the work. Be happy with that. Everything else is irrelevant.
In one of his letters, Seneca tells us of an old Roman pleasantry that friends would exchange when greeting each other: “If you are well,” one would say after inquiring how someone was doing, “it is well and I am also well.” It’s a nice little custom, isn’t it? If you’re good, I’m good, and everything is good. Nothing else matters. But of course, because this is Seneca, he couldn’t just leave it there. In fact, telling us about this old expression was just a device to make a point. A better way to say it, he writes, is “‘If you are studying philosophy, it is well.’ For this is just what ‘being well’ means. Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.”The point is that to the Stoics, the practice and study of philosophy was the only way to make sure all was well, no matter what was happening in the world. At war like Marcus Aurelius? Study philosophy in your tent at night. Unable to submit to Caesar’s tyranny like Cato? Read a little Socrates before your dramatic suicide. Shot down over Vietnam like James Stockdale? Say to yourself, as he did, “I am leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” As in…even in a POW camp, I can still practice and pursue philosophy…and be well for it!Nobody knows what the day or the week has in store for us. As much as we take care of ourselves and eat well, so much of our health is outside of our control. But the one way we can make sure that we are always well, that we are always getting better (mentally, spiritually, if not physically) is by the books we read, the questions we ponder, and the conversations we have. Now get studying!
Why did Marcus Aurelius study philosophy? What were Seneca or Confucius or Buddha trying to achieve as they pored over their books or sat deeply in thought? What have archery masters and Olympic boxing instructors and generals tried to instill in their students and soldiers?Their aim was, and always has been, stillness. These thinkers and doers and leaders and achievers, they all needed peace and clarity. They need their charges to be centered. They needed them to be in control of themselves. Because what they were doing was really hard! Just as what you do is really hard! It’s not easy to hit a target or wage a battle or lead a country or write a play. Stillness is the way you get there—internally, mostly—because the world in which we attempt to do these things is often incredibly un-still.Nearly all the schools and disciplines of the ancient world had their own word for stillness. The Buddhists called it upekkha. The Stoics called it apatheia. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an “evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.” The Greeks had euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians and Romans, aequanimitas. In fact, the last word Marcus Aurelius heard from his dying stepfather, Antoninus, was aequanimitas. Equanimity. Stillness.Picking up where The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy leave off, Ryan Holiday’s new book, Stillness is the Key, endeavors to bring this ancient ideal into our modern-day lives. A collection of stories drawn from all walks of life, and all schools of thought, Ryan’s book illustrates practical ways to bring some essential stillness into your life. It’s fascinating, both Epictetus and the Daodejing at one point use the same analogy: The mind is like muddy water. To have clarity, we must be steady and let it settle down. Only then can we see. Only then do we have transparency. Whoever you are and whatever you’re doing, you would benefit from having more of this clarity. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had to wait and see—he had to be still when everyone wanted him to rush into action—to know if his gambit with the Soviet premier would work. In the midst of a busy public life, Winston Churchill had to find hobbies—painting and bricklaying—that would allow him a chance to rest and restore his mind. The art of Marina Abramovic is defined by her presence, her ability in many cases to sit there and do nothing but be—which is one of the toughest things in the world to do. With stillness, we have a shot at greatness. Not just greatness in performance, but also greatness in personhood. In being human. No one can be a great parent when they’re frantic. No one can be a good spouse if their mind is elsewhere. No one can be creative, in touch with themselves, if they are disassociated or detached from their own soul. The key to the good life—to greatness itself, as Seneca said—is stillness. It’s apatheia. Ataraxia. Upekkha. Euthymia. Whatever you call it, you need it. Now more than ever before.
Following today’s politics is easy. You turn on the news and a bunch of pretty people tell you that your side is good and the other side is irredeemably evil. You pull up social media and you get a bunch of rage profiteers telling you what to be outraged or angry about. Everything is simple and clear cut, compromise is unnecessary, and, in the end, none of it really matters anyway because the world is going to end in 2024 in nuclear holocaust, 2050 from climate change, or any day now in the rapture. Needless to say, that’s not very valuable or very philosophical. What is a Stoic to do? Especially when politics and participation in the polis and empire was so essential to Zeno and Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Well first, they’d urge you to turn backwards to better understand the present day. Even the early American founders knew this. As John Adams wrote to his son in 1777:“There is no History, perhaps, better adapted to this useful purpose than that of Thucydides…You will find it full of Instruction to the Orator, the Statesman, the General, as well as to the Historian and the Philosopher.” Indeed, people in the State Department right now are reading Thucydides to better understand the rising threat of China. Countless millions—including many of the Stoics—have read it over the last 2000 years to understand the ethical dilemmas inherent in leadership, in war, in politics, and in life. Because Thucydides was so smart, so timeless, he is able to teach lessons to us even now. And because the countries and the events are so distant and impersonal to us, we can actually hear them and learn them.And if we’re smart, we can apply them to the political situations we face today. The ones that could desperately use less partisanship and less virtue signaling and a lot more actual wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage.
At the beginning of The Odyssey, Zeus utters a famous lament that must, one imagines, be shared by all gods and parents and presidents alike:This is absurdThat mortals blame the gods! They saywe cause suffering but they themselvesIncrease it by folly.At the heart of Stoicism is an admission that life is unfair and largely out of our control. Bad stuff happens to everyone, the vast majority of it not even remotely our fault. Nobody asks to die. Nobody asks to be lied to or smacked by a natural disaster or leveled by some freak accident. The Gods, or luck, or Fate—that’s who is responsible for these untimely deeds (to us at least). But the Stoics also agree with Zeus’s complaint: That humans take this misfortune and compound it. We make things worse than they need to be. By complaining. By quitting. By getting upset about them. By placing blame. By trying desperately to undo what must happen, or to outsmart it by scheme or by bargain. We add folly on top of misfortune.That’s really the plot of The Odyssey if you think about it. Odysseus is too clever for his own good, and it gets him into trouble constantly. He was almost home, but then he took a nap and his curious men—who he refused to explain himself to—opened a bag of wind that set them back. He was free of the Cyclops—who was awful, yes—but then he had to taunt him, not content to leave well enough alone. It was the costliest of all the errors he made. The whole story is Odysseus making a bad situation worse, over and over again until he is rescued by Athena.The key to life may not be brilliance or power. What if it’s just not being stupid? What if it’s just not increasing our troubles by adding folly and hubris and greed on top of them? There’s no guarantee, but it’s worth a try…Support the show
Late last year, a man named Ken Watson died at age 87, but before he did, he made sure to gift wrap fourteen presents for his two year old neighbor. He’d always told her that he’d live to be 100, and when that looked like it wasn’t going to happen, he decided he’d need to plan ahead. Which is why, after his death, his own daughter came around with a large bag of presents—enough to provide one per year until the little girl turned sixteen years old. It’s a beautiful little story that warms the soul. But today, let’s make sure it does more than that. Let’s actually learn from it.Today’s politics have become sadly lopsided, wherein the elderly now make up one of the largest, most intractable, and most self-interested voting blocs. Despite mounting problems on multiple fronts—from the climate to Social Security to immigration to income inequality—we’re unable to come up with common sense solutions, in part because this group is more concerned with protecting their own short-term interests rather than their grandchildren’s long-term ones. It’s shameful and it’s a betrayal of the goodness that someone like Ken Watson so touchingly illustrated. There is an old Greek proverb that reads, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” It’s one the Stoics would have agreed with. While Marcus Aurelius and Seneca took pains to discourage chasing legacy or posthumous fame, they did believe it was the philosopher’s duty to serve the common good—to contribute to the Roman Empire in a way that would allow it to stand for future generations. That’s what this notion of sympatheia is partly about as well: we are all connected and related to each other. The idea that life is a zero-sum game, that the ticker starts at zero when you’re born and resets when you die, is ridiculous and pathetic. While we don’t control what other intransigent people decide to do with their votes, their money, and their influence, we can at least commit to being a little bit more like Ken Watson in our own lives. How can we make sure that we’re investing in and protecting the interests of the people that come after us? How can we pay forward the bounty (and privileges) that our ancestors bequeathed to us? What trees are we planting that others will one day sit beneath? That’s our job—as citizens and as Stoics. Yes, we have to live here in the present moment and that should be our primary concern. But that cannot come at the expense of the many moments that our children and their children and their children are entitled to experience as well. Be good to each other. Plant trees.Support the show
You know sometimes you hear a quote or an aphorism and you think, That’s it. That’s me. That’s my philosophy for life. Well it turns out that is a pretty common and timeless thing. At the very least, we know it goes back to the time of George Washington. Washington’s favorite play was the play Cato, about the Roman Senator and Stoic philosopher by Joseph Addison. This play, which was written in 1712, was hugely famous in its time, and, with some irony, it might be called the “Hamilton” of the day. It was so familiar to the people in the late 18th century that it could be quoted without attribution and everyone knew exactly where the line came from. And Washington in particular liked to quote one line that must have spoken to him the way those quotes speak to us now—where you just know that nothing will capture what you think and feel about life better than that. “Free,” he said in a letter to a friend after the Revolution about his return to private life, “from the bustle of a camp and the intrigues of court, I shall view the busy world ‘in the calm light of mild philosophy,’ and with that serenity of mind, which the Soldier in his pursuit of glory, and the Statesman of fame have not time to enjoy.” In fact, in the book The Political Philosophy of George Washington, the author Jeffry H. Morrison notes that in a single two week period in 1797, Washington quoted that same line in three different letters. And later, in Washington’s greatest but probably least known moment, when he talked down the mutinous troops who were plotting to overthrow the U.S government at Newburgh, he quoted the same line again, as he urged them away from acting on their anger and frustration. In the calm lights of mild philosophy. That’s Stoicism. That’s using Reason to temper our impulses and our emotions. As Epictetus said, it’s about putting our impressions up to the test. It’s what Marcus Aurelius talked about when he said that our life is what our thoughts make it. That what we choose to see determines how we will feel. We must follow this advice today and every day. It served Cato well and Washington even better. All that we see must be illuminated by the calm lights of mild philosophy. So we can see what it really is. So we don’t do anything we regret. So we can enjoy this wonderful gift of life we possess, whatever our station.
You try to turn on your television, only to find that the batteries in the remote are dead and no one bothered to replace them. Your computer freezes in the middle of finishing something important and you lose hours of work. You’re running late for your child’s soccer game because they’ve been fooling around instead of getting ready to play. You’re trying to change lanes on the freeway, but another driver is too close to your car and won’t give you room to maneuver. And the worse, they flip you off. What’s the natural response to all of these situations? To get angry. But, remember, to the Stoics, our “natural” instincts and emotions were something to always question. And sometimes, something to regard with outright skepticism. “The cause of anger is the sense of having been wronged,” Seneca wrote, “but one ought not trust this sense. Don’t make your move right away, even against what seems overt and plain; sometimes false things give the appearance of truth.” Not everyone has an “anger problem” but anger is a problem for everyone. We all cause ourselves harm through it. We drive people away. We act unreasonably. We say things we regret. We shave minutes off our life–or in some cases, put ourselves in outright danger. Anger is a problem that people have dealt with for thousands of years. Marcus Aurelius struggled with his temper, and surely his wife did too. Nuns and saints–for all their good work–also had to work at pushing anger away, at making sure they didn’t make themselves miserable. The good news is that all these wise–and very human figures–have developed some pretty brilliant strategies for dealing with their excessive anger. They discovered real insights on how to keep your problems in perspective; how to cool down in the moment, when your anger is pushing you out of control; how to tame your emotions and stay in charge of your temper. And as usual, the Stoics have some of the smartest and most applicable insights. That’s why we created Taming Your Temper: The 10-Day Stoic Guide to Controlling Anger. 10 days of challenges, exercises, video lessons, and bonus tools based on Stoic philosophy. Materials to help you deal with your anger in a constructive manner. We will give you the tools that you need, not just to manage your anger, but to leave it in the past, so that you can focus on what’s important–living a virtuous and fulfilling life.Learn from the wisdom of the great thinkers and leaders of history: Marcus Aurelius; Seneca; Abraham Lincoln; Mr. Rogers; and others as well. Use our unique exercises to break free from the cage that anger has built around you and see the world, and yourself, in a new light. Each day, watch a new video from Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, Stillness is the Key, and The Daily Stoic, as he explains the ideas behind the words and sheds light on our path.Being able to control your anger is a difficult but worthwhile goal. It will take time and effort—and it won’t be free—but by changing your perspective and developing techniques to control your temper, it will ultimately be achievable—and life-changing. Take the first step on the path to a calmer and more fulfilling future. Check out Taming Your Temper: The 10-Day Stoic Guide to Controlling Anger today.
When one looks at the dark moments of history, it’s hard not to be a little afraid. Look at what people have done to each other—look at how bad things have gotten. In Seneca’s time, many horrific acts were not only common but commonly accepted. Like decimation, a common enough practice, where one in ten people were killed just to send a message. And that word lives on in the lexicon two thousand years later. Perhaps the terrifying capriciousness of a practice like this is why Seneca tried to reassure himself that there was little use in being scared.He writes in one of his essays how that if an invader came and conquered your city, the very worst he could do is sentence you to what you’ve been sentenced to from birth—death. Yes, a Hannibal or a Hitler could throw you in chains and drag you away from your family—but the truth is that you were already being dragged away. Yes, each second that ticks by on the clock takes us one instant away from our families. But, “since the day you were born,” Seneca writes, “you are being led thither.” Sometimes the first time our civilizations realize just how vulnerable we are is when we find out we’ve been conquered, or are at the mercy of some cruel tyrant. We realize that we are mortal and fragile and that fate can inflict horrible things on our tiny, powerless bodies. So we should study history then for two reasons: One, to gain some humility. We are not nearly as safe or important as we think we are. In the end, each of us is only a statistic. Each of us is at the mercy of enormous events outside our control. Two, to prepare for the reality of this existence. We may face trying times, but nothing can stop us from being brave in the face of them. We can still, always, as Stockdale said, decide how to write the end of our story—and to write it well.
When we think of greatness, we think of success. We think of strength. We think of influence. We think of the man or woman exerting their will over the universe, or dominating on the athletic field, or dazzling us with their creative brilliance. We think of the trappings of this greatness: ornate mansions, peak physical conditioning, confidently strolling the halls of power.Is this really greatness, though? What if the person who has it is actually miserable? If every minute they’re awake they’re driven by demons or insecurities or the need to control and beat other people? How great is greatness if it is constantly on the edge of destroying itself through overreaching or over-doing?Seneca said that “nothing is great unless it’s also at peace.” What he meant was that stillness and greatness—true greatness, that is—are impossible to separate. It’s stillness that allows us to be great, on the court or in the public sphere or on the page. No one is able to push the bounds of accomplishment if they are distracted or disorganized. At the same time, it’s stillness that allows us to enjoy our accomplishments. What good is becoming a billionaire if all you can think about is how much more there is left to earn? If you’re just comparing yourself to richer people?Stillness is the key to greatness and the key to happiness (and it’s the title of Ryan Holiday’s new book!). There is little hope and little point to life without it. Stillness is what Stoicism seeks to instill in us—so that we can be better at our jobs, at our responsibilities, and in our quiet moments alone. Without stillness, we have no greatness. We have only franticness and insatiableness.
We spend a lot of time worried about what other people are going to do. Will that colleague muscle you out of the way for the promotion? Will another coffee shop or yoga studio or accountant open up on the block and steal your customers? Is so-and-so out to get you? Is the government plotting to raise your taxes or regulate your industry?From these fears come many actions. We get them before they get us. We spend money lobbying or setting up defenses. We call up friends or mentors, ranting and raving. The irony is that all this energy and anxiety is taking our eye off the ball. It’s a distraction from our day-to-day responsibility. And, more importantly, history shows that very few empires are destroyed by external forces. They’re usually undone by the hubris and arrogance and selfishness of their own people and leaders. As Pericles famously said, “I fear our own mistakes more than the enemy’s schemes.” It’s essential that we remember this. We should be far more concerned with our own ego and our own inadequacies than what someone else may do to us. Besides, which do we have more control over? Which can we 100% block? Someone else’s actions? Or our own? Marcus Aurelius put it definitively and adamantly, and which is why today we must chase…“The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.”
Nobody cared more about statues than the Greeks and the Romans. In fact, the only reason we know what many of the Stoics looked like is because they were preserved in marble by sculptors many thousands of years ago. The Stoics knew that statues were important. Aristocreon, a nephew of Chrysippus, put up a statue of his uncle—to honor his memory and his role in the founding of Stoicism. The grandfather of Cato was once asked why there was no statue of him. His answer: I’d rather people ask why there isn’t a statue of me than why there is. The idea for the Greeks and Romans was to put up these statues so that we might look up and be inspired by the deeds and the principles of the great men (and women) who came before us. But today, what statues do we put up? Last year, Michigan became the home of a new statue of Robocop. Most people can agree that statues of Confederate generals (see: traitors) are not appropriate to maintain with public funds. That’s as far as we’re able to go though. We’re not building new statues, that’s for sure. We can hardly agree on who we admire enough to capture in stone or bronze. That’s really sad and really scary. Because each generation needs guidance. We need to be called to honor the greatness of our past (and in the case of some monuments, reminded of the failures and mistakes civilization has made). We need to see—in tangible form—the principles that we as a people hold dear, that we are aspiring to mirror in our own lives.A nation—an era—is judged by the monuments it erects just as a home is judged by the art that hangs on its walls. So that’s the question for the world and for you as an individual today: What statues are you putting up? And are you living by the example they stand for?
In her page-a-day book Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, the writer Anne Willson Schaef makes a distinction that the Stoics would have certainly agreed with—there is a difference, she writes, between trying to control everything in your life and taking charge of your life. “Trying to control our lives puts us in a position of failure before we start,” Anne writes, “and causes endless, unnecessary pain and suffering. Taking charge of our lives means owning our lives and having a respond-ability to our lives.” ‘Respond-ability’ is a great word, and one we should add to our vocabulary today. The same goes with the distinction between taking charge and taking control. As the Stoics tried to teach us, only a fool thinks they can control fortune or prevent bad things from occurring through worry or endless work. Only a tyrant thinks they can determine everything other people do and say. A wise person, on the other hand, takes responsibility for themselves and says, “I might not be in control of what happens to me in life, but I am in charge of how I respond to it.” A wise person is both responsible and respond-able. And that’s exactly what we are going to focus on today.
One way to read The Odyssey is that it’s a story of human perseverance. Odysseus is cunning and determined, he’s willing to do everything and anything to get back to Ithaca...and eventually, because of that, he finally does. That’s certainly the interpretation of Tennyson in his poem “Ulysses”:“We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”But there is also a way to read The Odyssey as illustrating the exact opposite lesson. Because basically every delay and impediment on Odysseus’s long journey home is completely his fault. He says he wants to get back to Ithaca, and then proceeds to constantly undermine himself. It’s only towards the end, when he finally stops and actually listens to the gods (most of whom favor him) that he quickly makes any real progress. In fact, they finally come out and tell him this when Odysseus tries to argue with their instructions for surviving Scylla and Charybdis (he wants to stand and fight, they tell him to dart through). “Goddess, please, tell me the truth, is there no other way?" Odysseus pleads. The goddess answers, "No, you fool! Your mind is still obsessed with deeds of war. But now you must surrender to the gods."Marcus Aurelius talked about practicing the “art of acquiescence.” Seneca and Epictetus spoke often about surrendering to fate—understanding that we are not in control, accepting that there is a larger plan for us spelled out in the logos. It seems like resignation, and it’s a very scary thing for us to try. So most people don’t. We refuse to yield, like Odysseus, and we never end up getting where we want to go.The concept of Amor Fati is quite paradoxical. It’s acceptance fused with determination. It’s the ability to go along and make the best of something—even if every ounce of your being would rather stand and fight. It seems crazy, but it works. Because there is more at work behind the scenes than we know. There is a bigger picture we cannot see. And even if there wasn’t, the universe is much stronger than we are.That’s why it’s better to flow with it than impotently resist it.
During the American Revolution—as in any war—the British quite rightly targeted the estates and the landholdings of the leadership on the American side. Because to them, these men weren’t founders—they were instigators. At one point in the war, George Washington’s estate was threatened by advancing troops. Thinking he might be able to save his boss’s property, one of Washington’s overseers rushed out to try to convince the enemy to spare them.When Washington heard about this, he was not pleased. In fact, he wrote immediately to his staff: I’d rather my home be demolished than receive special treatment. Given our selfish and corrupt modern politics, it’s a remarkable sentiment. Here was a rich, powerful person turning down a favor, not only refusing to profit from his position but actually willingly accepting a potentially massive sacrifice because of it.Why? Because it was the right thing to do. And as Marcus Aurelius said, that’s all that mattersThe Stoics, were, as far as we know, similarly inclined as leaders. When Rome’s finances were in ruins, Marcus Aurelius sold off the treasures of the imperial palace to shore them up. He could have levied high taxes, he could have invaded another country—he could have used his power so that others suffered instead of his family, but he didn’t. Because that would have been unfair. James Stockdale and John McCain turned down special treatment as prisoners of war in Vietnam. They must have ached for even the slightest relief. They were desperate to get home. But they refused to abandon their duty—they would not undermine their country or deprive their fellow prisoners.This is not to say that a Stoic must decline every perk in life. Or that you can’t be compensated for your work or your success. However, we must always consider whether these perks come at the expense of somebody else, or if our special treatment means neglect elsewhere. What if everyone took advantage of their position? How would the world work? How fair would that be?We must always do the right thing...even if it comes at great cost.
Epictetus could not have summed up Stoicism better than when he said: “It’s not things that upset us, but our judgement about things.” What he meant was that the world is neither positive or negative, it is simply objectively indifferent. A hurricane is a hurricane. Striking gold is simply discovering metal in the ground. It’s our opinions of those events which decide that one is horrible and the other is a blessing.Of course, Epictetus was not saying there is no such thing as “good” or “bad,” at least as far as morality is concerned. While morality is a judgment, it’s an acceptable one when we apply it to actions that are within our control (that is, our own behavior). The trouble is that we can’t seem to keep these judgments contained to that area of influence. We make up categories and then try to organize the world into them...and are often miserable when fate doesn’t get the memo. Death, of course, is the ultimate example. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is. Each of us is going to die. That’s a fact. It’s not really a positive or a negative fact, particularly since it carries with it the end of our ability to have an opinion about it. Yet that doesn’t seem to stop us from worrying about it, from spending a lot of time trying to decide what it means and whether we like it or not. How miserable this makes people! How many awful and stupid things they do to prevent it, from betraying their friends to missing out on enjoying life in misguided attempts to prolong their existence. As Epictetus said, “Death...is nothing terrible, but the terrible thing is the opinion that death is terrible.”Hopefully you can chew on this a bit today. Death is not bad. It’s simply a fact. Indeed, everything is simply a fact. We’d be happier and more present if we could accept this. If we could stop fooling ourselves into thinking our opinions change anything (except to make stuff worse, most of the time). No judgment. No need to label or categorize. Just take life as it comes.
This was a big argument amongst the early Stoics: What was necessary for the good life? What was actually important to the wise man? They came up with a pretty straightforward but almost impossible to obtain answer: All the wise man should care about is virtue. Everything else—money, fame, family, power, sex—was meaningless. Indifferents. But as the Stoics went off and lived their lives, this explanation had trouble holding up. Really? Nothing matters except virtue? We have to cut every little pleasure and stroke of good luck out of our lives? There’s no material item or position in the world that is useful or helpful to those pursuing or living with wisdom? That doesn’t sound right. It was Chrysippus who came up with a better formulation. Basically, he said that a better way to think about it was need vs want. If a person needs to be famous or needs to be rich, they are vulnerable and often unhappy. That’s obviously not wisdom. But does a wise person have to actively avoid making money? Must they live in obscurity? That seems silly. The wise man, he said, is in want of nothing, but can have and enjoy plenty. Meanwhile, the fool can make sure of nothing but desperately wants everything. Isn’t that perfectly said? And isn’t that the perfect admonishment for us today? Make use of everything we have while we have it and gratefully accept what comes our way…but be perfectly content to live without it if it were to disappear.
Here’s a question to ask yourself about your work and your life: Do you create value for society or do you extract it? Are you a giver or a taker? Do you make the world better with your choices and actions and lifestyle?When the Stoics talk about sympatheia, they are referring to this idea that we all have a role, that we’re all part of a larger whole. And, of course, the Stoics were not so naive that they didn’t understand some people’s roles were to be shameless, to be evil, to be lazy, or whatever. (Marcus alludes to an idea in Meditations that even people who are sleeping are doing a job of some kind). But just because that is some people’s role, doesn’t mean it’s a good role or that it should be yours. It’s worth taking the time on a regular basis to stop and consider what you’re contributing to this whole crazy system we’ve been born into. Marcus said that we were made to do works for the common good. Well, are you? Are you helping people? Is what you sell actually worth people’s money (and therefore time) or are you such a good marketer that you trick them into thinking so? Decide to create value. Decide to give more than you take. Make the world better by being in it.
It must be said that the Stoics were cowardly when it came to slavery. Marcus Aurelius, who believed that we were all part of a common whole, that we were all equal before life and death, who so admired a former slave like Epictetus, who writes at one point about why it would be wrong to have sex with a slave, doesn’t see a problem with owning a person. He had the power to eliminate slavery in the empire, but he just couldn’t do it. Seneca is an even bigger hypocrite. He writes over and over again about the importance of freedom and kindness and fairness, yet how many slaves did he own? Too many to count. He writes about slavery often in his letters, and you can just feel that as wrong as he knows it is, he can’t come out and question the institution that defined Roman life. He even knows he’s being hypocritical and in Letter XLVII more or less admits it. All he can say is: “But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.” Perhaps part of the reason that many Stoics had so much trouble with slavery is that as much power as the Romans had over their slaves, there was someone who had that much power over them. The emperor (indeed Marcus for the entirety of his reign) could throw someone in chains, could kill them, could take their possessions or steal the fruit of their labors. This often happened with capricious and devastating cruelty. Selfishly, stupidly, the lesson they took from this was: If someone can do it to me, why can’t I do it to someone else?They should have really listened to what Seneca was saying, to that timeless and universal idea we see in countless religions and philosophies and now call the Golden Rule. How would you want to be treated by people with power over you? Now why on earth would you treat people you have power over differently than that?
It was not lost even on the Stoics that some parts of this philosophy come more naturally to some people than others. Some folks just seem chill by default. Some are so-called “old souls” who have wisdom and perspective, almost from birth. Others were not blessed (or cursed) with ambition or opportunities, and so there is very little challenge going on in their life anyway. Good for them. That’s their lot in life. It’s not ours. It certainly wasn’t Seneca’s. The rest of us have to struggle. We struggle against our impulses. We struggle to really internalize these teachings. We are struggling to manage our tempers or the envy that creeps up out of nowhere, into our souls, and then out through our hands and mouths as deeds we wish we could undo. It’d be nice if we didn’t have to struggle so much, but we do. And yet, this struggle—and the triumphs over it, however temporary—that is what’s impressive about us. Seneca wrote that he doesn’t admire the person who has it easy, who is naturally Stoic. No, he admires the man “who has won a victory over the meanness of his own nature, and has not gently led himself, but has wrestled his way, to wisdom.” Seneca reserved his deepest appreciation for the person who’d survived the crucible of ego, who’d navigated the gauntlet of envy and pride, who’d walked through the shadow of the valley of death, but with himself as his own shepherd. Today, we must continue to wrestle. We must continue to struggle and fight for victory. It won’t be easy—it never is—but that’s the whole point. It’s the man in the arena that we admire. It’s the one covered in dust and sweat that matters. And that’s who we are.
In her beautiful book about the Los Angeles Public Library fire, Susan Orlean captures the magic of what libraries can offer. She describes walking through the empty library in Downtown LA, not a soul in sight, and feeling connected to all the different voices represented on the millions of pages that surround her. “A library is a good place to soften solitude,” she writes, “a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” Books, in this way, are wonderful friends. They are always there. They speak wisdom, but offer their advice quietly. They have an unlimited capacity for listening. They offer so much and ask for essentially nothing in return. We can say the same about philosophy, which, of course, mostly comes to us in the form of books. As Seneca said, philosophy offers counsel. It does not yell. It levels no personal attacks. No, it calls for you to be better. It is there whenever and wherever you need it. It softens our solitude. It is a true friend. Books, especially those about philosophy, are that friend who should always be within arm’s reach, who we should turn to constantly. Today, when we have some downtime. Next week when we run into some trouble. In the morning when we are lonely or struggling to start the day. Pick up a book. Read a passage. Listen to the person who truly believed that if they spoke—if they wrote—someone would listen and that it would make a difference. They weren’t wrong.
It’s pretty incredible to think that Hadrian was able to see the potential in Marcus Aurelius. Hadrian somehow, even though Marcus was just a boy, could tell that this kid had something. That he might be able to withstand the stress and temptation and pressures of the empire. What did he see? How did he know?It’s a mystery. We know that at some point he nicknamed him Verissimus, a pun on his new name M. Aelius Aurelius Verus, meaning truest. But Marcus was a teenager then and there are plenty of “true” teenagers…that doesn’t mean they’ll all be good heads of state. In fact, what’s so impressive about the man that Marcus became is that he was selected so young and he stillturned out to be good. Imagine if you had been told that you would one day be king, imagine if the current king selected you as his favorite—what would that do to your head? (Just look at Marcus’s own son Commodus for a hint)The point is: A great destiny—which all of us have in our own way, since we are all capable of great things—is no trifling matter. It can be corrupting and distracting. It can be a burden. To fulfill it is not a simple matter of sitting back and waiting for it to happen. No, it must be worked for. It must be earned. We must fight against all the temptations and the entitlements. We must make good on what the world sees in us. Ultimately, that is what we can learn from Marcus Aurelius and what we should be most inspired by. Hadrian predicted that Marcus could become something special, but Marcus went out and proved him right. Hadrian put Marcus under nearly inhuman pressure and stress by choosing him, but Marcus is the one who decided that he would thrive in spite of it, that he would rise to the challenge and emerge stronger and better for it. Marcus went out and seized his destiny, and earned his crown.So must we.
Marcus Aurelius, on nearly a dozen occasions in Meditations, speaks of reaching or achieving “stillness.” Most beautifully, he writes of trying to be “like the rock that the waves keep crashing over,” the one that “stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” We shouldn’t be surprised to hear him use this word—which sounds Buddhist as much as it sounds Stoic—because it meant a great deal to him. The last word from Antoninus, Marcus’s beloved stepfather, as he passed power to him was simply: Aequanimitas. Equanimity. Intuitively, instinctively, we know what that means. Stillness. Equanimity. Ataraxia. We also know how rare those feelings are. How often are we still? How often are we able to reach that place of clarity and steadiness inside ourselves? Not often enough, considering the incredible feats of focus and creativity and determination we are capable of when in possession of it. Do you want more of it? Would you like to be cooler under pressure? Would you like to be like the rock in Marcus’s analogy, the one that can calm great oceans and endure the strongest currents and biggest waves? How much better would you be with more focus, more self-discipline, a happier soul?The good news is that this what Ryan Holiday’s new book is all about. It’s called Stillness is the Key. And the even better news is that you can preorder it right now. Barnes and Noble even has a limited run of signed copies for sale. At Daily Stoic we’re also offering some cool preorder bonuses for anyone that buys one, five or one hundred copies—in any format, anywhere in the world (details here, please follow the instructions!!).We live in crazy times. Stillness has been the secret weapon of the Stoics and the Buddhists, the Christians and the followers of Confucius, for thousands of years—for a reason. Because it can help us thrive in a world that’s spinning faster than ever. Stillness is the key to the good life, whatever that looks like for you. It’s the key to career success, to happiness, to enduring adversity, to appreciating the wonders of existence. You know you want more of it. You know how special it is. We have all felt its power.So let’s go find it together.
Marcus Aurelius was an incredibly lucky man. He was born a Roman and he was born a man in a time where to be anything other than a man or a Roman citizen was a position of extreme powerlessness. He was also born to a wealthy family who provided him the best tutors, tutors who loved him and taught him the philosophy that changed his life. He was then adopted into Antoninus’s family (at the request of Hadrian) to set in motion his ascension to the throne, a gift of enormous power, wealth, and responsibility. It says in the Bible that to whom much is given, much is required. Marcus took this idea quite seriously. Not only was he not one of those dilettante emperors, he also saw the gifts he had been given as an obligation to do good, to be of service—that it wasn’t about him, but about what he was called to do. So when Rome’s finances were shaky, he sold off imperial treasures to pay down the empire’s debts. When estates were left to him, he could have easily accepted them and increased his family’s wealth while in office, like so many politicians before and since have done. Instead, he found the deceased’s distant relatives and gifted it to them (when his own father died, Marcus passed his rightful inheritance to his sister). We can see in Meditations just how difficult and stressful all this responsibility was on Marcus...yet there was no complaining, no ethical lapses, no regrettable mistakes. Much was given to him at birth and in life, and he rose to the occasion. He did what was required of him and more. So today, think about your own good fortune and the gifts you have received—by nature of where you’ve been born (and when), because of who your family is or the success you’ve had. There is no such thing as a free lunch. There are always strings. In this case, you are now obligated. Much is required of you. You are required to be good. To give back. To help others, to sprinkle some of your stardust on other people. Starting now.
It’s late summer now and you might be thinking it’s time to squeeze in a last minute vacation. Or maybe you’ve been looking forward to a long-planned one to some distant location. This is just what I need, you’re thinking. I can’t wait to get out there on the beach…or the mountains…or those beautiful ruins. We think we can escape from our job. From our problems. From our depression. From our low-grade dissatisfaction with our ordinary lives. But what do we find when we arrive to the exotic location? After we check in to the hotel or the Airbnb? We find, after the rush wears off, that we don’t feel any different. We brought ourselves with us…the true source of our unhappiness. Seneca was an avid traveler who saw how often his fellow tourists were in denial, how they foolishly thought a change of scenery could exempt them from the real inner-work they needed to do. He liked to quote Epicurus who said that “every man flees himself.” We can imagine Seneca enjoying the lyric from a song by Alice in Chains: heaven beside you…hell within.That’s why vacations often disappoint. Because as beautiful as they are, as much as we design them for relaxation, they are incapable of overriding our anxiety and our dysfunction. If our soul is tense, no amount of massages will relax it. If our mind is chaos, no amount of time in the water will order it. If our life is a mess, eventually we’ll have to return to it–and all the tours and long dinners will evaporate it in a minute. If you want to be happy, if you want to relax, look inward. Do the work. Not only will you be happier at home, but you’ll enjoy your time on the road more too.
These are times of increasing political extremism. They are also times of corruption and rising inequality. Enormous, alarming trends are sweeping through culture, government, and the economy. In some sense this is new, but in other ways it’s a story as old as civilized society. So the question is not why or what or who or even how—it’s where. Where is the courage? Where are the people standing up to stop all this? Where are the heroes, big and small? The city council member who refuses to rubber stamp the pocket-lining policies of her fellow council members. The parent who turns in their own child for his alarming obsession with guns. The celebrity who uses their platform to speak truth, rather than pile onto whatever the mob has decided is right. To the Stoics, courage was the greatest of the virtues. Being brave enough to take a stand, to risk one’s own neck. To throw yourself in front of the car to save someone else. Or, as Mario Savio put it on the Berkeley campus in the 1960s during the Free Speech movement, “to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus…to make it stop.”Courage was also independence. Refusing to cow to the majority, and instead to hold oneself to a higher standard. That standard was justice, another essential virtue. That meant insisting on what was right. Attacking corruption, intolerance for unfairness. Protecting the downtrodden or the weak. Are there still heroes out there? Yes. We see it in Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who died protecting her rabbi from a gunman. We see it in James Melville, the ambassador who resigned on principle after Trump’s comments about NATO. We see it when people admit they were wrong. When academics challenge political correctness and orthodoxy. We see it when a classmate stands up to a bully. We see it when a fireman rushes into a building, or when a police officer runs towards the shooting. When the ordinary person says, “Hey, don’t say things like that. Don’t treat other people that way. It’s not right.”But we don’t see it enough. In part because we don’t do it enough ourselves.
In his new book, Comedy Sex God (as well as on his wonderful podcast and on his HBO show) the comedian Pete Holmes talks about the aftermath of the dissolution of his marriage. After his wife cheated on him and their subsequent divorce, he was hit with a long developing crisis of faith in the religion he had grown up with.He describes this period as many nights on the road. Lots of work. Lots of drinking. Lots of crying. Lots of Counting Crows songs on repeat. And while that all seems very tough, the interesting part about it, he says, looking back, is how easy it was. How comfortably he slipped into this depression and came to feel at home in it. He almost looks back at the period fondly now, as if remembering a long morning under the warm covers.This is something the Stoics were quite aware of as well, and why they urged us to be wary of our passions. It’s not that they felt that emotions were bad, it’s that they knew how easy it was to slip into them and be consumed by them. When we lose someone we love, grief is natural. It can also be tempting to simply take residence inside that grief as a way of protecting ourselves from ever getting hurt again. When we run into difficulty, it’s natural to be sad about it. And we can quite easily adopt this sadness as our new world view, when the braver thing is actually to make ourselves vulnerable again in the pursuit of something to be hopeful and happy about. One of the key virtues of Stoicism is moderation. Not too little. Not too much. Just the right amount. It’s easy to overindulge your emotions, as Pete Holmes did for so long on the road as a comic. It’s easy to block them off entirely, as Stoicism has been wrongly criticized for advocating for centuries.The truth is, neither absence nor abundance is the right path. Because neither is a path toward anything at all. And what is life but a path whose twists and turns are ours to carve with our own two feet.
The great C.S Lewis observed that we all find forgiveness to be a lovely idea...right up until we have someone to forgive. It’s true. Forgiveness is one of those virtues that’s easy to talk about, but incredibly hard to practice. Particularly when we are hurt, or when we have been seriously wronged. Yet, isn’t that sort of the point? Forgiveness wouldn’t be that impressive, it wouldn’t be that meaningful, if it came naturally. If it could be so easily tossed off.Think of Laura Tibbetts, whose daughter was killed by an undocumented immigrant in 2018. After the body was discovered, all sorts of letters poured in. People tried to stoke her passions to make her angry. This is why we need to build a wall, they said. Those people are animals. We need to protect ourselves. And what did she do? She opened her home to a young boy whose parents were also undocumented immigrants and had worked in the very same fields as the man who had murdered her daughter. That’s not just a lovely example of forgiveness, it’s a profoundly virtuous and impressive thing to do. There must be so much pain in Laura’s heart, so much anger. Yet she has risen above it. She has found a way to see through the rage and the hurt to find something common in their shared humanity. Something she could support and care for, rather than dismiss or rail against. The Stoics believed that these sorts of gestures were the essence of greatness. They believed these were the moments we train for. It’s easy to say that forgiveness is important. It’s easy to talk about sympatheia, or how we are all part of a larger whole, alongside our fellow humans. But it is so hard to do. Because life challenges us. Life throws tragedy at us. Instead of calling us to be better, to live up to a higher standard, the media and our fellow citizens often try to drag us down into the mud, encouraging our basest instincts. We have to keep reaching for that higher standard, though. We have to push through the pain and the anger. We have to pull ourselves out of the mud. We have to forgive. We have to try to be good...and in the process, be great.
The busier we get, the more we work, even the more that we learn and read, the further we tend to drift from our center. We get in a rhythm. We’re making money, being creative, we’re stimulated and busy. It seems like everything is going well. But if we’re not careful, those other things grow and grow until they take over completely; and what once felt like a rhythm now feels like a rut. It’s true for us now just as it was true for Marcus Aurelius. He had an awful lot to keep him busy, to distract him, to push him further and further, which in turn afforded him less and less time for that which really mattered to him: philosophy. We get a good sense of how he thought about his priorities with this analogy in Book 6 of Meditations:“If you had a stepmother and a real mother, you would pay your respects to your step mother, yes...but it’s your real mother you’d go home to. The court...and philosophy: Keep returning to it, to rest in its embrace. It’s all that makes the court—and you—endurable.”His point was that you should return to that which nourishes you. Sure, you have to earn a living and contribute to society (or deal with the court or the demands of office, in Marcus’s case). You may have hobbies and other obligations too. That’s perfectly fine. Just remember that those are your step-parents. Important, but they don’t change who made you. Philosophy is the essential, centering pursuit. It challenges us. It requires work and reflection and self-criticism. It requires that we hold ourselves to certain standards and that we hold ourselves to account when we fail to. It’s the real work, not the busy work. Philosophy is what birthed you, raised you, and continues to re-make you as life goes on. Don’t let some momentum in your other pursuits fool you into thinking you no longer need it. It’s home. Make sure you’re paying the proper respects. Make sure you’re going back often, so that today’s rhythm does not become tomorrow’s rut.
“If it is not right, do not do it,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “if it is not true, do not say it.” But it’s worth pointing out that as a philosophy, Stoicism demands more of us than just this negative. As Marcus would also point out, “Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.” So, first, do not lie. But, second, sitting by and allowing a lie to stand? These can both be injustices. No Stoic would argue that fraud is permissible. But what if you witness fraud? What if you suspect a fraud is occurring at your work or in your industry or in government? Nassim Taleb bridges these two quotes from Marcus perfectly: “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”Be the person that stands up. Be the person that lends a hand. Be the person that actively does good, that is courageous and generous. It’s not enough to simply not do wrong. We are called to do more than that, we are held to a higher standard. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is the line. It’s true. Don’t turn a blind eye. Don’t make it someone else’s problem. Do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
One way to look at an iconic or important landmark like the White House is with reverence. This is the seat of a global power. This is where Kennedy stared down the Cuban Missile Crisis. It represents freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Another way would be with a slightly more cynical eye: This is a house built by slaves. It’s actually not even that old—most of it was torn down and rebuilt during the Truman Administration. Look at all the idiots who have lived there, this house allowed the Civil War to happen, it perpetuated Vietnam, it’s where sleazebags preyed on interns.Which of these two attitudes is correct? The Stoics would argue that they both are and that both perspectives—at different times—are key to doing the right thing. A person working in government service at the White House can use the positive legacy of the institution as a form of inspiration, as a call to a higher standard of behavior. This is a special place. I must do it justice. This kind of reverence can draw the best out of a person, even in difficult or tempting situations. But at the same time, a person who is too reverent, or who has projected too much of their own idealism onto a place or an organization can find themselves bending the truth to protect it. Or doing unethical things to maintain their job inside it. I’m not going to jail because the guy holding this office for four years is asking me to lie for him. The President isn’t a king—he’s a public servant like every other person in the government. We can use cynicism productively. It, to use Marcus Aurelius’s phrase, helps strip things of the legend that encrusts them and gives us an objective view. A person who understands the legacy of the White House from both perspectives is less likely to do something wrong, more likely to be courageous than a person who has just one view. And the same applies for so many different things. How do you see marriage? How do you see money? How do you understand the history of your country or your race or your industry? Being written about in the New York Times or winning a Nobel Prize? You want to see the higher essence of things...and their lower nature. You want to see the ideal...and the reality. Be blinded by neither. Deceived by neither.
In several of Seneca’s letters he speaks about the power of bloodletting as a medical practice. In one, he actually remarks—with some superiority—how earlier generations had not yet discovered bloodletting and suffered for it. Marcus Aurelius hints at some other medical practices. He speaks of the treatment for ophthalmia—inflammation of the eye—and how doctors treated it with a bit of egg yolk. We also know that his doctor Galen gave Marcus opium for various pains and illnesses in old age.Needless to say, none of these treatments are accepted or prescribed anymore. It’s interesting that the Stoics, who were so good at extrapolating out from the past, didn’t take a lesson from this—that so much of what we are certain about today will be disproven in the future. That the so-called ‘wisdom’ of the present is often embarrassingly wrong and nothing illustrates this better than medicine. Imagine: We used to take really sick people, cut open their veins and pour their blood out as a form of healing. Do you think it finally occurred to Seneca as he was forced to commit suicide using basically that exact methodology just how absurd the practice was?The point is (and it’s a point well made in Chuck Klosterman’s book But What If We’re Wrong?) that we should always be questioning the status quo—and majority opinion. Not because it’s always wrong, but because it sometimes is. We should be intellectually humble because science and time have a way of humbling us. So too do history and ethics. Seneca thought he was superior to his fellow Romans because he treated his slaves kindly...a distinction we no longer give much credit for.Take it as fact that much of what we think we know will be proven wrong. Much of what we think makes us vastly more informed than the generation of our parents will not hold up well by the time our children are our age. Question everything. Don’t be too attached to anything.It’s all changing. And we are so, so wrong.
There are different kinds of ambition. There was, on one end of the spectrum, the ambition of someone like Abraham Lincoln. This was the ambition that taught him to read, that braved the wild Mississippi River, that learned the law, that worked his way up from poverty into the presidency, and, eventually, kept America from permanently tearing itself apart. Then there is Seneca’s ambition. He too was driven and talented and yearned for a chance to change the world. But it’s also clear that he wasn’t always principled, that he was perhaps a bit too in love with power, and possibly with money. Lincoln’s ambition ended slavery. Seneca’s enabled Nero. In the contrast between the two—and between pure and self-interested ambition everywhere—we find the truth of the observation in the novel What Makes Sammy Run?—“What a tremendous burning and blinding light ambition can be where there is something behind it, and what a puny flickering sparkler when there isn’t.” We’ve talked before here about Marcus Aurelius’s view on ambition. But the truth was that he was ambitious too. He wanted to be a great emperor. He swore that no senator would be executed in his reign. He wanted peace to reign. He wanted to resist the corrosive corruption that power had on other Stoics, including Seneca. This is clearly good ambition. The world needs more of that. It needs people who want to improve the world and themselves. Who, above all, are committed to virtue—to justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage. More directly we need you to be one of those people, to have that kind of ambition and to set about your life doing whatever it is you are called to do.
There is a balance to Stoicism between awareness and anxiety. The Stoics want you to be prepared for an uncertain—and oftentimes dangerous—future, but somehow not worry about it at the same time. They want you to consider all the possibilities...and not be stressed that many of those possibilities will not be good. How exactly is that supposed to work?The answer lies simply in the idea of presence. As Seneca writes: “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives.”It may well rain tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean you have to get wet in advance. You can enjoy the sunshine today, while still bringing in your furniture just in case. It’s important not to take the phrase premeditatio malorum (a premeditation of evils) too singularly. When Seneca says that all the terms of the human lot should be before our eyes, and then lists only the bad things, he’s accidentally doing that. Because of course good stuff can happen too. Bad stuff can not happen also. The point is that the future is out of our control. It is uncertain, and also vast. We have to be aware of that, yes, but we don’t need to suffer, particularly not in advance. Because we have plenty of time to prepare, and plenty of wide open present before us still as well. Enjoy it.
What is wealth? It’s having plenty, right? The variables in the equation are pretty simple. What you have, what you’ve got coming in, and what’s going out. If those are in proper proportion to each other, you’re covered. Except what we tend to miss in this equation is another set of hidden variables that most often take the shape of our relative needs and wants.Most people accumulate their wealth by earning as much as they can. That’s why they work so hard. Why they take so many risks. Why they invest. But the reason they do this is not to be covered—it’s because they have told themselves that what they need is more, more, more, and that what they have already is not enough. Seneca, himself a very rich man, did that. The astounding financial benefits of working for Nero had to be partly what attracted him to the tyrant’s service. If only he could have listened to his own advice (which he borrowed from Epicurus): “If you wish to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.” The Stoics would say that for a virtuous person, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be wealthy. It can provide comfort, security and, quite possibly, a platform to do good for the world. They would just urge you to take a minute to think about what your definition of wealth is—and whether you might already have everything you’ve always wanted. There’s more than one way to solve this tricky wealth equation, and in your case it may just be that subtraction is easier than multiplication. That changing your understanding of what it means to be rich might be more important, and easier, than changing the number of digits to the left of the decimal point in your bank balance.
There is a morbid theme running through the music of Johnny Cash. His deep, haunting voice is rarely far from a lyric about death or murder or loss or grief. He has songs about soldiers killed in Vietnam, songs about dying cowboys on the streets of Laredo, about tragic rifle accidents, songs about salvation and damnation, songs about tragedy and war. Famously, he performed almost his entire career dressed in black—like he was on his way to a funeral. So it’s not a stretch to think he might have been a bit preoccupied with the idea of mortality. In an interview with Neil Strauss, Cash explained that this was the wrong way to see it: "I am not obsessed with death. I'm obsessed with living. The battle against the dark one and the clinging to the right one is what my life is about. In '88, when I had bypass surgery, I was as close to death as you could get. The doctors were saying they were losing me. I was going, and there was that wonderful light that I was going into. It was awesome, indescribable — beauty and peace, love and joy — and then all of a sudden, there I was again, all in pain and awake. I was so disappointed. But when I realized a day or so later what point I had been to, I started thanking God for life and thinking only of life.”There’s a similar tendency to think that the Stoics were obsessed with death, particularly Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. (Seneca talked about death so much that there is a recently published collection of his writings on the topic actually titled How To Die). But if they were given a similar chance to comment, like Johnny Cash did, about their fixation with death, we might expect a similar response. They weren’t obsessed with dying but with living. They wanted to get the most out of every minute of this uncertain existence we have all been given. It happens that meditating on our mortality is a powerful way to do that. Memento Mori is an exercise that makes sure we are awake, grateful, and at peace. It prepares us for the inevitability of what is to come, while allowing us to seize every second between now and then. That might seem counterintuitive, but it actually makes perfect sense. If you know death is inevitable, and that there is nothing you can do about it, and you have no idea when it will come, well then what’s the alternative? Or as Andy Dufresne says to his friend Red, in The Shawshank Redemption, when they’re talking about what they’d do if they ever got out: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice: get busy living or get busy dying.” Which is why we should start this morning with gratitude and urgency, with appreciation and awareness. How much time any of us have left is not up to us—but what we do with that time? That’s our call. That’s our song to sing.
One of the undeniable realities of the history of religion is persecution. The Christians have been persecuted. So have the Jews, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Mormons, even the Buddhists and Confucians. In some cases, these religions persecuted each other. In other cases, it was tyrannical governments that tried to stamp out all faiths with equal zeal. Although less common, philosophy and philosophers have been persecuted too (and persecuted others, as Marcus and other emperors did with early Christians). Epictetus, for instance, was banned from Rome as part of a blanket ban on philosophers by Emperor Domitian in 93 AD. Later, as the Christians took over Rome, philosophers were subjected to persecution and sometimes mob justice. The point is: Although it is less common today, ‘believing’ in something can cost you everything. We are not—and have not been—as tolerant as we like to think we have been and having faith in something in this world can be a revolutionary act. Which calls to mind an interesting question posed by a Christian theologian. He asked, as a kind of test to people who liked to call themselves Christians but ignore the actual tenets of the religion: If you were arrested and tried for being a Christian, would you be convicted? Or do your actions speak louder than any profession of belief?That’s a question for all of us today, whatever we believe, and most of all for this philosophy we are studying. Could you actually be convicted of being a Stoic? Does your behavior match what you claim to be? It was obvious that Epictetus was a philosopher, even if he’d denied it. Same with Marcus, same with Seneca. But you? Are you guilty of truly practicing philosophy? Or just the minor crime of association?
The Stoics believed that stressful and dangerous situations unfold like this: Something happens—we wake up to reports that the stock market has taken a dive, we get screamed at by our boss, the doctor raises an eyebrow and recommends we go in for further testing…And this provokes a reaction—not a good one either. A scared one. Or an angry one. Something emotional. Or we go the opposite way and we just shut down, paralyzed by the events. The Stoics called these involuntary and immediate impressions that we form in response to bad news or stress phantasiai. Contrary to what you might think, the Stoics were quite sympathetic to these reactions. They understand them as natural, and largely out of our control. You throw something surprising at someone...and they’re going to be surprised. That’s how it works. That’s why it’s called ‘surprise.’Stoicism is not a philosophy meant to show you how to stop that. Instead, what Stoicism is about is what to do next. What to do after the involuntary first impression has been given its moment. As Donald Robertson writes in his wonderful book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, “The Stoic tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond.” It’s perfectly reasonable to tremble in the face of danger, he says, and it was likely that Cato and Marcus Aurelius were scared on the eve of battle or before an important speech. But we don’t hold that against them, because what mattered is what they did next.They led the charge. They gave the speech. They did the right thing anyway. They transcended their phantasiai. And so must you.
Perhaps you remember reading The Odyssey in high school or college (or possibly you picked up Emily Wilson’s fabulous new translation). Even if you haven’t, you’re probably familiar with the cyclops scene. Odysseus and his men find themselves trapped in a cave with Polyphemus, the deranged, man-eating, sheep herding, one-eyed beast. Odysseus hatches an ingenious escape plan: they wait for the cyclops to fall asleep and then stab him in the eye with a sharpened log. Enraged and blinded, Polyphemus staggers to remove the stone he had rolled in front of the entrance of the cave, which frees Odysseus and his men.It’s brilliant and, best of all, Odysseus, never having given the cyclops his real name, is off scot-free. But then, just out of reach of the bleeding, angry, shouting cyclops, he turns back and taunts:“Cyclops! If any mortal asks you howYour eye was mutilated and made blind,Say that Odysseus, the city-saker,Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,Destroyed your sight.”Odysseus just couldn’t help himself. He wanted the credit. And he stupidly forgot that Polyphemus’ father was Poseidon, and that the lord of the sea was unlikely to act kindly towards someone who had blinded his son. This moment of hubris cost Odysseus something like ten years of his life, as Poseidon threw up countless obstacles, one after the other, between Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, back home in Ithaca. It’s a lesson that many people have heeded (and plenty of others have painfully forgotten) ever since. Marcus Aurelius, for his part, talked often about the worthlessness of credit. So you did a good thing, he says, why do you need to be thanked for it? It felt good to do, it helped someone else, why do you need the third thing of credit or recognition or gratitude? The same goes for a clever plan or successful business deal. Do you really need people to know you pulled it off?The answer is that you don’t. In fact, it’s usually better not to get credit (because the ‘right thing’ is not always appreciated, because other people might get jealous, because it puffs up your ego). Think about that today, and remember it always. You don’t need credit. That’s not what should motivate you. Do the right thing because it’s right. Pursue excellence because that’s what you do. Leave the recognition and the rewards alone.
Seneca was exiled once in AD 41 and then again from Nero’s service at the end of his career. Epictetus was exiled in Nicopolis, Greece by the Emperor Domitian. Publius Rutilius Rufus, the Roman tax official who was convicted on false charges, was exiled to Asia. Stoicism and exile seems to go hand in hand. Winston Churchill, who himself spent about 10 years in political exile after WWI, once wrote that:“Every prophet has to come from civilization, but every prophet has to go into the wilderness. He must have a strong impression of a complex society and all that it has to give, and then he must serve periods of isolation and meditation. This is the process by which psychic dynamite is made.”The period of difficulty and loneliness and loss that Seneca and Epictetus went through—this was not simply some bad period in their life. No, it was a formative, soul-strengthening, priority-clarifying experience that made them who they were. Publius Rutilius Rufus not only wasn’t bitter about the slanderous accusations and the trumped up political attack he was a victim of, he chose Asia as his exile—where he could go back to be with the citizens who actually appreciated his honesty and hard work. It was an awful experience, to be sure, but he accepted it with cheerful Stoicism. Psychic dynamite is not just handed to us. We aren’t born resilient or with confidence. We have to earn it. We have to make it. And that is only possible in difficult circumstances, it can only be found in the wilderness, where we are alone, where we are forced to adapt and adjust to circumstances outside our control.It won’t be fun, but it is essential.
If you look at any of the great Stoics, you’ll notice that philosophy was just one of their many diverse interests. Seneca was a philosopher and a playwright and a political advisor. Marcus Aurelius was dabbling in philosophy...as he had the most important job on the planet. Cato was a senator who led the opposition to Julius Caesar. Cleanthes was a boxer and a water-carrier. And Zeno, the founding teacher of the philosophy, began his career as a successful merchant voyager. The stereotype of the philosopher is one who spends all day and night with their dense textbooks and their denser thoughts. When the truth is that the great philosophers we hold up as having made these brilliant insights into human nature and the human experience were reading and studying philosophy in addition to many other endeavors and activities. They, David Epstein would say, had “range,” they were “generalists.” In his new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, Epstein put to bed the myth that going all in on a particular field is the key to lasting success. As he told us in our interview for DailyStoic.com:We miss out on wisdom if we’re too narrow...Specialists become so narrow that they actually start developing worse judgment about the world as they accumulate knowledge...Breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer is your ability to take knowledge and skills and apply them to a problem or situation you have not seen before. And your ability to do that is predicted by the variety of situations you’ve faced...As you get more variety, you’re forced to form these broader conceptual models (in the classroom setting called “making connections” knowledge), which you can then wield flexibly in new situations. One can imagine Zeno translating things he learned on the open sea as a merchant into lessons for his students at the Stoa. Maybe Cleanthes discovered something about himself during his manual labors. It's unquestionable that Marcus Aurelius's real world responsibilities provided insights for his philosophical studies and vice versa. As for Seneca, his philosophy influenced his politics and his bloody and dark plays are undoubtedly influenced by what he experienced walking the halls of power.The more things we open ourselves up to, the more we experience, the better philosophers we’ll be, the better leaders, employees, individuals we’ll be. Today, put an emphasis on variety, on opening yourself up to the opportunity of being a little outside your comfort zone. Read philosophy. Read subjects outside your field. Pursue those curiosities you’ve been postponing. Say yes to the experience you’re reluctant to make time for. You’ll be better for it.P.S. Check out our full interview with David Epstein and if you haven’t already, check out his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World
One gets the sense that Seneca, like many smart and active people, was often frustrated by other people. It is inevitable that someone like him—someone creating art, actively participating in government, managing properties, etc—would have regularly found his interest and his will thwarted. Perhaps a neighbor opposed some changes he was making to his land. Or an intriguing enemy at the palace sought to undermine him with the emperor. Maybe his brother jostled for an inheritance. Maybe he bumped into a rude person in the street. These are timeless and common occurrences. And, quite naturally, they are prone to make us angry—especially if we impute the least charitable motivations on the other party. My neighbor is trying to screw me over. So and so wants my job. My brother is up to his old tricks. This guy is a selfish jerk.When we think this way, we get angry. It’s hard not to. Which is why Seneca—from experience—said that we have to resist. Instead, we should try to go through life like a lawyer...or rather like a public defender. We must, he said, “plead the case of the absent defendant despite our own interests.” That is, really take the time to think about what is motivating other people. Take the time to act as if we are trying to help them escape punishment from the judge and jury that is the emotional and vindictive part of our mind (Oh, he really just wants what’s best for everyone. My brother doesn’t know better. This guy didn’t mean to bump into me—he’s just having a hard day). Don’t just fight to see the worst, fight to see their side. When we do this, when we give people the benefit of the doubt—the presumption of innocence instead of the presumption of guilt and ill-motives—everything relaxes. We can forgive. We can find common ground. We can focus on what is actually important...our own behavior.
When did Jesus deliver his famous Sermon on the Mount? We don’t know. But we know that Seneca and Jesus were born at roughly the same time and were part of the same massive empire. As far distant as the Mount of Beatitudes was from Rome, the men were thinking and speaking about very similar things. Certainly Seneca, who wrote so much about the futility of anxiety and fear and the inevitability of death, would have agreed with that famous line from the sermon:“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? So if you cannot do such a small thing, why do you worry about the rest?”Jesus believed that what happened to human beings was more or less up to God. Seneca that it was more or less up to fate. Both agreed—and even used the same word—the logos. The Way. To worry, to think that biting your nails accomplished anything? This was to doubt the logos. This was to break faith, and to abandon the considerable power that God (or the Gods) had already given us: to focus on what was in our control, to take advantage of the free will and the life we do have in this very moment. This is a two-thousand-year-old, cross-cultural, philosophical, and religious insight. And yet what are most of us wasting our time with today? With worry!
There is a tradition in Stoicism that few notice, but is possibly one of the most inspiring and chilling parts of the entire philosophy. There’s no real polite way to describe it other than “badass last words.”Seneca tells the story of Julius Canus, a philosopher who was sentenced to death by Caligula. As he awaited his death sentence, he casually played a game with a fellow prisoner. When the executioner came down to take him from his cell, Canus simply got up and said, “You will testify that I was one piece ahead” and then went off to his death. As he waited to die, he saw his weeping friends. “Why are you sorrowful?” he said. “You ask if souls are immortal: I shall soon know.” Seneca, for his part, received a similar sentence. As his friends and family wept around him, he joked, “Who here is surprised at Nero’s cruelty?”There are many other such lines in the history of Stoicism. Theodorus was threatened not only with death but a particularly undignified one. “‘You have the right to please yourself,’ Seneca relates of Theodorus’ last words, “‘and the power to take half a pint of my blood; for as far as burial is concerned, what a simpleton you are, if you think it matters to me whether I rot above or below ground!’” Even in the American Revolution, lines like “I regret I have but one life to give for my country,” were directly inspired by the Stoics—in fact, they were cribbed from the play Cato, which was extremely popular at the time. In his essay on heroism, Emerson would comment, “that which takes my fancy most in the heroic class, is the good-humor and hilarity they exhibit.” He quotes this passage from a famous 17th century play:Jul: Why, slaves, 'tis in our power to hang ye. Master: Very likely, 'Tis in our powers, then, to be hanged, and scorn ye.Another badass line for sure. The ultimate victory then is not just to be unafraid of being challenged or beaten. It’s to transcend the situation—to so keep our wits about us in the moment that we can even joke about it. To find humor in even the darkest and worst of situations. And when humor doesn’t suffice for the situation, we can instead stand calmly yet defiant in the face of Fate.
In his essay Of Clemency, Seneca tells a story of a time Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, had his temper severely tested. Augustus receives intelligence that a man named Lucius Cinna was conspiring against him. Augustus summoned a council of close friends to consult on his plan to have Cinna executed. When the group agreed unanimously against Augustus’s retaliation scheme, he blew a fuse, racked equally with anger and fear.His ranting and screaming met only silence from the group he gathered, broken only by more ranting and screaming. Finally, Augustus’s wife intervened: “Will you take a woman’s advice? Do what doctors do when the usual prescriptions have no effect: try the opposite remedies. Strictness has gotten you nowhere...Now try and see how far clemency gets you: forgive Lucius Cinna. He’s been caught and now can do you no harm, though he can do your reputation some good.”Augustus thanked his wife, called the meeting adjourned, and summoned Cinna to make amends. Cinna became Augustus’s “most grateful and loyal adherent,” Seneca reports. “And no one ever again formed any plot against him.”Even if you never find yourself the ruler of an empire or the target of a murder plot, this advice applies to so many circumstances. “What assistance can we find in the fight against habit?” Epictetus asked. Then answered, “Try the opposite!” Viktor Frankl liked to cure neurotic patients with a method called “paradoxical intention.” For insomnia, for instance, instead of standard therapies, his cure for the patient was to focus on not falling asleep. Whether the enemy is a conspirator, a bad habit, or trouble falling asleep, sometimes the best course of action, the best remedy, is to do the last thing they (or it) would ever expect you to do. Break the pattern. Try the opposite.
When you listen to people talk about choices they regret, whether it was working for the guy who put on Fyre Fest or joining a gang or a cult, it’s remarkable how much it comes down to wanting to impress someone. Not their friends, not other people, but one person—usually the leader. That’s the theme in Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress, for example. Over and over again, he reveals how badly he wanted the approval of Donald Trump. He wanted to be at the center of it. He wanted to be indispensable. He was willing to do just about anything to achieve it. And now he’s in jail. Seneca’s story is similar. He started off as Nero’s tutor, but as Nero became emperor and grew more and more powerful, it’s hard not to see how the dynamic shifted. Seneca remained in service to this deranged ruler, doing his bidding, helping him with things he knew were wrong. Why? He likely told himself that he needed Nero to like and trust him so that he would be able to temper his worst impulses and steer him toward goodness. That was part of it. But also, he must have enjoyed the power and influence. He liked knowing that he was needed by the most powerful man in the world. It was a costly bargain, one that destroyed Seneca’s reputation and, in the end, took his life. If only he could have remembered his own advice, it would have helped him snap out of it—“The favor of ignoble men can be won only by ignoble means,” Seneca had written. Yet that’s precisely where his job took him. We should learn from all of these examples. There is no way to work for bad people without becoming at least a little bit like them. There is no way to not be discombobulated by the reality distortion fields of these types, and this, as James Comey recently explained, is the first step in the slippery slope of corruption. We must be very careful about who we work for, who we associate with, and who we try to impress. Because it puts into motion a process that once begun is impossible to stop...and rarely ends well.
There’s an old joke: When the Gods wish to punish us, they give us everything we’ve ever wanted. Look at most people who win the lottery. Look at most famous people. Look at most world leaders. To borrow an expression from one particularly unhappy world leader, what do they look like? They look like they’re tired of winning. Because winning isn’t actually as fun as it seemed like it would be...and most of what we want to win turns out to not really be worth it.This was Marcus Aurelius’ point. When we look at history and other people, it’s hard not to see “how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” But what if you don’t realize that yourself? Or rather, what if you don’t realize that the presidency or a billion dollars isn’t that meaningful until after you’ve given up everything for it? After you’ve traded your marriage or your principles or your youth to get it?"Now you're free of illusions," says a character in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. "How does it feel to be free of one's illusions?" The protagonist can only answer, "Painful and empty." In this way, we are almost lucky not to get everything we want, to not be allowed our trivial passionate yearnings. Because we are allowed to continue in ignorance. We don’t have to do the hard work on ourselves, and really look in the mirror. Of course, this is what a philosopher does all the time. Instead of hiding behind luck’s protection, or instead of continuing to lie to themselves that more, more, more will make them happy, they actually probe themselves. They question their desires. They look into the future and ask, “What would happen if all my dreams did come true? Why would I suddenly be happy then? Why can’t I be happy now instead?”
Very few people, if they’re being honest, would want their kids to grow up to be like Donald Trump. And that includes the folks who had perfectly good reasons for voting for him and hope he will be a successful Republican president. Donald Trump is rich, sure, but he’s also vain. He’s mean. He’s paranoid and says cruel things for the fun of it. He wears being uninformed like a badge of honor (I brief myself, he once said), and he cheats on his wi(ves) and lies. A lot. And if the reports on his taxes are even half true, he’s actually not a particularly great businessman, having lost so much money year after year that were it not for the largesse of his father and the extreme negligence of the IRS and the media, he would probably be living under a bridge or in a jail cell. That he is president--a job that looms large in so many people’s daily lives--concerns many parents. What should I tell my kid about this? What do I teach them about what they’re seeing on the news? (Again, let’s focus on the fact that this is a problem shared by all parents, even the ones who have decided his personal vices are worth trading for important policy gains). The Stoics have a lot to say about this, because they too lived under imperfect politicians as well as amidst corruption and excess. Seneca saw his share of Donald Trumps (and worked as best he could with them.) Epictetus was exiled from Rome by a paranoid and petty emperor. Marcus Aurelius himself battled with the corrosive effects of power on his own person. The Stoics also looked regularly at history to study these types. They didn’t simply bury their head in the sand, they weren’t naive. They knew that aggression and ego and insatiableness was a combination often found in kings. Their writings reflect all of this—warnings against avarice, instruction to avoid capriciousness and greed, reminders of how easily we can fall into the same patterns ourselves. “Robbers, perverts, killers and tyrants,” Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself, “gather for your inspection their so-called pleasures!” He wanted to learn from Nero, and even from Hadrian whom he had both admiration and disgust for, and to never follow in their footsteps. One suspects he spent a lot of time instructing his children about this as well. He wanted them to know that being a Donald Trump is no fun, even if it does make you rich or famous or feared. That as a story, it might seem impressive for a while, but inevitably the end is never pretty. Marcus’s own son Commodus didn’t heed this lesson and became proof of its universal truth. But at least he was warned. And so too should every young person thinking about what kind of person they want to end up being.
The great Athenian statesman Pericles once explained to his people that being a great naval power was not some hobby. It was the key to their survival. “Seamanship is an art,” he said, “just like anything else, and you cannot merely practice it ‘on the side’ whenever you feel like it. To the contrary, it leaves you no room for side pursuits.” The Stoics believed philosophy was the same. That self-improvement and the pursuit of wisdom was not this extra thing we did with our spare time when we were finished working or putting our kids down to bed. No, it was the main thing. Everything else was the hobby. That was Seneca’s line (which we talked about in March): “Devote yourself wholly to philosophy. You are worthy of her; she is worthy of you; greet one another with a loving embrace. Say farewell to all other interests with courage and frankness. Do not study philosophy merely during your spare time.”And what was true in March was true in the first century AD when he wrote it, and it’s an important reminder again here today. If someone with a great track record had a great investment opportunity for you, you’d clear your schedule and seriously research it. If you got the call you’ve been waiting for, the one that would let you pursue your dream career, you’d do anything to say yes. You’d quite everything else. But wisdom seems less urgent. Less important. Something you can get around to later, if you so choose. No. If the end goal is happiness, strength in adversity, perspective, virtue—the kinds of traits you see in the people you truly admire—then philosophy has to be the priority, not the side hustle. It has to be the main thing. Everything else can come after, if there is even room.
The Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck thought the tug between good and evil was a necessary contradiction of human nature. There is no better demonstration of his world view than East of Eden. As Steinbeck wrote to a friend, “I finished my book a week ago...I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is ‘the book.’”It is from the character Lee, the Chinese immigrant housekeeper, that Steinbeck delivers the novel’s main theme: timshel—“thou mayest”—the Hebrew belief in our power to choose between good and bad. Lee offers sage-like advice throughout the novel, including this beautiful monologue on what it means to be human:“We’re a violent people, Cal...Maybe it’s true, that we are all descendants of the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers, and brawlers. But also the brave, and independent, and generous....We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed—selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful—we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic—and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? That’s what we are, Cal — all of us. You aren’t very different.” Epictetus said that our “most efficacious gift,” what distinguishes humans from other animals, the essence of human nature, is the faculty of choice. Each person has the choice to be good or bad, to love or hate, to be strong or weak, brave or cowardly. Marcus Aurelius’s writings are, in a sense, his wrestling with making the right choices. They are his attempt to answer the incredibly difficult question he had been confronted with as a result of circumstances he didn’t choose: You have been made emperor, what kind of emperor will you be? What kind of person will you be?“I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil,” Marcus wrote, “and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own.” We have good and evil, beauty and ugliness, in each of us. The question today is which are you going to choose to lean toward? What are you going to choose to cultivate? The choice is yours.And the answer is everything.
Fabius was one of Ancient Rome’s great generals, though he was not the bold, reckless type that usually gets all the attention in history books. No, he was the cautious type. He was strategic and reserved. He preferred to let enemies defeat themselves more than anything else. He was far less exciting than his most famous counterparts, but without him, Rome almost certainly would have been defeated by Hannibal in the 200s BCE. In the book Of Anger, Seneca draws on Fabius to teach a lesson from war that every citizen and leader and business person should be familiar with: “Fabius used to say that the basest excuse for a commanding officer is ‘I didn’t think it would happen,’ but I say it’s the basest for anyone. Thinking everything might happen; anticipate everything.”When the Stoics talk about the exercise of premeditatio malorum, that’s what they’re trying to train into you. To make sure you’re not surprised by the twists and turns of life, or by the moves of the enemy. Because there is no excuse.But what about black swans? you say. True black swans are rare. They have never happened before. That is what makes them black swans. Most of what we are unprepared for are not those kind of freak occurrences. Look at Fabius’s quote closely: To say “I didn’t think it would happen,” means you’re already aware of the possibility and have dismissed it. When that happens, it’s not bad luck—it’s ego come home to roost. We must keep our eyes open. We must consider all the potential consequences, even the unlikely or the unusual or the unintended ones. We must be ready. Fortune behaves as she pleases. So do our opponents. Don’t be surprised. There’s no excuse...except that you haven’t been doing your work.
It is certainly true that people can do some awful things to each other. We hear of a trusted representative who is stealing from their clients. We hear of a man who has been leading a second life, even starting a second family. We hear of a woman who commits an unspeakable crime. These gross violations of morality and law do exist. They are things we would never do, we’d never even consider doing them. However, the truth is that most of the wrongs committed day to day are done by ordinary people in ordinary ways. Even most of the wrongs done to us are not done with any particular malice, but instead stem from ignorance or fatigue or simple selfishness. Moreover, most of them are mistakes we have made ourselves in the distant or not so distant past. As Seneca writes:“A good look at ourselves will make us more temperate if we ask…‘Haven’t we ourselves also done something like that? Haven’t we gone astray in the same way? Does condemning these things really benefit us?’”When we realize that more errors are relatable and human, we are more likely to understand and forgive. We will not take personally a slight or a screw-up we have been guilty of ourselves—because we remember that when we did it, it was not personal or even intentional. When we recall how dumb we were when we were young, we won’t be so quick to judge the generation coming after us. When we consider all the current beliefs we will be judged for by that generation, perhaps we can be a little more tolerant of the older generation in front of us. We’ve all messed up. We will all continue to mess up. Does it really benefit us—is it really fair—to go around condemning people for mistakes we’ve made ourselves? For going astray as we have gone astray?No. It doesn’t.
Getting angry is not a good look. We know this because we see how ugly other people look when they get mad. How childish they seem. How pathetic their gesticulations look, how badly they seem to need our attention. We see how much it undermines their point too—we see their anger and think, “They are acting this way because it’s the only way they hope to win the argument.” We might even worry about someone’s health when we see their anger, fearing that they might have a heart attack. Seneca, referencing a thought from the philosopher Sextius, writes, “it has often been useful to angry people to look in a mirror. The great transformation in themselves has disturbed them; they have no longer recognized themselves, yet how little of their true deformity was displayed in the image reflected in the mirror.”Spot on. Yet, like so many things we are critical of, it’s rare that we apply this gaze back at ourselves. Notice Seneca doesn’t describe how his anger looks in the mirror. In fact, almost nowhere in his essay, Of Anger, does he discuss his own temper and the problems it has caused him. Your job today is to look in the mirror. To think about how unflattering anger is on you, how much it transforms and deforms you when you allow it to take hold. Anger is not a good look on other people, which makes it very unlikely that it is a good look on you. So don’t waste any more time thinking about their bad fashion choices. Fix your own.
A few weeks ago, a horse at The Preakness threw its jockey right out of the gate and kept running. Like really kept running. It ran the whole race twice! For a few seconds there during its first go-round, it was a real contender in the race. It’s actually not that uncommon for horses to complete a race without their rider, and sometimes even nearly win—a fact that must humble all jockeys. Life is full of examples like this. Monkeys randomly picking stocks will often outperform the market. Index funds beat world class hedge fund managers almost more than average. Warren Buffett made and won a decade-long bet to this effect: putting his money on a boring, low-cost stock index fund outperforming a collection of hedge funds. The lesson of these little oddities is in their lack of oddness. Marcus Aurelius took pains to remind himself just how common he was, just how many emperors came before him and would come after. Surely he must have noted to himself that if Hadrian hadn’t chosen him, somebody else would have filled in. If he had worked less hard or retreated from Rome, like his predecessor Tiberius, life would have carried on without him and history would have been only imperceptibly different. The same goes for us. Yes, it’s wonderful that you’re here. Yes, you’re very talented and good at what you do. But also...you’re just not that important. Even the very best of us are just tiny dots on the graph, and we’re all replaceable. Like those jockeys, we’re all riding on the backs of horses that are doing most of the work. We all have the wind of progress pushing us forward, we’re all just one of many people capable of helping things along. Let this humble you a little. Let it help you take things a little less seriously. Don’t let it stop you from trying, of course, but allow it to erase your ego when you start to think you’ve got this thing beat.
Traveling—that itch to get away, to hit the road, to see the world—feels like a distinctly modern craze. Yet it was common in Ancient Rome for people to escape the heat and the frenzy of the bustling city to get away for some time in the countryside. It is likely that those excursions influenced Marcus Aurelius’s belief in sympatheia—the belief in mutual interdependence among everything in the universe, that we are all one.Marcus Aurelius liked to say that he wasn’t a citizen of Rome, but of the world. Matt Kepnes, or better known as “Nomadic Matt,” quite literally is a citizen of the world. Matt spent a decade living out of a backpack, traveling the world. He captures the journey and everything it taught him in Ten Years A Nomad, which released this week. In our interview with Matt for DailyStoic.com, we were curious to find out if—given all the different cultures he’s lived in and the people he’s met—it’s been his experience that we really aren’t all that different from each other. Matt said:People really are the same everywhere. Interacting with people, watching them commute, pick up laundry, go grocery shopping, and do all the other everyday things you did back home—you really internalize the idea that, fundamentally, we all just want the same things: to be happy, to be safe and secure, to have friends and family who love us. The how of what we do is different but the why of what we do is universal. This is true not only right now, but it’s true for the past and the future. Humans are humans are humans—for good and for bad. How much better a place would the world be if we could all remember this? If the Stoic concept of sympatheia was never far from our minds (it’s why we created a reminder of it to carry in your pocket)? Certainly we'd get along better, collaborate better, and be more understanding of each other. If you’ve done any bit of traveling, Matt’s answer likely reminds you of your own experiences of being far from home but finding comfort in realizing that the people are just like you. Doing their best. Just wanting to feel happy, safe and secure, loved—and around the people who put them there the most. That is universal.
Evan Thomas, in his incisive and humanizing biography of Richard Nixon, asks a penetrating question: How many great men of history were truly self-aware? Nixon surely wasn’t. Bill Clinton, caught red-handed—or rather, blue-dressed—philandering in the White House, surely wasn’t either. All one has to do is watch the video from his grand jury testimony, where he sought to litigate the definition of the word “is,” for evidence of that fact. Few presidents have been self-aware. In a way, the job selects against it: The kind of person who thinks they deserve to be the most powerful person in the country—or in the world—isn’t usually the one who stops and thinks critically about themselves. Marcus Aurelius had a little bit of an advantage. He didn’t exactly choose to be emperor. It was thrust upon him. He knew he was a regular person—not a god—and this allowed him to escape what he called imperialization, being changed by the office. And still, Marcus, like all of us, struggled with self-awareness. Surely his trusted advisors talked privately amongst themselves about his flaws, and had to try to work around his ego, or convince him not to react emotionally or personally to things, in order to do what was best for the empire. The battle for self-awareness is an endless one. The ability to step back and see yourself from a distance, to analyze your own flaws and weaknesses, to understand your own motivations? This is not only not easy, it’s basically not natural. We were given—cursed with—all sorts of biases and blind spots that work against self-knowledge on a daily basis. Yet we must continue to aim for self-awareness, at knowing ourselves as fully as possible. Nixon’s lack of self-awareness might have helped him become president, but it also cut his second term painfully short. Marcus undermined his own legacy with his persecution of the Christians and his helplessness when it came to choosing a successor. And so will we destroy ourselves and undermine our own legacy if we are not always working to understand ourselves better, to question our biases, and to look at ourselves...objectively.
Seneca was a very rich man. He had nice stuff. Critics at the time, and ever since, have found this to be indisputable proof of his hypocrisy. How can a Stoic have expensive ivory tables? Isn’t it unphilosophical to have multiple houses? Or servants?In Seneca’s view, the answer was no. Nobody said that Stoicism meant a vow of poverty, or needless deprivation. As he wrote, “Philosophy calls for plain living, not for penance...our lives should observe a happy medium between the ways of the sage and the ways of the world at large.” Plain living is, to a certain degree, relative. A $100 steak dinner to one person is an insane luxury. To a person with a much larger salary and in a different social setting, having dinner at that same restaurant might be an unassuming and convenient choice (especially if all their friends are chasing reservations somewhere fancier and even more expensive). That Mercedes they bought with cash, that is both really safe and gets great gas mileage, might actually be plainer living than it is for the person of more modest means who is driving a brand new Nissan on a no-money-down lease (when really they ought to be taking the train). Stoicism is not, as Seneca said, a form of self-flagellation. It’s about responsibility and sobriety. It’s possible to be sober and rich, just as it’s possible to be middle class and reckless. You only live once. Money is earned to be spent. Just make sure you’re spending it smartly and philosophically. And living, as best you can, plainly.
So much has happened in the past. We’ve messed up. We’ve been hurt. We’ve missed opportunities and we’ve embarrassed ourselves. So much can happen in the future, as well. Not only can all those same mistakes happen again, but we also have to contend with the uncertainty of the weather, the economy, family obligations, and politics—all of which loom in front. It’s amazing that anyone can get anything done with all that occupying their mind. Indeed, that’s sort of the point the Stoics were trying to make. They knew that a person busy kicking themselves over what has happened in the past, or biting their nails over what might happen in the future, is a person who is not busy with life. It’s a person who is not able to be philosophical, productive, or present. As Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself—and by extension, to us:“Remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.”We have to limit our focus. And the key is to focus on what is immediately in front of you. Don’t be paralyzed by the past or intimidated by the future. Don’t be distracted by them either. Even the troubles on your plate can be minimized if you break them into smaller pieces—don’t worry about the big, busy “day” you have to get through, just get through the morning. Just get through the first item on your to-do list.And if your mind wanders, if you start to get distracted, say to yourself, “C’mon. I’m better than this. I’m just going to focus on what’s in front of me. That’s plenty.” That’s what Marcus meant by heaping shame, after all. So get out there and get after it!
While we all hold up humility as an admirable trait, we’re not always sure it can get us to the goals we aspire to. We look at a Kanye West or a Donald Trump or a Steve Jobs and think: sure that person’s an egomaniac, but ego was clearly critical to their success. Success often comes with this temptation—to mythologize, to excuse, to gloss over the consequences and the difficulties. Rivers Cuomo achieved exactly what he always wanted. The frontman for Weezer was the bonafide rockstar he dreamed of being—sold out crowds, mansions in Beverly Hills, assistants catering to his every wish, groupies, parties, fame. You might have said he had it all. Except while Cuomo “had it all,” his band members didn’t talk to him and he hated the music he was making. Producer Rick Rubin called Weezer one of the most dysfunctional groups he’s ever worked with. Cuomo was steeped in, as he put it, a “life of ego and vice.” But it got him to where he wanted to go. Unlike most disillusioned egomaniacs, when Cuomo came out on the other side he was vocal about dispelling the myth that success necessitates ego:“I needed to stop being that person...It took awhile for me to realise this—an ego is the biggest menace to a songwriter. It can destroy you. It takes away your ability to step outside of yourself, which I feel is important if you want to make music that means something to people.”The Stoics said that hubris—ego by its other name—was the ultimate enemy. That “it can ruin your life,” Marcus would say, because “it ruins your character.” Again, even if it might make you successful in the meantime. To the Stoics, humility and self-awareness are not only stronger, but better and more virtuous. That’s why ego must be conquered. For our art, for our happiness, for the sake of the world. We must remember that you become great by stripping yourself of pretenses and ego. You can have a stadium full of fans, but if your band members hate you, how great, how successful are you? And how long is it likely to last? How can you make anything that matters to other people if the only thing that matters to you is yourself? When you step outside yourself, when you put things bigger and more important than yourself first, when you see ego for the menace it is--for the enemy that it is—you will be great and do great.
In the Book of Matthew, we are told of the parable of the talents. Three servants are left sums of money (talents) by their master. The first, who the master believed was most able, doubled his five talents into ten. The second was given two and used it to earn two more. The third was more cautious and less ambitious, and simply buried his in the ground. When the master came back, he was able to return the money, but he had not managed to produce anything from it. As you might expect, the master was quite pleased with the labors of his first two servants and rewarded them accordingly. But with the conservative and cautious one, he was quite upset. Why hadn’t he invested the money? Even the return from a banker would have been better than burying it. So he punished the servant and uttered, in the process, two of the most famous sentences in the Bible: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”The lesson that scholars and priests have taken ever since: That we are obligated to make use of the gifts we have been given by God, or by nature--whichever you prefer. It’s almost fitting that “talent” was the name for an amount of money because that’s what the parable is about: about using our talents in this life. Now here’s where this ties into Stoicism. Although we don’t know when the parable dates to, or whether it was even real, St. Matthew and Seneca were born around the same time and died roughly ten years apart. Jesus and Seneca were said to be born in the same year, and died in very similar circumstances. Of the three, Seneca was given the greatest gifts and talents. His father was quite wealthy. He was born with a brilliant mind. By all accounts, he worked very hard to make the most of these gifts, and multiplied them many times over. In short, he lived up not just to the lesson in the parable of talents, but to his own advice, as well. As he wrote in Letter XIV:“We should play the part of the careful householder; we should increase what we have inherited.” Yes, we should.
You’ve probably caught yourself doing it. Life has been rough or depressing, but your social media feed looks awesome. Someone asks how much money you make or how sales on your project were, and you round up quite a bit. Or maybe you’re similarly generous when you talk about your sexual conquests, or commensurately stingy with your weight. Obviously this sort of deceit is not a good thing and we should all try to stop doing it. But what’s interesting is how, when we compare ourselves to other people, we rarely stop to consider that they are probably lying too. You think those Instagram influencers actually live like their photos look? You think it’s not in their financial interest to make their career seem more lucrative and stable than it actually is? And yet, there we are, feeling envious or insecure. You think it’s good business for your competitors to talk about how much trouble they’re having lately? You think that athletes and CEOs are actually working that grinding schedule they talk so much about? That it’s not just basic mythmaking or a way of psyching out the competition? You think that artist or actor in the middle of a whirlwind press junket is going to admit that they’re not happy? Or shoot down the wildly inflated rumors of how much they got paid? Of course not!Marcus Aurelius talked about how even though we are all selfish people, we seem to care about other people’s opinions more than our own. We know that we are prone to exaggeration and posturing, but we seem to have a blindspot for the fact that everyone else is doing this too. It’s like the Missile Gap that John F. Kennedy campaigned on. He just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that the Soviets were lying, that their system was falling apart and they weren’t ahead of the US, but were laughably behind!We’d all do better and be happier if we realized that this kind of deceit is incredibly common. Everyone is lying—about what they make, about how confident they feel, about how hard they work, about how well things are going. Stop comparing yourself to these lies. Stop thinking about them at all. Focus on your own truth.
The Stoics were not unacquainted with awful people. They saw tyrants. They saw cheats. They saw toxic egomaniacs and insatiable ambitions. And what was their reaction to most of these people?Aside from a general wariness and a desire not to be corrupted by them, mostly the Stoics pitied these types. Certainly this is how Marcus Aurelius wrote about someone like Alexander the Great. He almost seemed sad for him. Like, dude, how did you think this was going to end? Did you think conquering the world was going to make you happy? Did you actually think that fame and glory would fill that hole in your soul?There is a wonderful encapsulation of this attitude in the 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (who, if his later novels are any indication, was familiar with Marcus’s writing). In Sammy, the screenwriter Kit questions the anger and animus directed at Sammy Glick, a hopelessly ambitious producer who constantly hurts and betrays everyone he works with in the pursuit of his goals. Speaking of how they might react to someone with polio, she says:“We’re sorry for him because a germ he didn’t have anything to do with got inside him and twisted him out of shape. Maybe we ought to feel the same way about guys with twisted egos.” Which is a remarkably wise and philosophical attitude. Egomaniacs don’t make it easy for us to pity them. Neither do tyrants or cheats. Especially when their success comes at our expense. But the truth is, they can’t help themselves. And it’s not any fun to be them. Not at all. P.S. Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday is $.99 on Amazon right now for a very limited time. If you want to check it out, or give it as a gift, it’ll never be cheaper than that.And along with the Amazon discount, you can get $6 off our Ego Is The Enemy medallion with the code “EGOCOIN” AND $10 off Ego Is The Enemy print with the code “EGOPRINT” at checkout in the Daily Stoic store.
In 2006, Benjamin Mee bought a zoo. Literally a zoo. It was broken down and in desperate need of a caring owner. Mee and his family were struggling too. Things hadn’t been going well for them either. But in one scene—immortalized by Matt Damon in the movie version of the story—Mee explains to his son that our lives are defined by the moments when we put ourselves out there. When we take a risk that, if we had thought about too much or been too deliberate about, we’d never have been capable of taking.“You know,” he said, “sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”This idea of breaking courage down—the most important of the virtues to the Stoics—into little pieces is a very good one. A person isn’t brave, generally. We can only be brave, specifically. In the moment. This is as true for you or me or Benjamin Mee’s son as it is for the hardest, most decorated soldiers who have ever served in the military.The two highest honors in the U.S. military are the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. The criteria for being worthy of either of these medals is virtually identical, but what distinguishes the former from the latter is this phrase in the description: “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” And if you read the citations for many Medal of Honor recipients, particularly in more recent conflicts, they are choked with heroism and selflessness like those for Distinguished Service Cross recipients, but the moment in the action that changes everything, that rises to the level of gallantry and intrepidity, is almost always just a moment. It’s not the fighting off of 12 insurgents for 5 hours— it’s the sprinting across an open plain for 20 seconds, exposed to enemy gunfire on three sides, to come to the aid of a fallen comrade, while you fight. Just literally twenty seconds of insane, embarrassing bravery. That’s what courage is. Marcus Aurelius wrote that we shouldn’t be intimidated by life as a whole. We should just look at what’s immediately in front of us. Assemble yourself step by step, he said, no one can stop you from that. That’s the brilliance of this twenty seconds of insane courage too. Even your own fears and your own weaknesses take longer than that to kick in. Think about that today as you consider whether to get up and approach that attractive person across the room. As you’re mulling over that big decision. As you’re questioning whether you should speak up or just go along with something you disagree with. Don’t get intimidated by all of it as a whole. Just take that single step. Give yourself a few seconds of courage. Something great will come of it. Promise.
It’s very easy to get comfortable. To build up your life exactly how you want it to be. Minimize inconveniences and hand off the stuff you don’t like to do. To find what you enjoy, where you enjoy it, and never leave. A velvet rut, is what it’s called. It’s nice, but the comfort tricks you into thinking that you’re not stuck. The Stoics knew that this was a kind of death. That as soon as we stop growing, we start dying. Or at least, we become more vulnerable to the swings of Fate and Fortune. Seneca talked over and over again about the importance of adversity, of not only embracing the struggle life throws at us but actively seeking out that difficulty, so you can be stronger and better and more prepared. A person who has never been challenged, he said, who always gets their way, is a tragic figure. They have no idea what they are capable of. They are not even close to fulfilling their potential. So that leaves you with something to think about today: Are you challenging yourself? Do the choices you make push you or do they help you atrophy? Are you in a velvet rut?Be honest. And then challenge yourself to do better.
The fact that America exists is the ultimate argument that Stoicism is not apathy and that philosophy is not mere theory. Because without Stoicism, it’s possible there would have been no revolution, no Constitution, no Bill of Rights and no Fourth of July. Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of Seneca on his nightstand. George Washington staged a reproduction of a play about Cato at Valley Forge in the winter of ‘77/’78 to inspire the troops (having first read the Stoics as a teenager). Patrick Henry cribbed lines from that same play which we now credit to him: “Give me Liberty or give me death!” John Adams, Ben Franklin—almost all the founders were well-versed in the works of the Stoics. It’s partly what gave them the courage to found a new nation against such incredible odds, and it’s partly what set up the principles that formed that nation and changed the world. At the core of the American experiment was liberty. At the core of Stoicism we have not only a love of freedom, but the counterbalancing virtues to that freedom: Justice. Duty. Self-Control. Honor. Selflessness. These are the traits that were required not only in those dark days of revolution, as bloody footprints from starving soldiers marked the snows in New Jersey and New York, but also the traits needed equally now in moments of prosperity and plenty, division and distraction.So today, while you’re grilling and relaxing with friends, remember that the comfort you enjoy now grew out of a philosophy that was made to embrace discomfort and to do the right thing, whatever the costs. Remember that the American victory over the British came first because a group of American Stoics first found victory over themselves. Because for all their Stoic resignation, these men and women also deeply believed in their own agency and their own power. Seneca said, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” The Founding Fathers built a country on that very foundation. They employed the Stoic virtues like a hammer and chisel, like saw and nail, to master their passions, divisions, tempers, interests and strive to be something better—something more—than they were remotely capable of being in the years of their colonial youth.That wasn’t easy. It wasn’t free. But they embraced the challenge and challenge us, today, to do the same.
Unlike so many of the other philosophical schools, the Stoics were doers. The Epicureans might have been content to play in their gardens and the Cynics might have believed that most of the obligations of society were a scam, but the Stoics were responsible and public-minded. Marcus Aurelius lead the empire. Seneca was a writer and a political advisor and he ran the many estates his family owned. These were busy people. But they also understood the importance of work-life balance, and were early practitioners of what the author Greg McKeown calls essentialism. They worked hard, but they knew it was impossible and self-defeating to try to do it all. As Seneca wrote: “We will benefit from that helpful precept of Democritus, showing us that tranquility lies in not undertaking tasks, either in public or private, that are either numerous or greater than our resources.”Each of us needs to take the time to set our priorities straight and to understand our limits. What’s the most important thing in our lives? What’s the next most important thing? What are we going to say no to so we can focus on those things? What are we going to say no to (or yes to) in order to protect our personal happiness and peace? The key isn’t to always do more, more, more, but sometimes to do less so that we can do more of what we care most about.P.S. “If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential,” Marcus said. We set up the Daily Stoic Freedom Challenge to help you do just that—21 actionable challenges to help you do less and do it better. Learn more and sign up here!
If you were to run down the list of the great Stoics of history, who would come to mind?Seneca. Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus. Maybe if you really knew your stuff, you’d mention Zeno or Cleanthes or Chrysippus. What do all those people have in common? They were all men. In fact, you really have to look—and stretch—to come up with even one or two “accepted” female Stoics. Does this mean that Stoicism is just for men? Or that it’s been entirely composed of men for the last twenty five hundred years? Do you think Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and the male Stoics had a monopoly on suffering? On courage? On mastering emotions? On being disappointed? Of having to make due with an imperfect world? No. Not at all. It’s an omission that needs to be addressed. When the biographer Robert Caro was researching what life in Texas was like in the late 19th and early 20th century, he and his wife were appalled by what they found. Just how primitive and tough things were. Most of all, how much backbreaking work was expected of women—doing loads of laundry by hand, carrying endless amounts of water, cooking so much food in such incredible heat, fear of Native Americans, the terrible loneliness and isolation. After speaking to one woman, his wife, Ena, finally said, “I don’t ever want to see another John Wayne movie again.” She was just disgusted at how much of the picture had been left out by historians and writers. Robert Caro would write later about how much this experience opened his eyes: “You hear a lot about gunfights in Westerns; you don’t hear so much about hauling the water after a perineal tear.” Women have had to deal with trials like these as much as, if not more than, the famous Stoics we read and talk about so much here. Certainly, they had to put up with being underappreciated, misunderstood, taken for granted, and being deprived of many critical rights. They did all that on top of having to give birth…and know that they might well die going into it. The fact that they did this, along with countless other sacrifices and daily obligations, and did so bravely and patiently for so long is proof that they are true Stoics. And not only do they deserve our respect for it—but they have a thing or two to teach everyone else about what focusing only on what you can control really looks like.
Twice, Seneca was exiled. Twice, he basically lost everything. Money. Access. Influence. It all went away, like *that.* How did he handle it? The first time, not so well. We can read the thou-dost-protest-too-much letter he wrote to his mother...and we can see what he was willing to do in order to be recalled. By Stoic standards, it wasn’t pretty. The second time, he did a little better—as long as he could be free from Nero, the exile was worth the loss. And when he was approached by Nero’s executioner, he responded, finally, with courage and strength. Only then were the man and his philosophy aligned. “It is a vast kingdom to be able to cope without a kingdom,” Seneca wrote in his play, Thyestes. This was no mere word play. This was hard-won wisdom. Seneca really did know of what he spoke. He really did learn how to break free of the hold that material things and status had over him. And in it, he found both great power and, eventually, immortality. Another fellow traveler in Stoicism was the slave-turned-philosopher Publilius Syrus. “If you are to have a great kingdom,” he said, “rule over yourself!” That’s what we should think about today. Real power can’t be taken away—not by the economy or by an election or by anything else. A populist surfs on the moods of the crowd, but a philosopher—a person worthy of our respect—rests on principles. They can hate you, they can send you away, they can mock you or even kill you, but no one can take away those principles. No one can stop you from ruling over yourself. It’s the best and the biggest and the strongest kingdom there is.
King George IV was a notorious glutton. His breakfast supposedly consisted of two pigeons, three steaks, a near full bottle of wine, and a glass of brandy. In time, he grew so fat he could no longer sleep laying down, or the weight of his own chest might asphyxiate him. The gout in his hands made it difficult to sign documents — he eventually had his attendants make a stamp of his signature to use instead. Still, he managed to father several illegitimate children while generally neglecting the business of being a king. King George was the type of person who apparently believed that he was exempt from the rules of health and humankind. That his body could and would endure unlimited abuse without consequence. Indeed, his last words, when years of bad habits and lethargy finally caught up with him at 3:30am in 1860, were:“Good God, what is this?” Then he realized what it was. “My boy,” he said as he grasped the hand of a page, “this is death.” It was almost as if he was surprised to find out that he was mortal...and that treating his body like a garbage can for four decades had only hastened his fate. While the Stoics practiced the art of memento mori—and knew that death was something that could randomly visit anyone, at any time—they still took pains to maintain their health. Marcus Aurelius’s doctor was Galen, one of the most famous physicians of antiquity, and presumably Marcus didn’t keep him around to shorten his life. No, he wanted to survive and be as healthy and strong as possible while he was alive. Seneca, for his part, flirted with vegetarianism, and his letters are filled with mentions of various cures he was seeking for his health. The sports metaphors in Epictetus and Marcus’s work also hint at the idea of active, strenuous lives. Health is wealth. Taking care of yourself is important. What good can you do in this world if you feel like shit all the time? Or if you lack the physical and moral strength—or in George’s case, even the basic mobility—to be of good to anyone? We are on this planet for a short amount of time. But if we practice bad habits, if we let our urges run wild, we will surely shorten that time. That’s not Stoic, that’s stupid.
When we hear about an athlete who was doubted and kicked around, or an entrepreneur who ends up buying the previously dominant company that once spurned them, we assume anger must have been the fuel that powered their comeback. When we hear about someone who spent years working in secret to right some long forgotten wrong, we think, “Oh that person must have been really angry.”Think about the case of Peter Thiel, who spent ten years conspiring to take down the powerful gossip outlet, Gawker Media, after they outed him as gay. The knee jerk take from most critics, then and now, is that he should have let it go—that it’s not healthy to be that mad about anything.But what if anger wasn’t the only fuel out there?In his powerful essay, On Anger, Seneca pushes back on this idea that getting even requires getting mad:“‘Does a good man not get angry? Even if he watches his father get killed or his mother raped?’ He won’t get angry, but he’ll avenge them or he’ll protect them. Why are you afraid that duty alone, without anger’s help, will be too little motivation for him?…The good man will carry out his duties without fear or turmoil; he’ll act in a manner worthy of a good man, such that he’ll avoid doing nothing unworthy of a man. My father is being killed; I’ll defend him. He has been killed; I’ll avenge him—but because it’s right, not because I’m grieved…”This is essentially the argument in Conspiracy: A True Story of Power, Sex, and a Billionaire’s Secret Plot to Destroy a Media Empire (out today in paperback), which draws not only on Peter Thiel’s conspiracy but many historical and Stoic-driven conspiracies, like the plot to kill Julius Caesar and the failed Piso-conspiracy which ultimately cost Seneca his life.Indeed, there is a rich history of Stoics plotting to overthrow tyrants and other evil-doers. Did they do this out of anger? Or was it, at least in their eyes, the pursuit of one of their most revered virtues? Justice.Seneca said that we must pursue what is right—which might occasionally involve punishment or vengeance—calmly and rationally. That it was ok to plot and scheme for the right aims, provided it was done “judiciously and with foresight, not driven and raging.”This is a controversial argument, of course, and not everyone will agree. But it’s worth thinking about and it’s worth understanding. Because life isn’t all sunshine and kittens. It’s not Plato’s Republic, as Marcus Aurelius reminds us. People do bad things. Organizations do evil. We will be doubted or held back. And that will require a response—from us—if it’s going to be overcome.What is not controversial is that anger is not how to respond. But rather, with creativity, cunning, determination, courage and strategy. So study the greats, learn their lessons, good and bad.P.S. Ryan Holiday’s book Conspiracy: A True Story of Power, Sex, and a Billionaire’s Secret Plot to Destroy A Media Empire is out in paperback today. The New York Times called it “one helluva pageturner” so if you’re looking for something to read this summer, give it a look.
William Alexander Percy, the uncle of the great writer Walker Percy, and one of the last Southern Stoics, was a famous host. His mansion in Greenville, Mississippi welcomed many guests, including Robert Wright, Langston Hughes, and William Faulkner. He traveled widely, too, visiting Greece, Samoa, and Paris, and spent time in Belgium fighting in WWI. Will Percy loved to playfully and honestly interrogate the people he met with deep but shapeless questions that forced their recipients to really think. Questions like “What do you love?” or “What do you live by?” This was Will’s way of searching—to understand other people, to understand the world around him and, one can assume, to understand himself. These questions made a very deep impression on his young nephew, Walker, particularly when Will adopted him and his younger brothers after their mother’s death. Indeed, in Walker’s famous novel The Moviegoer, he has the wisest character of the book—based on Will—ask:What do you love? What do you live by? What do you think is the purpose of life?In a way, answers to these three questions are the essential quest of Stoicism too. It’s what Zeno began asking when he washed up in Athens after his shipwreck. It’s what Epictetus was prodding his students to think about and trying to answer with his responses. It’s what Marcus Aurelius was journaling about over and over again from every angle. And it’s what we should be thinking about and asking today. To other people sure, but mostly to ourselves. Because no one is going to magically explain these things to us. They can only show us the world, and help us see it. The rest we have to figure out on our own.
People do a lot of things that feel mean. That frustrate us. That cause problems for us. That make the world a worse place. They vote for bad politicians. They say offensive things. They make messes. They screw stuff up.Naturally, our first instinct is to get upset about this. To want to confront the perpetrators about it. To hold them fully accountable for the consequences of their behavior. But it’s worth stepping back and asking yourself first, are they really fully accountable?Consider, for instance, Hanlon’s Razor--the idea that one should “never attribute to malice what can easily be attributed to stupidity.” Meaning that most of the bad things people do are not done out of evil...but simple incompetence. Not everyone is as well-educated as you, not everyone was raised to be responsible like you were, not everyone is as talented as you, and it is in this gap that you can find the explanations to most errors, most bad driving, most of the litter you see on the street, and most of the wrongs you feel have been done to you. Remember, this is what Marcus was trying to say in the famous opening passage of Meditations. Yes, we will bump into obnoxious, self-centered, and rude people today. But it’s not because they’re bad or worth less than we are. It’s because they don’t yet know any better. Because they have been left behind and deprived. And if we can remember this, we won’t be so angered by it and it won’t ruin our day. It’s going to take all our patience and preparation to hold onto this, but it will be worth it.
We live in the freest time in the freest places in the history of the world. Yet many of us feel far from free. We are slaves to vices and devices, to our schedules and our poor self-talk. We’re reactive. We look at the world through the lens of other people’s vision for success, often in things we have no interest in. We are chained down in a prison of our own making and it’s high time for us to break out, to break free.But how? The answer comes from Marcus Aurelius and the fact that it came from such a busy man with so many obligations and responsibilities should not be forgotten:If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you‘ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’This, Marcus said, was the simple recipe for improvement, for happiness, for freedom. Simple, but of course, not easy. Which is why we’ve set up an awesome, transformative 21-day challenge to help you do less and do it better. The Daily Stoic Freedom Challenge will help you earn freedom from:-Minor decisions-Inner turmoil-Bad habits-Wasting time-Complaining-Distraction-Grudges-Smartphone addictionWe’re going to break down your days and rebuild them for freedom. To maximize your impact and bring you closer to living your best life.“The challenge is the best investment I’ve made for myself so far this year.”- Eric Hokanson. Past participant.Participants will get:✓ 21 Custom Challenges Delivered Daily (Over 25,000 words of all new original content)✓ 21 Custom Video Messages From Bestselling Author Ryan Holiday✓ Printable 21-Day Calendar With custom daily illustrations to track progress✓ Group Slack Channel For Accountability and Community✓ Day 21 Wrap-Up Live Webinar With Bestselling Author Ryan HolidaySo much of what we think we must do, so much of what we end up doing is not essential. We do it out of habit. We do it out of guilt. We do it out of laziness or we do it out of greedy ambition. And then we wonder why our performance suffers. We wonder why our heart isn’t really in it.If you could do less inessential stuff, you’d be able to better do what is essential. The Daily Stoic Freedom Challenge will help you rip off the chains of obligation to things that are inessential and bring a sense of tranquility and purpose to your life. You’ll get a taste of that tranquillity that Marcus was talking about. A double satisfaction.[Learn More Here]
Really what the Stoics were trying to do is pare down what they had to worry about. That’s why Epictetus said our first job was just to determine what was in our control and what isn’t—because that eliminates an enormous chunk of concern from our concern. Suddenly, we don’t need to think as much about the past or the future. We don’t have to care what people think about us. We don’t need to compare ourselves to anything and anyone.When Rousseau said that man is born free but lives in chains, he knew that most of those chains are self-imposed. But if we can study this philosophy, if we can hold our impressions up to the light and look at them—Does this matter? Is this up to me? Will getting angry or scared make this any better?—we can break free from those shackles.The payoff of this paring down of concerns is freedom. As Epictetus says, the fruit of the philosopher’s work is peace, courage, and above all, liberty. That’s why we’re doing this. So that we can reap the rewards inherent in wisdom.Wisdom—even a tiny bit—is perspective and priorities. And with that is freedom.
Virtue is one of those words that contains multitudes. If you think about it, being virtuous is not doing one thing all the time, or even lots of things all at once. It’s doing all the right things—the important things—in those moments when they matter most. Which is every moment. Day by day, It’s about taking the right actions and holding yourself to the highest standard. Needless to say, that’s really hard. Marcus Aurelius tried to do it all, all the time, but he also knew he was a flawed person. He knew he got overwhelmed (he joked to himself that no one could ever accuse him of being quick-witted). He knew that it was easy to fall short. So he had a little piece of advice for himself about how to stay on the right path. That advice was: Practice the virtues you can show. The public stuff. The stuff that was visible and obvious, that could be illustrated by actions instead of explanation. Virtues like:-honesty-gravity-endurance-austerity-resignation-abstinence-patience-sincerity-moderation-seriousness-high-mindednessThis is a good rule for us today. Yes, we want to be virtuous. We want to do it all. But why don’t we just start with doing the right things right now—with what we can show?
In Richard III and in Othello, Shakespeare has two different characters utter the same line. Both Iago and a nameless orphan say, “I cannot think it.”In both cases, the news they are faced with—the conclusion they are being asked to accept—is simply too much. The Shakespearean scholar, Richard Greenblatt, calls this phrase a kind of motto for those who can’t wrap their mind around perfidy. He’s not being condescending, for it’s a very common experience. Our naivete, our willingness to assume the best about others, leaves us open to betrayal and disillusionment.Which is why the Stoics spend so much time on this very topic. Marcus, for his part, opens Meditations with some musing on the reality of the types of people he’s going to meet in the days to come. But later in Meditations, he speaks about the kind of behavior you see in the boxing ring—gauging, headbutting, and low blows. We see this all the time in the sports world, as a matter of fact. NFL linemen who grease up their jersey so they can’t be grabbed. In NASCAR, they love to say “rubbin’ is racin’.” And then there’s the old saying, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”You have to anticipate this kind of behavior, Marcus says, you can’t take it personally. He talks about the inevitability of bumping up against shameless people and how to handle it. He spends time putting himself inside the minds of tyrants, robbers, and perverts—again, because these types exist and we must not be surprised or abused by them.When Seneca was sentenced to death by Nero, his family and friends began wailing in shock and horror. But Seneca was calm. “Who knew not Nero’s cruelty,” he told them. We can’t be surprised by this. Indeed, it was a brave and rational response—the only shame is that Seneca couldn’t have seen this coming earlier. If he had, perhaps he could have stopped the tyrant before he hurt so many people.The point being: This is not a philosophy for the weak or the cowardly. Stoicism is about facing the truth, about thinking about the unthinkable. Not just as it’s happening, but long before. Premeditatio malorum, which we’ve talked a lot about here (and make in coin form as a constant reminder) is the embodiment of that. Keep all the possibilities before you, including—especially—the bad ones. Keep your eyes open. Beware.Think it. Because you might be able to prevent it. And if you can’t, at least you’ll be able to handle the reality of its existence and then respond to it accordingly.
The best way to make sure you are always offended and upset is to be on the lookout for things to be offended by and upset about. The sharper your ears and eyes, the larger your dragnet for information, the more likely you are to find something that pisses you off. And yet this is what most of us do: We have Google Alerts for our names or our businesses. We check our @mentions on Twitter. We ask our friends, “Oh really, what does so-and-so say about me when I’m not around?” We’re like water-diviners with our ability to read tone and body language, able to sense even the slightest sign that we should dig into something. Of course we’re going to be angry! How could we not be?Seneca reminds us: “It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything. Many injuries ought to pass over us; if you ignore them, you get no more injury from them. You want to be less angry? Ask fewer questions.” He would have liked the piece of marriage advice that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always held close: "In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf." Because true in marriage, true in life: If you want to have less conflict, ask for it less. Forgive more. Stop trying to listen for things you don’t want to hear.
There is a certain archetype that is as old as literature and history themselves. One of the first times we see it in the West is with Cassandra in the Greek tragedies. She has the power to see into the future (she prophesied the fall of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon) but no one listens to her. Then we have Demosthenes, whose warnings against the rise of Phillip (Alexander the Great’s father) are so incessant that everyone hates him for it. Later on in Rome, Cato the Elder—Cato’s grandfather—was such a frequent (and ultimately prescient) critic and hawk when it came to Carthage, that he would play the same role. In fact, he would end every speech he gave, no matter the topic, no matter the occasion, with Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”). His grandson, Cato—the towering Stoic—would develop a similar reputation as a kind of obstinate truth-teller, even when it was inconvenient, even when it disturbed the peace, even when it made enemies, even when he was exhausted or knew he would be ignored. In all these cases, people just wanted them to let.it.go. Why do you have to be so annoying? Why can’t you be more strategic? Don’t you see you’re just pissing people off?All of which was legitimate criticism. Perhaps with a bit more tact and better awareness, these important messages could have been heard earlier or more receptively. Cato the Elder and Cato and Demosthenes seemed to almost be trying to alienate people with the way they spoke and hammered their message. But it’s important to understand the distinction between how you say something and how often you say it. Tone is one thing (to always be considered), timing is something else. “Waiting for the right moment.” “Trying to figure out the best way to say it.” “Not wanting to turn people off.” Those are timing issues that, more often than not, we lean on as excuses for avoiding one of the hardest things to do in the world: speaking an unpopular truth. Warning people about a reality they’d rather not deal with. Cicero, a contemporary of Cato (and an admirer of his grandfather), would quote this line of poetry: “Indulgence gets us friendsBut truth gets us hatred.”If we tell ourselves that our main job is to be a good messenger, we risk compromising our message. We end up leaving out important or unpleasant parts of the message, rounding off its sharp edges in the pursuit of fitting in instead of standing out so our message may be heard. We can end up going along to get along...even if the conclusions that come out of that are wrong. But if our job is to tell the truth—no matter what, no matter who it upsets or how unpopular it makes us—and we are committed to doing this as long as we have an ounce of blood in our bodies? Then no pesky considerations or compromises can stop us. And, hopefully, we can wake people up—as Winston Churchill did about Nazism—before it’s too late.
Nietzsche’s classic line was “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it true? Don’t people who were born with advantages do better in life? Isn’t it better not to suffer setbacks? Why would someone want to experience disadvantages or difficulties?Those questions were answered in a recent paper published by Cornell University. Researchers looked at RO1 grant application for the National Institutes of Health, focusing on individuals who just missed receiving funding (“near-misses”) and individuals who just succeeded in getting funded (“near-winners”). Comparing the two groups over the ten years following first submission, results found that near-misses produced work that garnered substantially higher impacts than their near-win counterparts. Researchers concluded,“For those who persevere, early failure should not be taken as a negative signal—but rather the opposite, in line with Shinya Yamanaka’s advice to young scientists, after winning the Nobel prize for the discovery of iPS cells, ‘I can see any failure as a chance.’”It’s beautiful proof that getting what we want isn’t always what we need. Coming up short, getting stuck, getting passed over—this can be fuel. That’s what Marcus Aurelius was saying when he talked about the impediment to action being an advancement to action, how the obstacle can be the way.There’s another study that shows that college basketball teams down a point or two at half-time were actually more likely to win than the team with the lead. Again, because it made them hungry. The struggles gave them something to prove.In any endeavor—creative, business, or grant proposals—we rarely achieve the result we hope for on our first go. Many great artists, entrepreneurs, and scientists have all admitted some version of Einstein’s, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” We must adopt and keep that mindset. We cannot let one obstacle, one “near-miss” turn us off the path. Keep at it. Persist. Resistance is futile.
The occupations of the three most well-known Stoics could not be more different. Seneca was a playwright, a wealthy landowner, and a political advisor. Epictetus was a former slave who became a philosophy teacher. Marcus Aurelius would have loved to be a philosopher but instead found himself wearing the purple cloak of the emperor. Zeno was a prosperous merchant. Cleanthes was a water carrier. Cato was a Senator. The modern Stoics include James Stockdale, a fighter pilot, and Tim Ferriss, a writer and a technology investor.These jobs have very little in common. The lifestyles they support are vastly different as well—so are the opportunities, the temptations, the frustrations and the stresses that they produce. But none of that matters. What matters is how you do your job and how you respond to the situations it creates for you. Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself that it was possible to live a good life anywhere—including in the complicated and intoxicating halls of power. He mostly proved that true. (Sadly, Seneca fell short in those same hallways). It doesn’t matter whether you’re a janitor or a junior senator. It doesn’t matter whether you’re negotiating a multi-million dollar deal or negotiating traffic on the way to your unpaid internship. What matters is what you do with this time. What matters is how you manage it. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, it’s possible to live a good life and to be a good Stoic. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
Anne Frank would have celebrated her 90th birthday today. Although her life was cut tragically short, so much of her preternatural wisdom survives to us thanks to her famous, existentially essential diary. In it, we are reminded of the humanity of every individual (and the horrible cost to societies who lose sight of this), and we are inspired—even shamed—by the cheerful perseverance of a child amidst circumstances far worse than any of us could ever know. Page after page, despite the unimaginable terror Anne and her family lived with, we find profound meditations on meaning, happiness, and life. There’s perhaps no better an encapsulation of her spirit and resolve than this passage from one of her final entries:“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart...I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.”To the ancient Stoics, no matter the circumstance, no matter how dire or desperate, how straightforward or scary, we must always fall back on one thing: virtue. As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself: “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.” This was, to him, a recipe for peace and strength in those difficult circumstances. In the darkest of hours, the most trying of times, each of us are tempted to abandon our ideals, our virtues. But if we can have courage, like Anne Frank, to remain steadfast and let virtue guide us, we can always find comfort in knowing that every step we take will be the right one.
It wouldn’t seem like eating well would be an important part of the philosopher’s job, but indeed it is. Antoninus Pius, the adopted stepfather of Marcus Aurelius and one of the quietly great Roman Emperors, kept a simple diet so he could work from dawn to dusk with as few bathroom interruptions as possible—so he could be at the service of the people for longer.In one of his letters, Seneca wrote that the better one eats, the less one needs to exercise, which then frees up valuable time for reading and thinking. Our keen edge, he said, is too often dulled by heavy eating and then wasted further as we drain our life-force in exercise trying to work it off.In the moment, it’s easy to enjoy whatever treat is in front of you—or to grab that extra helping because it’s there. But what we are bad at calculating is what kind of person we’re going to feel like after. It’s like with drinking: it might make you friendlier at first, and then a real monster a few hours later. And the next day? Well then you won’t be good for anything.An Athenian statesman once attended a dinner party put on by Plato. When he met his host again, he is reported to have said “Plato, your dinners are enjoyable not only when one is eating them, but on the morning after as well.” Moderation, discipline, knowing your body—these things are important because they help your mind. They help you as a person, and as a philosopher.This doesn’t mean you must be an ascetic; that you should eat the same thing every day, that it should be stripped of the flavors you enjoy, that you can never indulge, that food can’t both be fuel and fun.But to eat well, is to live well. To eat right, is to live rightly. And that is the goal.
We can think of hardship many ways: As failure. As unfairness. As the end of the conversation. Clearly, this was not meant to be, we can say. They don’t want me to succeed, so what’s the point of trying?Or, we can choose—we can train ourselves—to see it a better way: As grist for the mill. As a chance to learn about endurance, patience, resilience, struggle. As an opportunity to prove our mettle. As a way of learning about people or situations or actions or things.Marcus Aurelius believed in the latter approach. As he wrote: “Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.”It’s not about accepting hardship then, or resigning ourselves to it. Rather, it’s a matter of agreeing to work with it. To decide to make the most of it. To see hardship as an opportunity, not an obstacle. In this way, we can turn what happens to us into fuel. We can be made better and brighter by everything that happens. P.S. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday is $1.99 on Amazon right now for a very limited time! If you want to check it out, or give it as a gift, it’ll never be cheaper than that.You can also check out our brand new The Obstacle Is The Way pendant, as well as The Obstacle is the Way medallion which is inspired by the same insights from Marcus Aurelius and is awesome for carrying with you everywhere you go.
Maybe you’re having a difficult time in your relationship. Or work has worn you down. Maybe things have gone exceedingly well in your business and now you’re dealing with opportunities you never thought possible. Or you’re trying to figure out what to do with your life. Or trying to figure out how to help your kid—who has struggled for a long time now—to figure out what to do with their life. These are tough situations. Just a sample of what the days can throw at us...on top of all the things the world likes to throw at us, from economic instability to brutal wars, to snarling traffic and bafflingly incompetent governance. Solving all these problems is probably impossible. Which is why most of us would likely settle for their proper management or at least some amount of pain reduction. The good news is that this stop gap remedy is readily at hand. It’s just a book or a letter or a lecture away. As Seneca writes: “Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel.” For thousands of years, the wisest minds have been offering counsel and wisdom to those who seek it out, those who go forth to look for it. Will you be one of those people? Or will you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them? Will you endure the same trials just hoping one day they will magically change? Will you stick to your own guidance? Or will you let those wise minds help you out?Your problems—our problems—are not new. They are not different. They are the same things humans have always struggled with, just dressed up in modern language and contemporary garb. They fall neatly in the same category that problems have always fallen into (what’s in our control and what isn’t), which means they present the same opportunities that every problem offers (to become better for it...or worse for it), and require the same virtues that all problems require (justice, temperance, wisdom, courage). 2Fortunately, a guide for this gauntlet exists and has for thousands of years: Philosophy. It offers counsel. It offers you help. But only if you avail yourself of it. If you make use of it...and actually listen.
Seneca wasn’t fond of philosophers you could recognize. Not by their fame, but by their uniform. In his time, just as it is in ours, there was a type of person who, in reading about the Diogenes types or the tough Stoic types, thought that philosophy required that they give up their worldly possessions or start dressing like a bum. Today, these types try to signal their virtue by driving a beat up old car or by showing you how little they own. See, they say, I am practicing detachment. See, I don’t want like you want. But these appearances can be deceiving. As Seneca reminds us, “We should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life.” The simple life is not a matter of externals, it’s about what’s going on inside. Someone can be a billionaire, flying on a private jet, totally at peace, and indifferent to money, just as someone else, much less well-off, might be grinding their teeth in envy and resentment. You can swear off materialism, but if you trade it for public recognition of your superiority and purity, is that really an improvement? Or if you live frugally but obsess over every dollar, miserly extracting as much savings from every situation and interaction, what kind of peace is that? The simple life is defined by its simplicity. By its gratitude. By the ability to enjoy whatever is front of you, whether that’s millions of dollars or a nice chicken sandwich. It’s not a lack of money that we should we be pursuing, but a lack of angst, a lack of need, a lack of resentment, and a lack of insecurity. That’s the simple truth of what wealth is.
There is a line in the Odyssey (most recently translated by Seneca’s wonderful biographer, Emily Wilson). Odysseus, still early on in his journey home, is speaking with King Alcinous, and telling him of his deeds in the Trojan war. Alcinous remarks that:“The earth sustains all different kinds of people.Many are cheats and thieves, who fashion liesout of thin air."Clearly, Alcinous has been deceived before and knows how to look out for such people. He had a good read on Odysseus and could tell, despite the man’s reputation for cunning and cleverness, he was fundamentally a good and honest person. What’s interesting though is just how similar Alcinous’s remark is to one made by another king, Marcus Aurelius, hundreds of years later.In Meditations, Marcus writes:“When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible?No. Then don’t ask the impossible.There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole world class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.”The world is big and filled with all types of people. Some are honest, some are not. Some are good, some are shameless. Might it be better if all were the former and none were the latter? Of course. But that’s not the case. Nor will it ever be.So instead we must learn how to distinguish between the two, so that we may fill our lives with one and insulate it from the other. We must not go around expecting everyone to be perfect or reliable. We must accept that some people—for whatever reason—are destined to fill that undesirable quota of awfulness that the natural order seems to demand.Don’t take it personally. Don’t be surprised. Don’t ask for the impossible. And then, of course, continue to hold yourself to your own high standards, because that’s the class you belong to.P.S. Check out our brand new The Obstacle Is The Way pendant. Our hope is that when you encounter life’s obstacles, you’ll feel the pendant around your neck and remember that each obstacle offers a chance to thrive not just in spite of whatever is in front of you, but because of it!
If Marcus Aurelius had his choice, he probably never would have been emperor. If he could have chosen how his reign would go, he probably wouldn’t have spent it at war, far from home, either. But that was how life went. Those were the cards he was dealt.What’s remarkable, though, is what he did with those cards, particularly in regards to the last part. Ernest Renan observed that Marcus’s Meditations—one of the most valuable and beautiful books ever created—came about because Marcus was “deprived of the ordinary society of learned men and philosophers” while deep in hostile territory.Marcus wrote in Meditations that “what stands in the way becomes the way.” Really, the quiet scribbling he did in his tent was incredible proof of that idea. If things had gone differently, if he’d been able to enjoy a reign of peace and comfort at home, he may never have written a word. It was only because he was stuck at the front, because he was lonely and desperately needed mental stimulation, that he ended up recording this stunning and unprecedented examination of his own conscience. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have needed to.This is something that we need to remember when we are stuck somewhere or reckoning with an unpleasant loss of control. First off, that’s life. It doesn’t always go how we want it to go. Second, we have no idea what good might come of this. Even our own recent past can show that sometimes the worst experiences and circumstances can turn out to have been for the best. And third—and most importantly—each one of us possesses the power to actively transform what is in the way into the way.Marcus did it. We can do it, too.Today, we are excited to announce an easy way to keep this important thought in mind. A beautiful sterling silver pendant, a literal and inescapable reminder that “The Obstacle Is The Way.”The front features a great mountain. The back shows Marcus’s enduring words: “The impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way.”Our hope is that when you encounter these obstacles you’ll feel the pendant around your neck and remember that each obstacle offers a chance to thrive not just i
Why did Marcus Aurelius write his Meditations? It wasn’t for an audience. It wasn’t simply to practice his Greek or his rhetorical abilities—he was already good at all those things. The book lacks an author’s note and he never seemed to have told anyone about his intentions, so we can’t know for sure. But there are two clues that, when put together, provide an answer as good as any. Have you noticed how much of Meditations is about other people? The opening, “Debts and Lessons,” makes up nearly ten percent of the book. Almost every other page has at least one quote or one story or one mention of a story about somebody else. So when we come across this passage in Book 6, it all suddenly makes sense:“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.”Marcus was writing to encourage himself! He was thinking of the qualities of the people around him. He was showering himself in their virtues so that he might be improved by the association. And as far as we can tell, it worked. Because he was a good man, despite facing incredible temptations and pressures. Today, we should follow this example anew. Maybe
In his twenty-third letter to Lucilius, Seneca opens with some meta snark that is relatable to anyone who has ever been trapped in a banal conversation at a boring cocktail party. “You were probably thinking I was going to open this letter with idle chit chat about the weather,” Seneca begins, “but I’m not, because who has the time?”Certainly not Seneca, who spends the rest of the letter talking about the joy that comes from the study of philosophy and the earnest pursuit of the art of living. Important ideas. None of these trivialities—the weather, ‘what have you been up to lately?,’ ‘how’s your mother?,’ ‘reading anything good?’—that he says are the refuge of people who are “at a loss for topics of conversation.”Topics like philosophy, life, love, death, virtue, fate and fortune. Real stuff.Life is short. You see and speak to your friends rarely enough as it is. New connections, as they happen these days, are rarer still. Let us not fritter that time and opportunity away on banalities. Let us push through the nerves of newness, through the superficialities of introduction or reacquaintance, to greater understanding and deeper connection.The weather. Your mom and dad. Traffic. These are trivialities of conversation designed to create quick, easy connection. To show us that we have something in common despite being strangers or not having seen each other in some time. But we are already connected. We already know these things before we say a word to each other. We are sharing the same space, so we have experienced the same weather. We are humans, so we all have mothers and fathers. We each got to this cocktail party from somewhere else, so we know what it took to get here.These little factoids are what put the trivia in trivialities. They are information, they are not knowledge or insight or wisdom. They are not fake, per se, but they are fruitless. They lack the abundance of the kind of real conversations Seneca had with Lucilius and countless others in his life.So get real. Speak the truth. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Share. You’ll be glad you did.
There have been all sorts of wonderful technological innovations since Marcus Aurelius’s time, particularly in the domain of writing. We got the printing press. We got typewriters. We got ballpoint pens and erasers and whiteout. We got computers and smartphones. We have emails and tweets and audio memos. Journaling for Marcus wouldn’t have been easy. He needed ink and some sort of pen-like implement, and he had to write on fragile parchment. The supplies weren’t cheap. He needed to do everything by hand. We might think we are superior for all our fancy tools and real-time digital backups and copy and paste. But are we? In a recent interview, Walter Isaacson pointed out just how well paper has held up over the centuries: “Paper’s not a bad technology. It is really a good technology for the storage and retrieval of information. After 500 years, we still can turn the pages of Leonardo’s notebooks. From the 1990s, Steve Jobs had some memos on a NeXT Computer in his house. Even with his tech [abilities], we couldn’t retrieve that, because the NeXT operating system no longer can retrieve the documents that well. So every now and then, one of the lessons I learned is take notes on paper in a notebook. They’ll be around 50 years for ...your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They’ll be around maybe 500 years.”It is remarkable that the simple letters that Seneca penned by hand to a friend survive to us today and remain best read in print. It’s incredible to think that Marcus Aurelius’s journals, which also endure, were themselves influenced by the notes one of his teachers took while sitting and listening to the lectures of Epictetus. There are fragments in his journal and in the journals and commonplace books of writers that preserve lines from Epictetus that would have otherwise vanished to history. The power of putting things down on paper should not be underestimated, particularly today. Sure, it can be a pain to carry books around with you. Every once in a while a pen breaks in your pocket or your bag and makes a mess. Yes, handwritten words are harder to search. They take up more space in your house than they would in the cloud. But there is something special and timeless and perennial about the art of writing by hand. It’s a more involved process—and that’s the point. It’s good that it takes more time and energy, because you’ll remember it more. It’s good that it’s physical and takes up space—this way you’ll pass it in the hallway when you walk by. It’s good that it’s harder to search...who knows what you’ll find when you flip through the pages, one by one. So what if it’s more delicate? Maybe you’ll treat it with the respect it deserves this way. Take Isaacson’s advice. Get a notebook. Start writing!PS: Check out The Daily Stoic Journal. It’s an easy place to start and is built around the Stoic journaling methods of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
We know that Marcus Aurelius cried when he was told that his favorite tutor passed away. We know that he cried that day in court, when he was overseeing a case and the attorney mentioned the countless souls who perished in the plague that had ravaged Rome.We can imagine Marcus cried many other times. This was a man who was betrayed by one of his most trusted generals. This was a man who lost his wife of 35 years. This was a man who lost eightchildren, including all but one of his sons. Marcus didn’t weep because he was weak. He didn’t weep because he was un-Stoic. He cried because he was human. Because these very painful experiences made him sad.Antoninus, Marcus’s stepfather, seemed to be a bit more in touch with his emotions than his young stepson. He seemed to understand how hard Marcus worked to master his temper and his ambitions and his temptations and that this occasionally made him feel bottled up. So when his stepson’s tutor died and he watched the boy sob uncontrollably, he wouldn’t allow anyone to try to calm him down or remind him of the need for a prince to maintain his composure. “Neither philosophy nor empire,” Antoninus said, “takes away natural feeling.”The same goes for you. No matter how much philosophy you’ve read. No matter how much older you’ve gotten or how important your position or how many eyes are on you. It’s OK to cry. You’re only human. It’s okay to act like one.