In today’s world it is common to throw around words like “awesome” and “great” to describe people and events. Some human beings have been truly influential to human history, such as the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was the last of the so-called five Good Emperors of the Roman Empire. Often considered the peak of the Roman Empire in terms of might and cultural influence. There is much to learn from him that is helpful today. Stoic philosophy has ideas and actions associated with it that improve our resilience and emotional intelligence.
Marcus was a rather sickly boy and young man, who was identified as having tremendous academic talent and was able to pursue scholarly pursuits to help prepare him to one day become Roman Emperor. While his predecessor ruled for many years through peace and prosperity, Marcus spent most of his Imperial career fighting Germanic tribes and dealing with major plagues (probably smallpox) that decimated the Roman Empire. Because of this he was often in the cold and damp northern reaches of the Roman Empire in war camps while sick or ailing, which were not very comfortable in the 180’s AD. Think of the opening scenes from the movie “Gladiator” starring Russel Crowe as Maximus and Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius.
Unlike most other people of his time, Marcus’s thoughts and ideas are preserved in a book that managed to survive to our modernity, “The Meditations.” From his writing and other contemporary sources, we can learn of the strategies and ideas that allowed a sickly, academically inclined individual to lead one of the world’s great empires through multiple wars over many years, while also enduring outbreaks of deadly disease. And by understanding some of the basics of Stoic philosophy we can improve our own ability to persevere in our own time.
Marcus Aurelius is probably the best-known practitioner of Stoic philosophy, which has regained popularity recently. Philosophy is literally translated as “love of wisdom.” The ancient Stoics took that literally. They believed that humans excel when thinking clearly and reason well about their lives. This is the Stoic definition of wisdom. Stoics called reason our “ruling faculty.” The Stoic worldview was that wisdom requires understanding of what is:
To the Stoics, virtue was good, and vice was bad and everything else was indifferent. It is important to point out that indifferent or external things did have a preference hierarchy. Friends are preferred to enemies, health preferred to illness, life preferred over death. Things like wealth or health were considered mere advantages and could be used for either good or bad so therefore were considered indifferent. For example, if someone squanders sudden wealth, that can lead to even more misery for that person.
Another key idea to Stoic philosophy is that preferred indifferent things should never be pursued at the expense of virtue. For example, while wealth may be preferable to debt, valuing money more than justice is a vice to a practicing Stoic. The wise person needs nothing but uses everything well; the fool “needs” things but uses them all badly.
The Stoics also stressed that humans are capable of reason and are inherently social. In addition, Stoics were not unemotional, in contrast to the personality trait called stoic. Good emotions or passions were grouped into three categories by the Stoics:
- A profound sense of joy and peace of mind, which comes from living with wisdom and virtue.
- A healthy feeling of aversion to vice, like a sense of conscience, honor, dignity or integrity.
- The desire to help both ourselves and others, through friendship, kindness and goodwill.
Reflect on these good passions above. If a person was able to achieve 1 or 2 or even 3 of those passions in a single day, that person probably had an uplifting day.
Many irrational desires and emotions, like fear, anger, craving and certain forms of pleasure are bad for us. A key concept is not that these bad emotions should be suppressed. That was not considered healthy by the Stoics. Rather, bad emotions should be replaced by good or healthy emotions. Our initial automatic feelings should be viewed as natural and indifferent. From the Stoic perspective, a wise man may still tremble in the face of danger. What matters is what he does next. He exhibits courage and self-control by accepting these natural feelings, rising above them and asserting his capacity for reason.
In summary, Stoicism teaches to transform unhealthy emotions into healthy ones. By using reason to challenge the value judgments and other beliefs on which they are based. This is how modern rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) work. The wise person will endure pain and discomfort, such as undergoing surgery or engaging in strenuous exercise, if it’s healthy for his character. Likewise, the wise person will forgo unhealthy actions, like eating junk food, indulging in drugs or alcohol or oversleeping if they are unhealthy for his body or bad for his character.
This is an obvious oversimplification of complex ideas. Other blog posts will follow with examples of how Stoic philosophy can be used in different aspects of life, told through examples from Marcus Aurelius’ life. For a more complete and thorough discussion of these ideas, please read either/both “The Meditations” (or more likely a translation) or “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” written by Donald Robertson.
Ryan Will, MD
Dr. Ryan Will is a board-certified and fellowship-trained orthopaedic surgeon specializing in trauma care. Currently, Dr Will works in a private practice in Olympia, WA.
Ryan has been involved in physician peer coaching for 5 years and completed 20 hours of physician coach training. His specialty is in improving practice efficiency through EMR templating and process improvement.
When he is not seeing patients or coaching, Dr. Will enjoys hiking, mountain climbing, cooking, and spending time with his family.