Donald J. Robertson is a cognitive-behavioral therapist who has continuously worked to provide the world with the history and benefits of Stoic philosophy. He is the author of numerous books including Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, Build Your Resilience: How to Survive and Thrive in Any Situation, and now, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
We were able to speak with Donald about his background in psychology and how he came to Stoic philosophy, as well as how the philosophy of Stoicism has helped change his life.
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All the notes from this interview have been hyperlinked below.
Without further ado, please enjoy our interview with Donald J. Robertson.
TSW: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor starts out with your family history and how you came to Stoicism. Can you briefly explain how your personal experience of loss inspired you to explore Stoicism?
DJR: My father passed away while I was at high school. I struggled to cope. He had been a Freemason and left behind some books about the philosophy and symbolism of Freemasonry. That got me reading about religion and I started looking for some ideas that could serve as a guide in life. Reading about early Christianity naturally led me to find out about the Neoplatonist philosophy by which it was influenced, and from there to Plato and Socrates. So throughout my teens, basically, I was beginning to read about religion and philosophy. That was my way of dealing with a difficult time in my life. Then I went to university in Aberdeen to study philosophy and later to Shefflied, where I did my masters in philosophy and psychotherapy, and became increasingly interested in Stoicism and its relationship with modern psychotherapy. I felt that the search for meaning in philosophy gave me a sense of direction in life, which I was lacking since the loss of my father. It took me a while to discover the Stoics but when I did I realized that they offered a system of psychological training that could help alleviate grief and contribute to emotional resilience when faced with adversity in the future.
TSW: You mention in the Notes section that you used Robin Hard’s translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but you also mentioned that you replaced some of those quotes with translations of your own from the original Greek text. Knowing how vastly different interpretations and understanding can shape the translation process, can you describe your process and any challenges you encountered?
DJR: There are always multiple ways to translate ancient Greek into modern English, especially when dealing with technical terms in relation to a system of philosophy like Stoicism. It’s natural that some translations are going to better serve the discussion or story than others. Some of the translations of The Meditations with which people are most familiar are very old, written in Victorian English, and use terms that can feel slightly unnatural and anachronistic today. There are well-known scholarly arguments over common terms found in the Greek. For example, eudaimonia is conventionally translated as “happiness” but that’s quite at odds with what the Stoics actually mean. Eudaimonia is the condition of someone living the good life, i.e., the best possible life for a human being — it’s an optimal state of fulfilment and self-realization achieved by the ideal human being. The original meaning of the English word happiness was good fortune. We still use “hapless”, its opposite, to mean unfortunate, someone living a wretched sort of life. That archaic meaning of “happiness” would be closer to the true meaning of eudaimonia but the word “happiness” has become so degraded over time that it has now come to mean nothing more than a feeling of pleasure. If you ask a room full of people what gives them happiness of lot of them will give very superficial answers like having sex, or eating chocolate, etc. That’s obviously not what the Stoics meant by eudaimonia. So in order to really understand the philosophy and explain it to modern readers I needed to engage with the ancient Greek and allow that to shape my discussion. Sometimes there’s obviously a better word or phrase that could be used in a certain context. However, often it’s more a matter of adding commentary to explain the concept in a way that gets the point across that’s being made in Greek because often there is no English word or phrase that can neatly substitute for what’s being said in ancient Greek. Common challenges are translating certain terms for emotions or virtues, etc., which might either distinguish things we don’t distinguish in English or combine concepts we don’t typically combine. For instance, the Greek virtue of dikaiosune was often translated as “righteousness” in the past but more commonly rendered as “justice” today. However, neither of those terms work very well. “Justice” sounds too formal – we associate it with our legal system whereas the Greeks, and Stoics, mean something much more general, which encompasses, for instance, a mother’s relationship with her children. We’d do better to think of it as referring to social virtue in a fairly broad sense therefore, although there’s not a single English word that neatly captures that idea either. So we’re left having to explain more carefully what’s meant through the use of additional commentary.
TSW: I really like how you set the stage for Marcus’ life through historical accounts using so many different sources. Marcus is easily one of the most documented Stoics as the former emperor of Rome. How did your perspective on Marcus evolve through your abundant research and knowledge of his life?
DJR: I first read The Meditations about twenty years ago and I’ve been studying the subject ever since. So it’s a bit difficult to sum up how my perspective on Marcus has evolved over time because it’s gone through so many stages. I think the first realization that dawns on many people, perhaps, is that The Meditations is a more systematic text than it may appear at first to be. When I first began writing about Marcus Aurelius friends who had studied philosophy told me they thought The Meditations was little more than an unorganized collection of personal musings. Pierre Hadot’s analysis convinced me that it was in fact Marcus’ record of using various contemplative psychological exercises, and that it took for granted and alluded to a rather complex and systematic philosophical framework. More people take that perspective for granted today – twenty years ago it was less widely understood. That realization has continually deepened for me with each passing year. More or less every time I re-read The Meditations I find myself noticing some subtle way in which Marcus is drawing on the preceding philosophical tradition, which makes his writing seem more and more like notes commenting on a more formal set of philosophical assumptions rather than just random personal musings. We should remember that Marcus studied philosophy and rhetoric under some of the leading teachers of his day and that he continued to go deeper into these studies for over four decades.
In terms of his character, I think I’ve increasingly come to see Marcus as someone who struggled with and succeeded in mastering his own anger. I don’t think it’s by chance that the opening sentence of The Meditations refers to Marcus’ grandfather’s good character and freedom from anger. Marcus tells us later in book one that he struggled to manage his temper when challenged by the plain speaking of his beloved Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus. However, he was renowned for his calm in the face of provocation. I’ve also come to view Marcus as someone who defined himself by the desire to be better than the cruel and paranoid Emperor Hadrian while aspiring to be as good as the famously prudent and even-tempered Emperor Antoninus Pius – two men he clearly saw as having quite opposing characters.
TSW: In the book, you describe the difference between Stoicism (capital ‘S’) and stoicism (lower case ‘s’). I don’t think I have ever seen it described that way before. Can you explain how and why you decided to make the differential between the two?
DJR: Well, first of all, it helps to point out that this is just one example of a more widespread pattern of misunderstanding. Many Greek philosophical terms have modern derivatives which caricature their original meaning. For example, an epicurean today means someone who enjoys expensive food, whereas the ancient Epicurean philosophy taught its followers virtually the opposite: to live simply and take most pleasure in the basic necessities of life. Also, Epicureanism is a whole philosophical school of thought and way of life, whereas a modern epicurean is just someone exhibiting some quite vaguely-defined attitudes concerning the enjoyment of gourmet food. In other words, a Stoic is different from a stoic, an Epicurean is different from an epicurean, an Academic is different from an academic, a Skeptic is different from a skeptic, a Cynic is different from a cynic, and a Sophist is even different from a sophist. These are the names of complex philosophical traditions but became twisted over the centuries and spawned the corresponding common nouns denoting various crudely defined attitudes, which are really quite distorted versions of the original meaning.
I’ve had countless discussions over the years with people who are interested in Stoicism and it’s become very clear to me that the single most widespread misunderstanding is due to this (rather silly) tendency to confuse “Stoicism”, the ancient Greek school of philosophy, with “stoicism”, the modern concept of an attitude or coping style that involves repressing or concealing one’s emotions – and which, indeed, involves very little more than that. The ancient Stoics did not teach their followers to conceal or repress their emotions. They forwarded a highly sophisticated philosophical system which argued that the beliefs underlying some of our emotions are irrational and should be questioned and replaced with more rational and philosophical beliefs, concerning the value of certain things in the world. Someone who’s just gritting their teeth and trying to maintain a stiff upper lip in order to appear “stoic” is potentially doing something totally at odds with what Stoicism teaches, therefore, insofar as they’re treating aspects of emotion as if they were negative, harmful, or threatening, and strongly desiring to suppress them – whereas the ancient Stoics would have viewed many of those rudimentary feelings as neutral, harmless, and to be accepted with indifference.
Moreover, people who try to be “stoic” by suppressing emotions are potentially being very un-Stoic insofar as they’re not engaging philosophically with their underlying beliefs, by questioning them, but merely ignoring or even suppressing awareness of those also. It also happens to be the case that modern psychological research has generally shown “stoic” attitudes toward the suppression or concealment of emotions to be quite unhealthy, whereas Stoic philosophy offers a much more nuanced and healthy approach to emotion. Indeed, it was the philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based modality of contemporary psychotherapy – in other words, we know from the research that challenging the underlying cognitions is typically a much more healthy way of handling emotion.
TSW: Marcus wrote in book two of Meditations, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” This seems to align with the Stoic exercise of Premeditatio malorum. How do you think this helped him to overcome the many adversities he faced every day as emperor of Rome?
DJR: That is one of the most widely quoted passages from The Meditations but there’s also a remarkably similar passage in Seneca:
The wise man, therefore, being tranquil, and dealing candidly with mistakes, not an enemy to but an improver of sinners, will go abroad every day in the following frame of mind: “Many men will meet me who are drunkards, lustful, ungrateful, greedy, and excited by the frenzy of ambition.” He will view all these as benignly as a physician does his patients.— Seneca, On Anger, 2.10
Marcus never mentions Seneca in The Meditations, although there are several indications in his private correspondence with Fronto that Marcus had read some works by Seneca. (Possibly his political speeches, though, rather than the philosophical works for which Seneca is famous today.) I think it’s likely that Marcus and Seneca were both drawing on an unnamed earlier source for these ideas, presumably an earlier Stoic author.
Marcus describes himself as being surrounded by people who wish him dead because they don’t share his values. He faced several massive betrayals during his reign. For example, King Ballomar of the Marcomanni must have conspired for years to launch his huge invasion of the northern provinces. Breaking peace treaties with Rome, he seized the opportunity to attack when the empire was vulnerable, the legions returning from the Parthian War being devastated by the Antonine Plague. Then just as the First Marcomannic War appeared to be drawing to a close, Marcus’ most senior general in the east, Avidius Cassius, betrayed him by having himself declared emperor, and thereby instigating a civil war. In The Meditations, Marcus often sounds like he has in mind everyday mishaps and personal conflicts of a fairly mundane sort but he must also have been using his Stoic training to cope with these pretty seismic events that shaped world history.
We also know that Marcus had a reputation for showing exceptional clemency and tolerance, and also for remaining calm in the face of adversity. For instance, on one occasion we’re told that he was presiding over a legal hearing when one of the parties, the notoriously volatile billionaire Herodes Atticus, lost his temper and lunged threateningly at Marcus. The Praetorian Prefect, the emperor’s personal bodyguard, was about to draw his sword and run the man through but Marcus stopped him in the nick of time. He then calmly rose to his feet and adjourned the hearing, saying only that being an old man already, he feared little. He wasn’t easily flustered even by such a dramatic and provocative incident. Perhaps that’s because he spent many decades mentally rehearsing ways of coping with such behaviour while maintaining a philosophical attitude toward events.
TSW: Your background is in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and you most recently wrote about CBT and Stoicism in the February issue of “the Behavior Therapist.” Can you talk about the current state of that area of psychology and why you think Stoicism is the best philosophy to correspond with it?
DJR: Stoicism was the original philosophical inspiration for cognitive therapy back in the mid-1950s when Albert Ellis, who had read the Stoics, began developing what became known as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Ellis frequently quoted the Stoics and drew upon many of their ideas. The influence of Stoic philosophy then passed through his work into the emerging cognitive therapy approach of Aaron T. Beck, which became the basis of modern evidence-based CBT. We know this because both authors clearly state that Stoicism was the philosophical inspiration for their respective approaches – Ellis said this repeatedly and Beck later echoed his words.
Since the mid 1990s, though, a new approach has been emerging, known as the “third wave” of CBT, which consists of a variety of mindfulness and acceptance based approaches to therapy developed by different teams of researchers and clinicians around the world. The third-wave of CBT is basically simpler but more subtle than the preceding second-wave approaches. Whereas Ellis and Beck focused on disputing the content of problematic thoughts and beliefs (cognitions) the new approaches are more “meta-cognitive” in orientation and focus more on our attitude toward and way of responding to our own thoughts. We don’t necessarily have to weigh up the evidence for and against an unhealthy underlying belief – such as “Everyone hates me” – as long as we can learn to view it from a more detached perspective. It turns out that a growing body of psychological research supports this way of doing therapy. The pioneers of the third-wave often drew inspiration from Buddhist mindfulness meditation, in this regard, as meditators must learn the knack of acknowledging their own intrusive thoughts without engaging with them. Unlike Ellis and Beck, though, the major third-wave authors never mention the links with Stoic philosophy, at least as far as I’m aware. However, ironically, they’re innovations arguably bring CBT even more into line with ancient Stoic teachings. The Stoics had their own conception of mindfulness called prosoche in Greek, and they also understood the importance of how we relate to our own thinking. They also emphasised grounding awareness in the here and now and trying to live more consistently in accord with our own core values (the virtues), both of which are strategies that play a central role in third-wave CBT today.
TSW: I think there is a common misconception about Stoicism that one of the goals of a Stoic is to be indifferent to events and therefore become passive to life. Can you explain the true nature of Stoic indifference?
DJR: Let’s explain this very carefully and get specific, although that necessarily also means getting a bit technical. The Stoics say that everything except our prohairesis, our faculty of choosing things voluntarily, is adiaphora which is usually translated “indifferent”. It literally means “not capable of being distinguished” or “not distinct”, though – not quite what we normally mean by something being “indifferent”. Typical examples are: health and sickness, wealth and poverty, good and bad reputation, etc. The Stoics want to say that these things are irrelevant with regard to our personal fulfilment in life because, for instance, Socrates was able to approach the Stoic ideal of wisdom and virtue despite being physically ugly, relatively poor, and persecuted by powerful enemies. His life wouldn’t necessarily have been “improved” in that regard by waving a magic wand and giving him greater physical health and beauty, material wealth, or more friends and admirers. Indeed, the personal challenges Socrates faced actually gave him greater opportunity to exercise wisdom and strength of character. Without facing obstacles he perhaps wouldn’t have become a great man. Epictetus hammers this point home to his students through the example of Hercules, saying that he wouldn’t have become a hero if he’d stayed at home under the bedsheets rather than traversing the world fighting one terrible monster after another.
So the Stoics weren’t advocating passivity or total indifference toward external things but rather the basic realization that obtaining these things isn’t actually the goal of life. It’s a central premise of their philosophy that wisdom and the other virtues consist precisely in our ability to distinguish between external things rationally when making decisions. For example, we’re generally right to prefer health, wealth and good reputation, within certain bounds and as long as in doing so we don’t sacrifice our commitment to virtue. What they mean is that we shouldn’t be perturbed if we happen to experience sickness, poverty, or hostility from other people. These things don’t by themselves determine our character but rather how we respond to them does, and responding to events wisely is what constitutes the goal of life.
TSW: You were one of the founders of the non-profit, Modern Stoicism. Can you describe some of its goals and how it has impacted the current resurgence of Stoicism?
DJR: The goals of the Modern Stoicism organization, which was founded in about 2012, are to facilitate research into the possible benefits of Stoicism for modern living, in terms of our psychological resilience and wellbeing, and also to help disseminate good-quality information about Stoicism that’s relevant and accessible to the general public. Modern Stoicism is responsible for organizing the annual Stoic Week international event online and also running the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online course, which we designed to gather data on the effects of Stoic practices in a more carefully controlled manner. As part of the research projects we also developed the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) used to gather data for statistical analysis. Modern Stoicism also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and smaller Stoicon-x mini-conferences around the world. Finally, the website (modernstoicism.com) hosts the Stoicism Today blog which currently has over 600 articles on Stoicism, contributed by people from all walks of life who are interested in the relevance and value of Stoicism for modern living.
It’s hard to measure the impact of Modern Stoicism on the resurgence of interest in the subject. What I can say is that when I began working on Stoicism, about two decades ago, things were very different. There weren’t the same sort of online communities and there just wasn’t the same sort of interest in applying Stoicism to modern life either. Most of the books available were more academic in nature. Nowadays new books and blog articles keep appearing that discuss how Stoicism can help people face the challenges of life. It’s become a “thing” – an aspect of modern self-improvement culture that people talk about. There’s a buzz about it. People were reading Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus before but now they’re talking a lot more about putting their ideas into practice, and I think that’s great. That’s partly got to do with the success of best selling books on popular approaches to Stoicism like Bill Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life and Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hansleman’s The Daily Stoic. However, I think that to some extent it’s also got to do with all the work done by Modern Stoicism to encourage people who are interested in embracing the philosophy as a way of life.
TSW: Philosophy used to be taught through discussion-based learning incorporating the Socratic method. Schools do not typically take this learning-approach anymore as they’re teaching to the masses. How do you think that will impact future generations and what can we do to fill the gaps and remain continual students of life?
DJR: Philosophy departments still use discussion, and often also questioning in a broadly Socratic style. Most of the people who are interested in Stoicism as a way of life haven’t studied philosophy at a university, though. The Stoics believed that we should try to enlist the help of others in evaluating our own progress by encouraging them to provide feedback on our character and actions and to question our values in plain language. Personally, I think that’s the key. Whether or not we’re able to find good teachers, the main thing is that we’re ready, willing, and able to learn from others. There’s an attitude of openness to criticism, which was integral to ancient Stoicism, and that’s something that’s often lacking today where people seem defensive or guarded about exposing their own views to refutation.
TSW: Where can people find out more about How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, your work, and Stoicism?
DJR: Everything is on my website donaldrobertson.name and there are also a lot of free courses and downloads on my elearning site learn.donaldrobertson.name – and the Modern Stoicism website modernstoicism.com
TSW: Is there anything else you would like students of Stoicism to know about the philosophy and how it can help their lives?
DJR: Yes. The core psychological principle of Stoicism is that we benefit from clearly distinguishing between our own voluntary actions and events that merely happen to us. That led the Stoics to their famous observation, inherited from Socrates, that it’s not events that upset us but our opinions about them, particularly our value judgements. Although these might seem like truisms at first they’re actually profound psychological insights because the majority of people tend to lapse into thinking, acting, and feeling in ways that are quite forgetful of these basic truths. We struggle with and get upset about things that aren’t under our control. We neglect to improve our own character and actions, despite the fact that’s entirely up to us. We act as though events that befall us were inherently upsetting rather than taking ownership for the upsetting way we portray these events to ourselves, through our use of rhetorical language and irrational thinking. The Stoics hit the nail on the head and over two thousand years later psychology is just catching up with some of their most important insights.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald J. Robertson
Build Your Resilience by Donald J. Robertson
E-Learning website (learn.donaldrobertson.name)
Modern Stoicism website (modernstoicism.com)