#12: How to Pursue Personal Excellence Like a Stoic. Practical Stoic Wisdom From “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” by Donald Robertson (Part 3)

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

For Stoics, a life well-lived was a life spent cultivating the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

Their virtues are just as applicable in modern times, if not more. Wise, courageous, fair, and equanimous—what man wouldn’t want to be known for these qualities today?

Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius covers the Stoic virtues in great detail. Marcus Aurelius, as well as the men he considered his role models, cultivated these cardinal values in their everyday lives, no matter the circumstances.

How can we do the same? In today’s issue we’ll study ways to practice wisdom, show courage, personify justice, and exercise temperance.

The Wise Man Knows the Value of Discomfort

Even the Stoic wise man, therefore, may tremble in the face of danger. What matters is what he does next. He exhibits courage and self-control precisely by accepting these feelings, rising above them, and asserting his capacity for reason. He’s not entranced by the siren song of pleasure or afraid of the sting of pain. Some pains have the potential to make us stronger, and some pleasures to harm us. What matters is the use we make of these experiences, and for that we need wisdom. The wise man will endure pain and discomfort, such as undergoing surgery or engaging in strenuous physical exercise, if it’s healthy for his body and, more important, if it’s healthy for his character. He’ll likewise forgo pleasures like eating junk food, indulging in drugs or alcohol, or oversleeping if they are unhealthy for his body or bad for his character. Everything comes back to the exercise of reason and the goal of living wisely.

Practicing discomfort combines three of the four cardinal Stoic virtues. We need courage to face it. We need temperance to bear it. We need wisdom to know how to use it to improve our lives.

Stoics judge discomfort—or pain in general—not by the inconvenience it causes but by how useful it can be in their pursuit of living wisely. If it has the potential to strengthen one’s character, it’s desirable. If it’s harmful, it’s of no use.

A Stoic doesn’t complain about the pain if he knows it’s healthy for his body, mind, or character. His goal of living wisely is more important than the temporary discomfort he needs to undergo.

In comparison, a modern weak man addicted to comfort sees discomfort in a different way. By his definition, discomfort is always undesirable because it doesn’t feel good. There’s no discernment between useful and harmful discomfort. Even the beneficial kind of discomfort such as strenuous physical exercise is unwelcome. If there’s a way to avoid any hardships, a modern man would seek it.

A Stoic embraces reason because he wants to be free from strong emotions that control his life. In his book, comfortable pleasure isn’t the point of life. Virtue is.

A weak modern man embraces his strong emotions which makes him a slave to them. In his book, living a meaningful, virtuous life isn’t the point of life. Pleasure is.

The Stoic approach accepts discomfort as a necessary tool to pursue personal excellence. Because life comes with ups and downs, a Stoic recognizes the value of voluntary suffering. When adversity knocks on his door unannounced, he knows how to deal with it.

The modern approach pushes discomfort away. Regardless of how beneficial it can be, pain of any kind is to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, a modern man can’t choose not to have any hardships in life. It doesn’t work this way. When adversity knocks on the modern man’s door unannounced, he’ll be caught unaware and unprepared.

Which example would you rather follow?

To Become Wise, Seek the Painful Truth

(…) philosophy is a moral and psychological therapy, often painful to hear because it forces us to admit our own faults in order to remedy them—sometimes the truth hurts. Epictetus’s own teacher, the Stoic Musonius Rufus, used to tell his students, “If you have leisure to praise me, I am speaking to no purpose.” Hence, the philosopher’s school, said Epictetus, is a doctor’s clinic: you should not go there expecting pleasure but rather pain.

Just as we strengthen our bodies when we push our physical limits, we also need to strengthen our minds through pushing our mental limits.

How often do we ask others for opinion not because we want to hear the truth but because we want a pat on the back? By avoiding honest feedback, we hamper our mental growth.

When was the last time you asked someone for candid criticism? Have you ever urged someone to be as direct with you as possible so that you can improve?

Such conversations are unfortunately rare in modern times. Because we’re afraid of confrontation (yours truly included), we rarely hear painful truths. Everyone is afraid of offending someone else.

Instead of learning about and correcting our faults, we’re reinforced in our erroneous beliefs that we don’t have any flaws to address. Everybody loses.

Seek discomfort through asking for the truth. Assure the other person that you won’t get offended and that your only intention is to learn from their observations.

This applies the other way, too. If your friend asks you for honest feedback, it’s your duty to point out how they can improve.

Not everyone will welcome this kind of feedback (despite asking for it). Some interactions may turn uncomfortable. But just as Stoics, we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with discomfort but focus on the benefits it produces—in this case, the betterment of our friends and loved ones.

How to Spot Your Overlooked Vices

Galen says that Plato explained this well when he said that lovers are typically blind regarding the one they love. As we, in a sense, loves ourselves most of all, we are also most blind with regard to our own faults. The majority of us therefore struggle to attain the self-awareness required to improve our lives. Galen’s solution to this problem is for us to find a suitable mentor in whose wisdom and experience we can genuinely trust. Anyone can tell when a singer is truly dreadful, but it takes an expert to notice very subtle flaws in a performance. Likewise, it takes a person of moral wisdom to discern slight defects in another person’s character. We all know that someone is angry when their face turns red and they start yelling, but a true expert on human nature would be able to tell when someone is just on the verge of getting angry, perhaps before they even realize it themselves. We should therefore make the effort to acquire an older and wiser friend: one renowned for honesty and plain speaking, who has mastered the same passions with which we need help, who can properly identify our vices and tell us frankly where we’re going astray in life.

As Donald Robertson points out, everyone can tell when someone’s flaws are obvious but few people can do it when they’re more subtle (or manifested only in specific situations).

Sometimes friends are incapable of uncovering your overlooked faults. This is when Galen’s suggestion to find a wise mentor may be useful.

One of the reasons why I like working with coaches who are more experienced in life than I am is because of that. In addition to helping me improve with whatever skill I’m learning, they sometimes give me impromptu suggestions how to live a better life.

For example, I’ve learned that from three different coaches that one of my flaws is over-analyzing things instead of doing them and tweaking things as I go. I’ve also learned from their own life stories and have gained new perspectives on life.

Make sure that your coach or mentor is someone to whom you can open up and be vulnerable with. You will treat seriously advice on your character only from someone you trust and respect.

Endure and Renounce

Epictetus taught a form of Stoicism that held aspects of Cynicism in particularly high regard. It’s said he was known for the slogan “endure and renounce” (or “bear and forbear”). Marcus seems to recall this saying in The Meditations when he tells himself that he must aim to bear with other people’s flaws and forbear from any wrongdoing against them, while calmly accepting things outside of his direct control.

Justice is the one cardinal virtue of Stoics we haven’t discussed yet.

Because of the challenges posed by translating from Ancient Greek, the word “justice” doesn’t describe well the original concept. Instead of justice in the punitive sense of the word (sending someone to jail for committing a crime), justice means being a good person.

Stoic Musonius Rufus said about justice, “to honor equality, to want to do good, and for a person, being human, to not want to harm human beings—this is the most honorable lesson and it makes just people out of those who learn it.”

As a Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius held justice in high regard. He wanted to be fair in all his dealings with people, regardless of his position because as he wrote, “What injures the hive injures the bee.”

How does it relate to our pursuit of excellence in the modern world?

As we’ve already explored in the issue on handling strong emotions, anger is not manly. When we attack someone, we lose control and become slaves to anger. Anger fuels anger. Soon, we become the victims of anger, too. What injures the hive injures the bee.

Each time we commit any wrongdoing against another person, we’re hurting ourselves, too.

When we lie, it’s as if we condoned lying to us.

When we judge others, we encourage them to judge us, too.

When we put others down, we invite others to make us feel inferior, too.

It would be naïve to assume that we can let go of these behaviors overnight just because we read some Stoic advice. These tendencies are deeply-rooted in us and change will take time and work. But isn’t your constant betterment the reason why you’re reading these articles?

Each time you catch yourself about to commit a wrongdoing against another person, stop and think. What if instead of wasting your energy on strong negative emotions you turned it into an exercise in staying composed?

How to Practice Agoge

Marcus says that Diognetus taught him these and other aspects of “Greek training” (agoge). Although we don’t know what all of these aspects were, we can infer what some may have been. Cynic philosophers often ate a very simple diet of cheap black bread and lentils, or lupin seeds, and drank mainly water. According to Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, Stoics should likewise eat simple, healthy food that is easy to prepare, and they should do so with mindfulness and in moderation, not greedily. Like the Cynics, the Stoics would sometimes also train themselves to endure heat and cold. According to legend, Diogenes the Cynic did this by stripping naked and embracing frozen statues in winter or rolling in hot sand under the summer sun. Seneca described taking cold baths and swimming in the River Tiber at the beginning of the year—and cold showers are popular with those influenced by Stoicism today.

One of the foundations of Stoicism is embracing voluntary discomfort. This way, Stoics prepare themselves to be equanimous regardless of the circumstances.

A rich, varied diet of the world’s finest delicacies? A Stoic enjoys peace of mind. Stale black bread and bland lentils only? A Stoic enjoys peace of mind, too.

Sitting warm and cozy by the fireplace? A Stoic is tranquil. Taking an ice cold bath in a river? A Stoic is unperturbed, too.

Enjoying an icy cold drink on a warm summer afternoon? A Stoic is untroubled. Drenched in sweat, on a strenuous hike under strong sun? A Stoic is still in control.

In his letters to his friend Lucilius, Seneca the Younger wrote:

“I am so firmly determined, however, to test the constancy of your mind that, drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”

Seneca’s teaching is the essence of what I share here in the Discomfort Club: train yourself to handle adversity before it comes.

Practicing discomfort without compulsion will make it easier to endure it when you have no say over it. Do it on your own terms today, of your own volition, to get ready. Your alternative is to suffer more when adversity catches you unprepared and causes even more damage.

For a real test, Seneca suggests the practice should last a couple of days:

“Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.”

One of the simplest ways to practice discomfort for several days is to fast or eat bland foods only (for example, just rice and beans every day). You can also go on a multi-day hiking trip or sleep on the floor for a few nights.

Seneca emphasizes that such training is a privilege for those who can choose to embrace discomfort voluntarily:

“There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, — that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time.”

While so many people in the developed world are dying (literally or mentally) because of too much comfort, many are dying because they lack enough of it.

Through our voluntary practice we can gain a glimpse into what they’re going through, become more empathetic to their struggles, and learn to be more grateful for what we have.

Picture Two Paths Ahead of You

You might write down the short-term pros and cons of a course of action followed by longer-term consequences. Simply realizing that your desires produce negative results can sometimes change the way you feel and behave. Other times, though, you may need to picture repeatedly the negative effects of bad habits in a very detailed, clear, and vivid manner in order to change them. You may find it also helps to picture the positive consequences of refraining from the desire, mastering it, or doing the opposite of it. It can be helpful to visualize two paths ahead of you, just like the fork in the road that confronted Hercules: for example, quitting smoking versus continuing, exercising versus doing nothing. Spend time picturing how these two paths would grow apart over time, where they might lead you several months or even years from now.

Sometimes the temptations that offer an attractive reward right now are more enticing than bigger, but harder to visualize rewards later on.

When you’re tired, it’s tempting to skip a workout and resume it tomorrow. But there’s a hidden risk behind this decision that we often overlook. Skipping one workout may lead to skipping another. Soon, we end up on a path very different from the one we have been following before that seemingly insignificant decision.

You don’t have to end up like that. Picture the negative consequences of your bad decisions before you make them.

Imagine that you’ve been running consistently for the past several weeks and are on track to run a marathon in six months. The last few days you’ve pondered taking it easy and running less often. How would it affect your long-term goal? How disappointing would it be look back at today and realize this was the moment you sabotaged your progress?

This exercise is similar to what we discussed in Issue #11 when we talked about contemplating your ideal you. Is the fleeting allure worth jeopardizing your future?

Don’t forget to visualize the consequences of your good decisions to reinforce your virtuous behavior, too. Each day you cultivate your core values you get closer to living your ideal. It doesn’t matter if on some days it feels repetitive or as if you aren’t making any progress. What matters is that you’re consistent.

You’re in charge of which path you’re going to follow. Make sure that it’s your decisions, not emotions, that choose your direction.

Focus on Virtue Over Pleasure

Again, it’s enlightening to consider the double standard between the things you desire for yourself and the things you find admirable in others. Many people find the suggestion that they should abandon certain pleasures almost shocking at first. However, the same people often praise and admire others who exercise endurance or self-control and forgo certain pleasures for the sake of wisdom and virtue. Epictetus used Socratic questioning to highlight this sort of contradiction, hidden from view in people’s underlying values. Really seeing that two beliefs are incompatible can weaken one or both of them and help you clarify your core values. The two-column technique that involves listing the things you typically desire in your own life and comparing them to qualities you admire in other people can highlight inconsistencies between the two perspectives. What would happen if you started to desire more of the traits you admire in other people? For example, suppose you replaced your desire to eat chocolate assuming you had one, with the desire to be a fairly self-disciplined person and make healthy choices more consistently? For Stoics the supreme goal is always virtue rather than pleasure. However, healthy pleasures and even a deeper sense of joy may follow as the consequence of living in accord with virtue.

This quote comes back to the first quote we contemplated in this issue.

For Stoics, it’s virtue, not pleasure, that is the most important thing in life. They consider pleasure neutral: preferable to have but not indispensable to live a worthy life. And certainly not something that should dictate how we live it.

Donald Robertson suggests a fascinating exercise. Make a list of the things you desire and compare them to the things that the people you admire desire.

For example, let’s say that you desire is to watch your favorite TV show every day. How does it compare to David Goggins’s desire to have no regrets on his deathbed? If you wanted to become tough like Goggins, what would happen if you dropped your desire and decided to embrace his?

Imagine that your desire is to always feel secure and never have to deal with fear. How does it compare to big wave surfer Garrett McNamara’s desire to feel alive and push his limits? If you wanted to become a brave person you admire—such as Garrett—what would happen if you decided to adopt his desires?

Or let’s picture that your desire is to always feel like you’re right and know everything best. How does it compare to Marcus Aurelius’s desire to assume humility and learn from the great men before him? What would happen if you wanted to become wise like him and decided to adopt his desires?

Note that this exercise isn’t about comparing yourself to other people. It’s about comparing your choices to the choices of people you admire and asking yourself what would happen if you followed their example.

As simplistic as it sounds, all it takes to become a person you admire is to emulate the qualities you admire in others.

Questions to Ponder

1. Have you ever contemplated the essential role of discomfort in your life and how it can help you live wisely?

2. Do you seek painful truth to uncover your faults or shirk from frank people?

3. Who could become your wise mentor able to spot your overlooked faults well before anyone else?

4. Are you fair in your dealings with others or do you lose control when faced with other people—faulty like you—manifesting their flaws?

5. When was the last time you practiced discomfort for a couple of days in a row? How could you challenge yourself to tolerate prolonged hardships?

6. Before making a potentially detrimental decision, have you ever visualized two paths in front of you, with only one leading you where you would like to be in the future?

7. What are the things you desire in your own life and how do they compare to the qualities you admire in other people? Are they the same things? If not, what would happen if you replaced your desires with the ones manifested by your role models?

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