'Marcus Aurelius: Philosopher Emperor or Philosopher-King?' by Steven Umbro and Tina Forsee

Marcus Aurelius: Philosopher Emperor or Philosopher-King?

By Steven Umbro and Tina Forsee

The man himself. Sourced here.
The man himself. Sourced here.

Editor’s Note: For those readers who wish to know more about Marcus Aurelius the man and emperor, and how well his rule matched his philosophy, comes this article by Steven Umbro and Tina Forsee.

It is very common to hear in both academic circles, as well as more close-knit Stoic circles, Marcus Aurelius (121 –180 CE) being referred to as the philosopher king. This is not an idea that is heavily under contention. Marcus Aurelius was definitely an amazing individual. He was adopted first by the Emperor Hadrian (76 –138 CE) and then later by Antoninus Pius (86 –161 CE). Marcus was educated by the best teachers in rhetoric, poetry, Greek, Latin, and of course, philosophy. The latter is the subject that he prized above all and it is that which had the greatest influence on the young man. The second century Roman historian Cassius Dio (155 –235 CE) said of Marcus that:

‘In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance…He himself, then, refrained from all offences and did nothing amiss whether voluntarily or involuntarily; but the offences of the others, particularly those of his wife, he tolerated, and neither inquired into them nor punished them. So long as a person did anything good, he would praise him and use him for the service in which he excelled, but to his other conduct he paid no attention; for he declared that it is impossible for one to create such men as one desires to have, and so it is fitting to employ those who are already in existence for whatever service each of them may be able to render to the State. And that his whole conduct was due to no pretense but to real excellence is clear; for although he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus [Pius], and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretense.[i]

Marcus is most notably remembered for his surviving text now called The Meditations. It was the emperor’s personal journal, which recounts all of his innermost thoughts. We see in The Meditations that Marcus used his knowledge of Stoic philosophy to modify his behavior; he was literally engaging in what we now know as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The strength and grace of his character gained him both the respect of the upper classes as well as the plebeians.

Marcus’goal was to become the best –most virtuous –person that he was able to become. He saw himself and the world that he lived in –tumultuous as it was –from a cosmic perspective. Seeing that he had a fundamental duty to other human beings, like Socrates, he didn’t see himself as simply the Emperor of Rome, nor a Roman citizen, nor a Latin citizen, but rather a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan in the truest sense.[ii]

Marcus’ Stoicism was unique. Unlike his Stoic predecessors we see how the emperor was able to cope with the incredible difficulties that he was presented with. He was a sickly man, who had to confront constant political intrigue, war on the frontiers and difficult family affairs. In spite of all this he was still able to maintain his emotional control, to govern in an orderly and just manner and of course to cultivate his own virtue. Because of this Dio writes:

However, he did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.[iii]

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of all of Rome, a king to hundreds of thousands of people, as well as a philosopher. He was Rome’s philosopher king for nineteen years. But the question is, was Marcus Aurelius a philosopher king only in the most literal sense, or was he a philosopher-king, as described by Plato in his magnum opus, The Republic? When people call Marcus the Philosopher king it is difficult to discern which of these two types of philosophical monarchs they are referring to. This article will hopefully shed some light on the difference as well as accurately describe Marcus’ philosophic reign.

The Philosopher-King Paradox

One summer day in-between semesters of my junior year of college, I sat in my bedroom quietly reading Plato’s Republic. My walls were still crammed with the Led Zeppelin posters and dusty PA equipment from my high school years. My mother came in, bewildered by the silence. “What are you doing?”she had asked in her thick Korean accent. I told her I was reading, and she smiled in approval. Reading. Studying, even over summer break. Good student. She’d assumed all these years that I must be doing something worthwhile, that I’d become successful.

Unfortunately, that day would shatter her hopes and dreams for me. She made the mistake of asking what I was majoring in. (She’d asked a few times before, but each time I told her, she’d nod her head and smile. She didn’t know the word “philosophy”and I couldn’t figure out a way to explain it to her.) “Philosophy,”I responded yet again. There was that unknowing smile of approval again. This time I made the mistake of pulling out the Korean-English dictionary to show her exactly what “philosophy”meant. When she saw the Korean word my finger pointed to, she exclaimed, “No! No! You can’t do that! Stop it right now! You’re going to be poor for the rest of your life. Are you crazy or something?”

Her reaction was brutally honest—Korean mothers are known for this—but it’s what a lot of people think of philosophers today, though they may not say so.

Things really haven’t changed much in over two thousand years. Aristophanes ridiculed Socrates for having his head in the clouds, and Plato relates the story of Thales falling into a well while preoccupied with stargazing. Even then, philosophers were considered nothing more than a verbose bunch of obscurantists who didn’t know how to tie their own shoelaces. Or, to be less anachronistic, they were obscurantists who didn’t wear shoes, as if to flaunt their poverty and lack of materialistic concern.

When Plato insisted that the only way justice can exist is if a philosopher becomes a king, or vice versa, he was well aware of the public’s negative perception of philosophy.

Philosophy will teach children that it’s okay to beat their parents. Philosophy will teach people that it’s okay to murder because truth is relative. Philosophy will turn its practitioners against traditional religion. Philosophers will make you pay a hefty fee only to teach you how to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. Philosophy will make you a useless citizen.

Today: Philosophy will teach your college student that God doesn’t exist. (Check out the movie, God’s Not Dead, for evidence of this fear amongst Christians.) Philosophy is completely useless for ordinary people. Philosophy is an education in verbal gymnastics. Philosophy distracts us from acquiring real knowledge.[iv]

The idea of a philosopher king was as repulsive then as it is now.[v] Philosopher kings? What better rhetorical breeding grounds for tyrannical dictators like Hitler and Stalin? Few take the idea seriously. Even amongst many philosophers, the idea is repugnant.

Yet, Plato wasn’t being facetious. Paradoxical, bold, maybe even in-your-face, but not facetious. For him, the practice of philosophy was something quite different from what was being called philosophy in his time. The true philosopher, we must remember, is an ideal. This person must have knowledge of the Good.[vi] In this case there is no fallibility, no human weakness to account for. If such a person were to exist, Plato predicted that no one would acknowledge the philosopher’s expertise. Bringing about a truly just society is nearly impossible.[vii]

The true philosopher is likened to a captain of a ship who is viewed by his crew as a useless stargazer. An apt metaphor which plays off of the story of Thales. Plato handles the metaphor with an intentional equivocation: Navigation of course depends on stargazing, although in the captain’s case there’s presumably no metaphysical inquiries involved. Here, we see stargazing as techne, craftsmanship, a practical art. The captain’s knowledge of the stars is like the doctor’s knowledge of health, or the computer geek’s knowledge of how to get that virus out of your computer. In these cases, we turn to experts for help because we know we don’t know. In the ship metaphor, we the readers see the folly of the crew’s dismissal of the captain’s knowledge.

The point is, Plato’s ideal philosopher king is an expert in statesmanship who actually knows how to bring about justice. If we could know that such a person exists, we’d automatically turn to this philosopher for help. There’s the rub. We don’t know. And how can we? In each case the proof is in the pudding.

When we turn to experts for help, we presume we’ve come to the right person when that virus is out of our computer, when our cars run properly, when our health is restored. We take their expertise on faith, sometimes with recommendations from others, without presuming to have knowledge of these things ourselves. We take a risk much greater than going to a sheisty auto mechanic when we put a philosopher in charge. Plus, we tend not to trust experts, especially not ones in positions of power.[viii]

Herein lies the paradox of the philosopher king: If everyone were experts in justice, we could recognize a philosopher king, but then we wouldn’t need one. Since we’re not experts, how do we know who among us is a philosopher king? Without knowledge of what’s good (in Plato, the Good) we can’t say.

Do philosophers make good rulers? The most we can do is look to the past for an approximation, obliquely.

The Proof is in his Power

Treachery, plague and war; despite all of these Marcus was able to summon the will to hold the delicate balance of power in check and preserve the empire. He maintained what is known as Rome’s Silver Age[ix] and did what he could to make the lives of his citizenry as prosperous and stable as possible. It was said of Marcus’character that “he was austere, but not hardened, modest but not timid and serious, but not grim.”[x] His interactions with people of all strata was described in this way:

Indeed, toward the people he behaved no differently than one behaves under a free state. He was in all ways remarkably moderate, in deterring people from evil and encouraging them to good, generous in rewarding, lenient in pardoning and as such he made the bad good and good very good – even suffering with restraint the criticism of not a few.[xi]

As a Stoic, Marcus had an unwavering sense of duty to those beneath him in the hierarchy; he was a man of service and would do all that was necessary to see his purpose fulfilled. When the Germanic tribes began raiding the northern frontier borders, Marcus, rather then increase taxes on the public to fund the campaign, sold off all his imperial possessions to pay for the endeavour.[xii] He saw such an act not only as a necessary action, but one that was called for by his duty in being in such a position of wealth and power.

When it came to distributing punishment in the judicial system, Marcus’ philosophical discipline also dictated his decisions. The Historia Augusta says of Marcus that:

It was normal for [Marcus] to penalize all crimes with lighter sentences than were generally imposed by the laws, but at times, toward those who were obviously guilty of serious offences he remained unbending… He meticulously observed justice, furthermore, even in this contact with captured foes. He settled countless foreigners on Roman land.[xiii]

The Emperor lived his entire life as a true philosopher, he spoke like a philosopher and he ruled like a philosopher.

For Marcus’ own serenity was so great, that he never changed his expression (either in grief or in joy) being devoted to the Stoic philosophy, which he had learned from the very best teachers and had acquired himself from every source.[xiv]

He was generous, lenient and embodied many modern notions of republicanism, while at the same time sat in the highest seat of imperial power.

A Philosophical Democracy

We value democracy because we have the power to push a tyrant off the throne. Democracy’s realistic in human assessment: there will be as many if not more fraudulent philosopher kings as there are sheisty auto mechanics. Democracy lets us call them out, warn the others, put these impostors in their place. Freedom of speech is a crucial safeguard.

However, a democratic system relies on the assumption that we all know what’s good for us, that the good can be brought about through our collective knowledge. Bad things will happen, but change is always on the horizon. “Change”is something we’ve become enamored with, but this political slogan relies on presumed general discontent and the assumption that change will be for the better.

But are we collectively experts in virtue and justice? If we’re all driving the ship, where is it going?

The winds push in one direction, then another. Education is of utmost importance in a democracy, but education is itself another element battered by the storm of opinions.

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.[xv]

It’s commonly known that America’s founding fathers valued education as essential to representative democracy (what they preferred to call a “Republic.”)

Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty. – James Madison[xvi]

A quick internet search will reveal numerous quotes extolling the virtues of educating everyone. What is not always considered is the kind of education they themselves received, what they meant by education. They were expected to already know Greek and Latin before they went to college. What they had to know to pass their entrance exams far surpasses what we expect of college graduates. Their education emphasized the classics and instilled in them a lust for acquiring virtue and wisdom.

Democracy is a word that now has positive connotations, and for good reasons. But education was not meant to be democratized. A philosophical education would teach us at the very minimum how to distinguish empty rhetoric from sound arguments, how to spot informal fallacies. This is necessary when choosing our “captains,”and ought to be included in public education. There is a great deal more that needs to be done at every level for public education, more than many of us even conceive of. We may never experience the ideal justice of the Republic, but for us, power can merge with wisdom in a happy union, at least in approximation. In order for this to take place, we must all set our sights higher.

The Boy who would become a Philosopher

Marcus Aurelius was a true warrior, he did not dance with his life; instead it was a constant boxing match. He did his best to keep his chin up and inspire those around him to become better than they were.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.[xvii]

In his final days we can see how even the army, whom he led into battle in the north, responded when they heard of his illness that would eventually take his life: “The army, when they heard of his illness, cried noisily, for they loved him alone.”[xviii] Even on his deathbed Marcus was unrelenting in his practice of Stoic virtue. Acting with indifference to inevitable demise, he said to the loved ones watching him, “do not cry for me, but think instead of the sickness and death of so many others.”[xix]

The empire lived in synchronicity with Marcus; the empire endured as long and as well as he did. His death marked the end of an era and the beginning of the empire’s fall. Cassius Dio writes of the death of Marcus that, “…our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust.”[xx]

And now we finally come to the question addressed at the beginning of this article, was Marcus Aurelius Plato’s philosopher-king?

The concept of Plato’s Kallipolis and its ruling philosopher-king is deeply nuanced and embodies many strict notions such as the harmonization of the cardinal virtues of  “wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and morality”[xxi] as well as knowledge of the Good. Marcus may or may not fit the description. Marcus’life and reign would definitely have been a consolation to Plato in that a philosopher can be a king, and that such a ruler could live a philosophical lifestyle, and impart that wisdom on his public administration. Marcus, although perhaps not the philosopher-king of Plato’s Kallipolis, was still a philosopher king in the most literal sense.

Of course the Stoic notion of the Sage and the Platonic notion of the harmonized soul differ, however they both agree that the key to a just society is a ruler who embodies their respective ideas of harmonized virtue. Edward Gibbon in his magnum opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, saw the magnificence of the Antonine rule and stated:

“If a man were called upon to fix that period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. The united reigns of the five emperors of the era are possibly the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic, had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.”[xxii]

Marcus may not be Plato’s philosopher-king but he was undoubtedly the philosopher-emperor.


[i] Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 72. 34-35

[ii] Cosmopolitanism is a fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophical doctrine. Understanding oneself from the cosmic perspective (the perspective from above) affords the individual the knowledge that they are one drop in a large body of people.

[iii] Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 72. 36.

[iv]Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.Stephen Hawking. See also; “My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist its, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And Id rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that dont derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, Im moving on, Im leaving you behind.—Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

[v] The term “Philosopher-King”has such negative connotations that it has become a code word for “tyrant.”See Our Philosopher-King Obamaby Victor Davis Hanson.

[vi] Plato doesn’t tell us much about the Good itself, as if he didn’t wish to throw pearls before swine. The Good is discussed in both the cave allegory (Book VI) and the “divided line”(just before the cave allegory, 509d–511e) of the Republic.

[vii] But that doesn’t mean Plato didn’t try for some sort of approximation. In the Seventh Letter, you will find Plato’s account of how he tried to turn Dionysius II, the tyrant of Syracuse, into a philosopher. He failed miserably and barely made out with this life.

[viii] Consider the response to expert opinion in the fiscal crisis of 2012. Jason Stanley wrote an article, Philosopher Kings and Fiscal Cliffs, which addresses this issue.

[ix] The Silver age went on through until the death of Marcus Aurelius as described by Teuffel and Schwabe 1892, p. 192, “The second century was a happy period for the Roman State, the happiest indeed during the whole Empire…But in the world of letters the lassitude and enervation, which told of Rome’s decline, became unmistakeable…its forte is in imitation.”

[x]Historia Augusta, 4, 5.

[xi] Ibid, 12. 1.

[xii] Ibid, 17, 4.

[xiii] Ibid, 24.1.

[xiv] Historia Augusta, 16.3.

[xv] Plato’s Republic, 473d.

[xvi] Madison, Writings 9:103–9

[xvii] Historia Augusta, 2. 6.

[xviii] Ibid, 28. 1

[xix] Ibid

Cassius Dio, Hist. Rom. 72. 36 – This notion of the degeneration of the state is similar to the degeneration of political forms in Plato’s Republic. Plato’s philosophy is that the most pure form of government, the Kallipolis, will eventually degenerate into a timocracy, then into an oligarchy, then democracy and finally a tyranny. Similarly, Marcus represented the most pure form of Roman government, and although the Roman state did not degenerate into the subsequent states that Plato predicted the Kallipolis would, the state, after Marcus’ death, did nonetheless begin to decline and fall.

Plato, Republic 427e

[xx] Gibbon, 1909, p. 78


Many of the quotes used to justify the points made in this paper regarding the life, rule and character of Marcus Aurelius were taken from the ancient text known as the Historia Augusta, which is notoriously debated as being unreliable in many parts. Nonetheless, regardless of its validity, many of texts which mention his life, including Cassius Dio coherently match the character that the HA portrays of Marcus Aurelius.



Plato, The Republic

Cassius Dio, Historia Romana

Historia Augusta


Steven Umbrello is currently a student of philosophy of science and classics at the University of Toronto as well as a Junior Associate at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute. He enjoys his time reading philosophy and history as well as writing for his website The Leather Library and Stoically Speaking.

Tina Forsee graduated from Marlboro College with a B.A. in Philosophy and French. Shes working on a novel in which she explores the relationship between reason and belief through contemporary characters loosely based on those in Platos Republic. She blogs about philosophy and fiction at Diotima’s Ladder and contributes to The Leather Library.

'Honesty in Business – A Stoic Experiment' by Jacob Henricson

Honesty in Business – A Stoic Experiment

by Jacob Henricson

Honesty in Business. Sourced here.
Honesty in Business. Sourced here.

One day I decided to stop lying. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been a big liar before in my life, but I decided to – to the best of my abilities – not lie at all. I defined some borderline case rules for myself, for example, it is ok to avoid or withhold the truth, when the effects of telling it would be harmful for myself or someone else (do I look pretty in this dress?), but not to tell a direct lie, however small.

The impetus for this drastic measure came out of my interest in leading a stoic life. I started off recently, about a year ago, when my attention was caught by the simple Epictetus quote:

”Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.”

That lead me to read many of the classics, and several ”stoic revival”-books, such as Jules Evans ”Philosophy for Life”. Above all, for the example on hand, I devoured ”Thoughts of a philosophic fighter pilot”, by James B Stockdale. James was shot down during the Vietnam war and endured torture for eight years before returning home a celebrated hero. He had read Epictetus before being shot down and later credited stoic philosophy for his endurance during those years. One lesson I took away from his book was this: guilt was leverage for the torturers. If you were guilty and they knew it, they would use that guilt to extract something from you. As James expressed it:

”The point, then, is to do nothing shameful, nothing unworthy of yourself. Because if you do, and you are in any way honorable, it will haunt you and corrode your will. These are simple but very true, very powerful, very important facts.”

Fast forward to my regular life. I live in Sweden and have made a career in security and risk management in companies such as Ericsson and PwC. I have been in the huff and puff of top level corporate politics for more than ten years. While not being under the power of torturers, there are similarities. I have seen good people lose their footing and morals as they climb the slippery slopes to the top. I have seen good people corrupted by money and power to the point where they can no longer distinguish between their self interest and those of their fellow humans or even the company they work for.

You would think that making a lot of money and having a lot of power makes you less vulnerable and more independent. In my experience the exact opposite usually happens. As your income and prestige grows, you develop more expensive tastes. A small house is no longer enough. Wine at a low price suddenly becomes undrinkable. Before you know it you have become dependent on an income which is much higher than what you would get from most other jobs. I’ve heard it called ”the golden cage”. And as research from among others Daniel Kahneman shows, it is much more painful to step down from a privileged position than it is enjoyable to climb up. You are trapped. Epictetus again expressed it best:

‘And who is your master? Whoever has authority over anything that you’re anxious to gain or avoid.’

All of a sudden your boss, your shareholders, your customers become more important than those closest to you: your spouse, your children, your parents. They will have to wait in line because you have to please the people that control your income and your social status. But why did you climb to the top in the first place? For me, and I think for many others, it was a combination between having an exciting challenge at work, and providing for my family. But if I was asked what was most important to me, I would say my family. I think most people would.

That dependence can make you do things you rather wouldn’t have. We have all seen examples in media of top executives who have misused their power for personal gain.  But even lower down the chain you are often pressured to stand behind things you do not believe in. For example, your budget is cut in half while you are still expected to deliver the same result. You know that it will put unreasonable pressure on your staff and you do not stand behind it. So what do you do? Most managers will challenge the decision, but few are ready to back up their challenges with concrete action (such as resigning) and will ultimately bow to the decision and embrace it as their own (because anything else would be unacceptable in the hierarchy of things). Sometimes this goes to extremes, when the corporate culture is broken. The case that most clearly comes to mind is Enron.

When you have lied, you are part of a system you deplore. You can no longer blame your boss or your colleagues for the way things turn out. You cannot say that you were ”forced” to do it, because nobody can force you to do anything, and besides, that never sounds very good in media. You have to live with your own guilt, and that makes you more susceptible to future pressure.

So, here my ”no-lies-policy” comes into play. I decided to try it out to see if it would work and if it would change anything. As a summary of the ”experiment” I can say that it has made my life more cumbersome short term as I have to think through my answers carefully. Instead of saying ”I can’t join the dinner tonight because I’m not feeling well”, I have to take the time to explain that I need some time with my wife and kids, or that I simply do not feel up to it, in a friendly way. But by and by, it has proven to be a fantastic way of getting respect and sleeping well at night. I do not have to keep track of what I said to whom, and I am never afraid of being called out with a white lie.

The true test of my policy was when I resigned from my job, but was asked to keep it secret for three weeks. I could not even tell my closest friends at work and had to resort to enigmatic smiles when asked about future prospects. It was tough, but ultimately I felt better having both kept my word and spoken the truth (or at least not lied).

And above all, I’ve met with respect. Sometimes I have been more blunt to people than I would have before, but in the end it seems that the people around me value me more as a ”man of my word”, meaning that I will not always have an opinion, but when I do, they know that it is truthful, and straight from my heart. And that has made me decide to make the experiment permanent, and recommend it to everybody else in the world.

To end: a quote I picked up from Reddit, it was written as grafitti on an abandoned house:

‘Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes’

Jacob Henricson, CEO and Partner, Fronesis

Jacob Henricson is a speaker and advisor on a range of topics including risk management, cybersecurity, organizations and crisis management. Jacob also tinkers with stoicism, parenting and humor but is in no respect an expert in those areas.

'Troubled Students, Troubled Times, Stoic Solutions?' by Mark Harding

Troubled Students, Troubled Times, Stoic Solutions?

by Mark Harding

It's not easy for anyone. Sourced here.
It’s not easy for anyone. Sourced here.

I was introduced to Stoicism while studying classics in high school and university many years ago, and became interested in it again recently as a way to help  the many highly anxious students in the high school where I teach deal with  self-imposed standards of academic excellence and the high expectations of their parents. Over the past several years, and this year especially,  a number of our students have reported significant psychological distress (and this reportedly is a global phenomenon) and sometimes have been hospitalized as a result. When considering their stories, it is clear that not only the pressure to obtain admission to a Tier One academic institution is part of the problem, but so is the broader environment of economic uncertainty, international terrorism, and  the threat of climate change.

However, previous generations endured the Great Depression and fought in the Second World War, fretted through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and lived through the Cold War with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. There appears to be no record of large numbers of that generation folding emotionally under those pressures. In fact, the reaction in several of those instances was a broadly-based political mobilization of young people  The Occupy movement notwithstanding, one is tempted to conclude that the current generation is soft and disengaged compared to previous generations, but the youth of any day have always been going to hell in a handcart from the greybeard’s perspective. Nevertheless, in discussions with my colleagues over the past few years, we have noticed a  tendency for students more quickly to “pack it in” when the going gets tough.  They are more reluctant to take on challenges than students even in the recent past  and  they are also more risk-averse as a group than previous cohorts were.

One aspect of the problem is that they are educated in an environment  where, because education is a right,  success is considered to be a right, as well. Persistence in the face of adversity is advised but ultimately not required and leads to a mentality where equality of opportunity becomes confused with equality of outcome, producing a child who  believes that he or she will be successful in every undertaking–  all  aspirations  met,  all  dreams fulfilled.

This leads to better attendance in class and better retention rates in school generally, but also  in the end, produces adult citizens who, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, were told they were going to be millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars–and now, realizing that is untrue, are “very, very pissed off.”

None of this is the fault of the student. Their only sin is to believe what many  adults, in love with psychobabble, tell them. “You can be anything you want to be”, a lovely sentiment found in one form or another in guidance offices and classrooms, most readily comes to mind as a cliche that may do more harm than good in the long run. Helicopter parenting, emotional protection from unpleasant reality, and other vicissitudes of modern family life may  be part of the picture, as well.

So, looking for a practical way to help these kids develop a philosophy rather than a pathology when the rejection letter from Harvard comes or when they are not voted Most Valuable Player or are not selected as Prom Queen, I turned to Stoicism, less the metaphysics, for its position of rational pessimism.  As unpleasant as that phrase might sound to those whose default position is to be “rah-rah” cheerleading everything our young people say and do, I think it offers our students a greater possibility of happiness now and in the future, and in extreme circumstances may even save lives. What follows are a few vignettes from my experience.


I announced the test date and then came the question:

“Sir, do you have any hints about what  the essay topic will be ?”


“Can you give us one?”


Earlier in the year, that little comic routine got some laughter; now Beatrice just looked down at her desk in anguish. I felt a pang of guilt because I didn’t want to appear insensitive or flippant. Beatrice had actually done very well on all the tests up to this point. However, her results seldom satisfied her and she was a frequent visitor to my office, looking for tips on how to do even better.

Beatrice, if she were a psychiatric patient, would probably be described as one of the “worried well:” individuals who are, in general, coping with life’s demands but who never feel at ease or comfortable or satisfied. Her anxiety about the test question betrays what I believe is one of the central problems of the anxious, high-achieving student–a concern about what has not happened yet rather than a focus on what one can do now..

Such  students are so driven to do well that they forget that the content of the test is out of their control. Unless the students are very lucky, the test will present some material that they did not understand or remember perfectly–too many variables are involved for it to be otherwise. A teacher must remind these students (who are often so bright that they do not encounter any academic adversity until the senior years of high school or the first year of university) that only the preparation for the test is in their control. This sounds obvious to the teacher, but it is not always obvious to a student.  They often look for some magic formula that will ensure perfection.

I have told Beatrice and students like her to think of it reasonably: if you have done well on the other tests, you will probably do well on this one. Have you studied thoroughly and at regular intervals? Have you focused especially on the material where you are weak? Have you been respecting your body and mind with good nutrition and adequate sleep? Then, on the morning of the test, can you honestly say you have done your best? And have you thought ahead to the worst possible combination of material on the test and considered how you would deal with it if it were to appear? Then you have done what is in your control. You have created the opportunity for success on the test. The questions on the test are out of your control and may be more difficult than you expected.Some kind of failure is inevitable, but at least you have prepared yourself to the best of you ability.

I do not know if Beatrice took this message to heart, but it was the best advice I could give her.


Melissa was so upset she was shaking. She sat in the guidance counselor`s office unable to speak. Already a painfully shy girl, she had just completed an important, lengthy presentation which she found almost unbearable to do and was convinced she had failed. She had done a satisfactory presentation for me earlier in the year and, although she was nervous, she got through it without a breakdown. The crucial difference this time was the value of the presentation for her overall course grade. That pressure resulted in a complete loss of composure.

How does the teacher help a student whose sense of self-worth rests on a grade? The current academic environment is not much help with its fierce competition for admission to the best universities. Telling students that, in the long run, their talent will be evident no matter where they go to school and therefore admission to one of the top schools doesn’t matter will probably be of no comfort, because at this moment it does matter very deeply to them. On the one hand, we want them to strive for the best and avoid complacency; on the other hand, we need them to develop a rational sense of their chances of meeting their goals.

My thinking is that perspective–through a knowledge of other people’s experience, famous or otherwise, who faced similar adversity–can help students in this situation. Changed thinking can lead to controlled emotions, which can lead to equanimity in the face of future trouble. Although I have not yet had a chance to talk  to Melissa about this problem, if I do have the chance I will probably point out that the schools she is interested in attending admit about one in one thousand applicants. Should she give up? No, because the application process is still in her control–the admission decision is not. Thousands of highly talented people are  turned away from these institutions every year and, nevertheless, do tremendous things with their lives. Indeed, only one of the CEOs of the top ten Fortune 500 companies went to an Ivy League school, not to mention the pillars of the high-tech sector who were admitted to such schools and left them before graduation to pursue more creative and, one might argue, important accomplishments. Am I filling her with false optimism that her brilliance will win the day, no matter what? No, I am pointing out that anyone’s life is full of variables beyond one’s control, and sometimes things work out and life is pleasant, and other times they don’t and life is hard.

Would advocating a mindset of ‘rational pessimism’ destroy the dreams of a student such as Melissa? I do not believe so. Once again, the teacher has a  duty to encourage students to pursue their cherished aspirations combined with an equally important duty to cultivate a rational and critical way of thinking. In the Meditations, Marcus reminds himself that every day he will face the arrogant, the devious, the unsocial, and so on, and thereby prepares himself to be composed during the day. A similar inventory for a student looking to the future might be realizing she will enter a school not of her first choice, assignments of doubtful value, and mediocre instructors. However, these adversities also create the conditions for developing personal excellence and resilience in an unpredictable, possibly chaotic environment..


As he was leaving the room, Anthony made an obscene gesture and a petulant remark to a classmate. The classmate had made some slightly mocking but otherwise benign comment that Anthony inflated into a major attack. This was not the first time Anthony had behaved inappropriately when under pressure in class and the remark, combined with Anthony’s state of sleep-deprivation, triggered an emotional meltdown. I  had many discussions with Anthony over a few years regarding his plans for the future, and his plans were very grand. Entrepreneurship, investment banking,  and diplomacy (among others) were all possibilities for him. Through his results on the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, he had shown that he had the academic and cognitive abilities at least to be considered by several top twenty universities and, even if he were not admitted to one of those, would find his way no matter where he went to school. As he studied for his SAT’s, he often came to chat with me about his misgivings, especially when comparing himself to other highly-qualified students from years gone by. At those times I was careful to point out to him, ‘Those people are 70% water, just like you’.

I know that remark may sound facile, but I was trying to tell him that success on these exams is not a superhuman feat, although it can often seem as remote to a student as winning an Olympic gold medal. However, Anthony faced a deeper and more poignant problem: could he maintain his courage to follow through with all this extensive testing, knowing that he probably will not achieve his dream of being accepted to an Ivy League school? Anthony displayed much confidence as a scholar: he was an excellent parliamentary debater, he was well-read, and he had good capacity for critical thinking. However, that was all  in the context of a fairly small school where only a few of his peers demonstrated similar gifts and, therefore, he did not face much competition. Could he risk the blow to his ego of playing in the big leagues, facing competition from very clever people from all around the world?

Once he confided in me that education had been the most important thing to him, ever since he was little. He has taught himself several languages, plays several different musical instruments, and is a budding poet. Comparing what interested him to what interested me at the same age (rock and roll, sports, girls) made me feel like a philistine, and also made me feel that it would be a grave injustice if he failed to fulfill his ambitions. He then asked me if I thought success was purely a product of hard work.

I hemmed and hawed around that one, it being one of the convenient lies we casually tell students to keep them motivated. He stared at me and would not let me off the hook.  Finally, I had to tell him honestly that hard work does not always pay off. In fact, more often than not, in highly competitive fields such as sports, the arts, and academics, the majority of hard-working people do not fulfill their dreams. From my own experience, I confessed to him that I am one of a multitude of doctoral dropouts–people who started but never completed their Ph.D. I also pointed out that in Canada,  97% of new doctoral graduates will not get a tenured position in a university. I could see he was crestfallen and I wished I could erase the previous five minutes of conversation. He picked up his study guides and excused himself.

A few days later Anthony was hospitalized, having made some threats of self-harm. He was observed and assessed and released a short time later, deemed unlikely to hurt himself. Cynically, some thought his behaviour was an attention-seeking device. I reserved judgment. But was I to blame because I did not repeat the “hard work will get you where you want to go” lie?  I hope not. If the worst had happened and he had taken his life, would my failure of sunny optimism have been part of his motivation to end it all? What is obvious to me now is that Anthony was not yet secure enough in himself  to face the prospect of dashed dreams with “stoic resilience.” How can we effectively  educate students like Anthony that recovering from failure is actually more important (and  more frequent in life) than achieving success, when so much of the broader society through mass and social media makes wild success seem normal and rubs your face in it in the form of cars you will never own, vacations you will never take, and beauty you will never have.
I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I am working on it.

Mark Harding teaches in the Advanced Placement Program at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  He has also taught at York University (Toronto) and Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia). At present, he teaches English, Psychology, and the Seminar course of the new College Board AP Capstone Diploma Program.

'Stoicism When Technology Fails: Ancient Steps for a Modern Path' by James Gill

Stoicism When Technology Fails: Ancient Steps for a Modern Path

by James Gill

Advice on how to avoid such fits as this. Sourced here.
Advice on how to avoid such fits as this. Sourced here.

Every spring millions of Americans eagerly await March madness.  It is appropriate nomenclature for a practice that pits 64 of the top ranked college basketball teams against each other in a four conference single elimination bracket.  This year, I looked forward to a little friendly competition between friends and family and urged those that I love to fill out brackets with me.  In the midst of trying to organize something enjoyable, I experienced silly and childish negative emotions because the people that used technology the most somehow couldn’t remember their passwords for required email accounts, the printer that reliably churns out a sheet for everyone in my Bible study group every Sunday suddenly went on the fritz, and I felt the weight of being our pool commissioner most keenly when I realized that everyone around me had a better device than I did for completing the task at hand.  It occurred to me that Stoicism’s applicability crosses time and cultural barriers to serve as a guide for how we should correctly interact with technology and each other.

Seneca described anger as “an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”  This statement’s universal wisdom can be recognized by all, so why do we all lose our minds when dealing with technology?  It is because anger is the product of surprise and personal injury.  It is the unique combination of both of these things that causes uncontrollable fits of blind rage.  A few moments of negative visualization can be very helpful in the elimination of the former substrate for our anger equation.  If we take five minutes each day to meditate on the very worst things that can happen, we have immunized our minds and equipped them to deal with reality.  Optimism is a trap that urges us to expect the best possible outcome.  Unfortunately, life (and especially life that involves technology) is rife with the unexpected.  Also, realizing that it is your perception that injury has occurred that is causing your anger is helpful in elimination of the second substrate.  Marcus Aurelius said, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

Anxiety is the result of trying to control that which is not in our control.  Fate has decided what will befall you on any given day.  Unaffected relief from worry awaits when you realize that the external events of your life cannot dictate whether or not you are happy.  If a deadline is quickly approaching and fate has it in store for your printer to stop working moments before you need to place a document into the hands of someone important to you, realize that the events preceding your seeming imminent failure were not in your control.  You didn’t choose for the printer to stop working.  It is equally as true that the perceptions of other people are not in your control.  Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”

Keeping up with the Joneses has been launched into a new era with technology.  It is no longer just the perfect house, car, job, or family that people feel societal pressure to obtain.  Now social standing is also dependent upon devices and their accessories as much as anything else material and visible.  The slippery slope is that technology expires almost as quickly as it’s released, leaving those with the worst cases of avarice in debt and constantly wanting.  So how can the itch be scratched, so to speak?  Epictetus offers this:  “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”  The most effective way to appreciate the things that you have is to try to get by without them.  Sending someone a letter through the mail to be grateful for the speed of email or leaving your phone at home to acknowledge the convenience of immediate access to information can be more effective for your material satisfaction than making a new purchase.

The tutelage of men that lived thousands of years ago is still applicable and advisable in the compartments of our lives that define our era as modern.  Technology’s purpose is to make our lives better and easier, and in many ways it does.  It also offers a uniquely challenging environment in which to practice the attainment of virtue through Stoic philosophy.  We can connect instantly with people halfway across the globe, making neighbors out of people that never would have spoken.  We have access to all the information in all the world’s libraries at our fingertips, making the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom accessible to all regardless of physical location or social position.  Whether we are Facebooking, emailing, blogging, constructing a presentation, or filling out a bracket, the ultimate goal is to connect with people.  If used for virtuous purposes, technology can aid us in practicing the tenants of Stoicism; chiefly the idea that everyone is a manifestation of the divine and should be treated as such.  Through daily practice of these tenants, when my laptop doesn’t work according to its nature, I can still work according to mine.

James Gill holds two degrees in religion and leads a small church plant in East Tennessee where he encourages others in compassionate and simple living. James works with children and enjoys hiking, gardening, and reading and old time Americana music.

'The Internet and the Dinner Party: Cultivating Stoic Calm in the Online World' by Tanya Brodd

The Internet and the Dinner Party: Cultivating Stoic Calm in the Online World

By Tanya Brodd

How to learn to prevent this from happening!
How to learn to prevent this from happening!

Reputations are made and ruined in the blink of an eye these days.  A few months ago, in Indiana, USA, a pizza company gave an interview supporting the new Religious Freedom act.  The proprietor of the small, family-owned company said they would serve a gay couple who came into their restaurant but they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding.  The interview went viral and the Internet responded in a way that has been becoming increasingly commonplace.  Their Yelp! site was flooded with one star reviews (they had only two reviews previously) and by the end of the day they announced they were closing their doors due to threats.  In the predictable followup to this story, they started a Gofundme page which raised over $400,000 in 24 hours.  Clearly, expressing oneself on the Internet goes far beyond trolling, the comments section of the newspaper, and Facebook comments.  People lose jobs and are made to feel in fear of their safety frequently.  Others have been bullied to the point of taking their own lives.  On the other hand, it is very easy to express solidarity with whatever cause by joining in on the side we support of any issue.  When a bus monitor was the victim of bullying by students hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to support her and, as it was hoped by many, to shame the students.  When a man was shamed for dancing on a subway, strangers halfway around the world offered to throw him a dance party and several pop stars joined in.  Any incident, no matter how trivial or huge, can quickly go viral and change someone’s life forever due to a picture or quote on the Internet.

Memes pop up about social issues, political viewpoints, even parenting styles, disabilities, and anything else that people have strong feelings about.  Navigating this quickly changing world can be very difficult for the modern Stoic and I am no exception.  It may seem as though the ancients would have little in the way of advice to offer us today.  Yet, in many ways the modern Internet can be thought of as similar to an ancient dinner party.  Epictetus, in particular, had a lot to say about this.  These words have helped me form an unofficial policy for my own online interaction.

At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a story for a blog about disabilities featuring my own children and their struggles with autism.  I was really surprised at how quickly this story spread around the Internet.  At first, I was reading all the comments and so many were positive.  Writing about our journey was something I had wanted to do for a long time and this was my first tentative step in this direction.  It was clear that this story really struck a chord with a lot of parents.  But, as the story was shared to groups outside of the autism community some comments turned negative.  My parenting ability, my reason for writing the article,  the value of my children’s lives were all thrown into question.  And when I read those comments, Stoic practice or not, it hurt.  I had to go back and pull out my books and start my practice all over again.  It felt like reading some words, especially Epictetus, for the first time:

“When someone treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he acts or speaks thus because he thinks it is incumbent upon him.  That being the case, it is impossible for him to follow what appears good to you, but what appears good to himself; whence it follows, that, if he gets a wrong view of things, the man that suffers is the man that has been deceived.  For if a person thinks a true composite judgement to be false, the composite judgement does not suffer, but the person who has been deceived.  If, therefore, you start from this point of view, you will be gentle with the man who reviles you.  For you should say on each occasion ‘He thought that way about it’” (Oldfather, 2000, p. 527).

So my first rule:  What is said about me, well, I can’t control that.  Furthermore, they are making a judgement (whether based on an article, a comment on an article, a belief I have, a cause I support, etc.) based on one small piece of who I am.  The best thing to do is to not respond at all.  In the case mentioned above, that story was written to be a snapshot about one instance in my life.  It needed to stand alone and not be defended.  It required  me to be quiet, calm and dignified. In order to do that I had to skip reading the comments – both good and bad.  I owed that to myself and my children.  It can be hard to remember the basics of Stoic principles and to be gentle.  But anger benefits no one in these situations.

That’s not to say that I don’t need to be concerned and careful about what I put out for public consumption.  The Internet is public.  Most of us do need to be mindful of our careers, our families, and to a degree, our reputations.  Epictetus again guides me in my interactions and comments online.  “Be silent for the most part, or else make only the most necessary remarks, and express these in few words.  But rarely, and when occasion requires you talk, talk, indeed, but about no ordinary topics.  Do not talk about gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or things to eat or drink – topics that arise on all occasions; but above all, do not talk about people, either blaming, or praising, or comparing them.  If, then, you can, by your own conversation bring over that of your companions to what is seemly” (Epictetus & Oldfather, 2000, p. 517).  Marcus Aurelius also has a lot to say on this subject but perhaps the best is the most simple of all “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles” (Aurelius & Hays, 2003, p. 37).

This, then, is one of  the hardest things to do.  The Internet provides the perfect place for gossip, mindless chatter, praising public (and sometimes private) figures I admire, tearing down those whose values run counter to mine.  This rule, to make my interactions online positive, uplifting, focusing on “what is seemly” is the one easy to say but hard to live by.  Judging by what others post, it is the one most people find challenging.  At least I’m not alone in this.  For even as I know the Internet is public, it still feels like a solitary pursuit.  It is easy to lose our composure, lose sight of our Stoic values, forget what we can and cannot control.  Stoicism can be a hard practice and sometimes it feels as though I am the only one trying.  Especially online.  So this personal, unofficial rule:  pursue what is seemly, is one I try to practice more often.  This includes not forwarding nasty or harsh articles and memes by those who have a viewpoint different than mine under the guise that they are funny.  It also, for me, includes exposing myself to those whose viewpoints run counter to mine.  I do not want to live in an echo chamber where only those who believe as I do are the ones who talk to me.  This helps me to be gentle with those who do disagree with me.

These two simple rules:  Deal gently with those who judge me since they aren’t judging the whole me and try to keep my online interactions focused on “what is seemly” may feel simplistic.  But, in reading Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and even Seneca the essence of this comes out again and again.  If I follow these rules I will have less concern with the negative side of the Internet.  I won’t have to worry about my reputation and dealing with anger and the often unwanted consequences that come from the quick retort.  I won’t have to hide  what I’m doing under a veil of anonymity.  To be sure, I am far from perfect in this regard.  But, this is the ideal I strive to move towards  continually.  This living philosophy which informs my everyday life is one of which I think the ancients would approve.


Aurelius, M., & Hays, G. (2002). Meditations. New York: Modern Library.

Epictetus, & Oldfather, W. A. (2000). The discourses, books III-IV: Fragments: Encheiridion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tanya just became the Principal at Arizona Autism Charter School.  She has a master’s degree in Special Education – Consultation and Collaboration with an emphasis in Autism and she’s finishing up another master’s degree in Educational Leadership.  Tanya have taught every single grade Kindergarten through 12th grade in a variety of settings. As you can imagine, with this kind of background, at one time philosophy and the ancients couldn’t have been further from her mind. However, she is a true lifelong learner and once she discovered the Stoics and their practices (through her classicist husband) she couldn’t stop reading about it with a view to making it applicable to our modern day.  Tanya has been reading and studying Ancient Stoicism for over three years and this is the first post she has written about it.