Meta-Interview with Donald Robertson

Donald Robertson and I (and to be honest, the entire Modern Stoicism team!) seem to be perpetually busy people, but Donald has been still more actively engaged with the wider world, spreading the word about Stoicism, since the publication of his newest book, How To Think Like A Roman Emperor. He has given an impressive number of interviews in just the last few months.

I was remarking on this in some correspondence with him, and then thought – what if we did an interview specifically about that? Donald always has a wealth of interesting things to say to our readers. Maybe an interview about the recent interviews. . . a meta-interview, if you like. Given our schedules, we had to carry it out via email rather than voice or video recording, but I’m very pleased with the results, which follow below.

Before that, however, here’s a round-up of the interviews Donald has done lately:

Greg: Since publishing your book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, you’ve had more than the usual number of interviews.  How many would you say you’ve done?

Donald: Ha ha!  I’ve done at least fifteen, maybe closer to twenty something.  (One more now, of course!) I enjoy doing interviews and interviewing other people about Stoicism.  I’ve been lucky to be asked to do various things.  

Greg: What is the most interesting question you’ve fielded from those interviews?  If it’s hard to decide, pick a few!

Donald: Brett McKay, who hosts The Art of Manliness podcast, asked me about Stoic rhetoric and what it means, as I like to put it, to “speak wisely”, according to the Stoics.  That’s an aspect of the philosophy that’s often neglected, although I think it’s quite foundational in some ways, and important also from my perspective as a cognitive therapists.  The way we use language shapes our cognitions, which shape our desires and emotions. 

The Stoic literature is full of references to good and bad ways of using language.  Marcus Aurelius is constantly reminding himself what to say in the face of certain challenging situations in life.  That includes questions he asks himself, ways of describing events, and even how he prays.  The Stoics were famous for speaking concisely.  We say “laconically”, after Laconia, the region of Greece where Sparta is located.  Cicero actually says at one point that the Stoics talked like Spartans.  They clearly valued “plain speaking” (parrhesia) like the Cynics before them but they appear to have been more willing than the likes of Diogenes of Sinope to adapt their communication to the emotional needs of the listener.  Marcus, for instance, tells himself not to lecture others like a schoolmaster, or humiliate them in public, but to speak to them in a friendly and appropriate manner. 

I think that’s very relevant today, e.g., where people are talking about Stoicism on the Internet and try to use it as an excuse for being abusive or trolling others.  The ancient Stoics wouldn’t have considered that virtuous.  It seems to me that the Stoics believed that our speech should communicate truth and wisdom in a way that’s suitable to the needs of the audience and avoids being crude or causing offence unnecessarily.  

Greg: People often have misconceptions about Stoicism.  What would you say are the most prevalent ones?  Do you have any idea why they keep popping up?

Donald: The most common misconception about Stoicism is that it’s just about being mentally tough or unemotional.  That seems to me to be largely caused by people confusing the words “Stoicism” (capitalized) and “stoicism”.  The former denotes a school of Greek philosophy, the latter is just the modern-day concept of a “stiff upper lip” coping style or personality trait.  In some respects, perhaps, the Stoics were stoic but it’s really not the same thing.  If being “stoic” means just concealing or suppressing our painful emotions then that’s quite opposed to what Stoicism teaches.  It’s also important because “stoicism” has been the subject of a number of psychological research studies, which generally show it’s quite unhealthy, whereas Stoicism is the philosophical basis for modern cognitive therapy, and teaches much more nuanced and healthier ways of coping with our emotions.

Greg: What is the most bizarre or off-the-wall question you’ve been asked in your interviews?  How did you respond to it?

Donald: I get asked sometimes who the most Stoic US president was, which is a question I usually plead the fifth on because I’m not American.  (I’m Scottish but I live in Canada.)  To be honest, I don’t like to evaluate modern-day political figures in terms of Stoicism except in relation to specific examples of behaviour perhaps.  It’s easier to criticize politicians in terms of Stoic ethics than to use them as role models.  

Greg: Are there any Stoic practices or principles that you find helpful to apply when you’re doing an interview?  

Donald: If I remember rightly, the Dalai Lama once said that all you have to remember when doing public speaking (or interviews) is to do your best to try to communicate the truth honestly.  I think the Stoics would agree with that – speak plainly.  You’re definitely not going to please all the people all the time that way.  Nevertheless, it’s always the best way to approach things.  I think it’s also good to avoid strong value judgements or emotive language, or rather to be aware when you’re using this sort of language and to use it selectively and with mindfulness.  

Greg: Do you find that people often mix up upper-case-S Stoicism and lower-case-s stoicism when they’re interviewing?

Donald: Sometimes.  Not too often, though, because, to be honest, I often find that they’ve read some of my online articles or books beforehand and they’re starting to get the idea that Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, isn’t reducible to stoicism, just toughing it out and having a stiff upper-lip.  I did have one interview recently where the interviewer’s questions seemed more like a series of criticisms of Stoicism, which I had to answer, and perhaps some of those were based more on the more widespread notion of “stoicism” as emotional suppression rather the more nuanced approach to emotions found in ancient Stoic philosophy. 

Greg: Without naming names, have you ever turned down an interview because you were concerned about a particular site, podcast, etc.

Donald: No.  I’ve thought about doing that, though, and perhaps came close a couple of times.  Sometimes I don’t agree with the interviewer’s politics, to the extent that their views somewhat concern me, but I’ve always found it works out for the best if I talk to them anyway.  I’ve handled some quite awkward questions, although I did sidestep one about politics because I felt it would have caused too much of a diversion if I’d given an honest answer live on air to the presenter.

Greg: You’ve been studying, applying, and teaching Stoicism for years and years.  Is there anything new that you’ve learned or realized about Stoicism as you’ve been doing these interviews?

Donald: Yes.  It’s really confirmed, first of all, that there’s a huge potential audience out there for Stoicism among people who don’t know much about it or who only having a passing acquaintance with, say, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  People from all walks of life are drawn to Stoicism because they think it might offer a philosophy of life that could contribute to mental health and emotional resilience – and they’re right about that.  People often have some reservations about Stoicism but those tend to be tied up with the common misconceptions about the subject.  So when we address those, the philosophy becomes much more appealing. 

People seem very relieved to discover, for instance, that the Stoics weren’t actually telling us all to suppress our emotions and that they didn’t expect us to become doormats who stay at home, passively accepting fate, instead of pursuing active lives.  I also realized that the qualms many newcomers express about Stoicism today are probably much the same as the questions ancient Stoics had to tackle from their students.  

Greg: What question do you wish that the interviewers would have asked but didn’t? 

Donald: There are two:

Q: What are the best books to read to gain a deeper knowledge of Marcus’ life or The Meditations?

A: The short answer is that I’d recommend Hadot’s The Inner Citadel and there are several modern biographies of Marcus Aurelius but I’d recommend Anthony Birley’s over Frank McLynn’s, I think.  I also think that The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen is an incredibly valuable companion to The Meditations.  There are lots of other things I could recommend but that’s the short list.

Q: What’s the single most important psychological practice in ancient Stoicism

A:  That’s probably the one I’d describe as a form of “cognitive distancing”, which is basically encapsulated by the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not events that upset us but our opinions about events.”  Marcus frequently refers to this as the “separation” of our mind, or opinions, from external events, as if it were a kind of psychological purification – a cognitive katharsis.  I think that’s pretty foundational.  Someone who hasn’t grasped the significance of that hasn’t really grasped the ABCs of Stoicism but it’s arguably quite a subtle concept.  

Greg: Are there any interview questions that you’re tired of being asked and answering?

Donald: Not really.  “How did you first become interested in Stoicism?” is a good question, so I don’t mind answering it, although I’m asked it over and over again so I can feel myself starting to take a deep breath before launching into the same story.  I try to tell it in slightly different ways sometimes.  Questions about common misconceptions of Stoicism are common but they’re important so I don’t mind answering them.

Greg: Are there any places in particular that you’d like to do an interview, that you haven’t been asked to yet?  

Donald: I’m always happy to do interviews in print, in podcasts, on television or radio, etc.  There are lots of places I think it would be good for me, or someone else, to do one – mainly because it would reach a different audience. 

I’d like to see an interview in a publication aimed at nurses, for example.  More interviews for journals and other publications aimed at psychologists and therapists.  I’d like to see interviews reaching sports psychologists and coaches.  I’ve been doing some things for the military recently, and have a talk coming up for the US marines, so I’d like to see more interviews that reach out to that audience.  I also wrote an article recently with a former NYPD officer, about Stoicism and alcoholism – and I’d like to see more interviews and articles about Stoicism in publications that reach people recovering from addictions. 

Finally, there’s a lot of interest from the business community as well – I’ve written recently about Marcus Aurelius and the leadership qualities he admired in previous Roman emperors.  How to Think Like a Roman Emperor was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal and that was followed by some interest from people like Wharton business school.  I’d like to see more interviews and articles, though, for entrepreneurs and leaders in the business world. 

Here is a list of Donald’s recent interviews, listed by source. Click on the links to watch, listen, or read!

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.