My Summary

I’ve been reading about Stoicism for around 7/8 years now. I started off with Ryan Holiday/Tim Ferriss and loved all the lessons. It did take me a while to connect the ideas and how they worked in real life and reading The Meditations without any context as to who Marcus Aurelius was and how he fitted into the bigger picture confused me. I didn’t like my first read of The Meditations and didn’t turn back to it until after I read this book. 

The books by other authors explained the lessons from the Stoics but I still didn’t have a complete picture, until I started reading Donald’s work and this book in particular.  

What makes this book a 10/10 is that Donald Robertson is an experienced psychotherapist. The book connects the Stoic techniques and modern-day CBT and it makes the entire thing ‘click’. You understand how the Stoics were able to direct their life and why the techniques worked. This background and connection give the Stoics another element of proof in my mind. If the Stoics were essentially practicing ancient CBT then it makes complete sense as to why it was a really helpful philosophy of life to all those people back then. 

But the book is more than that. It teaches you about Stoicism and why it works. It teaches you about CBT and modern-day techniques you can use. But it also teaches you about Marcus Aurelius’s life in full colour and flavor. I have a much better understanding of who Marcus Aurelius is now than ever before. He’s not just some mystic sage in my mind he’s this young curious man who was given a chance to learn, improve and refine himself with the best teachers possible to handle the toughest job on the planet. He wasn’t perfect and he never claimed to be. He was like just you and I but he worked at it, for decades. I’ve now read The Meditations again since reading this book and it makes WAAAY more sense to me now than it ever did before. I appreciate it 100x more and that’s thanks to the Scottish Socrates himself Donald Robertson!

In my review below I’ve taken out my favourite passages about the book.

My notes are in bold with the ✏️  next to them


Socrates was the first person to apply the philosophical method to ethical questions.


“Wealth does not bring about virtue, but virtue makes wealth and everything else good for men”

✏️  I love this. It’s pointless having all the “good” stuff in life if we don’t have our values in place, to begin with. 


Modern philosophers are way too academic, ancient were more practical.

✏️  I think this is a classic error people make today. They hear the word ‘philosophy’ and think boring in the air nonsense. 

Anxiety and depression = wrong values

✏️  This is true, for me especially. If I feel anxious about something more often than not I’m placing too much value on an external or ‘wrong’ thing. 

Emotions are determined by our beliefs

✏️  Could you feel a certain emotion if there wasn’t a word for it?

Like all Stoics, Marcus firmly believed that virtue must be its own reward.

So important. Self-control is its own reward. Doing the right thing is its own reward.

Marcus learned the same attitude from his Stoic teachers. He repeatedly warned himself not to become distracted by reading too many books

When we reason well about life and live rationally, we exhibit the virtue of wisdom

Virtue means excellence of character. Stuff we can control and do. Values can be stuff outside of us such as fame, wealth, reputation etc.

The Stoics would say that things like health, wealth, and reputation are, at most, advantages or opportunities rather than being good in themselves.

✏️  Agree. Winning the lottery usually results in those same people being broke and worse off in a few years. 

These include things like being startled or irritated, blushing, turning pale, tensing up, shaking, sweating, or stammering. They are natural reflex reactions, our first reactions…

✏️  This helped me a lot. I typically blush easily or start sweating for literally no rational reason. But I’ve tried over the years to figure out why but sometimes it’s just automatic. I can’t help it but I can help how I react to it. I explain it away. 

The appearance of wisdom therefore became more important to many Romans than wisdom itself. Same as today people would prefer to look rich, prefer to look like readers, and prefer to be ‘healthy’.

✏️  So true today. So many people are more concerned about ‘looking’ busy or that they are doing the full shabang. In reality it’s all bullshit. So many busy bees just caring about looking like a busy bee with a perfect Instagram life. Sad. 

He was meticulous in examining matters that required careful deliberation. He never rushed making a decision and was always willing to question his first impressions.

In other words, a certain amount of anxiety is natural.


Indeed, Seneca also points out that there is no virtue in enduring things we do not feel. This is important to note: for a Stoic to exhibit the virtue of temperance, he must have at least some trace of desire to renounce, and to exhibit courage he must have at least these first sensations of fear to endure.

Stoic philosophy, which teaches us to accept our involuntary emotional reactions, our flashes of anxiety, as indifferent: neither good nor bad. What matters, in other words, isn’t what we feel but how we respond to those feelings. Going red when meeting someone for first time or doing a presentation is fine, it’s natural! Let it go and it will go.

-When we call something a “catastrophe,” for instance, we go beyond the bare facts and start distorting events and deceiving ourselves

We exaggerate, overgeneralize, omit information, and use strong language and colorful metaphors: “She’s always being a bitch!” “That bastard shot me down in flames!” “This job is complete bullshit!” People tend to think that exclamations like these are a natural consequence of strong emotions like anger. But what if they’re also causing or perpetuating our emotions? If you think about it, rhetoric like this is designed to evoke strong feelings. By contrast, undoing the effects of emotional rhetoric by describing the same events more objectively forms the basis of the ancient Stoic therapy of the passions.

✏️  Vital for everyone to understand. We often make our problems 10x worse by our own doing. 

Decatastrophizing, on the other hand, has been described as going from “What if?” to “So what?”: So what if such-and-such happens? It’s not the end of the world; I can deal with it

Agrippinus was truly a master decatastrophizer. He would reframe every hardship as an opportunity to cope by exercising wisdom and strength of character.

✏️  Big fan of this mindset. How can I turn this challenge in front of me into an opportunity? 

You can start training yourself in this Stoic practice of objective representation right now by writing down a description of an upsetting or problematic event in plain language. Phrase things as accurately as possible and view them from a more philosophical perspective, with studied indifference.

It’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things

He recommended explaining this to clients using the analogy of colored glasses. We could look at the world through positive rose-tinted glasses or sad blue ones and just assume that what we see is how things are

The Stoics taught Marcus that anger is nothing but temporary madness and that its consequences are often irreparable, as in the case of the slave’s eye.

Out on open water their boat was caught in a ferocious storm, which lasted almost the whole night. The passengers feared for their lives as they struggled to man the pumps and keep themselves from drowning in a shipwreck. Gellius noticed that the great Stoic teacher had turned as white as a sheet and shared the same anxious expression as the rest of the passengers. However, the philosopher alone remained silent instead of crying out in terror and lamenting his predicament. Once the sea and sky calmed, as they were approaching their destination, Gellius gently inquired of the Stoic why he looked almost as fearful as the others did during the storm. He could see that Gellius was sincere and courteously answered that the founders of Stoicism taught how people facing such dangers naturally and inevitably experience a short-lived stage of fear. He then reached into his satchel and produced the fifth book of Epictetus’s Discourses for Gellius to peruse. Today, only the first four books of the Discourses survive, although Marcus appears to have read the lost discourses of Epictetus and quotes from them in The Meditations. In any case, Gellius describes Epictetus’s remarks, which he confidently asserts were true to the original teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus. 

✏️  I love this story. Makes so much sense. You’re never going to get rid of fear or anxiety or being nervous at special events etc. It’s human! 

First come the initial impressions (phantasiai) that are imposed involuntarily on our minds from outside, when we’re initially exposed to an event such as the storm at sea. These impressions can be triggered, says Epictetus, by a terrifying sound such as a peal of thunder, a building collapsing, or a sudden cry of danger. Even the mind of a perfect Stoic Sage will initially be shaken by abrupt shocks of this kind, and he will shrink back from them instinctively in alarm. This reaction doesn’t come from faulty value judgments about the dangers faced but from an emotional reflex arising in his body, which temporarily bypasses reason. Epictetus might have added that these emotional reactions are comparable to those experienced by non-human animals.


FIRST STAGE: Initial impressions automatically impose themselves on your mind, including thoughts and emerging feelings called propatheiai, or “proto-passions,” by the Stoics. For example, the impression “The boat is sinking” would quite naturally evoke some initial anxiety.

SECOND STAGE: The majority of people, like those on the boat, would agree with the original impression, go along with it, and add more value judgments, indulging in catastrophic thinking:“I might die a terrible death!” They would worry about it and continue to dwell on it long afterward. By contrast, Stoics, like the unnamed philosopher in the story, have learned to take a step back from their initial thoughts and feelings and withhold their assent from them. **They might do this by saying to themselves, “You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent,” or “It is not things that upset us but our judgments about them.” The boat is sinking, but you might make it ashore; even if you don’t, panicking won’t help. Responding calmly and with courage is more important. That’s what you’d praise other people for doing if faced with the same situation.

THIRD STAGE: On the other hand, if you have assented to the impression that something is intrinsically bad or catastrophic, then a full-blown “passion” develops, which can quickly spiral out of control**. This actually happened to Seneca during a storm when he grew seasick and panicked so much that he foolishly clambered overboard and tried to wade ashore through the waves and rocks when he would have been much safer remaining on the boat.

Stoic philosophy, which teaches us to accept our involuntary emotional reactions, our flashes of anxiety, as indifferent: neither good nor bad. What matters, in other words, isn’t what we feel but how we respond to those feelings.

What would a role model like Socrates, Diogenes, or Zeno do? We can also ask “What would Marcus do?” if faced with the same situation. In modern therapy, clients model the behavior of others and develop “coping plans,” which describe how they would deal with the feared situation if it actually happened.

✏️  I am getting so many memories now as a kid about how I used Bruce Lee as my mentor. I didn’t smoke, take drugs or join the wrong gangs simply because I asked “What would Bruce Lee do?”. 

You can start training yourself in this Stoic practice of objective representation right now by writing down a description of an upsetting or problematic event in plain language. Phrase things as accurately as possible and view them from a more philosophical perspective, with studied indifference.

Indeed, Marcus said that it was Junius Rusticus who showed him that he was in need of moral training and Stoic psychological therapy (therapeia). This may explain the tension in their relationship. Marcus clearly loved Rusticus dearly as a friend and looked up to him as a teacher, but he also found him exasperating at times, presumably because he frequently drew the young Caesar’s attention to flaws in his character.

For example, Junius Rusticus taught him not to be pretentious, encouraging him to dress like a normal citizen when possible. He also taught Marcus to be a careful and patient student of philosophy, to read attentively rather than just skimming things, and not to be swayed too easily by speakers who have a silver tongue. Epictetus likewise told his students repeatedly that they should not speak about philosophy lightly, like the Sophists, but rather show its fruits in their very character and actions. In typically blunt fashion he told them that sheep don’t vomit up grass to show the shepherds how much they’ve eaten but rather digest their food inwardly and produce good wool and milk outwardly.

✏️  Yep! Show your work don’t just tell people. I don’t want to hear all words no action. Most people are all talk. 

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.

The Stoics realized that to communicate wisely, we must phrase things appropriately. Indeed, according to Epictetus, the most striking characteristic of Socrates was that he never became irritated during an argument. He was always polite and refrained from speaking harshly even when others insulted him. He patiently endured much abuse and yet was able to put an end to most quarrels in a calm and rational manner

Marcus Aurelius doubts that the majority of us could really endure this for even a single day because we foolishly put more value on other people’s opinions than on our own. And yet he aspired to this level of transparency. He says that we should imagine someone asking “What’s going on right now in your mind?” without warning and that we should be able to answer truthfully without feeling the need to blush. Marcus says he wants his soul to be naked and simple, more visible even than the body that surrounds it. Elsewhere he goes even further and, like a Cynic, says we should never crave anything in life that requires walls or curtains.

✏️  Think how hard this is!

Epictetus told his students that, just as someone who walks barefoot is cautious not to step on a nail or twist his ankle, they should be careful throughout the day not to harm their own character by lapsing into errors of moral judgment.

✏️  Great way of looking at things. Our mind is unguarded so many hours of the day. We give the guards sleeping tablets at times when we aimlessly scroll social media!

Galen suggested that imitating a role model is more appropriate in our youth. Later in life, as we take more responsibility for our own character, it becomes important to follow specific philosophical principles and practice living by them**.

Over the years, with more experience, we should develop more self-awareness and become able to spot our own errors without needing the help of a mentor.

✏️  Super important skill. I think this is something I’ve developed myself over the years without realising it until now. 

Following the example of Antoninus, he therefore reminds himself not to be “stained purple” and turned into a Caesar. Rather Marcus sought to dye his mind deeply with the same virtues he observed in others, striving, as he put it, to remain the person philosophy sought to make him

Mentally rehearse the virtues you want to exhibit. Throughout the day, try continually to be self-aware, as if a wise mentor or teacher is observing you. We call this “Stoic mindfulness” today, but the Stoics meant something similar by prosoche, or paying attention to yourself.

✏️  Love this. When we think someone is watching us we always try harder.


During your evening meditation, review how things actually went, perhaps going over the key events of the day two or three times in your mind’s eye. What would your imaginary mentors say? What advice might they give you about doing things differently next time? This is your opportunity to learn from experience and prepare for the morning, when you’ll plan your behavior and rehearse things again in an ongoing cycle of self-improvement. You might ask yourself, for example, “What would Marcus Aurelius say about how I fared today?”


Regarding the morning meditation, Galen says that as soon as you rise from bed and begin considering each of the tasks ahead, you should ask yourself two questions:

1. What would the consequences be if you acted as a slave to your passions?

2. How would your day differ if you acted more rationally, exhibiting wisdom and self-discipline?

This famous passage from “The Golden Verses,” which Epictetus quoted to his students, describes the evening meditation: Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes, Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed: “Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?” From first to last review your acts and then Reprove yourself for wretched acts, but rejoice in those done well.

✏️  I always feel better every night before bed if I do something like this. 

You can ask yourself these three very simple questions:

1. What did you do badly? Did you allow yourself to be ruled by irrational fears or unhealthy desires? Did you act badly or allow yourself to indulge in irrational thoughts?

2. What did you do well? Did you make progress by acting wisely? Praise yourself and reinforce what you want to repeat.

3. What could you do differently? Did you omit any opportunities to exercise virtue or strength of character? How could you have handled things better?

what purpose am I currently using my mind? Am I being foolish? Am I alienated from other people? Am I letting myself be dragged off course by fear and desire? What passions are there right now in my mind?” You might also ask yourself, “How’s this actually working out?” Sometimes it’s necessary to interrupt the things you’re doing out of habit so that you can ask yourself whether they’re actually healthy or unhealthy for you in the long run.

This sort of Socratic questioning forms part of an approach called “values clarification,” which has been around since the 1970s but has recently gone through a resurgence of popularity among therapists and researchers.30 By deeply reflecting on our values each day and attempting to describe them concisely, we can develop a clearer sense of direction in life. You might do this by posing questions to yourself such as: •  What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?


What do you really want your life to stand for or represent? •  What do you want to be remembered for after you’re dead? •  What sort of person do you most want to be in life? •  What sort of character do you want to have? •  What would you want written on your tombstone?


You can’t buy good friends, though, and the extravagance attracted a retinue of greedy and dissolute hangers-on who encouraged the worst aspects of Lucius’s character.

My interpretation is that Lucius organized his whole life around the pursuit of empty pleasures as a form of emotional avoidance. Psychologists now know that people often engage in habits they consider pleasurable—from social media to crack cocaine—as a way of distracting themselves from or suppressing unpleasant feelings

✏️  Realising now how this behaviour shows though with some of my friends. Will be more alert to it and helpful. 

Chasing empty, transient pleasures can never lead to true happiness in the long run. However, pleasure can be tricky—it can lure us in by posing as something its not. what we’re all really seeking in life is the sense of authentic happiness or fulfillment the stoics called eudaimonia

✏️  I am a big fan of this. For as long as I can remember I’ve always felt content/joy and that has led me to feeling fulfilled. Those times are usually when I’m NOT going out all the time, on holiday or doing lots of things. It’s usually those quiet weeks, planned, doing good work, having good chats and being the person I want to be. 

People still confuse pleasure with happiness and often find it difficult to imagine a different perspective on life

✏️  I think many people still confuse the two. Life should be lived to enjoy right!? It’s a shame “enjoy” has a very rigid definition for most which is drinking, eating out all the time and that’s it. 

Not surprisingly, Hercules was the mythic hero most admired by Cynic and Stoic philosophers. His labors embodied their belief that it’s more rewarding to face hardship voluntarily and cultivate strength of character than to take the easy option by embracing comfortable living and idleness

“What do you think Hercules would have amounted to,” Epictetus asks his students, “if there had not been monsters such as the Nemean lion, the Hydra, the stag of Artemis, the Erymanthian boar, and all those unjust and bestial men for him to contend with? Why, if he had sat at home, wrapped up asleep in bedsheets, living in luxury and ease, he would have been no Hercules at all!

✏️  Take on the big challenges! Be Hercules for it. Win. 


By contrast, Marcus Aurelius, like Hercules in the fable, chose to avoid these sorts of distractions, or at least keep them to a minimum. The unnamed slave from whom he learned so much as a child had wisely counseled him not to take the side of the Greens or the Blues in the chariot races or back different factions in the gladiatorial lists. These were the main forms of public entertainment in imperial Rome, and it seems the “masses” were just as addicted to them as many of us are to spectator sports and reality television today.

Marcus has that in mind when he repeatedly tells himself that the goal of his life is not pleasure but action. 

His friends’ company wasn’t always fun—sometimes they spoke plainly and criticized him—but he embraced them because they shared his values and helped to improve him as a person. He clearly preferred the company of his family and most trusted friends over socializing with the Roman elite.

✏️  For some reason this made me feel more at ease. I tend to have the reputation that I’m more of the straight talker friend majority of the time. I go to festivals, holidays, drink etc with people but I’m a straight shooter and probably don’t say what people want to hear all the time. While I know friends who will ONLY spend time with someone if they are ‘fun’ I never want to fall into that trap. Have fun but be bold. Don’t just blend in and say what everyone wants to hear and do. Boring! 

Binge drinking, casual sex, gambling, and partying became his way of coping, albeit badly, with the pressures of his role. The Stoics believed that entertainment, sex, food, and even alcohol have their place in life—they’re neither good nor bad in themselves. However, when pursued excessively, they can become unhealthy.So the wise man sets reasonable limits on his desires, and he exercises the virtue of moderation: “Nothing in excess.” When doing what feels pleasurable becomes more important than doing what’s actually good for us or our loved ones, though, that’s a recipe for disaster.There’s a world of difference between healthy pleasures and unhealthy ones. Lucius had definitely crossed that line.

Marcus was probably a much happier man than his hedonistic brother Lucius was. True, he didn’t experience the highs of all the wild parties Lucius threw, but neither did he suffer the lows

✏️  Damn right. I remember to this day when I was around 16 playing xbox until 2am with all the boys and my sister and her friends would be going out and telling me I’m boring and that for NOT partying. I was fully enjoying chilling out with the boys on box. I didn’t need to drink to have fun. 

It comes from achieving your fundamental goal in life and experiencing genuine fulfillment, which make ordinary pleasures seem trivial by comparison. 

✏️  The ultimate goal is doing what you love so it never feels like work. Luckily I am in that position today. 

The Stoics tended to view joy not as the goal of life, which is wisdom, but as a by-product of it, so they believed that trying to pursue it directly might lead us down the wrong path if it’s sought at the expense of wisdom. 2. Joy in the Stoic sense is fundamentally active rather than passive; it comes from perceiving the virtuous quality of our own deeds, the things we do

The wise man’s sense of delight comes from one thing alone: acting consistently in accord with virtue.

✏️  I need to always check if my actions are consistent with the virtues I want to exhibit. 

Socrates had likewise claimed, paradoxically, that those who practice self-control actually obtain more pleasure from things like food and drink than those who indulge in them to excess.

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.

twentieth-century psychotherapist Charles Baudouin, who was influenced by Stoicism, to describe this psychological technique: “depreciation by analysis.”16 That means breaking any problem down into small chunks that seem less emotionally powerful or overwhelming

People often talk about the things they crave in language that’s bound to excite their own desire, even when they realize they’re fostering unhealthy habits: “I’m dying for some chocolate. Why is it so good? It tastes like heaven! This is better than sex.” (It’s mainly vegetable fat, some cacao, and a load of refined sugar.) That’s another example of rhetoric working against you.

In modern cognitive therapy, we also suggest that clients think of themselves as scientists, approaching behavior change as an experiment with an attitude of curiosity, detachment, and objectivity.

✏️  Been saying this for years. You have to be your own scientist, you got the tools!

Now you’re getting better at catching the urge to drink as soon as it begins to appear. You notice your thoughts, and you’re aware of how they influence your feelings. You tell yourself, “It’s not the wine that makes me feel desire but the way I’m thinking about it.

Of course, the Stoics would go further and argue that we should exercise wisdom, self-discipline, and moderation, not because it sets a good example for our children but because doing so is an end in itself—virtue is its own reward.

Sometimes, though, not doing something, the very act of overcoming a bad habit, might be considered a virtue, something to be valued for its own sake**

gratitude, on the other hand, comes from imagining the absence of things that are currently present: What would it be like if you didn’t have this? If we don’t occasionally picture loss, reminding ourselves what life might be like without the things and people we love, we would take them for granted. Keep a journal of people and things that you’re grateful for, perhaps also focusing on what you can learn from them

✏️  this makes way more sense to be. Just listing things you’re grateful for didn’t do much for me. But imagining things i have NOW as if they were GONE is like having one of them nightmares when someone dies and you wake up relieved it’s just a dream. Try and cultivate that level of relief/gratitude each day and that would be insane. 

Perhaps he also wanted to become less like Fronto and the other Sophists, whose love of high-flown rhetoric risked amplifying their complaints by turning common misfortunes into personal tragedies.

✏️  If you talk big words all the time it causes unwanted amplified feelings and thoughts

Marcus quotes this letter and then exhorts himself always to act as Epicurus did: remain focused on the pursuit of wisdom even in the face of illness, pain, or any other hardship. This advice, he says, is common not only to Epicureanism and Stoicism but to all other schools of philosophy.

He’s particularly interested in one of Epicurus’s famous maxims, or Principal Doctrines, which contains advice for coping with pain. We should remind ourselves, Epicurus said, that pain is always bearable because it is either acute or chronic but never both.

✏️ This helped me when I was having pain across the back/shoulders

When people are really struggling, they focus on their inability to cope and the feeling that the problem is spiraling out of control: “I just can’t bear this any longer!” This is a form of catastrophizing: focusing too much on the worst-case scenario and feeling overwhelmed. However, Epicurus meant that by focusing instead on the limits of your pain, whether in terms of duration or severity, you can develop a mind-set that’s more oriented toward coping and less overwhelmed by worry or negative emotions about your condition.

“Pain is neither unendurable nor everlasting, if you keep its limits in mind and do not add to it through your own imagination.”

Epictetus alludes to his being lame in the Discourses but never mentions the cause. Instead, he uses his disability as an example to teach his students about coping with illness. Disease is an impediment to our body, he tells them, but not to our freedom of will unless we make it so. Lameness, he says, is an impediment to the leg but not to the mind. Epictetus was no more perturbed by his crippled leg than he was by his inability to grow wings and fly—he simply accepted it as one of the many things in life that were beyond his control.

Epictetus alludes to his being lame in the Discourses but never mentions the cause. Instead, he uses his disability as an example to teach his students about coping with illness. Disease is an impediment to our body, he tells them, but not to our freedom of will unless we make it so. Lameness, he says, is an impediment to the leg but not to the mind. Epictetus was no more perturbed by his crippled leg than he was by his inability to grow wings and fly—he simply accepted it as one of the many things in life that were beyond his control.

It may seem natural to assume that pain is intrinsically bad, but the Stoics employ a barrage of arguments to persuade their followers that pain and pleasure are neither good nor bad.

Winning the lottery is good? turns out can ruin a life

Marcus Aurelius agreed that collective whining is bad for the soul: “No joining others in their wailing, no violent emotion.”

1. Separate your mind from the sensation, which I call “cognitive distancing,” by reminding yourself that it is not things, or sensations, that upset us but our judgments about them.

2. Remember that the fear of pain does more harm than pain itself, or use other forms of functional analysis to weigh up the consequences for you of fearing versus accepting pain.

3. View bodily sensations objectively (objective representation, or phantasia kataleptike) instead of describing them in emotive terms. (“There’s a feeling of pressure around my forehead” versus “It feels like I’m dying—an elephant might as well be stamping over and over on my head!”)

4. Analyze the sensations into their elements and limit them as precisely as possible to their specific site on the body, thereby using the same depreciation by analysis that we used in the previous chapter to neutralize unhealthy desires and cravings. (“There’s a sharp throbbing sensation in my ear that comes and goes,” not “I’m in total agony.”)

5. View the sensation as limited in time, changeable, and transient, or “contemplate impermanence.” (“This sensation only peaks for a few seconds at a time and then fades away; it will probably be gone in a couple of days.”) If you have an acute problem like toothache, you’ll have forgotten what it felt like years from now. If you have a long-term problem such as chronic sciatica, you’ll know it sometimes gets worse and so at other times it must be less severe. It makes a difference if you can focus on the notion that this shall pass.

6. Let go of your struggle against the sensation and accept it as natural and indifferent, what is called “Stoic acceptance.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take practical steps to deal with it, such as using medication to reduce pain, but you must learn to live with the pain without resentment or an emotional struggle.

7. Remind yourself that Nature has given you both the capacity to exercise courage and the endurance to rise above pain and that we admire these virtues in other people, which we discussed in relation to contemplating and modeling virtue.

Cognitive Distancing

The most important pain-management strategy mentioned by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius is the one we’ve called “cognitive distancing.” It’s summed up in a phrase that will already be familiar to you: “It’s not events that upset us but our judgments about events.” If we apply that to the concept of pain, it means that the pain isn’t what upsets us but rather our judgments about it. When we suspend the activity of assigning value judgments to the pain, our suffering is alleviated. It’s always within our power to do this in any situation—it’s up to us how much importance we choose to invest in bodily sensations.
– **He stresses that you should not try to suppress the sensations**, because they are natural, and you should not assign judgments to them as good or bad, helpful or harmful. This delicate balance is central to modern mindfulness and acceptance-based cognitive therapy, which teaches clients neither to suppress unpleasant feelings nor to worry about them. Instead, you should learn to accept them while remaining detached from them.
– Most people take for granted assumptions they have about their goals in life, so much so that they are rarely aware of them. If my goal is to look handsome, then if I break my nose, I’m bound to view it as harmful rather than helpful. But if my most cherished goal is survival and I break my nose while narrowly escaping certain death, I’d probably view it with relative indifference.

DEPRECIATION BY ANALYSIS – Marcus also tells himself to avoid overwhelming his mind by worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. When we focus our attention on the reality of the here and now it becomes easier to conquer. By viewing things objectively, isolating the present moment and dividing it into smaller parts, we can tackle them one at a time, using the method we’ve called depreciation by analysis.

✏️ One day at a time! One task at a time. 

He said that our feet, if they had minds of their own, would willingly be driven into the mud with each footstep we take, accepting it as a necessary part of their natural function

Marcus actually imagines Nature herself as a physician, like Asclepius, the god of medicine, prescribing hardships to him as if they were painful remedies.

✏️ bloody love this. 

The Stoics were influenced in this regard by the older Cynic practice of voluntary hardship, as we’ve seen. They would deliberately expose themselves to discomfort, such as intense heat or cold, in order to develop psychological endurance. The paradox of accepting discomfort is that it often leads to less suffering. Diogenes the Cynic reputedly taught that we should treat painful sensations like wild dogs. They will bite and tear at our heels the more we try to flee in panic but will often back down if we have the courage to turn and face them calmly.

✏️ Bang on. You can’t live a life without any hardship so you either get prepared for it or let it shock and rock you. 

Today, we speak of “grasping the nettle” to make the point that facing something and accepting it often leads to less injury than approaching it hesitantly and defensively. (If you brush against a nettle, you’ll get stung; if you hold the nettle tight in the right way, pressing the sharp spines flat, you’ll prevent it from stinging you.) By calmly grasping the nettle of pain rather than struggling against it, resenting it, or complaining about it, we can learn to suffer less from it.

Epictetus liked to tell his students that in the face of everything that befalls them, they should get into the habit of asking themselves what capacity, or virtue, they possess for making good use of the event.

✏️ Great question to ask.

Although the idea goes back to the early Stoics, Marcus Aurelius actually learned how to perform every action cautiously and with a “reserve clause” from reading Epictetus’s Discourses.

In essence, it means undertaking any action while calmly accepting that the outcome isn’t entirely under your control.

We learn from Seneca and others that it could take the form of a caveat, such as “Fate permitting,” “God willing,” or “If nothing prevents me.”

We say “reserve clause,” incidentally, because our expectations are reserved for what is within our sphere of control. We’re pursuing an external result “with the reservation” that the outcome is not entirely up to us. “Do what you must, let happen what may,” as the saying goes.

✏️ Been using this lately and it works a treat. I love the fact that you just do your best to a certain time and then it’s out of your hands. How freeing is that?

In Cicero’s dialogue De Finibus, the Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica uses the memorable image of an archer or spearman to explain this subtle concept. The Stoic-minded archer’s true goal should be to fire his bow skillfully, insofar as doing so is within his power. Paradoxically, though, he’s indifferent to whether or not his arrow actually hits the target. He controls his aim but not the arrow’s flight. So he does the best he can and accepts whatever happens next. The target—perhaps an animal he’s hunting—could move unexpectedly.

Virtue consists in doing your very best and yet not becoming upset if you come home from the hunt empty-handed—we typically admire people who approach life in this way.

✏️ It may not be your day but you tried your best!

Indeed, Marcus Aurelius goes so far as to say that if you don’t act with the reserve clause in mind, then any failure immediately becomes an evil to you or a potential source of distress. By contrast, if you accept that the outcome couldn’t have been other than it was and wasn’t under your direct control, then you should suffer no harm or frustration.

Exposure therapy works best when the anxiety-provoking trigger is physically present, like the cats in our example above. Therapists call this in vivo, or “real-world,” exposure. However, anxiety also habituates almost as reliably, in most cases, when the threat is merely imagined, something known as in vitro, or “imaginal,” exposure. The Stoics realized that exposure to imagined events can lead to emotional habituation in this way, allowing anxiety to abate naturally. Their recommendation to regularly picture catastrophic events, which we’ve called the premeditation of adversity, is essentially a form of imaginal exposure therapy. Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Lion” shows that people have long grasped this phenomenon, but it’s still quite remarkable to discover a philosophical therapy employing it over two thousand years before it was rediscovered by modern behavior therapists.

✏️ Powerful

Marcus Aurelius returns, in particular, to the analogy of a mountain retreat several times. He reminds himself that it makes no difference where he is or what he’s doing; the time left for him in life is short, and he should therefore learn to “live as though on a mountaintop,” regardless of his circumstances.

Marcus Aurelius returns, in particular, to the analogy of a mountain retreat several times. He reminds himself that it makes no difference where he is or what he’s doing; the time left for him in life is short, and he should therefore learn to “live as though on a mountaintop,” regardless of his circumstances.

In other words, peace of mind can be achieved even in the chaos of the battlefield—as Socrates reputedly showed—or in the clamor of the Senate, as long as we keep our mind in good order. Marcus concludes by condensing this into six Greek words, perhaps quoted from a previous author, which we might translate as The universe is change: life is opinion. 


One of the leading researchers on the psychology of worry, Thomas D. Borkovec, carried out a groundbreaking study on “worry postponement.” He asked a group of college students to spot the times during a four-week period when they began to worry about something and to respond by postponing thinking about it any further until a specified “worry time” later in the day. Using this simple technique, the subjects were able to reduce the time spent worrying by almost half, and other symptoms of anxiety were also reduced. Worry postponement is now a central component of most CBT protocols for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a psychiatric condition characterized by severe, pathological worrying.

According to The Stoics, individuals are bound to make moral errors, because the majority do not have a firm grasp on the true nature of good and evil. Nobody is born wise, but rather we must become so through education and training.

Self-monitoring. Spot early warning signs of anger, to nip it in the bud before it escalates. For example, you might notice that your voice begins to change, or that you frown or your muscles tense, when you’re beginning to grow angry, or you may think of someone’s actions as unjust or in violation of a personal rule. (“How dare she say that to me!”) 

Cognitive distancing. Remind yourself that the events themselves don’t make you angry, but rather your judgments about them cause the passion. (“I notice that I am telling myself ‘How dare she say that,’ and it’s that way of looking at things that’s causing me to feel angry.”)

Postponement. Wait until your feelings of anger have naturally abated before you decide how to respond to the situation. Take a breath, walk away, and come back to it a few hours later. If you still feel like you need to do something, then calmly decide upon the best response; otherwise, just let it go and forget about it.

Modeling virtue. Ask yourself what a wise person such as Socrates or Zeno would do. What virtues might help you to respond wisely?

There are no gurus in Stoicism. Even the founders of the school—Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus—don’t claim that they were perfectly wise. 

it’s not what happens first that matters but what you do next. 

If someone hates you, Marcus Aurelius says, that’s their problem. Your only concern is to avoid doing anything to deserve being hated.

This final strategy is about Stoic determinism: the wise man who views the world rationally is never surprised by anything in life. It’s another standard type of Stoic argument. We already know that there are both good men and bad men in the world. 

CONSIDER A PERSON’S CHARACTER AS A WHOLE – The next strategy involves picturing the person you’re angry with in a more rounded and complete manner—don’t just focus on the aspects of their character or behavior you find most annoying. Marcus tells himself to consider carefully the sort of people who typically offend him. He then patiently imagines them in their daily lives: eating at their dinner tables, sleeping in their beds, having sex, relieving themselves, and so on. He considers how they can be arrogant, overbearing, and angry, but he also contemplates times when they’ve been enslaved by other desires. 

✏️ Very important to do. Stop judging people because of ONE action that you know about (this can be good and bad!)

IT’S OUR OWN JUDGMENT THAT UPSETS US –  It should come as no surprise that Marcus includes perhaps the best-known Stoic technique of all, which we’ve called cognitive distancing. When you’re angry, remind yourself that it’s not things or other people that make you angry but your judgments about them. If you can let go of your value judgments and stop calling other people’s actions “awful,” then your anger will diminish. Of course, as Seneca pointed out, there are initial feelings of anger that we can’t control, which the Stoics call the proto-passions (propatheiai).

Scott Flear

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