Donald Robertson: Stoic Wisdom
The Stoic Mom had the chance to speak with Donald Robertson, author, trainer, and psycho therapist, and creator of courses on Stoicism including How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Crash Course in Stoicism, Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training. Here’s the first part of that enlightening conversation on Stoic thinking, and how it can help us handle our fears and focus on what really matters. (Watch for part two of this conversation soon!)
Q: Philosophy helps us think about meaning and purpose. What does Stoic philosophy say about the purpose of human life? What should we be focused on?
A: The Stoic goal of life is “living in agreement with nature.” It’s attributed to Zeno, Stoicism’s founder, and Marcus Aurelius is still talking about that 500 years later. It’s a constant. The Greek words used have other translations, like living in accord with virtue or living wisely.
What does that mean in practice? They believed that the essence of human nature was reasoning and thinking. We use language. That distinguishes us from animals. And since we can think and use language, we have a duty to use it properly.
In other words: Nature’s handed this gift to you, and it is the greatest gift of nature. We should use it to its fill.
We can think—but most of us think badly and irrationally. Nature has left us half finished, and we should complete the circle. We have the tools, we should pick up tools and use them. To reason well is to attain wisdom.
Q: What does this “agreement with nature” actually look like? I’m often stressed and worried about my kids, my family, my community, my work, and larger events in the world. Can people live in better harmony with themselves and others by pursuing Stoicism? And can Stoic thinking help its followers reach a state of tranquility?
A: We can live in harmony with our own nature by consistently reasoning well. That’s being authentic and true to ourselves. We also need to try to live in harmony with external events. At the level of society, we live with our fellow citizens—and we can try to live in harmony with rest of humanity. One of the philosophers’ goals was to reconcile people who are arguing, for instance. Socrates was really good at introducing people to new friends, forming healthy relationships among friends.
In terms of the question of tranquility, it’s not so much how you feel that matters—it is the state of health that your mind is in. A wise person who is flourishing, whose mind is excellent, will probably be tranquil, but it’s kind of a side effect.
The problem with making tranquility your goal is that you could just take tranquilizers. You could avoid stressful situations. Psychologists would call that avoidance and withdrawal.
Ancient Stoics would disagree with avoiding things. Zeno was engaged with advising politicians and believed you should engage with public life. Stoics also said you should marry and have kids, even if it can be stressful—it’s part of nature.
In fact, in modern psychology in past 15 years or so, we now think that many traditional self-help techniques are subtle forms of avoidance. People instinctively do things to help themselves that involve avoiding upsetting feelings, like visualization or breathing exercises. But research shows that being able to ride out and tolerate those feelings is more healthy. You can learn to accept the feelings.
Q: Do Stoic thinkers expect us to be perfectly calm in all situations? Do they talk about how feelings, for example of anxiety and worry, affect people?
A: The ancient Stoics recognized that all people have involuntary feelings. A wise Stoic might shake, turn pale, and sweat in a scary situation. It is what happens next that counts.
One Stoic writer tells the story of a philosopher on a ship during an awful storm. It’s scary. When he gets ashore, others say to him, why were you shaking and turning white? He says, those were involuntary reactions. But what matters is that I recovered my composure afterwards. I’m not a brain in a vat.
In fact, it’s impossible to feel courage without feeling anxiety. You can’t have that virtue unless you experience these involuntary first movements. Being in a frightening situation is an opportunity to exercise bravery.
Q: Do the Stoic thinkers offer specific techniques for combatting our negative emotions? How can we build our own reason and wisdom?
A: Yes. They practiced the “premeditation of adversity.” In modern psychotherapy, we would call it imaginal exposure. You try to habituate yourself to frightening things. If you can do this successfully, your anxiety is more or less extinguished.
Ancient Stoics practiced imagining exile, poverty, betrayal, and their own death. That’s the most robust advice they give, but it’s difficult to do on your own, without a psychotherapist or mentor.
They don’t say how long to spend on it. If you don’t wait long enough for habituation to happen, you could actually sensitize yourself. You can look at modern psychology to understand this. It works better if you do this for longer period, say at least 15 minutes at a time. It feels boring. But that feeling of boredom is habituation happening. It requires patience.
A second technique is the “view from above.” You try to imagine situations in the broader context of space and time.
So if you meet a person who upsets you, you might think of that person as a child, or when they get older, to see it as just one slice of their whole life. This moderates your emotional response. And maybe you’ll start to understand that other person—as determined by the past, for example.
You could also imagine you are floating up in the sky seeing events below. It is not blotting out and avoiding them, but plugging them into a broader context. To be rational, in ideal world, we’d see everything in context. In the ancient world, people believed that Zeus could do this.
It is impossible for humans; we just see slices. and our reaction is amplified. But we can use our imaginations.
More of my interview with Donald Robertson—on parenting, Stoic women, and handling anger—coming soon.
Do you have any burning questions about Stoicism? Post them here as comments!
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.