Video: Why Marcus?


Hi, my name is Donald Robertson and I’m the course designer and facilitator. The goal of this lesson is to give you a broad introduction to the course that follows, so you know what to expect. The whole course is an introduction to Stoic philosophy, based on the life and writings of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

I've been studying Stoicism since the mid 1990s and I've been giving talks, writing about it, and getting in heated debates about it for almost as long. Over the years, I've arrived at a conclusion about the way people normally teach Stoicism... Talking about the philosophy in a slightly abstract way, like scholars tend to, just leads people into the same old problems again and again. I also concluded that there's a much better way to approach the subject.

At the beginning of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius spends a whole chapter carefully reminding himself of the most important things about the most important people in his life, his family and teachers. That's the way he approaches the subject. In particular, he meditates at length on the virtues of the emperor Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father. That's because the Stoics believed that the best way to study their philosophy is by contemplating the virtues of others, especially those we can most admire. Naturally, we don't know as much as Marcus did about the character of Antoninus Pius and his other personal role-models. However, we do know quite a lot about Marcus himself, enough to provide us with a model of Stoic virtue to study and contemplate.

We know a lot about his inner life as Stoic philosopher through The Meditations, his reflections and philosophical conversations with himself. And we know enough about his outer life, as Roman emperor, to fill a substantial biography. We have letters between him and his beloved rhetoric teacher Fronto, descriptions of his reign in the Roman histories, and a few other historical bits and pieces. We can avoid many pitfalls by focusing on Marcus as our concrete example, just as he focused on his Stoic teachers and on his father, the preceding emperor, Antoninus Pius. We get what it’s about more easily by putting a human face on Stoicism.

For example, often people assume the Stoics might be so accepting of fate that they become overly-passive. But in fact we can see that Marcus was committed to vigorous action in the service of his Stoic values, both in his political life and as a military commander. On another note, people may think Stoicism is cold-hearted or unemotional. However, we can see how Marcus interpreted it as a philosophy of brotherly love and the emphasis he placed on techniques of empathy and on social virtues like justice, kindness, and fairness to others.

In the present day, Marcus is without question the most famous Stoic and the one about whose life the most is known. By taking him as our own Stoic role model, we arrive at a much more balanced and more appealing conception of the philosophy than by studying it in a more abstract and theoretical way. Marcus began The Meditations in the way he did for a reason. It's by studying real examples of Stoicism being applied in daily life, as an art of living, that we can best grasp the true meaning of the philosophy.

This course is a journey and hopefully also a transformation. We’ll be visiting different eras in history, different locations, rubbing shoulders with different characters, and learning about different philosophies of life. I want it to be a bit of an adventure for us. Marcus will be our guide, and The Meditations our guidebook. We’re going into the beating heart of Stoic philosophy. We’re going to really explore what it meant for Marcus to be a Stoic and what Stoicism can mean for us today, in the age of nuclear power and the information superhighway.

Throughout the course we’ll be systematically working our way through Stoic philosophy, and Stoic psychological exercises, illustrated with examples from different periods in the life of Marcus Aurelius: his rigorous training and education in Stoicism as a young man, facing his fears as he stepped into the role of Emperor, donning the military cape for the first time and riding north to Pannonia to take command of the largest army ever massed on a Roman frontier, the civil war he faced down and his latter years, as he came to terms with his own mortality and his fragile legacy.

Stoics like Marcus give us hints and rough ideas about the psychological strategies they used to build emotional resilience but not detailed practical instructions, not a step-by-step guide. So I’m going to be drawing on my experience as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, coaching people in resilience skills, to flesh that out. We’re going to look at ways you can actually live like a Stoic today by turning their contemplative exercises into manageable psychological techniques, which you’ll be able to do on the train or on your lunch break. Stoicism isn’t just a therapy, though, it’s a philosophy of life, and we’ll be exploring the central teachings and core values of that philosophy.

As always, though, the way I approach courses is student-centred or what’s sometimes called co-creation, so the more questions you ask, the more suggestions you make, the more I’ll mould this course to fit your needs. Every book or course I’ve ever written has been partly my creation but mainly just me channelling years of feedback from clients and students. It leads to something that I’m confident people will find helpful because it’s based on what people in the past have told me they found helpful. And that’s true about this course. I know from experience that people love Marcus Aurelius and they gain a lot from his writings. So my job is easy: I’ve just built the Stoicism course that people kept telling me they wanted.

So, I hope you’ll find it interesting and beneficial. I’m here to help you, that’s part of the deal. And so are the other students. This is Stoicism as social learning, where we all work together and support each other. That’s how it was back on the Porch and it can be like that on the Internet today, if we’re willing to learn from each other and to help each other learn.

So, I hope you find the materials here to be of value, and let me know if you have any questions whatsoever. I’ll do my best to answer them, or at least to help you think them through more deeply for yourself. I look forward to meeting you on the course and Fate willing may you flourish here and become wise.

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