Category: Ancient Wisdom Page 1 of 3

11 Lessons From The Fall Of The Roman Republic: It Is Disturbing How Relevant They Are For Today

History can teach us a lot about the present, because it can show us analogies from what happened in the past. Human nature stays the same throughout the ages and similar conditions can give rise to similar outcomes. However, you need to keep in mind that these are not perfect predictions for the future, but instead warning signs of possible troubled times ahead.

The Roman Republic serves as a great analogy for the present state of chaos, not only in the United States, but around the world. What we are experiencing is the rise of populism, rule by mobs, and great threats towards freedom and prosperity. It is almost eerie how many parallels there are between what happened then, and what is happening now.

I have written a much longer article on this topic, where I look at the conditions in detail, but here I go back to some of the ancient sources themselves to paint a picture of what happened then, and what could happen again, if we are not careful.

The need to study history is reflected in this passage from Livy’s monumental history of Rome called “From the Foundation of the City”:

“The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these-the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid.”
from “From the Foundation of the City” by Livy

1) Large economic disparities can lead to grievances

Large economic disparities between those at the top and those at the bottom are like a powder keg waiting to explode. An unequal distribution of wealth can lead to many social problems, with the poor becoming more and more dissatisfied and voicing their grievances. In countries with greater economic equality, there is more social cohesion and people tend to trust each other more. When the inequalities start growing, this cohesion is lost and trust diminishes.

“In former years you were silently indignant that the treasury was pillaged, that kings and free peoples paid tribute to a few nobles, that those nobles possessed supreme glory and vast wealth. Yet they were not satisfied with having committed with impunity these great crimes, and so at last the laws, your sovereignty, and all things human and divine have been delivered to your enemies.

And they who have done these things are neither ashamed nor sorry, but they walk in grandeur before your eyes, some flaunting their priesthoods and consulships, others their triumphs, just as if these were honors and not stolen goods.”
speech of Gaius Memmius from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

After the of the Punic Wars, an economic scissor effect came to heed in the Republic. The rich got richer beyond their wildest dreams, while the poor got poorer. After a series of conflicts, soldiers returning to their farms, found them in disarray, had to take on great debt, and then ended up selling them. The buyers came from the rich upper classes, who because of the plunder and the trade that came with the Roman control of the Mediterranean Sea.

“Affairs at home and in the field were managed according to the will of a few men, in whose hands were the treasury, the provinces, public offices, glory and triumphs. The people were burdened with military service and poverty. The generals divided the spoils of war with a few friends. Meanwhile the parents or little children of the soldiers, if they had a powerful neighbor, were driven from their homes.

Thus, by the side of power, greed arose, unlimited and unrestrained, violated and devastated everything, respected nothing, and held nothing sacred, until it finally brought about its own downfall. For as soon as nobles were found who preferred true glory to unjust power, the state began to be disturbed and civil dissension to arise like an upheaval of the earth.”
from “Jugurthine War” by Sallust

“Thus certain powerful men became extremely rich and the race of slaves multiplied throughout the country, while the Italian people dwindled in numbers and strength, being oppressed by penury, taxes, and military service. If they had any respite from these evils they passed their time in idleness, because the land was held by the rich, who employed slaves instead of freemen as cultivators.”
from “Roman History” by Appian

The Punic Wars marked an end of the old system in the Republic. This state of affairs led to great economic disparities between the different social classes, which caused great discontent among the worse off.

The Roman Republic went from a country with relative income equality among the different strata of society, to one with greater and greater inequality. The social cohesion and trust between the groups was lost and contributed to growing tensions.

Compare this to the current state of affairs. The amount of wealth controlled by the top levels of society in the world has skyrocketed. Whereas only 30 years ago, the super-wealthy controlled only a relatively small proportion of the total income earned in a country, now the percentage has grown exponentially. This effect is most profound especially in the US, where the top 1% of the population went from earning around 7 or 8% of the total income in 1975 to earning almost 20% of the total income today!

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The Year Ahead 2019: The Dangerous Trends That Are Shaking Up The World Today

Edward Gibbon started his description of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire at a period of history when it was at its peak. During the reign of the so-called Five Good Emperors, the Empire had attained its greatest geographical extent. Its population lived in relative peace and prosperity. Yet, it is also here that the first cracks that would eventually bring down the greatest state of the ancient Mediterranean world began to appear.

The people of that era did not know that the Empire would eventually fall, and even in the times of chaos that would later come, the fall of such a superpower appeared unthinkable. The end did arrive and the Empire crumbled, ushering in an era of darkness from which it took a long time for civilization to wake up.

In hindsight, this collapse appears inevitable. The structure on which the state was based was clearly eroding slowly but surely, until one day it was no more. History can often serve as a mirror on which to reflect our own times and that’s why it is useful to take lessons from the things that happened in the past. What is alarming is that the same types of cracks that slowly brought down Rome have started seeping into our own modern structures.

As the Cold War was coming to an end, Francis Fukuyama triumphantly declared “The End of History”. From that point onward things were going to move in only direction: the direction of progress, peace, and unlimited hamburgers. However, just as the wise fortune tellers were popping open bottles of champagne to celebrate this momentous occasion, new menacing creatures were starting to crawl out of their dark caves, foreboding a new era of unimaginable terrors.

The current age brings with it numerous seemingly new challenges. Decisions need to be taken in order to set a course through these troubled waters. It might seem frightening, but for the student of history, some of these challenges are far from new. They have been here before. What was old is new again, and what is new will become old. It is up to us to construct the correct path, so that in the future our epoch does not become a warning sign, talked about by our descendants as a lesson in what not to do.

While the time of the Roman Empire can teach us many valuable lessons, I would argue that it is a preceding era in Rome’s history that can serve as a better analogy for our modern era, and offer us many illuminating parallels to what is happening today. It is in fact the fall of the Roman Republic, that is in many ways very similar to the situation in the present day.

This is because our own modern institutions are modeled on those of the ancient Roman Republic. The so-called Founding Fathers of the United States studied that era in great detail and set up the newly independent republic to resemble Ancient Rome. While the United States has the closest parallels, other countries (Europe, but also elsewhere), also owe much to their Roman heritage. That is why if you want to better understand the processes at play today and where they can lead us, you should look at what happened in Rome after the Punic Wars.

Yes, you can argue that the analogy is not perfect. After all, our modern era differs greatly from that of Ancient Rome in multiple ways. However, human nature has not changed since that time. If you dropped a baby born in that era into the 21st century and have it grow up in one of the countries of today, they would not differ from anyone else. The point of a historical analogy is not to model perfectly, but instead to teach us lessons and show us potential dangers.

Polybius was an ancient Greek historian who spent much of his later life in Rome and wrote an extensive history of that city. He is also credited with developing a cyclical theory of political evolution called anacyclosis. According to the theory, states undergo cycles of development going from monarchy, to tyranny, then to aristocracy, which gives way to an oligarchy, which is then replaced by a democracy, which then degenerates into an ochlocracy (or mob-rule). Once this is completed, the cycle resets itself and goes back to a monarchy.

This is a powerful model that gives us predictive capabilities. Polybius wrote his “Histories” at the height of the Roman Republic, when its greatest rival had been vanquished, and riches beyond imagination began pouring into the city of Rome. Yet of one thing he was certain: Rome too would one day fall. Amid the triumph, he was starting to see the first signs of the problems that would lead to the eventual collapse of the Roman Republic.

Have we hit up Ochlocracy?

As the clock ticked down the last moments of 2018, and fireworks around the world welcomed in the new year, the headlines in the leading global newspapers were dominated by ominous signs of looming chaos. Trump shuts down the federal government over financing for his pet project, Brexit descends into utter retardedness (even after we thought we had already hit rock bottom in 2016 with the referendum), Putin rattles his sabers against Ukraine, and the first order of business for newly elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is the signing away of the rainforest.

What should arguably be humanity’s greatest era is quickly descending into a mix of chaotic protest movements rampaging through national monuments, brain-dead individuals plowing their cars into masses of people, all set to the background tune of the raping of the environment. The solution to petty grievances has often been either shooting yourself in the foot or setting your hair on fire. The camps on both sides are fortifying their positions and building up barricades, leaving normal people stuck in the middle to be hit with the crossfire. Say goodbye to nuance. It is my way or the highway.

According to Polybius, democracy degenerates when citizens become greedy, entitled and corrupt, which then makes them fall prey to various demagogues who try to entice them with seemingly sweet, but ultimately bitter promises. What we are seeing is the rise of bread and games for the unthinking masses, combined with fiery rhetoric promising to solve all their real and imaginary problems.

The solutions that are rising up in popularity are basically shit wrapped in shiny silvery foil being thrown against the wall. These solutions smell like shit, and if you open up the shiny foil you only find shit inside, but mind-boggingly some people will still get fooled by the foil and mistake shit for silver and gold.

While the solutions offered up by populists are just hot air, they arise because there indeed are real problems:

1) Rising inequality between the rich and poor, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer (or at least perceiving themselves getting poorer).
2) Unstable economy driven by greed and corruption.
3) Rising debt levels among the population and countries.
4) Decadence, rise of reality TV and druggie culture, coupled with a loss of real values.
5) Massive migration flows from poorer countries.
6) Wars abroad, and terrorism at home.
7) A degradation of the environment.

Yet the years leading up to 2019 have been the best years in humanity’s history. After the end of World War 2, we saw a rise in prosperity for most of the world’s population. At least in the developed world (but also in many parts of the developing world), people had more money, better education, better healthcare, and more leisure time than all the generations preceding them. Advances in technology have also allowed us to travel to the other side of the world in hours, and share information within seconds.

How come our political institutions are getting messed up then? What gives?

How the Roman Republic won its greatest battle and seeded its own destruction

The defeat of Carthage once and for all in 146 BC had established Rome as the sole superpower in the Mediterranean world. It was now controlling vast swaths of land, and with them enormous resources. The conquest of new territories and the opening up of the trade routes brought in great riches. Rome went from a city-state to a world power almost overnight.

This had a tremendous impact on the social fabric of the Republic. The elites grew enormously wealthy, while a new class of impoverished arose. Traditionally, the city was built around a class of small farmers, who owned their own land and produced crops on it. They were the backbone of society, growing the food, not prosperous by any means, but generally satisfied with their lot in life.

The Roman army was composed of citizen soldiers who would be called up to battle in times of need. As the wars that the Republic fought in started to take place further and further away from, many of these small-time farmers ended up spending many years on campaigns. With no one to work their land back home, their plots would deteriorate. When they came back after the wars, their farms would be in ruins and they would end up racking up debts. Unable to pay those debts, these farmers would then be forced to sell their land and move to the city as landless poor. And who would buy up these plots of land? It would be the aristocratic elites now with deep pockets full of gold from the wars.

What made the problem even worse was that after losing their farms, they were unable to find work. The wars had also brought in many slaves, who ended up doing most of the jobs. The newly landless Romans were not competitive on the job market against these slaves. After all, you can’t really compete with free.

Discontent among this newly impoverished class grew. Social strife was nothing new in the Republic. Since its founding, there had often been periods of social conflict, as the plebeians tried to gain more rights from the patricians. By the time of the Third Punic War, this process had largely been completed, and the plebeians had acquired almost equal rights to the patricians. A new aristocracy composed of the patricians and some newly rich plebeians arose.

However, this new strife was different from the previous struggle between the classes. While in the old conflicts, the main protagonists were the plebeians who were rising up from the bottom with visions of improving their prospects, the new struggle included large sections of people who had been better off before, but lost out.

Of course this was not the only struggle. For centuries now, Rome had been controlling the Italian peninsula through a system of alliances with neighboring cities. These cities provided a large proportion of the Roman armies, but only received a meager portion of the spoils of war. The people of these cities were clamoring for more rights and most of all, to be granted Roman citizenship. They argued that they earned it through their loyal support of Rome. However many current Roman citizens were against this, fearing that they might lose influence.

The tensions between the different classes and groups were growing. The battlelines were hardening. The poor wanted to move up in life, while the rich wanted to keep their privileges.

Then in 134 BC came Tiberius Gracchus. This was a man who came from a wealthy and well-connected family, however his main political aim was to reform the system and alleviate the struggles of the poor. How much of his acts were due to genuine caring for the down and out of society, and how much of them were due to his own personal ambitions is up for debate. Probably it was a mix of both.

In that year, he was elected one of the plebeian tribunes. This was the position meant to defend the rights of the plebs and thus had wide-ranging powers, including the power of the veto. He had to share these powers with several other guys who were also elected as tribunes for that year.

His main political agenda was to get a land reform passed. The proposal on the table was a quite simple one. A large part of the lands in the Roman Republic were so-called public lands, lands that in theory were owned by the state. In practice, most of these lands were farmed, usually by rich Roman landowners.

The proposal was to limit the amount of public land that could be farmed by a single person to a certain amount, and then redistribute the rest to the landless poor. Yet this was met with strong opposition from many wealthy senators. One reason for this was that they were set to lose lands that they started considering as theirs. Another, and probably more important reason was, that whoever would preside over the land redistribution would become very popular with the people. This would get them many clients, which was incredibly important in the patronage system of Rome.

The Senate blocked this reform. Tiberius was furious and was resolved that the reform was going to be passed in any way possible. Traditionally, the Senate had to register its opinion before the vote would pass onto the people in the Assembly. However, Tiberius decided to bypass the Senate altogether and move directly onto a vote in the Assembly. The senators were furious, and devised a devious plan to block the reform.

The plebeian tribune had the powerful right of being able to block any legislation with a veto. Tiberius was not the only tribune. There were several others. The senators went to one of them, Marcus Octavius, and convinced him to use his veto power to stop the entire process.

Tiberius tried everything in order to unblock the proceeding, including talking to the senators and coming up with some sort of a deal, but it was of no use. He then decided to do a much more radical action. If a tribune is blocking the will of the people, then he should be deposed, he argued. This was something that was never done before, but for Tiberius passing his law was incredibly important. The Assembly voted to depose Marcus Octavius. With him out of the way, the land reform law passed.

The Senate continued to try to derail the implementation of the legislation, but Tiberius always came up with a way to bypass them, often not in a very legal way. The final nail in the coffin was when he decided to run for re-election as tribune. This was never done, and gave the senators proof that he wanted to make himself king.

Kings were detested in Rome due to historical reasons. For some senators it became logical that if Tiberius wanted to make himself king, he should be killed in order to prevent him from doing so. A group of senators gathered up, armed themselves with all kinds of things, got up on stage while Tiberius was speaking and beat him to death, along with many of his supporters. They then dumped the bodies into the Tiber River.

For the senators, this was supposed to be the end of this. They got rid of a potential tyrant and brought back things to normal. Instead, what happened is that this was the start of a shitstorm that a hundred years later ended with the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.

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A Fake Mental Boost Can Be Worth More Than Gold

At times you can be faced with a situation that might seem overwhelming. An enemy can be camped out in front of you, larger in size and in a better strategic position.

However all is not lost. When you and your team are facing a tough opposition, you can apply lessons from the “Strategemata” of Frontinus, an Ancient Roman general and engineer.

One of these lessons can be taken from the acts of Fulvius Nobilior, a Roman general. When facing an enemy superior in numbers compared to his army, he did one trick in order to boost his men’s confidence:

“Fulvius Nobilior, deeming it necessary to fight with a small force against a large army of the Samnites who were flushed with success, pretended that one legion of the enemy had been bribed by him to turn traitor; and to strengthen belief in this story, he commanded the tribunes, the “first rank,” and the centurions to contribute all the ready money they had, or any gold and silver, in order that the price might be paid the traitors at once.

He promised that, when victory was achieved, he would give generous presents besides to those who contributed for this purpose. This assurance brought such ardor and confidence to the Romans that they straightway opened battle and won a glorious victory.”

There are many psychological principles at play here. One of these is fake it till you make it. Many of the cognitive biases work in a way as to boost your ego, or at least keep it from crashing.

This is because many battles are often won or lost in your mind. A person going into a battle believing he will lose, will most likely lose.

It’s not that you can willpower yourself to victory in every case, but having confidence in yourself does give you an extra boost, and in battle every little thing counts.

Often, people need some sort of a mental crutch in order for them to keep on plucking away at their goals. For many people, religion has served that role.

Faced with an absurdity of the world, many studies have proven that people who have a religious belief can often persevere in tough circumstances. This is not because some hidden deity is helping them, but because they believe that even if things seem to be turning out badly, there is always a golden exit at the end of the road.

Fulvius Nobilior realized that if he wanted his men pumped up for battle against a superior enemy, he needed to boost up the level of confidence of his men. He did this by using a little trick.

He made them believe that the other side is not as big and powerful as it seems. By stating that one part of the enemy will defect, Fulvius tricked his men into believing that the odds are not as bad for them as they initially seemed.

This worked in the same way that superstition works. The men started to believe that they have much more control over the situation that they are in, than they really do.

Another trick that Fulvius did was to make many of his men give up their money. Now they had something to lose. They had skin in the game if you will.

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Plutarch’s Tips For Keeping A Tranquil Mind In A Turbulent World

At the turn of the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire was living in an era often referred to as the “Pax Romana”. This was a time of relative calm and prosperity, when most inhabitants of the Empire experienced long periods of peace.

The foundation for this era was laid under the Emperor Augustus, but it reached its height a century later. This was largely due to the rule of the so-called “Five Good Emperors”. Edward Gibbon, English historian of the 18th century, in his monumental work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” described this period in glowing terms:

“If a man were called to fix the 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 death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.

The vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded respect.

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.”

While the previous generations of Romans knew war up close and personal and many of the males had participated in battle, during the Pax Romana, there were several generations that grew up without getting anywhere close to fighting. This encompassed also many of the other peoples that were living under Roman hegemony, such as the Greeks.

During this time, a class of distinguished gentlemen arose that never knew the taste of battle, but instead had enough time to turn their energy to more intellectual pursuits. One of these was Plutarch, now known chiefly as a historian, biographer and writer of extensive essays, but who throughout his lifetime also served in several other positions like a magistrate or priest at Delphi.

Plutarch is best remembered for his “Parallel Lives”, a series of biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, which was meant not only to teach history, but also moral ethics and character. He also wrote “Moralia”, a series of essays on different topics of morality and daily life. One of these was “On Tranquility of Mind”.

In many ways, the problems of that era paralleled many of the modern era. After all, the human mind works in similar ways. While most people were free of the dangers of war, the typical problems that make people anxious, angry, or moody persisted.

The world might have been more peaceful than before, but it was still turbulent. Rome was a megalopolis full of crime and infestation, trade brought it many goods from the outside, but also led to a hectic lifestyle.

The provinces also had their share of problems, and the lives of their inhabitants were not stress-free. Merchants worried about losing their cargo, magistrates were concerned about keeping the bureaucracy running, and in a world where medicine was still rudimentary, everyone faced the prospect of losing their loved ones early.

What many people were looking for was a peace of mind, calmness and tranquility. They wanted to know how to keep a cool head in a turbulent world.

Plutarch came with some answers. His essay “On Tranquility of Mind” offers solutions to the perennial problem. Addressing his friend Paccius, he outlines his thesis that the way to keep a cool head in a hectic world is to turn to self-knowledge and self-control. By having your reason rule over your emotions, by setting the right priorities, and not being daunted by setbacks, you can navigate through turbulent waters.

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Appear Strong When You Are Weak

The book “48 Laws of Power” was a bestseller and a hit among many people. While an interesting read, I have always felt that the lessons were a bit cherry-picked and are very dependent on specific situations.

In order to create his laws, Green probably used such illustrious writers as Machiavelli or Baltasar Gracian as sources of inspiration. Many of these dealt with ancient history and in turn were based on sources dating from Antiquity. If you look at some of the books that still survive from that era, you can probably come up with many more laws of power.

One such interesting book, dating from the early years of the Roman Empire, is “Strategemata” by Frontinus, a Roman general and engineer. The “Strategemata” was meant to complement his more comprehensive “Art of War”, but this book unfortunately did not survive. However the book that does survive is full of interesting strategies and tactics that ancient generals used in order to win their battles and wars.

These can be a great source of lessons on strategy and tactics, and even applicable to situations in the modern world. One lesson is based on what General Minucius Rufus did in order to defeat his enemies. Outnumbered by the enemy, he used a little trick in order to make his army appear bigger and more fearce than it really was:

“The general Minucius Rufus, hard pressed by the Scordiscans and Dacians, for whom he was no match in numbers, sent his brother and a small squadron of cavalry on ahead, along with a detachment of trumpeters, directing him, as soon as he should see the battle begin, to show himself suddenly from the opposite quarter and to order the trumpeters to blow their horns. Then, when the hill-tops re-echoed with the sound, the impression of a huge multitude was borne in upon the enemy, who fled in terror.”

The lesson here? Appear strong when you are weak.

This lesson that has its parallels in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”:

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”

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All That You Need To Know To Survive In The Modern World You Can Learn From The Ancients

The 21st century is upon us and with it come many changes. Just like the Industrial Revolution brought in a new era, the Internet Revolution is bringing in another new age.

The old truths and ways of working of the 20th century no longer seem to be working in this new one. This is causing headaches for many people, who often feel lost and out of touch. This new state of affairs calls for a re-examination of how things are done. This means you need to adapt.

The Renaissance started by people rediscovering the wisdom of the ancient world. This brought about a new age of creativity and progress which led to the modern world. However in the 20th century, most people forgot about this ancient wisdom and an era of narrow specialization seemed to prevail.

The challenges of the 21st century call for a new way of working. What most people don’t realize is that the answers to many of today’s problems lie right there in front of them. In fact, they have been there for over two thousand years.

By rediscovering the wisdom of the ancient world, most people can tackle the challenges of the modern world. Just like the Renaissance was born through the rediscovery of the sages of Antiquity, today’s world can greatly benefit from the return of these old sages as well. By applying these old techniques to your life, you can make sure that you are not fazed by any challenge.

General Mindset

Two of the most well-known works of world literature are the Iliad and the Odyssey. They were composed by Homer around the year 800 BC and tell of an old war that happened way before his time. They are stories of ancient heroes, with their strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrate the power of the human condition.

They were meant not only to entertain, but also to teach moral lessons and serve as inspirations for the following generations. They are structured according to the hero’s journey framework. Especially the Odyssey is about one man, who after spending 10 years fighting, takes another 10 years to get home.

On the way, he faces many trials and tribulations, loses all his companions and learns much about himself. He gets lost during the journey, has to overcome many challenges, descends down to his innermost cave, but then rises up and at the end emerges victorious.

This type of structure is inherent in the journey of anyone who goes through life, but no matter the barriers he faces, manages to climb over them and conquer. It is basically the blueprint for the life of a hero, but one which is applicable for the life of any mortal who wants to accomplish great things.

These myths and legends served as the guiding lights for people’s lives, but the ancient world also produced some very practical methods to help deal with common problems. While the Ancient Egyptians and the different Mesopotamian civilizations served as initial inspirations, the Ancient Greeks managed to come up with very original thoughts which have served as the basis of all the progress that came after. These methods and techniques were then perfected during the times of the Ancient Romans.

Many of them were forgotten during the so-called Dark Ages, and it was their rediscovery and wider spread that sparked the Renaissance and thus built the modern world. They give practical lessons and are incredibly applicable to normal every day activities. For the Ancients, philosophy was not only a way of thinking about the world, but also informed them on how to live.

At the height of the Roman Empire, there were two rival schools of philosophy that competed for adherents, the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Stoic philosophy was very compatible with the martial outlook on life of the Ancient Romans and so gained many fans among the Roman soldiers, administrators and even Emperors.

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Applying The Thoughts Of Marcus Aurelius: A Day In The Life

What does the typical day of someone who applies the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius actually look like? Let’s imagine you put all those suggestions into practice. How would this help you to get through the day?

You are lying in your bed when the alarm clock suddenly rings. Rise and shine, you need to start your day.

You hesitate a bit, after all you still feel sleepy and the bed just feels so comfortable. You ponder staying in bed for longer, but then you remind yourself that waking up is what you are meant to do. By lying in bed all day, you don’t do any good to yourself or anyone else.

So you spring up and start your morning routine. You brush your teeth and do all the other necessary hygiene stuff, then a little stretching, followed up by a hearty breakfast.

After finishing up your breakfast you take 15 minutes to plan out your day. You sit down and think about the answers to these three questions:

1) What have I done yesterday and how did it go?

2) What do I plan to do today?

3) Are there any potential problems that I will face today?

You reflect on the things you did yesterday and what went right and what went wrong. Then you move onto the things that you want to do today.

You do a little mental visualization and then take out your little kanban board and a pack of Post-Its and start writing out your goals for the day.

You put all your chores (all the boring stuff like paying bills or answering emails) on red Post-Its, and all the goals (interesting stuff that will help you in your quest for self-improvement) on green Post-Its.

Then you put all the Post-Its into the first section of your kanban board, the To Do part. Throughout the day, as you work on these chores and goals, you will move the Post-Its from the To Do section, to the Doing section, and then finally to the Done section.

Lastly, as the final point of your short reflection session, you think about the potential problems and obstacles you will likely face today and come up with a few mitigation strategies.

After doing all this, you get dressed and head out to work.

You get to the bus stop and wait. You wait and wait and wait. You realize that the bus is very late.

At first, you start getting really anxious. You will be late for work!

Then you remember to go back to thinking about this particular situation itself. What can you control here? The fact that the bus is late is beyond your control. So stop getting anxious. It will not help the situation one bit.

You start thinking about the consequences of being late to work. You think of the worst case scenario. You could get fired!

You think of how likely this actually is. Not very likely. The most you will get is a few stares. Who cares, right? You have long ago stopped caring about what others think of you.

The bus finally comes and you get on it. After arriving at work you sit at your desk and start going through emails. Unfortunately this is a ritual that you have to do every time you get to work. You accept it.

Then suddenly a colleague barges into your space and starts shouting at you. This stokes your emotions and you are at the verge of shouting back.

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Implementing The System Of Marcus Aurelius: The Discipline Of Assent

Discipline of Assent

What really matters is not the event itself, but instead how you think about the event. Your mind is your most powerful tool, but often it is also the reason of your troubles.

The discipline of action is all about thinking the right thoughts and using reason to guide you.

Your mind can fail you at many important points. Let’s illustrate this with a few examples.

Imagine that you are riding a bike and a car drives dangerously close to you, almost hitting you.

Your instincts take over and you swerve hard in order to avoid a collision. What often happens in an incident like this is that you will start cussing out the driver, making rude gestures and lose your cool.

There are emotions at play here at different points. First, your emotions alerted you to danger and you reacted quick in order to avoid it.

This is the correct use of emotions. However what happened next right after you managed to avoid the accident is that other emotions took over and made you angry.

This is the incorrect use of emotions. Think about it. What is the use of being angry at this point?

The danger to your life is passed. The only thing that you are doing is venting your frustration, which not only serves no purpose, but could even be counterproductive as it makes you more agitated and more prone to an accident.

Instead what you should have done is assented to the first emotion that saved your life, but not assented to the second one.

Imagine another common situation. You are having an argument. Your opponent hits you with some facts which destroy your argument. His position is correct. Yours isn’t.

However instead of reconsidering your position based on these new facts, you just start repeating your illogical talking points louder and louder.

What is happening here is that you have fallen for a cognitive bias. Your ego is at stake and instead of acknowledging the validity of the other side’s arguments, you fear a loss of status on your side and instead buckle down and start wailing about incessantly.

Thinking according to Nature

For the Stoics, the biggest part of living according to Nature was using your head. You need to be able to rise above your imperfections and instead use your ability to reason.

According to current research, there are two ways of thinking that humans engage in. Daniel Kahnemann, psychologist and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, calls this System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast and intuitive. It is based on your emotions. System 2 is slow and deliberate. It is based on reason.

Both have their place. System 1 is good for situations which require an immediate action, such as in dangerous situations as given in the first example.

However, this type of thinking is often hijacked and can lead to cognitive biases.

What you should do instead is to take a step back and engage in System 2 thinking. Thinking out things rationally and critically. This can often lead to much better solutions and actions.

Take control of your emotions

However how do you do that? This is often very hard, since emotions have a way of creeping up on you.

When you feel your emotions are starting to get the best of you, you need to have a couple of techniques under your belt in order to regain control.

One of these is distancing.

There are two kinds of distancing: physical and mental.

For me, the best way to diffuse an emotionally charged situation is to just walk away. If you feel like you are getting into a heated argument, just walk out the door.

I have done that a few times, and immediately your head cools down and the emotions start fading.

However sometimes physical distancing is not feasible, so you will have to use some mental distancing techniques. This means stop and count to 10. Or stop and recite the alphabet in your head!

Be aware of your value judgments

A value judgment is your opinion of a particular situation. Usually people judge situations as being “good” or “bad” or any other type of adjectives.

Let’s go back to the bike situation above. Why did you get mad at the driver of that car that almost hit you?

Since you judged that situation as “bad”.

However is there really any advantage to making this judgment? No. This type of judgment is really irrelevant to the situation.

You cannot change the fact that a car almost hit you. That is a done thing. It happened. Get over it.

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Implementing The System Of Marcus Aurelius: The Discipline Of Action

Discipline of Action

Above all else, Marcus Aurelius was a man of action. Unlike most people, his day did not end by reading the flowery words of philosopher-gurus and motivational quotes.

Instead he tried to put all these lessons into practice. In the ancient world, you became a philosopher not by reading, but by living.

The discipline of action was one of the three disciplines that the Roman Stoics thought were fundamental for living a worthy life. It was about taking the right actions for the right reasons.

While the discipline of desire is about what you should want, the discipline of action is about what you should do.

You need to have a purpose

You probably have several roles that you play in real life. These might be tied to your family, your job, or your personal pursuits.

Go ahead and write down the roles that you have. Make a list and then think about what you want to achieve by playing each of these roles and what duties stem from this. What is your purpose for each of them?

The list of these roles should form a fundamental part of the crafting of the overall vision for yourself for now and for the future.

They can also help you to find a purpose. There are different types of purposes: you can have one grand purpose for life, or smaller purposes based on your roles, or even ones based on actions. What is important is that all your actions are done with a purpose in mind.

Having a purpose is the basis of intrinsic motivation. This type of motivation has been shown to be the key to your ability to achieve your goals.

It helps if the vision you create is written on paper. This will make it much more likely for you to carry it out. It won’t be just an abstract concept in your head, but something concrete.

Having something concrete in front of you, a vision that you can always return to, can serve as a powerful incentive and help you in your drive.

The vision should include your:

1) roles

2) values

3) goals

The vision will serve as your guiding document, but the Stoics were all about living in the present. The past is the past and cannot be changed and the future is unknowable. You do not have control over your past or your future, only your present.

That’s why it is crucial that you take action now. Forget about the past, and stop waiting for the perfect moment in the future. Start doing things now. However how do you achieve your vision by doing this?

The key here is to take things action by action. The vision contains the big goals, but you need to break them down into mini-goals, a series of steps to get you to where you want to go.

Take things action by action

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