Category: Ancient Wisdom (Page 1 of 3)

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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Implementing The System Of Marcus Aurelius: The Discipline Of Desire

Discipline of Desire (Will)

What can you control?

People frequently worry about things that they cannot control. This is often the biggest sources of anxiety and unhappiness for most people.

In order to lessen this anxiety, you need to start dividing things into 3 categories: things you can control, things you can partially control, and things you cannot control.

Whenever you are faced with a problem, ask yourself this question: What can I control?

Based on the answer to this question, you can apply a simple formula.

1) For things you can control: change them up.

2) For things you can partially control: define which parts you can control, work on them, and forget about the rest.

3) For things you cannot control: forget about them.

You are stuck in traffic, there is an accident, and it is raining. You are late for work.

Which things can you control here?

You did everything as you usually do. You got up, did your morning routine and then took the car at the same time as you always do. You are usually at work on time.

This means that the fact that you are late is beyond your control. You cannot control the fact that there was an accident or it is raining. So don’t worry about it.

The only thing that you can change up for the future is maybe to consider taking public transportation.

Another exercise that you can do is to come up with the worst case scenario and prepare yourself for it. This is what the Stoics used to do. They would often imagine really drastic situations (like death) and start mentally preparing themselves for it.

You don’t even need to be that extreme. These types of extreme situations are very unlikely to happen. You can instead just prepare yourself for the realistic worst case scenario.

You are late for work? What is the worst case scenario that could happen here? You could get fired.

Is that realistic? No, not very. The most likely worst case scenario is that the boss will just look at you funny.

For any type of situation, ask yourself these two questions: What is the worst thing that could happen here? Is this scenario realistic?

Examining a situation from this perspective can have a really calming effect, so do this whenever you feel anxious or stressed. You will realize that often you have these feelings for no reason.

Focus internally.

One aspect of focusing on things that you can control is that while you can’t control what others think or do, you can to a large extent control what you yourself think and do.

That’s the reason why the Stoics focused internally. You should be your own judge of the value of what you do and create. Don’t let others be the ones who determine that.

That is why having intrinsic motivation is key if you want to achieve goals and have a happy life. You need to be internally driven, if you want to have complete control over your actions and reactions.

That is usually not the case. Many people are driven by external things like fame, money or other externalities. The problem is that these things are outside your control to a large extent (besides the fact that seeking fame as the goal of your existence is pretty vain), and that’s why focusing on them can cause a lot of unhappiness.

So how do you make intrinsic motivation a part of your system?

The first thing that you should do is to convince yourself how silly and vain some of these external pursuits are. Marcus Aurelius would often try to look at the big picture. Once you take things from a wider perspective, you will see how insignificant these things really are.

This type of an internal focus is at the basis of the discipline of desire. Realistically, you can only affect a limited amount of things, so your desire should be limited to these things. You need to want things that you can realistically get.

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A Practical Guide To Implementing The Thoughts Of Marcus Aurelius Into Your Own Life

For the Ancients, philosophy was not only about discussions on the nature of the world, but primarily it was a very practical guide to living your daily life.

A “philosopher” was not only a person who talked about things, but also a person who tried to achieve a certain goal and live according to certain principles.

The philosophers of Antiquity did not see the point of ruminating on how the world works, if the lessons of what they learned were not going to be put into practice. What is the point of talking about stuff, if you are never going to take action?

The “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius were his personal notes and lessons, which he used as part of his system to put Stoic teachings into daily practice. These writings were meant as a way to strengthen his own resolve in a chaotic world, but since his time they have served as inspiration for the personal self-improvement systems of many successful people.

You don’t have to be a Stoic in order to benefit from what Marcus wrote. And there is really no need to implement everything that the Stoics taught, word for word. Instead, what I find beneficial is to pick and choose whatever fits your own personal circumstances.

Of course, this depends on what type of a person you are. Some people like to pick and choose (options), while others like to follow things to the letter (procedures). I am more on the options part of the spectrum and like to design my own things.

Other people prefer to get a complete system and apply it fully without changes. What you do at the end depends on your own personal preference.

What I outline below is my own interpretation of a system based on the teachings of Marcus Aurelius. As such, Marcus Aurelius did not develop a system of his own, instead he was applying principles that he learned from old Stoic masters.

What I am proposing here is something to help you put his thoughts into your daily practice. You can pick or choose from what I write, or you can follow it to the letter. It is up to you.

Please note that this is not a complete Stoic system. I just chose a few things from the Stoic way of doing things and combined it with some more modern findings.

If you want to implement a complete Stoic system into your own life, you should instead turn to the primary sources themselves, like those of Epictetus, or to books like “The Inner Citadel” by Pierre Hadot.

However, I find that combining the best parts of different systems and not being too rigid in their application is often the best way to go.

What is important for you to understand is that the later Stoics, such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, divided a person’s way of living into three spheres or disciplines: desire (will), action, and assent (perception).

Understanding this division is key to being able to create your own system based on the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics and putting it into your daily routine.

In the discipline of desire, you need to keep in mind that there are things that are in your control and some that aren’t. However, many people base their lives on striving for things that are outside their control and often end up unhappy when they don’t get them.

The Stoics came up with the concept of “preferred indifferents”. These are things that you might want, but whether you get them is not always up to you. Among things like this could be money, good food or other things which could make your life easier. While they are nice to have, you should be perfectly happy even if you don’t get them.

Basically, you should want only what you can realistically get. For the Stoics, the only thing you have control over is your mind, and so for them the goal of life should be to live a life of virtue. You cannot control the acts of others, but you can control what you yourself do.

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