The Roman Empire began to slowly unravel when Commodus took over the imperial throne after the death of his father, Marcus Aurelius. While Marcus was known as the philosopher-king, going down in history as one of the most rational rulers, his son ended up descending into the pits of madness, emotions taking complete control over his mind and body.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius turned to philosophy as his guide to lead a moral life and to overcome the challenges of ruling such a vast empire, always weighting his options and considering his actions carefully. This did not rub off on Commodus, who had zero inkling of even trying to solve the problems of his people. Instead, he would routinely pretend to be Hercules, and dressed in a lion’s pelt, go down to the gladiatorial arena and slaughter countless victims.

The times of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were also some of the most productive decades of the life of Galen, one of the ancient world’s greatest physicians. In his lifetime, Galen started off as an ordinary physician in a school of gladiators, and ended up as the personal doctor to numerous emperors. He was also one of the most prolific authors of Antiquity, passing onto us hundreds of his works, mostly in medicine, but also in subjects such as philosophy.

In medicine, Galen tried expanding upon the work of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician who was born in the 5th century BC on the island of Kos. From his work, Galen took on board the four humors theory, and surmised that these humors not only caused most bodily functions, but also had an influence on the temperament of the person.

What characterized Galen as a physician was his flexibility. At a time when medicine was divided into sects, which often had bitter disputes between each other, Galen tried to focus on what works. His method was a mix of theory, observation, and experimentation.

While Galen prided himself on not being an adherent of any one sect or philosophical school, one of his greatest influences came from Plato. Plato had divided the brain into three parts (rational, spirited, and appetitive), and Galen took this division on board. The physician later expanded upon this work by doing some practical experiments. What came out of this is quite revolutionary. While his predecessors were not really sure in which part of the body the soul resided, sometimes placing it in the heart or other organs, Galen placed the rational part of the soul firmly in the brain.

Galen in several of his philosophical works engaged in what could be termed as psychology. He tried observing how the mind works, and how that affects human behavior. What he describes in many ways resembles the discussions of cognitive biases and logical fallacies that modern scientists have proposed plague the human brain when it goes about its daily business.

During Roman times, philosophy was heavily focused on practical application, and Galen true to this way of working, attempted to describe remedies that could free humans of these bad consequences of emotions and errors of reasoning.

While intellectually Galen was an opponent of the Stoics, there are many overlaps between their teachings. It has even been noted noted that there are significant similarities between Galen’s method for self-improvement and that of Marcus Aurelius. However, maybe that should not be such a surprise considering the fact that Galen served many years as Marcus’ personal physician.

There is a striking similarity between the recommendations of Galen and Marcus Aurelius to exert oneself intellectually and morally in order to become “better”.”

The surviving work of Galen that deals specifically with human emotions, false reasoning, and self-improvement is called “On Passions and Errors of the Soul”. This treatise has an extensive description of what you need to do to in order to not be swayed by emotions, and not fall for errors, and could be termed one of the earliest works describing the practice of psychotherapy.

An English language translation of the work by Paul Harkins and Walther Riese summarizes Galen’s approach in this way:

It was Galen’s thesis that passion and moral error were diseases, but diseases of the soul and not the body, and that the physician treating a patient suffering from a “diseased soul” must attack the passion or error directly and immediately—an approach that has had a profound infiuence on the subsequent treatment of mental disorder.

Galen wrote his work in what was becoming an increasingly turbulent time. The Empire was still in its heyday, but first shocks to the system started to be felt. Barbarian tribes were pressuring the state from the north, and there was constant threat from the Parthians in the east. However, what was probably the most significant factor that undermined the Empire was the coming of the plague.

What has been called the Antonine Plague, based on the family name of the ruling emperor, struck suddenly from the east and ravaged the countryside and the cities. Millions of people died from it, and when it went away, it left a dark mark on not only the economy, but also the souls of the people. With Commodus succeeding Marcus Aurelius in becoming emperor, and the country in turmoil after a disease pandemic, the Roman Empire started to experience its first significant crisis in over a hundred years.

Many historians have marked this crisis as the beginning of the end of the Empire. While after Commodus, some of the emperors were quite capable, they were often succeeded by rulers who were even worse than that son of Marcus Aurelius. This resulted in the so-called Crisis of the Third Century, where emperors and rival emperors battled for power and succeeded one another in rapid succession.
From this blow, the Empire was to never recover. While it eked on for two more centuries, the decline became quite evident, until it finally died.

In many ways, Galen’s time has many parallels to our own times. Incessant wars on the borders in the east and north, a plague devastating the economy and frightening the people, the end of the 2nd century AD was a turbulent time. While the human mind is always under pressure, the chaos of those times probably added more to the overall stress that the people were feeling.

Similar factors are taking place in our times, as the political system seems to be unraveling, some parts of the world are experiencing endless war, and the fear of a global pandemic (coronavirus) is keeping the population on the edge. Galen’s practical advice offered remedies to the people of his own times, but they can do the same thing for you as well. If applied, they can kick-start your journey of self-improvement.

What to do

What do you need to do? Galen wrote an entire discourse where he summarized the main faults of humans, but also tried figure out ways to get rid of these faults.

At one time he will seem to be urging us to consider how we ourselves are falling into many errors just as others do, and at another time, how a man may recognize each of his errors, and again, in addition to these considerations, how a man may withdraw himself from his errors. This last seems to me to be the object of his whole discourse, since neither of the preceding considerations has any point unless referred to this end.

Know yourself

For Galen, the ancient saying to “know yourself” was incredibly important, and at the core of any journey of self-improvement. Before you proceed onto doing things, you need to know yourself.

When I was a young man, I thought that the Pythian dictum to “know thyself” was held in praise without good reason because it did not enjoin some great action. In later life, I discovered that this dictum was justly lauded because only the wisest man could know himself with accuracy. No other man could do this, although one man might have better or worse knowledge of himself than another man.

Knowing yourself takes a lot of effort, especially if you want to know your inner workings deeply.

For if a man wishes to have a knowledge of his inner self, he must work very hard to obtain it; if he desires only a surface knowledge, this will be his with practically no effort at all.

One big part of knowing yourself is observing other people. For by observing other people and seeing how they behave, you can see what types of bad behaviors you yourself might be doing. Observe others in order to know yourself.

Therefore, we ourselves must pay attention to each of the diseases which we notice in our neighbors to see if any of these ills are in our own soul. For this disease must be cut out while it is still sprouting and before it has become so large as to be incurable.

Together with self-knowledge, you need to remove stupid pursuits. This is the only way, if you want to arrive at the truth.

If, then, by the method I mentioned, vain boasting, self-love, ambition, concern for reputation, conceit of wisdom, and love of money are removed from the heart of the man who is going to search for truth, he will certainly arrive at it.

The power of reason is better than being a slave to passions.

Obviously, I mean the power of reason. When this becomes vigorous through exercise, these men enjoy themselves more than those who are slaves to bodily pleasures.

Striving to better yourself is a life-long journey

However, he knew that this effort of self-improvement will not be an easy task. It’s a lifelong journey.

For each of us needs almost a lifetime of training to become a perfect man. Indeed, a man must not give up trying to make himself better even if, at the age of fifty, he should see that his soul has suffered damage which is not incurable but which has been left uncorrected.

Even if you don’t succeed, it is the journey itself that is important. You need to try. Success isn’t always up to you, but what you do to achieve is are within your control.

Therefore, let us continue striving to make our souls more perfect, even if we cannot have the soul of a wise man.

Work on taming your irrational passions, even if it takes a long time.

Can you not take and tame this thing which is not some beast from outside yourself but an irrational power within your soul, a dwelling it shares at every moment with your power of reason? Even if you cannot tame it quickly, can you not do so over a longer period of time? It would be a terrible thing if you could not.

Human nature vs Individual nature

There are some things that are common to all humans, that is their human nature, and there are some things that are specific to each human, their individual natures.

There are certain tendencies that all humanity shares, but each individual has a different mix of these tendencies and behaves in a different way.

That our individual natures are entirely different we can learn clearly from the children who are brought to our attention. Some of them are always radiant and smiling, others are always sullen and sad. Some are ready to laugh at everything, others are ready to weep at the least pretext. Some share everything they have, others hoard everything.

Some become angry over the smallest things so that they bite and kick and take vengeance on their neighbors with sticks and stones when they think they have been unjustly treated. Others are forbearing and mild, neither growing angry nor crying until they have suffered some great injustice.

And so Eupolis, the comic poet, represented Aristides the Just as being asked this question: Through what influence did you become so outstandingly just? and then showed him replying: Nature was the strongest factor, but then I lent nature a ready hand.

Galen was a proponent of the four humors theory of temperaments. This probably came down to us from Hippocrates, the ancient physicians from the island of Kos.

This theory stated that human personality is dependent on the mix of the different bodily fluids that you have. While, the humors theory has been falsified by later scientific research, the personality theory does have some explanatory power.

Galen divided up people into four basic categories.

  • People with a sanguine temperament. These are usually courageous, hopeful, and amorous.
  • People with a choleric temperament. These are short-tempered, and very ambitious.
  • People with a melancholic temperament. They are usually sentimental, and introspective.
  • People with a phlegmatic temperament. They are usually calm, and unemotional.

Passions, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies

Galen took on board the tripartite model of the mind that Plato came up with. In this model, the brain was made up of three parts: one rational part, and two irrational parts. In many ways, this model reminds us of the way that modern researchers like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman thought about the human mind and how it works. They divided it into System 1, the irrational, emotional part, and System 2, the rational part of the brain.

Galen saw that both the rational and irrational parts can sometimes make mistakes. Passions were failures of the non-rational parts of the brain – System 1.

Errors or logical fallacies were on the other hand failures of the rational part of the brain – System 2.

In order to control the mistakes of System 1, a person has to work hard at not having emotions control them. While for the errors of System 2, the rational part of the brain must be educated (especially in things like logic).

This is how Galen described the difference between passions and errors:

But he should have revised what he wrote, especially when distinguishing between passions and errors. For sometimes his discourse seems to concern the passions alone, often it seems to concern errors, and there are times when you will think he is discussing both. But as you know, I started by making this very distinction when I said that error arises from a false opinion, but passion from an irrational power within us which refuses to obey reason; commonly both are called errors in a more generic sense.

Everyone makes these mistakes. All people fall for false logic and cognitive biases. And those who think themselves without fault, usually fall for them the hardest.

It is likely that we do err even if we ourselves should think that we do not, and we can infer this from what follows. We see that all men suppose that they themselves are altogether without fault or that their errors are few and mild and at great intervals. This happens especially in the case of those who, in the eyes of other men, err the most.

Galen described two main ways that you can be fooled by your emotions. One is anger. The other is instant gratification, that is falling for things that you think pleasant right now, without thinking of the long-term consequences.

We have in our souls two irrational powers. The one easily angered has for its task to become angry and wrathful on the spot with those who seem to have treated us ill in some way. It is also a function of this same power to cherish its wrath for a longer period since the passion of anger is greater in proportion to the length of time it endures.

The other irrational power in us, the lustful and desirous, is the one by which we are carried forward to what appears to be pleasant before we have considered whether it is helpful and good or harmful and bad.

Errors are basically logical fallacies that people make.

I begin now with what is the best beginning—as all agree, even if their actions do not demonstrate their agreement—by explaining what the term error means, in order that we may find no ambiguity in the following discourse, and by showing how all the Greeks are accustomed to use this term.

They use it sometimes in the specific sense of things which have not been done according to right reason, so that error is an act of the soul’s intellectual power alone; at other times, they use it in a more general sense so as to fit the irrational power.

Things like 2+2=4 are facts. Probability of knowledge is something that also needs to be kept in mind. There are some things which are more probable than others, and so probably more likely to be true. The probability of Earth being round is basically 100%, since we have so much evidence pointing to that fact. While the probability of the planet being flat is basically 0%. Thinking in probabilities (sometimes known as Bayesian thinking) can be incredibly helpful in determining the truth.

At any rate, the knowledge of the geometrician with respect to the things which have been proved by Euclid’s elements has the same degree of certitude as does the knowledge of the majority of men that two plus two makes four.

The geometrician has this same sure knowledge of the theorems on spheres (which are taught following the elements), as well as of all problems solved by these, and of conic sections, and of the theorems concerning sundials.

The problem is that most people don’t look at facts or probabilities, but instead elevate their opinions above all else. Many people make mistakes in their judgments and give false assents to them.

However, in the case of a man who has erred throughout his life, his mistaken judgments in matters concerning the knowledge, possession, and avoidance of good and evil stand side by side with false assent or an assent that is reckless or weak. Hence, there is a danger in this matter that a small error does the greatest harm if we give a false assent in our judgment on good and evil.

Facts vs. Opinions

You need to distinguish between opinions and facts. People make arguments without actually understanding how the scientific method works, supporting their opinions with facts, and understanding the difference between opinions and facts.

Are they not clearly reckless who attempt to discover things of the greatest importance without first convincing themselves that they understand scientific demonstration?

I think they are quite reckless, since they are acting very much like those who make bold to declare some opinion about the theorems of practical and theoretical arithmetic before they have persuaded themselves to practice exercises with numbers.

These men must of necessity fall into many blunders; in the same way, those who try to prove something before they have exercised themselves in the method of demonstrations cannot fail to fall into error.

The best lies have a grain of truth in them. This is very useful to keep in mind to understand what is happening today. Demagogues take real problems and twist them to make them seem appealing to the masses.

The large number of philosophical sects makes it clear that some charlatans are winning disciples; it is also clear that these charlatans would not have convinced anybody to accept their teachings as true unless they bore a certain similarity to the truth.

Nor should we think that this similarity is a slight one. If the resemblance between the false and true were only slight, it would very easily have been detected over the long period of time during which both experts and ordinary people have examined it closely.

Knowing about methods of false argumentation and cognitive biases can help you in determining what is true and what is false.

Those who are well acquainted with twins readily distinguish between them even though they are much alike, while those who do not know the twins well cannot distinguish between them.

So, too, those who m long and daily practice has not made experts in argument cannot distinguish between similarities in argument in the same way that the brothers of twins who live with them and know them well are able to distinguish one twin from the other.

Some people deceive themselves, while others deceive others knowingly. Both are problems.

As regards those who recklessly have made some pronouncement about what is good or bad in human life, their first and greatest error is the one which springs from self-love, or vain boasting, or conceit of wisdom, or ambition.

For we see that some have misled themselves to believe that they are judging correctly; but others, for the sake of honor or for business reasons, have convinced their neighbors while they themselves remained suspicious of their own statements.

Clearly, both groups are in error: the latter err with knowledge, and their evil would be one of passion; the first, however, would err through want of knowledge, and their fault would be properly called an error.

There are different techniques that you can use to check whether people understood what you said and meant.

I have observed that this is the case; hence, whenever I say something, I ask them to repeat what I have said. As with the asses listening to the lyre, the clear truth is that they have not actually understood what I said.

Fake news is nothing new. It circulated widely in Antiquity as well.

For if, as I said, the similarity of false arguments to true is the reason for false doctrines, and if it takes an expert in each subject matter to diagnose them exactly, the man who has suddenly become involved in a debate cannot possibly distinguish and separate the false arguments from the true.

We have a positive proof of this in the so-called sophisms, which are false arguments which have been cunningly changed so as to bear a similarity to arguments which are true. The falsity of these is clearly evident because the conclusion is not true.

Since, at any rate, the arguments are false, they either have something false in the premises or the conclusion is badly drawn; these defects, however, are not readily seen in the sophisms; and on this account, it is difficult for those unskilled in argument to detect them.

There are different ways that you can use to recognize false arguments.

The solution lies in showing the similarity of the false argument to the true, one must first have understood the nature of arguments which are true. For if a man has become so experienced in true arguments that he accurately and quickly recognizes their nature, he would still have no difficulty in recognizing those which are false.

I proved this when I took lads who had previous experience in learning and taught them to recognize true arguments. If any of those present wished to do so, I asked them to propose sophisms to these young men; immediately the students recognized the absurdity of the sophisms, either from a fault in the form of the syllogism or because something in the premises was false.

It is hard to get rid of prejudices and falsehoods that people have accumulated for many years.

Why, then, in heaven’s name, do you think that the ignorance and pretense of wisdom of people such as these can easily be cured? If a man has a tumor which has hardened over a period of three or four years, his induration is indissoluble.

Who can cure the induration of thirty or forty years’ standing which grips the soul of such old men? Suppose, if you wish, that cure is possible; consider, then, whether the cure of such a tumor will require days or months or years.

Most people see the faults of others, but are blind to their own

Most people see the faults of others, but remain blind to their own.

As Aesop says, we have two sacks suspended from our necks; the one in front is filled with the faults of others; the one behind is filled with our own. This is the reason why we see the faults of others but remain blind to those which concern ourselves.

It is very difficult to discover a person’s own errors.

Even if a man should make, by himself, as extensive an examination into his own errors as he could, he would find it difficult to discover them.

Just keep in mind that no one is perfect, least of all you.

But you do judge that you are something other than a human being if you mislead yourself into believing that you have done nothing but good actions for a whole day, much less for a whole month.

That is why you need to listen to others who will critique you and tell you about your faults. This is something incredibly important. Galen states that the best way to find your own faults is to listen to other people who tell you about them.

Don’t overestimate yourself

It is important to never overestimate yourself.

When those who have spent their entire lives training themselves to be free from emotion do not believe that they have perfectly acquired this goal, you should be all the more convinced that you are not free from emotion since you have never devoted yourself to this training.

Many people fall for the Dunning-Kruger effect, thinking that they are more competent than they really are in reality.

For, as I said, because of self-love, or because of conceit of wisdom, or because of ambition, or concern for personal reputation, or vain boasting, or money-making, some convince themselves that they possess sure knowledge, and others even convince other men of this same thing.

Unfortunately, this is quite common. Most people instead of keeping humble,  like to flatter themselves.

That they choose to flatter themselves and that they are not seeking the truth we can recognize from the fact that they argue individually against an opinion only among their own followers, but accuse all others of being in error.

You always have to watch out. There are many charlatans out there. They believe in their own greatness, but also use the fact that most humans don’t engage in critical thinking in order to cheat them.

It is not strange if each teacher convinces his pupils by his own discourses, since some of these disciples are naturally dull, while others are keen-witted but untrained in the elements of learning. It suits braggart teachers to have such students since a disciple who is naturally intelligent and has had previous training in the elements will straightway look with scorn upon these charlatans.

You don’t always need to be the best in the world, but second, third, or even fourth is usually good enough

You will probably never be the best in the world at something, but being second, third, fourth and so on best is still good. The important thing is not to measure yourself against other people.

Suppose, when we were coming into existence, we could talk with the one superintending our birth; suppose we were to ask him for the most healthy body and he were to refuse; would we not, at all events, ask him successively for the body which was second, third, or fourth healthiest?

If we cannot have the healthy body of Hercules, the body of Achilles is satisfactory; if we cannot have the health of Achilles, then let us have that of Ajax or Diomede or Agamemnon or Patroclus; if we cannot have any of these, then, at least, let us have the healthy body of some other hero whom we admire.

In the same way, then, even if a man cannot have the most perfect health of soul, I think he would accept being second or third or fourth from the top. Nor is this impossible for one who has made up his mind, if he has been in continuous training over a considerable period of time.

You are standing on the shoulders of giants

Keep in mind that you standing on the shoulders of giants. Knowledge progresses little by little. Learn from others, and piece together different building blocks of knowledge from different areas.

No one man discovered these in his lifetime. First, the elementary theorems were investigated and discovered; then came men of a later day who added to these theorems that most marvelous reasoning which, as I said, is called analytic; thereafter, both these men and others who were willing to learn exercised themselves in this analytic reasoning to the greatest extent. Thus, little by little, the theory of geometry progressed.

There are only a few things that you really need in life, the rest are just nice to haves

There are just a few basics that you need in order to have a good life.

This is what he laid down as the basic standard for possessions, namely, not to be hungry, not to be cold, not to be thirsty. If you should have more than is necessary for these, you must, he said, use that surplus for good works.

Moderation is best

Moderation is best. The Golden Mean was a principle that was preached by philosophers since at least the time of Aristotle.

Since errors come from false opinion while the passions arise by an irrational impulse, I thought the first step was for a man to free himself from his passions; for these passions are probably the reason why we fall into false opinions.

And there are passions of the soul which everybody knows: anger, wrath, fear, grief, envy, and violent lust. In my opinion, excessive vehemence in loving or hating anything is also a passion; I think the saying “moderation is best” is correct, since no immoderate action is good.

Temperance is very important. After all it is one of the cardinal virtues.

Just as those men practice and pursue the height of the objects of their zeal, so must we zealously pursue the peak of temperance. If we shall do this, we will not compare ourselves to the undisciplined and intemperate, nor will it be enough to have more self-discipline and temperance than they.

First, we will strive to surpass those who earnestly pursue this same virtue of temperance, for such rivalry is very noble; after them, let us strive to surpass ourselves, so that from long-continued custom we may enjoy using the foods which are both the most healthful and the easiest to provide as well as the most nourishing.

Let us remind ourselves that this is one of the proverbs which is well said: “Choose the life which is best; living with it will make it pleasant.

Greed is bad

Love of glory, lust of power, and greediness are bad.

For obstinacy, love of glory, lust for power are diseases of the soul. Greediness is less harmful than these, but it, too, is, nevertheless, a disease. And what must I say of envy? It is the worst of evils. I call it envy whenever someone is grieved over the success of others.

Greed grows bigger the more you have.

The Greeks sometimes call it insatiate desire and at other times covetousness. They call it insatiate desire from the greediness with which one yearns, (and covetousness because) the greedy always desire (to grasp a larger share) of what lies before them—so much so that, even if (they have) twice as much, they are eager to acquire (three times as much;) if they have three times as much, they desire four times as much.

Don’t be materialistic.

I think, therefore, that you have no w clearly seen the standard for the extent to which w e should possess these goods. Just as a cubit-long shoe is perfectly useless, so too it is superfluous and useless to have fifteen shoes rather than the two shoes w e are using. Why are the two w e already have not altogether sufficient for our use? It is enough to have two garments, two slaves, and two sets of household equipment.

Don’t desire fame.

If you will free yourself from this same greedy desire to be held in honor, you will be free from distress in this respect as well. But not only are you dissatisfied with the honor paid you by your close friends, but you wish everybody in the city to praise you. And yet, how very few of those who live in all Asia Minor know you at all?

Live a life of virtue

Live a life of virtue.

He also maintained that I must strive, no w and throughout my life, to pursue those practices which all me n praised and which the philosophers agreed must be emulated. He asked me to learn and wax strong while seeking after justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence.

All men praise these virtues and, even if they themselves are aware that they do not possess any one of them, they strive, at least, to appear in the eyes of other me n as brave, temperate, prudent, and just; however, when it comes to grief, they try to be truly free from it, whether they appear so to their neighbors or not.

Hence, he told me that I must, above all things, practice this serenity which all men pursue more eagerly than they pursue virtue.

Don’t fret about money and honor.

My father also accustomed me to look with scorn on glory and honor and to hold only the truth in esteem. But I see many men grieving when they think that someone has dishonored them or because of the loss of money. In a matter of this sort, you would never see me grieving, unless I incurred a loss of money so great that I was no longer able with what was left to take care of my bodily health.

Practice makes perfect and builds good habits

Practice makes perfect, and it builds good habit. This applies in anything, including in managing your emotions. If you practice, over time you can learn how to keep your emotions in check.

A man cannot free himself from the habit of anger as soon as he resolves to do so, but he can keep in check the unseemly manifestations of his passion. If he will do this frequently, he will then discover that he is less prone to anger than he formerly was.

Things which are unimportant or less important will not rouse his wrath; and even if he does become angry over matters which are of great importance his anger will be slight. And he will achieve this result, namely, that at some later date he will become only a little angry over serious matters, if he will follow a practice of mine.

It takes hard work and a long time to improve. Just like it takes a long time to become a good doctor, or a good public speaker, it takes a long time to become a good person. The law of deliberate practice applies here too.

Even if you should not become much better, be satisfied if in the first year you have advanced and shown some small measure of improvement.

If you continue to withstand your passion and to soften your anger, you will show more remarkable improvement during the second year; then, if you still continue to take thought for yourself, you will notice a great increase in the dignity of your life in the third year, and after that, in the fourth year, the fifth, and so on.

A man does everything, for many years in succession, that he may become a good physician, or public speaker, or grammarian, or geometer. Is it a disgrace for you to toil for a long time that you may one day be a good man?

There are several kinds of exercises that you can do in order to cease being a slave of your passions. A reflection each morning can greatly help in this. It’s always much better to be driven by reason.

As I see it, this is by far the better course to follow: first, if a man wishes to keep as free as he can from the passions I mentioned, as soon as he gets up from bed, let him consider for each of his daily tasks whether it is better to live as a slave to his passions or to apply reason to each of them.

You should create a daily routine.

A man must remind himself of these things each day— if he does so frequently it will be all the better, but if not frequently, at least let him do so at dawn, before he begins his daily tasks, and toward evening before he is about to rest.

You may be sure that I have grown accustomed to ponder twice a day the exhortations attributed to Pythagoras—first I read them over, then I recite them aloud.

You need to use willpower and self-control at first, but after a while discipline takes over.

The chastisement of the lustful and desirous power consists in not furnishing it with the enjoyment of the things it desires. If it does attain to this enjoyment, it becomes great and strong; if it is disciplined and corrected, it becomes small and weak. The result is that the lustful and desirous power does not follow reason because it is obedient but because it is weak.

The road to temperance is through self-discipline.

The road to temperance is through self-discipline. It is in this very way that the temperate man holds an advantage over the man who has no command over himself: the temperate man no longer yearns for delicacies of the table, either because of long-standing habit or because of his self-control—as the very name shows, since it is derived from controlling and conquering one’s desires. To practice it is toilsome and difficult, at least at the beginning, but this is the case with every practice of a noble pursuit.

The battle of nurture versus nature can be won by daily practice. Even if your nature at the beginning is bad, by constantly battling against it, you can win.

He wanted to know how I excelled him in this, whether it was the result of practice, or of principles I held, or because I was such by nature. And so I told him the truth. I told him that, in the age of boyhood, nature is in all cases a great factor, as is also imitation of those about us; later on, principles and practice are important influences.

At the beginning the progress of self-improvement will be slow, but don’t give up.

Consequently, in the very beginning of the program of exercises, it would not be right for a man to be disheartened because he sees that the progress he makes in curing his passions is slight.

As time goes on, he will make great progress if only he will submit to hearing an account of his errors because he loves himself with a true love and because he desires to become a good and noble person—not merely to appear to be such.

Be open-minded and learn from everyone

Don’t be partisan to one group, but instead learn about them for a long time.

He went on to say that I must not be hasty in proclaiming myself a member of one sect, but that I must inquire, learn, and form my judgment about these sects over a considerable period of time.

Think before you act

Think before you act, for you cannot undo what you have done.

The Emperor Hadrian, they say, struck one of his slaves in the eye with a stylus; and when he learned that the man had lost his eye because of this wound, he summoned the slave and allowed him to ask for a gift which would be equal to his pain and loss.

When the slave who had suffered the loss remained silent, Hadrian again asked him to speak up and ask for whatever he might wish. But he asked for nothing else but another eye. For what gift could match in value the eye which had been destroyed?

Don’t be a slave to anger, reason things out.

If you will never be a slave to anger, if you will always reason things out and do everything you think best after dispassionate consideration, you will be a good and noble man.

Keep it in check while small, because if it gets too large, you will never be able to vanquish it.

Strive to hold the impetuosity of this power in check before it grows and acquires an unconquerable strength. For then, even if you will to do so, you will not be able to hold it in check.

There will always be someone who dislikes you, learn to live with it

You can’t have everyone like you, there will always be people who dislike you no matter what you do.

If I should hear that some men find fault with me, I oppose to them those who praise me, and I consider that the desire to have all men praise me is like the desire to possess all things.

Luck is important, but you always need to keep a perspective on things

Luck is important. That’s for sure. However, luck is relative. Don’t always look at those who have more than you, but keep in mind that there are many who have less than you and wish that they were in your position

Hence, they keep looking at those who have more than they and not at those who have less, and they seek to surpass those who surpass them and to have more than they do.

If you will look in this way, I said, at all our fellow citizens, you will not find thirty who are wealthier than you.

Hence, you are richer than all the rest of the citizens; in addition to these, it is obvious that you are richer than the slave population and the great number of women residents.

If, then, our fellow citizens number about forty thousand and if you add to these the women and slaves, you will find that you are not satisfied with being richer than one hundred and twenty thousand, but that you also wish to surpass those thirty men who are richer than you; you are eager for yourself to be the very first in wealth—even though it is much better to be first in self-sufficiency and frugality, which is within your power.

Yet preeminence in wealth is not a work of virtue but of fortune, which makes both slaves and freedmen richer than are we who bear the name of noble birth.


Why do people fall into error? Galen summarized it well, when he said that there are different reasons for that. However, all of these reasons have one thing in common. They are done in rashness, without a careful reflection and the use of critical thinking.

For some men fall into error because, in their rashness, they give their assent to objects as clearly evident which are not yet clearly evident.

The key words to remember from Galen as the key to self-improvement and right thinking are: moderation, habit, practice.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you usually can’t notice your errors yourself, but use others to give you feedback and notice them for you. That’s why it is always good to stay humble.

Galen’s thought is one of the earliest works of psychotherapy. It is meant to help people who are having mental problems.

You can see how helpful this guide from Galen was. The man himself was a true genius, a polymath who was primarily focused on medicine, but also left many works in other subjects such as philosophy.

He used inductive reasoning, which works by first making observations, then putting them together to make a generalization, and out of that creating a general theory of how things work.

Galen (just like Aristotle) believed that the different parts of the body were created for specific functions, so his thinking was teleological. This would also imply that humans individually have a higher purpose as well.

This was opposed to the more nihilistic thoughts of the Epicureans, and also our own modern understanding of science. Just like any man, he made mistakes and some of his own theories ended up not being true. However, even today Galen is remembered as a true giant of human thought.

Read more:
In many ways, Galen’s thoughts were similar to those of Marcus Aurelius. Although this should not be surprising, as Galen served as the personal physician of several Roman emperors, including Marcus.

Marcus Aurelius: how to survive in adversity.

Plutarch: how to keep a tranquil mind in a turbulent world.

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