Last winter, Toronto was hit with a snowstorm. I’m not talking about the kind of storm you see in Christmas movies, with big snowflakes that fall gently on the ground.
I’m talking about -20ºC weather, 40kmph wind, and so much snow that it’s difficult to see just 10 meters in front of you–and I was stuck 15 kilometres from home, shivering and waiting for a bus that I thought would never come.
After about 45 minutes of gruellingly slow traffic, the bus did come, and I made it home. I checked for frostbites and went on with my merry day.
Although I thought that day was pretty unpleasant, it doesn’t even compare to the hardship that some humans have to face every single day, and no one understood this better than Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor during the 2nd century. If you don’t know much about 2nd century Rome (I didn’t know either until I started writing this article), it wasn’t always a fun place to live in, let alone rule.
During his rule, Rome had to deal with countless conflicts and wars, floods, famine, and disease. Marcus also suffered through countless personal hardships and tragedies, including illness, and the numerous deaths of those close to him. Yet, despite all the suffering and misfortune, or perhaps because of it, he remained a true stoic.
For those who are unfamiliar, Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy which aims to help people deal with the inevitable suffering of life. It posits that the developed and happy human must have emotional tranquillity, embody the four Socratic virtues (self-control, courage, justice and benevolence, and wisdom), and have a love for humanity.
There were a number of things Stoics thought one could do to develop these traits, such as:
- Practising misfortune (not eating, eating very little, sleeping on the streets)
- By extension of the above, resisting pleasure and temptation
- Being present
- Focusing only on what is truly within your control (according to the Stoics, you only have total control over your own thoughts, but even that may be changing thanks to advancements in neuroscience and brain-computer-interfaces)
Seems simple enough, and that’s because it is. The hard part is actually implementing this stuff consistently.
Stoicism Ain’t Easy
Do you think you could only eat bland food for sustenance, sleep on the streets twice a year, and keep your cool if you lost your job, your house burned down, or you lost a loved one?
Probably not, and that’s normal.
What isn’t normal is that as the emperor of Rome, one of the most powerful people in the world at the time with no one to answer to, Marcus Aurelius resisted all of the incredible worldly temptations that come with being an emperor–unlimited access to food, entertainment, alcohol, and sex–and instead opted to be a compassionate and thoughtful leader.
Read that again.
I don’t think me or anyone reading this article (unless you’re a billionaire) can actually fathom what it’s like to have the absolute power that Marcus Aurelius had. I can barely resist a piece of chocolate, so how the hell am I going to resist anything when I can have all the chocolate in the world and no one can stop me or judge me for eating it?
Marcus obviously had an iron will, but how can we go about being more Stoic–or more disciplined for that matter–ourselves?
Belief → Discipline
I think belief fosters discipline. While resisting pleasure may have been hard for Marcus, I don’t think he had a problem doing so because he genuinely believed that resisting pleasure will make him happier in the long-term.
There’s a difference between belief and understanding. On an intellectual level, you might understand that eating chocolate isn’t good for you in the long-term, but if you haven’t actually internalized that (meaning you don’t truly believe it), it’ll be much much harder for you to resist it.
And since we’re heavily biased towards present gain, even at the expense of immense future cost, our judgement is clouded by instantly-gratifying pleasures, creating a negative feedback loop that can be difficult to escape:
- You want chocolate →
- Your judgement is clouded because of that desire →
- You eat that chocolate →
So how do you go about developing beliefs that help you develop discipline?
I don’t have a good answer to that, but the (admittedly not ideal) method that has largely worked for me is negative reinforcement.
Sometimes it really does take a health scare, broken relationship, or career failure for us to change.
Another less-than-ideal method is *drum roll*… Positive reinforcement!
I’d argue that positive reinforcement is just as if not more beneficial than negative reinforcement, but it typically takes longer to fully appreciate.
For example, working out might make you feel twice as good as you would without working out, but you’re not likely to notice it on a daily basis. But after a year of working out consistently, you realize just how much better you feel, and so your desire to work out is greater than it was before as a result.
While neither you are I are likely to ever develop the level of discipline and mental fortitude that Marcus Aurelius had, we still have so much to learn from his thoughts and actions.