All posts by Donald Robertson

About Donald Robertson

I am a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, author and trainer.

Similar Passages from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius

These passages from Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are worth comparing:

SenecaThe wise man will not be angry with sinners. Why not? Because he knows that no one is born wise, but becomes so: he knows that very few wise men are produced in any age, because he thoroughly understands the circumstances of human life. Now, no sane man is angry with nature: for what should we say if a man chose to be surprised that fruit did not hang on the thickets of a forest, or to wonder at bushes and thorns not being covered with some useful berry? No one is angry when nature excuses a defect. The wise man, therefore, being tranquil, and dealing candidly with mistakes, not an enemy to but an improver of sinners, will go abroad every day in the following frame of mind: — “Many men will meet me who are drunkards, lustful, ungrateful, greedy, and excited by the frenzy of ambition.. He will view all these as benignly as a physician does his patients. — Seneca, On Anger, 2.10


marcus_aurelius_thumb.jpgBegin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.  — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1

Marcus Aurelius in Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952)

East of EdenThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is mentioned in East of Eden (1952), the novel by John Steinbeck.  Brian Bannon discusses the literary and philosophical relationship between Marcus’ Stoicism and Steinbeck’s narrative in the article ‘A Tiny Volume Bound in Leather: The Influence of Marcus Aurelius on East Of Eden‘.  Steinbeck once said that The Book of Ecclesiastes and The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were the two books that had most profoundly influenced his own outlook on life.  Some literary critics have found Stoic themes throughout the novel.  We can also find the following direct reference:

[Lee] lifted the breadbox and took out a tiny volume bound in leather, and the gold tooling was almost completely worn away—The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in English translation.

Lee wiped his steel-rimmed spectacles on a dish towel. He opened the book and leafed through. And he smiled to himself, consciously searching for reassurance.

He read slowly, moving his lips over the words. “Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.”

Lee glanced down the page. “Thou wilt die soon and thou are not yet simple nor free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”

Lee looked up from the page, and he answered the book as he would answer one of his ancient relatives. “That is true,” he said. “It’s very hard. I’m sorry. But don’t forget that you also say, ‘Always run the short way and the short way is the natural’—don’t forget that.” He let the pages slip past his fingers to the fly leaf where was written with a broad carpenter’s pencil, “Sam’l Hamilton.”

Suddenly Lee felt good. He wondered whether Sam’l Hamilton had ever missed his book or known who stole it. It had seemed to Lee the only clean pure way was to steal it. And he still felt good about it. His fingers caressed the smooth leather of the binding as he took it back and slipped it under the breadbox. He said to himself, “But of course he knew who took it. Who else would have stolen Marcus Aurelius?”  He went into the sitting room and pulled a chair near to the sleeping Adam.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 110,000 times in 2014. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 5 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Socrates the Stonemason

[This is a draft of a story I wrote for my three-year old daughter, Poppy, because she keeps asking me to tell her more about Socrates.Socrates]

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, almost two and a half thousand years ago, a very wise man lived in the city of Athens.  His name was Socrates and some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived.  He said he was just a “philosopher”, though, which means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself.  So philosophers are always looking for wisdom.

Socrates’ daddy was a stonemason and sculptor called Sophroniscus, who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis.  A stonemason is a man who cuts stone and a sculptor is a man who makes beautiful statues.  When he was young, Socrates learned how to cut stone and make statues, just like his daddy.  That’s what he did for a living and he became very good at it.  Some people say he made a famous sculpture, a statue, of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.

Socrates tried very hard to make statues that were perfect.  He wanted to show everyone what a totally wise and good person might look like.  He believed that wisdom and goodness were beautiful but he wasn’t really happy with the statues he created.  He felt something was missing.  So he spoke to the other stonemasons because he wanted to learn from them but he found that although they made statues of people who were good, they couldn’t really explain to him what goodness was or how to learn about it.  He said they had become like blocks of stone themselves because they lacked wisdom.  They were looking outside at the statues too much rather than looking inside themselves.

Then Socrates had an idea.  He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped making statues.  He said he was amazed that the sculptors who tried so hard to make blocks of stone into statues of perfectly wise and good people didn’t know how to become wise or good people themselves.  So he decided to stop sculpting stone and to begin sculpting himself, his own mind, his character, and to become wise and good.  He was going to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues.  Everyone thought this was funny because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at.  He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his friend Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat!  Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character.  He liked to joke that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he would be the winner because he was more beautiful inside.

So he gave up being a stonemason and a sculptor and instead of doing his daddy’s job he decided to switch to doing his mummy’s job instead.  Socrates’ mummy was a midwife.  When a lady has a baby inside her tummy, a midwife is another lady who helps her give birth, so the baby can come out of her tummy and ride around in its pram. Socrates said he had become a midwife just like his mummy but he didn’t help ladies with babies in their tummies to give birth to them… He helped people, men and women, with ideas inside them to give birth to those ideas, so they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them.

Socrates helped people to give birth to ideas by asking them lots of really difficult questions about what it means to be wise and good.  He asked soldiers “What does it really mean to be brave?”, he asked leaders and politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is wisdom?”  Socrates said that if you can learn what it means to be a good person you’ll become wise and live a good life.  He always pretended he didn’t know the answers.  Some people say, though, that by patiently asking lots of difficult questions, helping other people to give birth to ideas, and listening carefully to what they said, Socrates became wise himself and he lived a good life.  People still remember him today, even though he died a very long time ago.