The Stoic Wisdom of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius: An Introduction in Six Short Videos


Though it enjoys a particular popularity here in the twenty-first century, the rigorously equanimous Stoic worldview comes to us through the work of three figures from antiquity: Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus was born and raised a slave. Seneca, the son of rhetorician Seneca the Elder, became an advisor to Nero (a position that ultimately forced him to take his own life). Marcus Aurelius, the most exalted of the three, actually did the top job himself, ruling the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 AD. He also left behind a text, the Meditations, that stands alongside Epictetus’ Enchiridion and Seneca’s many essays and letters as a pillar of the canon of Stoicism.

It is from the Meditations that this series of six videos from Youtube channel Einzelgänger draws its wisdom. Each of them introduces different aspects of Marcus Aurelius’ interpretation of Stoicism and applies them to our everyday life here in modernity, presenting strategies for staying calm, not feeling harm, accepting what comes our way, and not being troubled by the actions of others.

Though the importance of these aims can be illustrated any number of ways, their achievement depends on accepting the notion central to all Stoic thought: “the dichotomy of control,” which dictates that “some things are in our control and others aren’t.” When life hurts, “it often means that we care about things we have no control over, and by doing so, we let them control us.”

All the Stoics understood this, but for Marcus Aurelius, “being unperturbed by things outside of his control allowed him to cope with the many responsibilities and challenges he faced as an emperor, and to focus on the task he believed he was given by the gods.” He knew that “it’s not the outside world and the events that take place in it, our bodies included, that hurt us, but our thoughts, memories, and fantasies regarding them.” To indulge those fantasies means to live in perpetual conflict with reality, and thus in perpetual, and futile, grievance against it. The stronger our judgments about what happens, “the more vulnerable we become to the whims of Fortuna, the unpredictable goddess of luck, chance, and fate,” forces that eventually get the better of us all — even if we happen to have the world’s mightiest empire at our command.

Related content:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Be a Stoic in Your Everyday Life: Philosophy Professor Massimo Pigliucci Explains

To a viewer on the internet, TED Talks and TEDx talks may seem more or less the same. That makes sense, since the main difference between them isn’t of format, but physical location: TED talks take place at official TED conferences, and TEDx talks at TED-licensed but independently-organized events. The latter are more numerous, and also more geographically varied. Take the talk above from TEDxAthens, the ideal place for speaker Massimo Pigliucci to deliver his opening historical sketch, which he begins by asking his audience to “imagine, if you will, that you’re walking down the streets of Athens 24 centuries ago, give or take.”

In such a setting, “you might meet this guy: Zeno of Citium.” A once-prosperous merchant stranded by a shipwreck, he’d wound up in the Greek metropolis, where he spent his days hanging around bookstores. One day “he read Xenophon’s Memorabilia, which is a book about Socrates, and he was so intrigued that he turned to the bookseller and said, ‘Where I can find me one of these people, one of these philosopher folks?'” Luckily for Zeno, the streets of Athens were crawling with philosophers at the time, and it was under their tutelage that he developed his own philosophical acumen to a level that prepared him to found his own school: Stoicism, so named because its members met in the stoa, where the markets set up.

The early Stoics were concerned with everyday life, and how it can be lived “according to nature”: the world’s nature, but also our own. Then, as now, a great many people suffered unnecessarily out of confusion as to where the world ended and they began. They had, in other words, no clear sense of what was under their control and what wasn’t, a condition that the core teachings of Stoicism are designed to rectify. “The idea is that you can do things, you can make decisions about your health, your reputation, et cetera, et cetera, but ultimately, you don’t control the outcome,” Pigliucci explains. In practice, this means that “we should try to walk through life by internalizing our goals — not worry about the outcomes, because those are outside our control, but worry about our intentions and our efforts, because those are very much under our control.”

“Worry” may not be quite the appropriate term. It connotes, in any case, a self-defeating habit that would hardly be condoned by history’s best-known proponents of Stoicism, like the first century Roman statesman and man of letters Seneca, the second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and especially the Greek ex-slave Epictetus, whose life bridged those eras. Epictetus believed, as Pigliucci puts it, that “a great part of happiness lies in the serenity,” in “the idea that you always walk through life by knowing that you’ve done your best, and that nothing else could be done on top of that.” We can learn more about how, exactly, to do our best from the work these Stoics left behind, all of which is free online: Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, the collection of Seneca’s writings previously featured here on Open Culture.

Of course, we could also read Pigliucci’s own book, How to Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, or even watch “Think Like a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World,” his series from The Great Courses (which is also available through Audible free to its members). Pigliucci is but one of the host of practitioners willing to introduce us to the principles of Stoicism, even these 24 centuries — give or take — after its invention. But whether on the streets of ancient Athens or in the digital labyrinths of the 21st century, the best teachers of this particular philosophy are the vicissitudes of life itself. Whether we can meet them with virtue and equanimity is up to us — and indeed, to put it Stoically, the only thing that’s ever been up to us.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Spot Bullshit: A Manual by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt (RIP)

Note: Over the weekend, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt passed away at the age of 94. After a long career, he became the author of the surprise bestselling book, On Bullshit, which we featured in 2016. Please revisit our original post below.

We live in an age of truthiness. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word to describe the Bush administration’s tendency to fudge the facts in its favor.

Ten years after the American Dialect Society named it Word of the Year, former president Bush’s calendar is packed with such leisure activities as golf and painting portraits of world leaders, but “truthiness” remains on active duty.

It’s particularly germane in this election year, though politicians are far from its only practitioners.

Take global warming. NASA makes a pretty rock solid case for both its existence and our role in it:

97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

In view of such numbers, it’s understandable that a suburban Joe with a freezer full of factory-farmed beef and multiple SUVs in his garage would cling to the position that global warming is a lie. It’s his last resort, really.

But such self-rationalizations are not truth. They are truthiness.

Or to use the old-fashioned word favored by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, above: bullshit!

Frankfurt–a philosopher at Princeton and the author of On Bullshitallows that bullshit artists are often charming, or at their very least, colorful. They have to be. Achieving their ends involves engaging others long enough to persuade them that they know what they’re talking about, when in fact, that’s the opposite of the truth.

Speaking of opposites, Frankfurt maintains that bullshit is a different beast from an out-and-out lie. The liar makes a specific attempt to conceal the truth by swapping it out for a lie.

The bullshit artist’s approach is far more vague. It’s about creating a general impression.

There are times when I admit to welcoming this sort of manure. As a maker of low budget theater, your honest opinion of any show I have Little Red Hen’ed into existence is the last thing I want to hear upon emerging from the cramped dressing room, unless you truly loved it.

I’d also encourage you to choose your words carefully when dashing a child’s dreams.

But when it comes to matters of public policy, and the public good, yes, transparency is best.

It’s interesting to me that filmmakers James Nee and Christian Britten transformed a portion of their learned subject’s thoughts into voiceover narration for a lightning fast stock footage montage. It’s diverting and funny, featuring such ominous characters as Nosferatu, Bill Clinton, Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and Donald Trump, but isn’t it also the sort of misdirection sleight of hand at which true bullshitters excel?

Frankfurt expands upon his thoughts on bullshit in his aptly titled bestselling book, On Bullshit and its followup On Truth.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

What Is Gender Theory? Berkeley Professor Judith Butler Explains

Nobody who keeps up with current discourse could fail to notice that gender has become a fraught topic in recent years. This condition can hardly have gone unforeseen by the theorist Judith Butler, who published the now-well-known volume Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity back in 1990. “Everybody has a theory of gender,” Butler says in the new Big Think video above. “Everybody has certain assumptions going about what gender is or should be. And at a certain point in life, we ask ourselves, ‘Wow, where’d that assumption come from?'” Butler’s career has, in part, focused on the search for the roots of these very assumptions.

This experience places Butler well to comment on the heated arguments about gender being stoked even now in the political realm, on social media, and elsewhere besides. “We have a whole range of differences, biological in nature, so I don’t deny them, but I don’t think they determine who we are in some sort of final way.”

As with many controversies — not least philosophical ones — a core problem has to do with differing definitions of words and concepts. At issue here in particular is “the distinction between sex and gender,” achieving a full understanding of which, to Butler’s mind, requires delving into all the relevant history, including the work of theorists like Gayle Rubin, Juliet Mitchell, and Simone de Beauvoir.

According to Butler, the “basic point” of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one, that the body is not a fact.” This possibility opened by de Beauvoir — that of “a difference between the sex you’re assigned and the sex you become” — has been much explored since the book’s publication nearly three quarters of a century ago. Some of those explorations have involved the idea of the “performative.” “We do enact who we are,” Butler says. “There are performances that we do in our lives that are not mere performance; they’re not fake.” Following on that, “what if we were to say that, in acting our lives as a particular gender, we are actually realizing that gender anew?” For many readers of gender theory, this raises a host of thrilling new possibilities, but behind it lies perhaps the oldest philosophical question of all: what, now, will you do?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


Theoretical Puppets: Salvador Dalí, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Other Thinkers Come Back to Life as Hand-Operated Puppets

As children’s television has demonstrated since the beginning of the medium, sometimes the best way to make an unfamiliar concept understandable is to articulate it through the mouth — and the body — of a puppet. Most all of us alive today had some experience with that back when we were still getting our ABCs and 123s down. Yet even in adulthood, we continue to find ourselves confronted with ideas we may find difficult to grasp, especially in the domain of philosophy, with no explanation offering-puppets to be found — or at least there weren’t, not before the launch of Theoretical Puppets on Youtube.

Each month, Theoretical Puppets brings on a notable thinker or two, the current lineup of whom includes the likes of Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Gilles Deleuze, and Michel Foucault, all of them reconstructed out of cloth and wire.

These puppets are recognizable as the individuals who inspired them, and also recognizable as homages to the puppet aesthetic popularized by a certain long-running program on American television — a form of broadcasting, incidentally, that Benjamin never knew. He did, however, have serious thoughts about radio, the mass media of his day, some of which he — or rather, his puppet — articulates in the video just above.

Other episodes of Theoretical Puppets include Foucault on discourse, Deleuze on Power, Arendt on natality (and smoking), and even the late Bruno Latour on actor-network theory. Among the channel’s most-viewed videos are meetings of the minds both historical and fictional: between Deleuze and Foucault, (a re-creation of a 1963 radio interview), between Foucault and Benjamin, between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dalí (which includes a discussion of the latter’s depiction of the former’s head as a “snail-like structure”). To varying extents, these dialogues are rooted in the words these figures wrote and spoke in their lifetimes; like most puppet-based productions, they also take place in the realm of fantasy. There’s humor in the incongruity, to be sure, but then, it must have demanded no small amount of imagination to produce such enduring bodies of theory in the first place.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A 3D Computer Animation of the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s 18th Century Design for an All-Controlling Prison

Nearly two centuries after his death, the eighteenth-century utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham — or most of him, anyway — still sits in state in the main building of University College London. For a time in the mid-twenty-tens, he was equipped with the PanoptiCam, “an online camera that streams what Bentham sees while sitting in his cabinet at UCL.” That most everyone gets the joke behind its name speaks to the enduring relevance of one of Bentham’s ideas in particular: the Panopticon, “a prison designed so that a prison guard could look into all cells at any time, and ensure that prisoners modified their behavior for the better.”

In Bentham’s Panopticon, many prisoners could be monitored effectively by just a few unseen guards. This accords, as Michel Foucault writes in 1975’s Discipline and Punish, with the principle that “power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.” Foucault drew connections between the Panopticon and the complex, large-scale societies that had developed since Bentham’s day. Imagine if he’d lived to see the rise of social media.

In a series of posts by Philosophy for Change, Tim Rayner takes up just such an exercise. “By making our actions and shares visible to a crowd, social media exposes us to a kind of virtual Panopticon,” he writes. “This is not just because our activities are monitored and recorded by the social media service for the purposes of producing market analysis or generating targeted advertising.” But “the surveillance that directly affects us and impacts on our behavior comes from the people with whom we share.” In the online Panopticon, “we are both guards and prisoners, watching and implicitly judging one another as we share content.” Rayner wrote these words more than a decade ago, but anyone who has experienced life on social media then can hardly deny the parallels with Bentham’s vision.

Far from improving our behavior, however, this constant online surveillance has in a fair few cases made it considerably less appealing. Whatever the nature of its actual effects on those who inhabit it, the Panopticon is an undeniably powerful structure, at least metaphorically speaking. But we should remember that Bentham intended it to be a real, physical structure, one that could contain not just prisons but other types of institutions as well. Whether a Panopticon has ever been wholly built to his specifications seems to be a matter of debate, but we can see what one would look like in the 3D rendering by Myles Zhang at the top of the post: an appropriate medium, after all, in which to perceive an idea most fully realized in the digital realm.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Albert Camus’ Lessons Learned from Playing Goalie: “What I Know Most Surely about Morality and Obligations, I Owe to Football”

Here’s a vintage football [aka soccer] post in celebration of the World Cup…

Albert Camus once said, “After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

He was referring to his college days when he played goalie for the Racing Universitaire d’Alger (RUA) junior team. Camus was a decent player, though not the great player that legend later made him out to be.

For Jim White, author of A Matter of Life and Death: A History of Football in 100 Quotations, soccer perhaps taught Camus a few things about selflessness, cooperation, bravery and resilience. That’s a sunny way of looking at things. But perhaps The Telegraph gets at the deeper, darker life lessons Camus took away from soccer:

[T]here is something appropriate about a philosopher like Camus stationing himself between the sticks [that is, in goal]. It is a lonely calling, an individual isolated within a team ethic, one who plays to different constraints. If his team scores, the keeper knows it is nothing to do with him. If the opposition score, however, it is all his fault. Standing sentinel in goal, Camus had plenty of time to reflect on the absurdist nature of his position.

And perhaps the absurdist nature of life itself…

Camus — who appears in the picture up top, wearing the dark color jersey in the front row — contracted tuberculosis when he was only 18 years old. His lungs too damaged to continue playing sports, the young man turned to philosophy. When Camus moved from Algeria to France, he learned that philosophy was a rough and tumble game too — something his soccer days prepared him for. He once quipped, “I learned . . . that a ball never arrives from the direction you expected it. That helped me in later life, especially in mainland France, where nobody plays straight.”

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Discover Friedrich Nietzsche’s Typewriter, the Curious “Malling-Hansen Writing Ball” (Circa 1881)

During his final decade, Friedrich Nietzsche’s worsening constitution continued to plague the philosopher. In addition to having suffered from incapacitating indigestion, insomnia, and migraines for much of his life, the 1880s brought about a dramatic deterioration in Nietzsche’s eyesight, with a doctor noting that his “right eye could only perceive mistaken and distorted images.”

Nietzsche himself declared that writing and reading for more than twenty minutes had grown excessively painful. With his intellectual output reaching its peak during this period, the philosopher required a device that would let him write while making minimal demands on his vision.

So he sought to buy a typewriter in 1881. Although he was aware of Remington typewriters, the ailing philosopher looked for a model that would be fairly portable, allowing him to travel, when necessary, to more salubrious climates. The Malling-Hansen Writing Ball seemed to fit the bill:

In Dieter Eberwein’s free Nietzches Screibkugel e-book, the vice president of the Malling-Hansen Society explains that the writing ball was the closest thing to a 19th century laptop. The first commercially-produced typewriter, the writing ball was the 1865 creation of Danish inventor Rasmus Malling-Hansen, and was shown at the 1878 Paris Universal Exhibition to journalistic acclaim:

“In the year 1875, a quick writing apparatus, designed by Mr. L. Sholes in America, and manufactured by Mr. Remington, was introduced in London. This machine was superior to the Malling-Hansen writing apparatus; but the writing ball in its present form far excels the Remington machine. It secures greater rapidity, and its writing is clearer and more precise than that of the American instrument. The Danish apparatus has more keys, is much less complicated, built with greater precision, more solid, and much smaller and lighter than the Remington, and moreover, is cheaper.”

Despite his initial excitement, Nietzsche quickly grew tired of the intricate contraption. According to Eberwein, the philosopher struggled with the device after it was damaged during a trip to Genoa; an inept mechanic trying to make the necessary repairs may have broken the writing ball even further. Still, Nietzsche typed some 60 manuscripts on his writing ball, including what may be the most poignant poetic treatment of typewriters to date:





In addition to viewing several of Nietzsche’s original typescripts at the Malling-Hansen Society website, those wanting a closer look at Nietzsche’s model can view it in the video below.

Note: This post originally appeared on our site in December 2013.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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