How to Speak like a Roman Emperor with guest Donald Robertson

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What does stoic philosophy have to do with public speaking and presentations? More than you’d think.

I recently read ‘How to think Like A Roman Emperor’ by expert in stoic philosophy Donald Robertson. It surprised me that he wrote a fair bit about orators and rhetoric of the sophists and how public speaking was an essential leadership tool in ancient Greece and Rome for those in positions of power, especially an emperor. It’s not so different today. The ability to persuade and influence still lies largely with those who speak from some kind of stage.

I asked Donald if he’d be willing to be a guest on my show and to my surprise he readily agreed. I learned a lot from our conversation, as will you I’m sure. I know I will be referring back to this conversation for a long time to come, as we discussed so many areas, like decatastrophising our thinking, cognitive behavioural therapy, hyperbole in modern life and a number of other profound areas.

I highly recommend Donald’s book ‘How to think like a Roman Emperor’ and have previously published a book review for it on my YouTube channel. On his own website Donald has several courses and many materials you can check out to bring a little more capital S Stoicism into your life and philosophy. https://donaldrobertson.name/

There is an opportunity for all of us to join the 8th International Stoicon Conference in October 2020 which this year, due to the pandemic, is a virtual event. You can find more information here https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/stoicon-2020-virtual-conference-tickets-103616048390?fbclid=IwAR3I195u0qu6ddKd1rIAKwYPayb8FEoAPHKHr84RWHdf72PKuj8gjkuxfFM

I encourage you to check out Donald’s Facebook group on Stoicism, which is where I first encountered him https://www.facebook.com/groups/Stoicism

I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. If you’d like to catch the video version on YouTube, here’s the link https://youtu.be/YKNbD_TvZHQ and please like and subscribe the channel whilst you’re there.

Next week we’ll be celebrating the 50th episode of Speaking of Influence with one of my top wish list guests Daniel Priestly, author of How to be a Key Person of Influence and other great entrepreneurial books. He’s also co-founder of Dent Global and an excellent business speaker. Don’t miss it!

Transcript

John Ball
Welcome to the Speaking of Influence podcast with virtual business speaker presentation skills and influence coach John Ball. Remember to like and subscribe. The speaking of influence podcast is uploaded and distributed using Buzzsprout. Buzzsprout makes it really easy to get your podcast started and out to a wide audience with lots of tips and useful tools to help you on your way. If you’re interested, check the link in the show notes and start your podcast today. But Welcome back to the show. And today I’m really happy to introduce someone who is a specialist in philosophy and read. I read on this just a listen to an amazing book by him just recently called How to think like a Roman Emperor. His name is Donald Robertson please welcome to the show Donald Robinson.

Donald Robertson
Well, thanks for having me on your show. It’s a pleasure to be here.

John Ball
I’m really happy to be speaking with you and and I’ve mentioned just before we started recording I’ve been following you on social media for some time and you definitely are one of, to me, one of the leading expert voices in in stoicism.

Donald Robertson
I’ve just been doing it for a long time.

John Ball
It was it was really nice, it was really nice in your book to hear your background about why you actually ended up getting into stoicism. Would it be okay to share a bit of that?

Donald Robertson
Yeah, I mean, I guess you know, the funny thing was I really wasn’t to stoicism before it was cool. Or at least you know, we could people make debate that but I distinctly remember everyone telling me why are you studying the sudden they’re the obscure subject and no one’s interested and, but not long after that it became more popular. So It started when I was a teenager, and I kind of drop out of school and stuff. My father passed away when I was quite young and I kind of got into trouble with the cops and things like that. And I ended up in a rehabilitation scheme for young offenders. And, you know, I decided with the help of a communication skills teacher, actually to turn my life around a bit and I thought I’d do something and I went to university and I studied philosophy. And I was looking for a philosophy of life. And one of the few major schools of ancient philosophy that isn’t typically part of the undergraduate curriculum, stoicism. So I spent four years at Aberdeen and they never mentioned that once. I studied Plato and Aristotle and other aspects of Greek philosophy, but not the stoics. And then after I graduated, I stumbled across the works of Pierre Hadot, a French scholar. He focuses on idea of philosophy as a way of life. I read his books and his training as a psychotherapist counsellor at a time. So I immediately recognised and it seemed odd to me that Hadot had listed all these psychological he called them spiritual exercises. He found that stoicism and they compare them to Christian contemplative techniques that catalogue them and written about them in great detail. And it seemed remarkable to me that the one thing he hadn’t ever done was draw the analogy with modern psychology or psychotherapy. And that seemed really obvious me. So sometimes in life, you find a book kind of writes itself almost. So I thought, well, if I don’t write this someone else, well, it seems like a really obvious thing. So yeah, I kind of ended up writing a book about it. And then people when you write one book, people ask you to rate others and then to nearly 25 years later, after I first stumbled across stoicism still talking to people about it, but I’m still 100% committed to stoicism I, you know, I found that it clicked with me. made a lot of sense and it still makes sense to me today.

John Ball
But you teach this now, Yes?

Donald Robertson
Yeah, I started teaching it in a sense early on because I always did a lot of workshops and trained psychotherapists in the UK and I supervised them. So I ended up teaching a lot of therapists initially about stoicism. Speaking about at conferences and stuff, and now I run online courses about it and so on great books give a lot of talks but more aimed at the general public. I started off more resect therapists, and those become more of a general audience.

John Ball
Yeah, I mean, I see some elements of stoic philosophy relating to things like CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy, right? And so I can see that these sorts of principles do get used, what what effects has this kind of philosophy had on on you particularly and your life

Donald Robertson
In my personal life I think stoicism gave me a sense of direction when I really needed it, many people say they see stoicism, like a kind of secular alternative to Christianity. And what they mean by that is it gives them something that’s like religion that Really a philosophy is not based on faith or revelation. It’s based on philosophical reasoning, but it gives them a whole worldview and a set of fundamental moral values through which to interpret life. Find a purpose, a sense of direction. So I’d say that’s the main thing I got from stoicism, but also the main corollary of a consequence of is that arguably it helps us to build the emotional psychological resilience and that’s partly why it dovetails with modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, like you said,

John Ball
Yeah, I do. I’ve been in coaching, professional coaching for a number of years now and certainly since having studied more about stoicism from people like yourself and is it is Brian Irving was it I think Ryan Holiday

Unknown Speaker
Bill Irvine and that… Yeah.

John Ball
So yeah, I think I’ve applied, certainly applied a lot of that for myself. I’ve got a lot of from it, but I also find myself using it with clients quite often. Because the philosophy of it really does stand the test of time and the mental resilience aspects of it, especially this year are really important.

Donald Robertson
Yeah, I mean, we kind of thought, eventually we’ll reach peaks in the sense that people get fairly simple gets fired, like everyone has rediscovered it, and they’ve got really into it. But it keeps growing and growing. And then the pandemic happened. And it just went through the roof, like the number of interviews and articles and so on about stoicism just as we thought it might be kind of plateauing has kind of shot shot up again. And book sales and stoicism have gone through the roof since the start of the pandemic, for obvious reasons, maybe but also, you know, the for instance, in the main classic is the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which was written in the middle of a pandemic, called the Antonine plague and impart Marcus is that’s one of the main things That he’s coping with. And so you mentioned coaching as well like without a shadow of a doubt. I was mainly the first book I wrote on stoicism is called The Philosophy of CBT. And it was an academic text it was mainly meant for psychotherapists and philosophers, but it reached out wide audience we say like a general audience. And life coaches actually seem to have got more interested in stoicism than psychotherapists, which is something I was wrong about. I thought the psychotherapists would be all over. And for a couple of reasons, actually, they’ve been a bit slow on the uptake, but but coaches have embraced stoicism of the past few years.

John Ball
Yeah. And to me, that’s kind of interesting as well, because I, I tend to think that the coaching industry or the coaches I know, really tend to love more of the sort of new agey woowoo spirituality kind of stuff, which stoicism really isn’t that it’s a very practical life philosophy.

Donald Robertson
Yeah, so philosophy in the Socratic tradition and you know, so certainly the ancient Greeks and Romans had the superstitions and the religions and occult practices and so on. But stoicism stands out, as you know, broadly speaking is very rational, grounded view of things. It’s very down to earth our philosophy in many respects. So I think I think the reason that CBT practitioners, increasingly there’s a lot of pressure knows has been now there’s more and more pressure on clinical psychologists or CBT practitioners to step through coarsely to evidence based protocols that have been established by researchers by and so because of that, I think they feel that they kind of haven’t got the tape the space of time and head room to go off and read classics as much as maybe coaches and trainers have, as my best attempt to try and to understand that because CBT is based on stoicism, it’s derived from stoicism so I just assumed they would be kind of way, you know, the first people to engage with it. And it’s been other groups of people that have got passionately into stoicism.

John Ball
Interestingly enough, I think a lot of that has maybe been fueled by people like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday as well.

Donald Robertson
Yeah, Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday are the two people that have really catapulted stoicism into you know, a whole different domain like a whole new audience.

John Ball
It’s been interesting to see and I certainly remember downloading the Tao of Seneca from Tim Ferriss after getting those those books published and I found that very interesting. One of the things that the maybe some people who are watching or listening who haven’t really come across stoicism amazingly still, or really wondering, maybe I’ve heard about it and don’t really know what it’s about. I mean, what are some of the nutshell principles of stoicism that we would sum it up for people perhaps?

Donald Robertson
Well, first of all, we should say a little tiny bit about the history. You know, when we talk stoicism we’re talking about an ancient Greek school of philosophy that was founded in 301 BC Athens by a shipwrecked Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium. And most of the early texts are lost apart from fragments, but stoicism flourished for nearly 500 years, and Greece and then later in the Roman Republic and the Empire. And so the main surviving texts, we have letters and essays by Seneca, who was a orator and the speechwriter for the Emperor Nero, Epictetus, who was a freed slave who became a teacher of philosophy at Rome and later moved to Nikolopoulos in Greece, and Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor, and is best known today for having appeared on screen with Russell Crowe, and the movie Gladiator in the form of Richard Harris, if you remember that that was another thing that made people interested in stoicism. It’s a little bit older now but when that movie came out, a lot of people started to be the meditations. They’re talking about doing a sequel.

John Ball
Oh really? Well, I guess, don’t with the same character, because he died.

Donald Robertson
With the children of the Visela, if I remember rightly,

John Ball
I remember really loving that film and I’ve watched it ever again. Especially the soundtracks as the most Star Trek. But did you find it to be a particularly stoic film?

Donald Robertson
No, there’s a couple of articles but actually, I wrote an article on a couple other people articles, there’s maybe two or three lines or there’s one in particular that looks like it’s kind of a paraphrase. And it’s something that it’s like at the end, where he says something like Someone once told me he’s talking to Marcus Aurelius, that deaths smiles at us all and all that we can do is smile back or something like that. And that sounds like a paraphrase of one of the passages in the meditations. But other than that others, there’s only very fleeting references. But actually, I read an interview recently that Russell Crowe when he was making that movie is about a movie trivia for you kids. Russell Crowe when he was making that movie, apparently really he was really into the meditations and really wanted more philosophy and the script, and he kind of fought for that. And then he’s just got one or two little passing references. But if they do make a sequel, then maybe Who knows? There might be a little bit more philosophy in it.

John Ball
I think that could be good. I mean, are there any films that are particularly stoic?

Donald Robertson
There’s a terrible movie that I saw recently cold that was kind of like a sort of, how would you describe it? A revenge movie like, like it’s mediocre. It’s not terrible. I

John Ball
The kind of thing Liam Neeson likes to do.

Donald Robertson
Yeah, like a Liam Neeson type thing. And it’s called acts of vengeance. And it’s got weirdly, and this guy falls through the window of a bookshop. He gets stabbed in the leg at the beginning. And he grabs a paperback and stems the blood flow, and he’s fine with the first thing that comes to hand, which is this paperback book, and he staggers home, bleeding, and then he looks at this book at tonnes put, surprise, surprise, it happens to be the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. And then he starts reading this book and there’s little references to throughout the rest of the movie. So there you go. It’s not the best showcase for stoicism. But there is a, weirdly there is a movie that an action movie that references stoicism, I think those are the only ones that I can really think of where it’s kind of an explicit thing. And then there’s like an old movie that is at the decline and fall of the The Roman Empire with Alec Guiness playing Marcus Aurelius in it from like the late 60s or something. And there’s not much philosophy in that that tells us about Marcus Aurelius. So that there’s one or two.

John Ball
Yeah. What would be there the main traits of stoicism that would make you think something was the eventual quoting the stoics. We tend, I think, tend to have this idea of stoicism as just being a bit keep your chin up stiff upper lip kind of thing, which is…

Donald Robertson
Well, that brings us back to defining it doesn’t get so the like we should do exactly what you’ve done, which is start off by saying quarter isn’t if you know lest people will forgive us for taking a slightly roundabout path. So the word stoicism today, when it’s written with a lowercase s, means an unemotional coping style. And that’s completely different thing it’s loosely related to but really a caricature of a degraded form of much more a very simplistic idea of just kind of having a stiff upper lip. Whereas capital S Stoicism is an ancient Greek School of philosophy that has survived for about 500 years and was much more nuanced and complex. And the reason it’s important to distinguish these things, particularly from my point of view, is that in psychology, we have established well known questionnaires for measuring lowercase stoicism. For like the level supposed to assess them scale is one of the tools that’s used. And it’s well known among researchers, that lowercase stoicism is actually bad for you, like, it’s unhealthy, and at least, like not to resilience to psychological vulnerability, whereas capital S Stoicism is the philosophical basis for cognitive therapy, which is the leading evidence based form of psychotherapy. So the research literature suggests that although these two words sound identical to listeners, one of them refers to something that’s actually unhealthy, psychologically resilient. to something that’s potentially healthy, opposite end of the scale. So it’s important to make that clear. What do they believe? The ancient stoics believed that virtue is the only true good. That’s their foundational principle. It’s an ethic. That’s the core of stoicism. And we call that a virtue ethic. And by virtue the I think the word arity that is often translated as model wisdom, because it’s a kind of insight or wisdom allows us to understand the value of things. And then that gives us a sense of purpose and direction in life. And the stoics think that someone who believes virtue is the only true good and therefore all external things like health, wealth reputation are relatively indifferent. What was more important is the use that you make of them. So like, money won’t make you happy as it were, like in the hands of a genocidal tyrant. money would be a bad thing. Like it’s like coffee, they say it allows you to do stupid things more quickly and with more energy, so plus, like money allows you to do stupid things more quickly and more easily. So money in itself has intrinsically it just gives you, it just allows you to exercise your world, more on your environment and on other people. Well, that’s good if you happen to be wise and virtuous. But if you happen to be foolish and vicious, then you know, that might not be a great idea. So the stoics say these things are what they call indifference, external things. Like it’s natural to prepare what wealth over poverty and health over sickness and friends over enemies, but they’re not intrinsically good in the way that moral wisdom is, it’s moral wisdom makes everything else good and more ignorance makes everything else bad and vice that makes everything else bad. But the main corollary of that is that if you go through this conversion where you suddenly place more value on your own character than on your possessions, for instance, you’re going to probably become more emotionally resilient as a consequence, because you’re going to be better able to cope with loss and setbacks in life and misfortune. And you’re going to be less perturbed by other people’s opinions of you and less prone to manipulation, the stoics would say, because you, you know, they would say it’s harder for a tyrant to threaten or manipulate a stoic. Why? Because there’s nothing that he can threaten to take away from them. Why he can’t separate he said, Nobody can take away your, your own freedom. And that’s all you really need to focus on as a stoic. So this is an ethic that has psychological implications for resilience building. In a nutshell.

John Ball
And, yeah, the one of the techniques that I know that I think ended up I think I learned it reading from William Irvine’s book but was the negative visualisation philosophy and I tried that because it doesn’t seem appealing and is something that towards my clients, I frame it up first by saying this doesn’t seem like a nice thing to do like you think, especially in the personal development world where they so many people say you attract what you think about kind of thing. To me it’s just kind of bullshit. But…

It is bullshit.

So many believe these kind of things I was well, people resistant to something like, after having had that for so long something like negative visualisation, for me it was essential in doing this, it actually was something that made me appreciate so much more what I have in my life right now. And to help let go,recognising that go the attachment of is not always going to be this good. It’s not always going to be as wonderful. Appreciate it now.

Donald Robertson
Well, in cognitive therapy, there’s a long tradition of getting people to visualise unpleasant scenes or feared catastrophes and so on, and I could bore you all day with a very detailed studies to train psychotherapists for a living. So I would talk all day about the many different ways. Off the top of my head, I would say there are like six or seven distinct psychological processes that we can potentially activate during mental rehearsal or imaginal exposure or whatever you want a bunch of different names that we use in psychology to refer to similar techniques that all involve closing your eyes and picturing some kind of unpleasant situation repeatedly, usually, the most important one in psychology, and the most robustly established. So I’d say there’s all sorts of people are like, well, I don’t know if this is a good idea is it? There are twho things, three things, four things… there’s like a bunch of things we could say this , I would argue that the most robustly established technique and the entire field of psychotherapy research is what we call exposure therapy. And the mechanism underlying it, we call emotional habituation. And that’s the finding which we’ve known for well over 50 or 60 years now, the foundation of all anxiety treatment and evidence based psychotherapy, that anxiety abates naturally, through repeated prolonged exposure under controlled conditions. And so what that means is if you visualise something cat phobia and you visualise cats, you’re frightened of losing your job and you picture yourself losing your job, if you do that repeatedly and for long enough, and as long as you’re not doing other things that would maintain your anxiety, then your anxiety will naturally wear off. And It’ll wear off permanently if you keep doing it. But a couple of things we know about are that it’s very common what people have a strong urge to terminate exposure prematurely. So of course, when people get anxious, they think screw this, I’m not going to do any more. And the risk in doing that is that can actually lead to sensitization. So I would attach a caveat which is this technique is problematic for two reasons, when people use it as a self help technique. So, one is the natural tendency for them not to do it long enough, in which case they could actually make themselves more distressed about the things that they’re picturing about. And also, I guess there’s three problems. The other one is the people, if you just do this without doing anything else, if you just keep it really important just picture the scene, the anxiety will abate. If you’re trying to do lots of other things at the same time, like trying to breathe differently. If you’re having a dialogue in your mind where you’re worrying about the implications of things or overthinking it, then again, this could also prevent habituation and make your anxiety worse, so you could tunnel exposure therapy and to just worrying, or ruminating morbidly if you’re not careful. So we see clients do that all the time. So as form of self help, we’d have to be careful. Be careful that you don’t do that. And then the other point is that if somebody has severe problems if they have panic disorder, or if they were severely clinically depressed, when they pictured something upsetting it may become too overwhelming for them. In which case, they probably would also terminate the exposure prematurely, and that could backfire on them. So I would say, this is one of the few stoic techniques, I’d say we have to be a little bit cautious about using it in practice. If you don’t have panic disorder, severe depression or psychosis, and you are patient about doing it, you pick something that’s not overwhelming. And you just keep it really simple. You’re not allowing yourself to do anything that might make your anxiety worse, then it will work pretty well for the majority of people, even just in a self help context. But in principle, another way in a clinical setting, it usually needs a little bit more assessment and supervision to make sure that that technique works well. Bill Irvine’s rationale for doing it is different from the stoics rationale for doing it. So sometimes, Bill Irvine’s book is great, but in some ways he describes stoicism in a way that makes it sound a little bit more like Epicureanism, which is a rival philosphpical school. And his rationale for doing a this kind of exposure therapy is that he thinks, if you imagine losing things that you’re attached to, it will make you or prevent what’s called hedonic adaptation. And then for you, you learn to experience more gratitude for things and the present moment or you have them. And that might be a reason for doing it. But it’s not the stoics main reasoning, it’s not clinicians main reason for doing it. In clinical practice. The main reason for doing that technique is emotional habituation. And the stoics there’s a couple of hints that they were also aware of this Plutarch later, he was influenced by stoics and says explicitly that he understands this concept. And actually one of Aesop’s Fables really clearly explains it. So there were ancient thinkers that grasp this concept of anxiety wearing off if you patiently keep exposing yourself to an upsetting scene but the stoics put more emphasis on something else, which they don’t have a name for. But today we would call cognitive distancing. It’s a technical term that we use in cognitive therapy. And so stoics Say look, they think that when we see things as catastrophic, or somebody has an idea or an asshole, are, you know, when we experience strong emotions, it’s because we’re fusing are merging our value judgments with external events outside our direct control. And so there’s the famous saying of Epictetus is quoted by all cognitive therapists as this. It’s not things that upset us, but our opinions about them. And so that articulates this concept of cognitive distancing. So if I say something is big or small, or it’s wood, or it’s metal that’s black, or it’s white, these are descriptions of physical properties. If I say it’s a catastrophe, that sounds like a description of the external event, but really, it’s more like me going Oh, no. It’s more like an expression of my value judgement and emotional reaction to it to say it’s a catastrophe. So there’s a sense in which is more arbitrary and subjective. It comes totally from me, rather than being a description of the event and in nature there are no catastrophes, cos nature is in different to everything. There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so and so other people might view the same event and not think it’s catastrophe. Or even more shockingly, I myself a year from now, might look at the same event and not view it as a catastrophe any longer. Yeah, even the facts are identical. So the stoics want us to… this, Marcus Aurelius says, we need to separate our value judgments from external events and realise that it’s not a catastrophe, but I’m catastrophizing it. As we see in therapy I’m choosing to look at it through the lens we Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy compared it to wearing coloured spectacles is the opposite of rose tinted glass. Like shitty coloured glasses, catastrophe coloured glasses. And he said that cognitive distancing would be like taking the glasses off and realising that you’re just looking at the world through catastrophe tinted lenses. And the guy next to is wearing rose tinted glasses or whatever, you could swap if you wanted. But when you see the catastrophes, you’re seeing the landings rather than quality of the event itself. And so the stoics think that we should take ownership for that. And so when they do this premeditatio malorum this is the Latin name that Seneca gives it. Negative visualisation, really you could translate that as premeditation of adversity or premeditation of misfortune. And when the stoics doing it, they’re actually rehearsing, viewing it with indifference. So they’re rehearsing, imagining the partner leaving them or getting sacked from their job, but at the same time realising that the awfulness of it is just a value judgement that they’re projecting onto it , and that that’s kind of arbitrary, subjective thing. So we call this also called verbal diffusion, like separating the value judgement from external event. So it’s quite unlike the rationale that Bill Irvine gives to it. And I think the stoic rationale is better. It’s more consistent with the way that cognitive therapy works today, we know that there’s cognitive distancing is also one of the most robust and effective techniques and many research studies on it. And it’s used for a range of problems even quite severe problems nowadays. So the stoics were way ahead of the time in that regard. Another thing I’d say about Bill Irvine’s version as he calls it, negative visualisation, now for the stoics, in a sense, the thing that they’re picturing being sacked from work, like getting sick, losing all your money or whatever, isn’t negative. They want us to realise that negativity comes from our own value judgement. So if anything, it would be indifferent visualisation. And sometimes people within the city struggle with that technique. I hear a lot from people who try some of the techniques and are not sure how to get them to work. And they say, I’m visualising all these negative things, and it’s just making me sad. I think, yeah, mainly sad to have visualised words, negative things, but what the stoics want you to do is to realise there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so and that negativity is a value judgement that you’re imposing on it. So you’re not gaining it from the way you’ve described, like that your value judgement is still completely fused to the event. You haven’t separated the two which is the realpoint of the technique.

John Ball
So it’s more the emotionalizing the whole thing and making it like this isn’t, it’s just a thing.

Donald Robertson
It’s another way of looking at life which the yeah The stoics also talk about you could look at from a slightly that one way of looking at it as just dictate wanna share for the value judgement? But the flip side of that would be to describe the event and more objective language. Right? And so the stoics compare that to a physician describing disease in a patient. Like he does it very objectively and very, in a very matter of fact way, or they they could just say like, and they do say in the way that maybe we talk about somebody else’s problems, we’re able to do it in a matter of fact or detached way, right when the same thing happens does though it’s my god, I can’t believe this is happening to me, you know, and so learning to describe things in a factual objective way makes it easier for us to problem solve, figure out coping strategies and do something about it. And that leads us neatly my friend into this topic of rhetoric, because something that would that because this is obviously got to do with language, why cognitive therapy always struck me as being very much about language we taught cognitive this cognitive that cognitive means thinking But thoughts are expressed in language. And so everything cognitive about cognitive therapy is also basically linguistic. That’s a particular use of language we’re talking about. And cognitive therapy. Traditionally, we help clients to identify thinking errors, like overgeneralization and unfounded assumptions and leaping to conclusions about what other people are thinking which we call main reading or catastrophizing. Right, which is exaggerating things. And those are similar also to not unlike fallacies and formal logic or tropes are used in rhetoric catastrophizing is hyperbole. You know, it’s a form of rhetoric and it’s a kind of alarmist form of rhetoric that we use. And I think that that’s a helpful It’s strange that we don’t frame it like that and cognitive therapy, because it’s almost like we evolved rhetoric as a way of manipulating the emotions of other people, maybe that puts too much of a negative spin on it but we evolved rhetoric as a way of communicating with other people evoking emotions by focusing their attention having an effect on an audience. But somehow it’s like we slipped unintentionally into using the same kind of strategies on ourselves by in the privacy of our own minds. And so we use metaphors that are vivid and evocative, like I’ll have a client that does a presentation. And they’ll say, I just felt as if somebody bit my nose off for no reason and I wished, they shot me down in flames and I wish the ground would open up and swallow me. And if they were describing the same event and objective language they make to say, somebody said that they disagreed with something. Which sounds far less anxiety provoking Right, but they’ve used colourful language. They use metaphors inparticular and hyperbole to, to really create this dramatic effect, but they’re doing it to themselves and something and it’s like they’re they’re not really thinking about the consequences of it would you want to make it seem more dramatic to yourself by if just making you feel anxious and freaking you out? And so often in therapy, we can see that clients are abusing language unintentionally. Like as a way of making themselves feel even more upset about things. And so the stoics had this kind of love 7 hate, they were kind of frenemies with the Sophists and rhetoricians because Cicero I think it was said that the stoics wrote books on rhetoric, which is all one of the greatest orators of antiquity thought werer terrible and he said stoic rhetoric’s rubbish, but he’s like, you guys just want to stick to the facts and explain everything really objectively. And because that’s not how rhetoric works in a court of law, or in a political speech or something is, in fact, part of the audience’s emotions. And the stoics were like, well, we kind of want to undo that, right, because we think when you guys do that you’re distorting reason and you’re manipulating truth and anger and fear gets in the way of people thinking things through rationally. And you know, funnily enough, this has all become very topical. It’s always been topical. But today, I cannot think of a finer example of the rhetoric of politicians distorting reason, whipping up emotions in a way that’s counterproductive to dealing with a crisis than the current pandemic. And the way that political propaganda has been used to distort public health information is something I care about having worked in public health and evidence based practice. I mean, anyone that works in that field, I think at the moment was just shocked at the absolute dog’s breakfast, like the mess that we’re currently observing, and particularly in the United States, but in other countries as well, and the misinformation and the confusion and the anger and outrage and fear that people experienced and the extent to which are swept up by the news media, social media, and political hacks. Why? To be blunt, about fake, it’s fair to say, whatever side of the debate people are on politically, I think they can recognise it. So it’s a shame that politics and rhetoric have clouded the public health debate around the virus.

John Ball
Yeah, I think we will see it, we all know it’s going on, we don’t necessarily all understand exactly how it works. But you know, there are certain elements of rhetoric with certain you see it particularly in the UK that they bear three word pithy phrases, but it’s still certain US politics as well really, there’s still get people electing. And the recent elections where get Brexit done is like these pithy three word phrases that are rhetorical devices. But also like hyperbole or the metaphor that goes in making this huge emotional drama about things. And very often they’re saying all these things without really saying anything, and you’re not really conveying information actually just conveying drama and outrage.

Donald Robertson
One other thing that you can do rhetorically there’s good and bad rhetoric. I should say that, phonetics and that’s another topic. I’ve got keyed up that we will we’ll come to in a moment. So we’re talking about their bs of rhetoric. Let’s see. Right. So one of the things that are rhetorician or an orator can do is present facts selectively. So you cherry pick, why and this is something that’s fundamentally counter to the scientific method. And the experts and doing that on newspapers and the news media. So the one piece of advice that I feel I would give to anybody who is looking at this at the moment is not to get public health advice from the mainstream news media. Why? Because whether they’re left or right or whatever, they always misrepresent scientific, like, You’re much better going to like credible scientific sources, even government sources directly. government reports or things like New Scientist or Scientific American.

John Ball
I get my science news from New Scientist every week.

Donald Robertson
The Telegraph and The Guardian and Fox, they will just pick whatever information fits their agenda and then kind of ignore or trivialise anything that doesn’t and there’s an art to doing that focusing your attention on just ignoring certain sites. We caught selective thinking and therapy is fundamental to many mental health problems. So for example, when somebody is anxious, they’ll spot signs of danger and focus on them like a magnifying glass, but they’ll ignore signs of safety that other people might notice that would counteract it. Yeah. So they don’t arrive at a balanced appraisal of the situation because they’re only looking at potentially, from a one sided perspective. It’s the same with depression, when people are clinically depressed, they have cognitive biases. So they’ll only look at the bad stuff. If someone with clinical depression writes a book and they get hundred reviews on Amazon and 99 of them say that it’s either amazing or it’s at least you know, reasonably good, but there’s one review that says it was garbage and knowing they’re worst writer in the universe. a depressed person will only talk, think, remember the negative review and they’ll kind of ignore, trivialise or sideline all the other ones, in many cases, because they have this unconscious, negative schematic bias that prime’s them to focus. It’s like confirmation bias. They’ll look for information that maintains depression and we see it, angry people will look for evidence that maintains of anger and ignore evidence that would contradict it. This is one of the risks with whipping up emotions that strongly maintain themselves by looking at details in a selective way. And so it’s wanted us to be more balanced and more rounded in our appraisal situations, to calmly look at all of the facts and, you know, often that means arriving at a kind of provisional and a mixed conclusion, acknowledging ambiguity and uncertainty in some cases.

so that leads us into what’s the relationship between these things, you know, this all kicked off with the sophists arrived on the scene in ancient Athens roundabout, like 400, and ran with 450 BC a little bit earlier. So the first major surface was a guy called Protagoras. And then there were a bunch of other famous sophists that folowed in his wake, and they were a revolutionary figures in the education, the culture of Athens, we get our word sophistication from the Sophists. They taught culture, virtues sophistication, and the use of language in political assemblies and and more courts to the Athenians, and they became like pop stars, they would tour all the cities and they get paid a fortune for giving these speeches. And this is where the, you know, in a sense, how rhetoric and oratory develop the also self improvement gurus, and wherever you’d find us office in ancient Athens, you’d also find Socrates, because he followed them around by and he loved the sophists, he had a frenemy relationship with them. He loved to argue with them, but he also like to quote them, so he didn’t just hate them, he liked a lot of things about them. But he also said that you guys are kind of the opposite of me. Because you will say whatever the crowd wants to hear, right, you just want to attract the biggest crowd and the biggest round of applause. So we would take, today we would say you’re sell outs to essentially what Socrates was calling these guys, and he said like real philosophy is the opposite. You know, sometimes you have to tell people things that they don’t want to hear. And you know, so you have to do, think things through more meticulously. He said the sophists would give a long, elaborate sweet speeches, but they didn’t really engage in question and answer approach that he was known for. So when he talked to them, he said, You need to just speak one sentence at a time so I can evaluate each step along the way of what you’re saying. And, and so there was always this kind of rivalry between the Sophists, and the and the philosophers, especially in the Socratic tradition, and the stoics are very much in the Socratic tradition. Now, Marcus really is the last famous stoic. When he was a young man, he he was appointed Caesar by the preceding Emperor Antoninus Pius, but also his adoptive grandfather. He was adopted by Antoninus Pius but that made his adoptive grandfather more Famous Roman Emperor, Hadrian. So Hadrian was really the one that chose Marcus Aurelius to be part of this long term succession and Marcus Aurelius had to study rhetoric, both in Greek and Latin. He was fluent in Greek rhetoric although he was Roman, and was born at Rome, his father was Spanish. And so he was a highly accomplished, or at least fairly highly accomplished orator and speechwriter, both in Greek and Latin. And the meditations is his book is written in Greek. And so people read it they like, it survives, because in some ways, it’s well written, people don’t tend to think of it as a kind of literary masterpiece, but it is well written and that’s one of the reasons that people love it today. It’s mainly lots of little passages or aphorisms, which is typical of a stoic approach. And then in the 19th century, an Italian scholar called Angelo May found some letters, a cache of letters between Marcus Aurelius and his rhetoric teacher, a guy called Marcus Aurelius Fronto, who is, by Romans considered almost like a second Cicero. He was like, in his day a highly acclaimed teacher of rhetoric and a sophist, part of a movement called the second sophistic. And one of the odd things about those letters, is that we can see Fronto becoming anxious about the fact that Marcus in his late teens is becoming more and more enamoured of stoic philosophy, and in particular his stoic mentor, a guy called Junius Rusticus. And we know that eventually, Marcus kind of made this break and he went from studying rhetoric he carried on studying and using rhetoric, but at some point, he made a shift to thinking no, my main thing I’m going to major known as it were, metaphorically in stoic philosophy rather than than rhetoric, like a student who kind of changes the subject halfway through a degree course, and you see fronto getting a little bit anxious about losing his precious student, the future Emperor. And he’s also a close family friend. And these private letters that were never meant for publication becomes a real insight into the private life of this famous Roman Emperor. But Fronto says some interesting things to Marcus about what we’re talking about right now the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy. And frontal says, Look, he says, He says it very well. He puts it very well actually.

He says philosophers have to ask a lot of questions, and they analyse things very deeply. In order to do that they have to make fine distinctions, distinctions that other people don’t normally make. Like earlier, when we talked about cognitive distancing. This is a contact that people can explain where it’s not familiar concepts to everybody. So sometimes they have to introduce neologisms, technical terms and his way of putting it as philosopher speaking paradoxes, Now, paradoxia in Greek means contrary to popular opinion. So they have to say things that people don’t understand, that seem alien strange to them, because they’re struggling to kind of articulate subtle truths, by, by the very nature of philosophy, and Fronto says, but the thing is you have to be able to call these abstract concepts and words that people can understand. Otherwise, what’s the point of it? And he’s talking about for the benefit of others. You could also say for your own benefit, as well. And Francis says the art of, Fronto has a very interesting idea of rhetoric by the way, for such an influential rhetorician. He says something really quite stunning about what he thinks the discipline of rhetoric entails. He tells us, this is the essence of rhetoric, and he doesn’t describe the conventional tropes and so on. He methods, he what he says very bluntly is that to be a great rhetorician, you have to put more effort than normal, into trying to identify exactly the right word or phrase to express your meaning. And he says to do that you have to study obscure poetry. You have to study culture, you have to know art, you have to learn a lot of phrases and words from other writers. So you know, you have this treasure trove that you can dip into. He says, when you’re expressing something you should use a novel phrase or word because it will grab the attention of your audience. And it has to be a phrase that better expresses the meaning that you intend than the common way of articulating it. And he says, if you’re just using novelty for the sake of it, that’s bad rhetoric. It needs to be novel and actually articulate your concept better than the common way of putting it would. And he says, sometimes it takes me days or you know, or longer to come up with just one word for a speech to kind of really capture the point I’m trying to make, and that’s remarkable. And he says to Marcus, when you’re writing, you should practice taking philosophical sayings. He says, wise maxims, paradoxes and he says rephrase them at least two or three times, trying to find the right metaphor, or the just the right word, a figure of speech to articulate it in a memorable and evocative manner. And so people read that and these letters by Fronto, as partly haven’t seen, look, you need rhetoric and philosophy to complement one another. And then they looked at the meditations, and they thought, wow, I mean, it looks like that might be what he’s doing in the meditations. So here in these letters, we have this guy telling him when he’s a teenager, you should practice this writing exercise. And then we have his book The Meditations which where he seems to be that with explained the unusual format and structure of that book. But it’s just a lot of disconnected sayings. And often he’s repeating the same point many times, but using expressing it in different ways, using different analogies metaphors to get his point across, because he wants to really kind of nail the idea and make it that this is for himself, although it is possible that some of these things he’s practising to incorporate into speeches later. But I think it’s mainly for his own benefit. He wants to come out with just the right phrases. We talked about these glasses, he says that our value judgments are like a beam of light, shining on an object and eliminating it. And he said that, you know, light illuminates objects, surely pure light, the light of the sun, he said, should eliminate objects, and it’s neither. It’s not exhausted by them, nor absorbed by them, not deflected by them, but it just spreads over the surface, and he thinks this is what consciousness should be like his way of articulating it. So we don’t become, he seemed we shouldn’t become too immerged or identify too much or too invested in the things that we’re looking at in a kind of dispassionate way just to illuminate them.

John Ball
Yeah. Isn’t that is incredibly fascinating. And one of the things that I took away from listening to your book on how to think like a Roman Emperor, was this thing about the sort of, almost anto-sophistry sort of thing of note is not all about the flourishes and the emotion of it, like the message is the core part, I think, well, that’s just most of the points that are just as relevant today as they were all those years ago, in very different society. And I see so many people who get up on stage is that public speaking is a much bigger, much bigger thing now than it was then but it’s still a very lucrative profession for people and it’s still a very influential profession as well in many ways, and an influential tool, but if people aren’t professional speakers, although you could argue that, in many ways politicians are professional speakers to some degree, and that as the same kinds of things of like, is it entertaining for your ego, so you look good and the people love you, or is it actually to challenge people? And are you actually giving something of value to people that are taken away like you, like you said it very effective are all in the book of it should be something that causes you to think not just something that you go along and you feel good whilst you’re there as like, yeah. And we see a lot of that still, I think, whereas I don’t know how many times people actually go somewhere and feel challenged by somebody’s talk and, and maybe again, that relates to some of this thing. People do not like being made to feel uncomfortable.

Donald Robertson
It’s hard and you know, even today, for sure there are politicians, self-development, personal development gurus there are social media influencers, all in a sense descendents of the sophists, all in sense using not rhetoric, because it’s normally understood, but certainly some kind of rhetoric quiet, that’s part and parcel of what they do for a living. And, you know, like, in that situation is difficult for people to avoid the temptation to just say stuff that gets a reaction. They’re not people that make an entire career out of being contrarian in the media and just saying things that they know are going to be shocking. And there’s a whole industry of that that’s quite a, you know, in a sense, that slightly sinister thing like, you know, like news programmes paying for like the political opponents of their perspective to come on and say crazy stuff. So that the audience has gone ‘I can’t believe what people just did, just said on CNN, All right, it’s outrageous, this guy on Fo and, they just said that most outrageous thing’ and people get really worked up about it, but like they does engineered, right. And they know that you’re going to be provoked by certain things and the guests do that on purpose and, and also the way that, you know, the industry and political memoirs is a obviously we’re at the moment. We haven’t made the Trump presidency. But, I say not Donald Trump himself the number of people that have had million dollar book deals, and from the White House staff is outrageous, and it’s an egregious problem. Because you know, these people are earning far more money from book deals than they are from their jobs and government. And you know, they thrive in chaos because the more ridiculous and catastrophic the situation is that they’re involved with the more books they’re going to sell when they comment on it later. We’re kind of rewarding them for like, you know, standing by and watching chaos happen. It’s so potentially we you know, we reward people for saying things are sensational or shocking or we reward people just for telling us things that we already want to hear. And you know, you can’t go far wrong just by figuring out what people want to hear and telling them exactly what they want to hear. But they’re probably not going to learn that much from it. If you write a book and you only get positive reviews for it’s probably rubbish, right? It’s probably bland, right? Show me a famous, innovating important historical figure that didn’t have any critics. My favourite example someone who did would be Charles Darwin, he was ridiculed mercilessly during his lifetime people drew cartoons over them repeatedly in the newspaper portraying him as a monkey by the thought he was the devil incarnate. You know, the thought even what he was saying was, was outrageous and ridiculous, because he was saying something that was innovative and important. So I, you know, even Shakespeare had bad reviews. One reviewer called him an upstart crw. Even long after his death, TS Eliot said he thought Hamlet was not a good person, terrible play. But it didn’t make any sense. Yeah. So I think if you’re saying something meaningful and important and original, like Socrates, you’re going to rock the boat, and they’re going to be people that don’t like that. And if you’re just saying stuff that everybody likes, you’re probably just appealing to the lowest common denominator in a sense, and, you know, you’re saying something that’s vanilla and generic and bland. It’s not interesting enough to be offensive to anyone. If you speak the truth, there’s always going to be people that don’t like that and it’s not gonna you’re not gonna be embraced by you know, as big an audience so there’s always attention. It’s always attention to sell out, right. Like if you say what people want to hear, hear or what they immediately want you to say, you know, you’re potentially going to be, and that was Socrates concern with sophists and he said, You guys are literally competing against each other, to see who can get the biggest round of applause. Because there’s no way that you can stand up there and stick to saying things you genuinely believe that’s gone out of the window, right? You’re just literally saying whatever you think, is going to impress the audience more than the next guy, regardless of whether it’s true or false, regardless of what the consequences for society are, like, it’s like, totally, it’s just an entire game for you. And he said we need to kind of back away from that, and, you know, really try to get back to trying to really uncover the truth and think about the ethics of what we’re seeing and doing. The stoics were thoroughly amassed and that side of the Socratic tradition.

John Ball
Interestingly, I’ve been running a series within my podcast about humour and presentations and comedy and I’ve been lucky enough to get connected with a lot of professional comedians and in the chats I’ve been having. It’s been fascinating. But this makes me think of comedy as well as you’re talking about thinking about how true that is in very obviously driving in that world. I, some of the people who are considered the most amazing comedians who’ve ever lived though, some of them no longer with us, but you know, you sort of think to the most outrageous people like Lenny Bruce is considered one of the edgiest people out there and he certainly was not short of critics, but he stayed true to his, to his act into what he wanted to do. And I think people like George Carlin as well who I absolutely loved was very much saying stuff that challenged people as well as well as being funny and of course not everyone is gonna like that. And but you can see there are so many people who go for the blander side of that, where they’re trying to please pretty much everybody Never going to escape all criticism but in enough to be popular with the vast majority of people we see, we see very much that the people pleasing thing actually means you can’t be true to your values.

Donald Robertson
And you can’t be as creative either. As soon as you’re creative and you present something new to people, especially if it’s radically new, if you’re coming at things from a new angle, then you’re going to alienate some people, by maybe the people look back on, same with music, same with anything, you know, 10, 20 years later, you might be remembered as a historic innovator. But at the time, there’s probably people that just don’t get it by or can’t stand it. Why? Because precisely because it’s new. That’s the paradox, the paradox of innovation. Right here. There’s always going to be some people that think it’s like, it’s a terrible idea. So the stoics you know, they it’s not that they hate rhetoric, they just think it’s like a loaded weapon. And we need to be more careful careful about how we use it. And so particularly, we need to be careful about how we use rhetoric on ourselves. We see that clear as day in therapy. So there may be ways you could use even use rhetoric, like to motivate yourself. So in a constructive way. I know that there’s a way that there’s room for using metaphors to communicate ideas in therapy, and so on. But when you listen to the client’s internal dialogue, when you ask them to write down their thoughts and tell you what’s going on, if I sit in a consulting room in front of a client and I say, like, tell me how you’re feeling? How did you feel about something that happened to you yesterday, like, and then I just listened to what they’re saying. They they’re oblivious to the fact often that they’re using selective thinking or over generalisation, that, you know, they’re using these kind of like vivid metaphors to evoke emotion. Rather than just describing the facts more objectively, so you get this kind of whole layer of language. being used to manipulate to store emotion. And usually people are oblivious to the fact that they’re doing it as just how they talk. Like, someone shot me down in flames, they tore a strip off me. You mean they said that they didn’t agree with something you said? Why you put it I seems trivial. Yeah. Why? Well, I guess so. Why? But like, it felt as if, you know, and but you think it’s that it could be the language that you’re using, like that might be.

And another thing I’d say is that people often say, people often think of their language as a consequence of their feelings. So they go you know, I felt really angry. So that was why I was talking about like that, and seeing it was a disaster and this guy was an asshole and an idiot and stuff and like, you know, I can’t I’m tired. I guess it’s just how I feel like, um, you know, it’s just the way I talk about it is, you know, because I’m so angry about it. So it’s the feelings, the fence. That caused them to talk about it like that. But what we’d normally say is well, could it be also the other way around? Could it maybe also be the way you’re talking about it is causing your feelings or maintaining them? Or the way I’d explain it to clients as gosh, you know, yeah, like I’m starting to get quite angry about listening to the way describe and but hang on a minute play you know, maybe do you think it’s the way you’re describing it as contributing because it started to me me feel quite anxious or quite angry? Why if, Yeah, I’m starting to think maybe you’re right, maybe this guy is an asshole, maybe this is a complete disaster, you’re pretty persuasive. You know, like but you know, I think maybe you’re having that effect on yourself and if that’s deliberate then fair play, but do you want to do that? Are you doing it on purpose? Well, obviously no, not doing it on purpose. Maybe you should look more carefully at what’s going on.

John Ball
That was definitely one of the valuable things I took away from your book was the decatastrophizing in life and thinking yeah, that’s really something we can all benefit from and probably need to check in with ourselves more regularly than we generally do on things like that. But one of the other things that I also particularly got from that and was about just the thinking about purpose in life, and that how much better the world would be if we, if we all had at least more of a personal philosophy, even if it wasn’t the stoicism that people just don’t seem to have their own philosophy and what do you think that, I’m trying to think of the right way to say this, but it probably was really taught in schools right? And in ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, it was considered a primary subject, right? But it’s not really now. So is it something that you think should be being taught in schools?

Donald Robertson
I think it’s really being taught in schools. But I think it’s always going to be a problem for the state. Because, gosh, my lessons almost like a radical thing to say, but I think it’s obvious to say, if you get kids to think too radically about politics, ethics society, like any state is going to start to feel a bit anxious about whether you’re raising a generation of revolutionaries or something or like, you know, like, do like we’re so close to Socrates. Right? Why are we gonna have whole classrooms full of little Socrates? Questioning everything really deeply. But can we handle that? You know, so I can see why society the older generations and also the state in general and the education system, we have, ironically, do have a vested interest in discouraging too much radical questions. I mean, first thing people that work in education are well intentioned, but they’re in they are in a situation where they, you know, it’s difficult for them or for kids start to radically question the whole premise of the establishment that they’re in and, you know, things like that whole like premises on which the teaching methods are based? You know, like, if you question too many things, the whole thing starts to fall apart, it seems,

John Ball
But you think then that if we taught more critical thinking and philosophy in schools, it would lead to anarchy.

Donald Robertson
Yeah, I think it may, I think, and I think that’s, that’s the anxiety anyway, would it in practice? I don’t know. I think I think maybe it would cause a lot of disruption. But I think certainly people are motivated to keep it within certain bounds. Because there’s a fear that if kids start to question things too radically, well, you know, that it’ll turn into something resembling anarchy. For sure. And but you know, like, why did why don’t we have a philosophy of life? I’ll tell you there are many reasons, but I’ll tell you one, because kids are born, you know, they grow up, they look around, they copy what they see other people doing like that’s how children develop to a large extent and look at that dad, and the mom and see how they respond to things I ever see that like children emulate their parents, by their peers. And then gradually, they begin to think more independently for themselves, go through these developmental stages. So the problem, one of the problems with that is that you get a kind of biassed perception of things. I mean, I think someone could write an entire book very simply about the way in which our thinking is biassed by the simple given facts that we learn about other people mainly by observing their external behaviour.

Like, for instance, we massively underestimate how prevalent mental health problems are. Because people don’t normally tell you that they have them. 52% of Americans, the majority of Americans have, at some point in their past met diagnostic criteria for a psychiatric condition. Right. But if you’re sitting on a bus, you wouldn’t think most of the people on this bus have either had a mental health problem in the past or currently have one. Because they don’t wear a little of badge or something to tell you that. So as a kid growing up, you’re looking around and you develop a kind of you construct a picture of the world, which is false, right? It’s not true. Why? Partly because a lot of things are hidden from you. We underestimate how much debt people earn because people don’t wear a T shirt saying I owe the bank 100 grand or whatever. So we know why we know that that is very common in many animation. America and in the UK and Canada, but people look around them and think, geez, that guy that I work with has got a fancy car, and how come he can afford all these expensive clothes and stuff? Often we don’t realise how much debt people are getting in order to maintain these appearances is the people living a lie in a sense, also how prevalent physical, chronic health conditions are. If we knew like somehow, if the world was more transparent and we knew what people were feeling that they had backache or they were anxious about surgery they had coming up and stuff. And we change the way we understand someone in the shop, being a bit short with us, or a colleague, you know, not paying attention properly in a meeting. So we misunderstand the dynamic of what’s going on all around us all the time. Because there’s loads of really basic important information that we just don’t see. Simple stuff that people just like to keep private. So it’s hidden, it’s a world that’s hidden from us. So children grow up. And they look around and they see this kind of fake version of the world around them. And that’s kind of what they base, generation after generation after generation, from ancient Greece down to present day by they get a fake view of the world as they’re growing up by its very nature, right? And then they also see people trying to accumulate money and reputation. And they think that must be important. Looks like it’s like the main thing like everyone else seems to be doing it. If you’re a kid, and you’re looking around, wouldn’t you think a lot people seem to think money’s important and property and reputation status and stuff like that, right. But when people reflect on it, what the stoics and Socrates said is that within our own hearts and our minds, we reflect on these things. If we say, you know, as Aristotle phrased, actually, what do you want money for the sake of? If you dig deeper, it’s just a means to an end. Nobody wants money for its own sake. It’s just about paper. A number on a computer screen well. Aristotle said, yeah, it’s, it’s simply a tool, it’s a means to an end, it’s of no value in and of itself. It’s only a value insofar as it contributes to eudaimonia, or fulfilment, somehow, whether or not even does. So people think it’s going to lead to freedom, happiness or something like fulfilment. And that’s why they pursue money. But often they lose sight of that and just become fixated on the means to the end and forget what it was that they wanted it for in the first place. And then that often leads them in the opposite direction, so the accumulate money in a way that leads them farther and farther away from fulfilment. But if you’re a kid, you’d look around and think I can’t see that people are trying to get eudaimonia, that they’re trying to become fulfilled. All I see is I’m running around after money and arguing about it. And you know, I’m trying to defend their ego and boost their status and reputation and stuff. So you can see why people like children growing up, generation after generation, get duped into thinking that externals are the meaning of life. And then you know, it’s only through doing some sort of existential crisis almost that people like the pandemic for many people they start to think maybe this, maybe all this shit won’t make me happy you know, maybe it doesn’t really matter how many likes I get on Facebook, or how big my house is? You know, and the fear the idea that you know, we could all die You know, I even though actually in reality,the vast 99% of people are more likely to die are gonna die from something else. Not Coronavirus. The pandemic has been trivialised by politicians in the media right out of the gate. To epidemiologist it was clearly much more severe than, a serious problem many politicians were making out to be and the public got confused by that. But nevertheless, at the same time The fact is that you’re more likely to die of heart disease or cancer, you know, Something’s definitely gonna get you. Eventually, we all die eventually. It’s probably not going to be the coronavirus. But the fact that it looms large in our society, I think has made a lot of people question their values, think about their mortality. And also things like in Toronto where I lived before, I was amazed when I was a kid eating out in a restaurant was something that you did we when I was a kid, maybe we did that twice a year. Why are you know maybe as I got older, I saw people would do it once every couple of weeks or something as a treat. Whearas now the young people in Toronto, I watch them and my friends eat in restaurants almost every day, sometimes twice a day, and there is no way economically that makes sense because when you spend money in a restaurant or in a bar That’s gone, you know, disappears. It’s an incredibly extravagant way to spend money. And so I think, and lockdown people have suddenly been becoming more modest in their lifestyle in many cases. And I think it’s led a lot of people to question whether they needed to do some of the things that they were doing before. Maybe they’re even happier.

John Ball
I noticed that with some of my clients, so some of them are really appreciating being at home and is making them reevaluate things in their life and think actually, yeah, I maybe don’t need to be commuting all the time. Maybe there are more important things than working all these hours and…

Donald Robertson
People are reading a lot more books. Yeah. And some people tell me that they’re happier doing that. They go for walks in the park on their own, like they’re happier doing that. And then the next question would be so, why were you before like going out to bars all the time and fancy restaurants and things like that so much if it was costing a lot of money and it wasn’t really making you feel happy or fulfilled. And often the answer to that is I don’t know. It’s just what people do. And I was because other people were doing it right. And it was a prevailing culture and I just kind of like fell in with it. It was the norm didn’t like and again… Yeah, it’s like it comes back to this thing of kids looking around and thinking I don’t know, what you’re supposed to do in life? Apparently, you’re meant to go around chasing after money and fame. It seems to be what everyone else is doing. But then in a crisis, people are like, Yeah, that would really make you happy. So you know, the stoics want us to accelerate that process think right now about your own mortality. Don’t wait until you’re on your deathbed. You know, it’s too late then. Think about it now and think about it. You know, what really is the purpose in your life what’s actually going to make you fulfilled. People spend a lot of time doing things no one has ever had on their tombstone written I wish I’d spent more time on social media.

John Ball
You’r hope not, right?

Donald Robertson
Or on their death bed, if only I’d spent more time on Facebook? If only I’d watched more YouTube videos. We should ,the stories want us to do it now, like ask yourself right now. If you were on your deathbed, what would you? What do you think that you should have spent your time doing during life? And you should live each moment as if it’s your last, in a sense. Kind of re calibrating your values, and thinking about what truly truly matters to you. So you don’t just go along with the prevailing morality of the majority of people that you see on the outside, but you dig deeper inside and reflect on you know, what the point of these things really is.

John Ball
It generally gets said that hindsight is 20-20. And this is almost a form of trying to step into your hindsight in the future and have it now.

Donald Robertson
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a we call it time projection sometimes in therapy is that’s a very simple thing. Certainly a very powerful one. You know, one of the easiest things to do is just ask people, you know, imagine a year from now or 10 years, where you’re looking back on the situation, how would you feel differently about it like so how would you describe it differently? What advice would you give yourself? That’s a technique I think everyone should do periodically, because it’s very natural think.

John Ball
If Stoicism was like their dominant world philosophy, prevalent everywhere, what do you think the world would look like?

Donald Robertson
What would the world look like if stoicism was the dominant philosophy? I don’t know if I could even envisage what it would look like to be honest. I mean, almost feel like we need the chaos and the confusion, we have to have something to to work on. If life was perfect. You know, we it’s the journey towards wisdom maybe the matters more than the goal itself, although the founding text of Stoicism was a utopian text says, Zeno’s Republic did describe what you’re asking for, which is a description of a utopian Stoic society, but his version so I’m a little bit split because if I told you what has utopian vision was it we didn’t say anything like how someone would describe it today. It sounds almost like a kind of an anarcho-communist state, men and women wore the same clothes, law courts were abolished, currencies abolished, property is held in common, children are raised in common. There’s no legal conflicts, no wars, and everybody’s equal. Everybody’s admitted regardless of race or gender. You know, nobility of birth, physical condition or whatever. So these are the things we’re told I like about the stoic Republic. I think that it would have to be a more modest lifestyle that people adopted the where there was more consideration extended towards poorer nations and a greater emphasis on international law and human rights

John Ball
Do you think there’s anyone who even comes close to like the philosopher King style of leadership of Marcus Aurelius?

Donald Robertson
Not today. I don’t think so. Like people often ask that question and they want me to come up, I really couldn’t find there are politicians that I might admire certain qualities of, that… no. Because all politicians in the current climate, or certainly the majority of them are morally compromised to some extent by things like their sources of funding that support them their relationships with big media outlets and stuff like that. Why? So the very system in which they operate, I think makes it virtually impossible for them to embrace philosophical values. The answer I usually give to this question is someone asked me to identify the people I’ve met in life that most closely resemble a stoic sage, in all honesty, and there are people that were regular guys and women that you would never have heard of, who lived in small towns, in relative obscurity, and several of them are people who are recovering drug addicts or alcoholics. So not famous politicians or celebrities. So they are people that just lead a very simple life, and maybe hit rock bottom and then clawed thier way back from it and decided that they wanted to try and make the world a better place and help other people and are quite sincere about it. And those people who left impression on me, made me think that they embodied some of these cardinal virtues of stoicism But they’re not people that live in the limelight.

John Ball
Do you ever ask yourself what would Marcus Aurelius do in this situation?

Donald Robertson
Yeah, a lot. I mean, you know, we the the stoics actually tell us to do that. So Epictetus told his students to several times he’d say, ask yourself, what Xenao would do or what Socrates would do, and I think sometimes people get confused by the history. So, like, when you ask that question, like you always get somebody giving a smart aleck response, like arguing probably they’d have lots of slaves to deal with the problem for them or something like that. You know, but it’s the principle that matters. What would somebody do if they had courage and self-discipline and stoic wisdom, they believe that virtue is the only true good. This is why the stoics say what we should do is construct a hypothetical sage, a hypothetical ideal in a kind of abstract way, and think what would the sage do, what would the perfect wise man or woman do in this situation so we don’t get distracted by the historical details associated with any particular role mode. But I often will think what would Marcus Aurelius or what would Socrates or what would somebody else do? There’s lots of techniques like this we use in therapy. One of my favourite ones is if you imagine there’s like a whole panel of people are completely impartial and completely rational observers. And then you try to explain to them why you think your boss is an asshole, or why you think it’s, it’s just an unbeatable injustice, that your neighbour was rude to you in the street yesterday or something, whatever. And you know, you’re in court and you’re trying to pur your case to them, and then imagine how how they might respond and the questions they would ask you what they think about it. Because kind of look at it’s like looking in a mirror and realising how absurd, you know, often a lot of these techniques are really just about making us more aware of the arbitrariness and absurdness of some of our existing attitudes.

John Ball
You recently had a big chat with Ryan Holiday. What did you guys end up talking about?

Donald Robertson
I think we were talking about Marcus Aurelius, a little bit about the history and stuff. So I did his podcast. And, you know, I’m very interested in what Ryan does, because it’s a different approach. And it’s a different audience that he has, so I think it’s really cool that he’s embraced stoicism. And you know, I can’t enjoy chatting to Ryan,

John Ball
Were there any points of difference that came up?

Donald Robertson
No, we I think we agreed, and I’ve never really talked about the things that we disagree about. LWe just kind of get chating about stoicism and about Marcus Aurelius. I think we, I think at least in the discussion that we had, we kind of pretty much just agreed with each other and were just enjoying talking about hobby.

John Ball
I found his books and and your book and a lot of your online content as well to be some of the most accessible ways into understanding stoicism and being able to apply that and I said before we started recording one of the things I really loved about your audiobook was that you recorded it, because you don’t often hear regional accents in audiobooks, and it was really refreshing to hear your voice and hear a Scottish accent and an audio book. And of course, you read your own material very well, it was it was very enjoyable.

Donald Robertson
It is a bit of a gamble because my publisher wanted us to use a voice actor, and we had a bit of a debate about it, but I had to go to Austria. I was going to Austria, to Carnunton where Marcus Aurelius wronte The Meditations. And so we only agreed at the last minute that I would record the audio book. And so I had to do it in pretty gruelling, like eight or nine hour sessions, you’d maybe normally just a couple of hours at a time in the studio. What’s hard about that is you have to sit on a stool in front of a little light. So it’s kind of like eight hours solid or whatever on the back it’s kind of hard work. And then just saying the same things over and over again, but we did it. And then I had my bags with me, I remember and I went straight from the recording studio to the airport to catch my flight, and just finished just in time, and then just in the nick of time for me to catch my flight to Austria.

John Ball
That doesn’t come accross in the book, it just sounds…

Donald Robertson
It was in the studio that does Paw Patrol, you know, the kids.

John Ball
I know of it, I’ve never actually watched it.

Donald Robertson
Not a fan?

John Ball
No, I don’t have kids.

Donald Robertson
They normally do paw patrol. You said earlier, but really, I can’t think of anything that Ryan says I particularly disagree with except like and obstacles the way he mentions some of the role models he mentions on people that I would have picked as role models. But that’s inevitable. When I reviewed that book, I said, Yeah, I think we have to assume that that’s going to happen if you pick political figures and, and so on.

But there are people that write books and stoicism that I don’t agree with. And sometimes it’s because they make they’ll make psychological claims. Like I love Bill Irvine’s book. But there’s bits of it that I don’t agree with in terms of psychology, on the interpretation of stoicism. And then there’s a couple of those books sometimes by people who try to make stoicism into this kind of macho thing where it’s like toxic masculinity almost it’s kind of this idea of like being hyper-tough and they’re confusing it with lowercase stoicism sometimes, It’s a care cynical philosophy where you, you know, just don’t really give a shit. about anything, and don’t let anything hurt your feelings and you know, but there’s no social dimension toit, no compassion or anything like that at all. So stoicism was the one of the main influences on early Christian ethics. And when you bear that in mind, you know all the stuff but brotherly love, ethical cosmopolitanism, you know that all that comes into Christianity, in part from Stoicism. So then these people that kind of think it’s all about having a stiff upper lip and not giving a shit about other people, that clearly isn’t compatible with that whole dimension. And so sometimes what I say to them that when you read Marcus Aurelius, have you noticed that on almost every page in meditations, he talks about compassion, natural affection, justice, fairness, kindness towards others. cosmopolitanism, or social virtue, basically, in general is one of the main topics of the entire book. And what really interests me Is that sometimes people who kind of want a macho, stiff upper-lip interpretation of stoicism will say, I didn’t notice any of that. Like they’ve read the entire book. They have a kind of blind spot. It’s almost every page he’s talking about this stuff. They just ignored that and again, it’s like selective thinking. It reminds me of a quote from William Blake. He said, We both read the Bible day and night, but you read black where I read white. So they’ve managed to read this entire book and they say they love this book, but the hardly noticed half of what was written in it. And so I’m in favour of kind of redressing that imbalance by putting more emphasis on the social virtues side of stoicism, the Cosmopolitan tradition that stems from and also what stoics have to say about anger and love and the interpersonal emotions. That was always integral to stoicism, but for some of the people that are writing about it now that’s completely left out.

John Ball
Yeah, I guess. I loved I loved your book and love where you put it. And I agree with you on all these values. I think they’re important. And we want to see more of that. To me that is, Marcus Aurelius is still one of the, if not the greatest example of great leadership, how how it can be done when you have someone who has wisdom and compassion and makes the best decisions they can and keeps themselves humble as well. I can’t think of anyone else that that really comes close. But that like the book that you wrote by dresses things up so well, puts the case so well, and you can start it off talking about his deathbed experience. So that was kind of interesting. I just want to come to that before we sort of wrap things up. But when you were talking about the deathbed experience, it’s almost kind of things that were going on in his mind is that is that stuff that you were imagining was going on in his mind?

Donald Robertson
In the last chapter the book, almost like… I should have said more about this in the book, but if I do a second edition I’ll fix this. Because there were some people, a couple of people reviewed that book, and one person review that, and they said they described it as a novel. And a couple other people reviewed it and said, Well, I thought the stoicism was good, but I don’t understand why he made up all these stories with Marcus Aurelius. And I thought, look at the footnotes, like they’re, they’re all derived from the surviving Roman histories, right? This is biographical. It’s based on the historical evidence, these are true stories, or at least they, you know, they’re based on historical accounts that we have. And it’s not it’s not fiction, and its biographies, its historical biography. And all of its referenced. In the last chapter, some people said, oh… someone emailed me once, I hope they don’t take offence if I mention this. So I won’t mention their name. But someone emailed me and said I liked your book but I thought the last chapter was terrible. I just can’t imagine that Marcus Aurelius would have said any of these things and you’re just putting words in his mouth… And I said, that entire chapter is just based on paraphrases from direct quotes that I’ve rearranged. Almost all of them are from Marcus Aurelius. And there’s like two or three from Seneca or Epictetus that I’ve inserted, but it’s mainly just a re-shuffled paraphrase of different translations of the meditations, but also I read a little bit of Greek, so when I was doing the book writing of Marcus around my courses. I have the dual texts and I consult the original Greek.So some of that maybe is more based on what the original Greek says and some of its based on some of the common translations, but those are all essentially Marcus Aurelius’ words But maybe I should have a footnote I kind of like emphasises that. I thought it was strange that somebody said Marcus Aurelius would never have said something like that. Those are quotes from Marcus Aurelius, or paraphrases from him, but what I did was organise it more thematically because meditations and organised thematically, it jumps around from one subject to another. So I wanted to make it flow more like speech. And also when I wrote it, because I knew it was going to be an audio book, I specifically wrote the last chapter so that when people listen to it in the audiobook, it would be like a guided meditation. And I thought, I’m not even gonna say anything. I’m just gonna do that and see if anybody experiences that way. And sure enough, a lot of the reviewers, people that have emailed me, said oh, you know, I just listened to the last chapter four or five times. I listen to it in my car every day. So, I treat it like a visualisation technique or something. I thought maybe it’s all for the top folks. It’s all about dying. And I thought, you know, maybe it’s too much and I thought nah, i’ll just do it anyway and see what people think. But like generally when people have reviewed it, that’s their favourite part of the book. Apart from maybe one person that didn’t like it.

John Ball
I did like it. I like the whole thing of not necessarily embracing death, just seeing it as inevitable and it’s just, it’s going to happen and being okay with it, being at peace with it. That was, if you have a choice of how you’re going to go, that’s a good way to go.

Donald Robertson
Oh, here’s like a… One day, something I’ll do, an interview where I talk more about the process of writing. Because I loved the experience that I had, but I suppose I’ve been writing books for quite a long time and stuff, but I don’t really think of myself as a professional writer. Although that is pretty much what I do all the time now. I’m now doing a graphic novel, which seems really weird to me. I don’t know very much about comics and graphic novels, but I’m well and truly in the middle of doing it now. So part of the process of writing that book was, I thought, I mean with the publisher and so I’m like, kind of arrived at the conclusion that we do chronological account of Marcus Aurelius’ life. And I thought, okay, so there’s clearly a problem with this because it starts off kind of with a training montage. You start off with his education, which I love. It’s the most interesting part for me, actually. But it’s kind of a little bit bland, it’s not a very dramatic place to open the book. And so I thought, Okay, what so we need to dig deep and look for a radical solution to that and I thought, well, let’s start with him dying. That’s pretty dramatic. And then we can go back and go through the rest of his life in chronological order. Like that wasn’t obvious at first I thought I start with him dying. Okay, now we’ve got something dramatic, the first chapter, and then we can go into his education and stuff. And then I thought, well, this creates a problem. For me, because now I’m not really sure how to end the book. Because then we have the Civil War with Aviduis Cassius. And then what happens after that is that Commodus then goes and ruins everything. Basically, overturns a lot of things that his father did. I didn’t really want to get into that, it’s not that relevant to the story. And it’s not, it’s a bit of a negative note to end on anyway, historically. So, I thought ‘How am I going to end this story? I’ve written a backwards’ and I thought, I have no idea. I’ll just have to write it and then I’ll figure it out when I get it to the end, hopefully, touch wood. And then as I was writing, I thought, I know what I’m gonna do. I can’t think of a way to end it. I feel like at the end, he has, you have to cover him dying. And I thought, well, what if I could do it twice? Why so we have him dying in the first chapter and also in the last chapter. I thought I can’t do that, it’s the same thing twice. And I thought, what if I tell it from a completely different perspective? And then I thought, what if I shift to a first person perspective? And at the time, that seems like a ridiculous idea. I’ve never read a book that changes to first person perspective in the last chapter, or like abruptly, and so, it seems weird. Like, can I get away with doing the southern? Oh, yeah, let’s do that.

John Ball
I feel it worked.

Donald Robertson
I think there was only one person that said, Why the hell has it suddenly changed the first person in the last chapter, but everyone else seems to be good with that. And so that was my attempt to figure out how I could solve this problem of the narrative structure, if we tell his story, it needs to start off and end with something memorable. I thought sneakily, I’m going to use a framing story where I tell the same part of the story twice, but from a different perspective. That is a that’s an odd thing to do. And but yeah…

John Ball
It’s a great device. I feel it worked very well. And so I’m very, very cognizant time you and it’s been really wonderful chatting with you. But I’m also aware that we you have your own life outside of the being a podcast guest as well. And so I want to bring things to a close by asking, hopefully people, even if they haven’t come across stoicism before have a little bit more of an idea about that. And also why it’s such an interesting area. I think it’s relevant in leadership. I think it’s relevant in speaking, public speaking. And really just all of life and just philosophy of life is so important. How can people who may be coming across you for the first time find out more about you and maybe come and connect with you on social media?

Donald Robertson
And well, my website is just DonaldRobertson.name, it’s just my name and instead of .com it’s .name, and if they go there, I’ve got a lot of elearning courses and downloads and stuff about stoicism they can check out. And my blog, I’ve got a Medium blog I’ve put a lot of stuff on. And I’ve written six books, they can check the other ones as well if they want. And all my social media links are there, but also I’m one of the founding members of a nonprofit organisation called modern stoicism, and its website is modernstoicism.com. It’s run by a team of a multidisciplinary team of volunteers. So classicists, philosophers, psychologists, and it was founded by Christopher Gill who is professor emeritus of ancient thought in Exeter University in England. So it’s modern stoicism that organises stoic week and stoicon conference, and all this kind of stuff and everything it does is basically free. And I should also plug we have, we had the stoic on conference sheduled for Toronto. Now, obviously, we had to cancel up because the pandemic so we now have a virtual conference on the 17th of October. And just for kicks, we decided to do by donation. So people can just pay whatever they like for a ticket. And it’ll be interesting to see how many people, I’m assuming that we’re going to get a lot of people attending that way. I just announced it a couple of weeks ago, and I think we’ve got about 150 people have already registered. And I was just like teasing it. So I’m guessing we’re going to have like three or 400 people attending once we actually start the campaign to promote it online properly.

John Ball
I’ll have the link from you and get the episode out before that comes up. So maybe get a few more people on,

Donald Robertson
Get some people to come along and they’ll see a lot of talks by different authors and experts and stoicism.

John Ball
Fantastic. And so to bring things to a close then what would be one word of advice or a call to action or thought that you would like to leave people with?

Donald Robertson
A thought I would like to leave… I think that I was writing books, when anyone ever asked me to sign a book and anyone that’s got a book that I put my name on will know this, I always write a quote from Horace, that is ‘Dare to be wise’, I think the fundamental thing is to really just like the clues in the name, philosophy, the love of wisdom, like to actually value, truth and wisdom and to think it’s worth spending time and effort reflecting on your values. That’s what Socrates wanted more than anything, was just to persuade people that an unexamined life is not worth living. And you know, just that desire, the craving to really penetrate more deeply and really understand ourselves and really understand our own beliefs and values. I think that is the main thing and don’t let anyone else distract you from that and life. That’s the way to get in touch with your your true goal in life and start to get back on the path to eudaimonia and personal fulfilment, I believe.

John Ball
That’s great. It’s great thought to end on and I can personally highly recommend How to think like Roman Emperor. I thoroughly enjoyed it and well worth the time to listen or read whichever question you prefer, but Donald Robertson, thank you for joining me today. I’ve learned a lot speaking with you and I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Thank you so much.

Donald Robertson
Likewise, thanks for inviting me along.

John Ball
Well, I hope you enjoyed the show. And if you’d like to know more about stoic philosophy, I do recommend checking out Donald’s book, how to think like a Roman Emperor. He also has a lot of free resources online on his website, so do check those out too. Very good. An active Facebook group all about stoicism and what is and isn’t stoicism and often people asking lots of questions and that could be a good place to find out more. Next week I’m going to have with me a master in the area of entrepreneurship and business and this is the author and entrepreneur Daniel Priestley, who’s written books like how to be a key personal influence, entrepreneur revolution, oversubscribed, 24 assets, prolific writing, and definitely a great guy to be interviewing. We had a fantastic chat, and I know you’re not going to want to miss that. Please make sure you like and subscribe to the show. We’ll see you next time. Have a great week.

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