WE APPRECIATE YOUR PATIENCE: As we transition our order fulfillment and warehousing to W. W. Norton select titles may temporarily appear as out-of-stock. Please check your local bookstores or other online booksellers.

Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol on Wikimedia

Marcus Aurelius and How to Cope with Anxiety

Donald J. Robertson—

When Marcus Aurelius was acclaimed emperor, in 161 CE, his first act was to insist that the Senate confer the same powers on his adoptive brother, who thereby became Emperor Lucius Verus.  The two brothers, or co-emperors, had very different personalities and provided contrasting examples of how to cope with highly stressful situations in life.  Marcus became interested in philosophy when he was twelve years old and spent most of his life training in Stoicism, with a focus on self-improvement.  So, he was well-prepared to cope with adversity.  Although Lucius also tried attending some lectures by Stoic philosophers, he soon turned his back on philosophy.  He seems to have dealt with stress by resorting instead to alcohol, and indulging in hedonistic diversions like visiting brothels, gambling with dice, and obsessing over his favorite chariot-racing team at the circus maximus.

Shortly after Marcus and Lucius were acclaimed emperors, King Vologases IV of Parthia invaded Armenia, a Roman ally, instigating a war on the empire’s eastern frontier.  Lucius was sent to Syria to take charge of the Roman counter-offensive.  After the Romans scored an initial victory, by managing to force the Parthians out of Armenia, Lucius tried to negotiate peace but he was rebuffed.  We know that he was very alarmed by this from a surviving letter sent to his old rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto. 

He wrote to Fronto in distress, apologizing for not having contacted him earlier in the war. Lucius’s excuse was that he did not wish to make his old friend “a partner in anxieties which night and day made me utterly wretched, and almost brought me to despair of success.” He explained that he had been “shackled with urgent cares,” stressing that his plans changed daily because the outcome of the war seemed most uncertain. Clearly things were going seriously wrong.1

The Parthians had probably made a tactical retreat with most of their troops still surviving, and were, to Lucius’ dismay, planning to continue the invasion.  The Roman historians tell us that Lucius delegated most of the work of fighting the war to his generals.  Instead of facing his fears, he ran away from them, and spent most of his time in taverns and brothels, or throwing extravagant parties for his friends and entourage.

Word spread that Lucius, in a manner reminiscent of Nero, would wander the taverns and brothels at night with his friends.  Despite trying to conceal his identity by dressing like a private citizen, even wearing a cheap felt hat called a pileus—the ancient equivalent of a baseball cap—he was easily recognizable. The rowdy group would throw heavy coins at the taverners’ ceramic cups, smashing them for sport. Lucius often got into drunken brawls and would awake the next day with his face black and blue.2

We know from modern research on psychotherapy that many people respond to unpleasant feelings, such as anxiety, by looking for ways to distract themselves.  Much like Lucius, they avoid pain by looking for pleasant diversions.  They numb themselves with drugs or alcohol, lose themselves in computer games, social media, or television, and try to avoid thinking about their worries in numerous other ways.  When we abuse these pleasures to avoid confronting our painful feelings, it can backfire and make us even more vulnerable to mental health problems.  Marcus says virtually nothing about Lucius in the Meditations, except that he was grateful for his brother’s affection and loyalty, and that Lucius’ example motivated him to pay more attention to his own character.  It’s likely Marcus meant that Lucius was a negative role mode, though, rather than a positive one.  Marcus watched with sadness as his brother struggled and, I imagine, he told himself: I am going to make sure I never end up like him!

So what can we learn from Marcus Aurelius?  Although Marcus also described being anxious at times, he dealt with his worries much more responsibly than his brother did.  We can learn some important lessons from him.  The historian Cassius Dio says that Marcus faced a “multitude of troubles”, yet the Stoic emperor did not allow his mind to become overwhelmed.  Instead, he focused on dealing, emotionally, with one thing at a time.  For instance, Marcus makes the very astute psychological observation that music and dance, which can evoke such strong feelings in us if we allow ourselves to be mesmerized and swept along by them, tend to lose their effect if we analyze them into their individual elements.

You will set little value on pleasant song and dance […] if you will separate the melody of the voice into its individual sounds and ask yourself regarding each if you are mastered by this. For you will be prevented by shame from confessing it. And in the matter of dancing, if at each movement and attitude you will do the same […]. In all things, then, except virtue and the acts of virtue, remember to apply yourself to their individual parts, and by this division to come to value them little. Apply this rule also to your whole life.3

Toward each ingredient of his worries, therefore, he asks himself, very simply, “Why am I troubled?”  Why should we worry about these things when taken one small piece at a time they are not overwhelming? If we’re not paying attention, though, our minds tend to build up setbacks into catastrophes.  Worry is like a horror story that we tell ourselves. We should learn to interrupt it rather than allowing ourselves to become engrossed, as though we are in a hypnotic trance.

Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: ‘What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?’ You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own.4

Worries are fears about future catastrophes.  Often, Marcus simply tells himself to focus on the present moment—the here and now—rather than allowing himself to be swept away by speculation about what might happen:

Do not allow the future to trouble your mind; for you will come to it, if come you must, bringing with you the same reason that you now apply to the affairs of the present.5

However, sometimes he also deliberately pictures feared events in the future—a method other Stoics called premeditatio malorum or the premeditation of adversity.  We do the same thing in modern cognitive therapy, asking clients to imagine feared events as if they’re already happening. Therapists train their clients to stop worrying about the future, and to overcome their anxiety, by systematically confronting feared events in their imagination in a more controlled manner. There’s a way of thinking about our fears, in other words, that simply makes them worse, and another way that makes things better.  We know that visualizing feared events for longer than normal, and doing this repeatedly, can lead to a process known as emotional habituation, through which anxiety abates naturally.

There are many ways we can face our fears from a new perspective, and the Stoics were aware of several.  However, the example above, which we can call the “divide and conquer” strategy, is easy to understand.  Early 20th century psychotherapists, who drew inspiration from Stoicism, recommended a similar method, which they called “depreciation by analysis”:

The principle that underlies the [Stoic] method may be described as depreciation by analysis. When we decompose into its constituent parts the object which has been of so much concern to us, we shall realise that it is a matter of no moment (much as a child which has pulled a toy to pieces is disillusioned, and says, “Is that all it is?”).6

Running away from emotional pain is always going to lead to problems in the long-run.  But nobody wants to suffer.  So, can we find a middle way?  The reason that these sorts of techniques are effective is that they offer a healthy alternative to avoidance.  The ancient Stoics had found various ways of facing their fears from a different perspective, so that they are no longer overwhelming.  Modern psychology has confirmed that is indeed one of the secrets of good mental health.  Marcus had learned from his Stoic tutors that someone who genuinely masters these strategies can face even a “multitude of troubles” without feeling emotionally overwhelmed by them.

Donald J. Robertson, a cognitive-behavior psychotherapist and writer, is a founding member of the organization Modern Stoicism and the president and founder of the Plato’s Academy Centre nonprofit. The author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, he lives in Canada and Greece.

1. Robertson, Donald J. 2024. Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor, p. 108.Yale University Press.

2. Ibid., p.105.

3. Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius. 2020. Meditations : The Philosophy Classic. Translated by George Long. Chichester, West Sussex: Capstone, A Wiley Brand.

4. Ibid, 8.36.

5. Ibid., 7.8.

6. Baudouin, Charles, and A. Lestchinsky. 1924. The Inner Discipline, p. 48. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Recent Posts

All Blogs