Life Hacks from Marcus Aurelius: How Stoicism Can Help Us



Author and psychotherapist Donald Robertson discusses how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can be applied to modern day life.

Stepping back from emotional and physical chaos to reach a state of calm, clear-headed thinking is the bedrock of Stoicism, a philosophy famously practiced by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Although Stoicism was conceived in ancient times, its guiding principles are very relevant today, according to cognitive behavioral psychotherapist Donald Robertson. His new book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, examines how Stoicism informed the leader’s personal and political life. It also shows how the philosophy can help with the challenges of modern life, including work. Robertson, a practicing Stoic, visited the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to share his story and discuss the power of Stoicism. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.



Knowledge@Wharton: How does Stoicism work in the business community?

Donald Robertson: It’s a strange thing. I didn’t anticipate this, but one of the biggest groups of people interested in it seems to be millennials who work in the tech industry. I feel like it can take root in Silicon Valley. Where I live in Toronto, I meet a lot of young people working in software development or the tech industry in general who are particularly drawn to this philosophy.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us the story of Marcus Aurelius and how Stoicism became his philosophy for living and ruling in the Roman Empire.

Robertson: Marcus Aurelius is one of the good Roman emperors. He lived in the second century A.D., and his reign was subject to many problems. It came after a peaceful period in history. As soon as he became emperor, there was a war with the Parthians, then the Roman Empire was invaded again by barbarians from the north. There was a famine, the River Tiber flooded, and he had a plague called the Antonine Plague, which was thought to have killed as many as 5 million people. He had a really hard time of it and had to lean on this philosophy that he studied when he was a young man in order to cope with it. We’re blessed to have his personal record of how he coped with adversity, the psychological techniques and strategies that he used derived from Stoic philosophy.

Knowledge@Wharton: It is interesting that his book, Meditations, still holds importance to people who read it today.


Robertson: Meditations must be one of the most popular self-help spiritual guides of all time. It’s always been a popular book, and it’s gone through a resurgence of popularity today. From my perspective as a cognitive therapist, that’s because the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy in the 1950s drew heavily on Stoicism for inspiration as an alternative to [Sigmund] Freud and all that kind of stuff. The new model of psychotherapy was influenced by Stoicism, and that’s filtered down through self-help and psychological literature in general.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is Stoicism the reason why Marcus Aurelius was able to rule for the length of time that he did and have the impact that you alluded to?

Robertson: One of the historians actually comments on that. He said that even though Marcus was a notoriously frail man and had a number of health problems, he still managed to outlive a bunch of other people around him in an incredibly tough time. People were dropping like flies because of the wars and the plagues, and Marcus nearly reached 50, which isn’t exceptionally old, but that’s fairly good for that particular period in Roman history. He was tougher than he looked, you could say. We think that was because of the psychological strategies that he developed to cope with his emotions and to cope with the physical pain and illness that he had to endure.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you talk about understanding that there are going to be times when things are beyond your control. I think that’s an incredibly important idea to bring into personal and business life today because of all that we have going on.

Robertson: Absolutely. Some people think it’s even more timely now because we’re so bombarded with information. We’re constantly being told about the bigger picture in the world and things going on in other countries that we have very little control over. The Stoics realized a long time ago that the trick was learning to make a clear distinction in our mind between what’s under our direct control and what isn’t.

Ultimately, the only thing that’s really under our control is our own will, our own actions. Things happen to us, but what we can really control is the way that we respond to those things. Stoicism wants us to take also greater responsibility, greater ownership for the things that we can actually do, both in terms of our thoughts and our actions, and respond to the situations that we face.
Knowledge@Wharton: If you’re somebody who doesn’t have a handle on that concept, life can feel incredibly stressful, right?

Robertson: In my clinical practice, I’ve worked with many people who suffered, for example, from generalized anxiety disorder or GAD. Most of the things people worry about tend to be outside their direct control — the distant future, or events in politics, stuff like that. Often when they’re doing that, they neglect to do the things that they could be doing that are under their control.

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re telling the story of Marcus Aurelius and correlating it with today’s world. For example, you talk about how to speak wisely. Do you think there is a significant issue surrounding speech and how it is used now?

Robertson: It’s one of the things that people often overlook about Stoicism and what it can teach us. People use flowery, emotive language a lot of the time, and they curse and swear when they’re faced with problems. If someone is anxious in a meeting, they’ll say, “That guy shot me down in flames.” They could just say, “Oh, he expressed disagreement with me.” This is very obvious when you’re working with clients in therapy, but when you describe the same situation in more value-free, more objective, matter-of-fact terms, it often seems much less distressing. We unconsciously, unintentionally make ourselves even more worked up about things when we use rhetoric on ourselves in this way. And the Stoics were very aware of this problem.
I’ve worked with so many people over the past 20 years or so who are into Stoicism. There’s a growing community around it now, and I hear over and over again the same thing. People will say, “Well, it’s like academic philosophy, but it’s more practical.” They’ll say it’s like Buddhism, but it’s a Western alternative to it. They’ll say it’s like Christianity but more secular and more rational and philosophical. It seems to fill a gap in our culture at the moment, providing a philosophical down-to-earth and rational way of life that can help people to find meaning, but also to become more emotionally resilient.

Knowledge@Wharton: You also talk about anger, which also feels like an emotion that’s rising in society now.

Robertson: There’s anger everywhere, and the Stoics were particularly interested in it. It’s the main emotion that bothers them. We have an entire book that survives today by Seneca called On Anger about the stoic therapy of anger. But it’s also the main emotion that Marcus Aurelius is interested in dealing with. We know that he had problems with his own feelings of anger, at least as a young man, because he mentions that in the beginning of the book. In a way, Meditations is partly a book about him learning to deal with his anger and becoming more empathetic to other people. He describes so many techniques that would be relevant today and are some of our modern therapy techniques. At one point he gives a list of 10 separate stoic techniques that stand up today to be used to help with anger.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there times where Stoicism is misinterpreted as disinterest?

Robertson: There are many common misconceptions. In fact, it’s in the language that we have. The English language has caricatures of many concepts in Greek philosophy. What we mean by cynicism with a small “c” is very different from Cynicism in the Greek philosophy with a capital “C.” The same goes for epicureanism, skepticism and stoicism. Lower-case stoicism is a coping style or a personality trait where we conceal or repress emotions, and that’s not what the ancient Stoics were talking about. They have a whole system of philosophy that’s much more sophisticated psychologically than that.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned Marcus Aurelius dealt with illness and pain. How does Stoicism correlate to pain in modern life?

Robertson: Because of our sedentary lifestyle, and also because people are living longer, we have a lot of people now struggling to cope with chronic pain and discomfort. Back pain is kind of an epidemic. The Stoics give us these strategies for learning to cope with pain. The interesting thing is they’re mainly acceptance-based strategies. There’s a large, growing body of research that shows that emotional acceptance seems to be a powerful strategy in cognitive therapy for coping with upsetting or unpleasant feelings, particularly as a way of coping with pain. If we want to suffer less, we need to learn to embrace our pain and live with it without struggling against it as much.

Knowledge@Wharton: You are one of the founding members of the organization Modern Stoicism. How has the practice of this philosophy affected your life?

Robertson: It’s helped me to cope with a lot of things, even relatively trivial things. The last time I went to the dentist, I’m sure I was using stoic pain management techniques. It becomes a habitual thing. Coping with some of the stress that therapists have when they’re dealing with clients who sometimes describe very traumatic problems, and the stress of working with other people who have their difficulties and stresses. [I moved] to Canada a few years ago, and that was a big upheaval for me. As for many people, a life-changing event like that can require a lot to deal with. Learning to think about things like a Stoic has helped me to negotiate all of these things in life.

Knowledge@Wharton: One of the other areas you talk about is desire and conquering desire. How did that play out with Marcus Aurelius, and how do you see it in business culture today?

Robertson: Marcus Aurelius, like all of the Stoics, was quite cautious about the danger implicit in certain pleasant feelings or positive feelings, or feelings of happiness. The Greeks, in general, were quite conscious of this. If we get too carried away enjoying certain things, sometimes we make bad decisions, so we need to retain our senses. We need not to lose it when we’re having too much of a good time. Sometimes we can act irrationally when we’re happy.

Marcus wanted to cherish life and enjoy an experience of joy and fulfillment from it, but in a healthy way. That’s really what he’s talking about. He would think about the consequences of his desires. The key for the Stoics is thinking about the long-term consequences of acting on certain desires and asking ourselves whether they’re reasonable and balanced, and whether they’re in our long-term interests, or if they’re perhaps harmful to indulge in too much.

In terms of modern society, I suppose the modern kind of cliched thing that people talk to me all the time about is their habitual use of the internet and social media, in particular. That’s something that comes up a lot. Learning to take a step back from our feelings, rather than act on them, is integral to Stoicism — almost an observational perspective, then thinking about the bigger picture and evaluating whether what we’re doing is healthy or not. It’s learning to put limits on things that we might feel like doing but that maybe aren’t working out well for us in the long run.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does technology make it difficult for us to follow the path of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism?

Robertson: There’s definitely a sense in which social media and advertising, by their very nature, are designed to suck us in and manipulate us a bit, so it takes an effort to resist that. But it was the same, in a different way, in the ancient world. There were professional public speakers or orators who spent their life studying rhetoric in order to manipulate audiences and play on their emotions. We have something like that today, but in a different, maybe more intrusive form. It’s in our living rooms now. But I think the Stoics definitely can teach us ways of coping with that. It does require a little bit of self-discipline to live like a Stoic, but they will teach us strategies that will help us to step back.

Knowledge@Wharton: What kind of role do you see Stoicism playing in the United States? Is it becoming part of the culture?

Robertson: I think people just learning that Stoicism is out there is actually a big deal, because I feel like people culturally are looking for something to fill this void that’s left by Christianity. Buddhism filled in a way, as did other Eastern religions, but not to everybody’s satisfaction. Some people want something that’s more familiar to European culture and values, and that seems to be what they are getting from Stoicism. They want a big philosophy. They want something bigger than cognitive therapy. That’s just a bunch of techniques, right? It’s not a way of life. Stoicism is something that people get tattooed on their bodies. It’s something they identify with at a deeper kind of more spiritual level, almost like a substitute for religion. I think that’s kind of what people really need, something to identify with at a bigger and deeper level. They need a whole way of life that’s going to help protect them against the effects of advertising and social media and celebrity culture and all of these toxic influences we have around us.

Knowledge@Wharton: In your book, you also write about the importance of following your own values — and that Stoicism is a personal choice.

Robertson: That’s a great thing to talk about because it’s a resurgent idea in modern psychotherapy as well, particularly in the evidenced-based treatment of clinical depression, which is an epidemic. One of the things that we find is that people who are increasingly driven by their feelings are usually doing things like using social media, partly to avoid unpleasant feelings that they’re experiencing. People today are constantly trying to distract themselves, to numb themselves from unpleasant emotions that they’re feeling.

In the past or perhaps in an ideal world, people would be doing things that are more fulfilling, that are more consistent with their core values, that are more aligned with their true self. And therapists today are increasingly encouraging clients to identify their true inner values and do things that serve those more fully. The big problem here is that most people don’t know what those values are. It takes an effort for them to get clearer about what they want to be remembered for after they’re gone, what they want their life to represent, rather than just falling in with the herd and what everyone else is doing and what the media brainwashes them into thinking their life should be about.

IMF Executive Board Concludes Article IV Consultation with the United States

 
 
On June 21, 2019, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation with the United States. [1]
 
The U.S. economy is in the longest expansion in recorded history. Unemployment is at levels not seen since the late 1960s, and economic activity is growing above potential, aided by a fiscal stimulus and supportive financial conditions. Real wages are rising, including for those at the lower end of the income distribution, and productivity growth appears to be recovering. Against this backdrop, inflationary pressures remain remarkably subdued.

Despite these positive macroeconomic outcomes, the benefits from this decade-long expansion have not been shared as widely as they could. Average life expectancy is falling, income and wealth polarization have increased, poverty has fallen but remains higher than in other advanced economies, and social mobility has steadily eroded.

In addition, a number of medium-term risks are growing. The financial system appears healthy but vulnerabilities in leveraged corporates and, potentially, in the nonbank system are elevated by historical standards. An abrupt reversal of the recent supportive financial market conditions or a deepening of ongoing trade disputes represent material risks to the U.S. economy, with concomitant negative outward spillovers. The U.S. public debt-to-GDP ratio is on an unsustainable path and is expected to continue rising throughout the medium-term, as aging related spending rises.

The consultation focused on the policies needed to address these risks, preserve financial stability, support the standard of living for low- and middle-income households, and rebuild fiscal space.

Executive Board Assessment [2] 
 
Executive Directors welcomed the continued robust performance of the U.S. economy, which is about to mark its longest expansion in recorded history. They noted the achievements of low unemployment, rising real wages, and subdued inflation. Economic prospects remain favorable and risks were viewed to be broadly balanced. Nevertheless, Directors observed that public debt is on an unsustainable path, trade tensions and uncertainties are continuing, and medium-term risks to financial stability are rising. Continued vigilance, prudent macroeconomic policies, and supply-side reforms would be critical to securing strong, balanced, and inclusive growth, generating positive spillovers to the rest of the world.

Directors called on the authorities to address external imbalances through fiscal adjustment and supply-side reforms that enhance productivity and competitiveness. They encouraged the United States to work constructively and cooperatively with its trading partners to address distortions in the trading system and resolve trade tensions in a manner that promotes a more open, stable, and transparent rules-based international trade system.

Directors underscored the need to ensure that the benefits of the strong economy are broadly shared. They considered it a priority to address rising income inequality and improve social outcomes. To this end, they encouraged initiatives to reform the educational system, healthcare, and social programs. Specifically, Directors recommended expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, providing family-friendly benefits, and improving healthcare coverage while tempering costs.

Directors stressed that policy adjustments are necessary to lower the fiscal deficit and put public debt on a gradual downward path over the medium term. They recommended that the authorities consider possible options to better control entitlement spending and raise indirect taxes. They considered that these efforts would create fiscal space to expand needed investments in infrastructure and human capital. They also saw scope for further improving the budgetary process.
 
Directors welcomed the Federal Reserve’s pause in interest rate adjustments. They agreed that any further increases in the federal funds rate should be deferred until there are clearer signs of wage or price inflation. In this regard, they appreciated the authorities’ continued adherence to a data-dependent approach and clear, forward-looking communication. Directors also welcomed the authorities’ readiness to consider refinements to the monetary policy framework following the Federal Reserve’s review of its monetary policy strategy, tools, and communication.

Directors observed that the financial system appears healthy, with well-capitalized banks. However, risks are building up among leveraged corporations and, possibly, in the nonbank sector. An abrupt reversal of supportive financial market conditions could weigh on real activity and job creation, with negative outward spillovers. Directors emphasized the importance of enhancing the risk-based approach to regulation and supervision, strengthening the oversight of nonbanks, and addressing remaining data gaps.

Directors welcomed the authorities’ voluntary participation in the Fund’s enhanced governance framework on the supply and facilitation of corruption. They encouraged continued efforts to improve entity transparency and beneficial ownership information.


United States: Selected Economic Indicators
(Percentage change from previous period, unless otherwise indicated)
           
Projections
2018
2019
2020
2021
2022
2023
2024
National production and income
Real GDP
2.9
2.6
1.9
1.8
1.7
1.6
1.6
Real GDP (q4/q4)
3.0
2.3
1.9
1.7
1.7
1.6
1.6
Net exports 1/
-0.2
0.2
-0.2
-0.2
0.0
0.0
0.0
Total domestic demand
3.0
2.4
2.0
1.9
1.6
1.5
1.5
Final domestic demand
2.9
2.2
2.1
1.9
1.6
1.5
1.5
Private final consumption
2.6
2.3
2.2
1.9
1.8
1.6
1.6
Public consumption expenditure
1.2
0.6
1.0
1.1
0.8
0.7
0.6
Gross fixed domestic investment
4.8
2.7
2.4
2.4
1.5
1.7
1.8
Private fixed investment
5.2
3.1
2.9
2.4
1.6
1.8
2.0
Public fixed investment
2.6
0.6
-0.1
2.0
0.7
1.1
0.1
Change in private inventories 1/
0.1
0.2
0.0
0.0
0.0
0.0
0.0
Nominal GDP
5.2
4.3
4.0
3.8
3.7
3.6
3.7
Personal saving rate (% of disposable income)
6.8
6.5
6.4
6.3
6.2
6.2
6.2
Private investment rate (% of GDP)
                       
17.8
18.1
18.1
18.2
18.2
18.2
18.3
Unemployment and potential output
Unemployment rate
3.9
3.6
3.5
3.6
3.7
3.8
3.8
Labor force participation rate
62.9
63.0
62.9
62.7
62.5
62.3
62.1
Potential GDP
2.0
2.0
1.9
1.8
1.7
1.7
1.7
Output gap (% of potential GDP)
                       
1.1
1.7
1.7
1.6
1.6
1.5
1.4
Inflation
CPI inflation (q4/q4)
2.2
2.4
2.6
2.3
2.2
2.2
2.2
Core CPI Inflation (q4/q4)
2.2
2.2
2.5
2.4
2.3
2.3
2.2
PCE Inflation (q4/q4)
1.9
2.1
2.2
2.0
1.9
1.9
2.0
Core PCE Inflation (q4/q4)
1.9
1.8
2.1
2.1
2.0
2.0
2.0
GDP deflator
                       
2.3
1.6
2.1
2.0
2.0
2.0
2.0
Government finances
Federal balance (% of GDP) 2/
-3.9
-4.2
-4.0
-4.0
-4.3
-4.1
-3.8
Federal debt held by the public (% of GDP)
77.8
78.7
79.6
80.6
82.0
83.3
84.2
General government budget balance (% of GDP) 2/
-5.3
-4.9
-4.6
-4.6
-4.9
-4.5
-4.2
General government gross debt (% of GDP)
106.8
107.9
108.8
109.9
111.3
112.4
113.2
                       
Interest rates (percent; period average)                        
Fed funds rate
1.8
2.4
2.6
2.9
2.9
2.9
2.8
Three-month Treasury bill rate
2.0
2.4
2.6
2.8
2.8
2.8
2.7
Ten-year government bond rate
2.9
2.7
2.9
3.1
3.2
3.2
3.2

Balance of payments
Current account balance (% of GDP)
-2.3
-2.1
-2.5
-2.7
-2.6
-2.5
-2.4
Merchandise trade balance (% of GDP)
-4.3
-4.2
-4.5
-4.6
-4.6
-4.6
-4.5
Export volume (NIPA basis, goods)
4.7
3.5
3.1
3.9
4.7
4.3
4.4
Import volume (NIPA basis, goods)
4.8
1.9
4.1
3.9
3.2
3.2
3.1
Net international investment position (% of GDP)
-47.4
-47.5
-48.2
-49.1
-50.0
-50.7
-51.4
                       
Saving and investment (% of GDP)
Gross national saving
19.0
19.3
18.7
18.7
18.8
18.9
19.0
General government
-3.2
-2.7
-2.5
-2.5
-2.7
-2.4
-2.2
Private
22.2
22.0
21.3
21.2
21.5
21.3
21.3
Personal
5.1
4.9
4.9
4.8
4.8
4.8
4.7
Business
17.1
17.1
16.4
16.4
16.7
16.5
16.5
Gross domestic investment
21.1
21.3
21.3
21.4
21.3
21.4
21.4
Private
17.8
18.1
18.1
18.2
18.2
18.2
18.3
Public
3.3
3.3
3.2
3.2
3.2
3.1
3.1

Sources: BEA; BLS; FRB; Haver Analytics; and IMF staff estimates.
1/ Contribution to real GDP growth, percentage points.
2/ Includes staff's adjustments for one-off items, including costs of financial sector support.

Gold Breakout: A Vital Perspective

Lobo Tiggre




After years of failed attempts to break out of its trading rut, gold finally did, shattering resistance that has held since 2013. Not only that, it breached the “psychologically important” $1,400 level. It looks to be consolidating before heading higher—possibly much, much higher.
But all of this is in US dollar terms. The US has plenty of hard-money advocates, but it’s the Chinese who buy more gold than anyone else.
It’s important to look at gold from an international perspective. Here’s a chart showing the percent change in gold prices in seven major currencies.
The first thing that strikes me about this chart is that while gold may have just broken out in USD terms, the overall trend since 2013 is upward. In some currencies—such as the Australian and Canadian dollars and the euro—gold has been rising strongly for years.
It’s worth pausing to appreciate that gold didn’t just break out in Aussie terms—it just hit a new record high. This has important implications for gold miners Down Under, whose costs are in Australian dollars. As a speculator, searching for great Aussie gold plays just notched up on my priority list.
It’s also worth pulling back to have a look at this in a longer time frame. Here’s the same chart since 2000, just before the beginning of what I think future investors will see as the gold rally of the century (and possibly the beginning of the end for fiat currencies).
Note the way the percent change from a lower starting point makes the USD surge much higher than any of the others. This both shows and empowers the disproportionate influence of the paper-gold traders in New York on gold prices. Gold is still primarily priced in USD, after all.
But this is changing. The Shanghai Gold Exchange, for example, publishes its own spot gold prices—and they’re based on physical bullion changing hands. In my view, this is a more real and meaningful price. It’s still driven largely by the paper-gold trades in the West for now, but it’s just the first of what I fully expect to be many new sources of gold price discovery going forward. And it will be particularly interesting to see how gold prices in Chinese yuan do, if China ever lets its currency trade completely freely.
At any rate, the main point of this chart for me is that what looks like a disaster for gold since 2011 is a result of seeing it only in USD terms. Globally, it looks like more like a period of consolidation before heading higher.
But there’s something else…
Gold trading “sideways” in recent years is during a period of low inflation, especially in the US and EU.
This is vital—because inflation won’t always stay low.
I’m not predicting hyperinflation in USD and EUR terms. Nor am I calling for the collapse of Western civilization. Both are possible, but that’s a subject for another day.
I am saying that when central banks finally get their wish for higher inflation, I think they’ll get it good and hard. That will change everything for the paper traders who’ve kept gold in a USD rut since 2013.
So as a thought experiment, let’s look at what happens when we add a currency that has seen a much higher inflation rate in recent years, like the Russian ruble.
No rut here. This chart shows gold doing its job perfectly. It’s the ultimate hedge against wealth-destroying inflation.
To have a look at what gold can do for us in the case of a full-blown economic crisis, I wanted to show you a version of this chart with gold in Venezuelan bolívars, but I couldn’t get the data. Argentina is in crisis as well, however, if not quite so acute. Have a look.

Even gold’s huge rise in Russian rubles is dwarfed by gold going to the moon in Argentine pesos. As for Venezuelans, many of those who stashed some savings in gold likely made a life-saving choice.
Again, I’m not saying that this is the fate of the USD, at least not any time soon (though it could be).
But consider what happens when the Fed and the ECB finally get their wish and create significantly higher inflation.
Consider that the US inflation target is now a “symmetrical” 2%. This means they now want higher than 2% to make up for all the time spent below 2%. It means 3% or even 4% would be fine by them for a time. Think about what that does to all the massive amounts of personal, corporate, and government debt in the US—while gold is still priced mostly in USD.
I don’t think it’s doom-and-gloom gold-bug talk to say that gold should do even better when inflation does ramp up. And the implications of this modest projection for gold and silver stocks are… dramatic.
Takeaways:
  • Buying and holding physical gold and silver is not a speculation. It’s simple prudence. It’s the ultimate form of wealth protection.

  • With gold surging well above $1,400 as I write, some correction and consolidation would be normal and healthy—and an opportunity.

  • I think it unlikely, but it’s possible that the current rally turns out to be an interim peak. That would make it a terrible time to speculate on gold and silver stocks. Waiting for the next low could avoid losses and increase gains.

  • BUT… Both the fundamentals and technicals are pointing to gold heading higher—potentially much higher. Concluding that gold has peaked already could mean missing out on the next monster rally for gold.
In short, this is a case of asymmetrical risk and reward—skewed to the upside.
I could lose some money betting on this precious metals rally—but I literally risk losing a shot at a life-changing fortune if I don’t take the chance.
And I do think the odds favor the upside.