How Stoic Philosophy Helped Me Become a Better Teacher

Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom.

Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180BC. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the empire on the norther border, the rise of Christianity as well as a plague that left numerous dead. In the last decade of his life he journaled his private thoughts giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his position. What he left behind was ‘Meditations’, a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history. But what could his philosophy which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others help us to become good teachers in the 21st Century?

To speak well of people on all occasions

Gossiping about others is enjoyable, but it will turn you against those you work with. Marcus noted that as rational beings we are made for co-operation ‘like the rows of the upper and lower teeth’. To be vexed with others therefore is an act against our very nature and an act of violence to ourselves. We must instead strive to be thoughtful, see the good in all those around us even if they prove to be ‘liars and unjust’, and consider the consequences of our every action even if it mean that we do not join in when others are expressing strong emotions. When you find yourself judging others angrily, temper this by recalling to mind your own faults.

Help yourself

Manage your own mood by learning to create your own cheerfulness and not depend on what Marcus calls ‘the tranquillity which others give’. It is ‘thy duty to order thy life well in every single act’. The idea that someone else will solve your problem for you is ‘idle hope’ and you will do well to take more initiative if you wish to take better care of yourself. Good fortune comes to those with ‘good emotions, good actions’ and what is good for you will be good for those around you too. To help, Marcus recited a sort of prayer daily in his struggle for self-mastery: ‘it is in my power to let no badness be in this soul, nor desire nor any perturbation at all’.

Don’t worry what others think

The feedback you’ll receive is of course important, but it can be overwhelming and lead you to overly judge yourself. Make sure to concentrate on your own thoughts and actions, to make sure they are ‘just and pure’ and do not concern yourself with the thoughts or actions of what Marcus labelled ‘stupid and ungrateful people’. If you are criticised, Marcus suggests we ‘see what kind of men they are’ as ‘thou wilt discover that there is no reason to take any trouble’.

The reversal of this is also true. It is worth remembering that ‘they who perhaps now are praising thee will very soon blame thee.’ Praise cannot always be trusted and nothing is made better having been praised so don’t worry if your good work is not recognised. Good work is good. You do not need to call out for others to come and see. The only reputation you need is of someone who is simple and modest. It should not be ‘in any man’s power to say truly of thee that thou are not good’. Paradoxically, we love ourselves and yet set less value on our own opinion than on the opinions of others. ‘Everything is opinion and everything is in thy power’. Take away the opinion to find calm.

Focus on what is necessary

You should always be asking: is this task necessary to do now or is there something more important you be doing? Marcus believes there was nothing more important than the work ‘of an intelligent living being, and a social being’. We are afforded the capacity to check our own feelings of arrogance, pleasure, pain, feelings of superiority. He did not believe we were created to enjoy ourselves and should be suspicious of feelings of pleasure. Unfortunately we often chase this, spending a disproportionate amount of our time trying to impress others so that we may cultivate a good reputation or other forms of wealth.  Similarly, and perhaps a more crucial question for your peace of mind: is this thought necessary? If not, let it pass. Don’t beat yourself up or let yourself be turned against others (See above). We often overlook what value we have in place of what we want. Reflect on what you have already and remind yourself of its worth by how eagerly you would seek it out if you did not have it already. Be content when even the smallest thing goes well and ‘consider such an event to be no small matter.’ Always think, as Marcus did: ‘Have you done something for the general interest? Well, then I have my reward’.

Don’t take it too seriously

Always consider the big picture and be pleased and content with whatever happens. After all, life is short. Marcus recommends perceiving any problems you’re having like dreams. He says ‘when thou has roused thyself from sleep and hast perceived that they were only dreams which troubled thee, now in thy waking hours look at these [your problems] as thou looked at those’. You are not your problems.

Expect change

Marcus asks ‘can anything useful be accomplished without change?’ and ‘Loss is nothing less than change’. ‘He who is afraid of pain will sometimes also be afraid of some of the things which will happen in the world.’ All we are given is the present time and we only have the present time to lose.

Don’t look for greener pastures

It is tempting to think that your problems would be solved by going elsewhere, but Marcus disagrees. He states ‘all things here are the same with things on top of a mountain’. Wherever you go, there you are and your problems will follow you too.

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