Life Lessons For The Digital Age From The Stoic Mind Of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius
The Digital Age is having a huge impact on how you live and think, to the point where it can feel like you are being re-programmed by apps and social media.
Fortunately, there are some timeless lessons from stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, to combat some of the downsides of digital, making you more mentally resilient, happier in yourself and able to turn digital disruption to your advantage…
1. Insta-Fame Is An Empty Distraction In our Insta-famous age, there’s even a pressure on those of us who had been happily anonymous to please the crowds and gain followers. Aurelius would be giving this whole scene an epic eye-roll, and suggesting you regain some perspective to combat the rising need for validation via social media – even if you are actually insta-famous!
‘Take a view from above – look at the thousands of flocks and herds, the thousands of human ceremonies… the range of creation, combination and extinction. Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you… and how many have never even heard your name, and how many will very soon forget it, how many may praise you now but quickly turn to blame,’ writes March Aurelius in his Meditations, which he wrote ‘to himself’ without ever intending to publish them (something that’s hard to imagine today).
‘Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of.’
2. Don’t Feed The Trolls ‘Even if you burst with indignation, they will carry on regardless,’ says Aurelius. The internet provides you with more instantly-accessible information than we can hope to process, which becomes a problem when it’s also riddled with fake news, viral conspiracy theories and troll farms preying on your social media feeds.
It’s easier than ever to react emotionally, jump to conclusions and add your voice to the noise, which can end up either in you looking like the idiot, or stewing in troll-baited anger.
While the tech may be new, Aurelius shows us that the human behaviour isn’t, and has this advice: ‘Do not elaborate to yourself beyond what your initial impressions report. You have been told that so-and-so is maligning you. That is the report: you have not been told that you are harmed.’
‘So always stay like this within your first impressions and do not add conclusions from your own thoughts.’
3. Avoid Tweeting Your Disappointment Every so often in life you come across something that disappoints you. Rather than expend personal energy fretting about it, or by jumping onto Twitter to rant about it, perhaps you’re better served by just letting go?
‘A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go around them. That is all you need, without going onto ask, ‘So, why are these things in the world anyway?’ That question would be laughable to a student of nature,’ writes Aurelius.
4. Nature Is The Great Recycler It’s easy to look at the advances in 21st Century medical tech, alongside the increasing digitisation of life, and believe that we’ve beaten nature, or hope that we can remain forever young, spurred on by unrealistic Instagram posts.
It’s the latest incarnation of an ancient dream, but Marcus Aurelius knew better – he saw the natural world’s cycle of birth, life, decay, death and rebirth as the one that governs all life, and didn’t fight against it – he saw it as a wonder.
‘The nature of the Whole has nothing outside itself. The marvel of its craft is that it sets its own confines and recycles into itself all them which seems to be decaying, growing old, or losing its use: and then creates afresh from the same material.’
5. Don’t Get Locked In Internet Memory One of the problems of living in the Digital Age is its memory – the data of your life is mercilessly recorded and logged, even if you don’t post much on social media, giving your past mistakes a ‘zombie’ afterlife, and in turn making you more anxious about the future.
Aurelius has a remedy for this: ‘Do not let the panorama of your life oppress you, do not dwell on all the various troubles which may have occurred in the past or may occur in the future.’
‘Then remind yourself that it is neither the future nor the past which weighs on you, but always the present: and the present burden reduces, if only you can isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it cannot hold against something stripped so bare.’
6. Don’t Play The Blame Game One of the problems with the internet, and social media, is that quick content – such as soundbites and short video clips – travel the furthest, with the most impact, which pretty much means calm, rational debate has gone out of the window. You’re left in a shouting match, playing an endless blame game for what has gone wrong.
For Aurelius any blame game is an ultimately futile distraction from the actual problem: ‘If the choice is yours, why do the thing? But if it’s another’s choice, what do you blame – atoms or gods? Either is madness.’
‘There is no blame. If you can, put him right: if you can’t at least put the matter itself right. If that too is impossible, what further purpose does blame serve? Nothing should be done without purpose.’
7. Hold The Whole Universe In Your Mind The internet can seem like an endless sea of data, so you might be surprised to hear that scientists have calculated the capacity of your own brain is already great enough to contain the entire internet, or one petabyte. That 1TB smartphone has the storage of an ant in comparison!
Philosophically speaking, the capacity for your brain to visualise what cannot be seen, and grasp abstract concepts is greater still than its data capacity. Aurelius believed in the ability of the mind to calmly accept whatever comes from a cause outside yourself, and then look into yourself and ‘strip away any unnecessary troubles which lie wholly in your own judgement.’
This then unlocks your ability to achieve a truly liberated perspective by holding the entire universe in your head: ‘You will immediately make large and wide room for yourself by grasping the whole universe in your thought, contemplating the eternity of time, and reflecting on the rapid change of each thing in every part.’
‘How brief the gap from birth to dissolution, how vast the gulf of time before your birth, and an equal infinity after your dissolution.’
8. Be Accountable To Yourself Life in the Digital Age seems to be perpetually busy, constantly replying to emails, tending WhatsApp groups and sifting through search engines. the problem with this level of busy is that it’s easy to fall into unintended habits and patterns of behaviour. So, it pays to step outside the flow and check yourself, occasionally:
‘Ask yourself this about each action: ‘How does this sit with me? Shall I regret it? In a short while I am dead and all things are gone. What more do I want, if this present work is that of an intelligent and social being?’
9. Don’t Give Into Pain The digital world is growing, and within mere decades we may be able to use nanobots in our brains to interface directly with computers, and the digital cloud, to create an ‘internet of thoughts.’
However you feel about this, it provides another example of how tech can be used to escape the necessary, everyday pain of being a human. You already take refuge in mentally absorbing digital worlds, whether that’s playing smartphone games as you walk down the street, or binging on Netflix.
For Aurelius, you can make yourself more resilient to pain by facing it down, and compartmentalising it, if you can. ‘Whenever you suffer pain, have ready to hand the thought that pain is not a moral evil and does not harm your governing intelligence: pain can do no damage either to its rational or to its social nature.’
He also says: ‘Unbearable pain carries us off: chronic pain can be borne. The mind preserves its own serenity by withdrawal, and the directing reason is not impaired by pain. It is for the parts injured by the pain to protest if they can.’
10. Know That Disruption Is Coming Human life has always been transformed by technology, from the plough to gunpowder, and the internet is no different. Old structures, industries and ideas are being disrupted, flanked and outgunned by the digital realm, so consider this thought from Aurelius in your approach to life:
‘The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it stands ready for what comes and is not thrown by the unforeseen.’
WHAT NEXT? Want to make a change in your life that actually works? Then read the RSNG review of Tiny Habits, the book written by Silicon Valley tech guru BJ Fogg, who helped to design some of the world’s stickiest apps…
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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.