When Julius Caesar was murdered in 44BC, the Roman Republic bled out with him. What emerged was the Roman Empire, a new political order led by a single man. Given that Stoicism began in a democratic Athens and came of age in Rome’s great Republic, one might have speculated that the Stoics would struggle in this new world of increasingly autocratic and unpredictable power. They didn’t. Because the Stoic is resilient, they accept what they cannot change, and they believe it is their obligation to serve the common good regardless of the circumstances. And so it came to be that the Stoics who survived into this new state often became the closest advisors to the emperor. The first Stoic to occupy that advisory role was Athenodorus Cananites.
Born in Canana, near Tarsus, in what is today southeastern Turkey—not far from the birthplace of Stoics like Chrysippus and Antipater—Athenodorus studied under Posidonius. After completing his philosophical education, Athenodorus traveled widely as a lecturer before settling down as teacher in Apollonia, on the coast of modern Albania. It was here that this famous and widely respected teacher, who was not quite thirty years old, became the tutor of Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian. When Caesar was killed, Octavian was named heir and summoned to Rome. Athenodorus, charged with developing the kind of mind required for supreme leadership, followed right behind the soon-to-be King.
Athenodorus advised Octavian until he returned to Tarsus around 15 BC, where he spent his final years no longer the man behind the leader, but the leader himself. He must have served his home country well. The people of Tarsus loved him deeply, and, following his death at age eighty-two, they honored him with a public festival every year after.
So what can we learn from this great advisor, leader, and Stoic?
LESSONS AND EXERCISES
Keep Your Head
Athenodorus said there was something he wanted Octavian to always follow. “Whenever you feel yourself getting angry, Caesar,” he told him, “don’t say or do anything until you’ve repeated the 24 letters of the alphabet to yourself.”
It is inevitable that we will be provoked in life. As leaders, we are going to find ourselves in situations where we are tempted to lose our head. We’ll be called upon to lay down the law. We’ll have to fire people. We’ll have to dock people’s pay. We’ll have to decide not to do business with someone because they’ve lied to us, insulted us, or shown a side of themselves we didn’t know was there. Regardless of what it is, when you feel yourself getting angry, you would do well to remember Athenodorus’ advice. And Seneca’s—who studied Athenodorus’s example and is the source for much of our knowledge about his teachings—about the importance of rational, deliberative thinking. As he reminds us:
“A punishment that’s delayed can still be imposed, but once imposed, it can’t be withdrawn.”
Don’t be rash. Don’t rush in. Don’t let your emotions dictate your thinking. Our words can’t be unsaid, so we should think carefully before we say them. Our actions can’t be undone, so we should be cautious before we take them. We should delay. We should recite the alphabet to ourselves. Life is unpredictable, so our responses must be measured and purposeful.
Make Time For Leisure
From Seneca, we learn that Athenodorus balanced out his teachings on temperance with a focus on the importance of tranquility, particularly for leaders. Yes, we must carefully follow public affairs, but it was also necessary to leave behind the grind of work and the stress of politics with retreats into the private sphere of friends. Athenodorus would note that Socrates would stop and play games with children in order to rest and have fun. The mind must be replenished with leisure, Athenodorus believed, or it was likely to break under pressure, or be susceptible to vices.
Marcus Aurelius had the most important job on the planet, but he also loved to attend philosophy lectures, write in his journal, read fiction, wrestle, box, and go hunting. He reminded himself to “take some leisure time to learn something good, and stop bouncing around.” Seneca writes about how Scipio Africanus, one of the greatest military strategists the world has ever seen, “used to bathe a body wearied with work in the fields [for] he was accustomed to keep himself busy and to cultivate the soil with his own hands.” Chryssipus—who succeeded his former teacher, Cleanthes, as head of the Stoic school Stoic school—trained as a long-distance runner. Churchill wrote over forty books, painted more than five hundred paintings, learned and loved the slow, methodical process of mixing mortar, troweling, and laying bricks…in between his serving as prime minister of Britain.
The difficulties and corruptions of a busy world made leisure an integral part of euthymia, the well-being of the soul, a core concern of Athenodorus.
Make Haste, Slowly
From the Roman historian Suetonius, we learn that festina lente became Octavian’s motto. Octavian, making Athenodorus’ influence clear, “thought nothing less becoming in a well-trained leader than haste and rashness.” His favorite sayings were: “More haste, less speed”; “Better a safe commander than a bold”; and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”
The first one is rendered simply enough in Latin that it’s worth saying again: Festina lente. Make haste, slowly.
When you are talented and smart, you know what you want and you know when you want it done. You want it done now, that is. So you work fast. So you try to build momentum. So you look for ways to make efficiencies. You don’t want to waste time. The problem is that in hurrying we often end up causing delays worse than if we’d taken it slow.
It’s easy to rush in. It feels good to start doing. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how to do it? Well, it’s not going to go well. If you’re going quickly for the sake of speed, you’re going to make costly mistakes. You’re going to miss opportunities. You’re going to miss critical warnings.
Both Athenodorus and Octavian, we imagine, would have nodded along with the military’s way of expressing this idea: Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. In Stoicism, we know that there is no prize for doing things first, and that the only thing that matters is doing them well. So slow down. Go smoothly, go with less speed…and you’ll actually go faster…and better.
P.S. The bestselling authors of The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, have teamed up again in their new book Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living From Zeno To Marcus. Along with presenting the fascinating lives of all the well-known and not so well-known Stoics, Lives of the Stoics distills timeless and immediately applicable lessons about happiness, success, resilience, and virtue. The book is available for pre-order and is set to release on September 29!