Jimmy Soni is the author of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, a biography of Cato the Younger. Soni’s forthcoming biography of mathematician, Claude Shannon, will be published in 2017.
What came first, your interest in stoicism or your interest in Cato the Younger? What initially sparked that interest?
It was the latter: Cato was my gateway drug into stoicism. I’d always been a fan of Roman history, particularly the history of the late Republic. There’s a lot of drama in that period, and a lot of fascinating figures. People, for instance, like Julius Caesar and Cicero, who were giants of their day. I had read a few biographies of figures from that time, and I went on Amazon to buy a biography of Cato, just assuming, because he was who he was, that there would be one on offer. When I didn’t find one, I called up a friend of mine, and we set out to write the first full-length biography of him. Hence both Rome’s Last Citizen and my interest in Stoicism were born.
It was in the early research about Cato, his life, and his impact that I first dove into Stoicism—and like others, I immediately saw its utility in my life. I consider myself fortunate that I came to Stoicism through Cato, because he was the one who most powerfully lived its values early on. He took it from what it was—sort of a Roman-era Scientology—and made it into a mainstream practice. By the time I finished writing the biography, I was reading as many Stoic texts as I could get my hands on.
What is the biggest lesson you took away from all your time examining Cato’s life? How can that be applied today?
Probably the biggest lesson is just the power of Cato’s example: He really does develop something of an immunity to other people’s feelings, opinions, to his own pain and discomfort, to anything outside his control. To be fair, we’re judging him in light of what others have written about him, and we know from the record that he had moments where he gave himself over to grief or anger. But for the most part, he seems to have willed himself into a life lived on a relatively even keel. That came directly from Stoic practices.
My favorite Stoic moment from Cato is when he’s in a bath house and a fight breaks out. Someone punches Cato in the face. When he’s asked about it later, he says, “I don’t remember even being hit.” It’s probably a moment that was exaggerated for the benefit of history, but it’s still amazing to think that he had such steely self-resolve that even a punch in the face didn’t faze him.
(For what it’s worth: The biggest lesson from Cato’s outside of Stoicism is the danger of carrying your principles too far. Cato’s inflexibility is, in part, what undid the Roman Republic—so for all that we can look to him as a Stoic symbol, his life is also a cautionary tale.)
Is there a book or stoic you most recommend to someone who is unfamiliar with the philosophy? Why?
It’s a dead-even tie between Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. Those two books tend to be the way most people find their way into Stoicism, and with good reason: These are books that have stood the test of a couple thousand years of time and were written by men who lived lives full of action. Especially in the case of the Meditations, it’s hard not to be impressed by the fact that the guy giving you all of this how-to-live advice also happens to be the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful man of his era. So if he can follow what’s in his private journals, or if he’s even trying to, in the midst of battles and political intrigue and threats on his life and all that, surely you can figure out how to add a dose of Stoicism to your life?
I would add that one of the best ways to get into the Stoic “philosophy” is not to think about it as a philosophy at all. That’s one of the big lessons of Ryan’s work, and the Daily Stoic book itself. It’s why the people I know who read about Stoicism also tend to read their weight in biographies: It’s easier to see these lessons lived out in the lives of others than to think about them in the abstract. Even to learned people, the ancient texts can be a tough read. But a biography of George Washington? Much easier. If you want to find an effective way into Stoicism, start with a biography of a known practitioner and see what it did for them.
How do you use stoicism in your life? A daily practice? Occasional review of stoic texts?
Here’s the truth: I don’t use enough of it. For a while, I was reading Meditations every day, and I found that to be a valuable exercise for what it was. But then I fell off the wagon. Now I dive back into it when I need it the most. I wish I had more regular engagement with the original texts themselves, but there are only so many hours in the day and there are so many other things on my reading list.
The way I tend to think about and practice stoicism now is in acronym form: WWASD? What would a Stoic do? Just to be clear, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who walk around referring to themselves as Stoics; in my experience, they tend to be the people who are the least “Stoic” of all. But asking the question, “What would a stoic do in this situation? How would a stoic handle this conversation or interaction?”…those kinds of exercises put me in the right frame of mind. They tend to leech the emotion and ego out of situations, or at least enough so that I’m led to greater clarity.
Is that a formal stoic exercise? Probably not. But then I’m wary of formalizing something like stoicism too much. The whole point of this school of thought was that it was meant to be a school of thought and action. I like that about it. There’s no certification needed, and thank goodness for that.
Do you have a favorite stoic quote?
There are too many to count, but my absolute favorite, were I forced to choose, would be the one from Marcus Aurelius:
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”