Except for the Stoics themselves, no one has influenced me as a reader and writer more than Robert Greene. Which is why I was nervous but excited to interview Robert about Stoicism and this ancient philosophy has influenced his work over the years. It’s not everyday that one gets the opportunity to interview their idol and mentor–about their favorite topic no less–so I did not take the idea lightly. In fact, I was originally reluctant to impose, but now, having done so, I am so glad that I did. I hope you are too.
As you’ll see below, Robert Greene has been reading and studying Stoic philosophy for over 30 years. During our interview, he walked to his shelf and pulled down a dog-earred copy of Seneca. He did the same for a copy of Marcus Aurelius, and could remember the very camping trip where he’d taken most of the notes that filled that couple. He even pointed out what some of the shorthand in it meant—AF, for amor fati.
For those of you who are not familiar with Robert’s work, you should be. His books The 48 Laws of Power and 33 Strategies of War are classics that have been read by world leaders and military generals. His books The 50th Law and Mastery not only feature stoic philosophy, they are meditations on some of the most essential values of life: fearlessness, workmanship, mastery (inner and external mastery). Combined, his five books have sold millions of copies and will deservedly adorn bookshelves for hundreds of years. Be sure to follow Robert on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up for his email list for news about his next book.
In the meantime, enjoy this interview.
I remember many years ago in an interview you did for PowerSeductionandWar.com you were asked about the Stoics—specifically, Marcus Aurelius—and you had said you hadn’t studied them much for your books on power and war since they didn’t have great reputations as generals or leaders. What made you decide to look to the Stoics for your other books?
Well, that’s weird to hear that quoted back to me but I guess it’s true. I didn’t read Marcus Aurelius until I wrote 48 Laws of Power, so I came to him a bit late. I was struck by his quote about the boxer who is struck in the face in the ring—he can’t complain, he understands that this is part of life and he must deal with it.I may have found the quote just as I was finishing the book. It didn’t apply to 48 Laws or Art of Seduction, it wasn’t until 50th Law that the Stoics really fit for what I was writing. That’s when I started mining them. The book that introduced me to the stoics was Letters from a Stoic. That’s the title of the edition that Penguin put out and I have. Here, I am pulling it off my shelf now to look at it. I probably read this books for the first time when I was 23 or 24. I loved it. I carried it with me everywhere. That book has been with me, along with Machiavelli and a few others, and seeped into my brain for a long time.
My copy has all my weird notes in from when I was 23. It had a big impact on me. I think the reason is that when you’re at that age you’re kind of searching and looking for like a father figure and the way the letters are written it’s kind of like a father giving you advice–the way my father never would have been. The books that have had a big impact on me tend to seep through everything.
The 50th Law was about dealing with fear and that was so relevant to the Stoics. It allowed me to bring in Seneca and reintroduced me to Marcus who is probably my favorite of the Stoics. I did use them a little for Mastery. I am using them a fair amount of my next book, The Laws of Human Nature.
As someone who is very much into Zen Buddhism, Stoicism is probably the closest thing to it in the Western sense. What’s so nice about it is that it’s not only a hardcore philosophy but it’s also quite poetic. It makes you contemplate the weirdness of life and the sublimity of things. It’s just a beautiful philosophy. My long winded answer is is that seeps into all your books–Seneca and Marcus Aurelius most of all.
Is there a quote or passage you like best from the Stoics?
I’ve always loved this quote from Marcus Aurelius:
“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time—all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust—to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”
I’ve tried to bring that across in my writing. For instance, to deconstruct things like power and seduction and to see the actual elements in play instead of the legends surrounding them. So many people have this conception of power as being something that only involves world leaders, is some separate realm of human endeavor, when in fact people are constantly angling for power in the simplest things they do in life. I also wanted to accomplish that in Mastery in chapter 4, See People as They Are. Ignore people’s words, the front they present and see what they are really up to. My new book is completely devoted to this idea.
Seneca was a wily power broker who tutored Nero. Do you think his role as a Machiavellian leader undermines his philosophy? Or do you like him for that?
You should know that answer to that! That’s why I like Seneca. He’s flawed. He’s a human being. He tried to change the course of Roman history by turning Nero into a philosopher king.
I think it’s worth saying, we don’t know much about Nero or how bad he really was. If you read different sources, you find that Seneca was a brilliant tutor and Nero had an excellent education. Seneca loved money, that’s for sure. He accumulated a fortune. He could be quite Machiavellian in his handling of Nero, which I would never hold against him. But he most definitely lived according to his principles. His death was one of the most moving things in all of history. If anyone embodies stoicism it is Seneca in the way that he died, the courage he displayed. Anyway, if you’re going to mess with power in the world and try to change things you’re going to get your hands dirty.
I came upon that through Nietzsche. He was obsessed with those two words. Going back some thirty years for me, when I read about this concept I just found it so exciting. It is linked with his concept of the eternal recurrence. Basically, this means that you live your life according to the principle that if you were to have to repeat the same actions as in the past, you would do them the same way. In other words, be at one with your fate and give your actions the weight of eternity. Stop wishing for something else to happen, for a different fate. That is to live a false life.
Through Nietzsche, I discovered amor fati. I just fell in love with the concept because the power that you can have in life of accepting your fate is so immense that it’s almost hard to fathom. You feel that everything happens for a purpose, and that it is up to you to make this purpose something positive and active. It depends on how you see things, how you interpret this fate. It’s all what you discuss so well in The Obstacle is the Way.
Amor fati is something I notice a lot more in Marcus Aurelius. I have the habit of putting “AF” in the margins whenever I feel there is something related to amor fati, and my very beat up copy of the Meditations is full of “AFs”. It’s just that he expresses the idea in so many different ways without using those words.
How do you use philosophy–whether it’s stoicism or any other ancient way of thinking–in the course of your life today?
Philosophy used to be about helping people in their daily lives, overcoming fears of death, finding the appropriate path to follow, how to deal with impossible people, how to maintain one’s dignity. Then in the 20th century it became so abstract and so divorced from daily life that only a handful of graduate students care anymore about philosophy. The one thing that cannot be denied is that we all must die. Philosophy no longer deals with that basic truth. It’s all about pseudo-intellectual problems. But that is what so much of academic life is like these days.
The Stoics and philosophers up to Nietzsche tried to simplify matters instead of needlessly complicate them. They are not trying to impress you with their flowery or lofty rhetoric, with the cleverness of their reasoning, but instead they try to help you live your life. I take to their writings as if it were water in a desert. I mean many of the ancient philosophers, not all of them.
As a simple example, I take Seneca’s advice to heart: thinking often of my mortality, actively imagining the end of my life, and how I will accept it. This is not morbid but a way to make a person appreciate every moment of life and not have such a wretched fear of death that makes people refuse to think of it. That is a major impact Seneca has had on my daily life and I would be a lot poorer without it.
Ryan Holiday is a best-selling author whose forthcoming book, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living, will be released this fall.
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