Marcus Aurelius on Stoicism and Leadership

Five Stoic Lessons Marcus Learned From Emperor Antoninus Pius

Donald J. Robertson
June 26, 2019

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was the most famous proponent of the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism. He was also one of the most powerful leaders in European history, assuming control of the Roman empire aged 39, during the height of its power.

After a period of exceptional peace and stability during the reign of his adoptive father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, Marcus faced a series of disasters. Shortly after Marcus was acclaimed emperor, the River Tiber suffered one of its most severe floods ever, destroying homes and livestock, which led to a famine at Rome. Around this time, the Parthians invaded Armenia, a Roman ally, instigating a war in the east that would last five years. Rome’s eventual victory in the Parthian War was soured when returning legionaries spread a deadly disease throughout the empire. The Antonine Plague took the lives of an estimated five million people. To make matters worse, while the empire was struggling to recover enemy tribes along the northern frontier seized the opportunity to invade. The young King Ballomar of the Marcomanni led a vast army, which overran Pannonia and the other northern provinces. They proceeded to loot and plunder their way down the Amber Road, across the Alps, and into Italy itself, finally laying siege to the wealthy Roman city of Aquileia.

Marcus nonetheless faced these unprecedented challenges head on, with total Stoic equanimity and endurance. The Roman historian Cassius Dio therefore concluded:

[Marcus Aurelius] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.

After the sudden death of his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, Marcus was unexpectedly left in sole command of the army. Rather than run the war from behind a desk back in the safety of Rome, he donned the military cape and boots and rode forth to battle. Indeed, Marcus stationed himself in the military camps along the front line throughout the Marcomannic War, in modern-day Austria, Hungary, and Serbia. With no military experience whatsoever, he found himself at the head of the largest army ever deployed on a Roman frontier, numbering approximately 140,000 men in total.

During this time Marcus wrote down his personal reflections on Stoic philosophy in a text that would later become known as The Meditations, one of the most influential spiritual and self-help classics of all time. Marcus opens the book with a chapter written in a different style from the rest. He lists the virtues or qualities he most admires from about sixteen different people: teachers or members of his family. In doing so, he was clearly attempting to study attitudes and behaviours worth emulating.

At the time of writing, Marcus had known three other Roman emperors in person: Hadrian, his adoptive grandfather; Antoninus Pius, his immediate predecessor and adoptive father; and Lucius Verus, his adoptive brother and junior co-emperor. It’s notable that Marcus virtually relegates Lucius Verus to a footnote, almost as though damning him with faint praise. Hadrian gets even worse treatment and is completely ignored, as though Marcus can’t think of anything positive to say about him at all. However, these omissions are all the more apparent because of the way Marcus heaps praise at length upon Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father and predecessor as emperor. Not only does he expend spend far more words on Antoninus here than on any other individual but Marcus returns to him later in the text, providing another list of his virtues and stating quite categorically that he views himself as the “disciple of Antoninus” in all matters.

It’s crystal clear that, even a decade or more after his demise, Marcus was still turning to his adoptive father’s memory to find a guide and role model, particularly in relation to his duties as emperor. Marcus, in other words, was carefully modelling the leadership qualities he saw exemplified in the emperor Antoninus Pius. Although Antoninus wasn’t a Stoic, Marcus saw him as naturally embodying the sort of virtues Stoics wanted to cultivate. This seems to have been a common practice. For example, Seneca had earlier written:

We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable. Happy is the person who can improve others, not only when present, but even when in their thoughts! (Moral Letters, 11.9)

I’ve combed through the various remarks Marcus makes about the traits in his father he most admired and discovered that they fall under a handful of broad headings. We can view these as some of the characteristics Marcus associated with the ideal leader or ruler:

1. He had a pleasant and cheerful disposition

Marcus mentions that he admired the emperor Antoninus Pius for being mild tempered. He was famous for the air of serenity that accompanied his presence. Hadrian, by contrast, was notoriously volatile and quick tempered — he made people nervous. Marcus tells us that he suffered from a temper himself, which he struggled to control, so it’s tempting to imagine that he wanted to be more like Antoninus and less like Hadrian in this regard.

Marcus also said that Antoninus always seemed to be cheerful and satisfied with life. He therefore came across as very natural and agreeable in conversation, and Marcus even calls his adoptive father “sweet-natured”. He also noted that Antoninus kept very few secrets and those he did concerned matters of state. He perceived him as a genuinely pious man, while nevertheless above superstition. He had a calm and reassuring presence and it was pleasant dealing with him. It may surprise many people to know that Stoics, like Marcus, were often cheerful and pleasant company.

2. He was patient, hardworking and conscientious

Antoninus would research his decisions meticulously beforehand, minimizing the likelihood he’d have to change course at a later date. He’d therefore find himself able to stick to his original plan of action more consistently than other rulers. He wasn’t content with a superficial understanding but sought to think through his decisions very carefully, even anticipating events in the distant future. Marcus says his adoptive father would usually examine the problems he faced one aspect at a time as if he had ample time, proceeding vigorously and in a focused, organized, and determined manner. He would never allow an important decision to be made until he was satisfied that he’d given it enough thought to understand what was at stake. Once he’d determined the most rational course of action, though, he would act accordingly, ensuring that it was put into practice. He seemed to enjoy working and was therefore able to labour patiently at things for long hours, even returning to work immediately after recovering from severe bouts of headache.

He was also very prudent and conscientious in managing both his own affairs and those of others, and careful to avoid wasting public money. He was likewise cautious about putting on crowd-pleasing spectacles or constructing public buildings. He sincerely respected the institutions of his country. He wasn’t desperate for change, for its own sake, but content to remain in the same place, working consistently on the same tasks. This was quite the opposite of Hadrian who constantly travelled and sought novelty and stimulation. Marcus admired this because Stoicism teaches us to value strength of character, and virtue, first and foremost. That leads to a hard-working attitude because taking pride in what you do is more important than avoiding discomfort.

3. He neither flattered others nor sought to win praise himself

Marcus said that Antoninus helped cure him of pride and affectation and showed him that he could live in a palace almost as if he were a common citizen, minimizing the trappings of imperial office. Antoninus was neither pretentious nor pursued acclaim. He was above flattery himself and put a stop to it at court. He didn’t try to win popularity by heaping praise on others or showering them with gifts. He had a natural lack of interest in empty fame and instead focused on doing what was actually required rather than what would win him admirers.

However, he showed loyalty and consistency in his friendships. He sought genuine friends rather than being seduced into flattering others to win fairweather friendships. He treated people justly, giving them what they deserved, and never imposed unreasonable demands on his companions. This indifference to flattery was integral to the Stoic philosophy followed by Marcus Aurelius. It’s easy to be mesmerized and lured off course by fame but the wise person remains aloof from these things and committed to doing what reason determines to be the right course of action.

4. He was unafraid of criticism

Antoninus didn’t consider himself superior to anyone and was happy to listen to whoever had potentially useful information or advice. Nevertheless, he would very carefully study the manners and actions of others to determine their character. He honoured true philosophers, but was not easily led by pseudo-intellectuals. He was ready to give way to experts on matters of law or ethics, or those who were more skilled speakers, without any envy or resentment, and he helped competent individuals to advance in their careers. Moreover, Antoninus never listened to slanderous gossip and didn’t indulge in idle complaints about others himself. Marcus was impressed by how his adoptive father tolerated freedom of speech in those who opposed his opinions and, indeed, rather than being indignant he was extremely pleased whenever anyone could show him a better way of looking at things.

Antoninus was therefore neither timid nor aggressive; neither a sloppy thinker, like the Sophists, nor a pedant. He would challenge other people’s views where necessary but was also willing and able to accept criticism from others. For example, Marcus says his adoptive father endured a considerable amount of criticism for being too cautious with regard to public expenditure, etc. He patiently put up with individuals who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return. In The Mediations, Marcus quotes an old saying from Antisthenes: “It is kingly to do good and yet be spoken of ill” (7.36). In his play Hercules Furens, the Stoic philosopher Seneca likewise wrote “’Tis the first art of kings, the power to suffer hate.” A truly wise leader, in other words, must be able to ignore insults and be tolerant of criticism.

5. He took care of himself but wasn’t overly-fussy

Marcus was impressed by how little was necessary to satisfy Antoninus, in terms of his lodgings, bed, dress, food, servants, etc. He looked after his own health in a simple down-to-earth way, without becoming overly-preoccupied with diet or exercise. When he had access to luxuries he enjoyed them without any reservations but when he didn’t have them he didn’t want them. Marcus says that like Socrates, Antoninus was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from and cannot enjoy without excess. However, to be strong enough both to bear abstaining from desires and yet sober enough to enjoy satisfying them without excess is the mark of a perfect and invincible soul, he says. In other words, this sort of moderation and self-discipline was integral to Stoic philosophy and its conception of leadership.

Socrates himself had long ago made the point that, on reflection, nobody with any sense would rather entrust the care of their loved ones to someone reckless who lacks self-control than to someone self-disciplined and moderate. He concluded that these are obviously traits we should desire in any leader because it’s impossible to act consistently in accord with wisdom if we lack self-control. Marcus clearly saw Antoninus as embodying the sort of self-mastery required for a leader to live consistently in accord with wisdom and justice.

The Historia Augusta portrays the emperor Antoninus’ character as a ruler in a way that’s broadly consistent with Marcus’ personal notes on him in The Meditations:

In personal appearance he was strikingly handsome, in natural talent brilliant, in temperament kindly; he was aristocratic in countenance and calm in nature, a singularly gifted speaker and an elegant scholar, conspicuously thrifty, a conscientious land-holder, gentle, generous, and mindful of others’ rights.

It adds that he “possessed all these qualities, moreover, in the proper mean and without ostentation”, and was praiseworthy in every conceivable respect. Moreover, “for three and twenty years [Marcus Aurelius] conducted himself in his [adoptive] father’s home in such a manner that [Antoninus] Pius felt more affection for him day by day, and never in all these years, save for two nights on different occasions, remained away from him”. By all accounts, therefore, Antoninus was both an excellent father and a role model to Marcus, especially in his capacity as a leader and the emperor of Rome.

See my latest book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, for a more in-depth discussion of Marcus Aurelius’ life and use of Stoic philosophy.

Donald J. Robertson


I am a writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013) and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019).

Coke Ad Riles Hungary Conservatives, Part of Larger Gay Rights Battle

CreditCreditBernadett Szabo/Reuters


WARSAW — By the standards of Western advertising, Coca-Cola’s billboard campaign in Hungary was pretty tame.

Three couples are shown enjoying a soda, smiling and seemingly in love. One picture shows a man, a woman and a Coke; another two women and a Coke; and a third shows two men and a Coke.

“Love is Love,” is the campaign slogan. But in the current climate in Eastern and Central Europe, where “L.G.B.T. ideology” has taken the place of migrants as public enemy number one for many nationalist leaders, love is not love.

It is a threat.

Soon after the Coke ads appeared, a pro-government internet news site ran a banner headline: “The Homosexual Lobby Has Now Besieged Budapest — They Won’t Give You A Chance to Avoid It.”

Istvan Boldog, a lawmaker representing Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s far-right Fidesz party, used Facebook to call on the public to boycott Coca-Cola products until the company “removed its provocative posters from Hungary.”

The battle over the billboards is just a small skirmish in what is emerging as a broader campaign across the region against gay rights. Right-wing politicians complain that their traditional cultures are undermined by a decadent and dangerous import from the irreligious West.

In 2013, Russia made it illegal to expose minors to discussion of “nontraditional” sexual relationships.

More recently, Poland’s leaders have focused attention on what they call “L.G.B.T. ideology,” painting it as an insidious threat to the nation. Other parties in the region are watching closely to see how effective it proves.

In the run-up to national elections in October, Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party, along with Catholic Church leaders, have stepped up their attacks. More than two dozen provincial governments have declared their localities “L.G.B.T.-free,” and the party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has said Poland will not live under “the rainbow flag.”

The vitriol in Hungary, Poland and other countries bears striking similarities to the region’s vehement reaction against the wave of migration into Europe that peaked in 2015, as people fled war and deprivation in the Middle East and Africa.

CreditAttila Kisbenedek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Orban was at the vanguard of painting a frightening image of a continent under siege by terrorists and parasites. His relentless campaign — often using billboards targeting political enemies — proved politically effective, and others across the continent would take a page from his playbook.

Then the flow of migrants slowed dramatically, and few settled in Eastern Europe. The issue lost much of its potency, but the campaign against gay rights offered a new group of people to paint as a threat.

“Kaczynski’s and Orban’s populism provides a dangerous cocktail of anti-pluralist, strongly xenophobic features which are then followed by legal, systemic changes in both countries,” said Edit Zgut, a visiting lecturer at the Center for Europe at University of Warsaw. “Fear mongering against inner enemies usually pays off politically as it channels voters’ frustration toward the most targetable social groups.”

After marchers at a gay pride parade in the conservative town of Bialystok, Poland were attacked in July, critics of the government said that the propaganda was fueling violence.

That mirrors a debate taking place in the United States, where President Trump’s opponents say that his fevered warnings about an invasion of immigrants were emboldening extremists and fueling violence like the recent massacre in El Paso.

On Monday, YouTube blocked an account belonging to a far-right Polish anti-abortion group, The Life and Family Foundation, for promoting “content glorifying or inciting violence against another person or group of people.”

In the immediate wake of the attacks in Bialystok, Polish politicians sought to distance themselves from the more hateful rhetoric. But the campaign against “L.G.B.T. ideology” has not slowed.

Every criticism of the campaign, in fact, is used as evidence that those promoting gay rights are part of some sinister cabal looking to undermine traditional values and national sovereignty.

The Archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jedraszewski, compared the L.G.B.T. movement to Communism during a sermon last week.

“The red plague is no longer on our land,” he said. “But it does not mean that there is not a new one that wants to rule our souls, hearts and minds. It is not Marxist or Bolshevik, but it has been born of the same neo-Marxist spirit. It’s not red, but rainbow.”

CreditGeoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The conservative radio station Radio Maryja posted the homily on YouTube, prompting a formal warning from YouTube for “spreading hate.”

While there have been stepped-up campaigns against L.G.B.T. rights in other countries, it remains to be seen if they prove politically potent.

Same-sex marriages are legal in Scandinavia and most of western Europe, and civil unions are allowed in many other countries on the continent. But Romania, like Poland and Russia, is among a handful that do not allow either.

In October 2018 Romanian politicians organized a referendum on whether to narrow the constitutional definition of a family to a man and a woman, rather than the gender-neutral term “spouses,” which conservative groups feared could lead to legal recognition for same-sex relationships in the future.

Despite strong support from the country’s governing Social Democratic Party and the Orthodox Church, the primary response was apathy, and the referendum failed. More voters approved than disapproved, but turnout was just 20.4 percent, far below the 30 percent required for it to take effect.

In Slovakia, another nation that does not recognize gay couples, a popular magazine widely known for spreading disinformation, Zem a Vek, offered stark warning. On its cover this week, it featured a photo of guillotine, painted in rainbow colors, with the headline: “L.G.B.T. Terror.”

Prominent far-right and ultranationalist politicians regularly attack L.G.B.T. people in their speeches, including Andrej Danko, the speaker of Slovak Parliament and the leader of the Slovak National Party.

But the new Slovak President, Zuzana Caputova, won a resounding victory in March after campaigning on a platform of tolerance and support for gay rights. And the pride march in the capital, Bratislava, in July drew the largest crowd in its history, with 10,000 people filling the streets.

Private companies, many with global reputations and brands to protect, have also pushed back against overt bigotry.

Coca-Cola refused to take down its billboards in Hungary, defending its campaign as being in line with its corporate values. “We believe both hetero- and homosexuals have the right to love the person they want, the way they want,” the company said.

CreditAnna Liminowicz for The New York Times

On Wednesday, it announced that the posters would be replaced with images of Coca-Cola bottles with rainbow-colored labels, which company officials said was always the plan.

The American Chamber of Commerce branch in Hungary said it stood behind the right of companies like Coca-Cola to express their views.

“We believe inclusion, tolerance and openness are essential to a modern, progressive society, and promoting equality is pivotal to economic growth and competitiveness,” the group said.

In Poland, Empik, the largest book and media retail store, withdrew an issue of a right-wing newspaper, Gazeta Polska, that included “L.G.B.T.-free zone” stickers.

Choruses from “The Rock” by T. S. Eliot

What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD .
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste;
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.A Cry from the North, from the West and from the South
Whence thousands travel daily to the timekept City;
Where My Word is unspoken,
In the land of lobelias and tennis flannels
The rabbit shall burrow and the thorn revisit,
The nettle shall flourish on the gravel court,
And the wind shall say: ” Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls”.

We build in vain unless the LORD build with us.
Can you keep the City that the LORD keeps not with you?
A thousand policemen directing the traffic
Cannot tell you why you come or where you go.
A colony of cavies or a horde of active marmots
Build better than they that build without the LORD .
Shall we lift up our feet among perpetual ruins?
I have loved the beauty of Thy House, the peace of Thy sanctuary
I have swept the floors and garnished the altars.
Where there is no temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds
Or sanitary dwellings with numbered doors
Or a house a little better than your neighbour’s;
When the Stranger says: ” What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? ” We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or ” This is a community”?

Aquarius Full Moon, August 15, 2019, 5:29 am PDT`

Wendy Cicchetti

This Full Moon pits the serious and principled qualities of Aquarius against the Sun in playful, creative Leo. The spirited Sun has strong backup from nearby Venus in Leo, which emphasizes an almost childlike ganging-up of planets, reflecting two or more people who make up a tough force to contend with. This Leo stellium highlights celebration and, like the Kool & the Gang song says, there’s the sense of “a party goin’ on right here”!

The more sensible and adult Aquarius Moon seems at risk of being outnumbered, out on its own, making a serious point. Yet the Moon, Sun, and Venus are all in a t-square to asteroid Vesta in Taurus, suggesting that no single cosmic body among them has a huge advantage when it comes to harmony with others; there are tensions in each direction. The one arguable exception may be the Sun’s own disposition in Leo — its home sign and a fire sign at that — which indicates that it has some outreach to Jupiter in Sagittarius. Still, that trine is too wide from the usual 6° orb to mean that Jupiter’s blessings, fortune, and good luck can be taken for granted.

Mars and another asteroid, Juno, are caught up in the Leo stellium (3 planets next to each other). This may reflect developments on a larger scale, such as in politics. However, it can also apply in a more personal arena, where it will become clear that someone is determined to pull away, or that their energy is doing so and pulling someone else along with it. This could feel awkward for some of us, but it might work out for the best, overall — particularly if there seems to be no way at this time for everyone to see eye to eye. Finding peace, then, may be a matter of accepting the differences between us and agreeing to disagree. This makes more sense than to keep on resisting a change or trying to influence someone else’s views.

The two planets that co-rule Aquarius, Saturn and Uranus, each have a “loner” quality, apparently for quite different reasons: Saturn all too often behaves like the stern elder, whereas Uranus has a general air of just not fitting in with the mainstream. Paradoxically, if Saturn toes the line of tradition and wishes to repeat and reinforce recognized rituals and patterns of behavior, Uranus refuses to conform or just does not fit any mold. Still, there might be some common ground in both planets’ being considered equally unpopular forces to be reckoned with!

For all the challenges involved in being the strict adult (Saturn) or the social “oddball” (Uranus), there are times when the separateness or isolation shared by these two planets can have its benefits and offer a particular kind of strength. Given the square between Uranus and Mercury, this may relate to the space to think more clearly — and differently from others.

It could well be that an opportunity for isolation will arise, which allows for a new clarity around certain issues. As part of this dynamic, there may be a painful reality to face. And yet a new, Uranian-style plan of action could then emerge, allowing a sense of personal freedom that has not previously been present.

Written by Diana McMahon Collis for the Mountain Astrologer Magazine

Full Moon symbolizes the fulfillment of the seeds planted at a previous New Moon or some earlier cycle. Each Full Moon reminds us of the seeds that may be coming to maturity, to their fullness, to fruition, to the place where the fruits or gifts are received. It may seem that fulfillment of our goals takes a long time. Some intentions may manifest within the two week phase prior to the next New or Full Moon. Some however, depending on their complexity, may take a much longer time. Just remember that our thoughts and emotions set Universal Action in motion and much work takes place behind the scenes as everything is orchestrated for fulfillment. Keep visualizing your goals as though you have already attained them and they will eventually manifest. Do not concern yourself with current conditions or worry about controlling it. The universe takes care of those details. Just keep seeing what you want, and move in that direction with your actions, and give no energy to what you don’t want. Patience is required.

Quelqu’un comprehend ca? Theory of the Dérive

By Guy Debord

Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)
reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958)

Translated by Ken Knabb (

ONE OF THE BASIC situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science — despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself — provides psychogeography with abundant data.

The ecological analysis of the absolute or relative character of fissures in the urban network, of the role of microclimates, of distinct neighborhoods with no relation to administrative boundaries, and above all of the dominating action of centers of attraction, must be utilized and completed by psychogeographical methods. The objective passional terrain of the dérive must be defined in accordance both with its own logic and with its relations with social morphology.

In his study Paris et l’agglomération parisienne (Bibliothèque de Sociologie Contemporaine, P.U.F., 1952) Chombart de Lauwe notes that “an urban neighborhood is determined not only by geographical and economic factors, but also by the image that its inhabitants and those of other neighborhoods have of it.” In the same work, in order to illustrate “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives . . . within a geographical area whose radius is extremely small,” he diagrams all the movements made in the space of one year by a student living in the 16th Arrondissement. Her itinerary forms a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which are the School of Political Sciences, her residence and that of her piano teacher.

Such data — examples of a modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions (in this particular case, outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited) — or even Burgess’s theory of Chicago’s social activities as being distributed in distinct concentric zones, will undoubtedly prove useful in developing dérives.

If chance plays an important role in dérives this is because the methodology of psychogeographical observation is still in its infancy. But the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favorable to our purposes. We can say, then, that the randomness of a dérive is fundamentally different from that of the stroll, but also that the first psychogeographical attractions discovered by dérivers may tend to fixate them around new habitual axes, to which they will constantly be drawn back.

An insufficient awareness of the limitations of chance, and of its inevitably reactionary effects, condemned to a dismal failure the famous aimless wandering attempted in 1923 by four surrealists, beginning from a town chosen by lot: Wandering in open country is naturally depressing, and the interventions of chance are poorer there than anywhere else. But this mindlessness is pushed much further by a certain Pierre Vendryes (in Médium, May 1954), who thinks he can relate this anecdote to various probability experiments, on the ground that they all supposedly involve the same sort of antideterminist liberation. He gives as an example the random distribution of tadpoles in a circular aquarium, adding, significantly, “It is necessary, of course, that such a population be subject to no external guiding influence.” From that perspective, the tadpoles could be considered more spontaneously liberated than the surrealists, since they have the advantage of being “as stripped as possible of intelligence, sociability and sexuality,” and are thus “truly independent from one another.”

At the opposite pole from such imbecilities, the primarily urban character of the dérive, in its element in the great industrially transformed cities — those centers of possibilities and meanings — could be expressed in Marx’s phrase: “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.”

One can dérive alone, but all indications are that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking these different groups’ impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions. It is preferable for the composition of these groups to change from one dérive to another. With more than four or five participants, the specifically dérive character rapidly diminishes, and in any case it is impossible for there to be more than ten or twelve people without the dérive fragmenting into several simultaneous dérives. The practice of such subdivision is in fact of great interest, but the difficulties it entails have so far prevented it from being organized on a sufficient scale.

The average duration of a dérive is one day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep. The starting and ending times have no necessary relation to the solar day, but it should be noted that the last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.

But this duration is merely a statistical average. For one thing, a dérive rarely occurs in its pure form: it is difficult for the participants to avoid setting aside an hour or two at the beginning or end of the day for taking care of banal tasks; and toward the end of the day fatigue tends to encourage such an abandonment. But more importantly, a dérive often takes place within a deliberately limited period of a few hours, or even fortuitously during fairly brief moments; or it may last for several days without interruption. In spite of the cessations imposed by the need for sleep, certain dérives of a sufficient intensity have been sustained for three or four days, or even longer. It is true that in the case of a series of dérives over a rather long period of time it is almost impossible to determine precisely when the state of mind peculiar to one dérive gives way to that of another. One sequence of dérives was pursued without notable interruption for around two months. Such an experience gives rise to new objective conditions of behavior that bring about the disappearance of a good number of the old ones.

The influence of weather on dérives, although real, is a significant factor only in the case of prolonged rains, which make them virtually impossible. But storms or other types of precipitation are rather favorable for dérives.

The spatial field of a dérive may be precisely delimited or vague, depending on whether the goal is to study a terrain or to emotionally disorient oneself. It should not be forgotten that these two aspects of dérives overlap in so many ways that it is impossible to isolate one of them in a pure state. But the use of taxis, for example, can provide a clear enough dividing line: If in the course of a dérive one takes a taxi, either to get to a specific destination or simply to move, say, twenty minutes to the west, one is concerned primarily with a personal trip outside one’s usual surroundings. If, on the other hand, one sticks to the direct exploration of a particular terrain, one is concentrating primarily on research for a psychogeographical urbanism.

In every case the spatial field depends first of all on the point of departure — the residence of the solo dériver or the meeting place selected by a group. The maximum area of this spatial field does not extend beyond the entirety of a large city and its suburbs. At its minimum it can be limited to a small self-contained ambiance: a single neighborhood or even a single block of houses if it’s interesting enough (the extreme case being a static-dérive of an entire day within the Saint-Lazare train station).

The exploration of a fixed spatial field entails establishing bases and calculating directions of penetration. It is here that the study of maps comes in — ordinary ones as well as ecological and psychogeographical ones — along with their correction and improvement. It should go without saying that we are not at all interested in any mere exoticism that may arise from the fact that one is exploring a neighborhood for the first time. Besides its unimportance, this aspect of the problem is completely subjective and soon fades away.

In the “possible rendezvous,” on the other hand, the element of exploration is minimal in comparison with that of behavioral disorientation. The subject is invited to come alone to a certain place at a specified time. He is freed from the bothersome obligations of the ordinary rendezvous since there is no one to wait for. But since this “possible rendezvous” has brought him without warning to a place he may or may not know, he observes the surroundings. It may be that the same spot has been specified for a “possible rendezvous” for someone else whose identity he has no way of knowing. Since he may never even have seen the other person before, he will be encouraged to start up conversations with various passersby. He may meet no one, or he may even by chance meet the person who has arranged the “possible rendezvous.” In any case, particularly if the time and place have been well chosen, his use of time will take an unexpected turn. He may even telephone someone else who doesn’t know where the first “possible rendezvous” has taken him, in order to ask for another one to be specified. One can see the virtually unlimited resources of this pastime.

— Whom must I announce to my Lord Duke?
— The young man who one evening sought to quarrel with him on the Pont Neuf, opposite the Samarataine.
— A singular introduction!
— You will find that it is as good as another.
— Dumas (The Three Muskateers)

Our loose lifestyle and even certain amusements considered dubious that have always been enjoyed among our entourage — slipping by night into houses undergoing demolition, hitchhiking nonstop and without destination through Paris during a transportation strike in the name of adding to the confusion, wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public, etc. — are expressions of a more general sensibility which is no different from that of the dérive. Written descriptions can be no more than passwords to this great game.

The lessons drawn from dérives enable us to draw up the first surveys of the psychogeographical articulations of a modern city. Beyond the discovery of unities of ambiance, of their main components and their spatial localization, one comes to perceive their principal axes of passage, their exits and their defenses. One arrives at the central hypothesis of the existence of psychogeographical pivotal points. One measures the distances that actually separate two regions of a city, distances that may have little relation with the physical distance between them. With the aid of old maps, aerial photographs and experimental dérives, one can draw up hitherto lacking maps of influences, maps whose inevitable imprecision at this early stage is no worse than that of the first navigational charts. The only difference is that it is no longer a matter of precisely delineating stable continents, but of changing architecture and urbanism.

Today the different unities of atmosphere and of dwellings are not precisely marked off, but are surrounded by more or less extended and indistinct bordering regions. The most general change that dérive experience leads to proposing is the constant diminution of these border regions, up to the point of their complete suppression.

Within architecture itself, the taste for dériving tends to promote all sorts of new forms of labyrinths made possible by modern techniques of construction. Thus in March 1955 the press reported the construction in New York of a building in which one can see the first signs of an opportunity to dérive inside an apartment:

The apartments of the helicoidal building will be shaped like slices of cake. One will be able to enlarge or reduce them by shifting movable partitions. The half-floor gradations avoid limiting the number of rooms, since the tenant can request the use of the adjacent section on either upper or lower levels. With this setup three four-room apartments can be transformed into one twelve-room apartment in less than six hours.

Nietzsche’s Cure for Negativity: How to Harness the “Will to Power”

To achieve exuberance Nietzsche believed that we need to understand that the Will to Power is the underlying force behind everything we are and do. Painting: Archers by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1935–37 (detail. source: Wikimedia)

The nineteenth century was a watershed for western civilisation. It was, for Nietzsche, the beginning of a great crisis for mankind.

Secularism spread rapidly across Europe but there was nothing to fill the void that religion had left.

The sciences, that had been so preoccupied with physics and cosmology in the centuries before, had suddenly begun to systematise life itself. Halfway through the century, evolutionists broke the news that human beings were likely the descendants of apes.

It is against this backdrop that Nietzsche proclaimed: “God is Dead. We have killed Him.”

The upshot of this, according to Nietzsche, was nihilism: a spiritual sickness in which we have become bereft of purpose and meaning.

But Nietzsche is the great psychologist-philosopher, a man who had a profound understanding of what it was to be human. He believed he had the antidote for our psychological ills, both as individuals and as a civilisation.

When Nietzsche set about curing our ills he asked the most fundamental question:

What is driving us?

Firstly, to be driven is to change. Nietzsche believed that the idea of “becoming” should take precedence over the idea of “being”. In ancient Greece, two schools of thought emerged regarding the nature of the universe. While Parmenides believed change to be an illusion, Heraclitus of Ephesus reasoned that the only constant thing in the world is change.

“All entities move and nothing remain still […] You cannot step in the same river twice.”

To Heraclitus, the world is an “eternal fire”:

“ This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made. But it always was and will be: an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling, and measures going out.”

We only have fragments of Heraclitus’s wisdom saved for posterity in the writings of later philosophers like Plato. What little there is of Heraclitus’ words impressed themselves immensely on Nietzsche.

The philosopher agreed with Heraclitus that the world is constantly changing and that fact is all that we can really be sure of.

While Heraclitus conceived of the fundamental substance of change to be fire, Nietzsche thought along more modern lines. The philosopher believed the fundamental engine of change to be “The Will to Power” (“Wille zur Macht”).

The Will to Power

For Nietzsche, this fundamental driving force was the “unexhausted procreative will of life” in all things. In the 1880s when Nietzsche wrote most frequently about the Will to Power, a number of sciences and philosophies were emerging that sought a general principle of what actually drives people, or even living things as a whole.

Psychoanalysis gave us the pleasure principle, Evolutionism gave us survival, Utilitarianism gave us happiness, and Marxism gave us an overarching narrative of class struggle. All of these sciences or philosophies built an explanation of human behaviour on these basic principles.

One of Nietzsche’s most eminent influences, Arthur Schopenhauer, posited the idea of the “Will to Life” as the driving force of all living things. This was close to the idea of Darwinian evolution’s principle of natural selection. Power, according to these theories, was simply a means to survival.

But Nietzsche believed power to be the ends of all effort. This is explained by behaviour that contradicts survival instincts. Many organisms, particularly human beings, risk death to flourish.

Nietzsche broadly accepted the theory of evolution but disputed its purpose. At one point (in his book The Twilight of the Idols), he called himself the “anti-Darwin”, because he felt so strongly that self-preservation wasn’t man’s primary drive. Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil:

“Physiologists should think twice before positioning the drive for self-preservation as the cardinal drive of an organic being. Above all, a living thing wants to discharge its strength — life itself is will to power: self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most infrequent consequences of this.”

Nietzsche went as far as claiming the Will to Power was a fundamental metaphysical truth about the universe, not just an explanation for the behaviour of people. “World is the will to power — and nothing besides!

The idea of the Will to Power has been widely misunderstood. It is one of the most controversial aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Many have assumed that the philosopher is applauding the characteristics of the brute or the sociopath.

Nietzsche rejected the idea that life or the universe has any meaning. It is incumbent on us to find meaning and purpose ourselves. Many still believe that Nietzsche was a pessimistic nihilist, but that could not be further from the truth. Nietzsche was a great optimist. Within us all, he wrote, is “the potential to give birth to a dancing star.” Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Naked Playing People, 1910 (source: Wikipedia)

Part of the reason for this is because the Nazis reinterpreted the idea to mean power as domination. The philosopher’s sister, Elizabeth, the custodian of his writings after his death, was a Nazi sympathiser and an anti-semite. (Nietzsche himself thought racism to be stupid and aligned himself with no political programme.)

The Nazis glorified the Aryan militarist and authoritarian at the apex of the racial hierarchy. This distortion of Nietzsche’s ideas stuck until the philosopher’s reputation was resuscitated in the 1960s.

In some passages, Nietzsche does indeed accommodate the idea that some “races” have acted as predators or “blond beasts” — by this Nietzsche was evoking the lion (with its characteristic blond mane) — in their preying of other peoples and cannot really be blamed for doing so.

This historical generalisation (that is admittedly unpalatable by today’s standards) was merely used to underscore the existence of the Will to Power. It was interpreted by the Nazis to mean the Aryan race as typified by northern European blond peoples.

The Nazi idea had little resemblance to what the philosopher meant. “Power” in the way Nietzsche used the word, on the whole, has more to do with growth than domination; more about power over the self than power over others.

Power is intrinsic to his idea of self-overcoming. The problem is that power does not drive us as individuals. Power as a general principle drives everything. That means that ideas and biological systems even at a cellular level have within them the Will to Power.

The human being is a zone of competing drives and ideas that often contradict one another. Here’s a very simple example: you may have the urge to eat that sugar-glazed doughnut with creme inside and chocolate sprinkles, but you also have the drive to keep your weight down.

Ideas are the same. We have many competing ideas in our psyche about morality or what the world is like. We often do things that we come to regret, and we change our minds constantly. This is why human beings are so complicated.

Nietzsche’s second step to Self-overcoming is to examine ourselves. We must ask ourselves two questions: What are all these competing drives in our psyche? And where did they come from?

Genealogy of Our Morals

One of Nietzsche’s most innovative contributions to philosophy was to look at the past in order to diagnose contemporary attitudes and dogmas of morality. He wrote The Genealogy of Morals to investigate the origins of Western values that he felt had caused a spiritual sickness in western society.

The principles of The Genealogy of Morals can be applied to your own belief system. If you examine your own history (and indeed history before you existed), you’ll find that your values are derivatives from the values of others.

“Direct self observation is not nearly sufficient for us to know ourselves: we need history, for the past flows on within us in a hundred waves.”

We cannot untangle ourselves from the past. Self-mastery requires us to understand how it has shaped our circumstances, our attitudes, beliefs and our values.

When we understand how enmeshed we are in the attitudes and beliefs handed down to us, we can begin to untangle ourselves and start to think about what we really value.

This would allow us to start to understand the conflicting drives within us. Nietzsche warns us that this is not an easy process, to peel away the layers of the psyche is to open old wounds and to experience hard truths.

The Will-to-Power manifests itself in the many contradictory drives that have been passed down to us in instincts, values and ideas. Nietzsche believed that modern nihilism was a result of the breakdown of old religious beliefs without anything to replace them. “Man would believe in nothing itself, rather than nothing at all”. The modern man is encouraged to be mediocre and conformist, seeking easy pleasures rather than difficult goals. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Tavern (source: Wikimedia)

But the Will to Power manifests itself in so many subtle ways, and it’s difficult to know what we should channel our power to.

Nietzsche believed that the universe has no inherent meaning. It is up to us as individuals to find meaning and purpose in an otherwise meaningless world. In short, you need passion.

You must have the need to be powerful, otherwise you will never become powerful. All those inherited and contradictory drives and your instincts will take precedence in your psyche. Nietzsche wrote in his philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “He who cannot obey himself will be commanded.”

But if you have passions, the Will to Power will be channelled into them. In other words: you can harness the Will to Power.

Your passions will lead you to obstacles and resistance, but that, to Nietzsche, is a good thing. Overcoming resistance is gaining strength. Just as lifting weights build muscle, the problems we face when we follow our passions will make us grow and flourish as individuals.

Heraclitus wrote that “there is harmony in the bending back, as in the bow or the lyre.” The tension of the bowstring is necessary to shoot the arrow, the lyre string to play the note. The opposition of forces — the effort — is required to create the effect. “All things come into being by a conflict of opposites,” Heraclitus wrote.

So what does the human being who has overcome their self look like? Nietzsche wrote a great deal about this. He presented his readers with an ideal. He set a goal of a greatness that humanity must somehow meet. That goal was the “Overman”.

The Overman

Nietzsche introduces the idea of the Overman (Übermensch) in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1886)The Overman is presented as an ideal human being that is not yet realised. (It’s worth noting that “mensch” does not specifically mean “man”, but “human being” and so the concept is not an exclusively male one).

Nietzsche draws from the science of evolution, comparing man to the potential Overman, as an “embarrassment” in the way the “ape is an embarrassment to man.” Mankind as a transitory phase:

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman–a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.”

The Overman is not a physical evolution of man, but rather a spiritual evolution. The process is not determined and Nietzsche feared that the Overman’s time may not come if we do not have the courage for self-overcoming.

“one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself.”

The “dancing star” the philosopher refers to is the Overman. He feared that the nihilism of the modern world was giving rise to what he called the “Last Man” the lazy nihilist who only seeks contentment. The Overman, in contrast, would risk everything to overcome himself.

Nietzsche mentioned a few in history who he felt came close to being Overmen. Napoleon and Goethe are examples he goes back to often. Napoleon was the amoral conquerer who risked his life (many times) for the glory of his own imperial state.

Goethe was the great polymath, one of the most accomplished writers in history, who also contributed enormously to scientific and philosophical fields.

Both these men were almost Overmen, but not quite. Perhaps the Overman is an impossible goal for a person like a utopia is for a place. The point of the Overman is to set in place an ideal that is opposed to the common ideals of moral virtue. To Nietzsche, these ideals are negative, they stop people from mastering their own selves.


Nietzsche found two causes of negativity that hold people back from embracing self-overcoming: self-preservation and the hope for a better life after death.

For Nietzsche, the promise of heaven as a reward for meek and humble behaviour in this life was a terrible waste. The earthly realm is our one shot at life and we must make the most of it. Self-overcoming — for whatever purpose we give ourselves — is the greater meaning of our lives. He wrote:

“The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.”

If this is uncomfortable reading for some people, Nietzsche would reply that we should emanate goodness and positivity from who we are, not for a reward of eternal life. If we behave well for a reward, we’re not really behaving with integrity.

Self-preservation is also counter to self-overcoming. As has already been covered, the Will-to-Power transcends the Will-to-Survive. Many living things risk literally everything they have to grow.

Those who choose easy contentment and material happiness will never come close to achieving the exuberance of the Overman. The secret to finding true happiness, as far as Nietzsche presents it — to rejoice in one’s strength and exuberance — is to risk happiness.

As reckless as that sounds, it perhaps is the antidote to the modern epidemic of nihilism.

Thank you for reading, I hope you learned something new.

Steven Gambardella


I write about philosophy, art and history and how these subjects can help you in life and work. Email: stevengambardella [a] gmail [dot] com.

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