DWI Corner
March-April 2024

Ancient Roman stoicism for the modern-day prosecutor

By W. Clay Abbott
TDCAA DWI Resource Prosecutor in Austin

There are a number of books I keep on the shelves at my desk in addition to TDCAA’s excellent publications and code books. One of them is a small, thin book I bought in the mid-’90s called The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: A Practical Guide for Living in an Irrational World, translated by George Long.

            It was popularized as the book on President Bill Clinton’s nightstand, but I knew Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy from my undergraduate studies. I was fascinated by them then and often surprised how many current-day adages, memes, and quotes were originally coined by Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

            The emperor was known for being just (a remarkable rarity in Roman leaders), for being well educated, and for leading forces in battle. His reign was anything but calm, but it was not terribly chaotic. History most often labels his time in power as the golden age of Roman justice, logic, and moderation. He dealt with politics, betrayal, war, sickness, religious conflict, failure, and success. In short, his reign sounded kind of like my life at the time when I was working in a prosecutor’s office. I was making an emperor’s worth of life and death decisions every day, being criticized from all sides, and looking at the ceiling at night hoping I had not let the scales of justice fall off level. Emperor Marcus Aurelius sounded like he might understand my life—when my friends and family did not.

            I found Stoic philosophy to be very helpful at the time. “Stoic” often is used to describe one who is disconnected emotionally, uncaring, or unmoved by tragedy, yet that is a gross oversimplification of a very full philosophical construct. Many Stoic philosophical pillars, which are included in this short meditation that Marcus Aurelius penned on an ancient battlefield, are solidly repeated in today’s modern memes. YOLO (“you only live once”) and the 12-step serenity prayer (“Lord, help me to change the things I can, accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference”) are both examples of wisdom in this slim volume.

            I find that things I learned in this book have crept into my own teaching. When training on courtroom testimony to peace officers, I recognize that it is the rare area in which officers are not in control—in fact, it’s an environment where their core training to take control is counterproductive. So I always ask them, “What do you control?” The audience correctly responds with, “Ourselves,” or “How we react.” These answers are pure Stoic philosophy.

            My job as a prosecutor, like that of a Roman emperor, required hundreds of hard decisions every day, constant conflict, plotting strategy and employing tactics in trials, and motivating allies. No wonder I found so much of what I read in this book to be fitting. More importantly, I also found the thought and cognitive reactions prescribed for an undertaking like prosecution. Through the book I found many life-changing mental disciplines. Thinking on the meditations helped me develop wisdom to navigate those things I could change, as well as those I had to accept. It was no overnight cure, but it opened paths that made the journey much easier.

            Reading through Meditations gave me a number of mental disciplines and world views that allow me to deal with a job that no part of my education really prepared me for. (I imagine many of you have had the same experience.) One mental shield this book handed me is a lesser-known quote: “To seek what is impossible is madness; and it is impossible that the bad should not do something of this kind.” In context, this statement is not simply a fatalistic, “Bad stuff happens”; rather, it’s more like, “Bad stuff happens, which is why we must always be ready for it.” I will admit there were times when reading it (and re-reading it) that I have had to set the book down because I tear up.

            I am grateful I have had good friends, trusted counselors, and a supportive family, all of whom no doubt assured my survival during years in the courtroom and in prosecutor leadership. But I must also credit Meditations for its help too—I highly recommend giving this little 100-page gem a look.