“How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” by Donald Robertson (Book Summary)
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson is an engaging introduction to one of history’s greatest figures: Marcus Aurelius. Thus the subtitle, "The Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius."
“This entire book is designed to help you follow Marcus in acquiring strength of mind and eventually a more profound sense of fulfillment,” Robertson writes. He tried to combine Stoicism with elements of CBT, so you get some findings from modern research sewed into ancient philosophy.
“Marcus Aurelius faced colossal challenges during his reign as emperor of Rome. The Meditations provides a window into his soul, allowing us to see how he guided himself through it all.” Through this window, we may be able to apply the Stoic wisdom to our everyday challenges and deal with them more efficiently. “However,” Robertson warns, “that change won’t leap off the page.” We need to put the ideas into practice, as Marcus wrote to himself,
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; just be one.”
Who Is How to Think Like a Roman Emperor For?
- Anyone looking for ways to put their values into practice
- Anyone interested in behavior change and psychotherapy
- Anyone curious about historical stories and figures of ancient Rome
1. Who Was that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius?
Marcus Aurelius was the last famous Stoic of the ancient world.
Although Marcus first began training in philosophy when he was just a boy of about twelve, his practice intensified in his mid-twenties, when he dedicated himself wholeheartedly to becoming a Stoic.
Marcus Aurelius was known for his physical frailty, due to chronic health problems, but he was also known for his exceptional resilience.
He repeatedly tells himself that the goal of his life is not pleasure but action.
Marcus Aurelius, indeed, viewed himself as a Stoic first and an emperor second.
Through his mother, who was a lover of Greek culture, Marcus got introduced to and tutored in philosophy from an exceptionally young age.
He enjoyed spending time in his holiday villas, taking a break from running the empire. By the time he wrote The Meditations, pleasant retreats were a thing of the past, and his life was spent far from home at the fronts of the Marcomannic Wars.
“He tells himself that resilience comes from his ability to regain his composure wherever he finds himself. This is the ‘inner citadel’ to which he can retreat, even on the frigid battlefields of the northern campaign.”
Fun story: As a young emperor, Marcus was ridiculed as a snob and a bore because at gladiator games they could see that he was reading legal documents and discussing them with his advisors. He was told to show his face at these events, but he wanted to use the time to do serious business for running the empire.
His final words?
Go to the rising sun, for I am already setting.
2. The Stoic Goal of Life
For Stoics that goal [of life] is defined as ‘living in agreement with Nature,’ which we’re told was synonymous with living wisely and virtuously.
The true goal of life for Stoics isn’t to acquire as many external advantages as possible but to use whatever befalls us wisely… Most important of all, the pursuit of these preferred indifferent things [health, wealth, status] must never be done at the expense of virtue.
It’s human nature to desire certain things in life, such as sex and food. Reason allows us to step back and question whether what we desire is actually going to be good for us or not. Wisdom itself is uniquely valuable because it allows us to judge the value of external things – it’s the source of everything else’s value.
Remember: the fundamental goal of life for Stoics, the highest good, is to act consistently in accord with reason and virtue.
What matters in life isn’t what happens to us but how we respond to it. Philosophy is really a way of life, how we choose to act.
Marcus, for example, “repeatedly warned himself not to become distracted by reading too many books but instead to remain focused on the practical goal of living wisely.”
And although it’s natural, chasing empty, transient pleasures can never lead to true happiness. What we’re really after is the sense of authentic happiness the Stoics called Eudaimonia.
3. How to Speak Wisely
The fundamental difference between a sophist and a Stoic: the former speaks to win praise from his audience, the latter to improve them by helping them to achieve wisdom and virtue.
Whereas orators traditionally sought to exploit the emotions of their audience, the Stoics made a point of consciously describing events in plain and simple terms.
For Stoics, this honesty and simplicity of language requires two main things: conciseness and objectivity.
The Stoics adopted a more moderate approach, and they were concerned that their speech should not only be honest and simple but also appropriate to the needs of the hearer. There’s no point in speaking plainly to people if it doesn’t benefit them.
Correcting someone else’s vices, Marcus says, is like pointing out that they have bad breath – it requires considerable tact.
As the real goal for the Stoics is wisdom, just blurting out the truth might not be enough. We must put more effort into communicating wisely and phrase things appropriately to the hearer’s needs.
Generally, we should stick with the facts and not add value judgments. This will help others and ourselves to get less overwhelmed and anxious.
4. How to Live by Your Values
Marcus wrote that anyone who truly wants to achieve wisdom through Stoicism will make it his priority in life to cultivate his own character and seek help from others who share similar values.
Plato… said that lovers are typically blind regarding the one they love. As we, in a sense, love ourselves most of all, we are also most blind with regard to our own faults. The majority of us therefore struggle to attain the self-awareness required to improve our lives.
Galen’s solution to this problem is for us to find a suitable mentor whose wisdom and experience we can genuinely trust.
Even if you don’t have a real-life mentor following you around, you can still benefit from the concept by using your imagination.
Writing down the virtues possessed by a hypothetical wise man or woman, or those we aspire to ourselves, is usually a very beneficial exercise.
By deeply reflecting on our values each day and attempting to describe them concisely, we can develop a clearer sense of direction.
The Stoics divided the day into three stages:
Mindfulness throughout the day: Try continually to be self-aware, as if a wise mentor or teacher is observing you.
The Stoic evening reflection: Review how things actually went.
Interesting fact: Marcus kept a statuette of his tutors after their deaths.
5. How to Conquer Desire
When doing what feels pleasurable becomes more important than doing what’s actually good for us or our loved ones… that’s a recipe for disaster.
So you should carefully evaluate your habits and desires in terms of the bigger picture: how much do these pursuits actually contribute to your long-term happiness or sense of fulfillment in life?
In fact, really thinking through consequences of behaviors and picturing them vividly in your mind may be enough in some cases to eliminate the behavior.
Once you’ve spotted the early warning signs of a craving or habit, you can also help yourself change by noticing the separation between your current perspective and external reality.
You might also adapt Epictetus and say “It’s not things that make us crave them but our judgments about things.” We are the ones who choose to assign value to things that look appealing.
Marcus encourages himself to replace the feeling of desire by the feeling of gratitude. Instead of desiring what we don’t have, we should be grateful for what we do have by imagining the loss of what we hold dear.
The Stoics often used the story of Hercules to show that nothing good and admirable is granted in life without some pain and effort.
6. How to Tolerate Pain
Epicurus coined the maxim “a little pain is contemptible, and a great one is not lasting.” You can therefore learn to cope by telling yourself that the pain won’t last long if it’s severe or that you’re capable of enduring much worse if the pain is chronic.
Pain is just a sensation, in other words; what matters is how we choose to respond to it.
If we can learn to withhold our judgment that pain is terrible or harmful, then we can strip away its horrific mask, and it no longer appears so monstrous to us.
This approach is one of Marcus’s favorite strategies for encouraging an attitude of Stoic indifference. Viewing things as changeable, like a flowing river, can help weaken our emotional attachment to them… We will achieve indifference to painful feelings, he says, if we remember that the demands they place on our attention will only be for a limited time, because life is short and will soon be at an end.
Pain is an inevitable part of life and always offers an opportunity to practice virtue.
Marcus says that “Nothing happens to anyone that he is not fitted by Nature to bear.” For example, Nature has equipped us with the potential for endurance, which we can practice when enduring pain.
7. How to Relinquish Fear
Premeditation of adversity can be useful in confronting anger and other negative emotions, but its techniques are particularly suited to treat fear and anxiety. The Stoics defined fear as the expectation that something bad is going to happen.
Fear is essentially a future-focused emotion, so it’s natural that we should counter it by addressing our thoughts concerning the future. Inoculating ourselves against stress and anxiety through the Stoic premeditation of adversity is one of the most useful techniques for building emotional resilience, which is what psychologists call the long-term ability to endure stressful situations without becoming overwhelmed by them.
From clinical research we know that anxiety abates naturally with repeated exposure. And this exposure can only be imagined. Therefore, if we confront our fears in imagination for long enough, they will go away, as familiarity breeds indifference.
“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality,” as Seneca most famously said.
8. How to Conquer Anger
Anger stems from the idea that an injustice has been committed, or someone has done something they shouldn’t have done.
We should not meet disagreeable people and enemies with anger… Stoics think of troublesome people as if they are a prescription from a physician… If no one ever tested your patience, then you’d lack an opportunity to exhibit virtue in your relationships.
If someone hates you, Marcus says, that’s their problem. Your only concern is to avoid doing anything to deserve being hated.
Nothing lasts forever. If events will seem trivial in the future when we look back on them, then why should we care strongly about them now?
The main antidote to anger for Marcus is the Stoic virtue of kindness.
Marcus believed that anger does more harm than good.
The Stoics lived by the idea that nobody does wrong willingly. And we should always remain open to the possibility that the other person’s intentions are not in the wrong.
9. How to Prepare for Death
Socrates used to say that death is like some prankster in a scary mask, dressed as a bogeyman to frighten small children. The wise man carefully removes the mask and, looking behind it, he finds nothing worth fearing.
This childish fear of death is perhaps our greatest bane in life. Fear of death does us more harm than death itself because it turns us into cowards, whereas death merely returns us to Nature.
As death is among the most certain things in life, to a man of wisdom it should be among the least feared.
Every era of history teaches us the same lesson: nothing lasts forever.
Today a drop of semen, tomorrow a pile of ash or bones.
Everything is different, but underneath it’s all the same: anonymous individuals marrying, raising children, falling sick, and dying.
Death comes knocking at the king’s palace and the beggar’s shack alike.
Indeed, to learn how to die is to unlearn how to be a slave.
The last and my absolute favorite chapter of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is about death. It’s based on ideas presented in The Meditations and Donald Robertson magnificently paraphrased Marcus Aurelius’ words into a sort of internal monologue. Brilliant!
10. How to Accept One's Fate
The Stoics wanted to develop a healthy sense of gratitude in life, unspoiled by attachment. So they practiced calmly imagining change and loss, like a river gently flowing past, carrying things away. The wise man loves life and is grateful for the opportunities it gives him, but he accepts that everything changes and nothing lasts forever.
Marcus actually imagines Nature herself as a physician, like Asclepius, the god of medicine, prescribing hardships to him as if they were painful remedies. To take Nature’s medicine properly, we must accept our fate and respond virtuously, with courage and self-discipline, thereby improving our character.
The paradox of accepting discomfort is that it often leads to less suffering.
The universe is change: life is opinion.
Nature as a doctor? Yeah, that’s what Marcus imagined when given challenges in life. He thought them to be painful remedies, which he must accept and respond virtuously. What a fantastic strategy.
Don’t fight what happens but try to accept and even embrace it – amor fati.
Seneca said it brilliantly, “One is only unfortunate in proportion as one believes one’s self so.”
If you're intrigued by Stoicism, you might want to check out The Little Book of Stoicism – this practical book gives you a clear overview of this wonderful philosophy.
Alternatively, check out these book summaries: