How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

The life-changing principles of Stoicism taught through the story of its most famous proponent.Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was the final famous Stoic philosopher of the ancient world. The Meditations, his personal journal, survives to this day as one of the most loved self-help and spiritual classics of all time. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, cognitive psychother...

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Title:How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
Author:Donald J. Robertson
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Edition Language:English

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius Reviews

  • Dave

    I received an advance copy of this book several months ago and began reading, wanting to quickly turn it around as a thank you for the honor of being an advance reader. But the darn book kept making me think! I would read, re-read, apply, go in research tangents.

    I strongly recommend this to new students of Stoicism. And by that, I mean anyone seeking a practical philosophy of life that cuts through the mystical and finds meaning in the daily struggle to be proud of what you did and who you beca

    I received an advance copy of this book several months ago and began reading, wanting to quickly turn it around as a thank you for the honor of being an advance reader. But the darn book kept making me think! I would read, re-read, apply, go in research tangents.

    I strongly recommend this to new students of Stoicism. And by that, I mean anyone seeking a practical philosophy of life that cuts through the mystical and finds meaning in the daily struggle to be proud of what you did and who you became on any given day.

    Robertson contributes two valuable additions to the growing mass of work embracing the thoughtful life approach of Epictetus, Seneca, and (featured here) Marcus Aurelius.

    First, he connects the history with the philosophy. This makes each of Aurelius’s Meditations take on new life.

    Second, he connect Stoic thought to modern research and understanding of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is a connection I’ve long sought.

    The beauty of Stoicism for me is its overlap with other good things—mindfulness meditation, CBT, and dynamic theories of inherent human potential. Read it alone, or use it as a companion to Meditations. Whichever you choose, plan to learn something.

  • Julie

    This book takes a historical account of the life of Marcus Aurelius as well as passages from Aurelius' The Meditations and shows how to apply the lessons learned from these sources in a modern context, using a framework that is largely derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The author is trained in both Stoic philosophy and CBT, which are closely related. As the author notes in the introduction, Aaron Beck (one of the founders of CBT) has acknowledged that "[t]he philosophical origins

    This book takes a historical account of the life of Marcus Aurelius as well as passages from Aurelius' The Meditations and shows how to apply the lessons learned from these sources in a modern context, using a framework that is largely derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). The author is trained in both Stoic philosophy and CBT, which are closely related. As the author notes in the introduction, Aaron Beck (one of the founders of CBT) has acknowledged that "[t]he philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers." (p.9)

    Each chapter has a central theme that is illustrated using examples from Aurelius' life. Such themes include anger management, dealing with chronic pain, and changing bad habits. After the initial historical account, most chapters then move into a practical "how-to" sort of discussion that includes a lot of numbered lists. Many chapters conclude with a summary of the key points that the author intended for the reader to takeaway from the chapter. I appreciated this strong organizational structure.

    A lot of themes are repeated throughout the book. For example, The Meditations (which is a personal diary of sorts) starts with a list of people whom Aurelius admired, with Aurelius acknowledging gratitude for what he had learned from each listed individual. The author suggests that readers can use the same sort of technique--i.e., imagine what someone you admire would do in a particular situation and try to model your behavior accordingly.

    Another example would be the idea that cognition--rather than emotions--can drive behavior. Although an initial emotional reaction to a situation is often involuntary, generally at some point the person has the ability to step back and make a decision as to whether feeding that initial emotional reaction is healthy or not. In other words, even if rational thought does not drive one's immediate response, after that immediate reaction it is often possible to create a space for cognition to drive emotion rather than the other way around.

    A final example would be the calm acceptance of the fact that usually all one can control is his or her best efforts; one cannot entirely control the actual outcome of most things in life. The author describes this attitude as the "stoic reserve clause," which is often phrased as a caveat such as "fate permitting" or "God willing."

    I already knew some of the basic aspects of Marcus Aurelius' life, but I learned more detail from reading this book. I also knew that there was a connection between Stoic philosophy and CBT, but this book explained that connection in an easy-to-understand manner. Overall, I highly recommend this book.

  • John S.

    It's a sort of mashup between history, historical fiction, self-help and philosophy manual. That may sound funny, but it works! and the different genre like aspects are blended seamlessly, artfully, and beautifully. Some first person narratives are quite poignant (i.e. yeah, I cried!).

    Mr. Robertson stays as close to the history (as we know it) as possible, and even has a few unique ideas about what could have been happening (especially between the ears) which may have escaped prior historians, w

    It's a sort of mashup between history, historical fiction, self-help and philosophy manual. That may sound funny, but it works! and the different genre like aspects are blended seamlessly, artfully, and beautifully. Some first person narratives are quite poignant (i.e. yeah, I cried!).

    Mr. Robertson stays as close to the history (as we know it) as possible, and even has a few unique ideas about what could have been happening (especially between the ears) which may have escaped prior historians, who may not have been as conversant with Stoicism as a philosophy. Also, the history is exciting! And, Donald does it justice with his storytelling ability.

    Where the author excels however is bringing his main source, the perennial work (The Meditations) into the 21st century, having a strong clinical background in evidence-based Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Through the lens of what is robust in today's psychological sciences, we can see some of the things these old Stoics may have (most likely have) been actually doing in order to cope with crushing loss and enduring physical and mental hardships. People of the past were historically tougher than we are right now, even a few generations ago. Times in the ancient world were positively brutal, where plagues and holocausts were the rule rather than the exception, and these Stoics were considered tough even by the standards of those days.

    Stoicism is witnessing a resurgence at the moment, and at a time when it's very much needed.

    After reading this book I look at the Meditations in a whole new way, as well as the limits of what can be accomplished by any of us as human beings, for ourselves, and for our society.

  • Steve Eubank

    The subtitle is ironic & an important clarification as certainly not every Roman emperor’s thought process is worth emulating; indeed, Marcus Aurelius is the exception because he “viewed himself as a Stoic 1st & an emperor 2nd.” This book is particularly instructive when read in conjunction with Massimo Pigliucci’s 2017 “How to Be a Stoic,” which is an imaginary dialogue between a modern-day student & the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius was most influenced by Epictetus.

    The subtitle is ironic & an important clarification as certainly not every Roman emperor’s thought process is worth emulating; indeed, Marcus Aurelius is the exception because he “viewed himself as a Stoic 1st & an emperor 2nd.” This book is particularly instructive when read in conjunction with Massimo Pigliucci’s 2017 “How to Be a Stoic,” which is an imaginary dialogue between a modern-day student & the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius was most influenced by Epictetus. Although Marcus & Epictetus never met, Epictetus’ student Arrian had compiled his teachings as the “Discourses” & “Handbook” & Marcus was instructed in Stoicism from these works. In contrast, Marcus did not write what ended up being his contribution to philosophy, the “Meditations” in order to teach anyone; it was more akin to a journal of personal thoughts written in his tent at night as he fought barbarian tribes on the fringes of the empire. So rather than a modern dialogue with a classical philosopher like “How to Be a Stoic,” “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” is more of a biographical account of a great person’s development through Stoic reflection & how such a technique is applied today via Cognitive Behavioral Therapy & other methods. The last chapter breaks from biography to take the reader through a guided Stoic meditation process that Marcus might’ve used if he’d lived in modern times. Between “How to Be a Stoic” & “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” one learns the principles of Stoicism, their relevance today, & how to incorporate them into a meaningful & resilient approach to life.

  • Enso

    "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius" is a new work by Donald Robertson on Stoicism through the lens of Marcus Aurelius. As a change of pace, I listened to the audiobook of it, as it was read by the author and I often enjoy hearing authors read their own works. In this I was not disappointed.

    Robertson is a well known modern Stoic proponent, being involved in many of the organized activities online and off to promote Stoicism and an understanding of it. I've

    "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius" is a new work by Donald Robertson on Stoicism through the lens of Marcus Aurelius. As a change of pace, I listened to the audiobook of it, as it was read by the author and I often enjoy hearing authors read their own works. In this I was not disappointed.

    Robertson is a well known modern Stoic proponent, being involved in many of the organized activities online and off to promote Stoicism and an understanding of it. I've enjoyed reading his

    on the topic. He's also written on the very explicit connections between Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in the past, including

    on the topic as well.

    In this text, Robertson uses the life and writings of Marcus Aurelius to show us Robertson's understanding of Stoicism as a practical path, along with a philosophical one. Through a combination of content from Aurelius' "Meditations" and relating it to techniques used in modern psychotherapy, Robertson shows the philosophical ideas and intent behind Marcus Aurelius' Stoicism and how you can apply these techniques in a _practical_ fashion in daily life. This last bit was the most important to me. There are many, many books on Stoicism, either modern interpretations or explanations by scholars, but practical application is often difficult to find. By that I mean the texts contain ideas but, often, one has to puzzle how you would do that every day or incorporate it into your life in order to put it into practice. Robertson has made that a bit easier and I found, while listening to the book, that I wished that my notebook handy so I could write down notes and make a checklist of things. (Fortunately, I also have the hardcover so I have been able to revisit this later.)

    This practical focus and immediate relationship to the world makes this, hands down, the best of the recent Stoic works published. I want to offer Robertson real kudos for making a nice, well contained, and focused introduction. This is the book that I'm suggesting to my friends now when they show an interest in Stoicism and want to read more.

  • Ryan Boissonneault

    Stoicism is a practical philosophy that emphasizes rationality and virtue as the only true goods. Unlike other religious or spiritual practices, Stoicism does not require that you abandon reason or strain your grip on reality; rather, it provides an ethical orientation to life that is fully consistent with our nature as rational, social beings.

    Stoicism therefore embraces the original Greek conception of philosophy

    , a subject matter to be

    rather than simply studied. Fa

    Stoicism is a practical philosophy that emphasizes rationality and virtue as the only true goods. Unlike other religious or spiritual practices, Stoicism does not require that you abandon reason or strain your grip on reality; rather, it provides an ethical orientation to life that is fully consistent with our nature as rational, social beings.

    Stoicism therefore embraces the original Greek conception of philosophy

    , a subject matter to be

    rather than simply studied. Far removed from the logical hair splitting of academic philosophy, Stoicism is about living well, with an emphasis on ethics and the attainment of true contentment and excellence of character.

    That means that mastering the art of Stoicism is no easy task; it requires putting theory into practice and patiently developing appropriate habits of mind that cannot come from simply reading a book, memorizing a few principles, and moving on. This is why, to truly master Stoicism, it helps to have a mentor, not in the sense of an all-knowing guru who will tell you exactly how to think and act, but in the sense of having someone with admirable character traits to emulate.

    This is what makes

    by Donald Robertson an ideal introduction to the practice of Stoicism. It combines the theory of Stoicism—corroborated by the latest therapeutic techniques of modern psychology—with the biographical details of a Stoic master worth emulating, Marcus Aurelius.

    Marcus relied on mentors himself; in fact, in Book 1 of

    , Marcus provides a list of his mentors and their associated character traits that he would use to model his own behavior. Marcus was greatly influenced by Socrates, Seneca, Epictetus, and his own personal philosophy tutors. Marcus would often contemplate how these Stoic masters would themselves handle certain situations while also benefiting from personal instruction.

    While having a mentor is important, most of us do not personally know a Stoic master who is available 24/7 to critique our attitudes and behavior. But there’s another option, one that Marcus used himself after his most valued personal mentor, Junius Rusticus, passed away. Marcus would imagine that his mentor, or a group of mentors he respected, were constantly watching over his actions, and that he would need to explain his actions to a tribunal of philosophers at the end of each day.

    This allowed Marcus to continue to benefit from the personal instruction of Rusticus, even after Rusticus’s death, if only in his imagination. And it is the same technique the reader can use to benefit from the personal instruction of Marcus Aurelius.

    allows the reader to learn more about the life and thought of Marcus Aurelius for the purpose of establishing an imagined mentorship in the manner practiced by the great Stoics. This puts a face to the philosophy and brings the ideas to life, while providing a Stoic ideal for the reader to strive for.

    Marcus, of course, was not only a Stoic philosopher; he was also a leader, the emperor of Rome. If anyone deserves the title of Plato’s “philosopher king,” it’s Marcus Aurelius, and if any Stoic is truly worth emulating, it’s also probably him.

    So what can Marcus teach us? Since Marcus modeled his behavior according to a hypothetical Stoic ideal, we can all use Marcus’s own character traits as a model for our own character development. In that respect, what follows is a brief summary of the character traits and habits of mind of Marcus Aurelius that we would all benefit from emulating.

    To begin with, the modern idea that we are all slaves to our passions, or that reason is slave to emotion, is patently false. If it were true, we would constantly indulge our appetites, sacrificing our health and never saving or planning for the future. We can all clearly make decisions that sacrifice immediate gratification for future benefits.

    Reason, therefore, is of primary importance for the Stoic, what they called our “ruling faculty.” As Robertson wrote:

    “Stoics argued that humans are first and foremost

    creatures, capable of exercising reason. Although we share many instincts with other animals, our ability to think rationally is what makes us human….It allows us to

    our thoughts, feelings, and urges and to decide if they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.”

    The use of reason is the only way to modify unhealthy habits, which are usually the result of blindly following our emotions. Our most natural reactions are often the most harmful. Marcus, for example, had to battle with severe outbursts of anger when he was younger. However, despite being predisposed psychologically to bouts of anger, Marcus trained himself to act more reasonably and calmly, even in the face of betrayal by his general Gaius Avidius Cassius, who declared himself emperor and started a civil war. Marcus reminded himself that people act according to what they think is right, and if they act dishonorably, they do so in error and therefore deserve our sympathy rather than our contempt.

    That Marcus didn’t lose his cool doesn’t mean that he did nothing; he calmly and efficiently mobilized his forces and ultimately was victorious against Cassius. But he did so without undue emotional distress. Marcus reminded himself that without misfortune and difficulty, there is no opportunity to practice virtue. As Marcus wrote in

    , “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” Marcus replaced a negative emotion, anger, with sympathy, understanding, and action.

    Marcus did not have an easy life: out of 13 children, he lived to see 8 of them die; he suffered from ulcers and other chronic physical ailments; he experienced constant warfare and political instability; and he dealt with the strain and stress of managing an empire. Yet he found the courage to confront these challenges effectively and without complaint, because he realized all events, whether considered good or bad, were simply opportunities to practice virtue and develop character. Marcus no doubt would have preferred health, wealth, and peace, and did what he could to attain them, but he did not waste time in grief or anxiety for things not within his direct control, nor did he waste time in pursuit of material objects or fleeting pleasures at the expense of his philosophical development.

    Marcus therefore employed reason and wisdom to display courage, moderation, and emotional mastery. When a difficulty arose, he would simply say, calmly and dispassionately, “what next?” Marcus understood the difference between events and judgements, and how judgments are ultimately the cause of suffering. As Marcus said, “You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

    At this point, there are two common but unfounded criticisms of Stoicism that I want to address. The first is that Stoics are unemotional. This is not true, for the simple reason that it’s not possible. You can’t eliminate emotions, you can only control them and replace initial negative emotions with positive ones, like Marcus did by managing his bouts of anger and replacing them with deep sympathy even for his enemies. Stoics, far from being unemotional, experience a profound sense of joy by living according to reason and wisdom and in helping others achieve the same.

    The second misconception is that Stoicism makes one apathetic to public life and civic responsibility. Marcus, being the emperor of Rome and all, should make it obvious how wrong this is. But there’s a deeper explanation for why this is incorrect. Robertson explains this best:

    “In addition to believing that humans are essentially thinking creatures capable of reason, the Stoics also believed that human nature is inherently social. They started from the premise that under normal conditions we typically have a bond of “natural affection” toward our children. (If we didn’t, as we know, our offspring would be less likely to survive and pass on our genes.) This bond of natural affection also tends to extend to other loved ones, such as spouses, parents, siblings, and close friends. The Stoics believed that as we mature in wisdom we increasingly identify with our own capacity for reason, but we also begin to identify with others insofar as they’re capable of reason. In other words, the wise man extends moral consideration to all rational creatures and views them, in a sense, as his brothers and sisters. That’s why the Stoics described their ideal as cosmopolitanism, or being ‘citizens of the universe’—a phrase attributed both to Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic.”

    As Robertson further notes, the concepts of justice, kindness, fairness, and ethical cosmopolitanism are found throughout the

    . Marcus, despite being a Stoic, displays a rich emotional life full of contemplation, action, joy, contentment, justice, kindness, and civic responsibility.

    From all of this we get a good idea of how Marcus would think and act in various situations, and this provides a great template by which we can develop our own character in accordance with the Stoic ideal. For those truly interested in mastering Stoicism, it’s helpful to ask yourself, could you justify your actions to Marcus at the end of each day. The next time you’re overwhelmed by anger or anxiety, work to replace your negative emotions with positive ones. The next time you face a crisis or difficult situation, ask yourself which virtue this allows you to practice. Over time, and with dedication, you might come to find, as Marcus certainly did, that life and all its chaos is nothing more than the opportunity to practice virtue, guided by the ideals of reason, wisdom, justice, and kindness.

  • Susan

    I was lucky to get a free copy via NetGalley for my true and honest opinion.

    I really enjoyed this book! I absolutely loved reading Marcus Aurelius book the Meditation. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, cognitive psychotherapist Donald Robertson weaves the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius together seamlessly to provide a compelling modern-day guide to the Stoic wisdom followed by countless individuals throughout the centuries as a path to achieving greater fulfillment and emotional resi

    I was lucky to get a free copy via NetGalley for my true and honest opinion.

    I really enjoyed this book! I absolutely loved reading Marcus Aurelius book the Meditation. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, cognitive psychotherapist Donald Robertson weaves the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius together seamlessly to provide a compelling modern-day guide to the Stoic wisdom followed by countless individuals throughout the centuries as a path to achieving greater fulfillment and emotional resilience

    Obviously, I would love this book. I definitely recommend it for all those who love philosophy or want to learn more about stoicism or Marcus Aurelius.

    ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • Heather

    I really enjoyed this one! It was well written and very straight forward for someone who isn’t working towards a PhD or some type of degree! LOL.

    I enjoy reading about all Things Roman, most especially the Emperor world. Having the philosophical attitude, mindset towards our mortality does allow you to feel more “free”,

    I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about Rome, emperor’s and even simple philosophy.

  • Hugo Ahlberg

    This book is a great introduction to both

    and Stoic philosophy. It blends the biography of the roman emperor with the philosophy and history of stoicism, and the author ties it all together in a great way. In fact, having already read Meditations I found the biography and the stories about Marcus and the people around him to be the most interesting parts of this book. It gives the philosophy a lot more texture than jus

    This book is a great introduction to both

    and Stoic philosophy. It blends the biography of the roman emperor with the philosophy and history of stoicism, and the author ties it all together in a great way. In fact, having already read Meditations I found the biography and the stories about Marcus and the people around him to be the most interesting parts of this book. It gives the philosophy a lot more texture than just reading Marcus own words. That is not to say you should skip Meditations, but rather that they go really well together. This is a great companion book to

    . (I’d love to see other books like this of other great classical philosophers like Socrates, Plato etc. If you know of any please let me know)

  • Lou

    It seems stoicism has been enjoying a resurgence of late and being intrigued by different schools of philosophical thought and educating myself on each of them I simply couldn't resist nabbing a copy of this. The ideas central to stoicism are woven into the biographical account of one of the most important writers and Stoic philosophers of his time. What I found most impressive about the book was its accessibility - even those who know little about philosophy, in general, should be able to read

    It seems stoicism has been enjoying a resurgence of late and being intrigued by different schools of philosophical thought and educating myself on each of them I simply couldn't resist nabbing a copy of this. The ideas central to stoicism are woven into the biographical account of one of the most important writers and Stoic philosophers of his time. What I found most impressive about the book was its accessibility - even those who know little about philosophy, in general, should be able to read and understand this text without issue. We in Britain tend to be labelled as the most likely to subscribe to stoicism when it comes to the continent of Europe so we should all be interested in the subject.

    With the current state of the world, this is an interesting and sensible outlook that many people are adopting. Discussing the core concepts of stoicism alongside cognitive behavioural therapy is a thought-provoking approach and is exceptionally well written and researched, it appears. Often philosophy books can alienate those who want to educate themselves on these ideas but Mr Robertson keeps it down to earth and concise. This is a book that has the potential to be life-changing and the comparison made between stoic wisdom and CBT absolutely fascinated me. The helpful hints of how to incorporate stoicism into your day to day life are a great way to move towards emotional resilience and hopefully a happier and more fulfilled life.

    Many thanks to St Martin's Press for an ARC.

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