Book Review: How to Think Like A Roman Emperor

How to Think Like A Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
by Donald Robertson
St. Martin’s Press. 2019

 

Donald Robertson begins this book with his tumultuous and troubled youth, getting into trouble, and the death of his father. A mysterious phrase found in his father’s wallet would lead him to discover more about his father as a Freemason and how seriously he took the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. This would eventually lead him to Socrates and to Stoicism. After graduating, Robertson studies and trained in psychology and became more familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and its precursor, rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT) which were inspired by Stoicism. Robertson mentions that his daughter would ask him to tell stories so he would use the Greek myths as a basis.

But then we begin the first chapter to find the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, has taken ill, struck by the plague. I am normally a slow reader when it comes to philosophy because I read very carefully, taking notes and thinking along the way. However, I finished this book in a very short time for me. This was not because it is not a very meaty book. It has a great deal of substance.

Robertson must have attained a lot of practice at storytelling because the narrative instantly pulls the reader in. Marcus is brought to life as we see him dealing with the gritty details of his pain and illness. We see, not an emotionless caricature, but an affectionate person – all illuminated by Marcus Aurelius’ own words from the Meditations as well as other Roman historical accounts. Along the way, Robertson moves seamlessly between narrative and lessons on Stoic thought and practice, providing specific and practical guides for the practitioner.

Then we jump back in time and get the story of Zeno of Citium and his fortuitous path leading to the founding of Stoicism – a path that would involve a tragic shipwreck, strange words from an Oracle, and encounters with interesting characters and other schools. After that, the book fills in the gaps of history leading from Zeno to Seneca and up to Epictetus, whose teachings would eventually come to Marcus.

The book goes into specifics on what Stoics believed and what it means to “walk in accord with Nature”. From here we return to Marcus as a youth and he is humanized further as we grow up with him. We get to meet those who would influence Marcus, both positive and negative, which make him into the emperor he would become. Along the way, we learn even more subtle perspectives of his Stoic teachers.

We get to see, in context, how ancient philosophers were less like the academics of today and more like monks of wisdom, both in style and role. Stoics recognized, how we speak (both to others and ourselves) reinforces our experience. Robertson uses terms like catastrophizing, which I believe is a more modern term of psychotherapy, but relays some of the important concepts in Stoic training well.

Through this Robertson shares Stoic techniques for seeing more objectively, distancing ourselves from impulses, and Stoic mindfulness. The ever-important powerful seed of Stoic thought is also covered: the Dichotomy of Control. He also discusses the concept of the Sage and the benefits of finding a mentor.

Then we get more specifics on practices, an understanding of eudaimonia, flourishing, and Stoic joy as an active rather than passive experience. Robertson makes it clear that pleasure is not good or bad, so long as it does not interfere with wisdom/virtue and talks about Marcus’ various pleasures and pursuits.

We also learn about Marcus’ brother, Lucius, who is like a mirror image of the virtuous Marcus. He lives a life of irresponsible excess and dies young. Through this we learn steps for conquering desire, tolerating pain, and relinquishing fear. The latter consists of separating our effort on action from attachment to outcomes. It also consists of premeditation of adversity which is somewhat like negative visualization (as it is called in other books, though the phrase doesn’t appear here).

We also learn that resilience comes from the ability to retreat into what Marcus Aurelius called the “inner citadel”. That is, to “live as though on a mountaintop” regardless of circumstances. Along the way, we also see how the complexities of Roman politics could lead Marcus to the decision to name the unready (and one day treacherous) Commodus his successor – a question about which I have long wondered.

Finally, Chapter 7 (the second from last) begins an epic climax for the book, as the empire stands on the brink of civil war. By now, we have come to know Marcus as the boy who grew up to an emperor who would be betrayed by one of his closest generals. Robertson brings the events to life and we get to see how the Stoic emperor reacts. Along with the narrative we are taught the steps for dealing with anger, and then get to see Marcus’ remarkable calm, compassion, and forgiveness – even while taking decisive action.

The final chapter serves as an epilogue of sorts, as Robertson hands it off to Marcus Aurelius. Written in the first person of Marcus’ hypothetical thoughts as he lies dying. His consolations serve as a recap of Stoic philosophy and a fitting conclusion.

This is an excellent read and a good book for learning about Stoicism. Any quibbles or questions I have relate mostly to the inherent issues that come up when one is tasked with taking the technical terms of a complex philosophy and turning them into a more popularized format. Books of this nature play an important role, so these are fine sacrifices, so long as the student understands.

 

Conclusion

I’ve told you what to expect from this book but haven’t really given you the goods. For that, I recommend reading it for yourself. Because it provides both clear steps and guidelines to Stoic practice, and brings Marcus Aurelius to life through moving and talented writing, it makes an excellent book for both the newbie and experienced Stoic. I have definitely enjoyed it and felt enriched by the experience. It may even be one of my favorites on Stoicism.

 

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