Donald Robertson’s latest book How to Think like a Roman Emperor is an exciting and unique mix. We have many books on the life of Marcus Aurelius and separately his Stoicism mainly from Meditations. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Donald combines both to give context as well as guidance.
Robertson starts with an introduction to Marcus Aurelius, his birth in 121 A.D. in the Roman province of Hispania Baetica (now know as Spain). Marcus’s life was far from uncomplicated. Moving at a young age to Rome where his father died whilst he was aged 3.
After his fathers passing, Marcus was initially raised by his mother and grandfather. Emperor Hadrian has much influence on Marcus’ early life and Hadrian had a great fondness or sense of ability in Marcus, appointing him to the College of Salii.
Donald goes on to explain Marcus was an honest and plain speaker, something that likely drew him towards Stoicism, Stoic logic and Stoic Ethics. In contrast in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Robertson also describes the struggles Marcus had with his anger and temper. His later realization on witnessing Hadrian’ severe temper the self-harm anger creates.
Marcus had early Stoic practice teachings from Apollonius, Donald Robertson uses this chapter in Marcus’ story to introduce basic Stoic philosophy at this point. Donald also reflects and relates this philosophy to modern cognitive therapy practices.
When Marcus was later adopted by Antoninus, who was an even-tempered and gentle adopted father. There was an obvious influence on young Marcus. He wrote about Antoninus’ virtues in Meditations. The combination of his father and Stoic teaching calmed Marcus’ wild anger, in particular, the Stoics reflection of anger being ‘a temporary madness’ and the importance of waiting until calm and then reflecting on what a virtuous course of action would be. Again Donald uses the life lessons of Marcus to introduce and reinforce Stoic thinking as a practical everyday toolkit.
In later chapters in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Donald uses the experiences and challenges Marcus faced in the battlefield, plagues, barbarian invasions, civil war, defeat and victory to further explain the power of Stoic thinking and how Marcus could muster logic and wisdom (or perhaps cunning) towards victory. Donald uses the opportunity to introduce key mental approaches such as the concept of ‘fate permitting’ and modern techniques such as cognitive distancing.
Concerning the civil war between Marcus Aurelius and Avidius Cassius. Donald writes of empathy and forgiveness, using Marcus’ infamous pardoning of the soldiers involved in the civil war. The pardoning ultimately led to the assassination of Avidius Cassius by his own soldiers. Marcus led through wisdom and compassion rather than the fear utilized by Avidius. Fear it seems doesn’t buy loyalty!
Donald writes an inspiring account of the final days of Marcus Aurelius, if there was ever an exemplar of practical Stoicism it is surely found in the accounts of the last days of Marcus Aurelius.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is out soon and available for pre-order. I’m looking forward to reading Donald Robertson’s latest book cover to cover. **Update: my copy has arrived, and has been read many times!
Below is a chapter list to whet your appetite!
- The Dead Emperor: The Story of Stoicism
- Rome’s Most Truthful Child: How to Speak Wisely
- Contemplating the Sage: How to Follow your Values
- The Choice of Hercules: How to Conquer Desire
- Grasping the Nettle: How to Tolerate Pain
- The War of Many Nations: How to Relinquish Fear
- Temporary Madness: How to Conquer Anger
- Death and the View from Above