How To Think Like A Roman Emperor – Donald Robertson


Hardcover: 304 pages ISBN-10: 1250196620 ISBN-13: 978-1250196620



An excellent combination of philosophy and psychotherapy presented with biographical detail about the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Not only a great reading experience but also a goldmine of CBT techniques that can be practiced regularly to help with things like irrational worry and anxiety.


His parting words are, “If you now grant me leave to go then I will bid you farewell and pass on ahead of you.”

Perhaps it was at this moment that Zeno suddenly realized what the Oracle meant: he was to “take on the color of dead men” by thoroughly absorbing the teachings of wise men from previous generations, teachings such as the very philosophical doctrines he was now reading in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.

The name change from Zenonians to Stoics is significant because unlike other philosophical sects, the founders of Stoicism didn’t claim to be perfectly wise. Zeno’s attitude to his students perhaps resembled the one later described by Seneca, who did not claim to be an expert like a physician but saw his role more like that of a patient describing the progress of his treatment to fellow patients in the hospital beds beside him.

Zeno told his students that he had come to value wisdom more than wealth or reputation. He used to say, “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune.”

Indeed, Seneca, as we’ll see, noted the paradox that before we can exhibit the virtues of courage and moderation, we need to have at least some trace of fear and desire to overcome.

Even the Stoic wise man, therefore, may tremble in the face of danger. What matters is what he does next. He exhibits courage and self-control precisely by accepting these feelings, rising above them, and asserting his capacity for reason.

By now you’ll appreciate how much confusion is caused by people mixing up “Stoicism” (capital S) with “stoicism” (lowercase s). Lowercase stoicism is just a personality trait: it’s mental toughness or the ability to endure pain and adversity without complaining. Uppercase Stoicism is a whole school of Greek philosophy. Being emotionally tough or resilient is just one small part of that philosophy, and lowercase stoicism neglects the entire social dimension of Stoic virtue, which has to do with justice, fairness, and kindness to others. Also, when people talk about being stoic or having a stiff upper lip, they often mean just suppressing their feelings, which is actually known to be quite unhealthy. So it’s important to be very clear that’s not what Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics recommended. Stoic philosophy teaches us instead to transform unhealthy emotions into healthy ones.

He emphasized 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.

This is important to note: for a Stoic to exhibit the virtue of temperance, he must have at least some trace of desire to renounce, and to exhibit courage he must have at least these first sensations of fear to endure. As the Stoics like to put it, the wise man is not made of stone or iron but of flesh and blood.

Simplicity frees us from affectation and the trouble it brings.

According to Stoic philosophy, when we assign intrinsic values like “good” or “bad” to external events, we’re behaving irrationally and even exhibiting a form of self-deception. When we call something a “catastrophe,” for instance, we go beyond the bare facts and start distorting events and deceiving ourselves. Moreover, the Stoics consider lying a form of impiety—when a man lies, he alienates himself from Nature.

According to Diogenes Laertius, Stoic rhetoric identified five “virtues” of speech: 1. Correct grammar and good vocabulary 2. Clarity of expression, making the ideas easily understood 3. Conciseness, employing no more words than necessary 4. Appropriateness of style, suited to the subject matter and apparently also to the audience 5. Distinction, or artistic excellence, and the avoidance of vulgarity

If you stick with the facts and don’t unnecessarily extrapolate from them, you will put paid to many anxieties in life.

As an aspiring Stoic, you should begin by practicing deliberately describing events more objectively and in less emotional terms. Epictetus tells his students that if they can avoid being swept along with false and upsetting impressions, they will remain grounded in the objective representations they initially perceived.

Modern cognitive therapists advise their clients to describe events in more down-to-earth language, like the Stoics before them. They call it “decatastrophizing” when they help clients downgrade their perception of a situation from provoking anxiety to something more mundane and less frightening. For instance, Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, advised that clients suffering from anxiety should write “decatastrophizing scripts” in which they describe distressing events factually, without strong value judgments or emotive language: “I lost my job and now I’m looking for a new one” rather than “I lost my job and there’s nothing I can do about it—it’s just a total disaster!” Think about it: when you’re distressed, don’t you tend to exaggerate and use vivid, emotional language to describe things, both to yourself and other people?

Knowing that not everyone sees a certain situation as catastrophic should make us more aware that the “awfulness” of it derives from our own thinking, our value judgments, and our way of responding rather than the thing itself.

In The Meditations, he names the philosophers he most admires: Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Socrates, Diogenes the Cynic, Chrysippus, and Epictetus.

You can imagine your personal role model—or even a whole panel of Stoic Sages—giving you advice. What would they tell you to do? What advice would they give? What would they have to say about how you’re currently handling a problem?

Regarding the morning meditation, Galen says that as soon as you rise from bed and begin considering each of the tasks ahead, you should ask yourself two questions: 1. What would the consequences be if you acted as a slave to your passions? 2. How would your day differ if you acted more rationally, exhibiting wisdom and self-discipline?

This famous passage from “The Golden Verses,” which Epictetus quoted to his students, describes the evening meditation: Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes, Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed: “Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?”

From first to last review your acts and then Reprove yourself for wretched acts, but rejoice in those done well. You can ask yourself these three very simple questions: 1. What did you do badly? Did you allow yourself to be ruled by irrational fears or unhealthy desires? Did you act badly or allow yourself to indulge in irrational thoughts? 2. What did you do well? Did you make progress by acting wisely? Praise yourself and reinforce what you want to repeat. 3. What could you do differently? Did you omit any opportunities to exercise virtue or strength of character? How could you have handled things better?

By deeply reflecting on our values each day and attempting to describe them concisely, we can develop a clearer sense of direction in life. You might do this by posing questions to yourself such as: •  What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you? •  What do you really want your life to stand for or represent? •  What do you want to be remembered for after you’re dead? •  What sort of person do you most want to be in life? •  What sort of character do you want to have? •  What would you want written on your tombstone?

Another useful values clarification technique for students of Stoicism involves making two short lists in side-by-side columns headed “Desired” and “Admired”: 1. Desired. The things you most desire for yourself in life 2. Admired. The qualities you find most praiseworthy and admirable in other people These two lists are, at first, virtually never identical. Why are they different, and how would your life change if you desired for yourself the qualities you find admirable in other people? As the Stoics might put it, what would happen if you were to make virtue your number one priority in life? The most important aspect of this values clarification exercise for Stoics would be to grasp the true nature of man’s highest good, to elucidate our most fundamental goal, and to live accordingly. Everything in Stoicism ultimately refers back to the goal of grasping the true nature of the good and living accordingly.

Once you clarify your core values, you can compare them to the Stoic cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. People find it surprisingly helpful to set aside even a few minutes per day to reflect deeply upon their values. Indeed, values clarification has become an integral part of modern evidence-based treatments for clinical depression. Clarifying our values and trying to live more consistently in accord with them can help us gain a greater sense of direction and meaning in life, leading to greater satisfaction and fulfillment. Try brainstorming small ways in which you can do things that satisfy your core values each day.

We are the ones who choose to assign value to things that look appealing.

Marcus also talks about the importance of breaking things down into their components and reflecting on each part in isolation. The idea is that when we analyze something in terms of its elements and focus on each in turn, asking ourselves whether it alone is enough to overwhelm us, the whole experience will tend to seem more bearable.

We’ve now seen how the Stoics aspired to find happiness in healthy ways, through gratitude for the things they have, admiration for the strengths of others, or pride in their own ability to act with dignity, honor, and integrity. Also, remember that for Stoics ordinary pleasure and pain aren’t good or bad but merely indifferent. Their main concern is to avoid becoming hedonistic by placing too much value on physical pleasures, indulging in them, and craving them excessively. A preference, or “light” desire, for pleasurable things and avoiding pain and discomfort is natural for Stoics, within reasonable bounds.

Evaluate certain habits or desires rationally in terms of their consequences. Write down the long-term pros and cons of indulging in the habit versus overcoming it. Close your eyes and visualize a fork in the road representing two paths, picturing as vividly as you can first the future with unhealthy passions, then the future with wise actions in accord with reason.

With his last breath he whispered the word equanimity to his guard, which was emblematic both of his character and of his reign.

Why exactly did the ancients find this particular strategy so helpful as a way of coping with pain? When people are really struggling, they focus on their inability to cope and the feeling that the problem is spiraling out of control: “I just can’t bear this any longer!” This is a form of catastrophizing: focusing too much on the worst-case scenario and feeling overwhelmed. However, Epicurus meant that by focusing instead on the limits of your pain, whether in terms of duration or severity, you can develop a mind-set that’s more oriented toward coping and less overwhelmed by worry or negative emotions about your condition.

Another useful way to approach pain is to ask ourselves how someone experiencing the same kind of pain or illness we’re facing might cope with it more admirably (modeling virtue). What would we praise other people for doing in the same situation? Consider then to what extent we can do the same by emulating those strengths or virtues.

“One exaggerates, imagines, anticipates affliction,” wrote Seneca. For a long time, I have told my discouraged patients and have repeated to myself, “Do not let us build a second story to our sorrow by being sorry for our sorrow.”

According to the Stoics, our initial reaction to pain or illness may be natural and reasonable, but amplifying or perpetuating our suffering by complaining about it over time is unnatural and unreasonable.

Animals may cry out in pain and lick their wounds for a while, but they don’t ruminate about it for weeks afterward or write letters to their friends complaining about how badly they’ve been sleeping.

We’re pursuing an external result “with the reservation” that the outcome is not entirely up to us. “Do what you must, let happen what may,” as the saying goes.

Worried thinking is perseverative—it goes on and on. It tends to involve “What if?” thoughts about feared catastrophes: “What if they get so angry they fire me? What if I can’t get another job? How will I pay for my kids’ college?” These questions often feel as if they’re unanswerable. One just leads to another, in a chain reaction, which goes on and on, fueling anxiety. Severe worrying can often feel out of control, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s actually a relatively conscious and voluntary type of thinking. People sometimes don’t even realize that what they’re doing is worrying. They may confuse it with problem-solving, believing that they’re trying to “figure out a solution” when in fact they’re just going in circles making their anxiety worse and worse.

As emperor, Marcus faced one setback after another, and he must have felt out of his depth at times. However, he calmly persevered in the face of great adversity. Slowly, with his trusted generals Pompeianus and Pertinax by his side, Marcus began to gain the upper hand over the northern tribes.

Looking back, it seems more obvious to me now than ever before that the lives of most men are tragedies of their own making. Men let themselves either get puffed up with pride or tormented by grievances.

Things external to our own character such as health, wealth, and reputation are neither good nor bad. They present us with opportunities, which the wise man uses well and the fool badly.