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Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor

The following is a short commentary on Donald Robertson’s new book, Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor.

From the book’s description:

This novel biography brings Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) to life for a new generation of readers… as Robertson skillfully weaves together Marcus’s inner journey as a philosopher with the outer events of his life as a Roman emperor.

I wanted to share this as I really enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot about Marcus’s life, from his upbringing to how he dealt with the seemingly endless challenges he faced as emperor.

If you’d like more info in addition to the summary that follows, you can check out my conversation with the author himself here:

Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor

Marcus Aurelius did not have a heart of stone.

The preceding line is also the very first sentence in Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor, Donald Robertson’s excellent biography of the philosopher-king.

Beginning the book like this was clearly a careful consideration on Donald’s part, and it was a very astute one.

Not only does the statement reflect the truth of Marcus Aurelius’s individual character—he was known for his warmth, friendship, and affection—but it also immediately dispels for the reader the common misconception that as a general rule, Stoics seek to be cold and unemotional.

The Stoics didn’t ignore or suppress their emotions. Their philosophy did not advocate for the stiff-upper-lip attitude that the modern lower-case word “stoicism” equates to.

Philosophers like Marcus Aurelius knew that they would inevitably feel intense emotions at times. The initial throes of anger, fear, and grief, for example, can strike involuntarily. But they also knew that what they did after these involuntary feelings was what mattered.

There’s no shame in feeling these instinctive reactions; we can’t help it after all.

But we can’t allow ourselves to persist in them. We can’t allow them to cloud our judgment. That’s the voluntary part. Experiencing an intense emotion is one thing, allowing it to guide our thoughts, intentions, and actions is another.

Marcus Aurelius knew he had to use philosophy to prevent reason from being usurped by his passions. As Donald Roberston writes:

The pages of the Meditations show its writer again and again striving to maintain a rational and brutally honest attitude toward life’s most troubling events.

To fail in this commitment would have been very dangerous for a man ruling the Roman Empire. He couldn’t afford to respond to every event based on his initial emotional reaction to it—this was the undoing of many an emperor before and after him.

In Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor, we learn about all the troubles Marcus Aurelius faced in his time as emperor—the wars, the plagues, the rebellions, the natural disasters, the deaths of friends and family, and his own poor health.

We could almost forgive him if did have a heart of stone.

And yet the more desperate things got, the more rational his responses seemed to be. He delayed the acceptance of titles and accolades after wars, he held a public auction of imperial treasures to raise funds, he pardoned people who rebelled against him, and he argued for the rights of women, children, and slaves.

If Marcus Aurelius could face what he faced and still preserve his character—still be considered good—surely it can inspire us to maintain a rational and brutally honest attitude toward our own troubles.

Then, like true Stoics, we can understand and deal with our emotions instead of ignoring and suppressing them.

Donald Robertson also gives us a full picture not only of how Marcus preserved his character, but how it was built in the first place.

The background of his upbringing is vital in this regard. From key tutors like Junius Rusticus and Fronto to essential role models like his mother and his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, they all had a part to play in shaping the future Stoic emperor.

Knowing the people Marcus was surrounded by and how they influenced him, we get a clear understanding of what made him the person he turned out to be.

Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor is a biography, but it’s also an inspiring tale of the resilience that can result from adopting philosophy as a way of life. We learn about a philosopher-emperor. We learn about the events of his life, his birth, his death, his friends, family, and enemies.

But with every detail, we also learn something about Marcus Aurelius’s character because Donald Robertson gives us what we’re really after when we read any book: what can help us in our own lives.

In this case, that’s an account of how Marcus Aurelius responded to and interacted with all the events and people in his life.

It’s for this reason that reading this book is worth your time and, as Cassius Dio summarizes perfectly in his Roman History, why we’re still impressed with this historical figure almost 2,000 years since he took his last breath:

He did not meet with the good fortune he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.