Books Marcus Aurelius Stoicism Uncategorized

The Title of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

I’ve told this story so many times now that I thought I might as well just do a quick blog post about it…

In 2013, I was interviewed by Carrie Sheffield for an article about Stoicism in Forbes magazine:

Robertson, a Scottish-born therapist and classics enthusiast, led workshops on psychological resilience for managers at oil giant Shell called “How to think like a Roman Emperor,” based on the life of stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius.

I’d been asked to deliver some workshops for STASCO, Shell Trading and Shipping, back in 2006, which talked about Stoicism and stress management. I wanted to make it attention-grabbing so I called it How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which seemed to go down well with the audience.

A few years later, around 2008, I was invited to submit a proposal for a book on psychotherapy for a panel organized by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) in conjunction with the publisher Karnac. I sent them a proposal for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The UKCP panel rejected it, though, because they didn’t like the title (or the subject matter).

The acquisitions editor, liked the proposal, though, and suggested I forward it directly to Karnac, which I did. They rejected it as well. So I got in touch and asked them if there was something else they’d prefer instead: “What sort of books do you want?” They said they’d like to publish a book by the title The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. So that’s how my first real book was published. (I’m about to begin work on a revised second edition, for the publisher Routledge, who now own the rights.)

However, I kept thinking about that title: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. It just seemed to stick in my mind for some reason. So when I had an opportunity to develop a proposal for a new book on Stoicism, about a decade later, I thought I’d try again. This time my publisher, St. Martins Press, were persuaded to give it a go. Well, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is now available from all good bookstores, and some bad ones, as the saying goes. It’s doing very well. Today we had a favourable review in The Wall Street journal.

Mr. Robertson […] displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought. The author’s accessible prose style, well-suited for recounting both philosophical concepts and arcane Roman history, contributes to its appeal. As an introduction to Stoic philosophy, it’s hard to beat the “Meditations,” which deserve to be read ahead of any commentary on them. That said, Mr. Robertson’s book succeeds on its own terms, presenting a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.

So the moral of the story? Well as a kid growing up in Scotland, of course, I had the story of Robert the Bruce drummed into my from an early age. The Bruce had been sorely defeated by the English army in battle and was hiding in a cave to avoid capture.

Depressed and alone he gazed at a spider climbing the wall. Over and over again, as it tried to spin its web, it was blown down by a gust of wind but, relentless, it kept trying until eventually it succeeded. Bruce was inspired and famously exclaimed “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” He reformed his army and would engage the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314 AD, where the Scots were finally victorious.

So don’t give up, if you think you might have a good idea!

3 replies on “The Title of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor”

Each of us have a story. The more time one spends on this planet the more opportunity for stories. Being a good story teller is a gift. Each of us who read How to Think like a Roman Emperor have been provided with an opportunity for a life changing redirection of our lives. It’s an opportunity no one should pass up.

Congratulations on “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor,” which I look forward to reading. I’ve found your accounts of Stoicism to be among the most insightful (and I’m counting scholarly works as well as popular).

I wanted to mention that I’ve read “The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy,” and recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topic. I found it a excellent book, and it seems to have filled a real gap in the literature. It’s scholarly but not difficult to read, it explores the Stoic philosophical background in the development of CBT, and it also explores a number of Stoic spiritual exercises in detail. (For anyone interested in CBT, Stoicism, or Hadot’s work on spiritual exercises and philosophy as a way of life, this is a great book.)

One especially interesting (and welcome) feature of that book, for me, is a chapter on Stoic determinism, which explores how the way Stoics understood determinism and fatalism is actually very empowering — contrary to usual opinions about such matters.

No doubt the power of negative thinking played a role in the author’s two rejections. When one thinks of Roman Emperors the ones that spring to mind are Caligula and Nero. They were hardly typical, otherwise the Roman Empire would never have been the power it was. A truer title would have been How to Think Like Marcus Aurelius, but that would not have had the shock value. Nevertheless certainly he was not as atypical as the aforementioned Emperors.

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