Book Summary: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019) is published by St. Martin’s Press in hardback, ebook, and audiobook formats. This is a brief summary of the contents.

The introduction explains how I came to write the book, drawing on my background in academic philosophy and training as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, after nearly twenty years of writing and teaching Stoicism. It discusses the modern growth of interest in Stoicism, including the activities of the Modern Stoicism organization. It also explains how the idea for the book came from my experience of telling my young daughter, Poppy, stories about ancient philosophy.

1. The Dead Emperor

The first chapter opens with the death of Marcus Aurelius. I wanted to start the book with something dramatic. Each chapter begins with a story about some major event in Marcus’ life, based on the information we have from the various Roman histories of his reign.

In most of the chapters that leads into a discussion of Stoic philosophy and psychology and the concepts and techniques he used to cope with various problems such as anger, anxiety, pain, and so on. Then there’s a detailed discussion of how Stoic techniques can actually be applied today, drawing on my experience as a cognitive-behavioural therapist and the relevant scientific research. However, the first chapter is slightly different because after describing the events surrounding Marcus’ death in some detail, it proceeds to give the reader a short introduction to Stoic philosophy.

The story of Stoicism begins with Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, and so you’ll be introduced to various anecdotes about him and other famous Stoics. Then we focus on what the Stoics actually believed: the core doctrines of the philosophy followed by Marcus throughout his entire adult life. And we’ll address some common misconceptions about Stoicism, such as the idea that Stoics were unemotional or joyless, which is false. I tried to keep the explanation of Stoicism in this chapter as simple as possible but after reading it you should have a pretty clear idea of who the Stoics were and what they believed. Then you’ll be well prepared to begin delving into the application of Stoicism to different areas of life. For example, in the next chapter we’ll be looking at how Stoics used language and in subsequent chapters you’ll learn how they overcame unhealthy desires and bad habits, conquered anxiety, managed anger, coped with pain and illness, came to terms with loss, and even faced their own mortality.

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