How I got into Stoicism

Donald Robertson speaking at Ben Mcnally Books

People keep asking me how I got into Stoicism. Sometimes I’m asked in interviews. There’s even a guy who trolls me on the Internet making stuff up about my past. Sometimes people who Google my details get random info that’s incorrect. (My daughter thought it was hilarious that if she asked “OK Google: Who is Donald Robertson?” the computer voice would confidently inform her that I am an author, aged seventy.) So this is an attempt to set the record straight. I find it’s easier to write an account like this down in one place so if it comes up again, all I need to do is share the link. It also helps me remember all the specific details! Some of the event dates, etc., might be off by a year or so either way but, basically, this should be about as accurate as it gets. For reference, you can read most of my publication history in my Google Scholar profile.

The Beginning

I was born in Irvine, Scotland, in 1972, and grew up in the nearby town of Ayr. My father passed away when I was about thirteen years old. He didn’t leave much behind except some old books on Freemasonic rituals. I saw they mentioned symbols and ideas from the Old Testament combined with allusions to Hellenistic philosophy. I think I probably saw mention of Plato, Pythagoras, the four cardinal virtues, etc. That was what first sparked my interest in religion and philosophy. For some reason, it made me want to read more about these things.

At that time, books were hard for me to obtain. My mother, a widow, cleaned the houses of schoolteachers, and we didn’t have a lot of money. There weren’t many bookshops. I would scour second-hand shops for hours at the weekends looking for any used books on philosophy that I could find – there were extremely slim pickings available! I loved the Carnegie Library in Ayr, spent a lot of time there, and would often request books on order. One challenge was even knowing the names of books worth ordering in the first place. One day the library were selling off old books, including a huge set of Books in Print, a catalogue of all published books, which I managed to obtain. That allowed me to look up books by specific authors, which I could then try to order from the library or bookstore. This was life before the Internet!

A few years later, my curiosity piqued by some references in the Freemasonic rituals, I started learning to read Hebrew. (I didn’t get far; languages are not my forte.) A church minister lent me some books on the language. I began reading more and more obscure religious texts, including various ones on the Qabbalah – I liked modern esoteric commentators such as Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, Dion Fortune, but also primary sources such as Sepher Yetzirah and Sepher Zohar. I read famous Christian mystical texts like the Cloud of Uknowing, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Mystical Theology. At the same time I was also reading the classics of Indian religion, particularly the Hindu Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, and many other more obscure religious scriptures.

Ayr College

I was kicked out of school when I was sixteen, and eventually ended up at Ayr College, studying computing, where my study of religious and mystical texts intensified even more in my spare time. Later, by the time I was around seventeen, I had also become interested in martial arts (Taekwondo) and hatha yoga and practiced meditation – I read many books on yoga philosophy.

My interest in Hebrew and Christian mysticism eventually led me to Gnosticism. I found a copy of Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels (1979) in the bargain bin at a local book store. I then managed to get a copy of the Naj Hammadi Gnostic corpus from Carnegie Library, which I found fascinating. I noticed it contained many references to Neoplatonic philosophy, and even an excerpt from Plato’s Republic! I read many other ancient mystical texts, such as those of the Corpus Hermeticum, which also seemed influenced by Neoplatonism.

That sparked my interest in ancient philosophy. I began reading Plato. I found an old book of excerpts from Plato that I sat in the garden reading one summer. I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and many other introductory books. I then tried to work my way through many of the key texts in the history of philosophy, which was pretty hard going for a teenager with my level of formal education! I read very widely. I particularly liked Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. (I thought at the time that Schopenhauer was underrated as a philosopher and liked the parallels between his thought and the Indian philosophy I had read.) I also read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness at this time, and other French existential texts, which I loved. (I only managed to obtain these because of a trip to Glasgow, where I found a trove of philosophy books, from former students, in a second-hand book store.) It was the Gnostic texts and the dialogues of Plato that had the most profound and lasting effect on me, though.

Studying Philosophy at Aberdeen

In 1992, aged nineteen, I went to Aberdeen University to study philosophy. The course at Aberdeen is named “Mental Philosophy” for historical reasons but it’s a standard philosophy degree. Scottish undergraduate degrees like this are four years long, and lead to the award of an MA degree rather than a BA.

By this time, I’d already been reading many of the first year philosophy texts for several years, so I got off to a very good start, and flourished at university. I also took courses in cultural anthropology, psychology, and history of Indian religions, which meant I studied the Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada in more depth. I joined the Buddhist society, regularly meditated, and went on several Buddhist meditation retreats.

We were fortunate to be able to study quite advanced topics at Aberdeen, and I particularly focused on Kant, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. However, I also took two courses in classical philosophy: Plato and Aristotle. We mainly focused on the Theaetetus and Nicomachean Ethics, although I read many other Greek philosophical texts at this time. I graduated joint top of my year, in 1996, won the John Laird memorial award for moral philosophy, and obtained a first class MA Hons degree.

Discovering Stoicism

It’s often observed that Stoicism is one of the main schools of ancient philosophy that’s largely ignored in undergraduate philosophy curricula. I loved studying philosophy but I was slightly frustrated that I still hadn’t found a philosophy of life, which I felt comfortable with. I had dabbled with yoga and Buddhism, but somehow they just didn’t click with me sufficiently. With more time now available to choose my own reading, I went back to the Gnostics. I read Hans Jonas’ The Gnostic Religion, which was inspired by Heidegger. I read Freud and Jung, trying for a while to find a way to combine existential philosophy, psychoanalysis, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism.

Around 1996 or 1997, I began training in counselling and integrative psychotherapy. I studied very widely, covering many different models of psychotherapy, including Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, Gestalt, REBT, CBT, Carl Rogers, and many more. I was a bit of a geek about the history of psychotherapy, actually, and read many obscure early texts. I became fascinated by the history of hypnotism, and evidence-based clinical hypnosis. (Not “New Age” hypnotherapy but what psychologists such as Hans Eysenck had written about research on hypnotic suggestion.) I later edited the complete writings of James Braid, the Scottish physician who discovered hypnotism, The Discovery of Hypnosis (2009) was therefore my first book. Eventually, I would publish The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy: A Manual for Evidence-Based Clinical Hypnosis (2013), which contains a detailed review of research on clinical hypnosis.

Early meeting of the Society for Philosophy in Practice in Conway Hall, London, with Tim LeBon and Antonia Macaro

Between graduating from Aberdeen and starting my masters degree, I became actively involved in philosophical counselling. I was a committee member of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP), along with my friend, the psychotherapist and author, Tim LeBon, who is also now involved with Stoicism. I began publishing articles in their journal, with one on ‘Philosophical & Counter-Philosophical Practice’ (1998), and later ‘REBT, Philosophy and Philosophical Counselling’ (2000). I was searching for a better way to combine my interests in philosophy and cognitive therapy.

Around this time, I stumbled across Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus, or The Simplicity of Vision, probably shortly after it was released in 1998. I loved this book and over the next few years I also read Hadot’s others: What is Ancient Philosophy?, Philosophy as a Way of Life, and his book on Marcus Aurelius, The Inner Citadel. Suddenly I realized that Stoicism combined all of my interested and I began immersing myself in reading the ancient Stoics. (That was about a quarter of century ago now, at the time of writing this summary.)

Sheffield University

In 1998, I enrolled part-time on the MA program in Psychoanalytic Studies at Sheffield University’s interdisciplinary Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies. This was really a course comparing academic philosophy and psychotherapy, mainly psychoanalysis. My dissertation was on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and Freudian psychoanalysis. I also studied a lot of Jacques Lacan at this time, and other postmodern thinkers, which weren’t really to my taste. I graduated with distinction in 2000. I was already starting to question psychoanalysis and losing interest in existentialism by the time the course began. During my time at Sheffield, I became progressively more interested in the relationship between Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). By around 2003, I had left behind my interest in psychoanalytic therapy and was completely immersed in Stoicism, reading many more books on the subject.

Why didn’t I do my PhD in philosophy? When I graduated from Aberdeen, everyone assumed I’d go on to have a career in academic philosophy. I didn’t have much money, though, and, to my surprise, despite having a first, I was turned down for funding to do a PhD. I looked hard for an alternative, and found my way on to the integrative program at Sheffield, which seemed to be the best option I could afford at the time. Later, when I was earning more money, I tried to enroll on several PhD programs. Now I had both a 1st class degree in philosophy and a masters with distinction in philosophy and psychotherapy. However, I wanted to write my thesis on Stoic philosophy and CBT, and at that time could not find either a psychotherapy or philosophy department who would agree to supervise me. They told me they didn’t have anyone who knew enough about either subject to act as supervisor. (I could probably solve that problem now but I no longer feel the need to do a PhD.)

Harley Street Psychotherapist

After completing my studies at Sheffield, I carried on training in and practicing psychotherapy and counselling. I worked for about a year as a school counsellor for a youth drugs project in South London. Soon after this, I opened a private psychotherapy clinic in Harley Street, London, where I worked for many years, specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. I also ran a training school for psychotherapists. I wrote many articles for magazines and journals, and gave many conference presentations, including on Stoicism and psychotherapy. A lot of these publications are not online but one of them, for the largest British counselling journal, the magazine of the BACP, was an introduction to Stoicism for therapists, published in 2005. I called it Stoic Philosophy as Psychotherapy. (Bizarrely, the BACP editor didn’t like Stoicism or CBT and renamed it “Stoicism, a lurking presence”, without my consent.)

Between 2006 and 2010, I was also part of the team responsible for a research project called Coping with Noise, in collaboration with Defra, the UK department for the environment, and the department for health. I designed online CBT based protocols for stress and insomnia and we gathered data on the outcomes, which were published in peer-reviewed journals.

Around 2008, roughly, I went for an interview at one university well-known for psychotherapy, in order to apply for their PhD program in philosophy and psychotherapy. They said they’d accept me on their program but I declined because, to be blunt, the member of staff who interviewed me seemed at the time, and in retrospect, like a real idiot. She made some shockingly inappropriate and unprofessional remarks about other students. She also told me that students are viewed as a nuisance by staff and not to expect much in exchange for my fees, etc. She said she thought CBT was a waste of time and that I should be studying postmodern theory and psychoanalysis instead. I left feeling pretty disillusioned – there was no way I was going to pay these people tuition fees or dedicate years of my life to studying in their establishment!

Frustrated, I suddenly decided that if I couldn’t find anyone to supervise my PhD thesis, I would just write it anyway, and try to get it published. I wrote a proposal for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor in 2009, which I sent to Karnac, a British publisher who specialized in psychotherapy. Karnac rejected the proposal but suggested I resubmit with a title about philosophy and CBT. So I renamed it and it was subsequently published as The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010). That would have been the basis of my PhD thesis, if I could have found an academic supervisor. Instead, it launched my career as a writer, and is now in its second revised edition, and has been translated into several languages.

Rather than pursue an academic PhD, I continued to train in different models of psychotherapy. I had already been incorporating elements of CBT in my clinical work for many years, and completed a diploma with Prof. Stephen Palmer. I went on to complete an advanced postgraduate diploma in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy at Kings College, University of London, in 2011.

Around this time, I was also invited by an editor at Hodder, to write a book on CBT, Stoicism, and psychological resilience, called Build your Resilience (2012), for their popular Teach Yourself self-help series. I followed this up with another book for the same series, called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013), which proved very popular and is now in its second revised edition, and available in several foreign languages.

Photoshoot at Conway Hall in London for a 2012 newspaper article on ancient Greek philosophy with Jules Evans and Tim LeBon

Modern Stoicism

A few years after The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy was published, I was invited by Christopher Gill, emeritus professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter University in England, to attend a workshop there on Stoic philosophy and its practical applications, in Oct 2012. (There’s a video of the event on Facebook.)

We formed a multi-disciplinary team of academic philosophers, classicists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists. Our first project was to create an online course called Stoic Week, which subsequently ran every year, and in which an estimated 20k people have now participated. I later developed a more in-depth online course called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT), which we used to collect more robust data on psychological outcomes. Modern Stoicism also organizes an annual conference called Stoicon, which has led to many smaller Stoicon-x events around the world. It is now incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the UK.

Recent Developments

I started studying Stoic philosophy roughly 25 year ago, around 1998, and soon after that began writing articles and giving talks at conferences, etc. From around 2009 onward, when I began writing The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010), I started dedicating most of my time to Stoicism. I wrote Build your Resilience (2012) and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013). In June 2013, I emigrated from the UK to Canada, and subsequently became a naturalized Canadian citizen.

In 2018, I visited Athens for the first time, and have returned many times since. I became a full-time writer, when St. Martin’s Press published my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019). How to Think Like a Roman Emperor has since been translated into eighteen languages.

I subsequently wrote a graphic novel called Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2021) for St. Martin’s, followed by a prose biography of Marcus Aurelius for Yale University Press’ Ancient Lives series (in press). I obtained my Greek residence permit around 2020 and now divide my time mostly between Canada and Greece. I didn’t get far with Hebrew as a teen but later I picked up some ancient Greek studying at Aberdeen although I’ve now abandoned that to learn modern Greek, which is tricky with a Scottish accent! I’ve got a long way to go but I can read reasonably well and just about manage a short conversation.

In Jan 2022, I founded a nonprofit organization in Greece called The Plato’s Academy Centre, which aims to introduce Greek philosophy to a wider audience and to create a new international conference facility in the vicinity of Akadimia Platonos park in Athens, the original location of Plato’s Academy. You can find out more about the Plato’s Academy Centre from our website. At the moment, that’s the main project that I’m working on, along with other books, and ongoing workshops, public speaking, etc.

2 replies on “How I got into Stoicism”

Thank you for sharing your journey with us. It’s interesting to see how your exploration to a philosophy of life led you to the Stoics and becoming a full time writer. What an impressive career and decisions you have taken.

Thank You Donald–Your Books and Articles have been a constant source of inspiration.

“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face,
I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and I find a verse here, and a verse there and I begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming tragedies, and if they have left no visible mark on me, I owe it all to the Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita ” Gandhi

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