Preorder my new philosophical biography of the Roman Emperor from Yale University Press
Below you can read an excerpt from the beginning of my latest book, Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor, which is part of the Yale University Press Ancient Lives series.
It is due out in Feb 2024 but you can help it reach more people by pre-ordering your copy. Ebook and audiobook (narrated by me) editions will be forthcoming. Please get your copy today from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or other retailers via the publisher’s website. Thanks for your support!
Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor
Most of us, of course, are interested in Marcus because of the famous book attributed to him. The Meditations has become one of the most cherished self-improvement classics of all time. It has had a profound influence on many different individuals throughout history. Modern appreciation of it began when the first printed edition of the Greek manuscript was published in 1558, bearing the title “To himself” (Ta eis heauton), along with a Latin translation. In 1634, the first English translation appeared under the title Marcus Aurelius Antoninus the Roman Emperor, his Meditations Concerning Himself. The use of this term eventually stuck and it is now common to abbreviate the title simply to the Meditations.
So what are the core teachings “to himself” described in the Meditations? First of all, the Stoics defined humanity’s supreme goal as “living in agreement with nature”. Although Marcus only uses the word “Stoic” once, he often uses this slogan. He gives thanks that his tutors provided him with frequent examples of what “living in agreement with nature” meant in practice, in their daily lives. He also tells himself that nothing can prevent him from living in agreement with nature, just like they did, although he often struggled to do so in practice.
“In agreement with nature”, for the Stoics, meant rationally because they considered reason to be the highest human faculty. If we lived consistently in accord with reason, we would perfect our nature and attain the virtue of wisdom. If we apply such wisdom in our relationships with others, treating them honestly and fairly, we achieve the social virtue of justice. In order to live more fully in accord with wisdom and justice, though, we need to master any fears and desires that threaten to lead us astray. That calls for courage and moderation, giving us the four “cardinal virtues” of ancient Stoicism: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. The Stoic goal of life can also be understood, in this sense, as “living in accord with virtue”, as long as we bear in mind that all the virtues are taken by them to be forms of moral wisdom.
Although the wise are not highly perturbed by misfortune, neither are they completely unfeeling. Marcus, as we’ve seen, could be described as quite a sensitive man. He gradually trained himself to manage his emotions better, by examining them rationally rather than merely suppressing them. Stoicism taught him to view external events, i.e., events beyond our direct control, as of secondary importance. Marcus thereby learned a kind of psychological therapy, designed to free him from unhealthy passions, a state of mind called apatheia by the Stoics. Almost everything he says about philosophy can be related back to this basic goal of living in agreement with Nature, free from unhealthy emotions. This book includes over a hundred such references tothe Meditations, which have been carefully interspersed in order to highlight various connections between Marcus’ Stoic principles and the events of his life.
Who was Marcus, though? Many today came to know him through his portrayal by Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator (2000) and a few may recall Alec Guinness in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) – these are only very loosely based on history. Sometimes people assume that we know little or nothing about the facts of Marcus’ life. Fortunately, that is not the case. Indeed, we know more about him than about any other Stoic, or most other ancient philosophers. Three main Roman histories survive that describe his life and character: the Historia Romana of Cassius Dio, Herodian’s History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus, and the Historia Augusta. We also possess a cache of private letters between Marcus and his rhetoric tutor, which give us an exceptional insight into his private life as Caesar, and later as emperor.
Experts Praise the Book
- “Few historical figures are as fascinating as Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher. And few writers have been so effective at bringing his complex life and character to the attention of modern readers as Donald Robertson.”—Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life
- “Robertson has written a very thorough and very readable account of Marcus’s life and the events and people that shaped him. Anyone who wants to understand the author of Meditations should read this book.”—Robin Waterfield, author of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: The Annotated Edition
- “Donald Robertson guides us into the world of a philosopher-emperor whose humility and Stoic teachings fill the pages. We are indebted to Robertson for this wonderful account of the emperor who penned notes to himself while in battle that would be later known as the Meditations and read by millions for philosophical inspiration. Simply spellbinding.”—Nancy Sherman, author of Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience
- “This highly readable biography is the perfect place to begin for anyone who wants to learn more about the man behind the Meditations.”—John Sellars, author of Marcus Aurelius (Philosophy in the Roman World)
- “Robertson’s biography provides a compelling narrative of Marcus’ life, carefully based on the primary sources. He brings out very clearly the life-long significance of Stoicism for Marcus and the interplay between philosophy, politics, and warfare.”—Christopher Gill, author of Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, Books 1-6