History Repeating Itself: “You are nuts.”

This is the opening passage from Chapter 7 of my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, titled “Temporary Madness”:

May 175 AD. A nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Syrian legions and governor general of the eastern provinces. It contains only a single Greek word, which to his consternation reads emanes (“You’re mad”—you’ve lost your mind).

This is today’s news:

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius and the Little Birds

Marcus Aurelius often seems to turn everyday observations into philosophical metaphors, throughout his personal reflections in The Meditations. One of my favourite examples is the way he refers to sparrows and other birds, which were surely a very familiar sound and sight to him, especially while campaigning on the northern frontier, such as at Carnuntum where he wrote part of The Meditations.

In one such passage, the suddenness with which little sparrows flit away and vanish from sight is treated as a symbol for the fragility and transience of all material things.

At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young. So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price? It is as though one began to lose one’s heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight. (6.15)

He says that even our own lives are as transient as this flitting sparrow. In his letters, Marcus refers to children as little sparrows. Of his fourteen children, only five outlived him. So in this passage watching the little sparrows vanishing from sight may even be a metaphor for the loss of his own children.

In another passage, the birds he sees become a reminder of what it means to follow our nature, and work tirelessly at fulfilling our role in life.

Early in the morning, when you find it so hard to rouse yourself from your sleep, have these thoughts ready at hand: ‘I am rising to do the work of a human being. Why, then, am I so irritable if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into this world for? Or was I created for this, to lie in bed and warm myself under the bedclothes?’ ‘Well, it is certainly more pleasant.’ ‘So were you born for pleasure or, in general, for feeling, or for action? (5.1)

Do you not see, he asks, how “little birds”, and other animals, do their own work and play their part in the unfolding of universal Nature? Like the little birds we should be working away at playing our part, doing the work of a human being, without hesitation or reluctance.

Elsewhere he meditates on how “birds caring for their young” show a form of natural affection (philostorgia) for their own kind (9.9). The Stoics believe humans likewise have a natural instinct to care for their offspring, and their friends and loved ones, and to form communities and societies for their protection and mutual benefit. Human beings, despite their intelligence, often seem to forget this natural instinct, which even the little birds exhibit, toward caring for their own kind. It’s therefore our duty to remember and fulfil our natural potential for living harmoniously among others by cultivating the social virtues of justice, fairness, and kindness toward them.

Win a Free Stoic Meditations Calendar

Amber Lotus Calendar

I’m giving away five free copies of my Stoic Meditations 2019 calendar to celebrate the forthcoming release of my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Follow the link to the Amazon Giveaway offer right now for your chance to win a free copy of the Stoic Meditations calendar.

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Offer ends Mar 14, 2019 11:59 PM PST. See Official Rules.

Requirements for participation:

New – Marcus Aurelius: Life and Stoicism

I’m delighted to announce that the updated and revised version of my flagship eLearning course, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, is now enrolling again. Along with other changes, the course now has a new name – Marcus Aurelius: Life and Stoicism.

Enrollment is now open for the course commencing Sunday 17th April 2019, the anniversary of Marcus Aurelius’ death.

To celebrate the publication of my new book on the subject, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, I’m offering you $50 off the standard course price, for a limited time only. So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part!

If you would like a course on Stoicism which provides an overview of the philosophy, historical context, real-world examples to learn from, different types of media and an incredibly interesting character from history, then this course is for you! I highly recommend it for the new Stoic looking for information and techniques to apply their philosophy to their life!

Adam Piercey

Follow the link below for more information:

Marcus Aurelius: Life and Stoicism

Thanks Donald for your personal perspectives, the anecdotes and breadth of applied experience with Stoicism; the practical and historical perspectives, using Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations , were very insightful and valuable also for long-term retention. Lots of thought-provoking material here to read and re-read. Many thanks. The course concept and contents are highly recommended. (I came close to turning this course down – but am greatly relieved now that I registered at the last minute!)


I look forward to meeting you on the course,

Donald Robertson Signature

Toronto Book Signing: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

To mark the publication of his latest book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Donald will be giving a talk and signing copies of the book at Ben McNally’s bookstore in downtown Toronto. 2-4pm on Saturday 4th May. Space is limited so RSVP now on Meetup if you’re hoping to attend.

In the lead up to publication, the store are also taking pre-orders for signed copies of the book.

Donald will be giving an in-depth talk about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, taking questions, and reading excerpts from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, as well as signing copies of the book. Please come along and join us.

Event Details

Time/Date: 2-4pm, Saturday 4th May
Venue:Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street, Toronto, ON M5H 4B2. (Map)
Mon-Fri 9-6, Saturday (except long weekends) 11-5, Closed on Sunday
Space is limited so RSVP now via Meetup if you’re hoping to attend.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Author Details

Donald Robertson is a cognitive psychotherapist, trainer and writer. He’s the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Donald was born in Scotland but has been living in Canada since 2013.

Advance Reviews of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Readers have started to post advance reviews of my latest book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius on Amazon, GoodReads, etc.

Some people were able to view an “advance reader copy” of the book, and so they’ve read it before the official publication date, e.g., through the Amazon Vine program or Netgalley.

Here are some quotes from reviewers on Netgalley:

I was lucky to get a free copy via NetGalley for my true and honest opinion… I really enjoyed this book! I absolutely loved reading Marcus Aurelius book The Meditations. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, cognitive psychotherapist Donald Robertson weaves the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius together seamlessly to provide a compelling modern-day guide to the Stoic wisdom followed by countless individuals throughout the centuries as a path to achieving greater fulfillment and emotional resilience

Obviously, I would love this book. I definitely recommend it for all those who love philosophy or want to learn more about Stoicism or Marcus Aurelius.

Susan A.

This is a great attempt at explaining the circumstances that may have formed or at least refined one of the most influential Stoics and his legacy. Written partly in the format of a biography, each chapter provides a good mix of history, interpretations, similarities to modern-day psychological methods, and a few practical hints on how to potentially incorporate them in one’s daily life. Thankfully, this is not a typical self-help book nor an attempt to McDonaldize Stoicism (there is an industry that is focused on mindfulness to do that!)… Nor is this too focused on biography or historical details that would interest a history buff. That good blend sustains the reader throughout the book… One also gets to obtain an overview of the progression of various Greco-Roman schools of philosophy. Overall, this is the best book that has helped me develop a good understanding how Marcus may have become the Stoic he is respected as and a much more deeper appreciations of The Meditations.

Sreeram R.

I liked this book a lot, mostly because of the comparison between Stoicism and the cognitive behavioral therapy. I am a long time fan of Marcus Aurelius, even before the movie Gladiator or the book of Marguerite Yourcenar made him a well known Emperor among all the others, but I still think he was one of the best and everybody should read his Meditations.

Maria Cristina N.

I really enjoyed this one! It was well written… I enjoy reading about all things Roman, most especially the emperor world. Having the philosophical attitude, mindset towards our mortality does allow you to feel more “free”. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about Rome, emperors and even simple philosophy.

Heather U.

Giveaway: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2nd Edition)

Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised)

To celebrate the release of the new revised second edition of my book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, for Hodder’s popular Teach Yourself series, I’m giving away five free copies.

Follow the link to the Amazon Giveaway offer right now for your chance to win a free copy of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2nd edition).

NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Offer ends the earlier of Feb 7, 2019 11:59 PM PST, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules.

Requirements for participation:

Book Review: The Practicing Stoic

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual is a new book by Ward Farnsworth. Farnsworth is Dean of the University of Texas School of Law. He has previously written books on rhetoric, one specifically about the use of metaphor. This book struck me first and foremost as having been written with exceptional verbal clarity and precision. Perhaps that’s due in part to the author’s knowledge of rhetoric and his interest in the law.

I really enjoyed the book. It’s a valuable and well-written addition to the growing body of literature on Stoicism. In addition to being very nicely written, it’s also very well-organized and it includes many quotes from ancient Stoics and related thinkers that will probably be unfamiliar to most readers interested in Stoicism. So it definitely adds something – it’s not just another beginner’s guide to Stoicism.

The content consists of quotations from various relevant authors – from Epictetus and Cicero to Montaigne and Schopenhauer. Some of these were taken from existing translations and some are new. They’re organized thematically in chapters about the topics of judgement, externals, perspective, death, desire, wealth and pleasure, what others think, valuation, emotion, adversity, virtue, and learning. Farnsworth includes his own commentary, which I found insightful, original, and therefore quite valuable.

He concludes with a chapter called Stoicism and its critics which cites important criticisms of Stoicism made by other authors. These are addressed and, again, this is worth reading because it dispels several common misconceptions about Stoicism such as the idea that Stoics are cold-hearted, unemotional, or lacking compassion.

I particularly liked his point that the goal of Stoicism resembles the sort of emotional response we’d expect someone to have to distressing events if they could have lived much longer and experienced them enough times to become used to them. He explains the Stoic attitude to consoling grieving friends as follows…

Your attitude might resemble that of a doctor – a very good one let’s say – who has had a long career of working with dying patients and their families. In the best doctor of that sort we would find kindness, warmth, and compassion. There would be feeling. But emotion [passion] would be unlikely. You would sympathize but you would not go through mourning of your own. You would have seen it all too many times for that.

In conclusion, I’d definitely encourage others interested in Stoicism to read this book. It’s probably one of the best books on the subject that I’ve read recently. As I mentioned above, it’s very well-written, using admirably precise language, and the selection and organization of quotes from the primary sources was very well done. Those of you who have read some books on Stoicism already will definitely find this a fresh take on things and I’d also think that newcomers to the subject would enjoy it and find it accessible.