Writing “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor”

How to Think Like a Roman EmperorMy new book about Stoicism comes out soon so I thought I’d say a bit about the process of writing it.  (Sometimes people ask me how I ended up writing these books or what the process is like.)  The book’s called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.  You can pre-order it now from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores.  (Incidentally, I’m writing this blog post during a layover at Frankfurt airport on the way from Athens to Toronto – I thought I’d try to do something constructive with the time!)

Let’s start at the beginning…  When I was a little boy I really wanted to be a writer.  At primary school in Scotland, when I was about ten years old, we used to write short stories.  The kids would get to vote for which ones the wanted to hear each week and the “winner” would stand at the front of the class and read their creation aloud.  Mine were quite popular so the other kids kept asking me to do more.  It was kind of addictive.  And I wasn’t much good at anything else, to be honest.

Somewhere along the way I lost interest in writing, though.  Or rather I became more interested in reading philosophy.  Then I wanted to become a counsellor or a psychotherapist.  So after finishing my degree in philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, I moved to London and before long started working as a counsellor in high schools and with a youth drugs project.  After a few years I became a psychotherapist with a private clinical practice in Harley Street.  Then one day someone called me out of the blue and asked me to run a training course for other therapists.  So I wound up as a trainer and for about fifteen years, in addition to treating clients, I ran a training school in London teaching other therapists, counsellors, and life coaches.

I’ve been studying, writing about, and talking about Stoicism for roughly twenty years as well.  I’ve written five books, on philosophy and psychotherapy, and dozens of articles in magazines and journals.  The books were all quite different.  First of all, I edited the complete writings of James Braid, the Scot who invented hypnotism.  My first book as an author, though, was just an attempt to make sense out of hundreds of pages of notes I’d compiled about Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).  (At one point my Psion computer died and I completely lost years of notes – poof!)  Then I was asked to write a self-help book on emotional resilience for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series, which follows quite a strictly organized format.  That was good but it didn’t really allow me to write in my own style.  I also wrote a book called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness for the same series.  And a manual for the evidence-based practice of clinical hypnosis, based on a cognitive-behavioural approach.  I put a lot of work into that but it wasn’t the sort of book that I really wanted to write either.

The first book proposal that I ever wrote was for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which the publisher turned down twice.  I asked them what sort of books they wanted people to write and they replied saying they wanted a book called The Philosophy of CBT.  So that’s how my first book (as an author) came about.  (Incidentally, you hear a lot about authors struggling to get their first book deal but publishers are sometimes begging for people to write books on certain subjects and can’t find anyone to do it.)  Over a decade later, though, I still felt the Roman Emperor title was good and had a ring to it.  So I decided to write it.  There are already several good introductions to Stoicism and books on Stoicism as self-help.  I wanted to write about Stoicism but it had to be a different sort of book.

Since she was about three or four years old, I’ve been telling my daughter, Poppy, stories about Greek heroes and philosophers.  I realized that other people liked these stories too.  In the ancient world, philosophical wisdom was often communicated in the form of anecdotes about the lives of famous philosophers such as Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic.  For example, we have a treasure trove of this stuff in a book called The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius.  So I decided to write a book about Stoicism that focused more on stories about the lives of philosophers.

Marcus Aurelius is the Stoic about whom we know the most.  That’s simply because he was a Roman emperor.  There are several histories (Cassius Dio, Herodian, the Historia Augusta) that survive today and describe his reign, and a few other minor sources.  However, I found it frustrating that modern biographies of Marcus didn’t really try to interpret his life in relation to his philosophy, which we know so much about from his private notes The Meditations.  So I finally set about writing a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which describes events from Marcus Aurelius’ life and links them to concepts and practices from Stoic philosophy.  I also drew on my training in psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy  (CBT), to help me explain how these could help people today.

So how did I actually go about writing the book?  What was the process like?  Well, I’d already been researching this subject for about twenty years: gatherings notes and writing shorter pieces, giving talks, etc.  I began by writing two sample chapters based on major events in Marcus’ life to see if I could make them work as stories: the Antonine Plague and the civil war with Avidius Cassius.  I wanted to stick as closely as possible to the historical information available but didn’t want to spoil a good story.  So I inserted pieces of dialogue or minor details where necessary and in cases where there’s some ambiguity in the historical account I’d settle on one interpretation rather than disrupting the narrative by worrying about which was right.  My goal wasn’t to “do history” but to inspire readers and provide them with one possible account of Marcus’ life that would help them visualize his philosophy more clearly as a way of life.  So I’d describe these as works of historical or biographical fiction, albeit so faithful to the surviving Roman histories that they’re probably about 99% history and about 1% fiction.

I also compiled a huge document organizing all the key information about Marcus’ life that could potentially be used to write the book.   I planned everything in (too much) detail.  Then I started again from scratch, confident that I had all the key facts, that I could now picture the overall structure of the book, and that I could weave the events into stories, which I’d describe as a series of historical vignettes about major events in Marcus’ life.  I reread The Meditations several times in different translations, brushing up on my (pretty sketchy) ancient Greek and studying the parallel Greek and English texts to tease out subtle connotations where possible that would complement my narrative.  Sometimes people ask me how many times I’ve read The Meditations.  I’ve honestly no idea; I’ve lost count – lots and lots of times.  I also read all the available English biographies of Marcus Aurelius’ life and made detailed notes on anything that could be incorporated into the book I was planning.  (One of my favourite books about Marcus is an obscure 18th century French work of historical fiction called The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius.)

I find it difficult to write at home so I’d often go away for a week or more and stay in the countryside or anywhere I could focus completely on my research and writing.  I try to minimise distractions so I’d eat very simple food each day that didn’t require much preparation, e.g., boiled eggs, peanuts, coffee and apples.  Sometimes I booked into AirBNBs that were actually just a fifteen minute or so walk from where I live because I found that being in another environment helped me focus even if it were just a few streets from home.  It also gave my girlfriend a break because I’m pretty sure she was fed up hearing about the Antonine Plague and intricate details about Roman military formations.

I find that after months of writing it becomes difficult to concentrate when reading through a chapter for the zillionth time.  So I would print each chapter and read it aloud from the hard copy.   For some reason, I find that timing myself reading or writing with a stopwatch also helps remind me to stay focused.  When the final draft of the manuscript is nearly ready I like to read the entire thing cover to cover to make sure that the whole book is coherent and there’s no unintentional repetition.  Sadl, though, that’s beyond my ability in terms of concentration.  So I paid a local bartender who’s interested in philosophy, Maria, to read it to me while I made notes on a second paper copy.  After each chapter, she’d also silently mark up a printout to indicate which parts she felt were good and which might potentially be removed.  Her comments were very helpful.  (Sometimes I’d even read a chapter to our dog just to trick myself into concentrating for a bit longer, although Mookie wasn’t able to offer very helpful feedback.) My editor and agent also helped a lot with advice and feedback, of course.

I’ve practised self-hypnosis for many years, since I was about fifteen years old.  So I made a recording that I would listen to for twenty minutes each day, designed to help me become more focused on writing and to view the book from different perspectives to help my creativity, etc.  I don’t think I’d have managed to write this book without using that method.

Regarding the content, I wanted to begin the book with something dramatic.  After some initial thought, I realized, paradoxically, that I should open with the death of Marcus Aurelius.  Then I could return to his childhood and work through the major events of his life as if he were remembering them in subsequent chapters.  That created a problem, though.  How would the book end?  I started writing before I knew the answer to that question because I felt sure that somehow a solution would present itself along the way.  And it did.  At least, I found a way to end the book that satisfied me as the author.  Spoiler alert: The final chapter is written in a very different style from the rest of the book.  It was actually intended to be read aloud or listened to in an audio recording.  It’s intentionally written to resemble a guided meditation exercise.  I read it aloud many times until I was completely satisfied with how it sounded.  It weaves together many different Stoic ideas from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, as well as a few from other sources.

So I hope you enjoy what I’ve written.  It was a long journey.  At times I felt quite exhausted but I’m glad I made it to the end.  I’m confident that I’ve created something very different from anything I’ve ever written before.  And anyone can read this book.  If you’re completely new to Stoicism it will provide you with a compelling introduction, and inspire you, I hope, in the way that only the life of a great philosopher, like Marcus, really can.  If you’ve read lots of books on Stoicism I’m sure you’ll find this is an original perspective and that it contains many details about Marcus’ life and his philosophy that aren’t well-known.  I know from my research that people who read this book find that they’re able to get a lot more out of reading The Meditations.  It makes me very satisfied to think that a book which has already benefited so many people so profoundly could be introduced to the reader afresh by exposing new layers of meaning.

If you like the sound of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius you can pre-order it now from Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores.  So buy a copy if you want to encourage me to go through the whole process again next year by writing another book!

NEW: Free Email Course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The MeditationsI’m delighted to announce that I’ve just launched a brand new email course on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  It’s completely free of charge.  Everyone is welcome.  You can join at any time and you’ll start receiving the first email.

Enroll now to obtain a whole bundle of extra freebies.  You’ll receive weekly emails with passages from The Meditations, including my commentary on the text.  See the course website for more details or click the enroll button below:

You’ll also be granted free access to the following bundle:

  • The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (George Long trans.) eBook
  • The Eulogium on Marcus Aurelius eBook
  • Marcus Aurelius in the Roman Histories eBook
  • Marcus Aurelius HD Wallpapers

I’m very excited about running this course because The Meditations is easily my favourite text on Stoicism.  I’ve been pretty immersed in the text recently, while working on my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.  It’s great to have the opportunity to study it even more closely, though, going through it passage by passage with a group of students.  I hope you enjoy reading the lessons as much as I enjoy writing them!


Donald Robertson Signature

Now Enrolling: Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) 2018

We’re pleased to announce that Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) will be running this year starting on Sunday 25th November.   This is a free course, open to everyone.

The course lasts four weeks and enrollment has just opened but will close shortly.  So don’t miss out if you’re hoping to take part.

About SMRT

SMRT is a four-week intensive training course in core Stoic psychological skills.  It requires about twenty minutes of commitment daily for 28 days.  We therefore advise people not to enroll unless they’re sure they can commit the time and effort to complete the program.

SMRT was designed in 2014 by cognitive therapist, Donald Robertson.  Over 500 people took part in the initial program, and thousands more have completed SMRT since then.  It runs once or twice per year.

We collected data and analysed it, which showed fairly impressive improvements in established psychological measures of mood and quality of life.  Recent follow-up data show these improvements were maintained at three months.

SMRT was deliberately designed not as a general introduction to Stoicism but as focused skills training, modelled on the type of protocols used in clinical trials on CBT.  Stoic Week, our seven-day course provides more of a general introduction to Stoicism, if that’s what you want.  SMRT is for people who really want to focus on developing basic Stoic psychological skills through daily practice, over a sufficient period of time to show significant changes.

Free Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management (Beta)

Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management

The beta version of my new Crash Course in Stoic Pain Management is now available for those who want to enroll, test it out, and provide feedback.  Just follow the link to enroll – everyone is welcome.

This is a free mini-course on Stoic techniques for pain management. It’s designed to provide a simple introduction to Stoic psychological techniques for coping with physical pain or discomfort.

The main resource is an 18 min. audio recording of a guided Stoic exercise for pain management. You’ll learn about how the ancient Stoics coped with pain and how those techniques can be adapted for use in the modern world.

Book Review: Unshakeable Freedom by Chuck Chakrapani

Chuck Chakrapani, Unshakeable FreedomUnshakeable Freedom:Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life (2016) by Chakrapani is a recent book on Stoicism, written as in introduction to applying the philosophy as a form of self-help or self-improvement.  Chuck’s also published his own editions of several Stoic classics and a book about the origins of the philosophy called A Fortunate Storm (2016).

The first thing I wanted to say is that this book is probably one of the best introductions to Stoicism that I’ve read.  I think it’s very well-written.  The philosophy seems crystal clear and the use of examples from various famous philosophers and modern role models makes it engaging and easy to read.  I really think Chuck has a way of expressing Stoic ideas that’s very clear and concise.  I would definitely recommend that people who are new to the subject start with a book like this.  I read the whole book in an afternoon, on my Chromebook Flip, while wandering around Athens.  (Between chapters, incidentally, I had a chance to visit the Benaki Museum, where they have a statue of an unnamed Athenian philosopher from the reign of Marcus Aurelius.)

Unknown Athenian PhilosopherI find that some self-improvement books have one idea, which they flog to death.  Chuck’s book manages, though, to present lots of different ideas very simply and effectively.  Some books on Stoicism also short-change the reader, I feel, when it comes to the actual psychological techniques used in the ancient philosophy.  Chuck includes quite a variety of Stoic exercises, though, both old and new.  I’m not sure how he managed to cover so much ground so well in so few pages but he did, and I find that very impressive.  He even includes a review of the ground he’s covered, and the exercises, in the final chapter.

The whole book revolves around the central theme of inner freedom, and what that means for Stoics.  For instance, the six “Big Ideas” he lists in the book include:

  1. Problems are only problems if you believe they are.
  2. Leave your past behind.
  3. Don’t let the indifferents rob your freedom.
  4. Where there is fear, freedom is not.
  5. You can never lose anything because you don’t own anything.
  6. Life is a festival.  Enjoy it now.

The twelve psychological exercises he includes are called:

  1. The anticipatory prep technique (“Morning Meditation”)
  2. Course correction (“End-of-day Meditation”)
  3. Passion counter
  4. Pause and examine
  5. Two handles (not to be confused with fork handles)
  6. Entitlement challenge
  7. Praemeditatio malorum (“Negative Visualization”)
  8. Impersonal projection
  9. Cosmic view
  10. Marcus’ Nine
  11. Sunbeam visualization
  12. South Indian monkey trap visualization

Chuck ChakrapaniI also wanted to mention that despite being a fairly simple (I suppose “non-academic”) introduction this book presents Stoicism in a pretty accurate manner.  Some of the introductory books and articles really bastardize Stoicism pretty badly, unfortunately, and that spreads a lot of confusion among people in online communities.  But Chuck’s book is spot on because it’s written by someone who actually cares about the philosophy and has taken time to try to understand how to live in accord with its principles.  I always feel you can tell whether an author is just winging it or if they’ve really put their own ideas into practice.  A lot of self-help books, including some on Stoicism, don’t pass the smell test in that regard.  You can tell that Chuck’s book is based on his experience of Stoicism, though, and that he’s sincere in his attempt to look at life through a Stoic lens.

He addresses some common misconceptions.  For example, he makes it clear that Stoicism isn’t about repressing all of our emotions but rather replacing unhealthy emotions with healthy ones.  And he clearly explains the tricky Stoic concept of “preferred indifferents”.  Although things like health, wealth and reputation are “indifferent” in the sense that they don’t contribute to the goal of life nevertheless it’s natural and rational to prefer health over sickness, wealth over poverty, and so on, within reasonable bounds.  Stoics do care about these “externals”, in a sense, but not enough to get upset about losing them.  Many people ignore that concept although it’s really the very essence of Stoic Ethics and therefore the cornerstone of the entire philosophy.   That leads them to exaggerate the “indifference” of Stoicism in a way that invites criticism (and is really more like earlier schools of philosophy such as Cynicism).  Chuck’s book presents a more accurate, balanced, workable, and realistic version of Stoicism, though.  That’s another reason why I think it’s a good introduction.

So I better conclude…  I once had a friend who worked in the British Library who thought that there were far too many books in the world and it would be better if most of them were just shredded.  Although I can’t bring myself to advocate book burning nevertheless I have felt myself becoming ever so slightly more sympathetic toward his point of view over time.  I’m in good company at least, because our Stoic friend Marcus Aurelius also thought he’d do well to put his books away for a change and get on with life.  I’ve had to read too many books as a student and then for my research as a writer and trainer.  This one was not a chore, though, but a pleasure to read.

Professional film critics, I notice, are rather preoccupied with the length of films.  Just as the time flies by in some movies, though, some books are quicker and easier than others to read.  I read this book in a few hours because it was worth reading, and a pleasure to read, and not overly-long either.  That matters to me because I know that if I recommend The Road Less Travelled to someone, they’re unlikely to get past the first few chapters.  (And that’s a hugely overrated book anyway, IMHO.)  Chuck’s book is a page-turner that gives you more bang for your buck.  Sorry to have wasted your time but it’s probably easier to read than my review to be honest!  I know that if I can persuade someone to read this – and they should – then they’ll probably get through it in a few hours, enjoy the whole thing, and come away with an accurate and workable idea of Stoic philosophy.  So please do just go and read it. 

(After watching this video of Chuck talking at Stoicon in Toronto….)

Stoicism Program on The Forum (BBC World Service)

Older MarcusI recently took part in a radio program titled Calm in the Chaos: The Story of the Stoics.  It’s an episode of a show called The Forum on the BBC World Service.  Profs. Nancy Sherman and Massimo Pigliucci were fellow guests on the panel, hosted by Bridget Kendall.  I’m currently living in Athens, so I travelled across town to the studios of the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERP) to take part in the recording.  It went out on the radio yesterday so you can now listen online.

Listen to Calm in the Chaos: The Story of the Stoics

You can also download the recording as a free podcast from the BBC website:

Download the Podcast from the BBC

Here’s the link to the recording on  iTunes:

Download the Podcast from iTunes

You can follow The Forum on Facebook and Twitter.

Script: Stoicism for Pain Control

Porcia CatonisUpdated: I’ve recorded the demo version of the audio exercise and constructed the beta version of the free mini-course.  All the draft materials from this post have been revised and moved to the e-learning site now.  You can still view the transcript via the link below, underneath the demo audio download.

Demo Audio Exercise for Stoic Pain Management

Action Plan

  1. Write draft script for audio exercise, obtain feedback, and revise. – DONE
  2. Record demo version of audio exercise. – DONE
  3. Prepare e-learning site to host free mini-course. – DONE
  4. Prepare draft instructions and other resources. – DONE
  5. Record demo introductory video.
  6. Publish beta version of mini-course.
  7. Obtain feedback from beta testers via online questionnaires.
  8. Revise content.
  9. Re-record final versions of audio and video at higher quality.

Roundup: Women in Ancient Stoicism

Porcia CatonisWere any ancient Stoics women?  That’s a question that comes up periodically.  I’ll keep updating this article because there are lots of bits of information worth adding.  It’s a complex question so there’s a lot more to say.  I’m just going to say a few words by way of an introduction, though.  Then I’ll link to several articles on women in Stoicism:

In ancient Athens, before the time of Socrates, philosophers and Sophists mainly taught aristocratic, or at least very wealthy, young men.  Philosophical discussions often took place in the grounds of Athenian gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. Socrates was reputedly a stonemason who lived a very modest life, and was a man of modest means.  He could be described as a lower middle class Athenian, although one who lived very simply.  However, he had several very wealthy and powerful friends.  We’re told his childhood friend Critias, a wealthy agriculturalist, removed Socrates from his father’s workshop and became a sort of patron, helping him to commit his life to the study of philosophy.

Socrates was therefore able to study the works of philosophers and Sophists and, in a paradoxical manner, he became a sort of teacher himself.  He didn’t lecture, though, or charge a fee.  He asked questions and told stories.  However, that meant that he was able to do philosophy with anyone.  He became famous for discussing philosophy with the young and old, rich and poor, citizens and immigrants alike.  For instance, Phaedo of Elis, had reputedly been enslaved and forced to work as a male prostitute until Socrates had Critias buy his freedom.  He went on to become one of Socrates’ most famous followers.  Xenophon also depicts Socrates engaging in philosophical discussion about the art of love with a female high-class prostitute (hetaira) called Theodote.

The fact that Socrates discussed philosophy with women would probably have been controversial to many Athenians.   However, he went further.  Socrates liked to describe how his approach to philosophy had been inspired by several women.  First of all, he mentions that his mother Phaenarete, who was a midwife, influenced him because she taught him about matchmaking.  In Plato’s Apology, of course, his entire philosophical mission  derives from the pronouncement of the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia or priestess of Apollo.  She told his childhood friend Chaerephon that “no man is wiser than Socrates”.  Socrates was also inspired by two of the famous maxims inscribed in her temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess” (all things in moderation).  In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates famously describes how he was taught about love and philosophy by a mysterious and otherwise unknown priestess called Diotima of Mantinea.  Curiously, Socrates also seems to portray her employing his own trademark question and answer method (“Socratic questioning”).  Moreover, some scholars have wondered whether Plato made this name up to disguise the fact that he’s actually referring to Aspasia, the consort of Pericles.  Socrates was known to have been a member of her intellectual circle and also learned about love from her.  So either these two women played a similar role in his life or they’re different names for the same woman, which would make her influence appear even more significant.

Some Sophists and philosophers argued that different virtues are appropriate to different types of people.  Socrates, however, believed that all the virtues are forms of wisdom and therefore also that virtue is essentially the same in men and women.  That suggests that women are capable of learning wisdom and virtue, just like men.  Indeed, he’s committed to that view because he admits having learned about wisdom and virtue from several women.

The Stoics were heavily indebted to Socrates and by some accounts were regarded as a Socratic school of philosophy.  Epictetus, for example, tells his students repeatedly to emulate Socrates.  It’s probably under the influence of Socrates, therefore, that Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic School, wrote a book entitled: On the Thesis that Virtue is the same in Man and in Woman.  We have several surviving lectures from the great Roman Stoic, Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, including two on the role of women in philosophy entitled: That Women Too Should Study Philosophy
and Should Daughters Receive the Same Education as Sons?  The Stoic doctrine in these lectures is clearly the same as Socrates’ position: girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys.

Musonius believed that women are capable of the same virtues as men, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, although they may express them differently, given their different roles in society at that time.   So it would be going too far to call Musonius Rufus a proto-feminist, although it’s to his credit that people have even looked at his writings from that perspective.  He certainly had a much more progressive attitude toward women than many other Roman intellectuals.  Nevertheless, I think this attitude probably goes all the way back to Zeno and Cleanthes, and that they inherited it largely from Socrates.  In Zeno’s ideal Republic, we’re simply told that anyone can become a philosopher, rich or poor, citizen or immigrant, man or woman, etc.  Men and women, in the ideal Stoic society, appear to be viewed as equals.

There’s very slender evidence, though, about real women who were actually practising Stoicism in the ancient world.  Nevertheless, here are some links to articles from my blog on women who appear to have, perhaps, been Stoics:

  • First of all, an honourable mention should go to Hipparchia of Maroneia, a female Cynic philosopher, and wife of Crates of  Thebes, the teacher of Zeno of Citium – she’s likely to be someone Zeno knew given the influence Crates had over him.
  • The mysterious old woman who looked after Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic School, and was possibly his sister.
  • Porcia Catonis, the daughter of the famous Roman Stoic Cato of Utica.
  • Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, and seemingly a member of the movement herself.
  • Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor, one of the daughters of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

(You may notice I’ve placed them in chronological order here, rather than the sequence in which they were published.)

NB: Please comment below if you can think of any other references to women in ancient Stoicism.  Thanks.