Books Children Verissimus

How Suitable is Verissimus for Children?

What’s in the book and how to decide if it’s appropriate reading

Our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, was written for adults but an increasing number of people have told me their children have been reading it. They told me that their kids saw the cover, were intrigued by the artwork, and “stole” their copy. Some teachers have also approached me, interested in purchasing copies for their classes. They think it would make a useful teaching aid.

Order a copy of Verissimus

With Christmas approaching, I’ve been asked about its suitability as a gift for young people. In this post, I’ll try to give a comprehensive answer, inspired by the review site Common Sense Media, which I think does a great job of helping adults decide for themselves what’s appropriate for their children. The short answer is that I would rate this book PG-13 but I’ll explain below the aspects of which parents and teachers should be aware, in order to decide for themselves.

Read the rest of this article on Substack…


Marcus Aurelius: Spoiler Alert!

How we created a graphic novel about Stoicism

He dies at the end. Actually, he dies at the beginning. We borrowed that idea from How to Think Like a Roman Emperor when writing the script for Verissimus, because it made it much easier to structure the story of Marcus Aurelius’ life by embedding it within a framing story about his death. So this is how the book begins…

Verissimus was a labor of love. Our 260-page full-color graphic novel about the life and philosophy of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, was published in July 2022. It took a small team of us about two and a half years to create — normally you’re given about one year to write a conventional prose book. The project began when I was contacted by an award-winning illustrator, from Portugal, called Zé Nuno Fraga, who had recently published the graphic novel Assemblywomen, the ancient Greek satire by Aristophanes. A couple of major publishing houses were interested and before long we had a book deal with St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan.

I’d never worked on a graphic novel before so I immediately plunged into reading books on the art of writing scripts for them, and illustrating them. The best is Scott Macleod’s fantastic Making Comics, which I read cover to cover 2-3 times — it became my Bible. I also sought advice from comic book enthusiasts who read the script and reviewed the draft illustrations. Before long I’d added Kasey Pierce, a freelance comic editor, to our team — a couple of years later we got married!

Researching Verissimus

Verissimus is one of three books in a row that I wrote about Marcus Aurelius, the others being a self-help book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and the forthcoming Marcus Aurelius biography I wrote for Yale University Press’ Ancient Lives series, which is edited by James Romm. I also edited an edition of the Meditations for Capstone Classics and wrote the biographical introductory essay on Marcus Aurelius for that volume. For several years, I was completely immersed in Marcus’ life and philosophy.

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Some people have told me they’re surprised how much research went into Verissimus. So I thought it might be interesting to say more about how it was written. Here are some behind-the-scenes insights…

  • Near the end of the process, I realized that I’d “accidentally written the prequel to Gladiator but with a lot more philosophy” as I like to put it. Incidentally, my publisher told me that the scriptwriter for Gladiator 2 (now in the works) had read How to Think Like a Roman Emperor as part of his own research. Graphic novels take many different forms — at the bare minimum the artwork could have just been lots of stickmen with speech bubbles. We naturally went for a classic European historical epic look, with a sweeping cinematic feel, because it seemed to fit this story very nicely. It also makes it easy to imagine Verissimus being made — Fate permitting! — into an animation or live-action movie. (We’ve already had some initial interest in the movie rights.)

  • In my original pitch I said I wanted to avoid having 250 pages of “guys in togas and sandals talking about philosophy”. We wanted to create something that was much more action-oriented — like Gladiator or 300 but more historically authentic and with a lot more Stoicism! I scoured the Meditations for references to objects and events that might allow us to combine Marcus’ words with the action in plausible ways. For example, when Marcus talks in the Meditations about how to respond to treachery or deceit, it seems natural to imagine he would have said similar things about the various real-world betrayals he experienced. When he refers to events like gladiatorial contests, as a metaphor for philosophy, it’s easy to imagine him having made similar remarks while watching fighters at the Colosseum in Rome, and so on. In the few situations where long conversations took place that had no relation to Marcus’ action — borrowing a tip from Scott Macleod! — we placed Marcus in an unusual but plausible setting, such as the circus maximus or a Roman bathhouse, that allowed us to include action unfolding in parallel to, and sometimes complementing, his words.

  • I wanted people who knew nothing about Stoic philosophy to be able to read Verissimus and come away with a basic grasp both of its fundamentals and also of ways in which it could actually help them in the modern world — quite an ambitious goal! Early on I decided that in order to clearly communicate Stoic philosophy and also give people practical “takeaways”, I should focus on the problem of overcoming anger. Marcus explicitly states near the start of the Meditations that, for a time, he struggled to control his temper. The hero of a story like this typically has to go on a personal journey, otherwise he’ll seem boring and one-dimensional — we need to see Marcus changing over time, at least to some extent. We decided our Marcus should come across as a more complex human being. He is therefore shown struggling with his emotions at first and later, through Stoicism, mastering them — that’s a plausible reading of the historical evidence. My opinion, incidentally, is that anger is the best emotion for comics! It’s very interpersonal and expressive, and linked to action — it’s highly visual and dynamic by its very nature!

  • Early on in the project, we recruited an expert on Roman military reenactment who advised us throughout the process on details relating to weapons and armour, etc. During the initial draft phase, poor Zé had to go through and change many sketches after our consultant explained that Roman legionaries in this period began using the spatha, a longer sword than the conventional gladius, better suited to fighting “barbarian” horsemen. Many other details like uniforms, siege engines, and military formations, were checked for historical authenticity.

  • Some people — and this surprises me — believe that we don’t know much about the life of Marcus Aurelius. They’re wrong. We know far more about him than we do about any other Stoic, and perhaps even more than we know about any other ancient philosopher. Why? Because he was a famous emperor. The Meditations is not a normal text on philosophy but rather a series of personal reflections, almost autobiographical in nature. They tell us things about Marcus’ inner life, his character, preoccupations, and even some details about his outward life as emperor — particularly in the first chapter where he dwells at length on his relationships with his family and tutors, some of his closest friends. We also have three main historical accounts of his life, from Cassius Dio, the Historia Augusta and Herodian. We have an amazing cache of Marcus’ private letters, some alleged speeches by him, and many passing references to him in other ancient sources. The least well-known of our sources, incidentally, is the collection of references to his legislation in the Roman legal digests. We also have important inscriptions and numismatic and archeological evidence, etc. There are, moreover, many modern biographies of Marcus as well as several pieces of modern scholarship on his era and other famous figures who are part of his story, such as Hadrian and Lucius Verus. I’m surprised that biographers tend to have an insular approach, incidentally, focusing on the evidence relating to Marcus himself, whereas evidence about the lives of key people he associated with can also shed a great deal of light on the events of his life. For instance, the more we learn about the later years of Emperor Hadrian, the more we understand the early life of Marcus Aurelius — Marcus even lived in Hadrian’s villa for several months toward the end of the latter’s troubled life.

  • Verissimus is not really a work of fiction — it’s about as close as a graphic novel about the ancient world can get to being a historical biography. (Though the notorious unreliability of many ancient sources makes this claim problematic, of course.) The Roman histories provided our main source for Verissimus, supplemented by the other historical evidence mentioned above. We followed them very closely. Anyone reading the ancient sources alongside Verissimus will see that it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the story they provide although, of course, we have to create some dialogue, etc., for this medium. We were even able to do things that are tricky in a conventional prose biography, e.g., depicting gossip, dreams, memories, and stories within stories, which are also derived from our historical sources. For instance, where ancient sources label something as rumour or present it as unreliable information, we depict it as gossip between characters commenting on events, allowing the reader to decide how much trust to put in their words. This has the added bonus of allowing us to imagine what it tells us about the Romans who might have spread such stories about the emperor. Even dreams and rumours are a real, and often very important, part of the historical milieu, insofar as they can dramatically influence someone’s public image and the way they interact with those around them.

  • The script was written by me. Graphic novel scripts can be pretty simple, even just a “dialogue dump”, leaving the artist to do a lot of creative work. Our was much more detailed, like a movie script, nearly 150 pages and about 90k words long. It included many links to reference images, such as photographs I’d taken of artefacts in museums, or sculptures, and ruins or landscapes at historic locations. One day I’d like to release some more side-by-side images showing how Zé used photos of historical artefacts, etc., to inspire his illustrations.

  • I travelled to many museums and historical locations around the world, during my research. I spent about a week at Carnuntum in Austria, for instance, the archeological site of the Roman legionary fortress where Marcus stationed himself throughout much of the First Marcomannic War. We shot video and took many photographs there.

  • I also interviewed the museum director and head of archeological research at Carnuntum. In the archeological park, they have a full reconstruction of a Roman villa from the time of Marcus Aurelius, which was a huge help to us in illustrating the decor and furnishings of various rooms in our graphic novel.

  • I also spent a great deal of time in Greece, travelling to many museums there and archeological sites, such as the Agora and Stoa Poikile, Eleusis, and Delphi, which inspired scenes in our book. I don’t have much Latin but I do read a little ancient Greek and began learning to speak modern Greek. (I applied for and now have my official “permanent resident” status in Greece.)

  • It was also important to me that the dialogue in Verissimus should seem natural and believable. Here’s a tip: a good way to do that for a historical novel is by reading ancient letters, especially private ones. I made lists, for instance, of all the oaths (“By Hercules!”) and greetings (“Best of masters!”) used in Marcus Aurelius’ correspondence with his rhetoric tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto. Poetry also provides a good source of material for various idioms and colloquial expressions. We used this to create more authentic dialogue for our characters. Sometimes this surprises people, incidentally. They don’t expect Romans to use Greek god names, for instance, but they certainly did. Forms of address are sometimes not quite as some readers expect. Marcus was often addressed as Caesar or, especially in a military setting, as Imperator. (Some people mistakenly believe that “Caesar” was a title used to denote the emperor’s designed successor but it is more like a cognomen, also retained by the emperor in office.) In the Meditations, incidentally, Marcus actually refers to himself by his dynastic name, Antoninus, and we know others commonly referred to him in this way, especially in official contexts. His close friends called him Marcus, but we never find him simply referred to as Aurelius, his adoptive family name.

  • Zé particularly enjoyed illustrating the dreams and visions as he didn’t have to worry quite as much about historical accuracy in these scenes and was able to express his artistry more freely, by creating fantastic images.

  • Shortly after we began, I realized that some of the scenes resembled a genre I hadn’t anticipated drawing upon: horror. Kasey helped us to approach nightmares, graphic war imagery, and scenes of the devastation caused by plague, with more of a “horror aesthetic” in mind.

  • As a kid I read the British comic 2000 AD religiously. What I loved most was that there were small details in the background of the panels that I didn’t notice at first but could enjoy on rereading my favorite comic strips. I realized that adding subtle cues to the background can really add another dimension to the artwork so we carefully planned ways to do this in Verissimus, such as by including various animals — birds taking flight, dogs fighting, etc. — in the background of panels, as well as other forms of action. To avoid making the world visually monotonous we tried to show various locations and different types of buildings, as well as incorporating dreams, visions, and flashbacks. We also varied the nine-panel page layout, e.g., by using vertical or horizontal strips for panels and many full-page splash pages, which we hoped could be used to create posters.

  • I was fortunate enough to be able to consult with several classicists and scholars of ancient philosophy, who advised me on various details, from language to culture and philosophy. In particular, the classicist Robin Waterfield, was kind enough to review the entire manuscript and provide detailed feedback and advice before publication — I owe him a lot of thanks for that!

I hope that’s of interest to readers, and maybe these notes could even help other authors working on graphic novels like ours.

Verissimus has been reviewed very positively since its release and was chosen as an Amazon Editor’s pick for Best History Book. The foreign rights have already been sold for the Brazilian Portuguese edition and I hope many other translations will follow. You can already order the hardback or ebook of the English edition from Amazon or, indeed, from anywhere they sell books!


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Books Stoicism

Announcing: 365 Ways to be More Stoic

Happiness, serenity, and fulfillment, according to Stoicism, are all within your control.

We’re delighted to announce the new book written by Tim LeBon, with editor Kasey Pierce, 365 WAYS TO BE MORE STOIC, published by John Murray Press, is now available for preorder from all good bookstores! Check out the listing on Amazon or visit the publisher’s website for other online retailers.

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Podcasts Stoicism

Podcast: Death, Love, Stoicism

This is a new audio recording of an article I published on Medium about the Stoic contemplation of death. The photo shows me outside the ruined Temple of Hades at the ancient site of Eleusis near Athens.

This is a new audio recording of an article I published on Medium about the Stoic contemplation of death. The photo shows me outside the ruined Temple of Hades at the ancient site of Eleusis near Athens. Thank you for subscribing. Leave a comment or share this episode.

A Simple Guide to Stoic Anger-Management

What Marcus Aurelius Says in a Nutshell

I recently shared An Illustrated Guide to Stoic Anger Management on Medium, which describes in detail the ten cognitive strategies listed by Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations. The article includes original artwork illustrating each strategy from our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

In this post, though, I’m going to provide a more concise outline of these anger-management strategies, which Marcus calls ten “gifts” from Apollo, the Greek god of healing, and patron of philosophy. I’ll summarize each one in plain English, in a more simplified form, but you can always read the original article if you want more.

Ten Gifts from Apollo

1. Remember that humans are social creatures

This is possibly the strategy Marcus employs most often, reminding himself to focus on our natural capacity for forming families and communities. Greek philosophers had long argued, like modern evolutionary theorists, that our ancestors survived primarily by working together, and eventually building cities for protection. Marcus tells himself that because we’re naturally designed for cooperation, we have a duty to fulfil our potential by forming alliances rather than creating enemies.

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2. Consider their character as a whole

When we’re angry with someone we tend to focus selectively on the most annoying aspects of their behaviour. Marcus, however, had studied law and served for many years as a magistrate. He tells himself that in order to understand others we have to consider their whole character. Doing so often moderates our feelings of anger, by placing their behaviour in a wider context.

3. No man does evil willingly

This was a famous paradox of Socrates. Marcus tells himself that everyone naturally wants to grasp the truth, rather than fall into error. Likewise, we naturally want to do what’s rational, and in our interests. The Stoics argue that doing evil is against our true interests, which means that wrongdoing only occurs because of errors of judgment, about right and wrong. Of course, people commit crimes knowing that others consider them to be morally wrong but they don’t typically agree with that judgment — they believe what they’re doing is right and in their own self-interest. Marcus views this as an ethical mistake on their part rather than an act of genuine malice.

4. Realize that we all have similar flaws

Modern psychotherapists have often argued that anger is a form of “projection”, meaning that we get angry with other people for having flaws that we possess ourselves. Realizing that, though, can often moderate our feelings of anger, and it shifts the focus of attention on to the improvements we could make in our own character. Marcus tells himself to pause when becoming angry so as to ask himself whether he’s guilty, actually or potentially, of similar moral wrongdoing.

5. Keep an open mind about their motives

As a magistrate, Marcus knew that it’s often difficult to look into people’s hearts and ascertain their motives. People often do the right things for the wrong reasons, and vice versa. Some people are not even clear about their own motives, and may find them hard to articulate. When we become angry, though, we tend to jump to conclusions about what other people are thinking. Marcus tries to prevent himself from rushing to judgment, by pausing to consider whether he really understands why others have acted as they did.

6. Remember that you both must die

Reminding ourselves of the transience of material things in general, and even of our own lives, is a common Stoic strategy. When growing angry, Marcus also reminds himself that the other person will be dead before long, and shortly thereafter forgotten forever. The reason for the argument will likewise soon be lost in the mists of time. Focusing on the transience of these things can make getting very angry feel pointless.

7. It is your own opinions that anger you

This saying, derived from Epictetus, is the most famous Stoic psychological strategy of all, and the inspiration for modern cognitive psychotherapy: “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” Here Marcus specifically applies it to anger. We tend to say “He is making me angry” but Epictetus wants us to say “My opinions about him are making me angry”, because other individuals confronted by the same sort of behaviour might feel and respond very differently.

8. Anger hurts you more than the thing you’re angry about

Although less well-known today, this also seems to have been a common strategy in ancient Stoicism. For Stoics, all of our irrational “passions” (the pathological desires and emotions) do us more harm than the things they’re supposedly about. Fear does us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid, they say, and anger does us more harm than the people do with whom we’re angry. Focusing on the harmful consequences of anger, particularly the damage it does to our moral character, can help motivate us to change our response.

9. Kindness is the antidote to anger

This resembles a simple concept from modern behaviour therapy called the principle of reciprocal inhibition. Emotions that are genuine opposites, and mutually exclusive, can potentially be used to replace one another. You can remove anger, in other words, by focusing on cultivating its opposite. For Stoics, anger is typically the desire for revenge, i.e., the desire for others to be harmed or punished, because of some perceived injustice they’ve committed. In that regard, its opposite would be the desire to help others, which the Stoics call kindness. By making a conscious effort to respond with genuine kindness to others, instead of anger, we can create new habits, and eventually change our own character in a positive direction.

10. Realize the folly of expecting everyone to be wise

Marcus concludes with what he says is the most important strategy of all for coping with anger. The Stoics noticed that, paradoxically, when people are upset they usually talk as if they were shocked by events which are actually quite normal. “I can’t believe that traveling merchant lied to me about these magic beans!” We all know that people lie and steal every day, and seemingly foolish, vicious, behaviour, is very common. Reacting with surprise is quite irrational. A wise person cultivates a more philosophical attitude toward human behaviour, accepting in advance that people aren’t perfect, and that they often do things that seem unjust. Stoic philosophers try to view the wrongdoing of others calmly and dispassionately, as a natural phenomenon, like the behaviour of nonhuman animals. There’s a story that once when angry man attacked Socrates in the street, kicking him, an onlooker said the philosopher should sue him for assault. However, Socrates thought doing so would be ridiculous. He felt no more offended, he said, than if a donkey had kicked him.

Of course, you don’t need to master all ten of these strategies. You only need to find one of them that works for you in order to overcome feelings of anger. Most people, though, will find that they can relate to several, perhaps even most, of the Stoic strategies described by Marcus. If you want more vivid examples of how Marcus struggled with his own anger, until he learned to master it through Stoicism, please take a look at our graphic novel about his life, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which was chosen by Amazon editors as an Editor’s Pick for Best History Book, and has just reached 150 reviews on Amazon US.


Donald Robertson

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Podcasts Stoicism

New Podcast on Stoicism

I’m experimenting with Substack and have started a new podcast. The first episode, an audio recording of my recent Medium article, How to Actually Practice Stoicism, has already proven very popular.

This podcast episode contains the audio recording from a conversation about Marcus Aurelius, and the history of Roman Carnuntum. I spoke with Eduard Pollhammer, the scientific director of the Carnuntum Archeological Park, at the Museum Carnuntinum in Austria. Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.Thanks to Landessammlungen Niederösterreich, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum for permission to film. Thank you for reading Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life. This post is public so feel free to share it. Thank you for subscribing. Leave a comment or share this episode.
  1. Archeology: Marcus Aurelius and Carnuntum
  2. Alexandra Hudson on Classics and Civility
  3. Short Guided Relaxation Exercise
  4. Stoicism in a Time of Pandemic
  5. Marcus Aurelius and Carnuntum


Three Sources of Happiness in Stoicism

What Marcus Aurelius said about healthy emotions in Stoic philosophy

Hello everyone, and welcome to my new Substack newsletter. I just wrote a short article on the Stoicism Subreddit about the three forms of healthy emotion that Marcus Aurelius said should be cultivated. I’ve also written a longer and more detailed Medium article about this topic. I think it’s very important for an understanding of how Stoicism can be incorporated into modern self-help.

Live your whole life through free from all constraint and with utmost joy in your heart… — Meditations, 7.68

I want to write something a little more informal here, from a personal perspective, about how I understand the role of healthy emotions in Stoicism.

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1. Happiness with Yourself

Marcus seems to be clear that the most important source of happiness and contentment for Stoics is the contemplation of their own moral progress and he refers to this often. It stands to reason that possessing what you believe to be the highest good in life would be the greatest source of joy — for Stoics that means our own progress toward virtue. Christian authors later criticized the Stoics for excessive pride as they viewed our fulfilment or salvation as a direct result of our own actions, our freewill, rather than something requiring the grace of God. However, I think many modern readers might agree more with the Stoics.

2. Happiness with Mankind

The virtue of others is not under our direct control but, nevertheless, we should wish for them to achieve fulfilment, “Fate permitting”. This caveat is called the Stoic “reserve clause”. It means we wish for something while simultaneously accepting that it is not up to us. Book One of the Meditations shows Marcus repeatedly contemplating the virtues of his closest family members and favourite tutors.

Marcus actually explains one of his reasons for doing this later in the same text:

When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you. For instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Hence we must keep them before us. — Meditations, 7.28

The Stoics believed that one of the best ways to acquire virtue is through the contemplation of those we admire, or having genuine role models. When the wise glimpse the highest good in others, they naturally experience a very profound sense of happiness. It is as though they are contemplating the mirror image of the potential for wisdom and virtue they have within themselves.

3. Happiness with God or Nature

For the Stoics, the key to happiness with the universe as a whole is acceptance of our own external fate, or amor fati. Marcus also emphasizes that by contemplating the transience or absence of certain things, presumably preferred externals such as health, we can cultivate a healthy emotion of gratitude.

Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the [the best] from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. — Meditations, 7.27

Throughout the Meditations, Marcus reminds himself of the transience of material things, and of his own existence. This allows him to experience joy or gratitude toward existence. The Stoics, incidentally, considered appropriate gratitude to be a virtue, classed under the heading of justice.

I think it helps humanize Stoicism when we realize that healthy emotions played an important role in their system of psychology. The Greek philosophy of Stoicism (capitalized) should not be confused with the unemotional coping style we call stoicism (lowercase) today.

The three categories of healthy emotion above correspond with a threefold structure that is found throughout the Meditations. For instance, Marcus lists all three together in this passage:

Different people find their joy in different things; and it is my joy to keep [i] my ruling centre unimpaired, and [ii] not turn my back on any human being or [iii] on anything that befalls the human race, but to look on all things with a kindly eye, and welcome and make use of each according to its worth. —Meditations, 8.43

We should, in other words, train ourselves to welcome our fate, while exhibiting kindness toward others, and living wisely, in accord with virtue.

The conversation I had recently with Ryan Holiday about Stoicism has just been published on the Daily Stoic YouTube channel.

News. Our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which is available in ebook and hardback formats, from all bookstores, has now been reviewed by nearly 140 readers on Amazon.


Donald Robertson

Thanks for reading Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

Interviews Marcus Aurelius Stoicism Videos

Video: Conversation with Ryan Holiday about Marcus Aurelius

My conversation with Ryan Holiday for the Daily Stoic podcast, talking about Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Verissimus, the graphic novel.


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.