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The Title of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

I’ve told this story so many times now that I thought I might as well just do a quick blog post about it…

In 2013, I was interviewed by Carrie Sheffield for an article about Stoicism in Forbes magazine:

Robertson, a Scottish-born therapist and classics enthusiast, led workshops on psychological resilience for managers at oil giant Shell called “How to think like a Roman Emperor,” based on the life of stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius.

I’d been asked to deliver some workshops for STASCO, Shell Trading and Shipping, back in 2006, which talked about Stoicism and stress management. I wanted to make it attention-grabbing so I called it How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which seemed to go down well with the audience.

A few years later, around 2008, I was invited to submit a proposal for a book on psychotherapy for a panel organized by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) in conjunction with the publisher Karnac. I sent them a proposal for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The UKCP panel rejected it, though, because they didn’t like the title (or the subject matter).

The acquisitions editor, liked the proposal, though, and suggested I forward it directly to Karnac, which I did. They rejected it as well. So I got in touch and asked them if there was something else they’d prefer instead: “What sort of books do you want?” They said they’d like to publish a book by the title The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. So that’s how my first real book was published. (I’m about to begin work on a revised second edition, for the publisher Routledge, who now own the rights.)

However, I kept thinking about that title: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. It just seemed to stick in my mind for some reason. So when I had an opportunity to develop a proposal for a new book on Stoicism, about a decade later, I thought I’d try again. This time my publisher, St. Martins Press, were persuaded to give it a go. Well, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is now available from all good bookstores, and some bad ones, as the saying goes. It’s doing very well. Today we had a favourable review in The Wall Street journal.

Mr. Robertson […] displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought. The author’s accessible prose style, well-suited for recounting both philosophical concepts and arcane Roman history, contributes to its appeal. As an introduction to Stoic philosophy, it’s hard to beat the “Meditations,” which deserve to be read ahead of any commentary on them. That said, Mr. Robertson’s book succeeds on its own terms, presenting a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.

So the moral of the story? Well as a kid growing up in Scotland, of course, I had the story of Robert the Bruce drummed into my from an early age. The Bruce had been sorely defeated by the English army in battle and was hiding in a cave to avoid capture.

Depressed and alone he gazed at a spider climbing the wall. Over and over again, as it tried to spin its web, it was blown down by a gust of wind but, relentless, it kept trying until eventually it succeeded. Bruce was inspired and famously exclaimed “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” He reformed his army and would engage the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314 AD, where the Scots were finally victorious.

So don’t give up, if you think you might have a good idea!

Roman Emperor Reviewed in the Wall Street Journal

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius was reviewed by Benjamin Shull today in The Wall Street Journal. His article is titled ‘Meditations for the Masses’. It’s behind a paywall but I’ve picked out a few quotes below.

In “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor,” Mr. Robertson, a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, shows how Marcus’ example can be of use to the rest of us. Marcus’ worldview was not an idle intellectual exercise, he argues, but a form of wisdom forged by real-world experiences of friendship, loss and crisis.

I’m glad that people appreciate the connections made between Marcus’ life and his use of Stoicism, in the book. I tried to extract practical advice that is still relevant today, in dealing with problems like unhealthy desires and bad habits, managing anger, conquering fears and anxieties, living with chronic pain and illness, dealing with loss, and even coming to terms with our own mortality.

As he shares fragments from Marcus’ life, Mr. Robertson distills the emperor’s philosophy into useful mental habits—the core lessons of “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” are more behavioral than historical. […]

The book combines philosophy, psychology, and ancient history, so it required a lot of research and was quite an undertaking to write. So I’m pleased that reviewers feel it comes together.

Mr. Robertson […] displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought. The author’s accessible prose style, well-suited for recounting both philosophical concepts and arcane Roman history, contributes to its appeal. As an introduction to Stoic philosophy, it’s hard to beat the “Meditations,” which deserve to be read ahead of any commentary on them. That said, Mr. Robertson’s book succeeds on its own terms, presenting a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.

I’ve always felt like what I’m doing, in a sense, is introducing people to this vast treasure trove of wisdom and beautiful writing, which we have inherited from Stoics like Marcus Aurelius.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Out Now: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

I’m delighted to announce that my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is out now. You can order a copy from any good book store. It’s currently available in hardback, eBook, and audiobook formats. Signed copies can be ordered for shipment internationally from Ben McNally books in Canada.

I hope you enjoy How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. I first proposed this title way back in around 2008, over a decade ago now, so it’s been in the works for a long time. I’m glad to see it finally in print with a major publisher. I was pleased that I got to record the audiobook version in my own voice at Voodoo Highway studios in downtown Toronto.

The book currently has a solid five star rating from reviewers who received advance copies through the Amazon Vine program. It also has a five star rating from reviewers on Netgalley and 4.5 stars on Goodreads.

One of my goals was to write a book on Stoicism that would appeal both to complete newcomers and also to members of the Stoic community who were already well versed in the philosophy. The initial feedback from reviewers suggests that worked out well. Fingers crossed, or rather Fate permitting, my next project will be a graphic novel about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

As always, thanks for your support,

Donald Robertson Signature

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Response: Why is Silicon Valley so Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering?

I’ve just read the op ed Why Is Silicon Valley So Obsessed With the Virtue of Suffering? by Nellie Bowles in The New York Times.

This won’t be a long response. The essence of her argument appears to be that Stoicism advocates self-inflicted suffering and that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are obsessed with it for that reason. Of course, the premise is false. Stoicism does not advocate self-imposed suffering. Her examples are things like the following:

They [Silicon Valley types] sit in painful, silent meditations for weeks on end. They starve for days — on purpose. Cold morning showers are a bragging right. Notoriety is a badge of honor.

Stoics didn’t sit in painful, silent meditation for weeks on end. They didn’t normally seek notoriety either. Some modern followers of Stoicism, myself included, fast. That’s not the same as starving yourself. Lots of people fast for health reasons and thereby develop self-discipline and acquire other benefits. The Stoics would be against unhealthy forms of fasting, which is what I take “starving” yourself to mean. The ancient Stoics didn’t take cold showers but they did sometimes bathe in cold water. Some modern Stoics, myself included, regularly take cold showers. That’s hardly unusual either – so do lots of other people. It’s healthy, it wakes you up better than a cup of coffee, and it arguably leads to a greater ability to endure cold and other forms of physical discomfort. (I’m pretty happy walking around Toronto without a jacket in the snow because it doesn’t feel very cold to me, although everyone else seems to be wrapped up in thick jackets.) So people don’t do it just to “suffer” but because it’s good for them both in terms of physical health in terms of developing strength of character and self-discipline, etc.

Not all modern Stoics take cold showers or fast, though – I’m guessing less than 5% of them do. The ones who do are no more “obsessed with suffering” than are people who do Pilates, lift weights, walk long distances, go camping in the wilderness, or follow diets. Lots of people do things that require self-discipline and endurance because they consider them healthy or beneficial in certain respects. The Stoics don’t follow regimes in terms of eating, sleeping, or exercising primarily to improve their physical health. They’re supposed to be doing it mainly to improve their character by developing self-control and endurance, etc. However, they choose disciplines that are healthy rather than ones that are unhealthy because physical health is a “preferred indifferent” in Stoicism, i.e., something that’s preferable to its opposite despite not being among the most important things in life. If you’re going to develop self-discipline, in other words, you might as well train yourself to do something healthy rather than unhealthy, even if health isn’t your main reason for doing it.

Anyway, we’re clearly told that this is an article about Stoicism…

So the most helpful clues to understanding Silicon Valley today may come from its favorite ancient philosophy: Stoicism.

A word of advice to readers… Articles like these which claim to be discussing Stoicism (or any similar topic) but make no reference whatsoever to the relevant primary sources should set alarm bells ringing. It’s not clear that the author actually researched the subject by reading the Stoics as there’s literally no mention of anything they wrote. Seriously, there’s not a single quote from a Stoic in the entire piece. Yet their philosophy is being criticized. It is, in fact, being totally misrepresented.

As for the other mistakes in the article, I’ll just cover those by providing a list with brief comments:

  • “Virtue of suffering” – Suffering is not a virtue in Stoic ethics; it would either be classed as something bad or indifferent depending on whether we’re talking about emotional suffering (pathos) or unpleasant physical sensations such as pain, cold, or discomfort.
  • Cicero – Cicero was not a Stoic but rather a follower of the rival Academic school, albeit one who admired some aspects of Stoicism. The article almost acknowledges this but not clearly enough as it seems to focus on him as its main example of a historical proponent of Stoicism.
  • “tenets of stoicism” – The word “stoicism” (lower-case) denotes the modern concept of a psychological personality trait or coping style in which upsetting emotions are concealed or suppressed, like having a stiff upper-lip. The word “Stoicism” (capitalized) denotes an ancient Greek school of philosophy. They’re two very different things.
  • “Stoicism has been the preferred viral philosophy ‘for a moment’ for years now — or two decades, by one count.” – I don’t know how you’d quantify this but Stoicism has gone through various periods of popularity. I’d say the seeds of it’s modern resurgence were planted in the late 1950s with, among other things, the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy, during which authors such as Albert Ellis drew inspiration from Stoicism in developing modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). That reinvigorated interest in Stoicism as a form of psychological self-help from the 1980s onward around the time CBT went mainstream. (Indeed, publication data from Google Ngram shows that the popularity of Stoicism began rising in the late 1970s, four decades ago.)
  • “Stoicism’s popularity among the powerful elites of ancient Rome” – There’s no question that Stoicism was popular with wealthy and powerful Roman elites. However, it’s not a “Roman” thing. Right from the very outset, early Greek Stoicism was popular with the ruling elite. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, taught King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia and other early Greek Stoics had wealthy and powerful students. Moreover, Stoicism was not confined to the elite. Zeno, by some accounts, lost his fortune at sea and lived like a beggar. Cleanthes, his successor as head of the school, was an ex-boxer who watered gardens at night to earn a living. Epictetus, the most famous Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, was a crippled former slave who lived in relative poverty.
  • “Joe Lonsdale […] sexual abuse” – This comes across as an ad hominem argument against the philosophy, i.e., one of the figures the author associates with Stoicism in the article has been criticized on the grounds listed. How does that actually reflect on Stoicism, though? Is Joe Lonsdale even a Stoic? (Not as far as I’m aware after searching on Google.) Is this meant to discredit Stoicism through some kind of guilt by association?
  • “Cicero Institute” – The whole article seems to be premised on the notion that the Cicero Institute has got something to do with Stoicism. Does it, though? I can’t actually see any mention of Stoicism anywhere on their website despite using a Google site search for the keyword .

Marcus Aurelius on Hadrian


In book one of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius lists the traits and virtues he most admired in sixteen of his tutors and family members. The person he has by far the most to say about is his adoptive father, Emperor Antoninus Pius, who served as his main role model as emperor. However, Marcus has nothing to say about the virtues of Emperor Hadrian, his adoptive grandfather.

I talk in more detail about the ways in which Marcus apparently sought to be different from Hadrian, and more like Antoninus Pius, in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. Many of the things Marcus says he admires about Antoninus can be viewed as implicit criticisms of Hadrian, despite the fact he’s passing over him in silence.

Nevertheless, Marcus does mention Hadrian elsewhere in The Meditations, albeit mainly to illustrate the transience of all things including human life. Hadrian died over three decades before the time when The Meditations was presumably written.

Although Marcus knew Hadrian as a child, his name now sounds old-fashioned as if it refers to a bygone era.

The everyday expressions of earlier times are now archaic; and likewise the names of those who were highly acclaimed in earlier ages are now, in a sense, archaic; Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and a little later, Scipio too and Cato, and then Augustus also, and then Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things are swift to fade and become mere matter for tales, and swiftly too complete oblivion covers their every trace. And here I am speaking of those who shone forth with a wonderful brightness; as for all the rest, the moment that they breathed their last, they were ‘out of sight, out of mind’. And what does it amount to, in any case, everlasting remembrance? Sheer vanity and nothing more. What, then, is worthy of our striving? This alone, a mind governed by justice, deeds directed to the common good, words that never lie, and a disposition that welcomes all that happens, as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same kind of origin and spring. (4.33)

Here again, Hadrian is used along with Augustus as an example of a man of great importance who is nevertheless now dead and gone.

First of all, be untroubled in your mind; for all things come about as universal nature would have them, and in a short while you will be no one and nowhere, as are Hadrian and Augustus. And next, keep your eyes fixed on the matter in hand and observe it well, remembering that it is your duty to be a good person, and that whatever human nature demands, you must fulfil without the slightest deviation and in the manner that seems most just to you; only do so with kindness and modesty, and without false pretences. (8.5)

Here Hadrian’s death is mentioned and that he was buried by a man called Celer. Domitia Lucilla was Marcus’ mother and Marcus Annius Verus his father.

Lucilla buried Verus, and Lucilla’s turn came next […] Antoninus buried Faustina, and his own turn came next. And so it goes on, ever the same: Celer buried Hadrian, and Celer’s turn came next. […] All creatures of a day, and dead long ago; some not remembered even for a passing moment, others becoming the stuff of legend, and others again fading from legend at this very time. So remember this, that either this compound which makes you up must be dispersed, or else your breath of life must be extinguished or be removed from here and stationed somewhere else. (8.25)

Here Marcus refers to men called Chabrias and Diotimus mourning the death of Hadrian.

Pantheia or Pergamos, are they still sitting by the coffin of Verus? Or Chabrias or Diotimus by that of Hadrian? What an absurd thought. And even if they were, would the dead be aware of it? And if they became aware of it, would it bring them any pleasure? And if it brought them pleasure, would their mourners be immortal? Or were they not fated like others first to become old women and old men, and then to die? So what would the dead do afterwards, when their mourners had passed away? (8.37)

Finally, Marcus actually encourages himself to visualize the court of Hadrian and notice how the same things come about over and over again throughout history, albeit in different guises.

Constantly reflect on how all that comes about at present came about just the same in days gone by, and reflect that it will continue to do so in the future; and set before your eyes whole dramas and scenes ever alike in their nature which you have known from your own experience or the records of earlier ages, the whole court of Hadrian, say, or of Antoninus, the whole court of Philip, or Alexander, or Croesus; for in every case the play was the same, and only the actors were different. (10.27)

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

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

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Teach Yourself Stoicism (Revised)

To celebrate the forthcoming release of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius I’m giving away five free copies of my previous book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2nd edition). NB: Amazon. com giveaways only apply to residents of the USA.

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How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

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.