Saturday, 13 March 2021

Book Review: How To Think Like A Roman Emperor

Book Review: How To Think Like A Roman Emperor

Review By Casey Douglass

How To Think Like A Roman Emperor

Of all the philosophies that I’ve encountered in my life, I think that Stoicism is the one that I’ve found most intriguing and useful. Sadly, as so many of the original Stoic writings have been lost to history, anyone who wants to learn about the philosophy has to ‘Sherlock Holmes’ their way through all sorts of fragments, letters and disjointed notes, with the odd actual book thrown in for good measure. Donald Robertson’s How To Think Like A Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, brings many Stoic principles and ideas together in one book, and what’s more, gives us plenty of examples of how Marcus Aurelius himself, likely put these into action in his efforts to live a wise and virtuous life.

Writing this a few days after finishing the book, I feel like I want to begin with how helpful it is that the book focussed on Marcus Aurelius and his life. Before reading How To Think Like A Roman Emperor, I’d read most of the ‘go to’ Stoic books, including Epictetus’ Discourses, Seneca’s Letters, and Marcus’ own Meditations. I’d also read some modern books on Stoicism, including Donald’s own Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. I tried to implement some of the Stoic techniques and perspectives that I encountered, into my own life, but I didn’t really feel that a great deal ‘stuck’.

The way that How To Think Like A Roman Emperor is anchored around Marcus Aurelius really seems to have provided the framework that I needed. Previously, I had a very vague idea of what Marcus Aurelius was like, besides a few notions about how good or virtuous he was meant to be. Now, thanks to Donald, I feel like I understand so much more. As an example, I didn’t realise that Marcus had an adoptive-brother and son-in-law called Lucius, and that, despite having a similar education in philosophy, they were two people who used that knowledge in vastly different ways, Lucius preferring to chase pleasure over almost anything else. This comes back so nicely to Donald’s introduction to the book.

On the last page of the introduction, Donald says that Stoicism can provide many tremendous things to your life, but warns that words on a page won’t achieve these changes, that only you can do that by putting the ideas into practise. Reading about Lucius and Marcus, their relationship and their actions, is such a fine example of this sentiment, and this leads me to other pleasing discoveries. One example is that I had no idea that the Stoics liked to hold up The Choice of Hercules as a moral fable of wisdom and virtue, in no small part due to the way that Hercules has to choose which path to take in life: that of Virtue or Vice. What seemed to make things even juicier for the Stoics, was that Hercules voluntarily chose the harder path, and had a much richer life for the effort. Epictetus tells his students that Hercules would never have become the Hercules they knew if he’d just stayed in bed!

Alongside the things that were new to me, there was also a liberal helping of Stoic ideas and techniques that I’d studied before. These included the explaining of the power that our judgements have in whether we are happy or miserable, and the usefulness of the Stoic Reserve Clause in helping us to accept that the outcomes of so many of the things we attempt aren’t wholly up to us, among many other helpful ideas. Donald also uses his psychology ‘chops’ and brings some elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) into things, which he says seems fitting, considering that CBT was itself inspired by Stoicism.

I really enjoyed this melding of the Stoic philosophy with the modern therapy that more people might actually be familiar with. I was taught about CBT decades before I’d even heard of Stoicism. This was during the initial treatment of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and it was nice to read a book that highlights some of the overlap between the two systems. As with many things though, the situation and the time in which you find yourself reading a book often informs what might jump out at you, or which information you might find most useful. So what did I get out of my first journey through How To Think Like A Roman Emperor?

To recap, I feel that the main thing I got out of it was having a more fleshed out idea of who Marcus Aurelius really was, and this helped me in a number of snow-balling ways. When it comes to some of the practises that entail asking yourself how someone like Marcus might respond to a situation, I now feel that I can do that with a little more insight. Before, the only Marcus that I could think of when pondering that question was Marcus Burnett, Martin Laurence’s character in the Bad Boys films. I think ‘Bad Boys Marcus’ would have just started swearing and freaking out, which doesn’t seem like a sustainable path to improving your life.

I have also adopted a number of the practises in the book, practises that I had already encountered before but had failed to follow through with. These include meditating on the day ahead when I wake in the morning, trying to be mindful during the day, and reviewing how my day went before going to sleep at night, to see how I could have responded to things in a way that is more aligned with my virtues or values. I’ve also started to become more aware of the value Stoics put in speaking plainly, describing things with less emotion and avoiding rhetoric, which in the age of social media and click-bait news stories, seems timely advice indeed. The number of occasions that I have seen something described as ‘catastrophic’ or ‘devastating’, and then see that the person saying these things is rarely directly affected by whichever event they are commenting on... It’s no wonder social media is often so febrile.

I recommend How To Think Like A Roman Emperor to anyone who would like to learn more about Stoic philosophy and/or Marcus Aurelius. My only regret is that this wasn’t the first book I read on the subject, as it really did hit the nail on the head for me. It also appears that Donald is working on a Marcus Aurelius graphic novel, which is something I’d be very interested in seeing!

Book Title: How To Think Like A Roman Emperor

Book Author: Donald Robertson

Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

Released: 2 April 2019

Current Price (Amazon UK): £16.32 (Hard-cover), £6.43 (Paperback). £5.83 (Kindle)

ISBN: 978-1250196620