A Review of Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
We all can benefit from therapy, and an effective way for most people to preemptively treat themselves is to turn to ancient Stoic philosophy, particularly one of its best-known practitioners, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Donald Roberton’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius enlivens Aurelius’ Stoic journey through thematic story-telling. Robertson blends stories of Aurelius’ life, based on primary and secondary research, with his own expertise as a psychotherapist. The result is an accessible but powerful guide to becoming more Stoic that, in many ways, functions as a kind of preventative therapy for all (110).
Stoicism has the popular reputation of consisting of seeking to stifle one’s own emotions, but this is a deeply erroneous vision as Stoicism really stresses acting wisely (not cleverly) (48). There are many aspects to Stoicism, but the overarching philosophy can be summarized as follows: we can only control our own responses in this world, and we must respond wisely because the essence of who we are is the extent to which we live virtuously. In short, “virtue is its own reward” and it is the only reward that matters (24). We have achieved wisdom when we preoccupy ourselves with making virtuous choices (33). That does not mean we cannot value such things as good health or wealth, for example, but that they are “at most advantages or opportunities rather than begin good in themselves” (39).
Given its reputation for stifling one’s emotions, Stoicism paradoxically is also about fostering meaningful and kind relationships with others (41), not about being a “man of iron” or having a “heart of stone” (41). As such, “true strength” is described as the ability to “show kindness,” particularly in challenging circumstances (57). Stoics believe, for example, that being blunt is not helpful; rather, one must be tactful (92). Again, this reality is at odds with general understandings of stoicism that one could argue have shaped certain aspects of military culture.
Robertson opens the work with a beautiful story describing his own father’s Stoic traits. His father never complained about his difficult circumstances as an underpaid construction worker; rather, he found his contentment in adhering to his own values. After his father’s death, Robertson received his inheritance from his father—a wallet, filled not with a single penny but an old, well-loved piece of paper stating, “I am that I am.” This piece of paper begins Robertson’s quest to understand the meaning of the paper and, ultimately, to the meaning of a life well lived.
For Robertson, philosophy must provide a practical guide to living, and he finds that in the ancient Stoics, who he describes as “veritable warriors of the mind” (6). More than any other philosophers, he argues, their thinking undergirds modern therapy, especially in helping us to “apply reason to our emotions” (7). Emotions are so important because they epitomize the value judgments we make about things that happen to us, and thus they reveal insights into our inner-most and often unexamined beliefs (9). Emotions are akin to natural reflexes. We should accept them as normal—to include fear, anger, even blushing—but then we must analyze them, reminding ourselves to not respond to situations we cannot control. Moreover, we must not apply a value judgment to them, such as rushing to assess a situation as bad or dangerous, such as losing a job (63-65, 69). Our response is what matters, not the initial feelings themselves (66). In this vein, the Stoic approach to anger is to treat it as “temporary madness” (84). One must understand why one is angry by seeking to make a distant, more objective assessment of why one feels so much emotion.
The work provides numerous practical methods to deal with life’s deepest uncertainties, particularly death. As such, the book’s first chapter counterintuitively begins with Marcus Aurelius’ death rather than his upbringing to demonstrate how one first must come to terms with death in order to “unlearn how to be a slave” (18). This is an important step in beginning to live more wisely.
Stoicism attracted many ancient Greek and Roman military officers, and it continues to speak powerfully to the military experience today. Late in life, Aurelius found himself spending more than a decade on the borders of the Roman Empire, leading soldiers who came to love him. Not only did he demonstrate traits such as kindness to win over his soldiers, but he exemplified the Stoic tendency to “engage in a course of action with great vigor and determination while simultaneously remaining relaxed and unperturbed about the outcome” (61), which provides an important model for military professionals to emulate (addressed in chapter six). Notably, Aurelius did all of this from the advanced age of fifty (for that time) and in the face of chronic health problems. Lacking any previous military experience, he successfully drew on a lifelong devotion to training himself in Stoic practices. (191)
Questions for Further Thought or for Leading a Book Club
- The essence of Stoicism is NOT to have a “stiff upper lip.” How would you sum up Stoicism in an “elevator talk”?
- Robertson’s father’s inheritance to his son was an idea on a piece of paper. What Stoic idea do you find worthy of putting on a piece of paper and carrying everywhere you go? (2)
- Why is it so important to apply reason to our emotions? (7) How can we replace unhealthy emotions with healthy ones (42)? How does Robertson explain the process by which we react emotionally? (63)
- What does it mean to live wisely? (12)
- Are there practical impediments in military culture to the adoption of Stoic thinking?
- What particular practices or ways of thinking offer the most benefit for leaders to implement in their own lives and inculcate in their subordinates? Which ones are reasonable to seek to practice on a daily basis in light of the author’s assertion that “[s]mall changes can often have big consequences” (103, 109)?
- The author gives the example of a more productive way to think about losing a job, an act we tend to label as catastrophic. Can you think of an analogous situation in your military career and how you might have used the practice of “decastrophizing” to deal with the situation better? (73-74). How might a Stoic, for example, seek to deal with a toxic leader given that Stoics do not believe in being doormats but, rather, seek to act virtuously?
- Related question to the previous one: What do Stoics mean by the phrase, “It’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things”? (77)
- How can we escape the tendency to “slip into the habit of thinking about external things as if they were more important than fulfilling our own nature”? (145)
- “Stoicism, in my view, is a philosophy of love.” What does the author mean by that? How do you see Marcus Aurelius acting on that idea? Stoics believe that no person “does wrong knowingly.” How does this idea epitomize the Stoic emphasis on positive human relationships? (223-224) How can military leaders apply this idea? (Note the author says on 236 that if “we constantly think of others as being mistaken rather than simply malicious . . . we will inevitably deal more gently with them” (236).
- What is the first thing Marcus Aurelius says at his hypothetical change of command ceremony?
Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.