📓🌱💻 GuidoPercu.dev

How to think like a Roman Emperor

In “How to think like a Roman Emperor” by Donald Robertson, readers are taken on a captivating journey into the wisdom of ancient Stoicism through the lens of one of its most renowned practitioners, Marcus Aurelius. The author pierces together historical narrative, philosophical and psychological insights with practical exercises, offering a compelling guide for modern readers seeking timeless wisdom in the pursuit of a more meaningful, resilient and happy life. The book provides a thoughtful exploration of Marcus Aurelius’ life and teachings (by explaining relevant passages of Meditations) and it also serves as a guide to applying Stoic principles to contemporary challenges.

In this book Robertson shows the parallels between the wisdom of Stoicism and the science-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), highligthing their profound interconnection. The author states that both Stoicism and CBT share a fundamental emphasis on recognizing and reframing distorted thought patterns, fostering resilience and cultivating a rational mindset in the face of life’s challenges. The practical techniques of Stoicism such as negative visualization and cognitive restructuring align with strategies employed in CBT. It’s the philosophical approach to the contemporary psychology of well-being.

The Stoics can teach you how to find a sense of purpose in life, how to face adversity, how to conquer anger within yourself, moderate your desires, experience healthy sources of joy, endure pain and illness patiently and with dignity, exhibit courage in the face of your anxieties, cope with loss, and perhaps even confront your own mortality while remaining as unperturbed as Socrates.

Stoicism’s relevance in the modern world lies in its timeless wisdom and practical applicability to the challenges of contemporary life. In an era marked by rapid change, constant distractions, and heightened stress, Stoicism provides a philosophical anchor, offering individuals a guide to navigating tumultuous waters with resilience and inner strength. The emphasis on virtue, self-discipline, and the distinction between what can and cannot be controlled resonates deeply in a society grappling with uncertainty. Moreover, the Stoic emphasis on mindfulness, ethical decision-making, and the pursuit of tranquility aligns seamlessly with contemporary discussions on mental well-being and personal development.

In a rapidly changing world where institutionalized religion holds less sway and science alone doesn’t provide a comprehensive guide for life, individuals seeking meaning and stability are increasingly turning to Stoicism as a source of guidance for virtuous living. As traditional religious affiliations wane in significance, people often find themselves in search of alternative frameworks. In this vacuum, the resurgence of interest in Stoicism becomes evident, manifesting across various domains such as business, politics, and self-development. The contemporary quest for gurus and self-help resources reflects a yearning for practical philosophies that transcend religious dogma and scientific abstraction. This renewed attention to Stoicism is evident in the proliferation of new books, videos, lectures, and podcasts dedicated to its principles, reinforcing its cultural relevance as a timeless and adaptable guide for navigating the complexities of modern life.

I had the enriching experience of delving into “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” alongside “Meditations” and a biography of Marcus Aurelius by Pierre Grimal, and the synergy among these works was truly remarkable. Each book complemented and enhanced the insights of the others, creating a holistic understanding of Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy. I highly recommend this multidimensional approach, as tackling “Meditations” alone can prove challenging without the historical context. Donald Robertson’s book serves as an invaluable companion, providing a nuanced perspective that enriches the reading of Aurelius’ meditative reflections. Engaging with these works together offers a more comprehensive and rewarding experience, bridging the gap between our contemporary world and the profound wisdom of ancient Stoicism.

What is Stoicism and its historical background?

Stoicism, a school of philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE, is a timeless and influential approach to life that centers on the idea of achieving tranquility through virtue and rationality. The name “Stoicism” is derived from the Stoa Poikile, or “painted porch,” where Zeno and his followers would gather for discussions. The philosophy gained prominence in ancient Greece and later flourished in Rome, shaping the outlook of numerous prominent figures, including Seneca, Epictetus, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

At its core, Stoicism encourages individuals to cultivate inner strength, resilience, and ethical conduct in the face of life’s challenges. Stoics believe in focusing on what is within one’s control, accepting what is not, and maintaining an unwavering commitment to virtue. The philosophy teaches that external events are indifferent and that our reactions to them determine our well-being. Stoicism’s practical teachings extend to the pursuit of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, forming a comprehensive guide for ethical living.

How to Conquer Desire

We use the word “pleasure” very broadly to encompass almost any positive feeling. However, the Stoics distinguished between the sort of pleasure (hedone) we get from “external things” like food or sex or flattery and the deeper sense of inner joy (chara) that Marcus is talking about. Stoic joy is profound. It comes from achieving your fundamental goal in life and experiencing genuine fullfillment, which makes ordinary pleasures seems trivial.

According to Stoic philosophy, life’s ultimate aim is the pursuit of wisdom (“Know Thyself” from the temple of Apollo), a state of being that transcends the fleeting and superficial pleasures that transient joys offer. Achieving wisdom, as envisioned by the Stoics, unlocks a profound fulfillment that surpasses the temporary satisfaction derived from trivial indulgences. The Stoic perspective urges individuals to center their attention on a higher purpose, steering clear of the myriad distractions and transient delights that contemporary life often presents. By maintaining focus on our inherent purpose and resisting the allure of momentary diversions, we can navigate the complexities of modern existence with a sense of purpose and clarity, ultimately aligning ourselves with the enduring wisdom espoused by the Stoics.

Stoic indifference, or apatheia. It has a very specific meaning—freedom from harmful desires or passions—that the Stoics distinguished from ordinary indifference.

The framework provided by Donald Robertson to change your habits is as follows:

  1. Evaluate the consequences of your habits or desires in order to select which ones to change
  2. Spot early warning signs
  3. Gain cognitive distance
  4. Do something else instead of engaging in the habit.

How to deal with anger, fear and anxiety

“You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent,” or “It is not things that upset us but our judgments about them.”

The Stoic likewise tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond.

Stoic doctrine that rational beings are inherently social, designed to live in communities and to help one another in a spirit of goodwill. As such, we have a duty to live wisely and harmoniously with our fellow humans in order to fulfill our natural potential and to flourish.

The stoic approach to anger management, anxiety and fear involves a combination of techniques that CBT psychologist also applies today. The goal is to have emotional resilience, a deeper understanding of your own feelings and emotions, and a more virtuous life.

  1. Self-monitoring
  2. Cognitive distancing
  3. Postponement
  4. Modeling virtue
  5. Functional analysis


To learn how to die, according to the Stoics, is to unlearn how to be a slave.

As death is among the most certain things in life, to a man of wisdom it should be among the least feared.

Robertson emphasizes the Stoic principle of practicing “memento mori,” or the contemplation of death. This ancient practice encourages individuals to reflect on the transient nature of life and the certainty of death, not as a morbid exercise but as a means of fostering gratitude for the present moment and living a virtuous life.

Robertson underscores the Stoic idea that death is a natural part of the human experience and, therefore, should be approached with equanimity rather than fear. Stoicism teaches us to focus on what is within our control, accepting the inevitability of death while striving to lead a life of purpose and virtue. By cultivating resilience in the face of mortality, individuals can navigate the emotional challenges associated with death more effectively. Robertson’s exploration of these Stoic principles provides readers with practical tools to confront their own mortality and to support loved ones through the often difficult process of preparing for and dealing with death. The book serves as a guide for approaching this universal aspect of the human experience with wisdom, acceptance, and a sense of peace.

They felt the pain of loss but did not succumb to it. Marcus has been bereaved so many times, has practiced his response to it so often, that he no longer weeps uncontrollably. He no longer cries “Why?” and “How could this happen?” or even entertains such thoughts. He has firmly grasped the truth that death is both a natural and inevitable part of life.

Never say that anything has been lost, they tell us. Only that it has returned to Nature.

Stoic practices

  1. Objective Representation (phantasia kataleptike) : Write down about the problem you’re anxious about. About an event that might happen in your life. Now keep asking “What will most likely happen next” questions. What if that event happens? And then what? And then what? Writing down your fears and anxiety can help.
  2. Premeditatio Malorum (Preparation for Evils): This exercise involves mentally preparing for potential challenges or setbacks. By anticipating difficulties, individuals can approach them with resilience and a rational mindset, minimizing the impact of negative events on their emotional well-being.
  3. Role Modeling: Encouraging individuals to consider how historical or fictional role models, especially Stoic figures like Marcus Aurelius, would approach challenges. This can also be done with your friends, family and mentors. Write down a short biography of the people that have influenced you in your life and what you admire or what you have learned from them (like Marcus does on Meditations’ book 1). This exercise helps individuals draw inspiration from virtuous exemplars in their decision-making.

Dive in the rabbit hole: