Book review: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

In The Art of Living (see multi-part commentary here, here, here, and here), John Sellars argues that the ancient curriculum in practical philosophy included three components:

(i) Literature concerned with action: biographies and anecdotal material. E.g., Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers.

(ii) Literature concerned with arguments and doctrines: theoretical treatises and commentaries. E.g., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Chrysippus’ On Logic, Simplicius’ commentary on the Enchiridion.

(iii) Literature concerned with practical (“spiritual”) exercises: either guides to practice or examples of practice. E.g., Epictetus’ Enchiridion, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Don Robertson’s latest book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor — The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, is an effective combination of (i) and (iii), with a dash of (ii). It is not a straightforward biography of the emperor-philosopher, nor is it a standard introduction to the theory or practice of Stoicism. Each chapter begins with an account of a particular episode in the life of Marcus Aurelius, followed by a practical treatment of how to deal with whatever situations in our own lives may be comparable to the issues encountered by Marcus.

For instance, chapter 3 is entitled “Contemplating the sage.” It begins with a recounting of how Marcus was an angry young man, struggling not to lose his temper. He was aware that this was a problem, as he had seen the destructive effects of the descent into anger by the emperor Hadrian, near the end of his life. By contrast, Marcus had the positive example of his own adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, who always displayed equanimity of thought and action, and is accordingly thanked as an inspiring role model in the first book of the Meditations:

“From my [adoptive] father: [I learned] to be gentle, and to hold immovably to judgments arrived at after careful consideration; to be free from vain conceit with regard to worldly honors; zest for work and perseverance; to lend a ready ear to those who have anything to propose for the common benefit.” (I.16)

We are told by Don how Marcus’ Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, often infuriated the youth, but also taught him, by his own demeanor, how to recover a calm frame of mind. Rusticus was also the one who introduced Marcus to the work of Epictetus, the major Stoic philosopher to influenced the content of the Meditations. This kind of mentorship had an effect on the would be emperor, and it became invaluable once he inherited the empire from Antoninus Pius. It is not by chance that both Marcus and his adoptive father are still remembered today as two of the five “good emperors” (a list that includes Hadrian, on account of the majority of his years in power, and his two predecessors, Nerva and Trajan).

[As an interesting aside, the term “good emperors” was coined by none other than Niccolò Machiavelli in his The Discourses on Livy, and originally included Titus: “From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced. … Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, and Marcus had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the good-will of their subjects, and the attachment of the Senate.”]

The second part of chapter 3 is entitled “How to follow your values,” and shifts from a discussion of Marcus’ life and times to a practical approach to the problem at hand, namely how to stick to the values that we have consciously adopted.

Robertson tells us that the word “mentor” comes from the Odyssey, where Athena — the goddess of wisdom — disguises herself as a friend of Odysseus, named Mentor, to advice Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. Mentorship is an important practice to guide young people in their first stages of life as adults, one that is unfortunately woefully neglected in much of modern society.

But, Don remarks, even if we are not lucky enough to have a mentor (let alone a divine one, like Telemachus did!), we can still profit from certain practices to remind ourselves of what we value and how to behave accordingly.

One way to do this is to imitate Marcus, and in particular the first book of the Meditations, which is an exercise in gratitude. You can sit down and write a similar list of people who have influenced you positively, putting in writing why you think each of them provides a good example for you to follow.

Robertson draws from his extensive experience as a Stoic practitioner and cognitive behavioral therapist to suggest what he calls a learning cycle: “In the morning you prepare for the day ahead; throughout the day you try to live consistently in accord with your values; and in the evening you review your progress and prepare to repeat the cycle again the next day.”

The latter component, the philosophical diary, is one of my own favorite exercises, and I can testify to its endless usefulness. One way to do it is by following Epictetus’ instructions:

“Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids Till you have reckoned up each deed of the day — How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.” (Discourses III, 10)

The point is to make you more aware of your own thoughts and actions, and to allow you to reflect on whether those thoughts and actions mirror your own chosen values. And what are these values? Don suggests the use of the Socratic method, known as elenchus, to self-investigate them. Pose yourself the following questions:

  • What’s ultimately the most important thing in life to you?
  • What do you really want your life to stand for or represent?
  • What do you want to be remembered for after you’re dead?
  • What sort of person do you most want to be in life?
  • What sort of character do you want to have?
  • What would you want written on your tombstone?

I can give you a simple answer right now to the last question. Surprisingly, perhaps, my tombstone would record the words not of a Stoic, but of Epicurus (the two philosophies where completely aligned when it came to the issue of death):

I was not;
I have been;
I am not;
I do not mind.

The eight chapters that comprise How to Think Like a Roman Emperor deal with fundamental issues that we all struggle with, each tackled first by using episodes in Marcus Aurelius’ life, then treated more explicitly and in a practical manner, including how to speak wisely, how to conquer desire, how to tolerate pain, how to relinquish fear, how to conquer anger, and of course how to approach our own death. A must read book for anyone interested in the emperor-philosopher in particular, but also in using Stoicism as a practical guide to the art of living.

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