How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

The Big Idea: The Stoics believed a good life is the pursuit of the cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. We can’t control our fate, only how we think and act.


The Stoic school in particular focused on the practical side of Socratic philosophy.

The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.

I believe that for many people a combination of Stoic philosophy and CBT may be even more suited for use as a long-term preventive approach.


Marcus was a naturally loving and affectionate man, deeply affected by loss. He’d lived long enough to see eight of their thirteen children die.

Everyone from Alexander the Great right down to his lowly mule driver ends up lying under the same ground.

Once we truly accept our own demise as an inescapable fact of life, it makes no more sense for us to wish for immortality.

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

The cardinal virtues of Stoicism are: wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

We can no more hold on to life than grasp the waters of a rushing stream.

Marcus Aurelius was the last famous Stoic of the ancient world.

The ancient philosophy of Cynicism focused on cultivating virtue and strength of character through rigorous training that consisted of enduring various forms of “voluntary hardship.”

The Cynics sneered at the pretentious and bookish nature of Plato’s Academy. The Academics, in turn, thought the doctrines of the Cynics were crude and too extreme.

Zeno founded his own school in a public building overlooking the agora known as the Stoa Poikile, or “Painted Porch.” The students who gathered there were originally known as Zenonians but later called themselves Stoics, after the stoa, or porch.

After Zeno died, Cleanthes, one of his students, who had formerly been a boxer and watered gardens at night to earn a living, became head of the Stoic school; he was followed by Chrysippus, one of the most acclaimed intellectuals of the ancient world.

Emperor Nero’s secretary owned a slave called Epictetus, who became perhaps the most famous philosophy teacher in Roman history. Epictetus is the most quoted author in The Meditations.


The three famous Roman Stoic texts of the Imperial era: Seneca’s various letters and essays, Epictetus’s Discourses and Handbook, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

They loved wisdom, or loved virtue, above everything else. If “virtue” sounds a bit pompous, the Greek word for it, arete, is arguably better translated as “excellence of character.”

The Stoics adopted the Socratic division of cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

Health, wealth, and reputation are, at most, advantages or opportunities rather than being good in themselves.

The true goal of life for Stoics isn’t to acquire as many external advantages as possible but to use whatever befalls us wisely, whether it be sickness or health, wealth or poverty, friends or enemies.

Another popular misconception today is that Stoics are unemotional. When people talk about being stoic or having a stiff upper lip, they often mean just suppressing their feelings, which is actually known to be quite unhealthy.


Marcus was born on April 26, 121 as a member of a wealthy patrician family with ties to the emperor. Marcus’s family, though wealthy and influential, was notable for cherishing honesty and simplicity.

Young Marcus displayed a tendency toward plain speaking.

The Stoics would sometimes also train themselves to endure heat and cold. Seneca described taking cold baths and swimming in the River Tiber at the beginning of the year—and cold showers are popular with those influenced by Stoicism today.

In The Meditations, Marcus names Epictetus as an exemplary philosopher alongside Socrates and Chrysippus, 10 and quotes him more than any other author.

Hadrian adopted Antoninus on condition that he would in turn adopt Marcus, placing him in direct line to the throne. Hadrian thereby adopted Marcus as his grandson. Marcus Annius Verus assumed Antoninus’s family name, becoming forever known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Marcus preferred to dress down and talk plainly like a philosopher or, failing that, an ordinary citizen.

Plato’s saying was always on Marcus’s lips: those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers.

Apollonius taught Marcus the doctrines of Stoic philosophy while showing him how to apply them in daily life.

Stoicism distinguished between two stages of our response to any event. First come the initial impressions (phantasiai), then, second, we typically add voluntary judgments of “assent” (sunkatatheseis) to these automatic impressions. Responding calmly and with courage is more important.

Stoic philosophy, which teaches us to accept our involuntary emotional reactions, our flashes of anxiety, as indifferent: neither good nor bad. What matters is how we respond to those feelings.


Marcus tells himself that true philosophy is both simple and modest, and we should never be seduced into vanity or ostentation in this regard.

The Sophists, as we’ve seen, sought to persuade others by appealing to their emotions, typically in order to win praise. The Stoics, by contrast, placed supreme value on grasping and communicating the truth by appealing to reason.

Whereas orators traditionally sought to exploit the emotions of their audience, the Stoics made a point of consciously describing events in plain and simple terms.

As an aspiring Stoic, you should begin by practicing deliberately describing events more objectively and in less emotional terms.

Cognitive therapists use the neologism “catastrophizing,” or dwelling on the worst-case scenario, to help explain to clients how we project our values onto external events.

Ask “What would Marcus do?”

It’s a contradiction to believe both that you must do something and also that it’s not within your power to do so. The Stoics viewed this confusion as the root cause of most emotional suffering.

Marcus was relatively indifferent to dying as long as he met his death with wisdom and virtue. This used to be known as the ideal of a “good death,”


Rusticus was one of three tutors, along with Apollonius of Chalcedon and Sextus of Chaeronea, who exemplified Stoicism for him as a way of life.

Only the very wisest among us ever truly know ourselves. The New Testament likewise asks why we look at the tiny splinter of wood in our brother’s eye yet pay no attention to the great plank of wood obscuring our own view.

Galen’s solution to this problem is for us to find a suitable mentor who can properly identify our vices and tell us frankly where we’re going astray in life.

Alexander was the most powerful man in the known world. However, when Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, the Cynic is supposed to have replied that he could step aside, as he was blocking the sun.

If the real goal for Stoics is wisdom, then sometimes just blurting out the truth isn’t enough. We have to put more effort into communicating with others effectively. Diplomacy was, of course, particularly important to Marcus. Throughout Marcus’s reign, he doubtlessly averted many serious problems through his patient diplomacy and sensitive use of language.

We should welcome criticism from others as one of life’s inevitabilities and turn it to our advantage by making all men into our teachers.

Marcus makes it clear that we must train ourselves to discriminate good advice from bad and learn not to preoccupy ourselves with the opinions of foolish people.

Stoic mentoring into a kind of mindfulness practice. Imagining that we’re being observed helps us to pay more attention to our own character and behavior.

In modern therapy, it’s common for clients who are making progress to wonder between sessions what their therapist might say about the thoughts they have.

Marcus, like other ancient philosophers, conjured the images of various advisors and role models in his mind.

The story of Zeno begins with him being given the cryptic advice to “take on the color of dead men” by studying the wisdom of previous generations.

Writing down virtues exhibited by someone you respect, mulling them over, and revising them gives you an opportunity to process them. With practice, you will be able to visualize the character traits you’re describing more easily.

“What would Marcus do?”

Marcus discusses how to prepare for the day in The Meditations. 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.

By deeply reflecting on our values each day and attempting to describe them concisely, we can develop a clearer sense of direction in life. Socratic questioning forms part of an approach called “values clarification,” which has been around since the 1970s.

The Stoic cardinal virtues are: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

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?


“The Choice of Hercules.” This ancient allegory about choosing our path in life plays a special role in the history of Stoicism. Hercules famously chose the heroic path of Arete, or “Virtue,” and was not seduced by Kakia, or “Vice.”

What we’re all really seeking in life is the sense of authentic happiness or fulfillment the Stoics called eudaimonia.

Chasing empty, transient pleasures can never lead to true happiness in the long run.

The Stoics taught Marcus that we all seek a deeper and more lasting sense of fulfillment. They taught him that this could only be obtained by realizing our inner potential and living in accord with our core values.

The life of Hercules had something far more satisfying than pleasure: it had purpose.

“Nothing in excess.” The Stoics believed that entertainment, sex, food, and even alcohol have their place in life—they’re neither good nor bad in themselves. However, when pursued excessively, they can become unhealthy.

The Stoics tended to view joy not as the goal of life, which is wisdom, but as a by-product of acting in accord with virtue.

The Stoics encourage you to appreciate the external things Fortune has given you, without becoming overly attached to them.

There’s nothing wrong with taking pleasure in healthy experiences, as long as it’s not carried to excess.

A simple framework for evaluating and changing your behavior based on a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and ancient Stoic practices is…

  1. Plan new activities that are consistent with your core values.
  2. Contemplate the qualities you admire in other people.
  3. Practice gratitude for the things you already have in life.

Reduce bad habits and introduce more activities that are intrinsically valued and rewarding.

Epictetus therefore told his students to envision the consequences of an action and determine how it would work out for them over time.

Therapists find it helpful to ask their clients of their habits, “How’s that working out in the long run?”

The Stoics often reminded themselves of the paradox that unhealthy emotions such as fear and anger actually do us more harm than the things we’re upset about.

Learning self-control may ultimately do us more good than obtaining all the external things we desire.

If you’re determined to break this sort of habit, you can remove temptation.

You want to be a role model for your children, you should ask yourself what sort of person you are and what qualities you want to exhibit.

Seeing that two beliefs are incompatible can weaken one or both of them and help you clarify your core values.

Healthy pleasures and even a deeper sense of joy may follow as the consequence of living in accord with virtue.

The first and most important source of joy is progress toward wisdom and virtue.

Schedule beneficial activities

Practice gratitude by asking, what would it be like if you didn’t have this? If we don’t occasionally picture loss, reminding ourselves what life might be like without the things and people we love, we would take them for granted.

The wise man is grateful for the gifts life has given him, but he also reminds himself that they are merely on loan—everything changes and nothing lasts forever.


Marcus Aurelius was known for his physical frailty, due to chronic health problems, but he was also known for his exceptional resilience.

Epicurus coined the maxim “a little pain is contemptible, and a great one is not lasting.” We should remind ourselves, Epicurus said, that pain is always bearable because it is either acute or chronic but never both.

Everyday tolerance of minor physical discomforts can help us build lasting psychological resilience, in other words. You could call this a form of stress inoculation.

Taking cold showers allows us to build resilience to discomfort.

Stoics say that the fear of pain does us far more harm than pain itself because it injures our very character.

Fear of pain makes cowards out of us all and limits our sphere of life.

Remind yourself that Nature has given you both the capacity to exercise courage and the endurance to rise above pain.

Modern mindfulness and acceptance-based cognitive therapy teaches clients to neither suppress unpleasant feelings nor to worry about them. Instead, you should learn to accept them while remaining detached from them.

Health is not really good or bad. It’s more like an opportunity. A foolish person may squander the advantages good health provides by indulging in his vices. A wise and good person, by contrast, may use both health and illness as opportunities to exercise virtue.

“This too shall pass,”

As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”


The obstacle standing in the way becomes the way.

Fortune favors the brave, as the Roman poets said.

The concept of a “reserve clause” such as “God willing” means undertaking any action while calmly accepting that the outcome isn’t entirely under your control.

We learn from Seneca and others that nothing is certain in life. You cannot control the outcome, only your own thoughts and actions.

The Stoics prepared themselves to cope with adversity by patiently visualizing every major type of misfortune, one at a time, as if it were already happening to them. Seneca calls this praemeditatio malorum, or the “premeditation of adversity.”

In times of peace, we should prepare for war.

The Stoics realized that exposure to real (or imagined) events can lead to “emotional habituation,” allowing anxiety to abate naturally. If exposure is terminated too soon, the technique may actually backfire and increase anxiety and sensitization to the feared situation.

Marcus tells himself that resilience comes from his ability to regain his composure wherever he finds himself. This is the “inner citadel” to which he can retreat.

Everything that we see is changing and will soon be gone. We can call the “contemplation of impermanence.”

External things cannot touch the soul, but our disturbances all arise from within. We can call this “cognitive distancing.”

The universe is change. Life is opinion.

Another simple and powerful technique is to ask yourself how you would feel about the situation that worries you in ten or twenty years’ time, looking back on it from the future. If this will seem trivial to me twenty years from now, then why shouldn’t I view it as trivial today? We can call this “time projection.”

Decide to postpone worrying about something until your feelings have abated naturally, returning to the problem at a specified “worry time” of your choosing. Later, when you return to the worry, if it no longer seems important, you might just leave it alone. Worry postponement is a central component of CBT.


When Roman general Cassius revolts against the Roman empire, Marcus reminds himself not to regard the rebel faction as enemies but to view them as benignly as a physician does his patients.

For Stoics, full-blown anger is an irrational and unhealthy passion that we should never indulge.

Being a Stoic clearly doesn’t mean being a passive doormat. However, the wise man will not get upset about things that lie beyond his direct control.

Anger stems from the idea that an injustice has been committed, or someone has done something they shouldn’t have done.

How to deal with anger:

  1. Self-monitoring. Spot early warning signs of anger.
  2. Cognitive distancing. Remind yourself that the events themselves don’t make you angry, but rather your judgments about them cause the anger.
  3. Postponement. Wait until your feelings of anger have naturally abated before you decide how to respond to the situation.
  4. Modeling virtue. Ask yourself what a wise person such as Socrates or Zeno would do.
  5. Picture the consequences of following anger versus following reason and exercising virtues

The Stoics believed rational beings are inherently social, designed to live in communities and to help one another in a spirit of goodwill, not to harm one another out of malice.

Picturing the person you’re angry with in a more rounded and complete manner by contemplate their virtues. Remember that nobody is perfect.

Nobody does wrong willingly. Marcus says that you should contemplate how they are blinded by their own mistaken opinions and compelled by them to act as they do—they don’t know any better. They believe they are acting justly.


Change is both life and death. We can try to stall the inevitable, but we never escape it.

The wise man sees life and death as two sides of the same coin.

Death comes knocking at the king’s palace and the beggar’s shack alike.

Alexander the Great and his mule driver both reduced to dust, made equals at last by death.

Every era of history teaches us the same lesson: nothing lasts forever.

Socrates did not fear death; he saw that it was neither good nor bad. On the morning of his execution, he casually informed his friends that philosophy is a lifelong meditation on our own mortality.

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