How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

written by Donald J. Robertson

|finished reading on May 20th, 2020

Although I've been interested in Stoicism for quite a while, most of the content I've consumed has come from blogs like The Daily Stoic. It's worked for me because the content is digestible. It's distilled into a language I understand without much effort. After making it half-way through Meditations, I decided to give How To Think Like a Roman Emperor a shot.

One of the things I love about Stoicism is how practical the ideas are. It is a philosophy you can use in your daily life. It's about reflecting on your values, the things you can control, and living your best life.

Donald weaves the story of Marcus Aurelius' life with the practical ideas of Stoicism. Ever since I read Sapiens, I've been wanting to read more history, so I enjoyed that perspective. It doesn't have the exact same affect as reading Marcus' own words, but it's definitely more accessible.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; be one.
~ Marcus Aurelius

Marcus makes being a good person sound easy. Our human instincts make sure that isn't the case. But, we can apply the ideas of Stoicism on a daily basis. Stoicism is similar to meditation. It's a practice. It takes time to get complete control of ourselves.

We can start by observing the fact that thinking rationally is what makes us human. No other animal out there has quite the control (that we know of). Because of this, it is our most important attribute. We should focus a lot of effort on thinking rationally. We will still deal with plenty of emotions but rational thinking allows us to handle them with ease.

This book reiterates the fact that our judgements of the world around us is what causes us to suffer. It's a major theme and the cause of anger, sadness, and fear. In life, a lot of what we react to is neither good nor bad. Pain for example. It has a purpose but our judgement of it, the way we think about it, makes it hard to endure. We have to accept our involuntary emotional reactions as indifferent. This allows us to respond to the feelings, which is more important than what we are feeling.

I like how Donald reframes some very common emotions. He talks about how fear is future-focused. When we aren't being present, we allow ourselves to fear. It's our imagination. This can be a good think to practice (praemeditatio malorum) but it also causes unnecessary suffering. Anger is a desire; often to harm someone because we feel wronged and want revenge. It's temporary madness. Joy is a byproduct of pursuing an honest life but not something to be pursued directly.

A lot of things I aspire to in life tend to converge toward Stoicism. For example, they talk about living simply. Attachment to objects causes suffering in life. Everything changes and nothing lasts forever. This is an idea that found in Buddhism as well. I've been trying to stay minimal for a while. It pairs nicely with Stoicism. I want to continue to reflect on the things I have and check to see if I imagine being upset without them. If I do, I want to practice letting those things go.

The Stoics thought a lot about death as well. Just like our possessions, we too will expire. This is something I enjoy thinking about. People think it's morbid when I bring it up but it does have a lot of practicality to it. Death is among the most certain things in life so why should we fear it?

If we look at our lives through an objective lens, it becomes clear what we have control of. If we practice focusing on those things, we can reduce our suffering, fear, anger, and desires for things that don't provide value. Among the things we can control are our gratitude for what we have and the acceptance that everything (yes, even you) must come to an end.

There was a lot to unpack in this book. I'd definitely recommend it as an intro to Stoicism and the life of Marcus Aurelius.

If you have other great Stoic recommendations, let me know!

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