Book Review: How To Think Like A Roman Emperor

How To Think Like A Roman Emperor:  The Stoic Philosophy Of Marcus Aurelius, by Donald Robertson

A more accurate title for this book would have been:  The Stoic Philosophy Of Donald Robertson.  Very often in life we find that people who profess to express the reality of some person or even in history only end up telling us about themselves.  That is the case here.  The more you come to this book knowing the biography and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, the less you will be impressed by the author’s phony stoicism and his attempts to bolster the respect that others have for his inhuman heathen philosophical views by slanting and skewing the life and writing of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  The reader of this book should be prepared for the fact that they will be reading the author’s personal philosophy that only occasionally and in passing resembles the life and behavior of the titular Roman Emperor that is being written about.  Of course, that is the hazard of reading a book written by someone who is in charge of a contemporary stoic society that they would seek to promote a particular view of a philosophy rather than seek to honestly and openly discuss the subject at hand.

This book is a bit less than 300 pages and it is divided into eight chapters.  After a personal introduction, the book begins rather strangely with the discussion of Marcus Aurelius’ death and the story of stoicism, which the author is keen to promote (1).  There is then a discussion of Marcus’ youth and how he learned to speak wisely (2).  There is an exploration on how contemplates wisdom and learns from sages and follows one’s values, which is the sort of vague pablum that the author promotes as opposed to godly virtue (3).  The author talks about Marcus’ attempts to conquer desire (even though he had many kids) (4), and there is in general a strong Cognitive-Behavioral bias that comes from the author’s professional experience.  The author then discusses the tolerance of pain that stoicism encourages (5).  After that the author talks about overcoming ear and anxiety through cultivating the inner citadel of internal strength (6).  The author discusses some of the political matters of the empire at the time and the problem of temporary madness and anger (7).  Finally, the author ends with a discussion of the death that comes to us all, ending where it began (8), after which the book ends with various supplementary indices and bibliographies.

This book is certainly biased and partial.  What is not mentioned about Marcus Aurelius includes the rampant homosexuality of Hadrian, the fact that the emperor was viewed as a prig, the fact that his wife was viewed as unfaithful, the fact that his son was an absolute disaster as an emperor, and the fact that Marcus Aurelius was himself a persecutor of Christians who was fond of phonies.  All of this the author omits to mention or talks about only obliquely so as to avoid making Marcus Aurelius look bad.  To be sure, he was not a perfect person and this book does not present him as such, but all the same the author is seeking to borrow laurels from the emperor and so he is presented as being a bit better than he was.  This is lamentable but not all that uncommon.  This book is best for those who come into it with knowledge about Marcus Aurelius and can use the insights they gain from the author and his own life experience and not be led astray by the author and his own particular (and very obvious) bias.  Readers who lack this context may be more subject to be fooled, though.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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