How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

Lessons on Stoicism learned from the life of Marcus Aurelius

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson, image reproduced by permission of the author

Marcus Aurelius led Rome through several wars including a Civil War, a plague, an economic crisis. Not to mention, he did all this while dealing with family issues, chronic pain, and illness. The lessons of Marcus’ personal journal, the Meditations have remarkable enduring practicality. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson pulled out a lot of the lessons from Marcus’ thoughts, his life and paired them with modern psychology. It is useful to see not only the abstract principles but how Marcus Aurelius practiced the principles and the outcomes they helped him achieve leading the Roman empire through one of its most difficult eras.

The primary nature of interpersonal conflict is a difference in expectations.

Prepare for conflict

Prepare for the fact that most people have different expectations for how they should behave than you do. The primary nature of interpersonal conflict is a difference in expectations. You believe that you or someone you know should behave one way. They have a different idea about that. Marcus Aurelius had this to say when thinking about how he was planning on approaching his interactions with people:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.

How’s that for a glowing review of human nature? Marcus has a few similar thoughts throughout his Meditations to remind himself that people are often going to behave in a way that differs from what he would like. He sets up this expectation that people are going to be difficult and rude. Marcus would prevent these behaviors from bothering him by anticipating them. Upon reflecting on it myself, the times when I have been most upset with people haven’t been because they did something I didn’t like, it’s because they did something I didn’t expect. They behaved in a way that didn’t fit with what I thought they should do based on my understanding of their circumstances and that’s what bothered me.

It reminds me of this great piece of wisdom: if someone cuts you off in traffic, assume they just really have to poop. If you decide that someone in traffic cut you off just to be selfish, you’re likely to ruminate on in and think about how awful all of humanity is. However, if you assume that person cut you off in traffic because they just have to go to the bathroom or they’re in a hurry because they just got some bad news, your expectation changes. Therefore, if you assume that people are going to behave in a way that you don’t like, and assume that it is for a good reason to them even if that reason doesn’t appear good to you, it will make them that much easier to deal with. This brings me to the next Marcus Aurelius quote:

Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?

We have all done things to other people that we wouldn’t want others to do to us. Examining our faults is uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it serves as a good reminder: whatever someone did to bother you right now, you have done many other similar, if not worse, things in your lifetime. Being patient with things that bother you is easier when you have all of your own faults at the top of your mind. It might bring to mind how you were feeling when behaving that way and help create some empathy. At the very least, it will provide a healthy bit of humility when you see yourself being bothered by something you have done at one time. Marcus had a great maxim for how we should approach all of our interactions with others:

Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.

Marcus Aurelius forgave people who constantly betrayed his trust. His brother, and co-emperor for a time, Lucius Verus, was often out gambling and visiting brothels, neglecting the duties he had on the frontlines of the wars facing Rome. One of Marcus’ trusted military leaders led part of the empire against him in a Civil War. Marcus, rather than seeking revenge, forgave them and encouraged others to do the same. He reminded himself of the philosophical maxims that others had used for generations to deal with betrayal, disloyalty, and other vices. However, he held himself to a much higher standard than he did others. Marcus would not get upset by others doing things that he considered to be unwise, but he did all he could to make sure he didn’t behave the same way. He examined himself relentlessly to make sure that he was not doing anything that he considered to be unwise and to correct himself when he found that he had done something that violated his sensibilities.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson
Cover image reproduced by permission of the author.

Perspective is everything

Marcus Aurelius learned from his Stoic predecessors that by changing the way we relate to our thoughts, we can change the way we feel and gain self-control. For example, Marcus dealt with chronic pain. The first time I read this book I couldn’t relate as well, but since then I have developed some chronic back pain that provided me some more insight as to what Marcus was writing about. Pain becomes amplified when we get overly involved in the story of the pain. It gets lessened when we view it objectively. Dealing with something like chronic pain can be made easier by thinking about it as “tightness and pinching sensations in my back” rather than “an agonizing feeling that my vertebrae are rubbing together and turning themselves into dust.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should only view your issues more objectively to manage them rather than say, go to a doctor. However, it does mean that by choosing to view pain as physical sensations and thoughts that are appearing but you aren’t actively engaging with, you can reduce the emotional impact that pain has on you, which is a much larger part than you might think.

In most cases what Epicurus said should help: that pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination. And keep in mind too that pain often comes in disguise — as drowsiness, fever, loss of appetite. . . . When you’re bothered by things like that, remind yourself: ‘I’m giving into pain.’

Marcus’ go-to perspective-shifting tool seemed to be thinking about impermanence. He meditates on how many of the great and powerful emperors that went before him are now names that history has nearly forgotten. He often reminded himself of the pointlessness of posthumous fame and the importance of living life well here and now. He wrote about how whatever is causing us problems now will either eventually end and we won’t have to worry about it, or it would kill us and we won’t have to worry either. I can’t say that I have quite hit that level of tranquility about my problems, but that’s definitely something to which we can all aspire. One of the most interesting parts of the book is the last chapter, where Robertson writes a version of what might have been going through Marcus Aurelius’ head as he was preparing to die. In this hypothetical dialogue had with himself, he reminded himself regularly that he was returning to Nature, as all things were supposed to do, he was just going his natural way.

From the moment we’re born we’re constantly dying, not only with each stage of life but also one day at a time. Our bodies are no longer the ones to which our mothers gave birth, as Marcus put it. Nobody is the same person he was yesterday. Realizing this makes it easier to let go: we can no more hold on to life than grasp the waters of a rushing stream.— Donald Robertson

My favorite thought exercise that the Stoics like Marcus taught and practiced is the view from above. I did a version of this before I ever read this book. Sometimes, when I would have some free time in the evenings, I’d like to drive up to the hills that overlook the city and look out over everything. I would think about how all the cars, all the lights, are all people with lives that are just as full as mine. They all have their own ambitions, fears, full lives that I will never see and never experience, but are just as complete as my own. Sitting there and thinking about that helped me put my own problems, ambitions, and selfishness in perspective. Those people will all have a life full of their own successes and disappointments. They are all the protagonists of their own stories. I always found this to be a comforting thought, that no matter how big my problems seem to me, I’m just one of seven billion other people with their own set of problems. It also helped me check myself when I started feeling a bit too important. There are lots of people who have had their own successes and they care a lot more about their successes than they care about my successes.

I’m glad to remember that I’m one temporary node in the vast network that is humanity. It reminds me that the weight of the world never has to sit on my shoulders, or anyone else’s. It reminds me that we all have our own successes and failures and that we should be humble and compassionate. It also reminds me that we all have a huge opportunity to impact each other and we need to take that seriously because it does have consequences both good and bad.

Virtue is all that matters

Marcus was the emperor of Rome. He could have had nearly anything he wanted at any time. Many of his predecessors like Nero or Caligula abused that privilege. Marcus’ adoptive grandfather Hadrian was notorious for his temper. Once, in a fit of rage, Hadrian poked out his servant’s eye. He felt bad afterward and tried to ask the servant what he could do to make up for it, to which the servant said something to the effect of, “you could fix my eye.” Being that he was the emperor, it was a rare occasion that Hadrian’s vices would get him in trouble, even when they went too far. However, Marcus took the road less traveled by the Roman emperors and committed to developing a virtuous character. He spent the first section of his meditations writing down all the virtues of his friends, family, and teachers to give himself targets to aim for in his development of wisdom. Marcus understood what the other Stoic teachers before him taught, that no matter your status, no matter your wealth, health, or talent, all you really have is your character.

Wisdom, in all these forms, mainly requires understanding the difference between good, bad, and indifferent things. Virtue is good and vice is bad, but everything else is indifferent. — Donald Robertson

Looking through a more modern lens, it is fascinating how essential virtue is for good mental health. The author’s expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy helped link together the modern psychological value and the ancient philosophical value of virtue. For example, Marcus learned to cultivate courage and accepted the daunting challenges he faced as an emperor in wartime. His brother, Lucius, tried to deal with anxieties about his responsibilities as co-emperor by drinking, partying, and starting fights wherever he went. Marcus practiced moderation. As a result, he lived well longer than average for the time despite dealing with many chronic health problems. His brother lived nearly 20 years less, despite being more preoccupied with avoiding harm on the war front. Marcus practiced cultivating wisdom and a tranquil mind, reminding himself not to get caught up in pretentious speeches, lavish parties, or any of the other distractions that could have caught his eye. Because of this, he was able to be a far more calm and capable leader of his troops than he would have been having he gotten too attached to his creature comforts.

Something to try today

One of Donald Robertson’s techniques that I have found the most immediately useful is worry postponement. By providing myself a set time to worry, or just saying that there is another time to worry about things, but that time isn’t now, I have been able to get fairly immediate relief from anxiety. For example, there was a period where existential anxiety was making it difficult for me to get to sleep. I was lying awake for about an hour until I was sufficiently able to distract myself. I had started to associate laying down to sleep with an existential crisis. I gave worry postponement a try and remembered that now is not the time to solve the things that I was worried about. I gave myself permission to worry about it another time when I was more awake and my rational faculties were working better than right before I was trying to go to sleep.

I have found that every time I find myself worrying in an unproductive way and provide myself genuine permission to worry about it later, it goes away in the moment. Then I can revisit things in a more productive way when I am prepared to. Try worry postponement with something small. Make this agreement with yourself and keep it. When you notice that you are worried about something, give yourself permission to come back to it at a later time, but decide that now is not the time to worry about this.

Marcus provided an example in his life, and a guide to follow that example in his writings. Donald Robertson makes that example more accessible to a modern audience and underpins it all with the psychological principles that explain why these ideas are effective in creating positive personal change.

If you want to learn more about Marcus Aurelius, his life, and how it can help you be a better leader, I highly recommend picking the book up.

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Liam D. Aubrey

Liam D. Aubrey

I want to share ideas that have helped me lead a happy, healthier life and that I believe may do the same for you.

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