The life-changing principles of Stoicism taught through the story of its most famous proponent.
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was the last famous Stoic philosopher of the ancient world. The Meditations, his personal journal, survives to this day as one of the most loved self-help and spiritual classics of all time. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, cognitive psychotherapist Donald Robertson weaves the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius together seamlessly to provide a compelling modern-day guide to the Stoic wisdom followed by countless individuals throughout the centuries as a path to achieving greater fulfillment and emotional resilience.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor takes readers on a transformative journey along with Marcus, following his progress from a young noble at the court of Hadrian—taken under the wing of some of the finest philosophers of his day—through to his reign as emperor of Rome at the height of its power. Robertson shows how Marcus used philosophical doctrines and therapeutic practices to build emotional resilience and endure tremendous adversity, and guides readers through applying the same methods to their own lives.
Combining remarkable stories from Marcus’s life with insights from modern psychology and the enduring wisdom of his philosophy, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor puts a human face on Stoicism and offers a timeless and essential guide to handling the ethical and psychological challenges we face today.
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THE DEAD EMPEROR
The year is 180 AD. As another long and difficult winter draws to a close on the northern frontier, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius lies dying in bed at his military camp in Vindobona (modern-day Vienna). Six days ago he was stricken with a fever, and the symptoms have been worsening rapidly. It's clear to his physicians that he is finally about to succumb to the great Antonine Plague (probably a strain of smallpox), which has been ravaging the empire for the past fourteen years. Marcus is nearly sixty and physically frail, and all the signs show he's unlikely to recover. However, to the physicians and courtiers present he seems strangely calm, almost indifferent. He has been preparing for this moment most of his life. The Stoic philosophy he follows has taught him to practice contemplating his own mortality calmly and rationally. To learn how to die, according to the Stoics, is to unlearn how to be a slave.
This philosophical attitude toward death didn't come naturally to Marcus. His father passed away when Marcus was only a few years old, leaving him a solemn child. When he reached seventeen, he was adopted by the Emperor Antoninus Pius as part of a long-term succession plan devised by his predecessor, Hadrian, who had foreseen the potential for wisdom and greatness in Marcus even as a small boy. Nevertheless, he had been most reluctant to leave his mother's home for the imperial palace. Antoninus summoned the finest teachers of rhetoric and philosophy to train Marcus in preparation for succeeding him as emperor. Among his tutors were experts on Platonism and Aristotelianism, but his main philosophical education was in Stoicism. These men became like family to him. When one of his most beloved tutors died, it's said that Marcus wept so violently that the palace servants tried to restrain him. They were worried that people would find his behavior unbecoming of a future ruler. However, Antoninus told them to leave Marcus alone: "Let him be only a man for once; for neither philosophy nor empire takes away natural feeling." Years later, after having lost several young children, Marcus was once again moved to tears in public while presiding over a legal case, when he heard an advocate say in the course of his argument: "Blessed are they who died in the plague."
Marcus was a naturally loving and affectionate man, deeply affected by loss. Over the course of his life, he increasingly turned to the ancient precepts of Stoicism as a way of coping when those closest to him were taken. Now, as he lies dying, he reflects once again on those he has lost. A few years earlier, the Empress Faustina, his wife of thirty-five years, passed away. He'd lived long enough to see eight of their thirteen children die. Four of his eight daughters survived, but only one of his five sons, Commodus. Death was everywhere, though. During Marcus's reign, millions of Romans throughout the empire had been killed by war or disease. The two went hand in hand, as the legionary camps were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of plague, especially during the long winter months. The air around him is still thick with the sweet smell of frankincense, which the Romans vainly hoped might help prevent the spread of the disease. For over a decade now, the scent of smoke and incense had been a reminder to Marcus that he was living under the shadow of death and that survival from one day to the next should never be taken for granted.
Infection with the plague wasn't always fatal. However, Marcus's celebrated court physician, Galen, had observed that victims inevitably die when their feces turn black, a sign of intestinal bleeding. Perhaps that's how Marcus's doctors know he is dying, or maybe they just realize how frail he's become with age. Throughout his adult life he had been prone to chronic chest and stomach pains and bouts of illness. His appetite had always been poor. Now he voluntarily rejects food and drink to hasten his own demise. Socrates used to say that death is like some prankster in a scary mask, dressed as a bogeyman to frighten small children. The wise man carefully removes the mask and, looking behind it, he finds nothing worth fearing. Because of this lifelong preparation, now that his death finally draws near, Marcus is no more afraid of it than when it seemed far away. He therefore asks his physicians to describe patiently and in detail what's happening inside his body, so that he may contemplate his own symptoms with the studied indifference of a natural philosopher. His voice is weak and the sores in his mouth and throat make it difficult for him to speak. Before long he grows tired and gestures for them to leave, wishing to continue his meditations in private.
Alone in his room, as he listens to the sound of his own wheezing, he doesn't feel much like an emperor anymore — just a feeble old man, sick and dying. He turns his head to one side andcatches a glimpse of his reflection on the polished surface of the goddess Fortuna's golden statuette by his bedside. His Stoic tutors advised him to practice a mental exercise when he noticed his own image. It's a way of building emotional resilience by training yourself to come to terms with your own mortality. Focusing his eyes weakly on his reflection, he tries to imagine one of the long-dead Roman emperors who preceded him gazing back. First he pictures Antoninus, his adoptive father, and then his adoptive grandfather, the emperor Hadrian. He even imagines his reflection slowly assuming the features depicted in paintings and sculptures of Augustus, who founded the empire two centuries earlier. As he does so, Marcus silently asks himself, "Where are they now?" and whispers the answer: "Nowhere ... or at least nowhere of which we can speak."
He continues to meditate patiently, albeit drowsily, on the mortality of the emperors who preceded him. There's nothing left of any of them now but bones and dust. Their once illustrious lives have gradually become insignificant to subsequent generations, who have already half-forgotten them. Even their names sound old, evoking memories of another era. As a boy, the Emperor Hadrian had befriended Marcus, and the two used to go boar hunting together. Now there are young officers under Marcus's command for whom Hadrian is just a name in the history books, his real, living body long ago replaced by lifeless portraits and statues. Antoninus, Hadrian, Augustus — all equally dead and gone. Everyone from Alexander the Great right down to his lowly mule driver ends up lying under the same ground. King and pauper alike, the same fate ultimately awaits everyone ...
This train of thought is rudely interrupted by a bout of coughing that brings up blood and tissue from the ulceration at the back of his throat. The pain and discomfort of his fever vie for his attention, but Marcus turns this into another part of the meditation: he tells himself that he's just another one of these dead men. Soon he'll be nothing more than a name alongside theirs in the history books, and one day even his name will be forgotten. This is how he contemplates his own mortality: using one of the many centuries-old Stoic exercises learned in his youth. Once we truly accept our own demise as an inescapable fact of life, it makes no more sense for us to wish for immortality than to long for bodies as hard as diamonds or to be able to soar on the wings of a bird. As long as we can grasp the truth firmly enough that certain misfortunes are inevitable, we no longer feel the need to worry about them. Nor do we yearn for things that we accept are impossible, as long as we can see with crystal clarity that it is futile to do so. As death is among the most certain things in life, to a man of wisdom it should be among the least feared.
Although Marcus first began training in philosophy when he was just a boy of about twelve, his practice intensified in his mid-twenties, when he dedicated himself wholeheartedly to becoming a Stoic. Since then he has rehearsed his Stoic exercises daily, trained his mind and body to obey reason, and progressively transformed himself, both as a man and a ruler, into something approaching the Stoic ideal. He has tried to develop his own wisdom and resilience systematically, modeling himself after the philosophers who shared their teachings with him and the other great men who won his admiration, foremost among them Antoninus. He studied the way they met different forms of adversity with calm dignity. He carefully observed how they lived in accord with reason and exhibited the cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, fortitude, and temperance. They felt the pain of loss but did not succumb to it. Marcus has been bereaved so many times, has practiced his response to it so often, that he no longer weeps uncontrollably. He no longer cries "Why?" and "How could this happen?" or even entertains such thoughts. He has firmly grasped the truth that death is both a natural and inevitable part of life. Now that his time has come he welcomes it with a philosophical attitude. You might even say that he has learned to befriend death. He still sheds tears and mourns losses, but as a wise man does. He no longer adds to his natural grief by complaining and shaking his fist at the universe.
Since completing his journal of reflections on philosophy several years earlier, Marcus has been passing through the final stage of a lifelong spiritual journey. Now lying in pain and discomfort, nearing the end, he gently reminds himself that he has already died many times along the way. First of all, Marcus the child died as he entered the imperial palace as heir to the throne, assuming the title Caesar after Hadrian passed away. After Antoninus passed away, Marcus the young Caesar had to die when he took his place as emperor of Rome. Leaving Rome behind to take command of the northern legions during the Marcomannic Wars signaled another death: a transition to a life of warfare and a sojourn in a foreign land. Now, as an old man, he faces his death not for the first time but for the last. 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.
Now Marcus is growing drowsy and on the verge of drifting off, but he rouses himself with some effort and sits up in his bed. He has unfinished business to attend to. He orders the guards to send in the members of his family and his inner circle of courtiers, the "friends of the emperor," who have been summoned to his camp. Though he appears frail and has suffered from illness throughout his life, Marcus is famously resilient. He has seemed on the verge of dying before, but this time the physicians have confirmed to him that he is unlikely to survive. Everyone senses that the end is near. He bids farewell to his beloved friends, his sons-in-law, and his four remaining daughters. He would have kissed each one of them, but the plague forces them to keep their distance.
His son-in-law Pompeianus, his right-hand man and senior general during the Marcomannic Wars, is there as always. His lifelong friend Aufidius Victorinus, another one of his generals, is also present, as are Bruttius Praesens, the father-in-law of Commodus, and another of his sons-in-law, Gnaeus Claudius Severus, a close friend and fellow philosopher. They gather solemn-faced around his bed. Marcus stresses to them that they must take good care of Commodus, his only surviving son, who has ruled by his side as his junior co-emperor for the past three years. He has appointed the best teachers available for him, but their influence is waning. Commodus became emperor when he was only sixteen; Marcus had to wait until he was forty. Young rulers, such as the Emperor Nero, tend to be easily corrupted, and Marcus can see that his son is already falling in with bad company. He asks his friends, especially Pompeianus, to do him the honor of ensuring that Commodus's moral education continues as if he were their own son.
Marcus appointed Commodus his official heir, granting him the title Caesar when he was just five years old. Commodus's younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, was also named Caesar, but he died shortly thereafter. Marcus had hoped that the two boys would rule jointly one day. Any succession plans Marcus agreed with the Senate were always going to be precarious. However, at the height of the plague, as the First Marcomannic War broke out, it was necessary for Rome's stability to have a designated heir in case a usurper tried to seize the throne. During a previous bout of illness five years earlier, rumors spread that Marcus had already passed away. His most powerful general in the eastern provinces, Avidius Cassius, was acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion, triggering a short-lived civil war. Marcus immediately had Commodus rushed from Rome to the northern frontier to assume the toga virilis, marking his official passage to adulthood. After the rebellion was put down, Marcus continued to accelerate the process of appointing Commodus emperor. If Marcus had died without an heir, another civil war would probably have ensued.
Likewise, replacing Commodus with a substitute ruler at this stage would leave the whole empire vulnerable. The northern tribes might seize the opportunity to renew their attacks, and another invasion could mean the end of Rome. Marcus's best hope now would be that Commodus might follow the guidance of his trusted teachers and advisors. He is being swayed, however, by various hangers-on who constantly plead with him to return to Rome. As long as he remains with the army, under the watchful eye of his brother-in-law Pompeianus, there's still hope that Commodus may learn to rule with wisdom. Unlike his father, though, he shows no interest in philosophy.
In the middle of their conversation, Marcus suddenly slumps forward and loses consciousness. Some of his friends are alarmed and start to weep uncontrollably because they assume he is slipping away. The physicians manage to rouse him. When Marcus sees the faces of his grieving companions, rather than fearing his own death his attention turns to theirs. He watches them weeping for him just as he had wept for his wife and children and so many lost friends and teachers over the years. Now that he is the one dying, though, their tears seem unnecessary. It feels pointless to lament over something inevitable and beyond anyone's control. It's more important to him that they calmly and prudently arrange the transition to Commodus's reign. Though Marcus is barely conscious, things somehow seem clearer than ever before. He wants those gathered to remember their own mortality, to accept its implications, grasp its significance, and live wisely, so he whispers, "Why do you weep for me instead of thinking about the plague ... and about death as the common lot of us all?"
The room falls silent as his gentle admonition sinks in. The sobbing quiets down. Nobody knows what to say. Marcus smiles and gestures weakly, giving them permission to leave. His parting words are, "If you now grant me leave to go then I will bid you farewell and pass on ahead of you." As the news of his condition spreads through the camp, the soldiers grieve loudly — because they love him much more than they care for his son Commodus.
The following day, Marcus awakens early, feeling extremely frail and weary. His fever is worse. Realizing that these are his last hours, he summons Commodus. The series of wars against hostile Germanic and Sarmatian tribes that Marcus has been fighting for over a decade now is already in its final stages. He urges his son to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion by assuming personal command of the army, pursuing the remaining enemy tribes until they surrender, and overseeing the complex peace negotiations currently underway. Marcus warns Commodus that if he doesn't remain at the front, the Senate may view it as a betrayal after so much has been invested in the long wars and so many lives have been lost in battle.
However, unlike his father, Commodus is scared witless of dying. Gazing upon Marcus's withered body, rather than being inspired to follow his father's virtuous example, he feels repulsed and afraid. He complains that he risks contracting the plague by remaining among the legions in the north and that he yearns more than anything to return to the safety of Rome. Marcus assures him that soon enough, as sole emperor, he may do as he wishes, but he orders Commodus to wait just a few days longer before leaving. Then, sensing the hour of his death looming, Marcus commands the soldiers to take Commodus into their protection so that the youth cannot be accused of having murdered his father. Marcus can only hope now that his generals will talk Commodus out of his reckless desire to abandon the northern frontier.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How To Think Like A Roman Emperor"
Copyright © 2019 Donald Robertson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1 The Dead Emperor 17
The Story of stoicism
2 The Most Truthful Child in Rome 45
How to Speak Wisely
3 Contemplating the Sage 83
How to Follow Your Values
4 The Choice of Hercules 113
How to Conquer Desire
5 Grasping the Nettle 155
How to Tolerate Pain
6 The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations 187
How to Relinquish Fear
7 Temporary Madness 217
How to Conquer Anger
8 Death and the View from Above 253