How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

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My Rating: 8/10
Published or Updated On: 
November 19, 2022

Big Picture Thoughts

For ideas that impacted my life, this book is 10/10. I docked it a couple points for dryness & organization. Overall, it's excellent and I highly recommend it. I emailed the author "thank you" after reading it.

The Main Ideas

  1. Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor.
  2. He used Stoic teachings as a mental toolkit through which to live a resilient, content and virtue-driven life.
  3. Cognitive distancing is the most powerful of Stoic teachings & the underpinning of modern cognitive behavioral therapy. It involves creating space between you & your thoughts.

Summary Notes

Marcus the man

The Stoic Goal of Life

How to Speak Wisely

How to Live by Your Values

How to Conquer Desire

How to Tolerate Pain

How to Relinquish Fear

  1. Emotional habituation - anxiety naturally wears off over time
  2. Emotional acceptance - where we gradually reduce our struggle against unpleasant feelings such as pain or anxiety, come to view them with greater indifference, and learn to live WITH them. Paradoxically often greatly alleviates emotional distress.
  3. Cognitive distancing - when we increasingly view thoughts and beliefs with detachments, we begin to see its not things themselves that upset us but our judgments about them
  4. Decatastrophizing - where we gradually reappraise our judgment about the severity of a situation, of how awful it seems - downgrading from “what if this happens, how will I cope?” To “so what if this happens, it’s not the end of the world”
  5. Reality testing - where we reappraise our assumptions about a situation to make them progressively more realistic and objective, for example re evaluations probability of the worst case scenario or that something bad will even happen at all.
  6. Problem solving - where repeatedly reviewing an event leads us to creatively figure out a solution to some problem facing us, perhaps like Marcus and his generals idea to march into ambush to spring trap
  7. Behavioral rehearsal - where our perception of our ability to cope improves as we practice in our minds eye, applying skills and coping strategies in an increasingly refined manner - ex mentally rehearsing ways to deal with unfair criticism until we are confident about doing so in reality (could take form of modeling behavior of others we admire - how would they act? Then picture us doing something similar).

Life allotted to you is short, so “live as though on a mountain top retreat” regardless of circumstances - everything that troubles us now is just as it would anywhere in the world - what matters is how we choose to view it.

To achieve peace, Marcus tells himself to retreat to his own faculty of reason, thereby rising above external events and purifying his mind of attachment to them. To do this, he must reflect on 2 concise and fundamental stoic principles:

  1. Everything that we see is changing and will soon be gone, and we should bear in mind how many things have already changed over time, like the waters of streams flowing ceaselessly past. The contemplation of impermanence.
  2. External things can not touch the soul, but disturbances all arise from within. Things don’t upset us, our value judgments about them do. We regain composure by separating our values from external events using cognitive distancing.

6 Greek words: the universe is change, life is opinion.

Cognitive distancing: can be employed during real world or during imagined premeditation. Habituation reduces anxiety, but our real goal is to change our opinions about external events. Gaining cognitive distance is most important aspect of stoic anxiety management. “Life is opinion.”: Quality of our life is determined by our value judgments because those shape our emotions.

When we deliberately remind ourselves that we project our values into external events, and that how we judge those events is what upsets us, we gain cognitive distance and recover mental composure.

Decatastrophizing and the contemplation of impermanence. Former - downgrade to more realistic level. Again can be applied in both real and imagined. Ex: worried about failing exam.

Write down a description of a scene and review later. Write a page. Read aloud, then try to visualize it. Leave out emotive language or value judgments m, stick to facts. Ask yourself “what next?” At most distressing scene to fade catastrophic appearance.

Why shouldn’t I view it as trivial today if I will in the future?

Worry postponement - what if thoughts, chain reaction, feeding one another, fueling anxiety. It’s a conscious and voluntary type of thinking, but people sometimes don’t even realize it’s worrying. They confuse it’s problem solving. Ironic contrast between trying too hard to take care of involuntary aspects of the anxiety emotion while neglecting voluntary. Initial is natural, voluntary thoughts later are on you.

How to Conquer Anger

How to Prepare for Death

How to Accept One’s Fate


Of fundamental importance to the development of the idea of natural rights was the emergence of the idea of natural human equality. As the historian A.J. Carlyle notes: "There is no change in political theory so startling in its completeness as the change from the theory of Aristotle to the later philosophical view represented by Cicero and Seneca.... We think that this cannot be better exemplified than with regard to the theory of the equality of human nature."[13] Charles H. McIlwain likewise observes that "the idea of the equality of men is the profoundest contribution of the Stoics to political thought" and that "its greatest influence is in the changed conception of law that in part resulted from it."[14] Cicero argues in De Legibus that "we are born for Justice, and that right is based, not upon opinions, but upon Nature."[15]

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