Philosophy is sometimes disregarded as an impractical intellectual activity for people who have way too much time on their hands. Who has time to ponder existential questions while working a full-time job and caring for a family? Fair enough.
But not all philosophies are theoretical or even about pondering. Some, like Stoicism, are about how we can live our lives and who we want to become.
Stoicism has received much attention in recent years because of its practicality. Its simple guiding principles have given clarity to the otherwise clouded lives of its many practitioners.
Today's book is about one of its most famous practitioners, the roman emperor and lifetime Stoic Marcus Aurelius, and his gift to humankind; his Meditations. What would you think if you were the world's most powerful being of your time?
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson
About a year ago, I got into Stoicism, and a good friend recommended this book. I'm ashamed to admit that at the time, I didn't know who Marcus Aurelius was and that he was a Stoic, but I was sold when my friend cited the following quote:
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; just be one — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The quote comes from Meditations, a collection of self-reflections and introspections he wrote throughout his life.
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was on top of the world. He could have lived a life of vanity, arrogance, greed, and other hedonic indulgences. But he didn't. He chose the arduous path of virtue.
Why? It is hard to say. There is no utilitarian value in doing so; the path doesn't lead to salvation.
Stoics accept that death is the final destination that nullifies our existence and everything we have achieved or cherished in our life. They don't believe in legacy because it goes against Stoicism teachings; wanting to leave behind a legacy is a manifestation of vanity and it leads astray from the path of virtue.
In fact, Marcus was convinced that he would soon be forgotten once he expired. His meditations were not meant to be read by anyone but himself. He didn't pretend that his life and achievements would have any meaning at all; he would most likely be horrified to find out that millions of people have read them and felt inspired by them.
Now, as insightful and inspirational as it is, Meditations is not an easy book to read. It wasn't meant to. In How to think like a Roman emperor, Donald Robertson gives us both the historical and philosophical background necessary to get the most out of Marcus' thoughts.
Each period of Marcus' life is illustrated with fundamental Stoic teachings and how they guided him through life challenges, from adversity, grief, pain, fear, anger, and ultimately death.
Robertson comes from a cognitive behavioral therapy background and believes that Stoic teachings are still relevant today from a psychological perspective. Techniques like Objective Representation and Cognitive Distancing are essential tenets of critical thinking; Dichotomy of Control and Worry Postponement can help us deal with setbacks and difficult situations.
Reading this book made me a (theoretical) Stoic right away and inspired me to write the article Listen to coach Marcus, where I imagine Marcus Aurelius as a business coach teaching Stoic wisdom to corporations in need of renewed purpose.
There is so much to say about Stoicism in general and this book in particular that I'm not sure where to start, and more importantly, where to stop. So instead, I'll end this review with a quote from Pierre Hadot
Do what you must, let happen what may — Pierre Hadot