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How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson

Vincent Di Norcia thinks about Roman Emperors.

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) was a Roman emperor and a Stoic philosopher. He is perhaps best known for his Meditations, which are mostly reflections about his thoughts and feelings. Happiness, Aurelius wrote, depends on controlling how one thinks and feels: “You have power over your mind, not outside events beyond your control. Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

Marcus Aurelius
Philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, riding into history.

In such matters, claims Donald Robertson, the author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: the Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Aurelius followed the teachings of Epictetus, a Stoic thinker whose teachings focused on self-examination, controlling desires and feelings, considering the consequences of one’s actions, dealing with adversity, and accepting one’s finitude. Stoics sought to be emotionally imperturbable, and to respond wisely to events they cannot control. Indeed Aurelius, Robertson reports, proposed ways of viewing pain and illness with composure and indifference. His Stoicism was not merely a theory, it was an ethic, a way of life. To rule an empire, one certainly needed to control one’s feelings, especially when facing adversity and violence, as Rome’s rulers often did. Feelings, Robertson notes, usually decline in intensity after a few minutes, making them more controllable. Robertson also proposes a framework for evaluating and changing one’s behaviour, feelings and emotions, which he calls ‘emotional habituation’ (p.200).

Epictetus’s Stoicism, Robertson comments, is in some ways similar to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. He notes CBT techniques such as cognitive distancing, self-control, values clarification, decatastrophizing crises, mindfulness, detachment, and reality testing. To accept and deal with one’s emotions, he proposes exposure therapy and emotional habituation. Stoics, Robertson notes, accepted Socrates’ opinion that no one willingly or knowingly does wrong (p.235). What matters, he says, is how we respond to our feelings, for instance, how we manage our anger. But CBT also leads him to propose a cognitive theory of emotions based on the problematic claim that our emotions are mainly due to our beliefs (p.9). I question Robertson’s view that our feelings are mainly the result of our beliefs; rather, our feelings often affect what we believe. Nor are feelings such as fear, disgust, surprise, and anger necessarily irrational, or immoral. On the contrary, anxiety about disease; disgust at something rotten; or surprise at an unexpected threat, all are warnings of challenges we need to face. Listening to our feelings helps us survive – something I’m sure that Marcus Aurelius himself realized. Other Roman philosophers also wrote about these matters. Seneca, who tutored Nero, had a lot to say about anger, kindness, peace of mind, constancy, providence, and death. But Nero ignored Seneca’s teachings, and ultimately falsely charged him with plotting against his rule, and ordered him to kill himself, which he did.

Epictetus held the view that a good Stoic has no country, home, wife, or child. On this point Epictetus’s Stoicism is fundamentally incompatible with the primary duty of a ruler like Aurelius; namely, to care for the wellbeing of the state and the people. That mandate was implied in Rome’s motto – ‘The Senate and People of Rome’, abbreviated in Latin as ‘SPQR’ (letters you can still see on Rome’s buildings today). Even Niccolo Machiavelli said in The Prince (1532) that the solid foundations of a ruler’s power are the support of the people, along with courage and an ability to command. The tension between virtu and fortuna (virtue and fortune) lay at the heart of Machiavelli’s analysis of princely rule. Virtu, he noted, could help one control fortuna at best half the time.

This is an important point for Marcus Aurelius, for Rome was frequently subject to both civil violence and external attacks. In fact, early in his reign, Avidus Cassius, provincial governor of Roman Egypt, and a notoriously brutal leader, declared himself emperor (Ch.7). This was in effect a declaration of civil war, which could split the empire apart. Aurelius immediately assembled his legions and put down Cassius’s rebellion. Although his Stoic meditations may have helped Aurelius personally, the major factors in aiding his reign were his abilities to lead his legions in battle as a general and to govern Rome and its large territories as emperor. Aurelius’s bonds with his troops and his capability as a general were key factors in his victory over Cassius, for example; far more important than his private thoughts and feelings. That he was a Stoic philosopher-king may have contributed to the quality of his rule, but Robertson does not make a convincing case that Aurelius’s reflections were major factors in his rule of Rome. Indeed, Stoic indifference could inhibit a ruler from responding appropriately to social problems, such as civil violence and foreign threats, problems which Rome’s rulers repeatedly faced.

Cicero, in his Practical Code, claimed that the Stoics resolved the tension between duty and personal advantage by arguing that what was right was also advantageous (On Duties, Part III). Cicero tested this view of the utility of duty by analysing cases in politics and business. He argued for example that practices like undermining the common good, abusing public funds, and crimes such as tyranny and murder, are not only immoral but also disadvantageous, both to the state and to one’s rule – as are dishonest business practices. In sum, Cicero’s analysis of duty’s links to utility was directly relevant to how emperors should rule (and is far more credible than Kant’s moral metaphysics of duty). It also suggests that being a good emperor is more than a matter of philosophical nous. In fact, there were good emperors not given to philosophical self-reflection at all. Julius Caesar, for example, was famous for the speed and mobility of his army, for it enabled him to surprise his enemies. Caesar also took good care of the Roman people, making many social reforms. So did Octavian, his nephew, who, renamed as Augustus Caesar, gave Rome four decades of peace. He was indeed one of Rome’s greatest emperors.

© Vincent di Norcia 2022

Vincent di Norcia is a retired Laurentian University philosophy prof living in Barrie, Ontario. He is currently working on a book of essays on the brain, the self, and hi-tech society. He can be reached at vdn@sympatico.ca.

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: the Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, by Donald Robertson, Griffin, 2020, £10.99 pb, 304pp, ISBN:1250621437

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