How to Think Like a Roman Emperor - Donald Robertson

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor - Donald Robertson

Video Book Summary

Download all of the Mind Maps here.

Book Summary Notes

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

“The Stoics can teach you how to find a sense of purpose in life, how to face adversity, how to conquer anger within yourself, moderate your desires, experience healthy sources of joy, endure pain and illness patiently and with dignity, exhibit courage in the face of your anxieties, cope with loss, and perhaps even confront your own mortality while remaining as unperturbed as Socrates." 

"Marcus Aurelius faced colossal challenges during his reign as emperor of Rome. The Meditations provides a window into his soul, allowing us to see how he guided himself through it all. Indeed, I would invite you, as a reader, to put effort into reading this book in a special way, to try and place yourself in Marcus’s shoes and look at life through his eyes, through the lens of his philosophy."

"Let’s see if we can accompany him on the journey he made as he transformed himself, day by day, into a fully-fledged Stoic. Fate permitting, more people may be able to apply the wisdom of Stoicism to the real challenges and everyday problems of modern living. However, that change won’t leap off the page. It only comes by making a firm decision, here and now, to begin putting ideas like these into practice."

Why learn from the Stoics?

Aside from being truly dedicated and immersed in Philosophy..  The great stoic teachers actually lived the principles!

This is something we don't always get today with academic researchers and writers!

So it is refreshing to hear the Stoic teachers who not only spent their time thinking about philosophy but were also of great standing in the real world..  

Marcus Aurelius himself in fact was a Roman emperor.. 

This book is part biography of this great philosopher and leader..

The other part is a distillation of some of the best stoic practices to be applied to modern life! 

Donald Robertson is not only a student of stoicism he lives the practices himself and is a trained psychologist to boot!  

Inside this book there are a tonne of great strategies, exercises and teachings coming from Stoicism!

But this first passage need not be overlooked..  

Placing yourself in the shoes of the person you are learning from is a great way to become fully immersed in the teachings!



“The schools of Hellenistic philosophy that followed the death of Socrates were often distinguished from one another in terms of their definition of the goal of life. For Stoics, that goal is defined as ‘living in agreement with Nature,’ which we’re told was synonymous with living wisely and virtuously." 

"Stoics argued that humans are first and foremost thinking creatures, capable of exercising reason. Although we share many instincts with other animals, our ability to think rationally is what makes us human."

"Reason governs our decisions, in a sense—the Stoics call it our ‘ruling faculty.’ It allows us to evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and urges and to decide if they’re good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We therefore have an innate duty to protect our ability to reason and to use it properly." 

"When we reason well about life and live rationally, we exhibit the virtue of wisdom. Living in agreement with Nature, in part, means fulfilling our natural potential for wisdom; that’s what it means for us to flourish as human beings."

"The Stoics therefore took the name of philosophy, meaning ‘love of wisdom,’ quite literally. They loved wisdom, or loved virtue, above everything else. If ‘virtue’ sounds a bit pompous, the Greek word for it, arete, is arguably better translated as ‘excellence of character."’ 

"Something excels, in this sense, if it performs its function well. Humans excel when they think clearly and reason well about their lives, which amounts to living wisely." 

"The Stoics adopted the Socratic division of cardinal virtues into wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. The other three virtues can be understood as wisdom applied to the social sphere, our relationships with other people. Displaying courage and moderation involved mastering our fears and desires, respectively, overcoming what Stoics called the unhealthy ‘passions’ that otherwise interfere with our ability to live in accord with wisdom and justice.”

What does it mean to flourish as a human being?

The Stoics believed that what set us apart as humans was our ability to reason.. 

  • They also believed that because we're naturally social animals that we should use that reason to better our society.. 
  • Marcus once said: “Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another, with God ever in mind.”

So what does service to the community look like?

  • Living a life of Virtue..  Specifically these four aspects of virtue; wisdom, courage, temperance and justice!
  • These are the four aspects of virtue as classified by Socrates.

Let's look a little more in depth!

  • Wisdom allows us to make decisions that can improve our life and the lives of those around us..
  • Courage is the ability to act well under challenging circumstances..
  • Temperance makes it possible for us to control our desires and actions so they don't yield excess..
  • Justice refers to treating other human beings with dignity and fairness.. 

Ideal Sage

“Your first step is to write down the virtues exhibited by someone you respect. Listing the qualities you most admire in another person, just as Marcus does in the first book of The Meditations, is a simple and powerful exercise."

"In addition to the virtues of real people, the Stoics were also known for contemplating the hypothetical character of an ideal Sage, or wise person. There are several passages where Marcus appears to be doing this. These descriptions inevitably seem a bit more abstract and grandiose."

"For example, he says that the perfect wise man is like a true priest of the gods, at one with the divine element of reason within himself. He is neither corrupted by pleasure nor injured by pain, and he remains untouched by insults. The true Sage is like a fighter in the noblest of fights, dyed deep with justice. With his whole being, he accepts everything that befalls him, as assigned him by Fate. He seldom concerns himself with what others say or do unless it’s for the common good. He naturally cares for all rational beings, as though they were his brothers and sisters. He is not swayed by the opinions of just anyone, but he gives special heed to the wise who live in agreement with Nature."

"Marcus is trying here to describe human perfection to himself and to envisage an ideal Sage who completely embodies the Stoic goals of life."

"In addition to asking ourselves what qualities the ideal wise person might have, we can ask what qualities we might hope to possess in the distant future. For instance, what sort of person would you hope to be after having trained in Stoicism for ten or twenty years?”

Can you envision what your 'ideal sage' would look like?

This is such a great exercise in not only visualization but also self reflection..  

  • Sure our Sages will likely to be very similar..  After all we're probably after most of the same base virtues!
  • But your Sage should be a true reflection of your best possible self..  Not of some specific ideal to uphold!
  • These virtues to me at least are principles and not standards..  

How can we best visualize our ideal sage?  

  • Asking questions is a great place to start.. 
  • Who are some of the people I admire most in life?
  • What are some of the things I admire most about them?
  • What might my life look like in 5 10 or 20 years if I did my absolute best to uphold and cultivate those things I admire?

This is such a great exercise I decided to add it to my coaching program!  

  • This is one of the first things we do with coaching clients..  Writing down what our 'Ideal Sage' might look like!  
  • What's the step after that?  Journalling (another stoic practice).  

Given my ideal sage..  

1. What did I not live up to today?

2. What did I live up to and do well today?

3. What could I do to make tomorrow different?

Think this might benefit you?  Click the link below and sign up for a free coaching call!


“Modern English isn’t well equipped to capture some of the distinctions made in ancient Greek philosophy, especially when it comes to describing emotions and sensations. We use the word ‘pleasure’ very broadly to encompass almost any positive feeling."

"However, the Stoics distinguished between the sort of pleasure (hedone) we get from ‘external’ things like food or sex or flattery and the deeper sense of inner joy (chara) that Marcus is talking about. Stoic joy is profound. It comes from achieving your fundamental goal in life and experiencing genuine fulfillment, which make ordinary pleasures seem trivial by comparison. Ordinary pleasures often ruffle our minds, especially when indulged in too much."

"Stoic joy never does this—it’s synonymous with inner peace and knows no excess. The Stoics refer to it as the pure form of ‘joy’ that someone experiences who is living a truly great life and has attained genuine personal fulfillment (eudaimonia). Of course, none of us are there yet, but all of us may, potentially, glimpse the goal as long as we’re heading in the right direction.”

How can we experience true joy?

The stoics would tell us that it's an active process!

  • Instead of seeking out the pleasures of food, sex or flattery...
  • True joy is a natural by product of living up to your virtues and contributing to society in a meaningful way.. 

What's the best way to ensure that you're going to live a Joyful life?

  • The ideal sage is a perfect example of someone in a state of true joy..  
  • Constantly and Consistently living up to your virtues is the only sure way to live a life of Joy!

What if you're not living a life full of virtue right now?

  • First of all..  You're probably experiencing the effects of seeking out pleasure!  Great in the short term..  But unfulfilling in the long term!
  • Second..  Joy is available as part of the process!  The stoics believed not only in seeing where you could improve but also where you are doing well..  
  • So how can you get a piece of that elusive stoic joy?  Start moving towards your ideal sage..  Make a small step today and congratulate yourself for it!

20 Years

“Another simple and powerful technique is to ask yourself how you would feel about the situation that worries you in ten or twenty years’ time, looking back on it from the future."

"It’s an example of a more general strategy known as ‘time projection.’ In other words, you can help yourself develop a philosophical attitude toward adversity by asking, ‘If this will seem trivial to me twenty years from now, then why shouldn’t I view it as trivial today instead of worrying about it as if it’s a catastrophe?’ You’ll often find that shifting your perspective in terms of time can change how you feel about a setback by making it seem less catastrophic.”

Dealing with adversity?

It comes in all forms! 

  • Temptation
  • Hard work
  • Social pressures 
  • Difficult decisions

Time projection is a great way to put these things into true perspective.. 

  • Try it yourself!  
  • What is currently stressing you out?  Pick one specific thing at a time.. 
  • Fast forward 10 or 20 years into the future and look at that stressful point from there..  Is it really still worth stressing out about?
  • Time for a little story..

Recently I lost a big contract in my marketing business..  

Immediately I could feel my mind moving towards catastrophic thinking..  Worrying, stressing even panicing!

While I was reading this book I tried this exercise..  I realized that in 20 years not only will this event not matter..  But that it gave me the chance to be much better 20 years from now!

I made a list of the 10 things I could have done to better serve that client and immediately started executing on one of them!

What about when something good happens?

  • Time projection can be used here to keep you from 'getting a big head' so to speak.. 
  • By looking forward in time on even our biggest accomplishment we can see how little they might really mean.. 
  • Thus being a good way of keeping us grounded and moving forward..  With pride but not arrogance!


“‘What do you think Hercules would have amounted to,’ Epictetus asks his students, “if there had not been monsters such as the Nemean lion, the Hydra, the stag of Artemis, the Erymanthian boar, and all those unjust and bestial men for him to contend with? Why, if he had sat at home, wrapped up asleep in bedsheets, living in luxury and ease, he would have been no Hercules at all!’"

"Epictetus tells his students that just as Hercules cleansed the earth of monsters—without complaining—they should set about conquering themselves by purging the base desires and emotions from their hearts."

"For Stoics, in other words, the tale of Hercules symbolizes the epic challenge of deciding who we really want to be in life, the promise of philosophy, and the temptation of giving in to pleasure and vice. The moral is that it often requires a Herculean effort to keep to the right path."

"But wasn’t Hercules’s life unpleasant? As we’ll see, from the Stoic perspective, Hercules remained cheerful, despite the terrible things he endured. He enjoyed a profound sense of inner satisfaction knowing that he was fulfilling his destiny and expressing his true nature. His life had something far more satisfying than pleasure: it had purpose.”

Choosing the right path..  (As Hercules did).

This is a great example of how the stoics used story and myth to prove a point..  

What does it mean in our lives?

  • Well..  Everyday (multiple times a day) we get to choose between these two paths..
  • The path of clearing the earth of monsters or the path of living in luxury!

What if you don't have monsters in your life?

  • Well we call the things inside us 'demons' for a reason!
  • Everyone has to deal with the base desires and emotions that human beings share..  

How might this be useful?

  • Well..  Maybe you use Hercules as part of your 'ideal sage' 
  • Imagine how he chose the harder, more disciplined, braver and more worthwhile path even in the face of the worst adversity possible..  
  • How can you choose that path a little more each day?


Back to blog