How To Think Like A Roman Emperor

Not only is the book very well told — telling the story of Marcus as he grew up — but it is an incredible introduction to putting the stoic principles to action in your own life. Robertson guides one in applying the methods that Marcus used to overcome adversity and live a stoic life. If the Meditations is the theory book, then this book is the practical field-guide.

8 min read

  • "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; just be one" — Marcus Aurelius
  • As death is among the most certain in life, to a man of wisdom it should be among the least feared.
  • The stoic sage, or wise man, needs nothing but uses everything well; the fool believes himself to "need" countless things, but he uses them all badly.
  • You cannot control your initial reaction, but you can control your response to the situation. Calm yourself, and don't worsen the situation by panicking or worrying.
  • What matters is not what we feel but how we respond to those feelings.
  • "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" — Shakespeare, Hamlet
  • CBT: Decatastrophizing.
  • "It's not things that upset us but our judgement about things" — Epictetus.
  • CBT distancing techniques page 78.
  • Have a mentor. You can imagine one if you can not get one in real life. Write down what you admire / the virtues of that person. Ask yourself which virtues you want to possess in the future. You can also model another person's attitude.
  • Ask yourself daily what you did badly, well, and what you could do differently.
  • Reflect upon your values daily. What is important to you? Ask yourself how you can live up to those values.
  • "The unexamined life is not worth living" — Socrates.
  • It is more rewarding to face hardship voluntarily and cultivate strength of character than to take the easy option by embracing comfortable living and idleness.
  • "Nothing that is good and admirable is granted by the gods to men without some effort and application" — Arete
  • Exercise the virtue of moderation. Nothing in excess.
  • Marcus says that the most important source of both "serenity" and "joy" for a Stoic comes from letting go of attachment to external things and focusing on living wisely, particularly by exercising virtue (justice) in our relations with others. Page 132.
  • Marcus also tells himself that rather than desiring things that are absent, as many do, he should reflect on the pleasant aspects of things he already has before him and contemplate how he would miss them if they were not there. Value the external things that fortune has given you, but do not become overly attached to them.
  • The stoics emphasize gratitude, but they also accept that there's nothing wrong with taking pleasure in healthy experiences, as long as it's not carried to excess.
  • Socrates claimed that those who practice self-control actually obtain more pleasure from things like food and drink than those who indulge in them to excess.
  • The virtue of self-discipline itself might become a greater source of pleasure than food or other external objects of our desire. Exercising moderation may become a source of personal satisfaction and inner fulfillment that outweighs the ordinary pleasures it seeks to overcome.

Steps for changing desires

  1. Evaluate the consequences of your habits or desires in order to select which ones to change.
  2. Spot early warning signs so that you can nip the problematic desires in the bud.
  3. Gain cognitive distance by separating your impressions from external reality.
  4. Do something else instead of engaging in the habit.

Consider how to introduce other sources of healthy positive feelings by:

  1. Planning new activities that are consistent with your core values.
  2. Contemplating the qualities you admire in other people.
  3. Practice gratitude for the things you already have in life.

And here I'll expand upon the points:

1. Evaluating the consequences of your habits or desires in order to select which ones to change

Sometimes a "cost-benefit analysis" or "functional analysis" is performed by therapists.

Imagine what would happen to you if you continue exercising a habit, or if you stop doing it. If you did something else instead. Picture how these two paths would grow apart over time, where they might lead you several months or even years from now.

For example. Smoking. Create pros and cons of quitting/continuing the habit. Imagine what consequences would befall you in the future.

Your primary goal at this stage is to identify which desires or habits you want to overcome and to be clear about the consequences of doing so. Your secondary goal is to boost your motivation by developing a strong sense of contrast between the two paths ahead of you and the benefits of change. Motivation is a well-established key to success when it comes to breaking habits, so it makes sense to begin by doing what you can to boost it.

2. Spot early warning signs so that you can nip the problematic desires in the bud

Keep a written daily record of the situations in which you notice the desire emerging. This can be as simple as tallying each time you sense even the slightest inclination to engage in the habit, the first inkling of the desire.

Your first goal should be to study yourself and identify the trigger or "high-risk" situations where the problems tend to arise.

3. Gain cognitive distance by separating your impressions from external reality.

"It's not the things that make us crave them, but our judgements about things" — Epictetus. We are the ones who choose to assign value to things that look appealing.

A way to gain cognitive distancing is to imagine what a role model would do in your situation. Say you're craving some fast food, you might imagine what your role model would do. "What would x do about this desire?"

If you feel overwhelmed by something, you can use "divide-and-conquer" techniques commonly used in CBT. Basically you break your issues into the smaller parts that they consist of, and then they might seem less powerful or overwhelming.

You can, in the same way, do this for the habits that you have. Say you receive a ton of Twitter notifications every day, and you make a point to check them all. Ask yourself each step of the way (when checking each tweet) "is this really necessary? Would it be the end of the world if I did not do this?"

When you do so, you'll realize that the pleasure you gain from doing this is less than you'd previously thought.

The point isn't to completely remove all of your desires but to moderate them and restrain yourself from overindulging.

4. Do something else instead of engaging in the habit

Now that you've identified and gained distance from your habits, it's time to not act upon them.

Do something that gives you a sense of genuine accomplishment rather than just a fleeting and empty sensation of pleasure.

The goal is to replace unfulfilling habits and desires with activities that you find more intrinsically rewarding. Sometimes, not doing something, the very act of overcoming a bad habit, might be considered a virtue, something to be valued for its own sake.

The Stoics thought that if we want to improve ourselves, we should be guided more by the qualities we admire in other people and our true values and principles than by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. That sort of hedonistic life isn't satisfying, and, as "The Choice of Hercules" implies, we can't flourish as human beings and achieve things we can be proud of until we endure certain feelings of pain or discomfort or forgo certain pleasures.

5. Grasping the Nettle

"On pain: if it is unbearable, it carries us off, if it persists, it can be endured".

¨"Pain is neither unendurable nor everlasting, if you keep its limits in mind and do not add to it through your own imagination".

Cognitive distancing: To view things as they are, without adding external judgement. "It's not events that upset us but our judgements about events".

Complaining about problems makes them worse, and harms our character.

"This too shall pass".

Struggling against things we can't control does us more harm than good.

When we have a reason to endure something, it becomes easier. "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how" — Nietzsche.

6. The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations

The obstacle standing in the way becomes the way.

Acting "with a reserve clause" = performing any action while calmly accepting that the outcome isn't entirely under your control.

Premeditation of adversity. Thinking about which obstacles may befall you so that you know how to act.

In times of peace, you'd want to prepare for war. Likewise for life in general. You'd benefit from saving up while you don't need the extra money, in case an emergency happens, for example.

After prolonged exposure, anxiety will naturally abate (lower itself, levels will recede). This means to face your fears, because you will, in time, not be scared of them anymore. Note that fear is based in the future, because it is the anticipation of a (negative) event that might happen. The most important thing in regards to doing this is that you have to be patient. Your anxiety has to actually abate before you end the exercise.

I want to introduce "Behavioural rehearsal". Basically, it's the mental repetition of events where you perform how you'd like to perform. Say you want to be better at receiving criticism; you'd imagine yourself receiving criticism, and you respond accordingly - in the best manner you are able. I've heard of this being used for sports and other activities as well, so it seems to work in most aspects of life.

Stoics seemed to be great at using cognitive distancing as well as decatastrophizing. There is a list on page 204-205 that details these, and more, ways of 'calming oneself'.

The first step to inner peace from anxiety is to decatastrophize. This means asking yourself if this really will matter in the long run. How bad is it actually? What will the consequences be?

Something used in CBT today is called worry postponement. You do what the name indicates. Postpone your worries and return to the task at hand. It might occur that you, when you return to the worry, that it is no longer important. If it, however, still is, you can imagine the worst possible scenario with premeditation of adversity. Then after that, you'd use cognitive distancing, which is done by telling yourself "It's not things that upset me but my judgements about them". Decatastrophize.

7. Temporary Madness

Overcoming anger is largely done in the same way as described above (in chapter 6).

Here is a quick list of the processes used to overcome anger, seen on page 230-231:

  1. Self-monitoring
  2. Cognitive distancing
  3. Postponement
  4. Modeling virtue
  5. Functional analysis

As well as this, here is a list of ten things to contemplate - used to prevent anger. This is not something to combat anger with, but to prevent it from ever happening.

  1. We are naturally social animals, designed to help one another.

    1. Stoic think of troublesome people as if they are a prescription from a physician, or a training partner we've been assigned by a wrestling coach.
    2. We exist for one another, says Marcus, and if we can't educate those who oppose us, we have to learn at least to tolerate them.
  2. Consider a person's character as a whole

    1. The idea is that we should broaden our awareness, not only thinking of the person's actions that offend us but of the other person as a whole, remembering that nobody is perfect.
  3. Nobody does wrong willingly.

    1. If they are doing what is right, then you should accept it and cease to be annoyed with them. Let go of your anger and learn from them. However, if they are doing what is wrong, then you should assume it's because they don't know any better.
  4. Nobody is perfect, yourself included.

    1. It's a double standard to criticize other people without acknowledging our own imperfections.
  5. You can never be certain of other people's motives

    1. People can do things that appear bad for what they believe are good reasons.
  6. Remember we all will die.

    1. When we remember that nothing lasts forever, it no longer seems worthwhile getting angry with other people.
  7. It's our own judgment that upsets us.

    1. All that really matters in life is whether you're a good person or a bad person, and that's down to you alone. Other people can harm your property or even your body, but they can't harm your character unless you allow them to do so.
  8. Anger does us more harm than good.

    1. It often requires more effort to deal with the consequences of losing our temper than it does just to tolerate the very acts with which we're angry.
    2. "Does another do me wrong? That's his business, not mine".
  9. Nature gave us the virtues to deal with anger.

    1. Ask yourself what virtue or capacity Nature has given you to cope with the situation you're facing.
    2. The main antidote to anger for Marcus is the Stoic virtue of kindness, which along with fairness makes up the cardinal social virtue of justice.
  10. It's madness to expect others to be perfect.

    1. The above were 'gifts from the nine Apollo's Muses'. This last piece of advice is from Apollo himself, according to Marcus: To expect bad people not to do bad things is madness because that is wishing for the impossible.

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