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Applied Stoicism and Vain Hero-Worship,
This review is from: The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (Hardcover)
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I wanted to like media innovator Ryan Holiday's brief introduction to Stoic philosophy. He eschews Philosophy 101 jargon, focusing instead on lived experiences by people who embody Stoic principles. By apprenticing ourselves to life's rolling hardships, Holiday promises, we overcome momentary setbacks and make apparent obstacles into lasting triumphs. And Holiday promises to distinguish true capital-S Stoicism from pop images of stone-faced impassivity.
Then I got past the introduction and read the chapters. Holy schnikes.
Historian James Loewen writes that the process he calls "heroification" turns "flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest." Holiday uses object lessons from people who willfully or coincidentally lived Stoic lives. But he engages in rank heroification, not only contrasting our tumultuous lives to immobile hagiographies, but turning his exemplars' lives into the exact opposite of what their actions really accomplished.
Yes, John D. Rockefeller pulled fortunes from extreme economic turmoil. He also dumped so much industrial filth, including gasoline, into the Cuyahoga River that the water itself caught fire. Holiday praises Rockefeller's refusal to crack for federal prosecutors. But Rockefeller got prosecuted because he ignored laws, using his monopoly to manipulate markets. Adjusted for inflation, Rockefeller was probably the richest man ever; but he was also a criminal and profiteer.
Yes, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter emerged from prison triumphant. But he was never exonerated; prosecutors simply declined a third trial, because after twenty-two years, too many witnesses had died or moved away. During his second trial, Carter beat bail bondswoman Carolyn Kelly so severely, she required hospitalization, and he's never explained why. Despite intermittent celebrity endorsements, Carter's case remains far more ambiguous than Norman Jewison's starry-eyed 1999 biopic would admit.
One could continue. Holiday's blatant heroification tactics freeze complex humans in moments so abstract, it's downright dehumanizing. Sure, Ulysses S. Grant fought admirably in war, but war's rigors shaped his goals. In civilian life, his business ventures folded, he was a chronic drunk, and historians consider his Presidency a failure. Holiday repeatedly discusses entire groups of people, like astronauts, Allied soldiers in Europe, and "the Greeks," like great faceless masses.
Nobody requires deeper explication in Holiday's telling. But this isn't just about Holiday's narration. His human examples, basically mere anecdotes, exemplify his entire technique. Where Stoic pioneers like Seneca, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius slowly unpacked principles as modes of lifelong training, Holiday gallops quickly through strings of bromides ("you're probably not going to die from any of this," "outward appearances are deceptive") that never much occupy his time.
But Holiday hides the solution to his problems in his text. It's hidden so deeply, he perhaps misses it himself. But quoting Epictetus, Holiday tells readers to imagine supposed sages having sex: "See them in your mind, grunting, groaning, and awkward in their private life--just like the rest of us." Bloody good advice. Holiday could apply it to the heroes he unthinkingly extols throughout this frustratingly underexamined book.
Marcus Aurelius spent decades discovering and refining the thoughts comprising his Meditations. Life, for him, was an ongoing philosophical boot camp. He never stopped asking himself important questions: what opportunity does this challenge present? Does this worry really merit my time? What did this defeat teach me? Hardly some proverbial to-do list, Stoicism was, for Marcus Aurelius, a never-ending process of discovery and re-invention.
One could apply this same tactic to Holiday's various heroes. Pericles became an accomplished general, in part, to overcome embarrassment for his father's ostracism and his own weirdly misshapen head. Gandhi arrived at his nonviolent philosophy only after struggling with the morality of two world wars. No wonder Catholic activist Dorothy Day's dying wish was to never be canonized: sanctification freezes humans in amber.
Admittedly, while he cherry-picks his facts, Holiday never says anything philosophically wrong. He adroitly encapsulates Stoic principles in memorable sayings and concise (if self-serving) contexts. But nothing, evidently, merits much of Holiday's time. He takes Stoicism, a complex and multifaceted approach to the well-lived life, and reduces it to a checklist of platitudes. That sells books, but probably doesn't change lives.
And that's a crying shame. If any philosophy's time has come `round again, surely it's Stoicism. Its steely-eyed, objective approach to life contrasts with today's highly emotive "culture of psychotherapy." (I know, that totally misrepresents psychotherapy. Bear with me.) As frustrated as Holiday's bullet-point approach leaves me, his energetic but ultimately unrealized thesis inspires me to reread the source materials:
Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings
Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
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Showing 1-10 of 40 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 30, 2014 11:47:38 PM PDT
Thank you for this thoughtful review. I will skip this one and go to the source books as well.
Posted on Mar 31, 2014 2:14:08 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 31, 2014 2:26:42 AM PDT
Excellent review Kevin and thank you. The likes of marketeers need to be accountable. Cherry picking. Spot on. They continuously avoid 'the agency problem'. I would add to your list above, the millionaire next door, which highlights that point of what Ryan has achieved is (legal but unethical, like Rockefeller, etc). 'Stoicism Highjacked' (for my own purposes) should be a fitting title. Be the fool and the slave Mr Ryan this wannabe Pharaoh i would advise to any potential purchaser and hope for the day that BS vendors like himself are finally held into account. Its luck plain old simple, LUCK (yes that you can position yourself for) and has been proven so. Accountability is a must in a 10$ bn industry. Read Anti-fragile by Nassim Taleb to see the truth on this. Why have we not got a standard for these Charlatans? They need Skin in the game, they have nothing to lose by writing advertisements, not books. Ferriss, Altucher, etc, all part of the same camp and what is bringing the country and the world to its knees. The game has not changed. No different to corrupt politicians this bunch need to be labelled (thankfully with great reviews like yours), but suckers there be, and thats how they live off the back of suckers. I'd rather be poor and clean, like the true stoic I am.
Posted on Mar 31, 2014 7:15:57 AM PDT
Ryan Holiday is owning the process of making things better. From your review, we see he's:
* using and citing stoic philosophy accurately
* providing facts that are well picked to support his points
* using historic examples of heroes to inspire people to heroic feats in their own lives
Sounds like a much needed book!
Who are you inspiring today Kevin?
Posted on Mar 31, 2014 7:54:55 AM PDT
Demonization is just as mindless as heroification. This review calls for honesty and decries heroification, but is itself littered with cartoonish summaries of historical figures.
Take John D. Rockefeller, for example. You dismiss him as a criminal and a profiteer, but he was obsessed with eliminating waste. He personally oversaw the development of better container technology to end seepage. The worst polluters were his competitors, by far. There was a river fire in 1952 that was due to a Standard Oil leak, but John D. Rockefeller had been dead for 15 years by then. Who was really responsible for the unforgivable pollution of the Cuyahoga River? The State of Ohio, which denied property rights in the river (creating a tragedy of the commons), and then compounded the disaster by issuing pollution permits! Your cartoon version of Rockefeller was promoted by Ida Tarbell, whose family failed to compete against Standard Oil. And his company was not a monopoly at the time the government broke it up by force (for the benefit and at the behest of these same competitors).
The point of reciting these facts is not a defense of Rockefeller, who (like everyone) was neither wholly good nor evil. The point is that your review pompously demands nuance and realism, while at the same time you regurgitate century-old economic propaganda with a quasi-religious sense of certainty and zeal. How ironic.
Posted on Mar 31, 2014 9:06:20 AM PDT
It is a curious thing indeed when a reviewer ripe with age, thin in achievement, thick with opinions of works of others accuses a younger author of underexamination. To that author and to all readers who have to suffer such cheap-shot, blowhard reviews on Amazon (courageously posted several weeks before the book is released to the rest of us for consideration and possible rebuttal), heed the advice of Aurelius himself: "You're better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve."
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2014 11:48:16 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Mar 31, 2014 11:48:40 AM PDT]
Posted on Mar 31, 2014 11:49:12 AM PDT
Amazon Customer says:
A-ha! It was just a matter of time before Ryan Holiday's alter egos surfaced to neutralize his 'enemies' :) In just the few hours since I last visited this review (yes, I'm monitoring this) 20+ people had marked this review as NOT helpful. Where did this swarm of 'helpers' suddenly emerge from? Of course, they are cheap virtual assistants from Asia, that Ryan Holiday confessed to using in his book "Trust me I'm lying", a book that describes the art of manipulating the online space to sell more products for himself and for his clients.
Here's more proof of how arbitrary Ryan's assistants are : Notice the first comment on this review by Bel. Just a few hours back, '3 of 3' persons had marked it as helpful. Now, suddenly '4 of 14' have marked it as helpful. That means, 11 people suddenly emerged and voted down the comment. Think about it : Is the comment so controversial that it should suddenly get 11 thumbs-down? Not at all. The comment mostly thanks the reviewer for a thoughtful review. And yet, it was viciously thumbed down.
As for the 3 comments that have suddenly appeared in quick succession, putting down the reviewer with snide remarks, I wonder where did they come from? Wait, they're probably Ryan himself. :) After all, Ryan had admitted to creating fake profiles just to be able to post fake reviews, in the same book "Trust me...".
Ladies and gentlemen, beware : Any product Ryan Holiday is associated with, you can be sure it has more spin and less substance. Be warned!
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2014 11:49:35 AM PDT
Chad, really citing Stoic philosophy accurately, my left nut. A superficial stoic. Like a champagne socialist. Cherry picked a trick that is currently being exposed by all that are within platofied in mind set for profit. 3rd point, the way to see a charlatan is to see them use quotes of old, nothing in original thought. Like yourself. This is also the law of large numbers and stoic you have no idea of what this is, period. And I guessed paid by his truly.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2014 11:50:47 AM PDT
And heed solomon Patrick, nobody knows the future and this top down accountability is a pain to see.
In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2014 11:51:00 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 31, 2014 11:57:25 AM PDT
Amazon Customer says:
Chad Grills, close but no cigar. :) your snide remarks about the reviewer make it obvious that you are Ryan Holiday's man (if not Ryan himself) and you are here to discredit any opposition to the book. Shame on you.