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How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life Hardcover – May 9, 2017
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"How to Be a Stoic proves many things: that the ancient school of Stoicism is superbly relevant to our times; that profound wisdom can be delivered in lively, breezy prose; and that Massimo Pigliucci is uniquely gifted at translating philosophy into terms helpful for alleviating and elevating the lives of many."
-Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex
"In this thought-provoking book, Massimo Pigliucci shares his journey of discovering the power of Stoic practices in a philosophical dialogue with one of Stoicism's greatest teachers."
- Ryan Holiday, bestselling author of The Obstacle is the Way and The Daily Stoic
"As its title suggests, How to Be a Stoic is a how-to book, but one of a very high order. Yes, Massimo Pigliucci gives his readers advice on how to live a happy and meaningful life. He is careful, though, to put a secure foundation under that advice by explaining who the ancient Stoics were and how they arrived at the conclusions they did. Do you want to avoid wasting the one life you have to live? Read this book!"
-William B. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life
"This is a lucid, engaging, and persuasive book about what it means to pursue Stoic ideals in the here and now. Massimo Pigliucci's imaginary conversations with Epictetus carry the reader effortlessly along while grounding the discussion firmly in the ancient Stoic tradition-and in his own life experience. The result is a compelling picture of a Stoic way of life that is consistent with contemporary science and philosophy, and is both eminently ethical and down-to-earth practical. It will be inviting to Stoics and non-Stoics alike who are willing to reason together seriously about how (and why) to be a modern Stoic."
-Lawrence C. Becker, author of A New Stoicism
"If you want to learn the ways of Stoicism, and you're living in the 21st century, this should be one of the first books you read. Massimo has written a fine primer for the aspiring Marcus Aurelius."
-Donald J. Robertson, author of The Philosophy of CBT and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness
About the Author
Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He holds PhDs in genetics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy. He has written for many outlets, including the New York Times, and has written or edited ten books. He lives in New York, New York.
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There have been several attempts to do this. For example, Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) explain Stoicism in specific contexts. My own Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life is also an application of Stoic philosophy to a specific area of life – achieving personal freedom. William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy takes a more comprehensive view of Stoicism. There is much to like in this book, but I felt Irvine was unduly defensive about Stoicism and deviated from it in some aspects. Therefore, I was looking for a comprehensive book on Stoicism that would be true the original Stoic thoughts, but would express them in current English with modern examples, without being defensive about it.
In Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic, I found such a book. I got it yesterday, read it overnight, and I like it. Here is why.
1.It is clearly written.
Stoic thinkers were also excellent communicators and good at expressing their thoughts. And there are many translations of their works which are also excellent. The problem is, when 2,000-year-old texts are translated they sound stilted to the modern ear. Sometimes the sentences are too long, the references too obscure, and the examples too far removed from our experience. Massimo’s book, on the other hand, uses relatively shorter sentences, familiar words, contemporary idioms, and examples that are of immediate relevance. It is easier to read and understand.
2.The examples refer to problems we face today.
The ancient Stoics faced imminent execution, exile, and arbitrary punishment. When Stoicism is explained using those examples, it can sound far removed from our concerns. Massimo applies Stoicism to our current concerns. This not only modernizes the Stoic examples, but points to solutions to problems that many people face.
3.It answers objections to Stoicism without being defensive.
Anyone who tries to interpret Stoicism to a modern reader has this challenge: How to relate our current life situation to what the Stoics said some two thousand years ago? Massimo uses a clever device to achieve this just like Epicteuts did. While Epicteuts had an imaginary conversation with Zeus, Massimo has several imaginary conversations with Epictetus. Pigliucci brings his concerns to Epictetus who then deconstructs them and shows how the Stoic solution really works. What I really liked here was the fact that the responses of this imaginary Epictetus are not a pale imitation of what Epictetus actually taught, but a clear interpretation of it. The result is a compelling picture of a Stoic way of life that is compatible with modern life.
4.It uses personal experiences to illustrate the principles
Throughout the book, Massimo uses personal experiences. This works because it is immediate. It shows how he applied Stoicism in his own life. It is definitely easier to identify yourself with someone living today, leading a “normal” life than with someone who lived 2000 years ago under very different conditions.
The book, in the tradition of Pierre Hadot, uses the framework of three disciplines of the Stoics: Desire, Action, and Assent.
It starts with the basic premise of Stoicism that, “Some things are up to us and others are not.” Here Massimo discusses the dichotomy of control and why it makes sense. Then he goes on to discuss questions like: What does “living according to nature” mean? Why is life “playing ball?” How do preferred and dispreferred indifferents work? Most importantly, does God exist or is the universe a case of swirling atoms? While Epictetus (and other Stoics) were firmly in God’s camp, Massimo is not so sure. He prefers to be a skeptic, which should assure agnostics and atheists that the practice of Stoicism is open to anyone, believer or not.
Then the book moves on to the discipline of action or how to live in this world. It starts discussing character (virtue) and provides several examples such as Helvidius Priscus and Malala Yousafzai. Massimo mentions that the virtues of Stoicism can also be found in various religions and it is important to preserve one’s integrity. We need to develop compassion toward others. One way to achieve this is to remember that people do bad things because they lack wisdom, rather than out of pure malice. Having role models can help us put things in perspective, so we can become better human beings. This section of the book concludes with a particularly good and useful discussion of coping with disability and mental illness, and the relevance of Stoic principles in such contexts.
The third section of the book, the discipline of assent or how to react to situations, starts with a discussion of death and suicide. We are bothered by death because we are capable of contemplating it. Massimo believes that death is inevitable and takes issue with Ray Kurzweil (who believes in things like extraordinarily long life and singularity) for never wanting “to leave the party.” If you are thinking or worried about death, you may want to read this chapter. then moves on dealing with anger, anxiety, and loneliness. Here he reprises the idea that people do bad things because they don’t know any better. Think rationally about the situation to avert negative emotions. As Epictetus says “Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it is justified, can quickly become irrational. So use cold, hard logic on yourself.” Massimo also discusses love and friendship before concluding the section with practical exercises.
The Appendix section of the book has a brief but useful outline of the Hellenistic schools of practical philosophy.
Massimo’s agnosticism and focus on Epictetus as the chief exponent of Stoicism parallel my own approach to Stoicism. I enjoyed reading the book. Reading it is like walking with a friend, who practices Stoicism, trying to explain to you what it is all about and how it helped him in his own life. A good read.
In the 20th century the “west” succumbed to the infiltration of skepticism to the masses. In past centuries it was generally limited to academic circles. All of that changed with public education and the capacity of certain elites, after the instruction of Mann and Dewey, to bring skepticism to the masses. We now have a skeptical culture.
It is skeptical not in the sense of simple doubt but rather of a persuaded doubt. That is, the doubt is not an automatic desire to question certain realities. Rather it is a doubt driven by external forces. This is the skepticism of U. C. Berkeley that is not willing to be skeptic al of its own skepticism but instead rejects all criticism of itself.
The book that I see as being the dominant reinforcing work of the 20th century is Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian.” This work, well-written, presented a skilled approach to skepticism. Russell was a notable philosopher and mathematician of the era. His work was well-received in skeptical circles. At a minimum the book persuaded people, preemptively, to reject the arguments and apologetics of Christianity.
The 21st century on the other hand was to this point headed a different direction. The new atheists’ works, though written by some skilled scientists and such, were generally shoddy efforts. The is-ought problem was glossed over as though it didn’t exist. Questions of origins were presented with a triumphalistic tone instead of arguments from evidence and models. Hostility was the method of argumentation with the heckler’s veto no longer treated as a fallacy.
I’ve read other of Pigliucci’s material. The “third wave” in origins and genetics discussions seems to bear weight with respect to our physical nature. I anticipate that the movement’s impact will be felt for a long time to come. But I did not realize that he was trained in philosophy. That makes this work stand out from the New Atheist material – it’s a quality piece. It’s well-written very readable for non-philosophers.
This work might be considered a study of the life of Epictetus. It’s almost biographical as it covers a number of significant points in his life. But that’s really a pretext of the book. What he has provided comes in three parts. The first is to clarify the need for this worldview. The second is to provide the guiding principles, and the third is application of these principles to modern life.
He begins with his own apologetic. I noted the problems (the challenges and the offensiveness) of the New Atheists. These things also concern him, seeing their tone and content as unproductive and even damaging to progress in their arena. But as he journeyed through life the Stoicism movement came to meet his needs. It is rational, practical, and provides him a way to prepare for death.
The scientist in him allows him to man as an animal but the philosopher in him allows the perspective of man as a very unique animal. Man is an animal capable of high moral assessment. Man is able to find a cause for morality, a goal which the New Atheists are not able to deliver.
Skepticism itself is inadequate. The simple application of reason is insufficient. It creates the common is-ought problem as well as a serious categorical error. But Stoicism provides him (using a term more familiar to me) a cumulative case system. With the Stoic approach he has a foundation for ethics which is more complete than either rationalism or empiricism. The latter, like the New Atheist approach, cannot deliver a coherent and consistent system.
Living in accord with nature for the Stoic is not like something the hippies or other anti-moderns might attempt. Rather it means accepting fate, but even that is not a passive matter. He quotes Francis of Assisi about accepting the things we cannot change and seeking wisdom for changing what can be changed. This is cooperating with the natural world.
The virtues of Stoicism are first wisdom, then courage, temperance, and justice. He argues that these are nearly universal and should be accepted as a categorical imperative. He notes that Aquinas accepted these virtues but placed about them, in a two-story solution, first charity (love), then faith and hope.
Stocism also forces a person to think. In our world today we are faces with a society that gives little attention to becoming a better person. Stocism does this by asking us to think about our choices. He cites Medea for this, an ancient Greek tragedy concern with a woman of the title name who makes a choice to kill her children out of revenge.
Closely related to this is his hierarchical view of ethics. It’s a two-story solution where Category A and Category B have internal interactions but not between themselves. For instance, selling goods may be an acceptable ethical trade in general but one does not normally sell one’s children. The categories do not cross.
The final portion of the book is concerned with finding ways to make the system work in the modern world. His exercises are practical for use in every-day living. Of note is his admiration of Admiral Stockdale as he reflects on Stockdale’s life and accomplishments. His applications deserve consideration and evaluation.
First, it is nice to read an opponent who is so civil. It is something that he acknowledges that he has learned over time. That makes for potentially (and highly desired) positive and civil interaction.
I see this book as potentially as damaging as Russell. By providing a coherent system in a clear and unoffensive format he tempts the reader to the position. It is going to be difficult to resist. Yet there are some glaring weaknesses that require mention and evaluation. (By comparison the New Atheists are merely low-hanging fruit.) I did not cover all of these matters in the overview.
I raise just five points for the Christian apologist to consider with this work. The trained philosopher will surely find more points of interest.
It seems unavoidable in ancient Greek philosophy to avoid the problem of dualisms and dialectical issues. As such he presents joy and pain in opposition. This is not a problem only with ancient philosophies but regularly rears its head in more modern works such as Kant, Bentham, and Mill. Whether Platonist, neo-Platonist, gnostic, or whatever form the system takes, the division of events based on perception is arbitrary and artificial. The Judeo-Christian response is a highly-unified view of life as seen I the life of Job.
He seeks a solution which is rational and devoid of any specific deity. He goes so far as to propose that a Unitarian view of God is sufficient but with Reason being the guide. In any case Reason is lifted up above the deity of choice. His rationalism sets his position distinctly apart from the ancient system. What seems to be missed is the inadequacy of Reason, a lack which is not filled by allowing Reason to fill in “deity” as though it is a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.
He is highly optimistic about the human capacity for good, to have and live a good life. But what is good? The absence of pain? The greatest pleasure? The question is left open. In this he also generally avoids the idea that humans are equally capable of evil. Bu then again, what is evil? Is there an intrinsic character trait? (He is correct that there is no “evil” as some sort of abstract object.) Because of this fluidity any sense of morality seems up in the air, undefinable.
Eschatology is important. Eschatology is hope. It’s why Trump beat Hillary – because making America great has a purpose while preaching that we can do more amounts to extra work. Eschatology has to extend to something beyond this life, to some higher purpose. Stoicism cannot accomplish that, at least not as I read here.
Finally, there is the matter of individualism. Christianity cannot be defined without community – the church. Though its expression depends on the systematic at work there is always a fellowship at play. Ethical choices take place in community hence the presence of church discipline and the authority of the Bible above all. Stoicism provides a good collection of operating principles, many of which have been borrowed by Christians. But here it serves more as a corrective than a guide.
This was an enjoyable read. It’s a useful book. And it deserves to be read and evaluated by Christian apologists and given the attention due.