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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 is highly readable, written in clear and accessible prose, and illuminated with anecdotes of both a personal and an historical nature."―Washington Independent Review of Books
"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
"If you want to 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
"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
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" 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.
Do yourself a favor and if you are seriously interested in how to live more stoically, buy William Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy." That book not only introduces you to all the great stoic thinkers (rather than just Epictetus as Pigliucci does), it also includes exercises for practicing stoicism and is written in a far more straightforward manner.
Once you've read that, then come back for this book. In it, Pigliucci introduces modern ideas to the ancient philosophy, like cognitive behavioral psychology, evolutionary biology and more. Consider this book more of a journeyman's guide rather than an apprentice's.
As you can observe from the subtitles of the books above, Pigliucci’s tone seems to have become less formal, less academic, more—shall we say—chatty over time. It is the “chatty” tone that is present throughout How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Lead a Modern Life (2017) The informality of this introduction to Stoic philosophy is personal and conversational throughout, beginning with the modus operandi of the text: an imaginary dialog between Pigliucci and Epictetus (a worthy representative and proponent of Stoicism, indeed) as they walk the streets of Rome (if you surmised that Pigliucci is Italian you are most correct, of course; he was born and raised in Italy and completed this book in Rome on a sabbatical). The dialog is in three main sections: (1) The Discipline of Desire: What is Proper to Want and Not to Want, (2) The Discipline of Action: How to Behave in the World, (3) The Discipline of Assent: How to React to Situations. These three sections are subdivided into chapters. dealing with topics such as “Living According to Nature,” “God or Atoms,” “Disability and Mental Illness,” “On Death and Suicide,” “Love and Friendship,” and similar modern-day (perhaps ‘eternal’) issues—all discussed in 240 pages of text.
I cannot think of a more attractive introduction to the tenets of Stoic Philosophy and their practical application to one’s personal life journey. Pigliucci is not joined at the hip to Epictetus as they stroll through Rome. He departs, at least mentally, on side trips—personal examples from his own life that illustrate the application of Stoic perspectives, the views of philosophers and scientists (Hume and Darwin are two such) whose views challenge Stoic assertions, and brief comments about Eastern and Western philosophies that compete with Stoicism for allegiance. All is done informally, as if one was sitting on a porch with Massimo on a warm summer day discussing “life” over lemonade, tea, or an alcoholic beverage (the latter in moderation, of course; it is, after all, Stoicism under discussion).
I admit that books on philosophy will not rank high on lists of “summer reads.” Perhaps How to be a Stoic can be added to reading lists for when the air has more chill and life seems more serious. Or you can leave it off any list entirely. Up to you. But this book could be a help if you are in the situation Dante writes about in Canto I of the Divine Comedy, quoted by Pigliucci at the beginning of Chapter 1: "Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost." How to be a Stoic might be just the guide one needs to find the path again.