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The Lives of the Stoics Hardcover
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Top reviews from the United States
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1/ the author states that the purpose of the book is to inspire the reader to emulate the lives of the Stoics. “Strict scholarly accuracy” is not his concern. The result is a speculative biography about each figure, especially those about whom little written material survives. As any biographer will tell you, speculative biography is the least reliable and the most likely to lend itself to authorial invention and (mis)interpretation.
2/ the convention of giving each figure an epithet (e.g. Zeno the Prophet) is a little too contrived and frankly comes across as precious and forced. Not only is not accurate historically (Zeno was never called the Prophet, Seneca was never called the Striver), but it often fails miserably - specifically “Gaius Rubellius Plautus the Man Who Would Not Be King.” This literary contrivance sounds like a teenager’s fantasy WWE game.
3/ the author fails to be consistent in his use of political terms for the ancient world. He uses kings, rulers, tyrants, dictators, and emperors all interchangeably when describing the Roman Emperor (except when he talks about Marcus Aurelius, who, in his eyes, could do no wrong). This is just sloppy writing - the Romans were very clear about not having kings (during the Republic) and emperors were very different from kings.
4/ the author is dire need of a better editor. A common stylistic choice he employs is to break up a quotation with the redundant “he writes,” or “he said,” or some other rendition. For example, from page 32, “ ‘We might ask,’ Chryssipus pressed, ‘how could we live a life if it didn’t matter to us whether we were well or sick...”. He often then add his own commentary onto the quotation, which comes across as pedantic and condescending. “Indeed, how could we? Life would be chaos.”
5/ the author is in dire need of an editor, part two. The author spends so much time fleshing out each figure with suppositions and speculations that he repeats himself, and as a result, many of the figures appear to be the same because he is asking the same questions. I found myself re-writing many sentences in my head with fewer words, far too often. The constant sentence fragments. Single word sentences. Sloppy writing. Get my point? It made reading the book seem like a chore, rather than an exploration.
6/ it is no surprise that the author’s training as a marketer influences how he writes. He has the habit of qualifying everything he likes with “beautiful,” “great,” “beloved,” and “wonderful.” The result is this reader felt like he was being drowned in sugar. My eyes rolled more times than some of the Stoics were probably rolling in their graves.
7/ for an author who wrote a book called Ego is the Enemy, it is ironic that his author’s bio describes him as “one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life.” Even more ironic given that his stated aim in the book is not “strict scholarly accuracy.”
A five-star idea with a one-star execution. Go elsewhere for an introduction to the stoics.
Stoicism is built around four virtues: “Courage, Temperance, Justice, [and] Wisdom.” And that’s pretty much it. There are no rituals, no sacred text, and no organized institution of worship.
There were recognized “leaders”, Zeno being the first, but they didn’t have offices or official duties, as Stoics at least. They were teachers, authors, politicians, and generals. Aurelius even became Emperor.
They were considered philosophers, but few resembled philosophers as most of us think of that moniker today. The word philosophy has had an extremely fluid and often imprecise etymology over the centuries. The first definition offered by Webster’s today is “all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts.” At the time of Newton, however, science and philosophy were used synonymously. During the early days of Stoicism, “Zeno divided the curriculum of Stoicism into three parts: physics, ethics, and logic.”
The meaning of stoicism has changed as well. “The word ‘stoic’ in English [today] means the unemotional endurance of pain.” To the Stoics, however, Stoic was all about the active pursuit of virtue and justice. It was a pro-active quality, not a defense mechanism.
There was/is an emphasis on listening. “Zeno said that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason…” And it was forward looking. We die the day we are born in the sense that the time already past in our lives is not something we can do anything about. We can only try harder, pursuing to improve that which we can control and accepting that which we can’t. Don’t worry about the rules, just do it, to adopt a modern commercial tag line.
The other distinguishing characteristic of Stoicism is the emphasis on the common good, not self-interest. Many Stoics went into politics out of a sense of obligation, not a grab for power and wealth.
Stoicism is a way to live that no Stoic has ever fully achieved, however, although some of the Stoics described clearly led virtuous lives by any standard. But not perfect.
Many were born into wealth and privilege. Nearly all accepted the institution of slavery (one of the most famous Stoics had been a slave) and the brutality of war. But, as the authors conclude, “Most of all, the Stoics taught us by the fact that they tried.”
I was often reminded of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) throughout the book and he is referenced a few times. Confucius lived during a tumultuous time in the history of China. Neighboring fiefdoms were at constant war and Confucius was ultimately called upon to help sort it all out.
He concluded that peace could never be fully maintained by the armed agents of the state (i.e. the police or the military). As soon as that authority leaves, as lethally as it may be armed, the mayhem would return. He understood, quite correctly, that self-restraint is the only weapon against constant bedlam and that self-restraint would only take hold if there was a value system of peace and cooperation shared by all. And for him that value system turned on the internalization of values and behaviors built on an inviolate sense of obligation to others. (Pretty Stoic, I think.)
It is a worthy set of values, to be sure. But not always easy to live by 24/7. There are contradictions in every philosophy and belief system. A devout Stoic, Rusticus had a Christian who did no more than follow his faith put to death. Not because he found him deserving – he didn’t - but because that was the law of Rome at the time. And Seneca, one of history’s most famous Stoics, was a tutor and advisor to Nero, perhaps the most deranged and ruthless leader of all time.
But why write this book now? Stoicism remains an active, if inconspicuous, philosophy among many, including some in positions of political power.
Well, there is little possible debate that America today is starting to look a lot like Rome before its collapse. Greed, corruption, and the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of the common good are in abundant supply. And these are, in fact, the antithesis of the virtue and justice that Stoicism stands for. If only we had three ears and four eyes and could look away from our technology for just a moment we’d see it.
In the end this is a very good book and very well written by two authors who are eminently qualified to write it. I didn’t give it a 5 only because that didn’t seem like the Stoic thing to do. Just kidding. I would have liked to see more philosophical exploration of why the four virtues are the right ones, but that is admittedly a failure of my own expectation, not the authors’ promise, which they deliver fully on.
Read it. You will learn much from the lives portrayed.
Top reviews from other countries
Ryan and Stephen have done a great job with their research to highlight the lives of these stoics. Whilst some of them are well known, there were many I had not come across and they range from being merchants, generals, writers, athletes, parents, professors, daughters and diplomats.
Each chapter starts with the Name, pronunciation, image and birth and death dates, starting with Zeno born in 334 BC and finishing off with Marcus Aurelius who was born in 121 AD. The chapters bring the essence of the life of each stoic. Ryan and Stephen mention in the Introduction that the aim hasn't been to have strict scholarly accuracy but actually bring out the moral lessons from the lives of each of the stoics. There is also a useful timeline at the end of the book to show the 500 years of Stoicism.
The book through each of the biographies, helps bring to life how the Stoic virtues of Courage. Justice. Temperance. Wisdom were lived by them. Interestingly it showed that many of the stoics did fall short of these values, they were tempted by wealth, made compromises, groped for fame, lost their temper, lied, were silent when they shouldn't have been and many other things. However, they teach through their choices why the virtues were important. You get to learn from their successes and failures. More importantly, it enables the reader to help apply philosophy to their own lives.
Given how 2020 has been for almost everyone, this is a great book to be able to understand the art of living no matter the circumstances and navigate a world with it's ups and downs. It is a great book for reflection and building your own understanding of how you want to live your life and the values you want to live by. I highly recommend the book.