Stoicism helped me through the last three years. I picked it up from reading the original Roman Philosophers, from Seneca, and Marcus and Epictetus. From Ryan Holiday and his books and articles. A guidebook would have been helpful. Something to explain Stoic practice and how to apply it. How To Be A Stoic is that guide.
Massimo Pigliucci is an Italian Professor who lives in New York. He holds PHD’s in genetics and evolutionary biology and philosophy. He discovered Stoicism as a philosophy of life a few years ago and has become a leader of the resurgent Stoic movement.
“It is for you, then, to take what is given you and make the most of it.” – Epictetus
Massimo tells his story through the lens of wandering around Rome talking to the great Stoic teacher Epictetus. The former slave who became a philosopher answers Pigliuccis questions as they go.
The book has three parts to show the three disciplines of Stoicism: Desire, Action and Assent. Then it finishes with twelve practical spiritual exercises that tell how to practice Stoicism. Along the way he defends Stoicism from its many opponents and examines its flaws and failings.
The Stoic were big on using mentors to guide and inspire you but they knew there were no perfect human beings. But despite our flaw we must strive to be better. And not just talk about it, Stoicism places little value on talk. It is action that counts.
At the core of Stoicism is a simple idea. There are things you can control and things you cannot. Focus on the things you can control. Someone else’s bad driving, the weather, Donald Trump these are not in your control so do not spend time or energy on them. How you respond to the bad driving that’s all you. Getting out of the car in a fit of rage is your choice.
This is where it gets interesting and brings up words that have fallen into disrepute: character and virtue. The Greek Philosophers had a goal. The goal was eudaimonia. An ethical good life.
Is how we react to situations. Not just challenges but the best aspects of life too, friendship and love. This is where the famous premeditatio malorum comes in, the premeditation of evils. Taking a moment to pause and think about the worst that can happen. This has two benefits. First, that if the worst does occur you have done some mental prep. Second, it lets you appreciate what you have right now.
Pigliucci refutes many of the attacks on stoicism, that it builds unemotional, dark robots and focuses too much on the self and not on society.
He uses modern research in psychology to underline the strengths of Stoicism and examine it’s weaknesses. We now know we are not in complete control of our minds, we have biases and behaviours baked in we cannot see.
One aspect of Stoicism that I love is that of using adversity as a training ground for life. When problems arise don’t get disheartened but relish the opportunities they are, ‘The Obstacle is the Way.’
Pigliucci explains the appeal of Stoicism, that he was searching for a personal philosophy and that Stoicism gives him what he needs. I enjoyed his asides on his distaste for the New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris who in their dogmatic hunt to deny the benefits of any religion put off far more believers than they ever convert.
“True philosophy is a matter of a little theory and a lot of practice.” – Massimo Pigliucci
Dealing with disability or anger, anxiety and loneliness get whole chapters. As do friendship and love.
Practical Spiritual Exercises
The book closes with this section. Leaving you with the tools to forge ahead. Stoicism is not a thought exercise or a group of ideas you ponder. It is tools that help you live a better life.
From speaking less to taking insults like a stone, choosing who you spend time with to finishing your day with reflection, the exercises will help you live a better life and thrive under tough conditions.
That is the appeal of Stoicism. It’s a practice. Practicing and getting better at things is what I love. After years of training jiu-jitsu and lifting weights I am neither very strong nor amazing at jiu-jitsu. But I am better than when I started. That is all that matters. I train to be a better me.
If you are interested in finding a philosophy to support your life and help you when things are hard I recommend Stoicism. How To Be A Stoic is the place to start. If you click through to this Amazon link I get a tiny kickback.
If How To Be A Stoic gets you interested, then I would send you to the original sources. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are the main three. Most people find they prefer one or another, Marcus is mine and the collection of his personal journal is called Meditations.
Have you read How To Be A Stoic? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.