How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life – by Massimo Pigliucci
Date read: 6/24/17. Recommendation: 4/10.
New addition to my library of Stoic philosophy. I didn't feel like it brought enough original ideas to the table, based on the books already out there. It's essentially a walkthrough of Epictetus. If you're looking to get into Stoicism, check out A Guide to the Good Life, Ego Is the Enemy, or The Obstacle Is the Way. Or go straight to the source and read Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.
See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews.
Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion–rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good.
"Einstein's God": the simple, indubitable fact that Nature is understandable by reason....Identification of God with Nature.
Stoicism, like any life philosophy, may not appeal to or work for everyone. It is rather demanding, stipulating that moral character is the only truly worthy thing to cultivate; health, education, and even wealth are considered "preferred indifferents."
Such "externals" do not define who we are as individuals and have nothing to do with our personal worth, which depends on our character and our exercise of the virtues.
A decent human life is about the cultivation of one's character and concern for other people (and even for nature itself) and is best enjoyed by way of a proper–but not fanatical–detachment from mere worldly goods.
"We must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it." -Epictetus
Past cannot be changed and you can only affect the here and now. This recognition takes courage–not the kind needed in battle, but the more subtle, and yet arguably more important, kind needed to live your life to your best.
One of the first lessons from Stoicism, then, is to focus our attention and efforts where we have the most power and then let the universe run as it will. This will save us both a lot of energy and a lot of worry.
Stoic ethics isn't just about what we do–our actions–but more broadly about how our character is equipped to navigate real life. We live in far too intricate social environments to be able to always do the right thing, or even to do the right thing often enough to know with sufficient confidence what the right thing is to begin with.
In other words, by all means go ahead and avoid pain and experience joy in your life–but not when doing so imperils your integrity. Better to endure pain in an honorable manner than to seek joy in a shameful one.
We must have wisdom–the ability to navigate well the diverse, complex, and often contradictory circumstances of our lives.
The Stoics adopted Socrates's classification of four aspects of virtue: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.
"As we pity the blind and the lame, so should we pity those who are blinded and lamed in their most sovereign faculties. The man who remembers this, I say, will be angry with no one, indignant with no one, revile none, blame none, hate none, offend none." -Epictetus
Medea lacks wisdom and is affected by amathia, the sort of dis-knowledge that brings ordinary people to make unreasonable judgements about certain situations that then lead them to what outsiders correctly perceive as horrible acts.
As he [Andrew Overby] explains: "Depressed people are rather self-aware; in fact, they are too self-aware, and too negatively so, often deriding themselves for small infractions of their own idealized standards, putting themselves down for not being perfect even in a world they recognize as being full of imperfections and human capital squandered. Part of depression is fixating on failures in the past, ruminating continually on past events or circumstances, and even drawing a kind of negative confidence from them. This type of thinking is antithetical to good outcomes at the present time, at least the vast majority of the time."
"Stand by a stone and slander it: what effect will you produce? If a man then listens like a stone, what advantage has the slanderer?...'I have done you an outrage.' May it turn out to your good." -Epictetus
All the major Stoic authors insist that it is crucial that we reflect on our condition and truly make an effort to see things in a different light, one that is both more rational and more compassionate.
Death itself is not under our control (it will happen one way or another), but how we think about death most definitely is under our control.
Epictetus is reminding us that if we are afraid of death, then it is out of ignorance: if we knew or truly understood more about the human condition–as a horse trainer knows and understands horses–then we wouldn't react the way we do to the prospect of our own death.
Singularity: the moment when computers will outsmart people and begin to drive technological progress independently–and perhaps even in spite–of humanity itself.
But our sage disagrees with the judgment of the thief, whose conclusion he finds highly questionable: he gained an iron lamp, but in the transaction he lost something much more precious–his integrity.
It is more helpful to think of people who do bad things as mistaken and therefore to be pitied and helped if possible, not condemned as evil.
"When I see a man in a state of anxiety, I say, 'What can this man want? If he did not want something which is not in his power, how could he still be anxious? It is for this reason that one who sings to the lyre is not anxious when he is performing by himself, but when he enters the theatre, even if he has a very good voice and pays well: for he not only wants to perform well, but also to win a great name, and that is beyond his own control." -Epictetus
- Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent.
- Follow nature...we should strive to apply reason to achieve a better society.
- Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not.
- Wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.
- Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.
- Justice: Treating every human being–regardless of his or her stature in life–with fairness and kindness.
- Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.
Epictetus exhorts us to practice what is arguably the most fundamental of his doctrines: to constantly examine our "impressions"–that is, our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told–by stepping back to make room for rational deliberation, avoiding rash emotional reactions, and asking whether whatever is being thrown at us is under our control.
Reverse clause: Reminding us that we may set out with a particular goal in mind but that events may not go the way we wish. That being the case, our choices are to make ourselves miserable, thereby willfully worsening our situation, or to remember our overarching goal: to be a decent person who doesn't do anything that is unvirtuous or that may compromise our integrity (like behaving obnoxiously in reaction to another's obnoxious behavior).
^There is a nice analogy in Stoic lore meant to explain the point...dog leashed to the cart.
"For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it...Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance. If you are insulted, you will discover patience. In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate." -Epictetus
If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.
"Let silence be your goal for the most part; say only what is necessary, and be brief about it." -Epictetus
"In your conversation, don't dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn't mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them." -Epictetus