Friday, May 18, 2012

The Stoic Life: Emotions, Duties, and Fate by Tad Brennan

A nuts-and-bolts guide to Stoicism
This book provides a fascinating, in-depth examination of Stoicism, though I think the title is a little misleading. “The Stoic Life” gives the impression that this is a book about practical applications of Stoic thought to one’s life, which is not the case. This book never enters into “self-help” territory, like William Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, for example, nor does it offer the sort of issue-specific Stoic advice (on grief, on anger, etc.) one might find in the writings of Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. Brennan doesn’t advocate Stoicism, and I’m not sure he’s even a fan of it. His primary objective is to define Stoicism, what it is and how it works. To do this he painstakingly dissects ancient texts word by word, phrase by phrase in order to clearly determine what exactly the ancient Stoics believed. While the contents of the book weren’t what I expected, I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

The Stoics believed that the key to happiness was to live in accordance with nature. But how does one put that into practice? Some of the things that we encounter in life are good (virtues), some bad (vices), but most are indifferents (neither good nor bad). How do we recognize which is which, and how should that affect our choices and actions in life? The bulk of the book consists of Brennan’s analytical breakdown of this decision-making process. Once the ethical framework of Stoic behavior is established, Brennan goes on to address the conundrum of why any of it makes any difference at all, given that the Stoics believed that all events were predetermined by fate, even our own thoughts.

Brennan has a real talent for taking complex philosophical ideas and explaining them in clear and precise terminology that is easily accessible to the general reader. He also chooses ingenious analogies that are truly helpful in illustrating Stoic ideas. While the quality of the writing makes this book an enjoyable read, it is in no way a simplistic look at the subject. Brennan essentially starts with the assumption that his audience knows nothing about Stoicism, gives a historical overview, then builds the structure of Stoic thought from its most basic terminology to its most complicated concepts. What results is almost a flow chart of the Stoic thought process that seamlessly marries their metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology into a cohesive whole. The Stoic Life will prove a valuable companion to anyone who plans to read (and hopes to understand) the works of Epictetus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius.

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