Monday, July 20, 2015

Stoicism Today: Selected Writings, Volume One. Edited by Patrick Ussher

Applying ancient philosophy to modern life
Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC. It is a practical philosophy, intended as a guide for how to live one’s life. The Stoics stressed that we have no control over what happens in our lives, only control over our perceptions. They advocated living one’s life in accordance with nature (not “nature” as in grass and trees, but “nature” as in the order of the universe). By concentrating one’s thoughts and choices on what is good and virtuous, and disregarding the “indifferent” distractions of everyday life, one can avoid negative emotions like fear, anger, grief, and frustration, and live a life of happiness and tranquility.

In recent years, there has been a burgeoning resurgence in Stoicism, with modern writers producing manuals on how to apply Stoic principles to life in today’s world, such as William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. Along similar lines, Stoicism Today is a blog published out of the University of Exeter in England, edited and largely written by a team of British philosophers. This 2014 book, edited by Patrick Ussher, is the first volume of writings reprinted from the blog. 36 articles are included in the collection, covering a mixed bag of Stoic-related topics.

The collection starts out strong with essays summarizing and explaining the core concepts of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. These ancient Roman writers are the most prominent Stoics whose teachings survive today. The 21st-century writers clarify the ancient Stoic precepts and discuss their applicability to modern life. Though the bloggers hold PhDs in philosophy and command a thorough understanding of their subject, they do a great job of expressing these complex concepts in language that is accessible to the general reader, without dumbing down the subject matter.

While the first half of the book provides a good, broad education on Stoicism, the second half covers a diverse assortment of topics and perspectives. A section called “Life Stories” consists of accounts by people of various walks of life on how they use Stoicism in their daily lives and work, including a lawyer, a doctor, and a woman who suffered a traumatic brain injury. The most fascinating and inspiring story is that of Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic who became mayor of Vancouver. Next is a section on how Stoicism can be applied to parenthood and the education of children. This is followed by a section on Stoicism and psychotherapy which will mostly appeal to psychiatric professionals, as it will likely be over the head of most general readers. Three articles deal with the concept of Stoic “mindfulness” and its relation or lack of relation to Buddhism. Finally, the book falls apart somewhat with its final section on Stoicism in popular culture. It includes an excerpt from a Stoicism-infused novel about prison inmates which is OK, but also a sample chapter from a horrible science fiction novel. The book’s final selection is a pretty good examination of the portrayal of Stoicism in the Star Trek television series.

This collection by its very nature is a hodgepodge, and the selections vary greatly in quality as well as subject matter. The core team of philosophers are good writers for the most part, but the ensemble cast of guest bloggers is hit and miss. Nevertheless, if you’ve read all the Stoic classics and are looking for further advice on how to put Stoicism into practice, you’re bound to find something here that will interest you.
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