Friday, February 23, 2018

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci

Irvine’s been there, done that
Stoicism is an ancient school of philosophy that originated in Greece in the 3rd century BC. Its most famous spokesmen from ancient times—Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius—taught their followers the path to a life of tranquility and virtue through the mindful exercise of reason in mastering desires, emotions, and judgments. Stoicism has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in recent years because its ancient tenets and techniques have proven to be a timelessly effective code of living. Stoicism is the basis for modern cognitive behavior therapy, and has also given rise to a number of self-help publications, the latest of which is Massimo Pigliucci’s 2017 book How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. As the title suggests, Pigliucci makes the case for Stoicism as a way of life and offers practical suggestions to today’s readers on how to apply Stoic concepts to their daily lives. While this is a great idea, it has been done before, most notably by William B. Irvine in his 2009 book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In my opinion, the more books about Stoicism the better, and Pigliucci’s entry is a welcome addition to the Stoic corpus, but it doesn’t really cover much new ground.

For those who have never read a philosophy book, Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic may be the easier entry point to the subject, but Irvine’s book is still remarkably accessible and more substantial in its content. The one unique twist to Pigliucci’s approach is that he carries on an imaginary conversation with the ancient teacher Epictetus, whose Discourses is arguably the most important fundamental text of Stoicism. To illustrate Stoic concepts, Pigliucci uses a brief saying or story from Epictetus as the basis for each chapter and elaborates upon it with examples from his own life. The drawback to this approach is that Epictetus’s contributions to the dialogue tend to be oversimplified and overshadowed by Pigliucci’s personal reflections. While I agree with many of Pigliucci’s views on politics and society, I don’t agree that he should have devoted so much ink to them in this book. While examples are important to connect the ancient philosophy to modern life, in this case it feels like examples make up the bulk of the book. Furthermore, while one of the advantages of Stoicism is its adaptability, Pigliucci seems too ready to depart from the ancient teachings in favor of his own personal interpretation or modern compromise. In contrast, Irvine also used helpful personal examples to support his text, but he places the philosophy at the forefront and does a better job of letting the Stoics speak for themselves.

The best part of Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is its final chapter, entitled “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” which offers a dozen specific cognitive and behavioral practices that budding Stoics can utilize to hone their thoughts and actions in order to live, as the Stoics say, in accordance with nature. Recommendations such as “Examine your impressions,” “Remind yourself of the impermanence of things,” and “Speak little and well,” may seem like simple rules to follow, but in practice they require repetition, discipline, and fortitude to be effective. Again, many of these exercises have been previously suggested by Irvine and other writers of the new Stoic movement, but Pigliucci does an exceptionally fine job of laying them out in an organized and accessible manner that encourages the reader not only to try them but also to persist and succeed.

Though How to Be a Stoic feels a lot like an Irvine redux, there is still room for one more philosopher under the stoa. Irvine himself gave his blessing to Pigliucci’s book, and it will no doubt succeed in recruiting more than a few new students to this worthy school of thought.
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