Thursday, November 7, 2019

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson

A fine introductory text to applied Stoic philosophy
In the past few decades, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism has seen a resurgence in appreciation as it has been rescued from the arcanity of academic philosophy textbooks and repackaged as a self-help program, which really was its original intention all along. British-Canadian psychotherapist Donald Robertson has distinguished himself as one of the current leading writers on Stoicism. His book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, published in 2013, is a volume in the Teach Yourself series published by Hodder & Stoughton. True to the self-educational mission of that series, this book is an instructional manual for readers with little or no knowledge of Stoic philosophy. In this well-organized text, Robertson defines and expands upon Stoic principles and guides the reader in their practical application to modern life.

Perhaps the most popular book in the recent Stoic renaissance (at least in the U.S.) has been William B. Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. While Irvine is a professor of philosophy, Robertson writes from the perspective of a psychotherapist. He repeatedly points out that ancient Stoic philosophy was the basis for modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and in this book you will often find excerpts from Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius alongside quotes from the twentieth-century founders of CBT. Robertson points out, rightfully so, that Irvine’s conception of modern Stoicism is not entirely faithful to the ancient writings of the Stoic philosophers. Robertson is more of a purist who prefers to stick to the wisdom of the ancients as closely as possible. Of the two writers, however, Irvine’s text is the more accessible and more likely to make inspired converts of philosophically challenged general readers. Robertson is more methodical and systematic in his approach, perhaps because of the textbook format required by the Teach Yourself series, which sometimes renders the subject a bit dry and lifeless. Overall, however, both books are great introductions to Stoicism, and a novice couldn’t really go wrong with either one.

Because of its textbook format, the contents are quite repetitive. After Robertson discusses concepts in the main chapter text, those same concepts are then repeated in sidebars, instructions for exercises, and a list of points to remember at the end of each chapter. This repetition supports the book’s function as an introductory text, but it can prove tedious for those who have already put some study into Stoicism. Even for those readers already familiar with Stoicism, however, the book can serve as a useful reference and refresher course. One annoying thing about the edition I purchased is that Robertson states on a few occasions that those reading the ebook will get an extra bonus chapter dealing with the subject of death. First of all, I’m reading the ebook, and that chapter is not included. Secondly, if I were reading the print edition, I would feel ripped off.

Despite that editorial fault, this really is one of the best non-academic books on Stoicism that I’ve encountered and one well worth reading for curious beginners or well-read enthusiasts. (By “non-academic” I mean not intended solely for grad students in philosophy.) The lessons are clear, and the psychological exercises are genuinely useful. Those wishing to apply Stoic principles to their daily life will find this book a worthy practical guide.
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