Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Insightful reflections on the ancient philosophy of life
The philosophical school of Stoicism may have been born in the 3rd century BC, but it has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. In modern times, Stoicism served as the basis for cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychotherapeutic technique used to treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other mental maladies. Many contemporary would-be Stoics, however, prefer to bypass CBT entirely and go straight to the source for their life-coaching by using the writings of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome as the basis for a guide to living. With all the Stoic self-help books published in recent years, it was only a matter of time before one utilized the “daily affirmations” format. Such is the strategy of The Daily Stoic, published in 2016. The book was written by Ryan Holiday, a former PR man and marketing director, and Stephen Hanselman, a publisher and literary agent with a master’s degree in philosophy.

As the title of the book indicates, The Daily Stoic delivers 366 mini-lessons in Stoicism, dated January 1st through December 31st. These daily entries are divided into months, each revolving around a different theme, such as “Passions and Emotions,” “Duty,” “Fortitude and Resilience,” and “Virtue and Kindness.” Each daily lesson begins with a quotation from an ancient Stoic—most commonly Epictetus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, but the authors also include selections from less familiar Stoics like Musonius Rufus, Cleanthes, and Zeno (the latter quoted from Diogenes Laertius’s Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers). Holiday and Hanselman then provide a page or two of elaboration on the quote and how it applies to the problems of modern life.

Overall these daily Stoic meditations are really quite well-written. The authors are adept at taking ancient Stoic concepts and translating them into plain English without dumbing-down the philosophical content. Holiday and Hanselman certainly know their stuff and write about Stoicism knowledgably and intelligently. They often use examples from history or current events to illustrate the points made in the ancient quotes, which keeps the text interesting and relevant to 21st century readers. If you have already looked into Stoicism, chances are you’ve probably already read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or the Discourses of Epictetus, but this book will help you see those texts in a new way. Occasionally, the lectures sometimes veer into what one might call “self-help shaming,” implying that if you’re not living your life to the fullest, then your life is a waste. Such instances read more like a 21st-century conceit than what the Stoics had in mind when they promised a life of tranquility. Overall, however, I found the book quite insightful and useful.

Though I believe in Stoicism and its benefits for mental and emotional health, I did not diligently stick to the lesson-a-day schedule the book prescribes. Sometimes I got bored with The Daily Stoic and let several days go by without picking it up; sometimes I would enthusiastically devour half a month’s worth of entries in one sitting. This is not the best book I’ve read on Stoicism (William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life is hard to beat), but it is better than most. If you are serious about Stoicism, these daily contemplations on Stoic thought can be a useful tool to augment your studies. Having just finished the book with the end of the calendar year, I’ll probably just go back to the beginning and read it all over again.
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