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Review of "How to Be a Stoic"

By Massimo Piggliuci
Basic Books, 2017
Review by Christian Perring on Jul 10th 2018
How to Be a Stoic

Massimo Piggliuci provides an entertaining and approachable guide to Stoic living in his recent book, How to Be a Stoic. He has been running his excellent blog of the same name since 2015. In the book he focuses on Stoicism as a way of life, which is mostly about controlling one's own emotions and one's relationships with other people. He acknowledges various strands of Stoic thought, but sticks mainly with the ideas of Epictetus. Since Stoicism was developed over hundreds of years in Ancient Greece and Rome, it evolved and varied considerably over time, and modern Stoics are still developing the view.  But there are some core parts of Stoicisms that are appealing, and Piggliuci does a good job at setting these out.

Essential to Stoicisms is the idea that we should focus on the parts of life we have some control over, and not be concerned with that we cannot control. There's a frequent claim by Stoics that we have control not over the world but over our reaction to it, and so that's what we should learn to control. There's been long discussion over how much on this view, we should cease out dependence on possessions and other people, because they are unreliable. Some Stoics have been sympathetic to asceticism, although rarely do they embrace the most extreme forms which require one to live a solitary life without possessions. There are also questions about what we should want: Stoics often recommend following Natural Law, but the idea of what is natural is far more obscure than it might first seem, since humans are naturally tool-makers and users, leading to convenient inventions such as washing machines and smart phones. Piggliuci discusses these sorts of conundrums and brings on some of the rest of the history of philosophy and science, but he never gets too heavy or detailed for a general reader.

Another example of this fairly light tone is the discussion of science and God. Piggliuci makes it clear that he has no need to believe in a supernatural God of religion, and prefers a scientific view of the world. But he equally emphasizes the idea that reasonable people can have religious beliefs and it is not the role of Stoicism to condemn religion per se. He is unsympathetic to the "new atheists" who are very intolerant of religion. (It isn't so clear that this attitude is particularly in line with ancient Stoic thought, which was very focused on a determinist approach to understanding the world.)

Much of the book, especially the later sections, have a practical emphasis. Piggliuci discusses character and virtue, exploring what sense we can make of those ideas. He emphasizes the importance of role models, and he explores some examples. He discusses how mental illness and disability can affect our lives. He aims to find some insight from Stoic philosophy about how we should react to emotional and physical problems, and uses a few sources of thought to guide him. Yet he also avoids giving simple formulas about how to react. He takes this to a further extreme in a chapter on suicide, in which he generally recommends a calm and measured response to troubles and argues that suicide is rarely reasonable.

At its most practical, the book addresses how to deal with anxiety and depression, and how to behave in relationships. Obviously a great deal has been written on these topics, and Piggliuci brings in more recent discussion as well as reference to the ancient Stoics. His recommendations are not particularly surprising, bringing in especially ideas from Aristotle. The book ends with a chapter on "practical spiritual exercises" which are more about how to get into good Stoic habits rather than what we might more commonly class as spiritual practices.

Overall, this is a useful book for those seeking rational guides to living that go beyond bare "humanism" or just focus on being happy. I'd recommend the associate blog for more detailed and a little more scholarly discussion of issues of Stoic philosophy.



© 2018 Christian Perring


Christian Perring teaches in NYC.