Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”
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David Hume on Stoicism

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona

Interest in Stoicism didn’t end in ancient times only to be revived today. David Hume was an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher who had a lot to say about a lot of things. And one of them was Stoicism.

Instead of focusing on Hume’s essay “The Stoic” (which Massimo Pigliucci has addressed), I’m going to look at a few passages from Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

The characters in Dialogues are loosely based on certain Greek philosophers. Ancient Sceptics (unlike modern scientific skeptics) claimed that we can’t really know anything. But Hume notes that it’s “impossible to persevere in this total scepticism… External objects press in upon him; passions solicit him…”

But he finds Stoics making the same mistake of thinking that because they can pull it off in some situations they can pull it off in every situation. Hume describes the Stoic ideal by saying that,

When the mind, by Stoical reflections, is elevated into a sublime enthusiasm of virtue, and strongly smit with any species of honour or public good, the utmost bodily pain and sufferance will not prevail over such a high sense of duty; and ’tis possible, perhaps, by its means, even to smile and exult in the midst of tortures.

Inevitably, however, “the bent of his mind relaxes [and]…misfortunes attack him unawares.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in Stoicism. Hume goes on to say,

that though the mind cannot, in Stoicism, support the highest flights of philosophy, yet even when it sinks lower, it still retains somewhat of its former disposition; and the effects of the Stoic’s reasoning will appear in his conduct in common life, and through the whole tenor of his actions.

In other words, progress is possible even if perfection is not—a point Stoics like Seneca made thousands of years ago. Besides, even Epictetus didn’t claim to be a Sage.

But Cicero portrays Cato’s uncompromising Stoic ideal in stark terms:

Just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water…than if he were actually at the bottom already, …similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is nonetheless in misery than he that has made no progress at all.

If the Sage is an impossible standard then is Stoicism pointless? Buddhists probably have the same question about enlightenment.

It’s Stoic practice to offer a continual challenge. Pigliucci interprets Cato as saying that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent: “I take this to be a humility check on ourselves: …there is no sense in feeling smug about those people who are not making progress.”