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.”

Is Stoic joy an oxymoron?

Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire

Stoicism is misunderstood. People think a Stoic is emotionless like Mr. Spock.

It’s a view I’ve been guilty of promoting.

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, philosophy professor William B. Irvine describes how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism is relevant today.

His key point is that Stoicism is about finding tranquility through self-control.

Stoicism isn’t about repressing emotions. Nor does it advocate indulging them.

Emotions are a reflex. And negative emotions such as anger, grief, fear, and anxiety can be destructive.

Stoicism isn’t about repressing these emotions. Nor does it advocate indulging them. Instead, Stoicism offers practical techniques for minimizing negative emotions.

Irvine says it’s okay for a Stoic to enjoy people, possessions, wealth, popularity, and health. But a Stoic will prepare for the eventual loss of these things. Stoics, like Zen Buddhists, believe all things are impermanent.

More to the point, Stoics place the most value on something that cannot be taken from them – their character.

Stoics realize that their happiness cannot depend on external things that they don’t control. If your happiness is based on wealth or relationships, which someone can take from you, then your happiness is not really yours.

Don’t expect the world to conform to your desires.

There are things you have no control over, such as the weather. There are things you can influence but not completely control, such as other people.

Then there are things you have complete control over. You can choose your values. You can set your goals.

But a Stoic doesn’t expect the world to conform to her desires. Instead, she embraces the moment because wishing things were different will only lead to misery.

Stoics don’t advocate a passive approach to life, however. Irvine says your best bet is to set internal goals, such as being as persuasive as possible or giving it your best shot. But you must be willing to let go of the desired outcome if it doesn’t go your way.

Balance is central to Stoic tranquility.

Balance, then, is central to Stoic tranquility. Stoicism isn’t about being emotionless because you can’t control the fact that emotions arise. Instead, there’s an equilibrium between indulgence and repression.

Ironically, practicing Stoicism means becoming more emotionally aware so the Stoic can put these emotions in perspective. And that requires the use of reason.

One technique Irvine recommends is negative visualization. Imagine losing something dear to you, and imagine handling that gracefully.

It’s a tough sell, but preparing yourself for the loss will help you cope when it happens.

Besides, most of us waste time thinking about things we want but don’t have. Envisioning the loss of things we do have makes us appreciate them all the more instead of taking them for granted.

Stoics place little value on people’s criticism or praise.

Irvine offers other pieces of practical advice. Our goals and values are ours, so we should take care not to let other people’s opinions derail us.

The human desire for social status can be a huge downfall. Status is conferred on us by others and can just as easily be withdrawn. For the sake of tranquility, Stoics advise placing little value on people’s criticism or praise.

Irvine quotes Roman Stoic Seneca, who said that “to know how many people are jealous of you, count your admirers.”

That might sound cynical, but flattery is often a tool for manipulation. Ever notice how easily people go from idolizing someone to despising them? Jealousy is the consistent element.

If your self-worth is based on other people’s positive opinions of you, then they own your self-worth – you don’t.

Learning to laugh at yourself helps you shrug off your faults. And if you can see that you’re not really so great then you’ll be less dependent on other people’s praise.

How do Stoics deal with anger?

Anger may be the most common negative emotion. How do Stoics deal with anger? Irvine says you lose the ability to distinguish annoyances from genuine harm when you coddle yourself and avoid life’s difficulties. The smallest discomfort becomes unbearable. Facing hardship head on builds confidence and makes annoyances easy to deal with.

Being overly sensitive, though, leads to thinking of yourself as a victim who is entitled to retribution. You might even develop a sense of entitlement that the world should conform to your desires.

That sense of entitlement becomes anger when the world is indifferent to your desires. Entitlement also leads to a lack of responsibility because you think the world must change for you – you don’t see that it’s you who must change.

Related to realistic expectations is reflecting on the impermanence of all things. This too shall pass. Irvine recommends imaging the situation happening to someone you don’t know. Would you think it’s a big deal or would you think it’s trivial? If it seems trivial then you have no business getting upset about it.

He also recommends that you remind yourself of times you’ve angered other people. You can quell your anger by remembering that you’re no better than anyone else.

Laughing at yourself when you’re feeling angry is also a great technique for chilling out. It’s hard to be mad when you see how silly you’re being.

Force yourself to slow down and to relax your facial expression. And once you’ve calmed down, apologize.

Modernizing Stoicism.

Finally, Irvine admits that he’s modernizing Stoicism. No ancient Stoic talked about negative visualization (though likely they would have approved).

And ancient Stoics disagreed with Epicureans that the world consists of atoms. Epicureans disagreed with the Stoic belief that the gods determine our fates. Irvine concedes that Epicureans have won this debate.

But none of this answers the question of whether Stoicism will bring joy.

We’ll only know by trying it.