How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, by Massimo Pigliucci (Basic Books, 2017), £12.99/$27
Stoicism has a reputation for being cold and callous – and it’s no wonder, given its famous maxims that advise treating death and disease as indifferents, reducing sex to friction between members, and (it seems) policing fun, enjoyment, and passion at every turn. Massimo Pigliucci’s latest book, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, presents a more nuanced interpretation of Stoicism, eschewing the stereotypical Stoic as Dr. Spock with his stiff upper lip. He doesn’t recommend cold showers every morning. He does encourage activism and standing up for what one thinks is virtuous. Although there is no discussion of sex or passion, there is affirmation of friendship and love of relatives and humankind: “Stoicism”, Pigliucci says, “was very much a philosophy of social engagement and encouraged love for all humankind and Nature as well.”
Pigliucci has been writing about philosophy’s relevance to everyday life for years at his blogs – including at “Footnotes to Plato”, hosted by The Philosophers’ Magazine – as well as in his twelve previous books, including Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life. Aristotle did not have enough answers, apparently. In How to Be a Stoic, Pigliucci explains that he is not religious, but the New Atheists left him “downright irritated”. Buddhism seemed “too mystical” and he found secular humanism to be overly reliant on science. “By contrast”, Pigliucci explains, “in Stoicism I have found a rational, science-friendly philosophy that includes a metaphysics with a spiritual dimension, is explicitly open to revision, and, most importantly, is eminently practical.”
Epictetus is Pigliucci’s guide, and imaginary conversations between the two men explore how a Stoic might approach practical problems in modern living, as well as where Stoicism needs updating. One such update is to the dichotomy of control, a central feature of ancient Stoicism, because modern science has shown that our judgements are less under our control than the Stoics imagined. Pigliucci recounts, for example, that he was a “chubby kid” and his grandparents fed him bountifully and frequently. Stoicism helps him as an adult because he focuses on what he can control (eating and exercise) but doesn’t worry about what he can’t (his genes and upbringing) and, he says, “I derive satisfaction from knowing that, quite irrespective of the actual outcome, I’m doing my best.”
As the title would suggest, How to Be a Stoic is a handbook-style book that’s informative and instructional. It’s clearly structured, with a framework through which Pigliucci explores the four key Stoic virtues: practical wisdom (to live an ethically good life), courage (to act morally under trying conditions), temperance (not to overindulge), and justice (“treating other human beings with dignity and fairness”). These virtues are discussed in practical terms, with a focus on desire (acceptance), action (philanthropy), and assent (mindfulness), while Pigliucci also addresses specific topics such as death and disability, anger and anxiety, love and loneliness. The book culminates in twelve practical exercises, which involve suggestions (not rules) such as “Respond to insults with humor”, “Speak without judging”, and “Choose your company well”.
How to Be a Stoic is a very readable book: there’s a lightness to the prose, an enthusiasm that glows from the pages, and a subtle humour sprinkled through the stories, which are the highlight of the book. For example, while Pigliucci practices vigilance on a crowded subway to ward off thieves, he was seconds too late in discovering that he had been pickpocketed. His reaction is: “kudos to [the thief] for his dexterity”, though he also acknowledges the thief’s loss of integrity. Although a missing wallet was administratively annoying, Pigliucci rationalises that it wasn’t the end of the world. He foresees the common criticism of Stoicism that it’s all too easy to shrug off injustices, and creates an opening for activism, advising that: “It is not in our power to make thievery disappear from the world, but it is in our power to engage in a battle of attention with thieves, if we think that’s worth our efforts and time.”
The book also draws upon other stories to show Stoicism’s modern applicability. For example, to illustrate virtue and character, he nominates Malala Yousafzai as a role model, and compares Socrates and Edward Snowden. While Snowden took asylum in Russia, Socrates was more virtuous because he faced up to his moral duty to accept the law of the society in which he lived – even though he probably could have escaped too. Pigliucci describes how Stoicism helped Larry Becker, a retired professor of philosophy who survived polio and flourished, as well as Andrew Overby, who grappled with depression and came to think about life as a judo match.
How to Be a Stoic is likely to resonate to some extent even with those who are unconvinced by Stoicism, since much of it describes being a decent person. For example, changing where you do your banking because the bank has been found guilty of fraudulent practices is not a uniquely Stoic act, but rather is more indicative of what (I would hope) a thoughtful person would consider.
One of the key points of contention, however, is the clichéd but still relevant concern with Stoic indifference. Stoicism accommodates being emotional and excitable on occasion, and yet these are still treated as weaknesses, or transgressions, that ought to be overcome with “cold hard logic”. Pigliucci addresses this by pointing out that Stoic indifference is “one of the most misinterpreted bits of Stoic wisdom, sometimes even willfully so”, and channels Epictetus in explaining that life is impermanent and we can lose loved ones at any time, so we ought to appreciate them and not take our relationships for granted. Moreover, Pigliucci shows throughout the book how Stoicism supports being caring and compassionate, both on an individual and social level.
There is certainly great value in avoiding wasting emotional energy on unpleasant people, and to mitigate sadness when we lose loved ones. However, my primary concern with the Stoic view is that it says relationships are fundamentally aspects of life about which we ought to practice being indifferent. The problem here is that not only could it be difficult to form personal relationships, if others knew you were doing your best to be indifferent to them, but also there’s a risk of being cast as a sociopath. Both Pigliucci and Epictetus seem to recognise this tension, since they also advise that we practice empathy, and I was left wanting to understand more about the dynamic between empathy, equanimity, and indifference.
How to be a Stoic is an excellent advertisement to general audiences not only for Stoicism, but also for philosophy in general, as well as its application to everyday living. Stoicism seems to help many people – especially through tough times – and Pigliucci’s book shows how and why Stoicism can be a useful resource for twenty-first century living.