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THE UNSTRAIGHTFORWARD PATH
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
—DANTE, THE DIVINE COMEDY: INFERNO, CANTO I
IN EVERY CULTURE WE KNOW OF, WHETHER IT BE SECULAR or religious, ethnically diverse or not, the question of how to live is central. How should we handle life's challenges and vicissitudes? How should we conduct ourselves in the world and treat others? And the ultimate question: how do we best prepare for the final test of our character, the moment when we die?
The numerous religions and philosophies that have been devised over human history to address these issues offer answers ranging from the mystical to the hyper-rational. Recently, even science has gotten into the business, with an onslaught of technical papers and popular books on happiness and how to achieve it, accompanied by the obligatory brain scans displaying "your brain on…" whatever it is that may increase or decrease your satisfaction with life. Correspondingly, the tools to seek answers to existential questions vary as much as the approaches that have been used—from sacred texts to deep meditation, from philosophical arguments to scientific experiments.
The resulting panorama is truly astounding and reflects both the creativity of the human spirit and the urgency that we obviously attach to inquiries into meaning and purpose. You can embrace any of a large variety of options within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, for instance; or choose one of a panoply of schools of Buddhism; or opt instead for Taoism, or Confucianism, among many others. If philosophy, rather than religion, is your cup of tea, then you can turn to existentialism, secular humanism, secular Buddhism, ethical culture, and so forth. Or you can arrive instead at the conclusion that there is no meaning—indeed, the very search for it is meaningless—and embrace a "happy" sort of nihilism (yes, there is such a thing).
For my part, I've become a Stoic. I do not mean that I have started keeping a stiff upper lip and suppressing my emotions. As much as I love the character of Mr. Spock (which Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry purportedly modeled after his—naïve, as it turns out—understanding of Stoicism), these traits represent two of the most common misconceptions about what it means to be a Stoic. In reality, Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion—rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also 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. As I explain in this book, in practice Stoicism involves a dynamic combination of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and other spiritual exercises.
One of the key tenets of Stoicism is that we ought to recognize, and take seriously, the difference between what we can and cannot master. This distinction—also made by some Buddhist doctrines—is often taken to indicate a tendency of Stoics to withdraw from social engagement and public life, but a closer look at both Stoic writings and, more importantly, the lives of famous Stoics will dispel this impression: Stoicism was very much a philosophy of social engagement and encouraged love for all humankind and Nature as well. It is this apparently contradictory tension between the advice to focus on one's thoughts and the social dimension of Stoicism that drew me to it as a practice.
I arrived at Stoicism, not on my way to Damascus, but through a combination of cultural happenstance, life's vicissitudes, and deliberate philosophical choice. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that my path would eventually lead me to the Stoics. Raised in Rome, I have considered Stoicism part of my cultural heritage ever since I studied ancient Greek and Roman history and philosophy in high school, although it wasn't until recently that I sought to make its principles part of my everyday life.
I am by profession a scientist and philosopher, and I have therefore always been inclined to seek more coherent ways to understand the world (through science) and better choices for living my life (through philosophy). A few years ago, I wrote a book, Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life, in which I explored such a framework, which I called sciphi. The basic approach was to combine the ancient idea of virtue ethics, which focuses on character development and the pursuit of personal excellence as the pillars providing meaning to our lives, with the latest that the natural and social sciences tell us about human nature and how we work, fail, and learn. As it happened, this was only the beginning of my journey toward philosophical self-awareness.
Something else was going on at the time that made me pause and reflect. I have not been a religious person since my teenage years (I was prompted to leave Catholicism, in part, by reading Bertrand Russell's famous Why I Am Not a Christian in high school), and as such I have been on my own in dealing with questions of where my morals and the meaning in my life come from. I take it that an increasing number of people in the United States and across the world find themselves facing a similar conundrum. While sympathetic to the idea that lack of religious affiliation should be just as acceptable a choice in life as any religious one, and strongly supportive of the constitutional separation of church and state in the United States and elsewhere, I have also grown increasingly dissatisfied with (make that downright irritated by) the intolerant anger of the so-called New Atheists, represented by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others. Although public criticism of religion (or of any idea) is the staple of a healthy democratic society, people don't respond very well to being belittled and insulted. On this point the Stoic philosopher Epictetus clearly agrees with me, all the while displaying his characteristic sense of humor: "At this point you run the risk of him saying, 'What business is that of yours, sir? What are you to me?' Pester him further, and he is liable to punch you in the nose. I myself was once keen for this sort of discourse, until I met with just such a reception."
There are, of course, alternatives to the New Atheism if you want to pursue a nonreligious approach to life, including secular Buddhism and secular humanism. Yet these two paths—the two major ones on offer for those seeking a meaningful secular existence—are somehow unsatisfactory to me, though for opposite reasons. I find Buddhism's currently dominant modes a bit too mystical, and its texts opaque and hard to interpret, especially in light of what we know about the world and the human condition from modern science (and despite a number of neurobiological studies that persuasively show the mental benefits of meditation). Secular humanism, which I have embraced for years, suffers from the opposite problem: it is too dependent on science and a modern conception of rationality, with the result that—despite the best efforts of its supporters—it comes across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to on a Sunday morning. Hence, I think, the spectacular lack of success (numerically speaking) of secular humanist organizations.
By contrast, 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. The Stoics accepted the scientific principle of universal causality: everything has a cause, and everything in the universe unfolds according to natural processes. There is no room for spooky transcendental stuff. But they also believed that the universe is structured according to what they called the Logos, which can be interpreted as either God or simply what is sometimes termed "Einstein's god": the simple, indubitable fact that Nature is understandable by reason.
Although other components of the Stoic system are important, by far the distinguishing feature of Stoicism is its practicality: it began in the guise of, and has always been understood as, a quest for a happy and meaningful life. Not surprisingly, then, its fundamental texts—pretty much all of them coming to us from the late Roman Stoa (as the Stoic school was called), since most of the early writings have been lost—are paragons of clarity. Epictetus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius speak to us in plain language, far removed from the often cryptic Buddhist texts or even the flowery allegories of early Christianity. One of my favorite quotations, again from Epictetus, exemplifies this down-to-earth practicality: "Death is necessary and cannot be avoided. I mean, where am I going to go to get away from it?"
The final reason I turned to Stoicism is that this philosophy speaks most directly and convincingly to the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. I recently passed the half-century mark, a seemingly arbitrary point in life that nonetheless prompted me to engage in broader reflections: who am I, and what am I doing? As a nonreligious person, I was also looking for some sort of playbook on how to prepare for the eventual end of my life. Beyond my own preoccupations, we live in a society where life keeps being extended by modern science and more and more of us will consequently find ourselves needing to decide what to do with our existence for decades after retiring. Moreover, whatever we decide about the meaning of our extended lives, we also need to find ways of preparing ourselves and our loved ones to face the permanent demise of our own consciousness, of our unique presence in this world. And we need to know how to die in a dignified way that allows us to achieve tranquillity of mind and is of comfort to those who survive us.
Famously, the original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and many writings to what Seneca referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. "We die every day," he wrote to his friend Gaius Lucillius. Seneca connected this test to the rest of our existence on earth: "A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well." Life, for the Stoics, is an ongoing project, and death, its logical, natural end point, is nothing special in and of itself and nothing that we should particularly fear. This view resonated with me, striking a balance as it did between opposite attitudes to which I had been exposed and which I found unpalatable: no fantasizing about an immortality of which there is neither evidence nor reason to believe in, but also no secular dismissal—or worse, avoidance—of the issue of death and personal extinction.
For these and other reasons, I'm not alone in my quest to revive this ancient practical philosophy and adapt it to twenty-first-century life. Every fall thousands of people participate in Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event–cum–social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter in England, with the collaboration of academic philosophers, cognitive therapists, and everyday practitioners from all over the world. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and its relevance to their lives, and on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually makes a difference. The preliminary results from the Exeter initiative are tentative (in future Stoic Weeks, more sophisticated experimental protocols will be used and larger sample sizes collected), but they are promising. Participants in the third international Stoic Week, for instance, reported a 9 percent increase in positive emotions, an 11 percent decrease in negative emotions, and a 14 percent improvement in life satisfaction after one week of practice. (The previous year the team conducted longer-term follow-ups, and they confirmed the initial results for people who kept practicing.) Participants also seem to think that Stoicism makes them more virtuous: 56 percent gave Stoic practice a high mark in that regard. Of course, this is a self-selected sample of people who have an interest in Stoicism and buy into at least some of its assumptions and practices. Then again, for people who are already somewhat committed to this particular approach to see such significant changes in the span of a few days ought to at least encourage interested others to pay attention.
Results like these are not entirely surprising, given that Stoicism is the philosophical root of a number of evidence-based psychological therapies, including Viktor Frankl's logotherapy and Albert Ellis's rational emotive behavior therapy. Of Ellis it has been said that "no individual—not even Freud himself—has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy." Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust and wrote the best-selling book Man's Search for Meaning. His moving and inspiring story of resilience can be read as a contemporary example of Stoicism in practice. Both Ellis and Frankl acknowledged Stoicism as an important influence in developing their therapeutic approaches, with Frankl characterizing logotherapy as a type of existential analysis. Another compelling account of Stoicism is provided by Vice Admiral James Stockdale in his memoir In Love and War. Stockdale famously credited Stoicism (and in particular his readings of Epictetus) for his survival under prolonged horrid conditions in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. Also owing a significant debt to Stoicism is the increasingly diverse family of practices that goes under the general rubric of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which was initially deployed to treat depression and now is more widely applied to a variety of mental conditions. Aaron T. Beck, author of Cognitive Therapy of Depression, acknowledges this debt when he writes, "The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers."
Of course, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a type of therapy. The difference is crucial: a therapy is intended to be a short-term approach to helping people overcome specific problems of a psychological nature; it doesn't necessarily provide a general picture, or philosophy, of life. A philosophy of life is something we all need, however, and something we all develop, consciously or not. Some people simply import wholesale whatever framework for life they acquire from a religion. Others make up their own philosophy as they go along, without thinking too much about it, but nonetheless engaging in actions and decisions that reflect some implicit understanding of what life is about. Still others would rather—as Socrates famously put it—take the time to examine their life in order to live it better.
Stoicism, like any life philosophy, may not appeal to or work for everyone. It is rather demanding, stipulating that moral character is the only truly worthy thing to cultivate; health, education, and even wealth are considered "preferred indifferents" (although Stoics don't advocate asceticism, and many of them historically enjoyed the good things in life). Such "externals" do not define who we are as individuals and have nothing to do with our personal worth, which depends on our character and our exercise of the virtues. In this sense, Stoicism is eminently democratic, cutting across social classes: whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick, educated or ignorant, it makes no difference to your ability to live a moral life and thus achieve what the Stoics called ataraxia, or tranquillity of mind.
For all its uniqueness, Stoicism has numerous points of contact with other philosophies, with religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity), and with modern movements such as secular humanism and ethical culture. There is something very appealing to me, as a nonreligious person, in the idea of such an ecumenical philosophy, one that can share goals and at least some general attitudes with other major ethical traditions across the world. This commonality has allowed me to reject more forcefully the strident New Atheism that I criticized earlier, and it also allows religious persons to distance themselves from the even more pernicious fundamentalisms of different stripes that have been plaguing our recent history. To a Stoic, it ultimately does not matter if we think the Logos is God or Nature, as long as we recognize that a decent human life is about the cultivation of one's character and concern for other people (and even for Nature itself) and is best enjoyed by way of a proper—but not fanatical—detachment from mere worldly goods.
There are also, naturally, challenges that remain unresolved, and which I will explore along with the reader in How to Be a Stoic. The original Stoicism, for instance, was a comprehensive philosophy that included not only ethics but also a metaphysics, a natural science, and specific approaches to logic and epistemology (that is, a theory of knowledge). The Stoics considered these other aspects of their philosophy important because they fed into and informed their main concern: how to live one's life. The idea was that in order to decide on the best approach to living we also need to understand the nature of the world (metaphysics), how it works (natural science), and how (imperfectly) we come to understand it (epistemology).
But many of the particular notions developed by the ancient Stoics have ceded place to new ones introduced by modern science and philosophy and need therefore to be updated. For instance, as William Irvine explains in his lucid A Guide to the Good Life, the clear dichotomy the Stoics drew between what is and is not under our control is too strict: beyond our own thoughts and attitudes, there are some things that we can and, depending on circumstances, must influence—up to the point where we recognize that nothing more is in our power to be done. It is also true, conversely, that the Stoics turned out to be overly optimistic about how much control human beings have over their own thoughts. Modern cognitive science has shown over and over again that we are often prey to cognitive biases and delusions. But in my view, this knowledge reinforces the idea that we need to train ourselves in virtuous and right thinking, as the Stoics advised.
Finally, one of the most attractive features of Stoicism is that the Stoics were open to considering challenges to their doctrines and altering them accordingly. In other words, it is an open-ended philosophy, ready to incorporate criticism from other schools (for instance, the so-called Skeptics of ancient times) as well as new discoveries. As Seneca famously put it: "Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover." In a world of fundamentalism and hardheaded doctrines, it is refreshing to embrace a worldview that is inherently open to revision.
For all these reasons, I have decided to commit to Stoicism as a philosophy of life, to explore it, to study it, to find areas of improvement if possible, and to share it with like-minded others. In the end, of course, Stoicism is yet another (unstraightforward) path devised by humanity to develop a more coherent view of the world, of who we are, and of how we fit into the broader scheme of things. The need for this sort of insight seems to be universal, and in How to Be a Stoic I will do my best to guide the reader down this ancient and yet remarkably modern road.
The problem is that I myself am rather a novice when it comes to Stoic philosophy, so we actually need to turn to a more expert chaperone, someone who can gently show us the way, nudging us away from the most common mistakes and keeping us on the path toward enlightenment. When Dante Alighieri went on his own spiritual journey—which resulted in the writing of the beautiful Divine Comedy—he imagined himself suddenly lost in the middle of a dark forest, with his way forward uncertain. It turned out that he was at the (imaginary) entrance to Hell, about to descend into its depths. Lucky for him, he had a sure mentor to guide him on his journey, the Roman poet Virgil. The journey we are about to embark upon is not as momentous as a visit to Hell, and this book certainly is no Divine Comedy, but in a sense we are lost too, and in need of guidance just as surely as Dante was. My choice for the role of our guide is Epictetus, the very first Stoic I encountered when I began my own exploration of that philosophy.
Epictetus was born in Hierapolis (present-day Pamukkale in Turkey) around the year 55 CE. Epictetus was not his real name, which is lost to us: the word simply means "acquired," reflecting the fact that he was a slave. His known master was Epaphroditos, a wealthy freedman (that is, a former slave himself) who worked as a secretary to the emperor Nero in Rome, which is where Epictetus spent his youth. He was crippled, either by birth or because of an injury received while he was a slave under a former master. At any rate, Epaphroditos treated Epictetus well and allowed him to study Stoic philosophy under one of the most renowned teachers in Rome, Musonius Rufus.
After Nero's death in 68 CE, Epictetus was freed by his master—a common practice in Rome with particularly intelligent and educated slaves. He then set up his own school in the capital of the empire, and taught there until 93 CE, when the emperor Domitian banned all philosophers from the city. (Philosophers in general, and Stoics in particular, were persecuted by a number of emperors, especially Vespasian and Domitian. Scores of philosophers were either killed—including Seneca right before the end of Nero's reign—or exiled, as happened twice to Musonius. The Stoic penchant for speaking truth to power, as we would say today, did not go over well with some of the people who held very dearly to that power.)
Epictetus then moved his school to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece, where he may have been visited by the emperor Hadrian (one of the five so-called good emperors, the last of whom was Marcus Aurelius, arguably the most famous Stoic of all time). Epictetus became renowned as a teacher and attracted a number of high-profile students, including Arrian of Nicomedia, who transcribed some of the master's lectures. Those lectures are known today as the Discourses, and I will use them as the basis for our exploration of Stoicism in this book. Epictetus never married, though late in his life he began to live with a woman who helped him raise the child of a friend, a boy who would have otherwise been left to die. Epictetus himself died around 135 CE.
What a remarkable figure, no? A crippled slave who acquires an education, becomes a free man, establishes his own school, is exiled by one emperor but is on friendly terms with another, and selflessly helps a young child near the end of a simple life that will continue until the very ripe age, especially for the time, of eighty. Oh, and most importantly, who utters some of the most powerful words ever spoken by any teacher in the entire Western world and beyond. Epictetus is the perfect guide for our journey, not simply because he was the first Stoic I happened to encounter, but because of his sensitivity and intelligence, his dark sense of humor, and his disagreement with me on a number of important points, which will allow me to demonstrate the remarkable flexibility of Stoic philosophy and its capacity to adapt to times and places as different from each other as second-century Rome and twenty-first-century New York.
So let us explore Stoicism together in a running conversation with Epictetus via his discourses. We will talk about subjects as varied as God, cosmopolitanism in an increasingly fractured world, taking care of our families, the relevance of our own character, managing anger and disability, the morality (or not) of suicide, and a lot more. Other Stoic authors, both ancient and modern, will occasionally supplement what we learn from Epictetus, and sometimes I will gently push back against some of our guide's notions, bringing up advances in philosophy and science over the intervening centuries and debating what a modern take on Stoicism might look like. The goal is to learn something about how to answer that most fundamental question: How ought we to live our lives?
A ROAD MAP FOR THE JOURNEY
What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly?
—EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, I.4
WHEN I TRAVEL AROUND IN SOMEPLACE NEW, I LIKE TO bring along a map of the territory. It gives me a sense of where I'm going, where I shouldn't go, and a context for all the things I will be experiencing during the journey. This chapter is a map of the broad contours of Stoicism, as well as a summary of the guiding principles that structure the rest of the book, so that you may make the most out of this experience. I am convinced that we can hardly appreciate a philosophy or a religion (or any complex idea, really) without some understanding of its often nonlinear path of development, and so let's begin with a closer look at the history of the philosophy that we are about to explore, and which you might decide to apply to your life.
As the story is told by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Stoicism began in Athens, Greece, around the year 300 BCE. Zeno, a Phoenician merchant and native of Citium (modern-day Cyprus) who, we are assured, was fond of eating green figs and basking in the sun, became interested in philosophy after being shipwrecked on a voyage from Phoenicia to Peiraeus with a cargo of purple. He went up into Athens and sat down in a bookseller's shop, being then a man of thirty. As he went on reading the second book of Xenophon's Memorabilia, he was so pleased that he inquired where men like Socrates were to be found. Crates [a Cynic philosopher] passed by in the nick of time, so the bookseller pointed to him and said, "Follow yonder man."
Zeno did follow Crates and became his student. One of the first things he learned from his new teacher was to practice not being ashamed of things of which there is nothing to be ashamed. Crates had Zeno go around with a potful of lentil soup. Crates then broke the pot, and Zeno took to flight in shame, with his teacher yelling after him, in full view of a crowd: "Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you." Zeno studied under Crates and other philosophers for several years, after which he felt confident enough to start his own school. While initially his followers were, predictably enough, called Zenonians, eventually they began to be referred to as "Stoics," because they met under the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, a public place in the center of the city. Anyone could come by and listen to Zeno talk about a number of topics, from human nature to duty, law, education, poetry, rhetoric, and ethics, among others. (We know this because, although few of Zeno's writings have survived, the titles of his books are listed by Diogenes Laertius.) Zeno died at a very old age (one source says he was ninety-eight), either of a fall or, having reckoned that he was in pain and could no longer be useful to society, by committing suicide by starvation.
- "Pigliucci’s book does an excellent job writing about each stage of wrestling with a philosophical system, starting with what I’d call the “life hack” stage and progressing through the interrogation stage, the reconciling-of-internal-contradictions (especially between the earlier Greek Stoics and the later Roman Stoics) stage and, finally, into the actual adoption of Stoic exercises, of which he offers a large menu."—Molly Young, The New York Times
- "How to Be a Stoic is highly readable, written in clear and accessible prose, and illuminated with anecdotes of both a personal and an historical nature."—Washington Independent Review of Books
- “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 humor sprinkled throughout the stories.”—Philosopher’s Magazine
- "One of the best explorations of Stoic philosophy that I've read."—Tim Ferriss, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek
- "In this thought-provoking book, Massimo Pigliucci shares his journey of discovering the power of Stoic practices in a philosophical dialogue with one of Stoicism's greatest teachers."—Ryan Holiday, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Stillness is the Key
- "How to Be a Stoic proves many things: that the ancient school of Stoicism is superbly relevant to our times; that profound wisdom can be delivered in lively, breezy prose; and that Massimo Pigliucci is uniquely gifted at translating philosophy into terms helpful for alleviating and elevating the lives of many."—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex
- "As its title suggests, How to Be a Stoic is a how-to book, but one of a very high order. Yes, Massimo Pigliucci gives his readers advice on how to live a happy and meaningful life. He is careful, though, to put a secure foundation under that advice by explaining who the ancient Stoics were and how they arrived at the conclusions they did. Do you want to avoid wasting the one life you have to live? Read this book!"—William B. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life
- "If you want to want to learn the ways of Stoicism, and you're living in the 21st century, this should be one of the first books you read. Massimo has written a fine primer for the aspiring Marcus Aurelius."—Donald J. Robertson, author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
- "This is a lucid, engaging, and persuasive book about what it means to pursue Stoic ideals in the here and now. Massimo Pigliucci's imaginary conversations with Epictetus carry the reader effortlessly along while grounding the discussion firmly in the ancient Stoic tradition--and in his own life experience. The result is a compelling picture of a Stoic way of life that is consistent with contemporary science and philosophy, and is both eminently ethical and down-to-earth practical. It will be inviting to Stoics and non-Stoics alike who are willing to reason together seriously about how (and why) to be a modern Stoic."—Lawrence C. Becker, author of A New Stoicism
- On Sale
- May 8, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Basic Books