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How To Be A Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Don Berry finds modern-day applications for life advice from antiquity.

Written in a lively and engaging style, How to be a Stoic (2018) focuses on Stoic ethics and its application to life in the modern world.

Stoicism began as an innovative school of Classical Greek and Roman philosophy, offering an unconventional and revisionary take on the received ideas of the culture of its time, many of which are still prevalent today. One core imperative of Stoic ethical theory is to make a clear distinction between those things which are under our control and ‘up to us’, and those which are not. In an increasingly complex and confusing world, where much time is spent worrying about matters we can do very little about, the Stoic notion that we should only concern ourselves with what we have the power to change offers a possible antidote to the endemic anxiety of modern times.

Perhaps the most important principle of Stoic ethics is the claim that only the quality of our character and its expression through our actions is truly of value to us. This is expressed in the dictum that ‘Virtue is the only good’. In becoming a Stoic one proceeds by treading the path of the Prokopton: one who has accepted this core Stoic maxim but who has yet to attain mastery of herself through realigning her thoughts, desires, and impulses with virtue.

This fundamental principle has the seemingly alarming consequence that everything apart from virtue is not a good. This includes not only wealth and pleasure, but also health, professional success, and personal relationships, including with our children and other family members. In Stoic vocabulary, all these things are ‘externals’, and never a source of true value. The doctrine is not quite as counterintuitive or unpalatable as it first sounds, however, since many of the items that we might otherwise ordinarily value fall under the further Stoic category of ‘preferred indifferents’. This means that we can in good conscience invest time and energy pursuing them – though only so long as this does not interfere with our progress in developing virtue.

As the title suggests, the focus of How to be a Stoic is practical: it aims to take the reader on a journey that will ultimately lead to an improvement in their lives, partly through crafting a revolution in their conception of what such an improvement could be. Yet Massimo Pigliucci makes it clear that this “isn’t your standard self-help book promising silver bullets”, and although the text is always accessible, he resolutely strives for both historical and philosophical accuracy.

A tenured Professor of Philosophy – and sometime Philosophy Now columnist – Pigliucci also holds a PhD in biology. His broad empirical knowledge thus places him in a position to critique or update Stoic psychology where appropriate. He presents Stoicism as inclusive and open-ended, and highlights those features of this way of thinking which seem promising to him whilst leaving out others that strike him as less palatable. At the same time, the opening chapters show humility. Pigliucci tells us that he himself is only a beginner on this spiritual path, still somewhat skeptical of the doctrines he is slowly coming to embrace, and still reliant on the ancient Stoic masters – Seneca (4 BC - 65 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) and above all Epictetus (55-135 AD) – to function as his guides.

One strength of the book is Pigliucci’s use of detailed autobiographical knowledge to bring these characters alive through the literary device of conversing with the tradition’s greatest thinkers as though they were his intimate friends (especially Epictetus). At the same time the book is highly personal, and many challenges faced by Pigliucci in his private life, including the death from cancer of both his mother and father, are openly shared with the reader before being recontextualised through the application of Stoic ideas. He enjoins us to “Forgive me if, again, I make this personal” (p.209), although these touches add a depth and realism that would otherwise be hard to achieve. Compare this with the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who takes from Bacon the motto that ‘Of our own person we will say nothing’ (note appended to the Second Edition of his Critique of Pure Reason). The text is also not afraid to dabble in politics – Nazism, terrorism, the Vietnam War – or apply Stoic ideas to important but often controversial topics such as disability and suicide. This attention to real issues faced by everyday people contrasts starkly with the abstract, aseptic focus of much academic philosophical debate today.

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Theory & Practice

Despite the pedigree of the author, trained philosophers may find the exposition somewhat lacking in places.

One point where more sustained analysis would have been gratifying, is in his discussion of the central Stoic injunction that we ‘live according to nature’ – referring to our ‘true nature’ as rational beings. Here the Stoics are in danger of committing what we now call ‘the fallacy of appeal to nature’: the allegedly invalid inference from something’s being natural to its being good. But rather than discussing this problem in detail, Pigliucci quickly changes the subject. We are soon racing on to Hume’s famous passage from his Treatise on the impossibility of deductive relations between descriptive and evaluative propositions – the notion that you can’t get values from facts about the world – and from here to canvassing the different options available within contemporary moral epistemology. But these are topics only loosely related to the alleged fallacy.

This relates to a deeper issue: whether anything is lost when Stoic ethics is detached from broader aspects of the Stoic worldview. The ‘appeal to nature’ is not recognised as a fallacy in every philosophical system. This depends on what the underlying conception of nature is. The Stoics held a view quite alien to the scientistic vision of today, committing themselves to a belief in cosmic providence enshrined in the Logos, or to a rational, mind-driven natural order of things.

Whilst dismissive of the New Atheism movement, Pigliucci makes it clear that his interpretation of Stoicism is a thoroughly secular one. Yet some of our most accomplished Classical scholars – I am thinking especially here of A.A. Long – have urged that any attempt to disentangle the three pillars of Stoicism – its Ethics, Cosmology, and Logic – will inevitably do violence to the views of the school’s pioneers. The success of the recent Stoic revival has perhaps demonstrated the possibility of putting the ethical practices of Stoicism to use whilst retaining a disenchanted modern cosmology. Yet this pick-and-choose attitude to Stoicism seems at times inconsistent with the authority accorded to the historical Stoics in the text; and without the Stoic equation REASON = NATURE = GOD, the justification of some of their ethical precepts becomes unclear.

To focus on these lacunae, however, might be to miss out on what the book does have to offer. Pigliucci is more interested in practical results than arguing about moral theory. Elsewhere he propounds the view that to ask whether the core principles of a philosophical account of how to live are true is to commit a category error. Pigliucci equips the reader with a number of exercises as a concrete starting point for their spiritual education into Stoic practice, but he seems to view their success as a highly personal matter. It might be that different strokes for different folks are required, depending on our individual differences and unique characteristics, so that the sensible option for me is to retain only those aspects of Stoic practice that work for me in particular.

In a genre largely untouched by professional philosophers, where the most successful books are often written by celebrities, Massimo Pigliucci shows intellectual sensitivity and nuance whilst offering no-nonsense advice that’s eminently more practicable than the technical discussions of the academic literature. Overall, the book is well researched and gives an accurate account of a fascinating and much misunderstood philosophical school, doing much to mitigate the caricature of Stoic thought as merely emotionless, passive acceptance of one’s fate. If not quite a comprehensive instruction manual on ‘How to be a Stoic’, Pigliucci’s contribution can be recommended as an engaging introduction, not only to Stoic thought but also to ancient ethics as a whole. I hope it will serve to inspire and guide the reader toward their own forays into the original Stoic canon.

© Dr Don Berry 2019

Don Berry is a moral philosopher, currently working on an account of human well-being. He has published two short books on Nietzsche and one on Artificial Intelligence.

How to be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci, Basic Books, 2018, $17 pb, 288 pages, ISBN: 978-1541644533

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