How To Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life
Massimo Pigliucci
Basic Books
278pp
Hardback, £20/$27

We are not sardonic in the way of the ancient Sardinians, whose habit of disposing of their unwanted population by poison produced a death rictus resembling that of somebody today who has made an acerbic comment. Nor are we cynical in the way of the ancient Cynics who, rather than looking for reasons to believe nothing at all like a modern cynic, searched for the virtuous life and found it in simplicity, even if it meant living in a large ceramic jar like Diogenes of Sinope. And the pleasures of the ancient Epicureans were more intellectual than gastronomic. But we may, Massimo Pigliucci shows in this intriguing and droll book, be stoical in the way of the ancient Stoics –
providing, that is, we know what they really thought.

Pigliucci, an Italian-born professor of philosophy at City College of New York, argues that Stoicism, the philosophical preference of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, remains a valuable resource in our time. Stoicism is about more than being stoical; as with Cynicism, self-restraint is a means to the end of virtue, and a contented and well-lived life.

The central idea in Pigliucci's account is the 'dichotomy of control'. If we can rationally identify those aspects of life that are under our control, and those that are beyond it, then we can apply thoughts and actions where they will be productive, whether in philosophy, in relationships or at work. The same idea can also be found in Buddhism, Judaism and in Christianity, for example in the Serenity Prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) – or so Pigliucci believes. And should atheists feel the need to accept what they cannot control, the Stoic idea of 'universal causality' is compatible with both science and unbelief, too.

Stoicism is named after the Stoa Poikile (Painted Stoa) in Athens, where Zeno of Citium began teaching around AD 300. Zeno had learnt his ideas from Crates, a Cynic and pupil of Diogenes of Sinope.

Stoicism 'struck a middle ground between Aristotelianism and Cynicism, while at the same time strongly rejecting Epicureanism,' says Pigliucci. First, we have the 'pragmatic' Aristotelians who accepted that limited possessions were necessary for the Socratic goal of eudaemonia. Then, we have the Cynics, who were ascetics and the Epicureans, who rationed their pleasures. But the Stoics 'elaborated a way to recover (and yet put into perspective) what most people would consider desirable essentials'.

Pigliucci's conversational style combines imaginary dialogues with his favourite Stoic, Epictetus, a droll habitué of the late Roman school; ruminations on history, philosophy and the brain; modern case studies; and practical advice for the cultivation of proper Stoicism in the face of modern life. Epictetus seems to have had a tremendous sense of humour. 'Death is necessary and cannot be avoided,' he wrote. 'I mean, where am I going to get away from it?'

The explication of Stoicism is fascinating, but not all of the historical examples work. Hopefully, most of Pigliucci's readers will not find themselves in Captain James Stockdale's position, of using Stoicism to resist torture and imprisonment by the Viet Cong. Similarly, a Stoic attempt to solve the 'problem of evil' founders on another extreme case study. Arguing that morally bad acts follow from insufficient thought, Pigliucci cites Hannah Arendt's 'banality of evil' thesis. But recent research has conclusively established that Arendt misread Eichmann's motives. Eichmann, we now know, gave a great deal of thought to committing morally bad acts.

Still, for those of us fortunate enough to face the ordinary dilemmas of love, death and work, Stoicism emerges as a fresh and rewarding path. And budding Stoics seeking to resist what a fictional philosopher called the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' will enjoy the practical exercises, too.
Dominic Green

 

<back