“How to Be a Stoic” by Massimo Pigliucci (Book Summary)
How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living is a book about the application of Stoic philosophy to the daily life by Massimo Pigliucci.
“In every culture we know of”, the author begins the book, “the question of how to live is central.” How should we handle life’s challenges and how should we treat others? And the ultimate question: how do we best prepare for the final test of our character, the moment when we die?
Pigliucci has found Stoic philosophy most helpful when it comes to how to live a good life. He shares many personal experiences and practical advice on how to be a Stoic. In three parts he answers the questions:
- What is it proper to want or not to want?
- How to behave in the world?
- How to react to certain situations?
If you’re looking for philosophical and practical answers to these questions, read on.
Who is How to Be a Stoic for?
- Anyone who wants to practice Stoic philosophy
- Anyone interested in practical life advice
- Anyone searching for a deeper understanding of Stoicism
1. Stoicism Is a Highly Practical and Open Philosophy
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.
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 is best enjoyed by way of a proper – but not fanatical – detachment from mere worldly goods.
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 hardhearted doctrines, it is refreshing to embrace a worldview that is inherently open to revision.
Pigliucci says that by far the most distinguished feature of Stoicism is its practicality: it has always been understood as a quest for a happy and meaningful life. This philosophy is there to teach us how to live and die well. But we need to practice it!
If philosophy is not useful to human life, then it isn’t useful at all.
2. The 3 Stoic Disciplines of Desire, Action, and Assent
The discipline of desire (also referred to as Stoic acceptance) tells us what is and is not proper to want. This, in turn, derives from the fact that some things are in our power and others are not. We can appreciate that crucial difference from an understanding of how the world works, as only people who are not schooled in physics make the mistake of thinking that they control more than they actually do. Two of the four Stoic virtues are pertinent to regulating desire: courage (to face facts and act accordingly) and temperance (to rein in our desires and make them commensurate with what is achievable.)
The discipline of action (known also as Stoic philanthropy, in the sense of concern for others) tells us how to behave in the world. It is the result of proper understanding of ethics, the study of how to live our lives, and it draws on the virtue of justice.
The discipline of assent (or Stoic mindfulness) tells us how to react to situations, in the sense of either giving our assent to our initial impressions of a situation or withdrawing it. This discipline is arrived at via the study of logic – what is and is not reasonable to think – and requires the virtue of practical wisdom.
Again, philosophy must be practiced.
A good character cannot be developed without a proper understanding and implementation of all three Stoic disciplines.
3. The Power of Stoicism
One of the first lessons from Stoicism, then, is to focus our attention and efforts where we have the most power and then let the universe run as it will. This will save us both a lot of energy and a lot of worry.
This is precisely the power of Stoicism: the internalization of the basic truth that we can control our behaviors but not their outcomes – let alone the outcomes of other people’s behaviors – leads to the calm acceptance of whatever happens, secure in the knowledge that we have done our best given the circumstances.
But, says Pigliucci, this is no reason to give in to resignation and helplessness. Stoicism is too often misinterpreted as a passive philosophy, yet resignation goes precisely against what the Stoics taught and practiced.
The author illustrates this point with the Stoic Archer Metaphor. When an archer tries to hit a target, she focuses on what she controls – effective training, which bow and arrow to use, the process of aiming, the exact moment to release – and then accepts the outcome with equanimity.
The conscientious archer does her best to the moment when the arrow leaves the bow, and is ready to accept any outcome with equanimity, because the outcome was never entirely under her control.
4. Living According to Nature as Social Creatures
Being a Stoic, and hence of a practical bent, Hierocles even suggested how to behave in a way that helps us internalize the concept that the people in the various circles are of concern to us. For instance, he advised his students to refer to strangers as “brother” or “sister” or, if they were older, as “uncle” or “aunt,” as a constant reminder that we should treat other people as if they really are our relatives, as reason counsels that we are all in the same boat together, so to speak.
Epictetus is affirming that what distinguishes humankind from all other species is our capacity for rationality and arguing for an ethical precept as a result: we ought not to behave like beasts or sheep because doing so negates our very humanity, presumably the most precious (and natural!) thing we have.
Epictetus was telling me that a fundamental aspect of being human is that we are social, not just in the sense that we like the company of others, but in the deeper sense that we couldn’t really exist without the help of others; the implication is that when we do things for the good of the polity, we are actually (perhaps indirectly) benefiting ourselves.
Naturally, we are rational and social creatures and should apply reason to social living. Pigliucci says that the point of life for human beings is to use reason to build the best society that is humanly possible to build.
5. The World Is not Black and White
Generally speaking, then, Stoic ethics isn’t just about what we do – our actions – but more broadly about how our character is equipped to navigate real life. We live in far too intricate social environments to be able to always do the right thing, or even to do the right thing often enough to know with sufficient confidence what the right thing is to begin with.
Stoicism is about developing the tools to deal as effectively as humanly possible with the ensuing conflicts, does not demand perfection, and does not provide specific answer; those are for fools (Epictetus’ word) who think the world is black and white, good versus evil, where it is always possible to clearly tell the good guys from the bad guys. That is not the world we live in, and to pretend otherwise is more than a bit dangerous and not at all wise.
Pigliucci speaks about the practical challenges we face in life. We need to eat, but where is our food coming from? We need to bank, but which bank are we supporting?
Sometimes it can get complicated to live by our principles. When we want to eat out with friends, for example, we might need to compromise as not everybody has the same principles and demands. Some want vegetarian food, others want meat, others want organic only, and others don’t want to support big chains, etc.
The author explains it’s about balancing competing demands. In our example it might be supporting a type of operation you do not approve versus spending time with people you love.
6. Never Compromise Your Character
Here is how Seneca aptly summarized the idea in the case of a particularly common contrast between preferred and dispreferred experiences: “There is great difference between joy and pain; if I am asked to choose, I shall seek the former and avoid the latter. The former is according to nature, the latter contrary to it. So long as they are rated by this standard, there is a great gulf between; but when it comes to a question of the virtue involved, the virtue in each case is the same, whether it comes through joy or through sorrow.” In other words, by all means go ahead and avoid pain and experience joy in your life – but not when doing so imperils your integrity. Better to endure pain in an honorable manner than to seek joy in a shameful one.
But for a Stoic, there is no tradeoff between A and B: nothing can be traded if the price is the compromising of your character.
Virtue is the highest good and should never be compromised. Not even when it comes to friendship or true love. Unlike in Hollywood movies, love does not conquer all in Stoicism.
A true Stoic would never put friendship ahead of moral integrity.
7. God or No God? Doesn’t Matter
It is simply the realization that what is important in life is to live it well, and that such an objective – the eudaimonic existence sought by the ancients – depends very little on whether there is a God or not, and if there is one, on what its specific attributes may or may not be.
As Cicero wisely put it: “There are many questions in philosophy to which no satisfactory answer has yet been given. But the question of the nature of the gods is the darkest and most difficult of all… So various and so contradictory are the opinions of the most learned men on this matter as to persuade one of the truth of the saying that philosophy is the child of ignorance.”
What Pigliucci is saying on the god question is simple: We don’t know. So let’s agree to disagree and focus on what’s important in life: trying to live well.
8. Nobody Does Wrong Willingly
So Epictetus continued: “What is the reason that we assent to a thing? Because it seems to us that it is so. It is impossible that we shall assent to that which seems not to be. Why? Because this is the nature of the mind – to agree to what is true, and disagree with what is false, and withhold judgment on what is doubtful… When a man assents, then, to what is false, know that he had no wish to assent to the false: ‘for no soul is robbed of the truth with its own consent,’ as Plato says, but the false seemed to him true.”
The wrongdoer does not understand that he is doing harm to himself first and foremost, because he suffers from amathia, lack of knowledge of what is truly good for himself. And what is good for him is the same thing that is good to all human beings, according to the Stoics: applying reason to improve social living.
As far as the rest of us are concerned, remembering that people do bad things out of lack of wisdom is not only a reminder to be compassionate toward others, it also constantly tells us just how important it is to develop wisdom.
The point is that nobody errs on purpose. Pigliucci explains that people suffer from amathia – the wisdom to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Therefore, we shouldn’t blame but pity the wrongdoer.
9. Develop Your Character with Reflection and Role Models
It follows, then, that there are three sources of virtue: some comes from our natural endowment, some is obtained by habit, especially early in life, and some can be acquired intellectually and therefore can be taught.
Once the age of reason arrives… we can begin to further build our virtuous character by two means: habit and (more so later in life) explicit philosophical reflection.
While Stoics of course put forth ethical principles for how to conduct ourselves and live the eudaimonic life, their emphasis was on how real people behave, not just how they talk. Observing and imitating role models, then, is one powerful way to work on our own virtue.
The Stoics were big on personal reflection. That’s why we recommend daily journaling exercises here on NJlifehacks.
Another way to improve our characters is by learning from role models. The Stoics imitated the Sage, today we might imitate Jesus or idols we find in sports and other areas of life. We must keep in mind that role models are not perfect human beings, for the simple reason that there is no such thing.
10. Death Is Nothing to Be Afraid of
Epictetus is reminding us that if we are afraid of death, then it is out of ignorance: if we knew or truly understood more about the human condition – as a horse trainer knows and understands horses – then we wouldn’t react the way we do to the prospect of our own death.
If there is one thing that philosophy ought to be good for, it is to make us better understand the human condition by showing us not only how to live to our best but to accept the fact that death is nothing to be afraid of.
In the last chapters of the book, Pigliucci offers practical advice on how to be a Stoic, or, how to react to challenging situations and how to deal with anger, anxiety, and loneliness.
In the chapter on death and suicide, he reminds the reader of the Stoic dichotomy of control and that death itself is not under our control (it will happen one way or another), but how we think about death most definitely is under our control. That’s where we need to work on.
Memento mori – remember you are mortal.
Thanks for reading.
You can find more of our book summaries in the Book Club.