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An Ancient Strategy for Modern Life

Stillness is the Key: An Ancient Strategy for Modern Life is a new book by Ryan Holiday, and an instant bestseller.

It’s part of a trilogy: The Obstacle is the Way (2014), Ego is the Enemy (2016), and Stillness is the Key (2019). Each book can easily be read independently of the others, though. These are Holiday’s self-improvement books, quite heavily influenced by Stoicism. However, he’s also the co-author, with Stephen Hanselman, of The Daily Stoic (2016), a bestselling book on Stoic philosophy, which contains many excerpts from the classics with commentary.

First of all, I want to say that I read The Obstacle is the Way, enjoyed it, and wrote a review a while ago. (Although, I’ve not had a chance to read Ego is the Enemy yet.) My feeling when reading Stillness is the Key is that it felt somewhat more “mature”, by comparison with the first book, and perhaps a more confident work. It’s also more focused on a specific idea — the notion of inner stillness. Holiday goes so far as to say “Stillness is the key to, well, just about everything.” He mentions in passing that what he has in mind is similar to the Stoic concept of apatheia (freedom from unhealthy passions) or Epicurean ataraxia (freedom from disturbance). Holiday uses this quote from Marcus Aurelius as an example of stillness:

Be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands, unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

The only real criticism of The Obstacle is the Way that I have, in retrospect, is that some of the many examples it contains of historical individuals seemed a little one-sided because they focused on character strengths and didn’t always mention the same individuals weaknesses. (And that’s a trivial point as long as readers bear in mind that we’re only meant to be focusing selectively on certain aspects of the individuals in question.) However, I felt that Stillness is the Key succeeded in painting a more balanced picture of its heroes, simply by adding a few more observations about their flaws.

I wanted to review this book from a broadly Stoic perspective, so I’ll just mention that this made me think of something the early Stoics said according to Diogenes Laertius: ”A rhetorical speech is divided into introduction, exposition, replies to opponents, and conclusion.” Some early rhetoricians left out the refutatio or responses to critics but the Stoics seem to have thought that an argument was incomplete without anticipating and answering criticisms against it. I think that in Stillness is the Key there’s more of an attempt to anticipate, and absorb, criticisms of the historical individuals used as examples than there perhaps was in The Obstacle is the Way. For instance, early in the book there’s a detailed discussion of Kennedy’s cool-headed handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the other hand, Holiday qualifies his admiration by also noting the lack of self-control exhibited by Kennedy’s reckless indulgence in casual sex. That more even-handed approach makes it easier, I reckon, for readers to enjoy and benefit from the anecdotes without getting lost in the weeds of analyzing whether or not everyone featured makes “a good role model” not.

Numa: “Hold your Tongue”

Stillness is the Key makes quite a few references, perhaps inevitably to Buddhism and other forms of eastern thought in order to illustrate its main theme concerning inner equilibrium and silence. However, Holiday points out right at the beginning:

It’s a powerful idea made all the more transcendent by the remarkable fact that nearly every other philosophy of the ancient world — no matter how different or distant — came to the exact same conclusion.

Reading the book in the very peaceful Ilision Grove park in Athens

Sometimes it helps to “amplify” an idea when you can draw analogies from other religions and philosophies. So I’d like to add some observations about Greek and Roman philosophy. As I read the scattered references to Stoicism, the way Holiday presented this special type of “stillness” reminded me very much of the way the ancient Roman religion of Numa Pompilius was presented in an old book I enjoyed recently, Marius the Epicurean (1885) by Walter Pater, which is set in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.

For instance, Pater uses the Latin saying favete linguisor “hold your tongue” (roughly translated) to illustrate his interpretation of the ancient religious rites attributed to King Numa as evoking a kind of inner stillness and receptivity to spiritual experiences:

But for the monotonous intonation of the liturgy by the priests, clad in their strange, stiff, antique vestments, and bearing ears of green corn upon their heads, secured by flowing bands of white, the procession moved in absolute stillness, all persons, even the children, abstaining from speech after the utterance of the pontifical formula, Favete linguis! — Silence, Propitious Silence! — lest any words save those proper to the occasion should hinder the religious efficacy of the rite. With the lad Marius, who as the head of his house took a leading part in the ceremonies of the day, there was a devout effort to complete this impressive outward silence by that inward tacitness of mind, esteemed so important by religious Romans in the performance of these sacred functions. To him the sustained stillness without seemed really but to be waiting upon that interior, mental condition of preparation or expectancy, for which he was just then intently striving. — Pater, Marius the Epicurean

That makes me think of the lines Holiday quotes from Herman Melville:

All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence… Silence is the general consecration of the universe.

The Romans believed that Numa, their second king, famous for bringing peace, founded the most important of their priestly orders and religious rites in the seventh century BC. How the profound numinous silence of these ancient Roman rites contrasts with the scene of urban clamour described by Seneca in the opening pages of Stillness is the Key. Nevertheless, Seneca was able to recover his inner stillness, to some extent, by leaning on the doctrines of Stoic philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius’ family claimed descent from King Numa. Hadrian enrolled Marcus, when he was only an eight year old boy, in the arcane college of the Salii, or leaping priests, founded by Numa. A few years later, Marcus had risen to become the leader of the order. Marcus seems to have been genuinely fascinated by the ancient Roman religion and to have studied it meticulously. As emperor he became its ultimate guardian, pontifex maximus, a role that, unlike some other emperors, he took very seriously. If Pater’s right, it’s easy to see how Marcus’ profound immersion in the religious tradition founded by Numa, from childhood onward, would leave impressed upon him the spiritual value of outer quiet and inner stillness.

Pater’s own translation of the following passage from The Meditations, although a little idiosyncraticbrings this reading of Marcus’ Stoicism to the foreground:

Men seek retirement in country-houses, at the sea-side, on the mountains; and you have yourself as much fondness for such places as another. Still, there is no proof of culture in that; for the privilege is yours of retiring into yourself whensoever you please — into that little farm of one’s own mind, where a silence so profound may be enjoyed. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.3

The Pythagoreans

The Romans felt that Numa’s religion bore an uncanny resemblance to the mystical teachings of Pythagoras and some even argued that Numa was a Pythagorean, although this was dismissed by others as pseudohistory. However, it’s no surprise that Marcus was also drawn to the aspects of Pythagorean philosophy that associated inner stillness, and a kind of profound simplicity of character, with the contemplation of nature.

The Pythagoreans used to say that, first thing in the morning, we should look up at the sky, to remind ourselves of beings who forever accomplish their work according to the same laws and in an unvarying fashion, and to remind ourselves too of their orderliness, purity, and nakedness; for nothing veils a star. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.27

Indeed, the followers of Pythagoras were known for taking a vow of silence, which it was claimed allowed them eventually to hear the “music of the spheres”, the sound made by the universe itself, normally drowned out by our incessant talking and thinking.

After [their initial training] the [Pythagorean] candidate was compelled to observe silence for five years, so as to have made definite experiments in continence of speech, inasmuch as the subjugation of the tongue is the most difficult of all victories, as has indeed been unfolded by those who have instituted the mysteries. — Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras

Perhaps surprisingly, because they seem quite different on the face of it, the ancient Spartans shared something in common with the Pythagoreans in this regard. The Spartans thought that too much talking was a vice.

This is Sparta!

An ambassador who had come to Sparta once made a long speech. When he had stopped speaking and asked King Agis what report he should make back to his people, the Spartan said only, “Report that during all the time you wanted to speak I listened in silence.” When somebody criticized Hecataeus the Sophist because he remained silent at a communal meal to which he had been invited, the Spartan king Archidamidas, Agis’ father, defended his behaviour saying, “You do not seem to realize that he who knows how to speak knows also the right time for speaking.” In a council meeting a Spartan was asked whether it was due to foolishness or lack of words that he said nothing. “But a fool,” said he, “would not be able to hold his tongue.”

Like the Pythagoreans, therefore, the Spartans firmly believed in practising the sort of applied wisdom that consists, when appropriate, in being able to remain silent and do nothing for a while. The Stoics, whom Cicero says adopted a way of life and way of speaking modelled on the ancient Spartans, were also known for being laconic, i.e., concise. Holiday mentions the saying attributed to Zeno that Nature gave us two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak — something that, as you can see from the examples above, could easily have been a Spartan proverb.

Muddy Waters

Elsewhere, Holiday notes that in The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius poses a shockingly powerful but simple question: “Ask yourself at every moment ‘Is this necessary?’” Try doing that for a few weeks. Most of what the majority of us do, most of the time, isn’t necessary, or even very helpful. Doing less should be the inevitable consequence of genuine self-awareness, or mindfulness, it seems, and I think the ancient Greeks realized that. The Spartans clearly wanted their youth to learn that much of what we say is just background noise but the Pythagoreans seem to have believed that the same applies to much of what we think, at least much of what we think in the form of inner dialogue. Indeed, Greek philosophy contains the distinction Holiday makes between discursive thought, or which is like talking about something, and intuitive thought, which is more like seeing something, and can therefore potentially be achieved better, sometimes, in silent contemplation.

Holiday also mentions that Stoicism, like many other religions and philosophies, has a notion of our mental vision being clouded by emotional disturbance.

The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle.

The Greek word ataraxia, sometimes translated “peace of mind” or “tranquillity” literally means “undisturbed”, like muddy water that’s been allowed to clear and settle. The Cynics had another word for that disturbance, though, which the Stoics sometimes borrowed from them. They call it tuphos, “mist” or “smoke”, and they sometimes said that we’re going around surrounded by this mist in the world, or that our minds are clouded by it. It’s the grand illusion that affects the majority of people throughout their lives, the illusion that external things like wealth or fame are somehow all-important just because other people keep chasing after them — it’s all smoke and mirrors, though. When the wise man or woman sees through these illusions, their mind is no longer disturbed, their life goes smoothly, and they have achieved eudaimonia.

Conclusion

I enjoyed this book. I read the whole thing in about half a day. (The first half in the Ilision Grove park in Athens, see photo.) However, there’s a lot more in it than I can easily summarize here. It’s divided into three sections: mind, spirit, and body. These include chapters such as:

  • Become present
  • Limit your inputs
  • Choose virtue
  • Conquer your anger
  • Say no
  • Build a routine
  • And more…

I think a lot of people will benefit from reading Stillness is the Key. Although it’s not a book on Stoicism per se, it has lots of references to ancient Stoic authors like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. And I think its basic message should definitely resonate with people who are interested in Stoicism, as well as with a more general audience.

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