Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life
Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, once said that while its philosophical doctrines may well be contrary to popular opinion they are surely not contrary to reason. He was speaking of “paradox”, which literally means contrary to opinion in Greek. Stoic philosophy, like the philosophy of Socrates, was known in the ancient world both for its famous paradoxes and for its rigorous appeal to reason.
It’s worth clearing up from the outset that the word “stoicism” (lower case) denotes a personality trait, having a stiff upper lip, whereas “Stoicism” (capitalized) is an entire school of Greek philosophy. The relationship between these two things is pretty tenuous, although they’re often mistakenly conflated.
Stoicism was meant to shake things up by challenging its followers to swim against the tide and embrace a moral worldview radically at odds with the values implicitly accepted by the majority of ordinary people. In doing so, it explicitly cast itself as a form of psychological therapy (therapeia) and self-improvement. It’s experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent decades because its emphasis on “philosophy as a way of life” appeals to a growing number of people as an alternative to Christianity and other religions. However, Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion. Its conclusions were based solely on reason rather than faith, tradition, or revelation. Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic provides a restatement of Stoic philosophy and practices that takes the form of a self-help guide but one that attempts to update Stoicism in terms of a contemporary scientific worldview.
Pigliucci is professor of philosophy at City College of New York but he also holds PhDs in genetics and evolutionary biology. He credits his background in both philosophy and science as explaining the desire to find a rational philosophy of life and worldview that, in turn, led him to ancient virtue ethics and eventually to Stoicism. He says he was raised a Catholic but abandoned belief in Christianity as a teenager and like many others today was left looking for something else to replace religion as a guide to life. Pigliucci found that Stoicism satisfied the same needs as religion in that it could provide him with a practical philosophy of life. However, it was also fundamentally rational and science-friendly.
The Stoics were materialists who believed in a God that was synonymous with Nature, a forerunner of the philosopher’s God of Spinoza and subsequently Einstein. Pigliucci found this appealing as a scientist because it allows us to find a place for spirituality, alongside reason, and without any form of superstition. The final thing that drew him to Stoicism was the way it directly engages with the existential problem of our own mortality. The Stoics neither reassure us with the promise of an afterlife nor simply turn away from the problem and ignore it, burying their heads in the sand. “A man cannot live well”, said Seneca, “if he knows not how to die well.”
Having recently turned fifty, Pigliucci found himself, midway upon life’s journey, re-evaluating things and turning to Stoic philosophy as a way of coming to terms with the crude fact of his own mortality. He found himself in agreement with the core tenets of Stoicism but was also reassured that as a rational philosophy it was open to revision in areas where modern science or philosophy has made progress. So he states quite frankly “I have decided to commit to Stoicism as a philosophy of life”.
The book opens with an account of Pigliucci’s personal journey. It describes how, faced with a bewildering array of religions and philosophies to help us make sense of life, he chose to become a Stoic. He immediately explains, for readers unfamiliar with the philosophy, that this does not mean being unemotional like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Stoics have feelings too. They just seek to reduce the hold unhealthy and irrational ones have over the mind and to replace them with more healthy and rational ones. One of its central practical components is the habit of distinguishing rationally between what is under our direct control and what is not in any given situations, especially ones that might be expected to upset us. Stoics learn to take more responsibility for their own thoughts and actions not to accept the reality that other things in life are not entirely under their control. Ancient Greek philosophy refers to the state of mind someone has when they fulfil their potential and live in accord with reason as “virtue” (arete). That word can sound overly pompous and moralizing to some modern readers but it can also be translated using the slightly broader term “excellence”.
Pigliucci says he was drawn to Stoicism because of its emphasis on trying to flourish by living rationally and virtuously. He emphasizes from the outset that although Stoicism involves cultivating a special kind of indifference (apatheia) and acceptance toward external events, beyond our direct control, that does not make it passive or apathetic, in the modern sense of the word. The very thing that attracted him most was the way it attempts to square this circle by combining emotional acceptance with a commitment to positive action in the world. He does readers a service by making these simple points in the opening pages because it’s a common misconception that Stoics are unemotional and passive or disinterested in external events. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Pigliucci was raised in Rome and says that since high school, where he studied Greek and Roman history and philosophy, he had an awareness of Stoicism as part of his cultural heritage. Many other people who “discover” Stoicism today have a kind of deja vu experience as they notice its ideas seem strangely familiar. Traces of its influence crop up throughout Western art and literature. In some ways, Stoicism is also the great grandaddy of the modern field of self-improvement.
Pigliucci is a member, along with me, of the multidisciplinary team that run a non-profit philanthropic organization called Modern Stoicism. Each year, Modern Stoicism puts on a free online course called Stoic Week, which helps people to try out different Stoic practices each day. It’s grown rapidly over the last five years and last Fall about seven thousand people from all around the world took part. Pigliucci cites this as one of several pieces of evidence pointing toward the conclusion that Stoicism is suddenly gathering popularity again. He rightly stresses that the data collected from Stoic Week and other research projects are tentative. These are merely pilot studies, nevertheless they consistently provide evidence that following Stoic practices can have a beneficial effect on mood and life satisfaction, as shown by results from established psychological measures.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of ancient Greek philosophy, founded at Athens by a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium around 301 BC. For many years, Zeno had studied different schools of Athenian philosophy before founding his own. He’d embraced the austere lifestyle of a Cynic philosopher as well as studying in the Platonic Academy and with the dialecticians of the less well-known Megarian School. The Cynics and Platonists were often contrasted insofar as the former embraced a simple but extremely demanding approach to philosophy as a way of life whereas the latter were somewhat more, well, “academic” and scholarly. Zeno’s Stoicism tried to bring together the best of both traditions.
Whereas the Cynics eschewed bookish studies, Zeno introduced a threefold curriculum for his Stoic students encompassing Ethics, Physics and Logic. However, like the Cynics, the Stoics remained wary of study or debate that did not serve the fundamental goal of life, defined as “living in agreement with nature”. As Pigliucci explains, this didn’t mean hugging trees but rather fulfilling our natural potential as animals gifted with language and reason. For Stoics this ultimately equates to living in accord with virtue, and the love of wisdom. The Cynics had taught the austere view that everything except virtue should be seen as indifferent whereas the Platonists had recognized a variety of things as contributing to the good life. Zeno adopted a compromise position by arguing that though virtue is the only true good, other things in life naturally have some value albeit of an inferior sort.
In 155 BC, the head of the Stoic school at that time, Diogenes of Babylon, went from Athens to Rome on an ambassadorial trip, along with two other philosophers. While he was there he also lectured on philosophy, introducing Stoicism to the Roman Republic, where it quickly took root as it resonated with traditional Roman values. Over the following centuries many influential Roman statesmen became associated with Stoicism. The last famous Stoic we hear about is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations survives today. From Zeno to Marcus, therefore, the history of the Stoic school as a living tradition spanned nearly five centuries, before it was gradually eclipsed by Neoplatonism and then by Christianity. Pigliucci begins by surveying the history of the school for those unfamiliar with the subject, although the main focus of his book is how Stoicism can be reprised in the modern world by providing us with a modern-day philosophy of life compatible with the current scientific worldview. He weaves his account of Stoic theory and practice into anecdotes drawn from his own life experiences, showing how the philosophy can be applied to everyday challenges.
Pigliucci was a relative newcomer to Stoicism when he began writing this book so he takes the famous Roman Stoic Epictetus as his guide along the way. Like Epictetus, he divides Stoicism into the three “disciplines” of desire, action, and assent. The main part of the book is divided into three sections. These deal respectively with training in mastering our desires and emotions, organizing our actions around a coherent moral goal, and learning to withhold our assent from initial misleading impressions.
The Discipline of Desire
Epictetus believed that we should learn to master our own fears and desires before focusing on the more theoretical aspects of Stoic philosophy. Pigliucci describes this discipline of desire as knowing “what it is proper to want or not want”. He therefore begins with the Stoic doctrine expressed in the opening sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook: some things are up to us whereas other things are not. The whole practice of Stoic philosophy, at least in Epictetus, revolves around this fundamental distinction between our own voluntary actions and everything else, i.e., what we do and what happens to us. Many people today are familiar with this aspect of Stoicism from the Serenity Prayer made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” Pigliucci stumbled across this prayer himself in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five. It’s one of the central tenets of Stoicism that we should take greater responsibility for our own voluntary thoughts and actions while emotionally accepting the fact that other things are beyond our direct control. Bearing that simple distinction in mind has tremendous benefits in terms of building emotional resilience. However, people sometimes confuse it with an attitude of passive resignation, which it is certainly not.
The Stoics explained this paradox through the metaphor of an archer who places great importance on the way he draws his bow, takes aim, and releases the arrow. Once he’s done his part, he accepts that whether or not he actually hits his target is something ultimately in the hands of fate. It could move, for example, or a gust of wind could blow his arrow off course. The Stoic archer accepts this from the outset and although he has an external goal, or target, he focuses his will only on doing what’s under his control to the best of his ability, while accepting both external success and failure with equanimity. Pigliucci discusses how this kind of thinking helped him to cope with the stress of being surrounded by angry crowds on the streets of Istanbul following the failed 2016 military coup d’état against the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Pigliucci next appeals to modern biological science to explain the Stoic definition of the goal of life, “living in accord with nature”. This was meant as a call to fulfil our human potential as inherently social creatures, capable of reason. He argues that it’s a serious mistake for modern scientists and philosophers to reject the concept of human nature. Although Darwinism dealt a deathblow to the assumption that humans are somehow essentially unique compared to other animals nevertheless, Pigliucci argues, our capacity for complex grammar and reasoning is special enough to justify speaking about it as a defining characteristic of human nature. The Stoics also argue that although nature has given us instincts, like those of other animals, we’re capable of reflecting on whether we actually want to act in accord with them or not. Children with chickenpox feel a desperate urge to scratch their itching blisters. However, if they’re old enough to understand then reason is capable of stepping in and telling them that’s a bad idea and that their natural instinct should be resisted. That’s why the Stoics called reason the “master faculty” and believed that we had a duty to protect and cultivate our ability to apply it in daily life.
Their goal was to learn the art of living wisely. However, they believed that human nature is both rational, meaning capable of reason, and social. Human infants are born relatively defenceless compared with those of other mammals. We have evolved a powerful parental instinct toward our offspring, which the Stoics called “natural affection”. They believed that when this pro-social aspect of human nature is developed in accord with reason it becomes the basis of social virtues such as justice, fairness, and kindness. Pigliucci explains that the Stoics believed reason guides us to extend this natural familial affection to others on the basis of their humanity, and capacity for reason. Stoics learn to care about humanity in progressively widening circles through a process called oikeiosis, which is notoriously tricky to translate but means something along the lines of metaphorically bringing others into our household. This leads to the famous ethical cosmopolitanism of the Stoics, who viewed themselves, like Socrates and the Cynics before them, as citizens of the whole world, and the rest of humanity are their fellow-citizens. This moral vision preceded the Christian notion of the “brotherhood of man” by four centuries.
Epictetus also said that external things are indifferent but how we handle them is not. The Stoics compared the way we deal with even the most serious life events to playing a ball game: death, bereavement, exile, poverty, etc. It’s not the thing itself that really matters, in other words, but the way we choose to deal with it. That’s what they mean by virtue. The ball is relatively worthless, in itself, but the game consists in handling it well. However, as we’ve seen, some external things are naturally “preferred” over others, according to Stoic ethics. Pigliucci explains the tricky Stoic concept of the value (axia) assigned to “indifferent” things by comparing it to the concept of “lexicographic preference” in modern economics. People are willing to trade money for a holiday because they place them both on the same lexicographic level but you probably wouldn’t trade your daughter for any amount of money or holidays. For the Stoics, health is preferred to sickness, wealth is preferred to poverty, and life is preferred to death, but wisdom and virtue should never be sacrificed in exchange for any of these external things because their value is of an entirely different order.
The discipline of desire is believed to be related to Stoic Physics and theology. The Stoics were basically pantheists and some aspects of their theology are unappealing to modern readers. The majority of modern Stoics, perhaps surprisingly, are atheists or agnostics. However, Pigliucci argues that Stoicism makes room for both religious believers and unbelievers. The founders of Stoicism leaned heavily on the Argument from Design, which holds that because the universe, in all its complexity, looks like it was planned by some divine craftsman it therefore must have been. Fewer people are persuaded by that argument today because Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides a plausible explanation for the diversity of animal life, which is simpler insofar as its based largely upon observable physical phenomena. Modern astrophysics likewise explains cosmological phenomena without reference to a divine creator.
However, most modern Stoics find its central principles to be justifiable without reference to theology. Indeed, the ancient Stoics actually appeal quite seldom to the existence of God in the philosophical arguments they provided for their ethical doctrines. Moreover, they employed an argument based on agnosticism known as “God or atoms” to show that whether one believes in divine Providence or that the universe is created by the random collision of atoms, either way the core doctrines of Stoicism would still be justifiable. Marcus Aurelius actually refers to this ten times in the Meditations but Seneca and Epictetus also mention it in passing so it’s acknowledged by all three of the main Stoics whose works survive today. As far as we know, all of the ancient Stoics believed in God, and placed great value on piety, although they nevertheless disagreed about many important aspects of theology. What matters from a modern perspective is that Stoicism is, and always has been, flexible enough to accomodate atheists and agnostics as well as pantheists. It’s a philosophy, at the end of the day, and not a religion.
The Discipline of Action
Stoics were trained through the discipline of fear and desire to master their feelings, facing external misfortune without becoming upset. However, the discipline of action taught them to balance this emotional acceptance with vigorous moral action in the service of humanity, their fellow world-citizens. Pigliucci describes it as “how to behave in the world.” The word “stoicism” (lower-case S) has come to mean something like being unemotional and having a stiff upper lip, which doesn’t even do justice to the discipline of desire. However, it really falls short when it comes to the rest of Stoicism (capital S) as we’ll see.
Stoicism is all about virtue. Pigliucci explains this by referring to the importance of improving our character. For example, before he gained his freedom, Epictetus was a slave owned by the Emperor Nero’s secretary. He lived through the madness, corruption and tyranny of Nero. He also witnessed the Stoic Opposition to Nero, the criticism and resistance toward him and other autocratic rulers from principled republican Stoics, who were frequently exiled or even executed for speaking truth to power. Epictetus told his students anecdotes about several of these Roman Stoic heroes, who he appealed to as moral exemplars and role models. Pigliucci, while acknowledging that no role models can be perfect, refers to modern-day examples of principled individuals such as Malala Yousafzai. He also mentions the psychological research on virtues carried out by Martin Seligman, Christopher Peterson, and their colleagues, which shows a surprising amount of consistency in the values of different individuals around the world in this regard. Their model incorporates the four “cardinal virtues” of Socratic philosophy: wisdom, justice, courage and temperance. This fourfold model provides Stoics with a broad template for understanding the character traits that define human excellence.
Another of the Socratic paradoxes embraced by the Stoics is that no-one does evil knowingly, or willingly. Pigliucci explains this tricky concept by introducing a very crucial word: amathia. It denotes a form of moral ignorance, the opposite of genuine wisdom. Someone can be very intelligent yet still exhibit moral ignorance or amathia. The Stoics liked to point to Euripides’ Medea as an example. However, Pigliucci draws upon Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” to show modern readers how it’s possible for ordinary people to do evil things through moral stupidity. Arendt coined the phrase while covering for The New Yorker the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi lieutenant-colonel and one of the organizers of the Holocaust. Like Socrates and the Stoics before her, Arendt argued that the evil of such men consists in a kind of moral ignorance or thoughtlessness. Eichmann wasn’t evil in his own eyes; he genuinely believed he was just “doing his job”. Whereas Christian forgiveness depends on faith, Stoicism achieves something similar by interpreting all evil as due to moral ignorance. As a consequence, Stoics place more emphasis on reforming those who do wrong rather than punishing them for the sake of retribution.
The role of positive role models in Stoicism is further explored by introducing readers to one of the most important examples of a modern-day Stoic: James Stockdale. Stockdale was a US Navy fighter pilot shot down over North Vietnam at the start of the war. He’d been introduced to Stoicism at college and as he ejected over enemy territory the thought flashed through his mind that he was leaving his world and entering the world of Epictetus. He spent over seven years as a prisoner of war in the so-called Hanoi Hilton where he was repeatedly tortured and found himself making more and more use of ancient Stoicism as a coping strategy. After the war Stockdale wrote and lectured about Stoicism and his experiences in Vietnam. Pigliucci sets his example beside that of Cato of Utica, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic, who opposed Julius Caesar’s rise to power.
He then turns to a discussion of how Stoicism has helped people more recently to cope with disability and mental illness. Larry Becker, a retired professor of philosophy, is the author of a highly-regarded academic book on Stoic ethics. He’s been suffering for decades from the effects of polio but Stoic philosophy has helped him to cope with some severe physical limitations. His strategy focuses on the need to reclaim our agency, focus on our abilities, develop a life plan, and strive for internal harmony. He also cautions us to beware of brick walls and to know when to quit. Pigliucci likewise provides examples of two more contemporary individuals who have used Stoicism to help them cope with clinical depression and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) respectively.
The Discipline of Assent
The disciplines of desire and action deal with our feelings and behaviour. The discipline of assent, however, is about our thoughts. It teaches us to suspend value judgements in response to our initial impressions and how to apply reason to evaluate them instead. Pigliucci describes it as “how to react to situations”. Stoics believe that by coming to terms with our own mortality and learning to adopt a philosophical attitude toward it, we overcome many other fears in life. Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, opted to die by the traditional method of euthanasia, refusing food, when he was very elderly and concluded his health was too poor to continue. Pigliucci notes the value that Stoic perspectives on death have in relation to modern questions surrounding the ethics of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
There are many other aspects of life, though, where our initial reactions can be unhelpful. When Epictetus’ iron lamp was stolen from outside his home he told his students about it and used it as an example of something to be shrugged off with indifference. Pigliucci compares this to his experience of being pickpocketed on the subway in Rome. His initial impression was one of shock and anger, naturally, but Stoicism had taught him how to take a step back from these automatic impressions. He told himself instead that what happened to him was not under his direct control but how he chose to respond was, and it was no longer worth getting angry about. In relation to anxiety, Epictetus says that we should always consider how it’s typically fuelled by placing too much importance on things beyond of our direct control. He also taught that the wise man is prepared to endure solitude without complaint as sometimes being a natural part of life.
This leads into Pigliucci’s discussion of love and friendship. The Stoic wise man prefers to have good friends but doesn’t absolutely need them. It’s more important to be capable of acting like a friend, something under our control, than to have lots of friends, something that’s partly in the hands of fate. For ancient Greeks, the line between friendship and love was more blurred than we tend to assume today, and the Stoics, indeed, viewed friendship as a kind of love. A good friend is a good person, someone whose character we admire and values we share. Perhaps one of the most highly valued externals, from a Stoic perspective.
Pigliucci concludes by describing a dozen valuable Stoic exercises:
- Examine your impressions, checking whether they place too much value on external things outside your direct control.
- Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.
- The reserve clause, which means adding the caveat “fate permitting” to every planned action.
- How can I use virtue here and now?
- Pause and take a deep breath, waiting for strong emotions to abate naturally rather than acting rashly when we’re upset.
- Other-ize, getting beyond personalization by considering how we’d feel about our misfortunes if they befell another person.
- Speak little and well — the Stoics were known for speaking “laconically”, like Spartans.
- Choose your company well.
- Respond to insults with humour.
- Don’t speak too much about yourself.
- Speak without judging, just stick to the facts and remain objective.
- Reflect on your day, by reviewing events each evening in a constructive and dispassionate manner, looking for areas in which you can improve.
I would suggest some people might benefit from reading these first before starting the book.
Pigliucci is an important voice in the modern Stoicism movement. Instead of lecturing readers on academic philosophy he’s chosen to provide them with a practical guide to living like a Stoic in the real world. He shows that Stoicism can provide a philosophy of life consistent with a modern scientific worldview, and with atheism or agnosticism as well as different forms of religion. He provides many vivid examples of everyday situations in which Stoic philosophy was found helpful in his own life. He also draws upon many examples from the lives of other individuals to make his point that adopting Stoic attitudes and behaviours can contribute to a more fulfilled and emotionally resilient way of living.
I think that both newcomers and people who are familiar with the philosophy will potentially obtain something of value from reading this book. The Stoics believed that the wise man is naturally drawn to writing books that help other people and they would surely see How to be a Stoic as a fitting attempt to reprise their timeless wisdom for the 21st century.