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 daily life by Massimo Pigliucci. In this book the author found Stoic Philosophy (Stoicism) most helpful for living a good life with ethics.

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal eudaemonic virtue ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world, asserting that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve eudaimonia—flourishing by means of living an ethical life. The Stoics identified the path to eudaimonia with a life spent practicing the cardinal virtues and living in accordance with nature. -Wikipedia

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.

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.

The Three Stoic Disciplines

A good character cannot be developed without a proper understanding and implementation of all three Stoic disciplines, which are:

  1. The discipline of desire (also referred to as Stoic acceptance)
  2. The discipline of action (known also as Stoic philanthropy, in the sense of concern for others)
  3. The discipline of assent (or Stoic mindfulness)

The Discipline of Desire

The discipline of desire 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.

Two of the four Stoic virtues are pertinent to regulating desire:

  • Courage (to face facts and act accordingly.)
  • Temperance (to rein in our desires and make them commensurate with what is achievable.)

The Discipline of Action

The discipline of action 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

The discipline of assent 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.

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. -Book

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Living According to Nature as Social Creatures

Naturally, we are rational and social creatures and should apply reason to social living. We should treat other people as if they are our relatives. We are all in the same boat together.

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. -Book

The World is Not Black and White

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 answers.

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.

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. -Book

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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. -Book

For a Stoic, nothing can be traded if the price is the compromise 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.

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Nobody Does Wrong Willingly

People suffer from Amahia – the wisdom to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Therefore, we shouldn’t blame but pity the wrongdoer.

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. -Book

Develop Your Character with Reflection and Role Models

The Stoics believed in continually striving to become better human beings. They were highly reflective and critical of their actions in an attempt to recognize aspects of their lives or their character that could be improved.

Another way to improve our characters is by learning from role models. The Stoics imitated the Sage. We must keep in mind that role models are not perfect human beings, for the simple reason that there is no such thing.

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. -Book

Death Is Nothing to Be Afraid of

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.

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.

From the book:-
How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

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