Stoicism Today: Book Review
I have been increasingly interested in ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian wisdom since high school but it was not before approximately two years ago upon reading the Jules Evans’ fantastic book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations when I rediscovered the Stoicism and started studying it again, as well as applying, well, doing my almost best to applying it to my everyday problems. I took an active part in the Stoic Week 2013 and was invited by Patrick Ussher, a very promising and enthusiastic PhD student at the University of Exeter who works on Stoic ethical development, to write a piece for his blog. I chose the topic on Stoicism and Global Ethic for Better Life and also promoted the Stoic ideas across my own country Slovenia (e.g. Filozofija za lepše življenje, Delo, November 22, 2013, p. 5).
Indeed, the contributions in the first volume Stoicism Today have been selected from the aforementioned blog which had almost 4000,000 hits in its first 18 months. The book has been edited by Patrick and has been written by 31 contributors from UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Norway, Germany and Australia.
This fantastic book is composed of eight parts: (i) Stoic Theory, (ii) Adapting Stoicism for the Modern Day, (iii) Stoic Advice, (iv) Life Stories, (v) Stoicism for Parents & Teachers, (vi) Stoicism & Psychotherapy, (vii) Stoicism & Mindfulness and (viii) Stoic Literature and Stoicism in Modern Culture. As succinctly explained in the Foreword by Stephen J. Costello, the book:
”reflects and represents a wide-ranging cornucopia of topics and themes, from Stoic ethics and emotions to fatherhood, feelings and Viktor Frankel, from Stoic mayors and mindfulness to practical philosophy, parenting, psychotherapy and prisons, from Star Trek and Socrates to Stoic lawyers, literature and living in general. As such, there is something in this eclectic compilation for everyone.”
Quite true, I fully agree, it is a very useful and interesting handbook which should be reread day after day, just like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Epictetus’ Discourses. John Sellars explains to the beginners that Stoicism was one of the four principal schools of philosophy in ancient Athens, alongside Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, where it flourished for some 250 years cherishing four central ideas: (i) Value – the only thing that is truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason, (ii) emotions – they are the project of our judgements, so we should change the latter to change the emotions), (iii) nature – we must live in harmony with Nature and Cosmos and (iv) control – there are some things we have control over and others we do not. The Stoicism proved especially popular among the famous Romans, i.e. the statesman and lawyer Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. As a lawyer, just like Paul Bryson, I am also trying to cultivate the four qualities suggested by Zeno – wisdom, courage, temperance and justice – although I am not very good at it, but to use the words from Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, ”at least I’m trying.”
According to Stoicism, as correctly interpreted by Patrick Ussher, egoism cannot lead to happiness because we are social beings, the citizens of the world. This is, for instance, also proved convincingly and scientifically by Adam Grant in his bestselling book on altruism Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Penguin Books, New York, 2013). We are not born just for ourselves, once upon a time said Cicero quoting Plato, but also for our families, friends and our homeland. Or in Seneca’s words: Alteri vivas oportet, si vis tibi vivere.
One of the unfortunate misconceptions is that Stoics are unemotional like robots but the truth is quite the opposite, namely the virtue of the Stoic ”consists in his ability to endure painful feelings and rise above them, with magnanimity while continuing to maintain his relationships and interaction with the world” (Donald Robertson). With the Stoic philosophy we can control our emotions because it is the art of not panicking or apatheia in Greek (Ryan Holiday). This is described perfectly by Chris Hadfield in his An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Macmillan, London, 2013) where he uses the prima facie paradoxical expression ”the power of negative thinking,” how to prepare for difficult situations with simulations, as ”fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen.” We should be prepared not to act like a puppet on a string, allowing ourselves to be jerked around by irrational emotions (Kevin Kennedy). The struggle against passion is indeed the greatest of all struggles.
Can we adopt Stoicism for the modern day? Robertson suggests the basic three-stage philosophical routine, i.e. the morning preparation, the Stoic mindfulness (prosoche) throughout the day and the night-time review. He reminds us of the beautiful Serenity Prayer which we might want to memorise or write down and contemplate each day:
Give me the Serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
Corey Anton explains how the Stoicism can also help us accepting death. To those who are not biased and narrow minded I recommend a shocking book by Eben Alexander Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012) which has been, of course, criticised, for example by Sam Harris in his Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014).
Amongst the most touching life stories are the catastrophic and at the same time optimistic and positive experiences by Helen Rudd who suffered a traumatic brain injury and Sam Sullivan who broke his spine in a skiing accident an lost the use of his arms, legs and body (he was even a Mayor of Vancouver, Canada, from 2005 to 2005!). They are both living examples of unbelievable power of will, love of life and endurance, proving ”that Stoicism is all about making the most of your resources” (Rudd).
Stoicism is useful for parenting (Matt Van Natta), coping with toddlers (Chris Lowe), for a better fatherhood (Jan Frederik-Braseth) and teaching (Michael Burton, Jules Evans). Moreover, it has been proved in practice that psychotherapy (for example, positive psychology, logotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy) can become more complete and wiser if it incorporates ideas from Stoicism (Tim LeBon, Stephen J. Costello, James Davinport). To paraphrase Lou Marinoff: ”The Stoics, not Prozac!”
Last but not least, the Stoic mindfulness appears to be more than the Buddhist state of mind, as it is ”about being aware of how to act well or ethically in the present, and not so much about the primacy of the experience of the present itself” (Patrick Ussher). However, both can serve the same purpose as it is shown lucidly by various writers in the wonderful book edited by Melvin McLeod, Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place (Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2006).
To conclude, I very much recommend the splendid book Stoicism Today to everyone, looking forward to a Stoic Week 2014 and Volume II. Congratulations to Patrick Ussher and the rest of the Stoicism Today team and the authors, and many happy returns!
About the author:
Marko Pavliha is professor of law, author and co-author of 27 books and numerous articles, as well as the former Minister of Transport and Vice-President of the Parliament of the Republic of Slovenia (2004 – 2008).