“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
— Dante, The Divine Comedy
Imagine how much easier life would be if we could learn to regard everything bad that happens to us as an act of nature. To keep our cool in the heat of an argument. To not shy away from a challenge, or to let our ego get the best of us.
Throughout history, Roman emperors, prisoners of war, entrepreneurs and many others have moved through life with a sort of steadiness—an unshakable perspective. The commonality amongst them is the diligent practice of the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism.
In Massimo Pigluicci’s How To Be A Stoic, readers are given a clear, concise, and creative breakdown of how to become their best selves. Organized as a discussion between the author and the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus, How To Be A Stoic entertains while it educates, covering everything from how to control our desires, to overcoming the fear and anxiety that cripples society today.
3 Key Takeaways from How To Be A Stoic:
Stoicism is referred to as “the practical philosophy,” since it can be applied in nearly every moment of our lives. You won’t find impossibly complex sentences in the Enchiridion, or difficult-to-understand philosophical jargon in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Stoic philosophy reads like a military field manual. It is calculated, factual, and provides you with all the wisdom you need in half as many words. The simplicity in the way that Stoicism is taught allows its students to fully understand the concepts and quickly begin to apply them.
Pigliucci’s how-to book is exactly this; a field manual for the aspiring stoic. A light that can guide the confused, as well as the curious to a life better lived.
Here are our top three takeaways from How To Be A Stoic.
1) Some Things Are In Our Power, Others Are Not
“We must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it.”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1
How much of our troubles are the result of relentlessly trying to change the unchangeable? How often do we beat ourselves down and hold a negative perspective simply because we’re ignorant of the fact that we are the master of our thoughts? The answer is too much, and all too often. Pigliucci reminisces about the first time he read part of the Serenity Prayer in Slaughterhouse-Five, the classic novel by Kurt Vonnegut. The prayer reads,
God, grant 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.
The Serenity Prayer, while it embodies the very foundation of Stoic philosophy, was not the first piece written about the power of choice. We see similar words of wisdom from Epictetus, when he noted the distinction between what we can control and what we can’t lies in understanding what is our own doing, versus what is not our own doing. Opinion, desire, impulse: all of these are within our control, Epictetus said. So what’s not in our control? What happens to our bodies, our reputation, and our possessions.
This is often where the practicality of Stoicism becomes the most apparent. Think about all the occurrences we let get the best of us. Traffic, the weather, accidents, and mishaps: They all cause us to spin out of control, not because we think we can change them, but because we know that we can’t. This angers us, but it shouldn’t.
2) Live According To Nature
“Is our other statement then incredible—that man’s nature is civilized and affectionate and trustworthy?”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1
The ancient Stoics were known for using short phrases and words to explain their philosophy to others. One of the more commonly used phrases is “according to nature.” Everything we do, say, and think ought to be according to nature, said Zeno, the father of Stoicism. At first glance, Pigliucci notes, this idea may cause a reader to make false assumptions about Stoic thought.
“‘What? I mockingly questioned Epictetus. Is Stoicism all of a sudden turning out to be a tree-hugging new-age thing?’ No, he calmly assured me: ‘It is no ordinary task merely to fulfill man’s promise. For what is Man? A rational animal, subject to death. At once we ask, from what does the rational element distinguish us? From wild beasts. And from what else? From Sheep and the like. Look to it then that you do nothing like a wild beast, else you destrory the Man in you and fail to fulfill his promise.’” — Massimo Pigliucci, How To Be A Stoic
Man is a rational animal. We have the ability to think logically and be aware of ourselves. We can understand nature, yet we curse it for doing what it does naturally. The death of a loved one, storms that destroy homes, no matter the instance, we blame the external which, as we previously learned, is not in our control.
Living according to nature also has ethical implications, as the Stoics believed in cosmopolitanism. The term describes a connectedness among people. Pigliucci quotes Socrates to further illustrate this point when he writes “Never reply to one who asks your country ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Corinthian’ but ‘I am a citizen of the universe.’” Because of this relationship we have with the world, there exists a certain level of moral duty to our fellow man. However, the Stoics are quick to point out that we must always remember to keep ourselves in order.
3) Use Spiritual Exercises To Beat The Odds
“Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day—How have I erred, what is done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 3.10
Sooner or later, students of Stoicism reach a point of graduation: Not from the study entirely, but from excessive reading, writing, and note-taking. It was Marcus Aurelius who said, “Waste no more arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” The message is simple, but powerful. The fruits of Stoicism are reserved for those who are willing to take action, and to apply the principles they’ve been consuming so diligently. Pigliucci suggests a number of different tactics to help stick to the practice of Stoicism, from taking a pause when you feel frustration bubbling up to reminding yourself of the impermanence of life and its frustrations.
3 Favorite Examples from How To Be A Stoic
How To Be A Stoic is separated into three parts: Discipline of Desire, Discipline of Action and Discipline of Assent. In other words, what is appropriate to want and not want, how to behave in the world, and how to react to different situations as they arise. With easy-to-read yet informative prose, Pigliucci uses the origin stories of famous philosophers, harrowing accounts of being a prisoner, and his own personal anecdotes to reveal what Stoicism looks like in real life.
1) The Irrelevance Of Circumstance
“Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.”
—Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
Epictetus was born in Hierapolis, which is present-day Turkey, in 50 AD. Interestingly, Epictetus was not his real name. It came from the Greek word epíktitos, meaning “acquired” and reflecting his status as a slave. His master, Epaphroditos, was a wealthy secretary to emperor Nero. Fortunately, Epictetus was treated well by his master and was granted permission to study Stoicism under one of the most sought-after teachers of his time, Musonius Rufus.
After Nero’s death, Epictetus was freed from slavery. He would go on to open a school of philosophy in the Roman capital, and later in Nicopolis. After years of teaching the foundations of Stoicism to others, Epictetus attracted the attention of several high profile people, including emperor Hadrian. Towards the end of his life, he and a woman whom he was not married to began living together. Epictetus would rely on her assistance in raising the child of a friend. Had Epictetus not taken the child in, the boy would have been left to die.
Reading about Epictetus’ life, it’s apparent that he had his fair share of hardships and obstacles. There he was, a former slave, finally freed and educated enough to start his own philosophy schools and succeed despite his circumstances. By the time he passed, Epictetus was already regarded as one of the wisest men who ever lived. This depiction of an individual who overcame adversity through education and consistently doing the right thing is exactly why Massimo chose Epictetus as the focal point of How To Be A Stoic.
2) The Importance Of Role Models
“What would Heracles have been if he had said, ‘How am I to prevent a big lion from appearing, or a big boar, or brutal men?’ What care you, I say? If a big boar appears, you will have a greater struggle to engage in; if evil men appear, you will free the world from evil men.”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.10
On September 9th, 1965, Commander James Stockdale was flying over North Vietnam when his plane was shot down. He would be captured immediately upon landing, and spend the next seven years of his life in the Hanoi Hilton, a brutal POW camp whose guards would subject him to routine beatings and torture. Amazingly, Stockdale was still able to lead his men while in captivity. He managed to organize the other prisoners and boost their morale using his own code of conduct. What was the conduct that gave Stockdale the upper hand? How could he maintain hope in such a hopeless environment?
Six years prior to being captured, Stockdale studied international relations at Stanford. Bored with his everyday curriculum, Stockdale stumbled into the philosophy department and enrolled in a class that was taught by Professor Phil Rhinelander. Rhinelander spent a great deal of time with Stockdale, since he was in the military and had to put in extra hours to keep up with the rest of his class. It was during one of these sessions that Rhinelander gifted him the Enchiridion, a book we now know quite well.
After being freed from captivity, Stockdale was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the Hanoi Hilton. He later credited Epictetus and the teachings of Stoicism with saving his life. In an environment where everything that he did was controlled by others, Stockdale learned a valuable lesson, one that the Enchiridion had taught him years prior. His captors could take his freedom, his possessions, and seven years of his life. But they could not take his soul. They could not confiscate his willingness to accept his situation and press on despite the circumstances.
Stockdale’s story is the personification of Stoicism. There he was, parachuting from his gunned-down plane, rapidly approaching the ground and knowing that he would be captured.
The last thing that Stockdale told himself as he was descending towards his captors was “Five years down there at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
3) Expect The Worst In Life, And The Best In Yourself
“If it is china you like, for instance, say, ‘I am fond of a piece of china.’ When it breaks, then you won’t be as disconcerted. When giving your wife or child a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’ Then you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.”
The best examples of how to apply Stoicism usually come from the most tragic events that life has to offer. For Stockdale, it was his captivity that awakened the Stoic within him. For the author of How To Be A Stoic, it was in the loss of his parents that he discovered the true power of Stoic philosophy.
When his father was first diagnosed with cancer, Pigliucci admits that he simply did not come to terms with the idea that he would only have a few more chances to spend time with his father. His father’s cancer slowly progressed, his health slowly declining along with it. Five years after his initial diagnosis, Pigliucci’s father passed away, just as the author was en route to the airport to go and see him. “I always regretted the way I responded to my father’s illness,” Pigliucci writes. “Until Stoicism taught me that regret is about things we can no longer change.”
Nearly a decade later, Pigliucci would have to endure the loss of his mother as well. Before she passed, the author notes a far different experience than when he dealt with his father’s sickness. “Every time I left her at the hospital, after having kissed her good-bye, Epictetus’ words rang comfortingly true. I really did not know if I would see her the following day.” In understanding mortality, and in applying Epictetus’ principles, Pigliucci found a bit of peace during the loss of his parent, a tragedy that had caused him deep regret only a decade earlier.
Losing people we love is never easy, and it’s not supposed to be. In these final lessons that Pigliucci so brilliantly teaches, he covers what is arguably the most important aspect of personal growth. Beyond Stoicism, beyond our beliefs and regrets, there is only one essential question as we drift through life: Are we progressing? Are we better now than we were before? How To Be A Stoic is more than an introduction to Stoicism. Much like the Enchiridion, careful adherence to the ideas contained in the work undoubtedly lead to a more meaningful life. A Stoic life.
12 Best Quotes from How To Be A Stoic
“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.”
“Better to endure pain in an honorable manner than to seek joy in a shameful one.”
“We ought to recognize, and take seriously, the difference between what we can and cannot master”
“It is always worth asking yourself a number of questions when you are on the receiving end of what feels like an insult.”
“Stoicism taught me that regret is about things we can no longer change and the right attitude is to learn from our experiences, not dwell on decisions that we are not in a position to alter.”
“Remember our overarching goal: to be a decent person who doesn’t do anything that is unvirtuous or that may compromise our integrity.”
“We need to resist the impulse to react immediately and instinctively to potentially problematic situations. Instead, we must pause, take a deep breath, perhaps go for a walk around the block, and only then consider the issue as dispassionately as possible.”
“If it is important, you really ought to stop and think about it before you decide whether to do it. Imagine how much less pain you would have inflicted on others, how many difficult or embarrassing situations you would have avoided”
“It is by hearing great deeds that we not only become inspired by what human beings at their best can do, but also are implicitly reminded of just how much easier most of our lives actually are.”
“Little is more pragmatic than learning to manage anger, anxiety, and loneliness, three major plagues of modern life. Of course, once again, this isn’t your standard self-help book promising silver bullets: we are going to deal with these issues calmly, reasonably, and with realistic expectations, just as the proper stoic would do.”
“We must also learn how to reason correctly in order to best handle the world as it is. Appreciating and using the pertinent findings of modern psychology to flourish in our lives, then, is a most Stoic thing to do.”
“We may have little or no control over the external circumstances that force us into being alone at some times in our lives. But it is our choice, our own attitude, that turns solitude into loneliness. We may be alone, but we do not consequently need to feel helpless.”