How to Be a Stoic: An Interview With Massimo Pigliucci

We first interviewed Professor Massimo Pigliucci back in 2015 after his popular piece in New York Times on Stoicism became one of the most shared and viewed articles on the site. And today, with the release of his new book on stoic philosophy we decided to again reach out and ask him about all the imaginary conversations he had with Epictetus in the book (a once common literary structure that is sadly rare these days). We also used the opportunity to ask him about useful Stoic exercises we can apply in our day-to-day to pop culture recommendations to his thoughts on the rise in popularity—and accompanying criticism—of Stoicism. Enjoy the interview that follows and don’t forget to check out his new book, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, which is out now.

Your new book offers an exploration of Stoicism through conversations with Epictetus. How did you decide to take this approach? (People think it’s a lot easier to write about the Stoics than it is, don’t they? It’s really quite hard to add anything new when Seneca and Marcus were such flawless writers.)

Exactly. It’s not just that Seneca and Marcus were flawless writers, it’s that there are a number of very good books out there written by modern authors, including yours. So I felt that the only reason for me to add a new entry to the canon was if I had something new to say, or a new way of saying it.

I picked Epictetus because today he is the least well known of the great Stoics, and also because I have been immediately fascinated by his wicked sense of humor and his bluntness. The other reason is that I have occasions to disagree with him in the book (for instance, about his conception of God and Providence), which offered me the opportunity to put forth my own update of Stoicism for the 21st century.

Each chapter in the book begins with an imaginary dialogue between me and Epictetus, who plays the role of my personal “daimon,” as the ancient Greeks called it. We are walking down the streets of Rome — where he lived for some time, and where I was actually writing the book — and things happen to me, and I ask him how a Stoic would deal with them. It’s an interesting exercise of self-discovery, talking to your daimon, I highly recommend it. Just not in public, at least not if you talk out loud…

How do you feel about the rise in popularity of Stoicism and the corresponding rise in critics? Obviously this is something your work has played a part in growing, but at the same time, I can’t imagine you think the audience is still quite small (compared to say Buddhism or even something silly like the law of attraction)

Right, Stoicism is clearly growing, but we are not even in the ballpark of Buddhism. Though there is no reason we shouldn’t be. In fact, I think of Stoicism as the Western equivalent of Buddhism, with a lot of similarities between the two philosophies (and some differences, of course).

I actually tried to study Buddhism for a bit, but the parts I managed to get exposed to felt too alien, couched in cultural, linguistic, and conceptual terms that did not resonate with me. By contrast, when I picked up Epictetus, or Marcus, or Seneca, I immediately felt at home.

I think the same is potentially true for a lot of people who haven’t been exposed to Stoicism yet, which is why I wrote the book and I keep a very active blog (howtobeastoic.org) recounting my personal exploration of Stoicism. It has changed my life for the better, I think and hope it will change others as well.

But yes, there are critics, some of them fairly harsh, if not downright vicious. I’m not sure why they are so afraid of the (limited, really) success of Stoicism, but of course Stoics have dealt with critics for millennia, this is just one more iteration.

What do you think Stoicism provides someone like you or me—or really anyone putting themselves out there and launching something—on the eve of a scary, intimidating thing like a book release? How have you used Stoicism as manage the process of publishing and now marketing?

Good question. I keep reminding myself of the metaphor of the archer. As Cicero put it in the third volume of De Finibus, where he has Cato the Younger explain Stoic doctrines, an archer will do whatever he can in order to hit the target, but once the arrow leaves the bow, the actual outcome is not up to him. Hitting the target is, Cicero says, “to be chosen but not to be desired” (DF III.22)

That’s the way I think about my book, or really anything else I try to accomplish in my life: I put forth my best effort, and I’m doing my best so to reach people who may benefit from it. But I regard the actual outcome in terms of sales, attention, etc., as a preferred indifferent. It really relieves a lot of pressure, you know…

Aside from the Stoic canon, what books—or even movies and documentaries—would you recommend to our readers who want to live a meaningful life? What would be some good complements to the typical Stoic reading list?

In terms of books or documentaries, I would say the biographies of people who have good qualities of character and may therefore provide a role model against which to measure ourselves in order to improve. As Seneca says, “you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters to Lucilius, XI, On the Blush of Modesty, 10) And I would particularly suggest to seek women role models, since the classic Stoic canon is lacking in that respect (not a particularly Stoic fault: pretty much every literature before the late 20th century was deficient in that department).

Specifically, off the top of my head: The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank; Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi; 12 Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup; Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl; Mandela, by Tom Lodge; Tom Paine: A Political Life, by John Keane; Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, by Plato, on the life of Socrates. There are, of course, many, many others.

In terms of movies, I actually have an occasional column on my blog dedicated to movie characters or situations that present a good occasion for a modern Stoic to reflect and learn from. For instance, Agent Foster in Imperium, with Daniel Radcliffe; Mark Watney, in The Martian, with Matt Damon; the Russian spy Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance, in Bridge of Spies; Dalton Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston, in Trumbo.

You’ve interacted with many aspiring Stoic students over the years. What have you found are the most beneficial Stoic exercises that people really feel have changed their lives for the better?

The philosophical diary, especially done in the way Seneca suggests: “The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. … I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself. … I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore?’ A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.” (On Anger, III.26)

It certainly helps me not just to reflect on what I’ve done during the day and prepare to do it better the next time, over time it also generates a kind of constant attitude of mindfulness throughout the day, since you know you’ll have to face your conscience in writing every evening.

Also, the premeditatio malorum, thinking ahead to the possible bad stuff that can happen under whatever circumstances you will likely face during the day. Some people engage in dramatic versions of it, like envisaging one’s death. But that, I think, ought to be left for advanced students, and even then only occasionally. It is much more useful when applied to mundane things, as Epictetus does in the Enchiridion (IV): “When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.'”

I do that every time I go to a movie theater, because almost invariably some jerk will whip out his cell phone thinking that he absolutely has to check his messages regardless of how much the glare interferes with other people’s enjoyment of the movie going experience. It has been really useful in order to preemptively cultivate the sort of inner calm that will not ruin my and my friends’ evening.