Stoicism And The Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson: Book Summary, Key Lessons and Best Quotes

The Stoics knew how to say more by saying less. Every word they wrote, every speech they gave, every lesson they taught contained only what was essential and nothing excessive. In EpictetusEnchiridion, every word hits the soul and immediately sparks philosophical reflection. In Marcus AureliusMeditations, the reader can’t help but highlight and underline every little bit of wisdom. Needless to say, great Stoic works strike a balance between providing an absurd amount of wisdom, but maintaining a remarkably high level conciseness. Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness by Donald Robertson is no different.

Robertson’s book goes into great detail on, as the title suggests, how to apply ancient wisdom to modern problems. Whether it’s overcoming anxiety, applying Stoicism to personal relationships, or simply wishing to live a happier life, Robertson covers each topic with detail and practicality. Each chapter also comes with Self-Assessments, where you can measure your thoughts and perceptions before reading and review your answers once you’ve digested the content. That’s not even mentioning the timeless wisdom included in each chapter, wisdom that Robertson imparts upon the reader in an incredibly clear way.

3 Key Takeaways from Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

In theory, we know what we should be doing as students of Stoicism. We should take the advice of Epictetus and study the difference between what is up to us and what is not. We should meditate on the shortness of life like Seneca urges us to. But we can’t do any of that if we don’t know where to start. 

Robertson’s books are, as we know, packed with insights and analysis of the philosophy we love. Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness goes a step further, and provides us with specific tips and tricks on how to push through the challenges we face every day.

Here are our top three takeaways from Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness.

1) Make Accurate Value Judgements

“Of all things that are, some are good, and some are bad, and some are indifferent: the good then are virtues, and the things which participate in virtues; and evil things the opposite; and the indifferent things are wealth, health, reputation.”

—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.9

Maintaining a quality perspective can be challenging, especially in the world we live in today. This is precisely why Robertson argues that we need ancient tips for modern challenges. Most students of Stoicism are familiar with the central belief that we must all learn to understand what we can and cannot control. An important idea, certainly. But that’s not all Stoicism is about. 

When you really break it down, Stoic wisdom largely consists of making accurate value judgements. This means that when we catch a cold and have to miss work, we don’t get all spun up about it. When someone says something offensive about us behind our back (or to our face) it goes in one ear and right out the other. The ability to accurately judge and interpret what happens to us—to remain indifferent to things we can’t control—is pivotal in Stoicism. It’s why the philosophy is so often referred to as the “practical philosophy”. 

Robertson further illustrates this when he tells the story of Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of Greek skepticism. According to legend, Pyrrho was so indifferent to external things that he had to be steered away from walking off cliffs, or into the path of horse-drawn wagons by his followers. As seen in this example, our philosophy is only beneficial to us so long as it remains practical and applicable. 

2) Stoic Doesn’t Mean Emotionless

“To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.22

There’s a popular assumption about the ancient Stoics, that they aimed to be perfectly rational robots who showed no emotion and had no friends. That love and joy and excitement are all mere bursts of irrational emotion that should be replaced with cold, calculated rationality at all times. This simply isn’t true. Robertson brilliantly displays how the Stoics think and talk about love and friendship: 

“Aspiring Stoics, despite their folly and imperfection, clearly aspire to love virtue, as the supreme good in life. Moreover, when we encounter other people who possess virtue, as Cicero puts it, our ‘natural affection’ is aroused by the ‘shining light of goodness and excellence’ in their character.”

The Stoics clearly saw value in having close and personal relationships with others, whether it be friendly or romantic. It’s why Marcus Aurelius tells himself repeatedly to “love man-kind” in Meditations. It’s also why Marcus praised his tutor, Sextus of Chaeronea, for always being “free of passion yet full of love”. This is also what we mean by Stoic sympatheia. In acknowledging the interconnectedness of things, we come to appreciate people and the world much more. It’s the duty of every Stoic to keep that in mind, that we are supposed to have an affinity for one another. Emotion isn’t the enemy, it’s another part of our natural selves that we ought to master. 

3)  Use The “Stoic Fork” To Your Advantage

“In general, therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it; if you want not to do something, refrain from doing it, and accustom yourself to something else instead.” 

—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18

If our chief task as Stoics is to understand what is within our control, we need strategies and coping mechanisms to allow us to do so. Luckily, Robertson highlights four strategies developed by Epictetus (also known as the “Stoic Fork”) to help us deal with irrational fears, unhealthy desires, and anything else that troubles us. 

The first of these strategies is referred to by Robertson as Postponement. If we’re feeling overwhelmed, Robertson says we should simply take a break or a postponement. By doing this, our mind will return to a place of rationality and we’ll be able to solve problems more effectively. The second strategy is called Modeling. If we’re not sure what to do, we can think in our mind what a perfectly wise person would do. Contemplate what they would think of it, or how they would respond to the same stimulus. Momentarily separating ourselves from the problem can provide us with mental clarity and keep us from letting irrational emotions creep into our decisions. The third is called Coping, which is a series of questions. Like, what has nature given us to cope with the obstacles that lie ahead? Does this situation call for rationality? Patience? Restraint? All of which are gifts granted to us by nature. 

The last strategy Robertson describes is called Philosophical Disputation. This strategy is particularly useful because it requires that we apply all the principles of Stoicism that we’ve learned thus far. When faced with an overwhelming fear or desire, we should think about those philosophical tools we have in our repertoire. Can we control this or not? Are we acting according to nature or against it? According to Robertson, we’d be smart to always vet our initial impressions. 

The Stoic Fork is a strategy that all Stoics, novice or advanced, can use during trying times and seemingly unbeatable hardships. 

3 Favorite Examples from Stoicism And The Art of Happiness

Stories are not only entertaining, they’re powerful. Whether they’re true or false, a good story can change our perspective, inspire us, or teach us a lesson. In each chapter of Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness, you’ll find case studies that perfectly illustrate the ideas that Robertson is explaining, and show just how remarkable this philosophy is. The variety of the case studies included is also noteworthy, as the book makes mention of non-Stoic philosophers like Socrates, sheds further light on some of our favorite Stoics, and even includes modern-day examples of people who have benefitted from Stoicism. Here are just a few of our favorite case studies from Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness.

1) Put In The Work—Progress Will Follow

“Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinions about them”

—Epictetus, Discourses

Jules Evans is the co-organizer of the London Philosophy Club, and has been involved with the Stoic Week projects at Exeter University. In a 2012 article titled “How Ancient Philosophy Saved My Life”, Jules described a breakdown that led him to seek help from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Stoic philosophy. In college, Jules was experiencing pervasive panic attacks, depression and anxiety. After attending a group that focused on CBT and self-help, Jules was able to overcome the depression and anxiety that once ruled him. Inspired by his own journey, Jules sought out to interview Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) which was the early version of CBT. Ellis told Jules that his work was directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy. 

Jules goes on to point out that almost all schools of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy share a cognitive approach to emotions. This means emotional distress is seen as being largely due to our own beliefs and faulty thinking, both of which are changeable through philosophical reflection and training. This would later be expanded upon in Jules’ book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, where he suggests that we all can improve ourselves by doing the following:

  1. Focusing on what we can control, and accepting what we can’t
  2. Choose our mentors carefully, a lesson learned from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives
  3. Keep track of thoughts and behaviors by writing them down in a journal

2) It’s Ok To Spill Soup

“Attention (prosoche) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind, self-consciousness which never sleeps, and a constant tension of the spirit. Thanks to this attitude, the philosopher is fully aware of what he does at each instant, and he wills his actions fully.” 

—Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?, p.84

Zeno is the founder of Stoicism and undoubtedly influenced the likes of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus. Even more inspiring is knowing that Zeno was not always the wise Sage and founder of an ancient philosophy. 

Zeno began his study of philosophy as a young man, under the famous Cynic Crates. The story goes that after Zeno’s shipwreck, he wandered through the city of Athens with a great deal of anxiety. He was constantly worried about what others thought of him, and Crates knew just how to fix that. One day, Crates asked Zeno to carry a clay pot full of lentil soup through the busy crowds in the potters district. Zeno was worried about standing out and tried to conceal the pot underneath his cloak. Crates took notice, and promptly walked up to Zeno, smashed the pot of soup with his staff, and watched as it splattered all of Zeno’s cloak and undergarments. “Courage, my little Phoenician” said Crates, “It’s only a little soup.”

Cognitive psychologists use similar tactics today, such as requiring clients to carry a banana on a dog leash at the mall. These exercises are meant to teach people to overcome their fears of looking foolish in public. While the incident was surely embarrassing for young Zeno, he obviously learned to care less about what others thought of him. In the same way, we should aim to expose ourselves to things that make us uncomfortable. They help us grow. They make us tougher. They bring us one step closer to calling ourselves Stoic.

3) The Death of Socrates

Although I was witnessing the death of one who was my friend, I had no feeling of pity, for the man appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear.”

—Phaedo, 58e

The great philosopher Socrates was famously put on trial for allegedly a) corrupting the youth and b) not believing in the gods of the city of Athens. Here was a man who moved through life with ferocious curiosity, asking questions about people’s beliefs and why they believed them so sternly. This behavior, even though it did no real harm to anyone, would be the basis upon which he would be executed. Yet, Socrates didn’t scream and shout when he was told his fate. He approached his death with the same steadiness and curiosity that made him notorious throughout Athens. 

Stoics contemplate their own death and the death of those they care about for good reason; it is inevitable. We are all terminally ill. We all will one day take our last breath before passing into the unknown, and that’s ok. It becomes far less scary if we expect it. Even more so, the Stoics are concerned with death because it provides them with a sense of urgency to pursue virtue. Even Marcus reminded himself in Meditations, when he wrote “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one”

Time is the most valuable commodity we have. Socrates wasted not a single minute worrying about whether his death would be quick or long. Whether it would be by sword or poison. That was all nonsense. He spent his final hours in philosophical discourse, and when his time came, he went about it as one would go about tying their shoes. 

Happiness isn’t the end goal for the modern Stoic. It’s mastery. It’s the ability to look at any challenge as it arises and not cower in fear, or quit because trying seems hopeless. Stoicism And The Art Of Happiness brings its readers lightyears closer to such mastery, and does so in the same practical manner that Stoicism is so famous for. 

12 Best Quotes from Stoicism And The Art of Happiness

“Health is generally preferable to illness and wealth to poverty, depending on how they’re used, but neither is of any value whatsoever when it comes to judging whether someone has lived a good life, according to the Stoics.”

“We see dogs playfully fawning on each other and might say that they ‘love’ one another as ‘friends’ but if we throw a piece of meat between them then a fight breaks out and they are quickly pitted against each other. Throw some land or money between father and son, he says, and we will see how fragile the bond is between them, as long as external things are confused with our ultimate good (Discourses, 3.24).”

“The ideal Sage is therefore godlike, a mortal having progressed so far that his wisdom and eudaimonia equal that of Zeus. The aspiring Stoic tries to make progress towards perfect wisdom by regularly contemplating the Sage and emulating his thoughts and actions.”

“The Stoics, by contrast, believed that we are essentially social creatures, with a ‘natural affection’ and ‘affinity’ for all people. This forms the basis of Stoic ‘philanthropy’, the rational love of our brothers and fellow citizens in the universe, or ‘cosmic city’ – the true meaning of ‘cosmopolitanism’.”

“the Stoic Sage is notoriously paradoxical. He is the sort of person whom we can call truly rich even when he owns nothing, he is the only truly free man even when imprisoned by a tyrant, he is the only true friend even when persecuted as an enemy, he remains Happy and lives a blessed life even if subjected to the sum total of all external misfortunes.”

“if we only desire what is within our control, then we can never be frustrated, and our freedom is guaranteed regardless of the circumstances. By contrast, if we desire things which are potentially outside our control, then we become slaves to fortune and to our passions. Perhaps worse, if someone else controls what we desire, then we effectively become enslaved to that person.”

“The majority of people can be controlled by tyrants who may be able to threaten their lives or seize their property, the things they desire to keep. However, the perfect Sage views these as ‘indifferent’, and so the tyrant can lay his hands on nothing that the Sage desires, nor expose him to anything he fears.”

“Goodness in other people naturally arouses our affection and friendship, not because it’s of some material advantage to us, but because it’s the mirror image of our own potential for virtue, and so loved for its own sake.”

“In a dialogue entitled On Friendship, Cicero portrays him saying that ‘nothing else in the whole world is so completely in harmony with Nature’ as true friendship, a profound agreement in the feelings and values of two people, supported by mutual goodwill and affection.”

“Even if we’ve never met them in person but only heard about them in stories, we are drawn to the wise and good, and make moral progress by emulating their example.”

“By exercising restraint, we learn to only eat when genuinely hungry, drink when thirsty, and so on. Appetite and thirst are the natural ‘sauce’ of life and the secret to making even coarse bread and plain water seem delicious. Self-control is healthier and actually leads to more enjoyment than self-indulgence, particularly with regard to the most common sources of pleasure in daily life.”

“If the individual components of a situation taken one at a time, independently of one another, are bearable, then why should you be overwhelmed by them taken together?”

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