How to Be a Stoic

This page is open for comments on one of my books, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life. Feel free to comment on any and all aspects of the book or ask any question you may have. I will do my best to answer, or you will get some useful insight from our community.

Here is the summary description of the book:

In the tradition of How to Live and How Proust Can Change Your Life, a philosopher asks how ancient Stoicism can help us flourish today. Whenever we worry about what to eat, how to love, or simply how to be happy, we are worrying about how to lead a good life. No goal is more elusive. In How to Be a Stoic, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci offers Stoicism, the ancient philosophy that inspired the great emperor Marcus Aurelius, as the best way to attain it. Stoicism is a pragmatic philosophy that focuses our attention on what is possible and gives us perspective on what is unimportant. By understanding Stoicism, we can learn to answer crucial questions: Should we get married or divorced? How should we handle our money in a world nearly destroyed by a financial crisis? How can we survive great personal tragedy? Whoever we are, Stoicism has something for us–and How to Be a Stoic is the essential guide.

And here is the Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: The Unstraightforward Path
Chapter 2: A Road Map for the Journey

PART I. THE DISCIPLINE OF DESIRE: WHAT IT IS PROPER TO WANT OR NOT TO WANT

Chapter 3: Some Things Are in Our Power, Others Are Not
Chapter 4: Living According to Nature
Chapter 5: Playing Ball with Socrates
Chapter 6: God or Atoms?

PART II. THE DISCIPLINE OF ACTION: HOW TO BEHAVE IN THE WORLD

Chapter 7: It’s All About Character (and Virtue)
Chapter 8: A Very Crucial Word
Chapter 9: The Role of Role Models
Chapter 10: Disability and Mental Illness

PART III. THE DISCIPLINE OF ASSENT: HOW TO REACT TO SITUATIONS

Chapter 11: On Death and Suicide
Chapter 12: How to Deal with Anger, Anxiety, and Loneliness
Chapter 13: Love and Friendship
Chapter 14: Practical Spiritual Exercises

Appendix: The Hellenistic Schools of Practical Philosophy”

10 thoughts on “How to Be a Stoic”

  1. Hi Massimo,

    So as I mentioned on FB, I recently started re-reading your “How to Be a Stoic” book, because I’m trying to get more serious about implementing this philosophy in my life, and your writings are my favorite source on the topic. A couple of questions have come up as I’ve been reading, and here they are (plus at the end, something of an “FYI” about one of my big problem areas when it comes to implementing Stoicism, in case you’ve got any ideas for me).

    1) Dichotomy vs. Trichotomy:
    Around page 11 you state “as William Irvine explains in his lucid A Guide to the Good Life, the clear dichotomy the Stoics drew between what is and is not under our control is too strict…” Around page 33 you state “As is clear from Epictetus’s example, the so-called Stoic dichotomy of control—some things are up to us, other things are not—is really a recognition of *three* levels of influence that we have over the world.” At the same time you never appear to use the word “trichotomy” (in the book) and you have many further references to a “dichotomy.”

    But then in one of your old blog’s posts from July 2017 (https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-dichotomy-of-control/) you say that Donald Robertson “straightened you out” on this topic and that a trichotomy would “eviscerate the Stoic concept and [leave] a fairly banal observation about how the world works.”

    So I’m wondering what you’re thinking right now on this. It seems like your book is more favorable to the “trichotomy” than your 2017 blog post, and I’m wondering if you changed your mind on this after it was too late to change the book (and if you’re planning a revised edition of the book).

    2) Diagramming the “full Stoic system”:
    In a similar vein, in your book (around page 24) and in a 2016 blog post you offered a diagram of the “full Stoic system” mapping the three Stoic disciplines to the three areas of inquiry and the four Stoic virtues. In a December 2017 blog post (https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/12/11/disciplines-fields-and-virtues-the-full-stoic-system-in-one-neat-package/) you updated the diagram to be a complex sort of football play(?) of the “full shebang.” (In my own notes in the book I wrote about this and said “however, the diagram here in the book is much simpler and easier to remember, and might be ‘good enough.'”)

    So again I’m wondering where you’re at right now on this, and if you plan to update this in a revised edition of the book.

    3) More of an FYI:
    I’ve been studying Stoicism (though rather casually and intermittently) for the last 3 years or so and I still find some of the basics don’t seem to “stick” with me. I even remain confused with some of the most basic terms. (BTW, I don’t have training or any real background in philosophy, though I did get a masters many years ago in “spiritual theology,” so I’m not totally unused to dealing with complex concepts.)

    For example, I think it’s obvious that many inquirers about Stoicism get confused by the precise definition of “virtue” (and you’ve pointed out that this is often a problem for people who have been steeped in Christianity, which would include me). I hear that arete is often translated “excellence,” but to me that is too vague and not really “actionable”–being excellent in what direction, towards what aim? And I now know that this seems to mean being excellent in terms of being a rational, social human being–but I still find that kind of too vague to put into practice day-to-day.

    Or I read that Stoicism is largely about “wisdom,” but then I hear that there are two kinds of wisdom (sophia & phronesis), and wisdom is one of the four virtues, but then all of the virtues are really just different aspects of wisdom (though I’m not sure which one of the two wisdoms they are aspects of), and again I’m stuck thinking “this is all so intertwined and circular and confusing; how the heck am I supposed to ACT or CHOOSE in order to be ‘wise’ or ‘virtuous’ by the Stoic definitions?”

    Or I hear that Stoicism is about “character” and I’m not sure I really know or understand in my gut what (precisely) is meant by “character.” I can of course go to the dictionary but then it’s not unusual to find multiple definitions of these broad terms, and so I’m still stuck with not finding anything I feel that I can clearly and confidently act on. And possibly my Christian upbringing & training (which I’m now trying to put behind me) is messing with understanding the Stoic definitions of these basic words. I’ve recently made a list of some of these “troublesome” words and I’m combing through the books & blogs I’ve already read to compare what is written about these most basic words & phrases: virtue/vice, ethics, eudaimonia, impressions, moral, wisdom, etc.

    One thing that I do find helpful when researching confusing topics is to find (or come up with on my own) not only a clear definition of a term, but also to find or come up with its opposite, as well as other things it is often confused with, but isn’t. (E.g., Stoic non-attachment is often confused with passivity and resignation, but that’s incorrect, and here’s why…) Also helpful (but harder to find) are human examples or stories that illustrate what these terms mean in the Stoic context.

    I apologize that this is longer than I expected it to be, and I very much appreciate your taking the time to read it and whatever time you can spare to address my questions. You are so generous with your time, and so gifted as a teacher, helping us seekers and wannabe Stoics, and I truly thank you.

    …Chuck

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  2. Chuck,

    (i) On the dichotomy / trichotomy of control: as you mention, Don straightened me out, and my position is now stable. To talk of trichotomy, as Bill does, is to destroy the concept, and with it a lot of Stoicism, particularly of the Epictetean variety.

    A good way to conceptualize this, in my mind, is by analogy with vector analysis in physics, as explained here: https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-dichotomy-of-control/

    (ii) On “the full Stoic system”: yes, the diagram in the book is easier and good enough, but the ones in the post are far more complete and useful, in the long run.

    That said, I have recently finished re-reading and commenting on Hadot’s The Inner Citadel (see: https://massimopigliucci.wordpress.com/2019/08/13/book-club-summary-the-inner-citadel/) and I am more and more convinced that his attempt to draw tight correspondences between the three disciplines, the three areas of study (logic, physics, and ethics), and the four virtues is a bit too neat. If I had to pick, I’d say that it’s helpful to see the three disciplines of Epictetus connected to the three areas of study. The virtues don’t really fit well, nor one should expect it, since Epictetus doesn’t really talk about the virtues.

    (iii) Points of confusion. You are not the only one, though I think things gradually become more clear and second nature. I think arete, understood as “try to be the best human being you can be” is a good general concept (see here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/arete-on-nature-27612323).

    The difference between sophia and phronesis is important: phronesis is practical wisdom (the knowledge of what is and is not good for you), and one of the four cardinal virtues, while “wisdom” more broadly construed is what the four specific virtues have in common. See the geometrical diagram in my post on “the full shebang.”

    You keep asking specific guidance on action or choice, you won’t get it from Stoicism. And that’s a feature, not a bug. The point is that reality is too complex and varied for simple rules to be useful (as in deontology, or utilitarianism). That’s why you need to keep reflecting on your actions, confronting yourself with role models and friends of virtue, ask for specific help from fellow practitioners and so forth.

    The situation is no different from what you encounter in Christianity or, better yet, Buddhism. You should be a good Christian or Buddhist, but what that means in specific situations varies enormously.

    On character, see: https://massimopigliucci.wordpress.com/2019/05/13/book-club-summary-the-character-gap/

    I hope this helps!

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    Thanks once again for taking the time to address my questions. I truly appreciate it.

    One thing you didn’t address with regard to my first two questions. Given that what you wrote in your “How to be a Stoic” book about the dichotomy/trichotomy and the diagram of the “full Stoic system” seems quite different from what you’re now saying, do you think you’ll do a revised edition of the book and update them there?

    And with regard to the situation with Stoicism being “no different from what you encounter in Christianity,” I’m going to respectfully disagree. Even though at one level it’s true that Jesus condensed all the “law and the prophets” down to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” it’s also true that the Bible provides MANY specific commandments: obviously and most famously, the Ten Commandments, but also plenty of very specific instructions in the New Testament, as well as numerous lists of what constitutes good & bad behavior (e.g., Galatians 5:19-26). The Bible alone also has dozens of useful and memorable stories of good and bad exemplars of how one should (and shouldn’t) live: Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Peter, Paul, the characters in the parables such as the Good Samaritan, etc. Then there’s the international system of the churches, with weekly gatherings and Sunday Schools and Bible studies. Add to that countless books (over 2,000 years’ worth) and stories and songs and prayers (and now movies & TV shows), etc., and I’d say there’s a HELL :-) of a lot more guidance for how one should live as a Christian than as a Stoic! (Not that they all 100% agree with each other, but for what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity,” it’s “good enough” to go a long way.) It’s a much fuller and clearer target to aim at.

    I do agree that it’s probably true that “things gradually become more clear and second nature.” However, given the relative paucity of “supports” (compared to Christianity) understanding & practicing Stoicism is going to take more solo (or solo-ish) effort on my part than I’ve been giving it thus far. I had roughly 50 years in Christianity; I’m hoping it won’t take me 50 more years to “get” Stoicism! But as far as modern authors go, you are my most trusted guide, so I’ll keep plugging away.

    Now to go read that “character” link you provided.

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    1. I might work on a second edition of How To Be a Stoic, though right now I’m focused on a new book to be delivered in January to the publisher, which will address some of these issues.

      The Ten Commandments are part of the Old Testament, and it’s not clear at all even to theologians that this has not been superseded by the New Testament. Be that as it may, even commandments and “specific” injunctions are far less specific than one might think. “Thou shall not kill.” Okay, does that include self-defense? probably not. As for parables, they are notoriously open to interpretation, and have, in fact, been variously interpreted. And yes, there are countless churches and books, but they disagree with each other on what counts as truly Christian behavior.

      That said, religious commandments are a type of deontological system, not a virtue ethical one, so they are by nature different. I just think that as a general framework, working on your character is a better approach to ethics than following rules.

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    2. A small point. “Thou shalt not kill” is a mistranslation; it should read “Thou shalt not murder.” Which, since murder means wrongful killing, is not very helpful. Deuteronomy, in which one version of the Ten Commandments occurs, specifically enjoins killing, both in war and as a punishment for preaching idolatry, among other things

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    3. P.P.S. [Oops. I think I posted my previous P.S. reply in the wrong place.] OK, after a bit of reading the links that “virtue ethics for idiots” produced (on top of 2-3 years of reading about Stoicism), I feel like I’m finally getting something of a handle on it, conceptually. I guess I needed time plus some more focused study.

      I still have questions about how it differs practically in the real world. Suppose Joe has a religious conversion tomorrow and decides to go from being a liar to being honest because he starts taking seriously the commandments to be honest and not lie. And then suppose a year later he has a “virtue ethics conversion” and switches to practicing honesty because it is a virtue, I wonder if anybody (including Joe) will notice a significant difference between year 1 Joe and year 2 Joe?

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  4. Hi again, Massimo,

    I think perhaps that we’re looking at this from two different perspectives, both valid. It seems to me you’re looking at this from the 30,000 foot view, as an academic/philosopher/scientist, and seeing the broad themes of how “deontological systems” and “virtue ethical systems” compare and contrast.

    I’m coming to Stoicism from ground level, as a guy who spent 50-some years in Christianity, and who is now trying to figure out this “new” life philosophy, again at “ground level,” hour by hour and day by day. As I listed before, my experience of Christianity had LOTS of support to figure out how to live each day. Yes, at the 30,000 foot level, there are varied & somewhat conflicted interpretations. But at my experience of “ground level” Christianity, there wasn’t. For me, there was my local “Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS)” (a specific denomination), with a specific street address, and a couple of specific pastors teaching us, and a couple of hundred like-minded people to support each other. And though the local churches I attended varied over the next 40 years, I still felt I had a pretty clear idea of what was expected of me. It wasn’t always easy, but it also wasn’t confusing & murky. I felt I knew, most of the time, what to do, what not to do, and in which direction to aim.

    In my day-to-day experience, the differences in interpretation that you point to weren’t significant enough to get worked up over. I think for most religious people, the differences you point to don’t matter. We can simply write it off as “yeah, that’s what those guys down the street believe, but it doesn’t really affect me; at my church we believe and do X.”

    Above you said “You keep asking specific guidance on action or choice, you won’t get it from Stoicism.” And yes, I guess I am doing that somewhat out of habit, because that has been the habit of my “spiritual” life (though I now dislike that word) for 50+ years. With zero philosophical training, I’m not a guy who could describe or distinguish a “deontological system” from a “virtue ethical” system from the proverbial hole in the ground, without some study and effort. I think I’m slowly starting to pick up the difference, but I’m much more interested in the practical, day-to-day steps involved in (1) understanding Stoicism and (2) putting Stoicism into practice. I keep feeling like I’m missing something, some “key” to knowing where to even start moving forward. And again, in the Christianity that I experienced there is massive social support and practical guidance, and a network of people to turn to, but in Stoicism there is very little (by comparison).

    Maybe there’s a reason why Christianity became the most widespread religion in the world. Perhaps there’s something in human nature that gravitates more readily towards deontological systems than to virtue ethics systems.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to your next book!

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    1. >> At my experience of “ground level” Christianity, there wasn’t. For me, there was my local “Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS)” (a specific denomination), with a specific street address, and a couple of specific pastors teaching us, and a couple of hundred like-minded people to support each other. <> We can simply write it off as “yeah, that’s what those guys down the street believe, but it doesn’t really affect me; at my church we believe and do X.” <> I’m not a guy who could describe or distinguish a “deontological system” from a “virtue ethical” system <> in the Christianity that I experienced there is massive social support and practical guidance <> Maybe there’s a reason why Christianity became the most widespread religion in the world. Perhaps there’s something in human nature that gravitates more readily towards deontological systems than to virtue ethics systems. <> Suppose Joe has a religious conversion tomorrow and decides to go from being a liar to being honest because he starts taking seriously the commandments to be honest and not lie. And then suppose a year later he has a “virtue ethics conversion” and switches to practicing honesty because it is a virtue, I wonder if anybody (including Joe) will notice a significant difference between year 1 Joe and year 2 Joe? <<

      Not based on just that sort of example. But if Joe starts working in earnest to improve his character, and forgets about simplistic right/wrong, you'll see the difference.

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