This is a comprehensive summary of the book How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.
In this read, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci walks us through the main principles of Stoicism. From how Stoicism was formed down to sharing imaginary dialogues with Epictetus himself – the central figure in this book. Pigliucci transcribes the classic Stoic teachings in modern words. Making them easy to understand and ready to be implemented in the busy lives we’re living now.
The Core Idea:
How ought we to live our lives? That’s what the author strives to answer in this book. By observing the ancient principles of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci wants to help us find direction in our noisy world and embrace a happy sort of nihilism.
- Allowing your emotions to control the words you say and the acts you do is not in accordance with reason.
- To champion your emotions and embed logic in your thinking, focus on mastering the following three: desire, action, and assent.
- Understanding the difference between what you can control and what you can’t is the central idea of Stoicism.
5 Key Lessons from How to Be a Stoic:
Lesson #1: Stoicism is About Figuring Out the Best Way to Live a Good Life
It all started with Zeno. A Phoenician merchant who became interested in philosophy after a shipwreck.
After the accident, he went to the local library in Athens and asked the bookseller where people like Socrates can be found. The story tells that the bookseller replied, “Follow yonder man.” And Zeno started following Crates – the main philosopher at the time.
The men who later followed Zeno were called Zenonians but eventually referred to be “Stoics,” because they met under the Stoa Poikile.
The discussions these men held were fierce and involving various topics. Yet, they were all trying to figure out one main thing – how to reach eudaimonic. Or in other words, how to best live a human life.
How can people flourish is a broad term and it can certainly require studying a lot of things. But Stoics boiled it down to the following three subjects: studying physics, logic, and ethics.
They studied physics to understand how the world works and what is our place in it. They observed logic to become more reasonable in their judgment. And lastly, they focused on ethics to figure out how the human mind works so they can alter it to better fit reason.
They strongly believed that, as Massimo Pigliucci writes, “If philosophy was not useful to human life, then it wasn’t useful at all.”
There’s a lot to unpack about the above-mentioned. But if we can compress it down to one sentence, we should say that focusing on things that matter and disregarding everything else is the key objective for a happy life.
In reality, Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion—rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control.” Massimo Pigliucci
Lesson #2: We Should Live According to Nature
What distinguishes us from animals? Apart from having a thumb?
Our ability to think. To put things into perspective and to consider the past while making plans for the future.
Yet, we rarely put this ability into practice – at least not at full speed.
For Stoics, to live our lives “according to nature,” was a manner of approaching things with reason. And, more importantly, to treat other people with respect and common courtesy.
The key aspect of being a human is our ability to socialize, to help each other, and to treat everyone, even folks we don’t know or necessarily like, good. By treating others, “as if they really are our relatives,” as the author writes, we’re actually helping ourselves. Because, after all, we can’t survive the hardships of life all by ourselves.
In conclusion, it’s within your nature to treat others with respect and to learn from them. Also, it’s within your nature to be a reasonable person and to not behave like a sheep.
…the point of life for human beings is to use reason to build the best society that it is humanly possible to build.” Massimo Pigliucci
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