Introducing The Practicing Stoic

A new book you might like about Stoic philosophy.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

My thanks to Eugene and the rest of the crew for allowing this visit. Over the years I've had the pleasure of rolling out some past projects in this space (involving law, or rhetoric, or chess—all here for those interested). This time it's a book about the philosophy of the Stoics. Today I'll explain the purpose of the book generally. In other posts this week, I'll talk about what the Stoics said more specifically.

Some of you already know all about Stoicism, but let me say a few general words about it for those who don't. The ancient Stoics were philosophers and psychologists of the most ingenious kind, and also highly practical; they offered ways to think about the problems of everyday life, and ideas about how to overcome our irrationalities, that are still relevant and helpful today. The best advice anyone offers nowadays, casually or in a bestseller at the airport book shop, often amounts to a restatement or rediscovery of something the Stoics said with more economy and wit two millennia ago.

If Stoicism seems a bit far afield from the usual fare on this blog, I will note that John Stuart Mill – justifiably a hero to most readers of Reason – described the writings of Marcus Aurelius as "the highest ethical product of the ancient mind." (Marcus Aurelius was one of the great Stoics and figures prominently in the book.) And we most certainly could use more Stoicism all the way around in our public life and culture these days, though I'll leave it to readers to reflect on that point for themselves. It doesn't take much imagination to see.

Philosophical Stoicism has little to do with the modern meaning of "Stoic," a word that is now usually used to describe a grim sort of person who suffers without complaint. A philosophical Stoic is more likely to be distinguished by mild humor in the face of things regarded as grim by others. Stoicism got its name because Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, did his teaching in a public colonnade or porch ("stoa") overlooking the Agora of Athens. So if "Stoicism" sounds too forbidding because of the word's popular meaning now, you could try telling your family that you are studying the philosophy of the porch. They might like that better.

There are lots of books about Stoicism already, so I should explain why another one seemed worthwhile. Stoicism has come to us largely through the works of three ancient philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. The works they left behind tend to be miscellaneous in character. What any one of the Stoics taught about a given subject, let alone what they all said, can't easily be found in one place. The Practicing Stoic seeks to fix this. First, the book organizes the ideas of the Stoics in a logical and progressive manner. Second, the book pulls together, and puts next to each other, the most important points that each of the Stoics made about subjects of lasting interest; the format lets them talk to each other. Third, the book shows how Stoic teachings have lived on and been elaborated in the writings of others who came later: Montaigne, Adam Smith, and others.

In short, The Practicing Stoic lets you learn about Stoicism from the original teachers of the philosophy, but reads (I hope) like an accessible modern book on the subject. It is meant to be useful to two kinds of readers. For those who are new to Stoicism, the book offers a short course on the practical side of it. For those already familiar with Stoicism, the book can serve as a reference. You can look up and compare what the different Stoics said about this or that. Tomorrow I'll introduce their most important teachings.

NEXT: Dean Ward Farnsworth Guest-Blogging on The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual

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  1. No Stoic I know of lived in a jar on the street. It’s a pass from me.

    1. Sounds interesting though. I’m looking forward to your posts.

    2. How cynical of you to say that. 😉

    3. @gormadoc “No Stoic I know of lived in a jar on the street. It’s a pass from me.” Take another read of your comment 🙂

      “Sometimes, the simple things are more fun and meaningful than all the banquets in the world …”
      ? E.A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly,

      more nice quotes that make it all worth it

      And a few of my own for originality:
      “Share your sacred heart, share you love, and never stop sending out good vibes — it’s what we all live for”

  2. Pretty mean of Professor Volokh to schedule you during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings week.

    1. Why? The Conspirators are unlikely to have much to say about the Kavanaugh candidacy or process, beyond perhaps the occasional tangential slap at the enemies of movement conservatism. Like most conservatives and Republicans, the Conspirators are likely in ‘just duck, wait, and hope the confirmation occurs before someone does or says something else that is stupid’ mode.

      It also seems likely that most Conspirators won’t want to touch other current legal issues — the President’s call for misuse of prosecutorial decisions for partisan gain, the Woodward book — because of a fear that Trump might be the last Republican president to nominate federal judges during the useful lives of certain right-wing wannabe judicial candidates. (Prof. Somin is the prominent exception, because as a libertarian he is unlikely to be on Trump, Heritage, or Federalist wish lists. But Woodward and those corrupt tweets may be too sensitive even for Prof. Somin in the current political climate)

      Against that background, this seems like at least as good a week as most.

      1. To take your bait, I can’t help but marvel at the blunt gouacheness of Trump’s tweet at Sessions that are referring to; doesn’t he know that DOJ slow walking and political games by the AG has to be *wink* *wink* *nudge* *nudge* like it was with Holder and Lynch?

        And that’s not technically whataboutism. I’m just marveling at the audacity of it saying what actually happens on its face.

        1. What Trump is saying to his base (me et al) is that the Dems are out to cul Congress using their marvelous weaponized FBI and prosecutorial tag-teams. All this will be under cover from the Fake News Democrat cheer leaders at the mono-culture networks and newspapers of record. All the news that’s fixed to print, and so on.

          1. @Michael Cook – couldn’t help but notice the link on your name. What a nice guy 🙂 /seriously

            1. If you really want a laugh, you should check out my essays memorialized on the dead Volokh Conspiracy thread ARIZONA SUPREME COURT REJECTS PROPOSED LAWYER SPEECH CODE.

              I tell all. Shamelessly.

              Actually, I am a lot like Trump, who is totally, even recklessly transparent. That is a contrast to George W. Bush and Obama, who managed very secretive, buttoned-down White Houses.

              However, part of Stoicism is to reveal the painful truths and live with them.

  3. I think a modern translation of the Meditations is accessible to the modern reader. I find that people today have an easier time with modern translations of classic works from a foreign language than reading 18th or 19th Century English.

    Bravo for this work by the way.

    1. I dunno. Aurelius didn’t exactly write for posterity. In fact, Meditations was more a personal journal, I think.
      Seneca’s Moral Letters is a good read, and On Anger has some interesting stuff in it.

  4. Stoicism, puff… eat what you want and let the food fight it out inside you.

  5. Forced me to dig out my dusty Epictetus handbook and find the lines I underlined in 1966 (highlighters not having been invented quite yet, apparently.)

    “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and then your life will go well.”

    Once I finally figured out that there are some other bits you need to know beyond that for things to go really well, this pearl of wisdom has done its sobering duty.

    Now the tragedy of Marcus Aurelius is that a man can serve his country so very well, yet not be at all a “Father of his Country” type that promotes some national strength likely to endure even an hour beyond his death. Aurelius was also apparently mediocre as a father to his own son, judging by how Commodus turned out.

  6. Done, sold. Look forward to reading it. But what I really have been looking for among all this interest in Stoicism is its application to modern problems. The writings we have are so limited and Stocism as a system so practical, as opposed to dogmatic, that I wonder how useful it is other than as an ancient label.

    Any suggestions?

    1. Application of stoicism to modern problems is easy; there is no problem. Things just are the way they are, and when you accept and internalize that your anxiety will melt away. Also, and especially important, you won’t pester others with ideas of change or improvement. Were Job not a Christian, he would have been a stoic.

      From an architectonic perspective stocism is an excellent compliment to Libertarianism and unconstrained capitalism. In such a system the few will climb to the top and the many will be remain at the bottom (works with feudalism too!). The worry then is that the many will use the force of their numbers to demand change, which of course upsets the status quo. One solution is to give the many a philosophy that tells them to just deal with it, life just is the way it is and hardships are part of that life. If successful, your now docile “many” will go about their lives making pin-heads without complaining.


      1. Or tell them their reward will be in the after life.

      2. So, Stoicism distilled is the popular refrigerator magnet:
        1. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
        2. It’s all small stuff.

        Actually, that’s probably why my wife and I are still married after 43 years.

      3. By that logic Stoicism is an excellent “compliment [sic]” to 21st century Bolivarian socialism or the literal sh*thole that much of San Francisco has become thanks to its own brand of 21st century socialism.

      4. @Quantum – “Were Job not a Christian” This might be a bit pedantic, but most would agree Job wouldn’t have been a Christian, historically speaking. Just wanted to help clarify, for courtesy’s sake. We’re all here to help one another. It almost goes without saying… we’re all pro-human and pro-children, I would hope to think. No one is truly an enemy (even those on death row, as many would reason, objectively and/or subjectively).

      5. “Libertarianism and unconstrained capitalism. In such a system the few will climb to the top and the many will be remain at the bottom (works with feudalism too!).”

        This is almost as ignorant as calling Job a Christian.

    2. It is a consolation to the troubled spirit. At present our politics are akin to trying to navigate the Hindenburg at low altitude through a fireworks show punctuated by a gasoline cloudburst.

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