The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Introducing The Practicing Stoic

A new book you might like about Stoic philosophy.


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.