The Pleasures of Stoicism


Stoicism is also an excellent antidote to the frustrations of our current cultural moment, in which the prevailing sensibilities tend to be about as un-Stoic as you can get. I've written a book about the subject (reviews here, or buy it here). Eugene kindly invited me to blog about it this week. Earlier posts talked about the purpose of the book, summarized the most practical teachings of the Stoics, discussed some misconceptions about the philosophy, and considered the Stoic view on feeling and emotion. Today I'll finish by distinguishing between some of the obvious and less obvious ways the Stoics remain interesting.

The obvious: Stoicism amounts in large part to the study of human irrationality and strategies for overcoming it. Perfect Stoicism is unheard of, but many who study the philosophy find that it helps them toward wisdom and equanimity in dealing with the challenges of life. The Stoics' suggested ways of thinking about money, adversity, emotion, etc. are all still profound and useful.

The less obvious benefits are other things one can learn about by studying the Stoics:

Rhetoric. The best of the surviving Stoics are rhetorically ingenious. (Seneca's father—Seneca the Elder—was a famous rhetoric teacher.) The Stoics use two general kinds of strategies to persuade their readers, which we might describe as analytical and intuitive. They are masters of both.

The analytical side consists of rational arguments—using reason and evidence to show the futility of material attachments, the needlessness of various fears, and so on. The intuitive approach consists of looking at life from perspectives that are meant to have effects similar to those produced by the arguments, but without the arguments. One just sees things from a new angle and has a different reaction to them.

Equivalently, we might say the Stoics seek to persuade with words and with pictures. They weave them together in ways that are masterly and still compelling all these years later, and from which there is much to learn for anyone interested in persuasion.

Psychology. The Stoics wrote at a time when philosophy and psychology were not separate disciplines. Their psychological acumen is much of what makes them so enduring. They were brilliant students of human nature and its management.

The Stoics anticipated, in particular, many ideas now associated with cognitive psychology. They were close students, for example, of what modern psychologists sometimes call adaptation: in simple terms, the tendency to become used to things, and to stop noticing them, and all that follows from this. Readers who enjoyed Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, and other books in that genre, will also find much in that vein to think about in the writings of the Stoics (at least as they are presented in The Practicing Stoic).

History. Reading the Stoics provides glimpses into fascinating corners of Roman history. It also improves one's appreciation of some later intellectual history. Stoicism was among the most powerful philosophical movements of classical times. It had an immense influence on later Western thought. Once you are familiar with what the Stoics wrote, you will hear echoes of it—sometimes more than echoes—in countless later writers: Shakespeare, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, Emerson, Nietzsche, and many others. All of those writers appear at one point or another in The Practicing Stoic, some of them often.

I'm very grateful to Eugene and the rest of the regulars here for having me as a guest this week. I hope some of you will give the book a try and see if you agree about the lasting interest and value of what the Stoics had to say. As I mentioned on Monday, a number of my other projects were introduced here in prior years—The Legal Analyst (in which Eugene mostly wrote one of the chapters), a book on the law of restitution, a book about rhetoric, another on metaphor (really a branch of rhetoric), and a couple of books on chess (also readable here). I've heard afterwards from readers of this blog, and sometimes have acquired pen pals I enjoy to this day. Many thanks.

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  1. I’m one of those who thought stoic in the modern pop sense was all there was to that word. Did not know there was a Stoic word with a historical sense. I’ve ordered the book. I am mostly curious about what I will think of it when done, and whether I will be able to remember what I thought the word meant a week ago.

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  3. Thank you professor Farnsworth for your lovely book. I can’t wait until mine arrives in the mail.

    Hope this is not out of place, but it reminds me of my late Grandpa’s favorite hymn. If course, the lyrics can be read from a naturalist perspective as well.

    The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.
    Leo Tolstoy

  4. Professor Farnswarth,

    How do you, or do you, reconcile or compare the Stoic idea of treating each situation as if one had seen it all before, so one doesn’t react in surprise, with the Buddhist idea of “beginner’s mind,” the idea that one should treat each situation as if one had never seen it before, and not assume that one understands it?

    Is one idea for the emotions, the other for the mind? Can one do both simultaneously?

    It does seem that sometimes people with the most creative intellects aren not necessarily the most emotionally mature, and vice versa. Could this be related?

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