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Book Notes: “The Practicing Stoic” by Ward Farnsworth

Summary

The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth (2018) is a wonderful introduction to the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosophers. The Stoics wrote about a range of topics, but Farnsworth’s focus is their ethical teachings, the consideration of right and wrong behaviors and the meaning of the good life.

Human irrationality is a main concern of the Stoics. One goal of Stoicism is to tame the mind: “Understanding our own minds helps us become conscious of our misjudgments—a little more perceptive, a little more self-aware, a little less stupid.”

Cultivating an awareness about our judgments toward the external world is one way to tame the mind. From the Stoic viewpoint, people don’t react to external events, people react to their judgments about those events. For example, if somebody insults you, you might feel angry. This anger, in Stoic terms, is an opinion about an external event. You chose to feel anger in that moment. Alternatively, you could choose to feel something else, or—better yet—you could also choose indifference.

The preceding example highlights another important aspect of Stoic philosophy: the distinction between things that are in our control and things that are beyond our control. Externals are things that are beyond our control (like the unexpected insult). We cannot control the multitude of externals we must invariably face in our day-to-day existence, but we can control our opinions about them. Doing so requires a change of perspective. The French philosopher Montaigne captures the Stoic ideal neatly: “Not being able to govern events, I govern myself, and if they will not adapt to me, I adapt to them.” This is echoed by another popular quote (whose origin I’m unable to pin down): “Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.”

It’s impossible to cover the range of Stoic ideas in this summary, but Farnsworth is better suited to the task in his book. After introducing the core tenets of Stoicism in the initial chapter, Farnsworth uses the subsequent chapters to dive deeper into key Stoic ideas such as judgment, externals, desire, virtue, and adversity. Throughout the book, the author deftly interweaves his commentary alongside relevant excerpts from the “canonical” Stoic sources, Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (the ancient Stoics whose writings have survived mostly intact into the present). This approach works really well for the neophyte; the reader is introduced to a variety of Stoic ideas alongside veritable “highlight-reel” of primary sources such as Seneca’s Epistles, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations.

Having read The Practicing Stoic, my curiosity is sufficiently piqued; I’m ready to tackle the translated writings of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius in the not-too-distant future. If Farnsworth’s goal was to inspire new enthusiasm for ancient wisdom, mission accomplished.

Pros: This is an excellent introduction to Stoicism. Farnsworth demonstrates a skillful balance between his insightful modern-day commentary alongside source material from the ancient Stoic philosophers.

Cons: There are stretches that get monotonous on single sittings. This is not the kind of material that benefits from a swift read-through. It prefers (and rewards) slow, thoughtful, and repeated readings. The book could also benefit from a comprehensive index.

Verdict: 8/10


Highlights

Preface

  • Stoicism refers to a collection of ideas originally developed by a group of philosophers in Ancient Greece and Rome.

    • Stoic philosophy is not synonymous with the modern English meaning of the word, e.g. “suffering without complaint.”
  • Zeno of Citium (c. 334-c.262 BC) was the founder of Stoic thought.

  • Stoicism has survived to modern times through the writings of three Stoic philosophers. The book treats these as canonical sources:

    • Seneca (4 BC-65 AD, Roman): Most prolific Stoic writer whose work has survived.
    • Epictetus (50-135 AD, Greek): His writings are attributed to Arrian, a student.
    • Marcus Aurelius (120-180 AD, Roman): Emperor of the Roman Empire for 20 years.
  • Teachings from other Stoic philosophers have been transmitted through secondary observers and fragmentary source material.

  • Ethics: Rules about right and wrong behavior and how we treat others. Also includes questions about how to act and the meaning of a “good life.”

  • “Understanding our own minds helps us become conscious of our misjudgments—a little more perceptive, a little more self-aware, a little less stupid.”

Introduction

  • This section introduces the key ideas that are explored in each of the subsequent chapters:
  1. “We react to our judgments and opinions—to our thoughts about things, not to the things themselves.”

  2. “We should stake our well-being on what we can control and let go of attachment to what we cannot.”

  3. Since our thoughts and judgments create and mediate our experience, controlling those thoughts and judgments is entirely within our power (and will bring us freedom, calm, and possibly happiness).

    • Our inevitable mortality is beyond our control, but our attitudes towards death as well as day-to-day life are our own.
    • “Seek wisdom through adjustment of one’s point of view.” [Reminds me of the saying: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”]
  4. “Desires, fears, emotions, vanities...those states are shown to be the products of how we think and to mostly amount to mistakes...”

    • “We vex ourselves with beliefs.”
    • “Thinking better and harder about the workings of our minds can free us from many subtle insanities.”
  5. Stoics don’t seek our pain or hardship, but the practicing Stoic can turn these experience to good and not be broken by them. [Me: I am reminded of the Chinese Parable of the Man Who Lost his Horse ([link])]

  6. “Seeing the world clearly, understanding life rightly, and being free from the fictions that drive most people crazy—this they regard as the good life.”

  7. The pursuit of virtue is a key Stoic value. “Living virtuously means living by reason, and the Stoics regard reason as calling for honesty, kindness, humility, and devotion to the greater good.”

  8. “Stoicism is meant to be a practice, not a set of claims to admire.”

  9. Common criticisms of Stoicism (the author addresses these points in Chapter 13):

    • Stoicism eschews emotion, passion, and feeling.
    • Stoicism asks the impossible of its practitioners.
    • Practitioners, like Seneca, are hypocrites.

Chapter One: Judgment

  • People don’t react to external events. People react to their judgments about those events.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.47:

“If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.”

  • The Stoic model abstracts a mediation layer between an event and the response of the actor:

    • Traditional view: External event ==> Our reaction
    • Stoic view: External event ==> Our opinion of the event ==> Our reaction to our opinion
  • “We construct our experience of the world through our beliefs, opinions, and thinking about it...and they are up to us.”

    • Example: Someone insults me. The insult is meaningless apart from what I make of it. If it bothers me, it is because I care (a judgment). Should I care? Why do I care? Is the source someone I really care about? What if I decide not to care?
    • We can control the (interpreted) meaning and significance of much of the noise of life that surrounds us.
  • Changing ourselves is more easily done than changing the world.

    • This doesn’t mean things like pain aren’t real or don’t hurt. We do have the choice about whether we amplify that pain and make it more significant than it needs to be or not.
  • “Stoicism doesn’t care what our tastes are, and doesn’t call for reversal of our aversions and desires. It calls for detachment from them.”

  • Many of the judgments we employ in daily life are conventions—habits we don’t think about and are reflexive.

  • Epictetus, Discourses 3.3.18-19:

What is weeping and wailing? Opinion.
What is misfortune? Opinion.
What is discord, disagreement, blame, accusation, impiety, foolishness?
All these are opinions and nothing else.

  • Treating our judgment about something moves the locus of control as well as the locus of blame to ourselves: Blaming yourself gives you the responsibility to change rather than ceding it to something outside your control (which cannot be changed).
  • We have the agency, power and choice to choose our response.
  • “It is more normal to take for granted whatever ideas and opinions pass through our minds, living them out with no more scrutiny than we give to the air we breathe.”
  • “The goal of the Stoic, though, is not to empty the mind, but to clear it of foolishness and misjudgment...”

Chapter Two: Externals

  • Externals: Things that are beyond ourselves and outside our power/control. Examples: other people, fame, calamity.

    • Stoics regard externals with detachment: A refusal to worry or get worked up about things outside their control.
    • “Detachment also means not letting happiness depend on getting or avoiding externals—wealth, for example, or the good opinion of others.”
  • Preferences vs. attachments:

    • Stoics distinguish between the two. A Stoic might have a preference for an outcome or state, but might not get upset when that outcome doesn’t happen.
    • “An attachment is different because it makes your happiness depend on the object of it. It pushes and pulls you.”
  • Epictetus, Enchiridion 1:

There are things up to us and things not up to us. Things up to us are our opinions, desires, aversions, and, in short, whatever is our own doing. Things not up to us are our bodies, possessions, reputations, offices, or, in short, whatever is not our own doing.

  • Epictetus, Discourses 4.4.39:

There is only one road to happiness—let this rule be at hand morning, noon, and night: stay detached from things that are not up to you.

  • Montaigne, Of Presumption (1580):

Not being able to govern events, I govern myself, and if they will not adapt to me, I adapt to them.

  • Epictetus, Discourses 2.16.1:

Where is the good? In our choices. Where is the evil? In our choices. Where is neither of them? In those things we do not choose.

  • Two Stoic techniques for dealing with externals:

    1. Slow down your thinking. Don’t rush to judgment. When something happens, our tendency is to quickly assign a meaning to it. Is it good? Is it bad?

    2. Subtraction. See things as they are, not as we have been told they are (by others or ourselves).

      • View a subject in the most literal way possible.
      • Break a subject down into parts.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.13:

Whenever things appear too highly valued, we should lay them bare in our minds, perceive their cheapness, and strip off the prestige they have traditionally been assigned.

  • [Me: This reminds me of cognitive bias and the need to look for disconfirming evidence as much as confirming evidence when effectively evaluating something ([link]).]
  • “Detachment from externals should not be confused with withdrawal from the world...Stoicism calls for involvement in public life, not retreat from it. But in all circumstances one can draw lines between the decisions that are up to us and the ones that aren’t.”

Chapter Three: Perspective

  • Two Stoic strategies for dealing with the illusion of externals:

    1. Analytical: Use reason to deconstruct an external to see its true nature.
    2. Intuitive: View a problem from a different perspective to generate a different opinion on its importance or place in the grand scheme. For instance, view something as part of the bigger picture by adopting a longer time-frame.
  • “By seeing how small our affairs look in the larger scheme of things, the Stoic means to induce a felt sense of humility and attraction to virtue.”

  • “Our ultimate insignificance makes the case for living well in the present, for no other purpose survives.”

  • Seneca, Epistles 99.10:

Imagine the vast abyss of time, and think of the entire universe; then compare what we call a human lifetime to that immensity. You will see how tiny a thing it is that we wish for and seek to prolong.”

  • Seneca, Epistles 91.11-12:

All works of mortals are doomed to mortality. We live in the midst of things destined to die.

Chapter Four: Death

  • Death is an inevitable external that is out of our control.
  • “Overcoming the fear of death is considered by the Stoics to be one of the most important of all philosophical achievements, and the gain of an important liberty.”
  • Turn death into a positive: It is a defining feature of our existence. Use it to inform your daily life and as a source of perspective and inspiration.
  • Stoics use the meditation of death to “stimulate humility, fearlessness, moderation, and other virtues.”
  • Seneca, Epistles 101.15:

What matters is not how long you live, but how well; and often living well means that you cannot live long.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.23:

When Alexander of Macedon and his mule driver died, they came to the same thing: for either they were absorbed back into the same principles that produced them, or they were scattered alike among the atoms.

  • Seneca, Epistles, 23.10:

We must make it our aim to have already lived long enough.

Chapter Five: Desire

  • “Stoicism views most of our miseries as driven by the ways we relate to desires and fears about the future, and to pleasures and pains in the present.”

  • Our natural state is to be misled by desire. A few universal examples:

    • We desire what we cannot have.
    • The pursuit of a thing is more pleasurable than its attainment.
    • Possession and familiarity breed indifference and contempt.
    • We undervalue what we have and overvalue what we don’t have.
    • We compare what we have to others.
  • Seneca, Epistles 19.6:

Why wait until there is nothing left for you to crave? That time will never come. We say that there is a succession of causes from which fate is put together. There is likewise a succession of desires: one is born from the end of another.

  • Plutarch, On Love of Wealth (523c-d):

He who has more than enough and yet hungers for still more will find no remedy in gold or silver or horses and sheep and cattle, but in casting out the source of mischief and being purged. For his ailment is not poverty, but insatiability and avarice, arising from the presence in him of a false and unreflecting judgment...

  • Seneca, On Anger 3.31.1:

No man when he views the lot of others is content with his own. This is why we grow angry even at the gods, because some person is ahead of us, forgetting how many men there are behind us, and how huge a mass of envy follows at the back of him who envies but a few.

  • Seneca, Epistles 123.6:

And how much do we acquire simply because our neighbors have acquired such things, or because most men possess them!

  • Objects of desire are externals, and we can seek detachment from them. Alternatively, we can also perceive desire as a misjudgment and dismiss them as such.
  • Epictetus, Discourses 4.1.175:

Freedom is attained not by satisfying desires but by removing them.

  • Seneca, On Anger 3.31.3:

Are there many who surpass you? Consider how many more are behind than ahead of you. Do you ask me what is your greatest fault? Your bookkeeping is wrong. What you have paid out, you value highly; what you have received, low.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.27:

Don’t imagine having things that you don’t have. Rather, pick the best of the things that you do have and think of how much you would want them if you didn’t have them.

Chapter Six: Wealth and Pleasure

  • Attachment to wealth has predictable consequences: “Once we have money, we worry about keeping it, are anxious for more of it, and feel pain when it is lost.”

  • Stoicism aims for moderation. Moderation is a means for a healthy relationship with externals.

    • One can aim for wealth in a measured way without being overly aggressive in its attainment.
    • One can spend or accumulate wealth, but in a rational and thoughtful way.
    • One can seek wealth by being happy with less rather than more.
  • Stoics also derive pleasures from the mind: Wisdom and understanding are internals that aren’t contingent on external wealth. [Me: I can get behind this idea!]

  • Seneca, Epistles 17.11-12:

I will borrow from Epicurus: “The acquisition of riches has been, for many men, not an end of troubles but a change of them.”...It matters little whether you lay a sick man on a bed of wood or a bed of gold; wherever he be moved, he will carry his disease with him.

  • “Stoics view wealth not as an absolute state but as a favorable relationship between what one has and what one wants. Most people devote themselves to enlarging the first when they would do better to reduce the second.” (example of Stoic inversion)
  • Seneca, Epistles 62.3:

It is in the power of any man to despise all things, but of no man to possess all things. The shortest way to riches is to despise riches.

  • Similarly, being overly attached to desires is a form of poverty (in the Stoic view).
  • Seneca, Consolation to Helvia 11.5:

It is the mind that makes us rich. It goes with us into exile; and in the most untamed wilderness, when it has found all that the body needs to be sustained, it relishes the enjoyment of its many own goods.

Chapter Seven: What Others Think

  • Stoic contempt for conformity. Most of what we do is the result of convention (that we give little thought).

  • “Stoics regard the appetite for praise as one of the mainsprings of conformity in particular and human behavior in general.”

    • Stoicism encourages greater respect for our own opinions.
    • Praise and criticism are externals and beyond our control.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.18:

How much trouble he avoids by not looking to see what his neighbor does or thinks—by looking only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure. That part of the good man is not to peer into the character of others, but to run straight down the line without glancing to one side or the other.

  • “We practice things that will win praise; we should practice the art of not needing it.”
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.4:

I have often wondered how it is that, though every man loves himself most of all, he gives less weight to his own opinion of himself than to the opinion of others.

  • “Once you start to worry about what other people think or say, where does it stop? You have made yourself vulnerable to any and all.”
  • Epictetus, Enchiridion 33.9:

If you hear that someone has spoken ill of you, do not make excuses about what was said, but answer: “Evidently he didn’t know about my other faults, or he wouldn’t have spoken only of the ones he did.”

  • Seneca, On the Constancy of the Wise Man 16.3:

They make jokes about my bald head, my weak eyes, my thin legs, my height. How is it an insult to be told what is obvious?

  • Seneca, on the Constancy of the Wise Man 16.3:

Do I deserve these things that happen to me? If I deserve them, there is no insult; it is justice. If I don’t deserve them, let the one who does the injustice blush.

Chapter Eight: Valuation

  • “Satisfaction can better be found by making peace with what we have than by chasing what we don’t and by paying attention the present rather than by dwelling on the past and future.”
  • People are generally unconscious of the value of time: “We give it away lightly, and waste it with less alarm than we waste money, thought time is more valuable in the end.”
  • Another error in valuation: We see flaws in others (external) but fail to see those in ourselves (internal). “We condemn in others precisely what we detest but cannot see in ourselves; we project our faults onto them.”
  • Seneca, Epistles 101.8-9:

Nothing is more pathetic than worry about the outcome of future events...those who worry about the future are failing to profit from the present.”

  • This is not to say we shouldn’t plan for the future. It means that we should make decisions within our control, but not worry about the externals outside our control.
  • Seneca, Epistles 78.14:

Two things we must therefore root out: fear of distress in the future and the memory of distress in the past. The one concerns me no longer. The other concerns me not yet.

  • Seneca, On the Shortness of Life 3.1:

Men are tight-fisted in guarding their fortunes, but extravagant when it comes to wasting time—the one thing about which it is right to be greedy.

  • Seneca, On the Shortness of Life 8.3:

If each of us could have the number of our future years set before us, as we can with the years that have passed, how alarmed we would be, and how sparing of them, if we saw only a few remaining! And while it is easy to manage something when the amount you have is known, even if it is small, you must guard what you have more carefully if you don’t know when it may give out.

  • “Stoicism calls for attention to the invisible and overlooked half of an equation.”

    • Example: Wealth gained not by having money but being indifferent to it.
    • Example: Destitution created by giving away our time with less concern than our money or property.
  • Epictetus, Discourses 4.9.1-2:

Whenever you see another man holding office, set against this the fact that you have no need to hold office. If someone else is wealthy, see what you have instead. For if you have nothing instead, you are miserable; while if in place of wealth you have no need of wealth, know that you possess something more than he does, and much greater in value.

  • Seneca, Epistles 104.34:

If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else.

Chapter Nine: Emotion

  • “It helps to view the Stoics not as against feeling or emotion but as in favor of seeing the world accurately, living by reason, and staying detached from externals. Feelings and emotions are unwanted to the extent that they interfere with those aims.”

    • Example: If you are angry, you probably aren’t thinking clearly. Emotions blind us to reason.
  • Seneca, Epistles 98.6:

The fear of losing a thing is as bad as regret at having lost it.

  • Fear is an opinion about the future.
  • Seneca, On Anger 1.18.2:

Reason considers nothing but the question at issue; anger is moved by trifling things that lie outside the case.

  • Per Seneca: Anger is frequently a (false) opinion that we have been wronged.
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.18:

It is not what men do that disturbs us (for those acts are matters of their own control and reasoning), but our opinions of what they do. Take away those opinions—dismiss your judgment that this is something terrible—and your anger goes away as well.

  • Seneca, On Anger 2.29.1:

The best corrective of anger lies in delay. Ask this concession from anger at the outset, not in order that it may pardon, but in order that it may judge. Its first assaults are heavy; it will leave off if it waits. And do not try to destroy it all at once; attacked piecemeal, it will be conquered completely.

Chapter Ten: Adversity

  • “Accept reversal [i.e. adversity or misfortune] without shock and make it grist for the creation of greater things.”
  • Stoics seek wisdom, value, and silver linings in whatever happens—seek out the opportunities embedded in adversity.
  • “We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how to react to it. So when a setback comes, Stoics interpret it as constructively as possible...”
  • Don’t assume that you can predict future events accurately. Be patient in your assessment of whether it bodes ill or well in the grander scheme of things.
  • Seneca, Epistles 67.4:

I am not so mad as to want to be ill; but if I must be ill, my hope is that I do nothing immoderate or weak. It is not hardships that are desirable, but the courage by which to endure them.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.20:

Suppose someone in the ring has scratched you with his fingernails and butt you with his head, thus causing you some hurt. We don’t mark him down as bad, we don’t take offense, we don’t suspect him later of plotting against us. We are merely on our guard—not treating him as an enemy or with suspicion, but with friendly avoidance. Something like this should be the rule in other parts of life.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.35:

A healthy eye should see all there is to see, not say “I want to [only] see green things”—for that is a sign that the eyes are diseased. And healthy hearing and a healthy sense of smell should be ready for all that there is to be heard and smelled...So too, a healthy mind should be ready for whatever may come to pass.

  • Human existence is an unpredictable mixture of “good” and “bad” outcomes. Stoics accept things that are inherent to this existence and don’t waste time complaining about them.
  • Epictetus, Enchiridion 5:

It is the act of an ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is complete to blame neither another nor himself.

  • Montaigne, Of Experience (1580):

It is unjust to complain that what may happen to anyone has happened to someone.

  • Epictetus, Enchiridion 8 [reminds me of normative vs. positive thinking]:

Don’t insist that what happens should happen as you wish; wish that things happen as they actually happen. Then your life will go well.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20 [this must have inspired Ryan Holliday’s The Obstacle is the Way]:

The mind turns around every hindrance to its activity and converts it to further its purpose. The impediment to action becomes part of the action; the obstacle in our way becomes the way forward.

  • Seneca, On Providence 5.10:

Fire tests gold, misfortune [tests] brave men.

  • Johnson, The Adventurer No.111 (1753):

He whose life has passed without a contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit, can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence...

  • Epictetus, Discourses 1.24.1-2:

It is the crisis that reveals the man. So when it arrives, remember that God, like a wrestling coach, has put you up against a rough young antagonist. Why, you ask? So that you can be an Olympic champion; for this cannot be achieved without sweat.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.49:

“How unfortunate I am, that this has happened to me!” Not at all—rather, “How fortunate I am, that although this has happened to me I am still unhurt, neither broken by the present nor dreading what is to come.”

Chapter Eleven: Virtue

  • Reason is the unique gift and distinguishing feature of humans.
  • Virtue is the outcome of properly used reason.
  • “Stoics regard virtue as sufficient to produce happiness on all occasions, and also as necessary for it.”
  • Eudaimonia: Stoic idea of well-being and the good life.
  • Seneca, Epistles 66.32:

Virtue is nothing else than right reason.

  • Epictetus, Discourses 1.4.3:

If virtue promises good fortune, peace of mind, and happiness, certainly also the progress toward virtue is progress toward each of these things.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.1.2:

Kindness is invincible, if it is genuine and not insincere or put on as an act.

  • Seneca, On Leisure 3.5:

It is of course required of a man that he should benefit his fellow-men—many if he can; if not, a few; if not a few, those who are nearest; if not these, himself. For when he renders himself useful to others, he engages in public affairs.

Chapter Twelve: Learning

  • Stoicism is a practical philosophy: It’s meant to be implemented in daily life rather than viewed from afar as an abstract theory.
  • “Progress in the philosophy is not made by knowing its precepts. It is made by assimilating them, and by thinking and acting accordingly.”
  • Seneca, On Anger 3.36.1-3:

The mind should be summoned every day to render an accounting. Sextius used to do this. At the end of the day, when he had withdrawn to his nightly rest, he would interrogate his own mind: “Which of your wrongs did you correct today? Which fault did you resists? In what way are you better?...Is there anything finer than this habit of searching through the entire day?

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1:

Begin the morning by saying to yourself: today I will meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, and the arrogant; with the deceitful, the envious, and the unsocial. All these things result from their not knowing what is good and what is evil...I cannot be injured by any of them, because no one can involve me in anything ugly except myself. And how can I be angry with my kin, or hateful towards them?

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.16:

The character of those things you often think about will be the character of your understanding, for the mind is dyed by its thoughts.

  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.3:

They seek out retreats for themselves—places in the country, seashores, the mountains—and you too are accustomed to crave such things especially. All this is utterly amateurish, since it is possible to retreat into oneself any time you like.

  • Seneca, Epistles 104.20-21:

Greed will cling to you so long as you are living with someone greedy and low; so will a swelled head, so long as you keep company with someone arrogant. You’ll never be free of cruelty if you’re sharing a tent with an executioner. The fellowship of adulterers will inflame your own lusts. If you want to be stripped of your vices, you must withdraw far from vicious exemplars. The greedy man, the seducer, the cruel one, the cheat—all are capable of much harm, if they should be anywhere near you—are inside you.

Chapter Thirteen: Stoicism and Its Critics

  • Criticism: Stoics are unfeeling.

    • Stoics aren’t unfeeling, but aim to control and understand their emotions.
    • Feelings may interfere with reason. A Stoic goal is to counteract this.
    • Moderation is one strategy for mitigating the negative effects of feelings.
    • Stoic goal is seeing the world accurately: feelings may induce attachments and false opinions about the world.
  • Criticism: Stoicism’s goals are impossible.

    • Practices are still valuable even if the end-goal is unattainable (or difficult to attain).
    • The Stoics are enmeshed in progress toward the goal. Incremental improvement is viewed as a virtuous endeavor.
    • Seneca: “You will see that we’re doing pretty well if we’re not among the worst.”
  • Criticism: Stoics (like Seneca) are hypocrites.

    • Seneca draws most criticism, but the historical record is spotty. The best-preserved account of Seneca comes from a bitter enemy, Publius Sullius Rufus.
    • “All comments about Seneca’s motives, inner life, and private conduct should be accompanied by an asterisk...”
    • There is a difference between preference and detachment. Some critics conflate the two.
    • “If Stoics seek great things but get only part way there, the discrepancy should not cause them to be thought of as hypocrites. They aimed high, fell short, and did well.”


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