Book Review - The Practicing Stoic
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Introduction

Stoicism, according to Worknik [1], is defined as:

Indifference to pleasure or pain; impassiveness. The doctrines or philosophy of the Stoics.

I, really believe this definition is not entirely correct. I also believe the above definition follows closer to Nihilism, which Stoicism is not. Nihilism is defined as:

Philosophy The doctrine that nothing actually exists or that existence or values are meaningless. [2]

To better describe Stoicism, I would like to relate it to Zen, which I’m going to give a definition below:

a state of calm attentiveness in which one’s actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort [3]

The above definition is even a slightly absurd one, and to explain why, let me give a bit of personal history. I’ve been studying Soto Zen Buddhism for about 20 or so years, and while Stoicism is a relatively new venture, I find them to be very close to each other in terms of philosophy. What do they share?

  1. Living in the Moment - Where the definition of Stoicism above gets incorrect, and Zen misses the mark, is that the past is the past. Little we can do now will solve for the past. Furthermore, events in the future are not certain to unfold as we think. For example, think back about times when you were concerned about some event. How many of those unfolded exactly as you anticipated? As a collective, we only need to look at COVID to know how uncertain the future is.
  2. We have little control over others - This does not mean indifference toward what’s going on around us. What this means is that we can try to shape the world as we desire, but to realize that we have very little direct control over what happens. We have only a few things we can really control, being our reaction toward events, and how we think about them. So the idea is, why base our happiness off of the components we can’t directly control. For example, you can do your best at your job at work, but you can’t directly control the perception your boss has over your work, or your coworker’s opinions over it.
  3. That self study is effective to have a “good life” - In Zen, the whole point of sitting and facing a wall is so that we practice being in the moment. It’s not a detachment from the world, but a total immersion in the very moment. In Stoicism, this is more academic - but they study and improve one’s reactions to situations, and how to be better. Enlightenment (in Zen) in my view is similar to the Good Life (in Stoicism)
  4. Disengaging from the world isn’t a good thing - In Zen, there’s a large focus on the sangha, which stands for community. We’re not encouraged to study totally alone, or to disengage from the world as a whole. In Stoicism, there’s a large focus in engaging in public affairs - in other words, to engage with society. Both philosophies focus also on community service.

When I went about starting this page, I never intended to go this deep into the philosophical similarities between the two philosophies, but was hoping that the definitions would be at least reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, neither are, and I believe I’ll be writing considerably more on these in the future. I do feel that an underlying understanding of both of these will help with the review, though, so lets get started on that.

Short Review

This book [4] was nothing short of fantastic, and I’d rate it a good 8.5/10.

  • The Good
    • Pulling quotes from what various philosophers said is great. Giving direct references back to where to read more of the context is helpful.
    • Many philosophers covered.
    • Grouping the book by theme (e.g. externals, judgment, etc.) is a great idea. So we can see what different philosophers said about a given topic.
  • The Bad
    • The only thing is that the context is missing in some of the quotes. There’s also a lot of interpretation off the author for those sections. For a book that needs to be approachable to the layman, this is a necessity.

I believe this is a great introductory book for people wanting to learn what Stoicism really is.

Long Review

The Practicing Stoic [4] is a book written by Wars Farnsworth, who I believe, is a very gifted writer. If you read the underlying Stoic literate (such as from Loeb), they’re group by lectures. These lectures may be over more than one topic, and there’s a lot of context in those lectures. But, Seneca himself, has 10 volumes (and I own most of them). Others may have less volumes, but we’re still talking about a lot to go through. This book takes a different, and unique, approach for communicating the concepts of Stoicism to the world. It breaks stoicism into themes. Those themes, and summary, are:

Theme Summary
Judgment (1) We don’t react to events, but to our judgments about those events. And, we’re in control over that.
Externals (2) Externals (things we don’t have direct control over), are things we shouldn’t hinge our happiness off of.
Perspective (3) Understanding that we aren’t as important as we think we are (ego deflating), and our problems are likely not as big as we think at first.
Death (4) That life is short, not to waste it, and that death is a part of change and not to be feared.
Desire (5) That desires are abundant, and that our desires change. To let desires go.
Wealth and Pleasure (6) That wealth is a form of desire. The desire to attain it, the desire to keep it, the desire for more. Pleasure is okay, if managed.
What Others Think (7) To tame the need for acceptance, praise, and the like. And to realize that these concerns are external, so we have little control.
Valuation (8) The past, present, and future. What we really have, the present.
Emotion (9) Discussions on all types of emotion (sadness, anger, happiness, etc.) and reinforcing a lot of it is our judgment of an external causes us to feel a certain way.
Adversity (10) That adversity is a natural part of life. Not just with people, but what life throws at us. Not to fear and run away, but not look for it, either.
Virtue (11) That virtue is necessary to practice. This includes right action, helping others, etc.
Learning (12) That self-learning and growth is important.
   

There’s also a chapter on the criticisms surrounding Stoicism toward the end. It highlights that there are no perfect Stoics out there, and that while the goals are lofty and unlikely to be adhered to entirely. Despite all this, we’re in a better place when we try.

The Practicing Stoic [4] is a great book. It really hit me when I read it, largely because the philosophy in Zen is very very close to Stoicism. The ideas of interdependence, focusing on the present, and so on made this a very easy “pill to swallow” as I was reading it.

I do not feel this book is the best in isolation, though. The underlying texts and translations are incredibly useful, and that’s how I now use this book. I look at a quote, then follow it to the source and read it there.

That said, I do believe this is a great book for really anyone. There’s no religious tint to any of this, so it fits well with both religious and non-religious individuals. It fits better than Zen for many, because some people have a hard time with the ritual aspects of Zen (given bowing, chanting, etc.) This book communicates similar concepts in a non-religious way.

This book is available on Amazon, and as an Audible book. I can’t recommend the audible book without having the physical book too. I have both, and the references presented in the book are useful to look up.

References

David Thole

David Thole
Enterprise Data Architect, Developer, Instructor. Reads/studies a lot and enjoys all things technology

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Published on January 22, 2022