15 min read ⌚
Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living
Want to live a better life?
Well, Massimo Pigliucci is too.
And he’s interested in teaching you one and one thing only:
Who Should Read “How to Be a Stoic”? And Why?
How to Be a Stoic is a book which everyone who thinks that life is slipping out of his/her control should read.
Though, essentially, a philosophical book, it is one which deals with practical wisdom primarily, and, thus, abounds with many real-world examples (some of which taken straight from Pigliucci’s life) which demonstrate how the philosophy of Stoicism should be applied in practice.
And to paraphrase Marx – enough with philosophers trying to interpret our lives in various ways; the point is to change them.
Well, that’s this book’s very objective.
About Massimo Pigliucci
Massimo Pigliucci is a philosopher of science and evolutionary biologist by trade, and secular humanist, scientific skeptic and Stoic by beliefs.
Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College, Pigliucci is primarily known for his outspoken views regarding pseudoscience and creationism, especially through his Rationally Speaking Podcast.
A regular writer for Skeptical Inquirer, long-time blogger at Rationally Speaking, and author of numerous books, Pigliucci is one of the most famous modern Stoics today.
Find out more at https://massimopigliucci.wordpress.com/.
“How to Be a Stoic PDF Summary”
Stoicism 101: A Very Basic Introduction
The Unstraightforward Path
“In every culture we know of, whether it be secular or religious, ethnically diverse or not,” writes Massimo Pigliucci at the beginning of How to Be a Stoic, “the question of how to live is central.”
And the question of how to live is always more than a simple one, encompassing at least three more: “How should we handle life’s challenges and vicissitudes? How should we conduct ourselves in the world and treat others? And the ultimate question: how do we best prepare for the final test of our character, the moment when we die?”
As far as Pigliucci is concerned, the philosophy that gives the best answer to these questions is Stoicism.
However, Stoicism is not all about keeping a stiff upper lip and suppressing your emotions, aka being a modern (or, to be more exact, an old-fashioned) Mr. Spock.
In fact, it is the other way around:
Stoicism is not about suppressing or hiding emotion – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is also about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions. As I explain in this book, in practice Stoicism involves a dynamic combination of reflecting on theoretical precepts, reading inspirational texts, and engaging in meditation, mindfulness, and other spiritual exercises.
Pigliucci’s book, however, isn’t interested in merely dispelling these myths and unearthing other common misconceptions.
It is, on the contrary, a practical one, a book interested in teaching you how you can live a better life.
A Road Map to the Journey
But, before that – says Pigliucci – a little road map of the journey, because it is always good to know where you’re going and where you shouldn’t go, and understand the context for all things you’d be experiencing during the journey.
That’s why, in the second chapter of How to Be a Stoic, Pigliucci takes a closer look at the history of Stoicism.
Here it is summarized.
So, the philosophy began around the year 300 BC with a guy named Zeno, who picked up most of his beliefs and understandings of the world from a philosopher named Crates, after surviving a shipwreck.
Now, Zeno taught his students at the Stoa Poikile – or “The Painted Porch” (a public place in the center of the city) – and this is why his philosophy and its followers were subsequently known as Stoicism and Stoics.
For the next century and a half, Stoicism was just one of the many philosophical schools interested in the practical application of philosophy (the other being the Peripatetics, the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Cyrenaics, the Academics, the Skeptics), but then in 155 BC, something very important happened.
Namely, the heads of the Stoa at the time (Diogenes of Babylon), the Academy, and the Peripatetic school were all chosen as ambassadors to represent Athens in political negotiations with the Roman Empire.
In time, Rome did conquer Athens in military manners, but politically and philosophically, this visit changed Rome forever.
The visit itself was enough to start the period of the Middle Stoa which, after Rome became the largest empire ever seen, evolved in the Late Stoa, represented by the four best-known Stoics: Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
With the advent of Christianity, Stoicism was basically dead for millennia; fortunately, modern authors (such as Pigliucci) have resurrected it from its ashes.
Part I. The Discipline of Desire: What It Is Proper to Want or Not to Want
The three parts of Pigliucci’s book consist of four chapters each.
The first one covers the basics as far as disciplining the desire is concerned: the dichotomy of control (“Chapter 3: Some Things Are in Our Power, Others Are Not”), living according to nature (that’s the title of Chapter 4), choosing virtue over comfort and wealth (“Chapter 5: Playing Ball with Socrates”), and the existence of God (“Chapter 6: God or Atoms?”).
The Stoic Rule of Thumb: Dichotomy of Control
This is the central tenet of the philosophy of Stoicism and is not at all surprising that Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic begins with Epictetus’ formulation of it.
Here’s another one, quoted by Pigliucci:
Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.
This is the great rule-of-thumb when it comes to making ethical decisions the Stoic way: just ask yourself what you can control and what you cannot.
For example, you can’t control the weather, and no matter how much you want to play soccer you’re your friends, you can’t make it “unrain.”
What you can do, however, is switch to another game which includes your friends. So, what’s it gonna be: anger and no soccer or a touch of bargained joy and a game of monopoly?
Yeah, we thought so too.
But this is applicable on many other occasions.
Just take Pigliucci himself.
He wasn’t happy with his body a while ago, so instead of wallowing in the mire, one day, he asked Epictetus what to do, and decided to do what he can do: eat less and healthier, exercise more regularly, and drop the unhealthy habits.
Well, he achieved a better physique.
However, he didn’t get exactly the body he wanted to (a slim, muscular one), because, well, genes.
And that he accepted.
After all, he didn’t have any other choice.
Do What You Can Do with What You’re Given
Now, let us go even further than the example above – with another one, straight from the life of none other than Socrates.
As you know full well – not in the least because we’ve summarized two relevant books on the subject (Plato’s Euthyphro and Apology) – Socrates was not only tried for his teachings by the Athenian court but was also judged guilty in the end.
However, because he was well loved by quite a few guys with good connections – and because his prison guards were not unlike the prison guards of today (aka, bribable) – Socrates had an easy opportunity to escape just a day before his death sentence.
However, as we learn from Plato’s Crito (remind us to summarize that one as well), Socrates chose not to.
Nothing matters more than integrity – not friends, family, children, or even one’s own life.
In other words, Socrates knew that it was his moral duty to accept the law even when it is patently misused, “because we don’t get to change the rules when they happen not to suit us.”
He spent his whole life telling others that they must adhere to the law no matter what – and he should be the first one not allowed to be exempt from this rule.
Just like Socrates, we’re given with a certain amount of marbles; we can try to multiply them or keep them and use them till they run out. But we cannot change the fact that there are marbles in the game.
Pigliucci realized this himself after hearing that his bank is dealing with some shady businesses; even though, if it is up to him, there should be no banks whatsoever, that’s not something that he can change.
The only thing he could do, however, was to switch banks.
Part II. The Discipline of Action: How to Behave in The World
The four chapters in Part II of How to Be a Stoic deal with character and virtue (“Chapter 7: It’s All About Character (and Virtue)”), evil and ignorance (“Chapter 8: A Very Crucial Word”), role models (“Chapter 9: The Role of Role Models”) and disability and mental illness (the title of Chapter 10).
The Nature of Virtue Is Fourfold
As Pigliucci informs us, “the Stoics adopted Socrates’s classification of four aspects of virtue, which they thought of as four tightly interlinked character traits: (practical) wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.”
The most important among this is, of course, the first one: (practical) wisdom. And there’s a pretty simple reason for this: it is the mechanism which allows you to practice the dichotomy of control, making humans the only species known capable of doing this.
Put simply, it is your wisdom and intellect which bring happiness, because, as many examples show, you can be happy regardless of your conditions.
Though courage can be understood as a physical trait, the Stoics meant a more ethical category, for example, the ability to act well under challenging circumstances (such as, say, the unbreakable Louie Zamperini).
Temperance is what makes it possible for us to “control our desires and actions so that we don’t yield to excesses,” the archenemy of eudaimonia (aka, the ethically good life).
Finally, justice “refers not to an abstract theory of how society should be run, but rather to the practice of treating other human beings with dignity and fairness.”
Role Models Are Not a Bad Thing
This is, perhaps, the strangest aspect of Stoic philosophy: most sociologists and educators today say that you shouldn’t have role models because they might hinder your development as a unique human being.
However, having a role model is basically like always having a name to fill the blank in the all-important ethical question: “What would ______________ if he were in my position?”
For Seneca, for example, the guy most suited to fill in the blank was none other than Marcus Cato, known as Cato the Younger.
A stubborn statesman immune to bribes, to Seneca, Cato was an embodiment of the virtuous life.
When he was a military commander, Cato slept and ate alongside his soldiers who, expectedly, loved him because of this. When he was a tax collector for Cyprus, he dutifully collected taxes and didn’t use the opportunity to enrich himself.
When Caesar attempted to seize control, Cato fought him to defend the Republic; and when he lost, he decided to commit suicide rather than be captured.
On top of it, his suicide (piercing his stomach with a dagger) didn’t pan out perfectly, so Cato’s shriek alarmed the servants and the physicians.
“The physician went to him,” informs us Plutarch, “and would have put in his bowels, which were not pierced, and sewed up the wound; but Cato, recovering himself, and understanding the intention, thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired.”
Now, that’s gory.
It’s also incredibly demanding, courageous and ethically almost otherworldly.
Of course, most people never have to face situations such as these, but having Cato as a role model helps throughout.
After all, standing up to your boss doesn’t look like something that demanding in view of Cato’s suicide, does it?
Part III. The Discipline of Assent: How to React to Situations
Speaking of death and suicide, the final part of Pigliucci’s book begins with an exploration of it (Chapter 11), before analyzing how to deal with anger, anxiety, and loneliness (Chapter 12) and moving on to topics such as love and friendship (Chapter 13) and practical spiritual exercises (the final, Chapter 14).
Dying Is a Part of Life
As you can see from the example of Cato – and Seneca using him as a role model – the ancient Stoics were very concerned with death.
Actually, writes Pigliucci, “’concerned’ is precisely the wrong word. They were aware of death and of the importance that human beings attach to it, but they developed a very unusual and empowering view of it.”
And you can sense a lot of it from this passage taken straight from Epictetus’ Discourses (II.6):
Why does an as of wheat grow? Is it not that it may ripen in the sun? And if it is ripened is it not that it may be reaped, for it is not a thing apart? If it had feelings then, ought it to pray never to be reaped at any time? But this is a curse upon wheat – to pray that it should never be reaped. In like manner know that you are cursing men when you pray for them not to die: it is like a prayer not to be ripened, not to be reaped. But we men, being creatures whose fate it is to be reaped, are also made aware of this very fact, that we are destined for reaping, and so we are angry; for we do not know who we are, nor have we studied human things as those who are skilled in horses study the concerns of horses.
In other words, dying is part of life and, no matter what you do (unless you’re Aubrey de Grey, that is), you, and all the people you know, will one day die.
Accept that and fill the rest of your life with simple pleasures; because no matter how angry or stressed you are about death – it will happen.
So, why worries?
There Are Friends… and Friends
Unlike us who most of the time distinguish between friends and enemies, the Greek – from Aristotle onward – distinguished between at least three types of friendships: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and friendship of the good.
A friendship of utility is – to quote Pigliucci – “what we nowadays would call an acquaintance based on reciprocal advantage.” Think of your favorite hairdresser as a good example: it’s not like you call him/her once or twice a week, but it’s not like you don’t enjoy visiting him/her either.
A friendship of pleasure is once again based on a reciprocal relationship, but this time it is not utilitarian: the commodity which binds these friendships together is pleasure. The guys you play soccer with serve as a good example: most of them you only call when you arrange a game. And they come – because they enjoy playing soccer just like you do.
Finally, a friendship of the good, “that rare phenomenon when two people enjoy each other for their own sake because they find in each other an affinity of character that does not require externalities like a business exchange or a hobby.”
Now, as far as the Stoics were concerned, the only friendships worth pursuing are the last ones.
It doesn’t mean that the other two don’t matter (on the contrary, in fact), but they are not about the people as much as they are about the commodities. Go bald or start playing basketball, and they’ll break up.
The real friends, however, remain until the very end. They are not the guys or girls you talk to about celebrities or sex scandals, but the ones you tell your most naïve dreams and worst nightmares.
Do you have someone like that in your life?
Hold onto them.
That’s what Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius advise.
Key Lessons from “How to Be a Stoic”
1. The Serenity Prayer Is Stoicism 101
2. Learn How to Play Ball with Socrates
3. Raging or Not, You’ll Die Either Way: Make the Most of Your Life
The Serenity Prayer Is Stoicism 101
Pigliucci happened upon it for the first time in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but you probably know it from every second movie or TV show: the Serenity Prayer.
It goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,/ Courage to change the things I can,/ And wisdom to know the difference.”
In this modern form, the prayer was canonized by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but you can find it among ancient Judaist and Buddhist scholars as well.
The most ancient version, however, is probably found in Epictetus’ Enchiridion (or Handbook), right at the beginning.
It forms the basis of Stoic philosophy, advising you to worry only about the things you can change, and let the others be because you can’t change them.
Learn How to Play Ball with Socrates
Now Epictetus – though he started out as a slave – was a fairly smart guy. Unsurprisingly, he often mentioned another smart guy in his writings, his role model, Socrates.
Socrates, he wrote at one place, “was like one playing at ball. What then was the ball that he played with? Life, imprisonment, exile, taking poison, being deprived of his wife, leaving his children orphans. These were the things he played with, but none the less he played and tossed the ball with balance.”
“So,” he concluded, “we ought to play the game, so to speak, with all possible care and skill, but treat the ball itself as indifferent.”
Pigliucci has an excellent explanation.
The point of the analogy is that the ball itself, though central to the game and apparently the focus of everyone’s attention, is actually indifferent – meaning that it could take a variety of colors and shapes, be made of different materials, or be of different sizes, but it isn’t valuable in itself. The ball is only a means to an end and isn’t the important thing – it is what one does with the ball that defines the game, how well it is played, and who wins or loses. Indeed, a good player does not have rigid ideas about how to handle the ball, when or to whom to pass it, and so on. The best players are those who display fantasia (creativity), who are imaginative about what they do on the field, and who find new ways to turn difficult situations to their favor, making the obstacle the way, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius. Moreover, the hallmark of an admirable player isn’t that he wins games, but that he plays his best regardless of the final outcome, which, after all, is not under his control.
Raging or Not, You’ll Die Either Way: Make the Most of Your Life
“I must die, must I?” wrote Epictetus at the beginning of his Discourses. “If at once, then I am dying: if soon, I dine now, as it is time for dinner, and afterward when the time comes, I will die.”
May you always boast of this kind of serenity before death.
It is, to say the least, admirable.
But, once you think about it, it is also reasonable as well.
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“How to Be a Stoic Quotes”One of the first lessons from Stoicism, then, is to focus our attention and efforts where we have the most power and then let the universe run as it will. This will save us both a lot of energy and a lot of worry. Click To Tweet Better to endure pain in an honorable manner than to seek joy in a shameful one. Click To Tweet Wherever I go, there is the sun, there is the moon, there are the stars, dreams, auguries, conversation with the gods. (Epictetus) Click To Tweet For if one shows this, a man will retire from his error of himself; but as long as you do not succeed in showing this, you need not wonder if he persists in his error, for he acts because he has an impression that he is right. (Epictetus) Click To Tweet Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day—How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Even though we’re are aware that books such as William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life or Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic have brought Stoicism even closer to the public, we honestly feel that there’s no better introduction to the philosophy than How to Be Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci.It’s one of those rare books which should inspire you to do something right after finishing it; and, in the long run (at least, we believe this) make you a better person as well.