How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life

By Edwords, Fred | The Humanist, March-April 2018 | Go to article overview

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life


Edwords, Fred, The Humanist


How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life

by Massimo Pigliucci

Basic Books, 2017 262 pp.; $27.00

A glance at Amazon.com reveals no less than thirty-two books published in 2017 applying the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism to modern life. Fewer books did so in all prior years combined going back to 2000, and there was very little before that. This recent burst of activity can be interpreted as a response to a slowly accumulating interest in Stoicism, fueled in part by a major annual gathering described in Massimo Pigliuccis latest book, How to Be a Stoic.

   Every fall thousands of people
   participate in Stoic Week, a
   worldwide philosophy event-cum-social
   science experiment organized
   by a team at the University of Exeter
   in England, with the collaboration
   of academic philosophers, cognitive
   therapists, and everyday practitioners
   all over the world.

The reason Pigliuccis book on this subject commands our special attention is because of the authors long association with organized humanism. He is a professor of philosophy by profession and also holds degrees in science. But he has of late grown "downright irritated" with the New Atheists and unsatisfied with secular humanism's overdependence "on science and a modern conception of rationality" He finds that humanism "comes across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to on a Sunday morning." So he's shifted his focus to Stoicism, in which he finds "a rational, science-friendly philosophy that includes a metaphysics with a spiritual dimension." He also sees it as "explicitly open to revision" and "eminently practical."

Not that one needs to abandon one to embrace the other. Pigliucci freely acknowledges that the American Humanist Association's 1971 Humanist of the Year, psychologist Albert Ellis, rooted his rational-emotive behavior therapy in Stoicism. And, "For all its uniqueness, Stoicism has numerous points of contact ... with modern movements such as secular humanism and ethical culture," he says.

But today's humanists might take exception to the ancient Stoic belief in the gods, or actually a "cosmic reason" called the "Logos." Pigliucci understands this but notes that some Greek and Roman proponents of this school were simply referencing "the rather straightforward observation that the cosmos can be understood rationally" and that the universe "works through a web of cause and effect." He also thinks, given

Stoicism's history of revising itself, that Stoics would have become as nontheistic as himself had they lived to read the works of David Hume and Charles Darwin. Besides, there was an ambiguity among the ancients about this topic, as evidenced in quotes from Marcus Aurelius in which the Roman emperor argues the irrelevance of theology to basic Stoic ideas. This ambiguity is, in fact, one of the features that attracted Pigliucci to the philosophy in the first place. "Stoics can build a very large tent indeed, welcoming everyone from atheists to agnostics, from pantheists and panentheists to theists. …

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