www.nytimes.com /2021/12/28/books/stoicism-books.html

Better Living Through Stoicism, From Seneca to Modern Interpreters

Molly Young 9-11 minutes 12/28/2021

Critic’s Notebook

“The Death of Seneca,” by Jacques-Louis David; Paris, Petit Palais, Musée Des Beaux-Arts De La Ville De Paris (Picture Gallery).
Credit...DeAgostini/Getty Images

A six-story building is going up catty-corner to where I live, and from 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. every weekday a torrent of robust and erratic noise is transmitted through the thin walls of my apartment. Specifically, there is a great deal of screaming — not screams of pain (thank God), but screams as a form of communication: about moving an object from one place to another, or telling someone to get out of the way of the moving object, or coordinating the arrival or departure of a vehicle containing more objects to move.

Background noise typically doesn’t bother me. Directly beneath my apartment, and audible through many holes in the floor (it’s an old building) is a warehouse that does a brisk traffic in cabbages and soybean oil. I’ve long been able to mentally delete the whirring of forklifts and stacking of crates. But the sound of a human scream is — perhaps for evolutionary reasons — difficult to tune out.

I didn’t come to Stoic philosophy as a result of the construction site, but the site did offer an ideal beginner’s challenge: a persistently annoying but not materially threatening situation that was completely outside the bounds of my control.

Stoicism, which originated with the Hellenistic philosopher Zeno of Citium, has experienced a revival over the past decade or so, with another uptick in interest at the start of the pandemic, when books like Seneca’s “Letters From a Stoic” and Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” became more popular.

This is not surprising. One of the premises of Stoicism is that it will help you assimilate horrible events with equanimity. The proper way to respond to catastrophe, the Stoics will tell you, is to perceive it as a training exercise. Or, as Seneca put it: “Disaster is virtue’s opportunity.”

The most commercially successful of the modern Stoic interpreters might be Ryan Holiday, whose books bear blurbs from former defense secretary James Mattis and Matthew McConaughey. Holiday’s “The Obstacle Is the Way” (2014) has sold more than 283,000 copies, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks most printed books sold in the United States. And there was a Covid spike — sales jumped 37% in 2020 compared to 2019.

On Holiday’s website, you can buy Stoic-themed pendants and prints and coins, along with a “premium display” for the Stoic coins featuring “a metallic mountain range and a silhouette of a man conquering that obstacle.” The tiny man pictured in the display carries an even tinier stick, for conquering purposes.

Another option is the annual online workshop known as Stoic Week, a course that originated at the University of Exeter. Stoic Week provides seven days’ worth of guidance and mini-lectures, as well as surveys to complete before and after the week is up. I heard about the 2021 edition a week before it was scheduled to begin and was elated at the rare alignment of impulse (self-improvement) with timing (soon) and cost (nothing). According to the surveys, my “Satisfaction With Life” score increased from “Neutral” at the onset of the week to “Slightly Satisfied” after it concluded. Baby steps.


Stoicism is many things — it was devised and refined over centuries — but the basic principles can be summed up quickly. Excellence of character, or virtue, is the only true good, and we should spend our lives pursuing it. Virtue is its own reward, but as a free bonus it will also make us happy. We should cultivate feelings of kinship toward all humans. We should not whine or gossip. We should mentally rehearse all the undesirable events that might befall us (including death) so that we’ll be prepared if and when they do happen. But we should not do this in an obsessive way; more of an imaginary-exposure-therapy way. We should make a distinction between what we can and cannot control, and quit worrying about things in the second category. All of the above is easier said than done, but what isn’t?

Stoicism is also a protocol of attentiveness, which makes it an attractive remedy for those who feel absented and estranged from themselves or the world. One of the recommended practices is the “daily review,” in which you take a moment each evening to reflect on the previous waking hours. The idea is not to flog yourself for mistakes but to acknowledge them with future improvements in mind. I find this to be a crafty psychological maneuver: Knowing, each morning, that I’ll have to reflect upon my day in detail that evening functions as a prophylactic against messing up too badly. (Sometimes.)

To the Stoics, lack of attentiveness amounted to psychological slavery. Both Epictetus, a former slave whose name means “owned,” and Seneca used the metaphor with an intent to startle. (Epictetus in particular enjoyed telling his wealthy aristocratic students that they were “slaves.”) The modern equivalent is probably the framework of addiction; today you’re less likely to complain about being “enslaved” by your phone than “addicted” to it. In both metaphors the absence of self-mastery and freedom derive from an external agent: for the enslaved person, his owner; for the addict, his substance.

When I first read Seneca in translation a few years ago, what I noted was less the content than the easygoing conversational style. “I am far from being a tolerable person, much less a perfect one,” he admitted to his friend Lucilius, to whom the “Letters From a Stoic” are addressed. I loved how he ended all of his dispatches with the word “Farewell” (vale in Latin), and it occurred to me at the time that “farewell” would make a nice email valediction, offering more warmth than a simple dash and communicating politeness without the formality of “best” or the mawkishness of “sincerely” or the overpromise of “yours.” I liked the way Seneca’s letters delivered their lessons succinctly, with no throat-clearing at the start or denouement at the finish. After a spiel about education in Letter 88, for example, he wraps up with:

“I cannot readily say whether I am more vexed at those who would have it that we know nothing, or with those who would not leave us even this privilege. Farewell.”

When I revisited the Stoics at the onset of the pandemic, it was with the more serious intention of seeking instruction at a time of fear. But it was Seneca, again, who vibrated my heartstrings. His “Letters” were written to Lucilius while the latter was undergoing what we’d now call a midlife crisis, and they brim with both affection and rigor. “There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us,” Seneca wrote. “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Some contemporary proponents of Stoicism, like Massimo Pigliucci, present it as a strategy for living a meaningful secular existence, as though Stoicism might be swapped in for religion like Lactaid for regular milk. (Got a God intolerance? Try Epictetus!) Many emphasize the philosophy’s practical orientation. In “Breakfast With Seneca,” David Fideler calls it a “supremely practical philosophy.” In “The Daily Stoic,” Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman propose Stoicism as “a set of practical tools meant for daily use.”

It would be a mistake to conflate “practical” with “easy.” As Pigliucci points out in “How to Be a Stoic,” “Philosophy is no miracle cure, and it should not be treated as one.” Pigliucci’s book does an excellent job writing about each stage of wrestling with a philosophical system, starting with what I’d call the “life hack” stage and progressing through the interrogation stage, the reconciling-of-internal-contradictions (especially between the earlier Greek Stoics and the later Roman Stoics) stage and, finally, into the actual adoption of Stoic exercises, of which he offers a large menu.

“Breakfast with Seneca” — the most companionable of the new Stoic books — includes an appendix of these practices. Try the “view from above” exercise, Fideler suggests, in which you imagine that you are hovering miles above Earth and gazing down at the speck of yourself, pondering the insignificance of your troubles in the grand scheme. Or the “contemplation of the sage” exercise, in which you imagine that a wise person (for example: Socrates) is watching over your actions, so that you can behave with appropriate virtue. Or the “contemplation of impermanence” exercise, in which you consider all of your possessions and relationships as temporary loans that might be recalled at any time.

The building outside my window is still in its skeletal stage, which means there are weeks of screaming to come; perhaps months. But all is well, because the Stoics have led me to the major philosophical insight that while I can’t control someone else’s construction site, it is within my power to purchase earplugs and then watch a detailed YouTube tutorial about how to “Stop Inserting Earplugs Wrong!” Now I work in hushed tranquillity — free of the restlessness that Seneca described as “symptomatic of a sick mind.” Farewell.

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