The Practicing Stoic

A Philosophical User’s Manual

by Ward Farnsworth

332 pages, ★★★★★
Finished on 25th of April, buy here.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The primary mission of someone practicing Stoic philosophy, is to help others and serve the greater good. As a side-effect, contentment and happiness ensue.
  2. The Stoic focuses on their own mind and their own beneficial interpretation of the world itself because they realize that it is completely up to them. Externals, which cannot be influenced, must not create negative emotions.
  3. Rationality is the Stoic’s guide. Every of their own behaviors should be tested for usefulness and discarded if it leads nowhere.

🎨 Impressions

This is a practical and real-life oriented guide on how to behave and go through life using the Stoic approach. The author, Farnsworth, has divided the book into thematic chapters and goes through everything the most notable Stoics have said about the topics one by one. This includes modern philosophers like Montaigne and Schopenhauer, who have had a close connection to the traditional Stoics. The focus is on Seneca the Younger, by whom the most features quotes originate, and Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are the other main sources.

The approach to go topic by topic is very useful if you would like to incorporate more of the Stoic mentality into your own life, as I do, but it can also be tedious to read at times. I found myself putting the book down a lot because I just wasn’t able to ingest any more information about the same area of life and needed the mental breaks from it.

For me personally, the connecting paragraphs between the standpoints of the different Stoics were entertaining historical excerpts which I found surprisingly interesting. Who learned from whom, what were the circumstances of the times, and which big historical events happened during these times, for example.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • This book made it a lot easier for me to get a grasp of how the Stoic philosophy is meant at its core. Put into context, it’s all a lot clearer.
  • The way of thinking about emotion and feelings promoted by the Stoics is often misrepresented when we use the word “Stoic” today. It’s not about heartlessness or detachment, it’s a form of seeking the most productive / helpful benefit for all involved in each situation. How will anger or immense compassion improve your lives?
  • I am a fan of the scientific and rational approach when it comes to the meaning of life and love the quote by Joscha Bach “the meaning of life is to create and maintain a well-functioning society” – which is perfectly in line with the Stoic mindset, especially considering the notion that using one’s life in order to improve the life and surroundings of oneself using the Stoic virtues and rationality should be the highest goal.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. So show them those qualities that are entirely up to you: sincerity, dignity, endurance of hardship; not pleasure-seeking, not complaining of your lot, needing little; kindness and generosity; being modest, not chattering idly, but high-minded.
  2. The work of life is to turn whatever happens to constructive ends.
  3. Stoicism means to offer the wisdom while skipping the repetition; it tries to get by contemplation some of the lessons, immunities, and other features of character we would acquire naturally if we lived long enough.

📔 Summary & Notes

The Stoics thought that our sole rightful purpose is to act virtuously – to live by reason and to help others, from which happiness follows assuredly but incidentally.

We appear to go through live reacting directly to events and all else in the world. Noticing that when we react to an event, we really are reacting to what we’ve said to ourselves about it.

Our experience of the world is our own doing, not the world’s doing, and the Stoic means to take responsibility for it.

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

Stoics take a different view of adversity than is conventional. They don’t seek out pain or hardship, but they seek a mindset that isn’t thrown into disarray by those things and that is able to turn them to good.

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.

Stoicism also offers a strong affirmative vision of what life is for: the pursuit of virtue. Living virtuously means living by reason, and the Stoics regard reason as calling for honesty, kindness, humility, and devotion to the greater good.

Chapter One: Judgment

  • We always feel as though we react to things in the world; in fact we react to things in ourselves. And sometimes changing ourselves will be more effective and sensible than trying to change the world.
  • Each of us is as well or badly off as we believe. The happy are those who think they are, not those who are thought to be so by others.

Chapter Two: Externals

  • 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.
  • A mean reaches the heights if he knows what makes him joyful, if he has not made his happiness depend on things not in his power.
  • Generally the Stoics identify the good with the rightful use of reason, which in turn leads them to a life led for the benefit of the whole – that is, for others.
  • Someone attached to externals is enslaved to whoever controls them; Stoic philosophy thus is a way to liberations.
  • The assignments of value or meaning that we attach to things are usually half-conscious, borrowed from convention, and false or unhelpful.
  • Seeing things as they are, not as we have been told they are, or as everyone pretends they are, or as we tell ourselves they are. But rather than adding nothing, one takes off what is already there.

Chapter Three: Perspective

  • Our ultimate insignificance makes the case for living well in the present, for no other purpose survives.
  • 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.
  • [Almost all people] are gone and forgotten when they take their last breath. And what, after all, is even an everlasting remembrance? Completely empty.
  • Yet calling our own lives long or short, when they are compared with eternity, or even to the spans of mountains, rivers, stars, trees, and certain other animals, seems no less absurd.
  • Realize that being remembered has no value, nor does your reputation, nor anything else at all.
  • Among all these things you must take your place, with good humor and without being haughty – understanding, however, that each man is worth just as much as the things he cares about.

Chapter Four: Death

  • 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.
  • Neither death nor pain is to be feared, but the fear of pain or death.
  • Freedom from the fear of death is regarded by the Stoic as one of the central goals of philosophical work.
  • Make life as a whole agreeable to yourself, then, by banishing all worry about it. No good thing makes its possessor happy unless his mind is prepared for its loss.
  • He who fears death fears either the loss of sensation or different kind of sensation.
  • Whatever condition existed before our birth, was death. For what does it matter whether you do not begin at all, or whether you end, when the result in either case is non-existence?
  • A journey will be incomplete if you stop halfway, or anywhere on this side of you destination; but a life is not incomplete if it is honorable. Wherever you leave off, provided you leave off nobly, your life is a whole.
  • There is no reason for you to think anyone has lived long just because he has grey hairs or wrinkles. He has not lived long; he has existed long.
  • Rather than a frightening thing that advances on us, death is next to us all the time. It is best accepted as a reason to live well in the time that remains.
  • The perfection of moral character consists in this: to spend each day as if it were the last, to be neither agitated nor numb, and not to pretend.
  • We must make it our aim to have already long enough.

Chapter Five: Desire

  • New desires appear when other ones are spent; our minds seem to have an appetite for desire itself, and for the illusion that fulfilling it will bring us to an endpoint. The end never arrives.
  • The pleasure of expecting enjoyment is often greater than that of obtaining it, and the completion of almost every wish is found a disappointment.
  • Freedom is attained not by satisfying desires but by removing them.
  • Plutarch made this point well, too: it is up to us to choose the people to whom we compare ourselves.

Chapter Six: Wealth and Pleasure

  • We overrate pleasures and underrate the cost of trying to gain them. Pleasure and pain are parts of a cycle; they go together, and have to be addressed together.
  • Stoics value moderation, and they don’t view it as a compromise of pleasures. They regard moderation, rather, as enhancing pleasures – indeed, as making the true and healthy enjoyment of them possible.
  • For the fault is not in one’s wealth but in the mind itself. That which had made poverty a burden to us has made riches a burden as well.
  • A good way to test such a relationship, and to know whether you have an attachment to a thing or just a preference about it, is to consider how well you would handle its loss.
  • Rehearsing the loss of a thing in the mind is one way that Stoics try to keep the right distance from it. This sort of detachment makes the subject of it both safer and easier to enjoy.
  • Moderation is regarded by the Stoic not only as an admired virtue but as a helpful technique. It doesn’t mean “less pleasure”; it means the possibility of actual and lasting pleasure.
  • The Stoic holds that pleasures arising from natural sources are rightly enjoyed.
  • But most of our energies are instead spent chasing short-lived pleasures that we invent or inflate.
  • Nature has mingled pleasure with necessary things – not to cause us to seek pleasure, but to make those things that are indispensable to existence look attractive to our eyes. If pleasure claims rights of its own, it is luxury.
  • It shows a lack of natural talent to spend much time on bodily activities, as by being excessive in exercise, excessive in eating and drinking, excessive in emptying the bowels and in copulating. These things should be done incidentally, and our attention should be devoted to the mind.

Chapter Seven: What Others Think

  • If we are criticized justly, we should accept it and change (or accept it and be done). If we are criticized unjustly, the critics are mistaken and entitled to compassion.
  • We practice things that will win praise; we should practice the art of not needing it.
  • Cicero had pungent views on our current theme, viewing fame as the accumulated opinions of people whose views are worth nothing.
  • There is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life – trust in oneself.
  • Be your own spectator; seek your own applause.
  • Remember that you are insulted not by the person who strikes or abuses you, but by your opinion that these things are insulting.
  • All provocations given by unthinking people – and it is only from the unthinking that they can come – should be ignored and honors of the crowd should both be valued the same.

Chapter Eight: Valuation

  • We condemn in others precisely what we detest but cannot see in ourselves; we project our faults onto them.
  • Ask instead, in each present circumstance: “What is there about this that is unendurable and unbearable?” You will be embarrassed to answer.
  • Those who worry about the future are failing to profit from the present.
  • Stoics do not think the future should be ignored or met without planning. They mean that we should pay attention to the present;
  • Seneca viewed time as the most valuable thing we own – really the only thing. Yet we guard it with none of the care we apply to our property.
  • If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else.
  • He who does not know he is at fault does not wish to be corrected: you must catch yourself in the wrong before you can do better.
  • Whenever you take offense at someone else’s fault, turn immediately to find the fault most similar in yourself.
  • We every day and every hour say things about others that we might more properly say about ourselves.
  • Sometimes we are suspicious of others precisely because we deserve suspicion ourselves, and assume that others are the same.
  • Our criticisms of others therefore have a side benefit. They provide an unintentional glimpse at what is ugliest within us.

Chapter Nine: Emotion

  • The Stoic technique is now familiar: identify the foolishness in a certain state of mind or way of reacting to the world, then suggest rational ways to reform it.
  • Fear spoils the enjoyment of the present.
  • What is here is probably bearable.
  • Fears are opinions about what is to come.
  • First, fearful things should be examined directly, and their realism severely tested.
  • When everything is uncertain, favor your own side: believe what you prefer. If fear obtains more votes, bend more the other way nevertheless and stop troubling yourself.
  • Nothing is heavy if we take it lightly; nothing need provoke anger if one does not add one’s anger to it.
  • Things should be made light of, and taken more easily: it is more civilized to laugh at life than to bewail it.
  • Humor can cause anger to dissolve.
  • The best corrective of anger lies in delay.
  • Stoic detachment does not imply a shortage of engagement with the world or reluctance to act in it. The detachment of the Stoic is a technique for preserving one’s equilibrium and seeing the world accurately.
  • Yet the basest remedy for grief, for a person of sense, is to become tired of it. I would rather you abandon your grief than have your grief abandon you.
  • I may say boldly that there is no one in the whole wide world who takes the slightest pleasure in your tears.

Chapter Ten: Adversity

  • The chief function of constancy is to patiently endure those hardships that cannot be avoided.
  • Stoics don’t see the point of complaining about things that are inherent to human existence.
  • 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.
  • The work of life is to turn whatever happens to constructive ends.
  • Nature did not want us to be harassed. Whatever it requires of us, it has equipped us for.
  • “I judge you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate: You have passed through life without an antagonist; no one will know what you can do, not even yourself.”
  • Finding the most useful point of view from which to look at anything that happens.
  • Pain is neither unbearable nor eternal if you consider its limits, and don’t add to it in your imagination.

Chapter Eleven: Virtue

  • But the Stoic believes that virtue gives rise to joy and to peace of mind as well. Virtue produces these good consequences as side effects.
  • The primary mission of the Stoics, in other words, is to be helpful to others and serve the greater good, and they don’t do this to make themselves happy.
  • Happiness has to be found while looking for something else.
  • The something else proposed by the Stoic consists primarily of a dedication to reason and a commitment to others – to service, to justice, to helping in the ways one can.
  • Virtue is the only good, or at least there is no good without virtue;
  • So show them those qualities that are entirely up to you: sincerity, dignity, endurance of hardship; not pleasure-seeking, not complaining of your lot, needing little; kindness and generosity; being modest, not chattering idly, but high-minded.
  • First of all, even though virtue will assure pleasure, it is not on account of pleasure that virtue is pursued.
  • Let nothing be done in your life that will cause you fear if it is discovered by your neighbor. [Meaning, stay honest at all times]
  • Further characteristics of the reasoning soul are love of its neighbors, truth, compassion, and valuing nothing above itself.
  • While the Stoics looked upon riches, human grandeur, grief, disquietudes, and pleasure as vanity, they were entirely employed in laboring for the happiness of mankind, and in exercising the duties of society.
  • Born for society, they all believed that it was their destiny to labor for it; with so much the less fatigue, their rewards were all within themselves.
  • Nor can anyone live happily who has only himself in view, who turns everything to his own advantage; you ought to live for the other fellow, if you want to live for yourself.
  • When asked what country you are from, do not say “I am Athenian” or “I am from Corinth”. Say (like Socrates), “I am a citizen of the world.”

Chapter Twelve: Learning

  • They view the philosophy as an approach to daily life, not an intellectual edifice to be enjoyed from outside or visited from time to time.
  • Everyone knows that the path to becoming an accomplished athlete involves time and commitment. So does progress in Stoicism.
  • It takes practice. In return, the philosophy offers improvement in peace of mind, in fearlessness, in well-being, and in wisdom.
  • The rule recommended by Pythagoras – to review, every night before going to sleep, what we have done during the day.
  • 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.
  • No one can live happily or even tolerably without the study of wisdom. Wisdom, when achieved, produces a happy life.
  • The Stoic is less interested in changes of scenery than in changes of the self, and regards the first as unlikely to be pleasing without the second.
  • Do you want to know why your running away doesn’t help? You take yourself along.
  • No ignorant person should be left alone. That is when they make bad plans and create future troubles, either for others or for themselves;
  • Nothing gives the mind so much pleasure as fond and faithful friendship.
  • Associate with those who will improve you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for people will learn while they teach.
  • If you find yourself in a crowd – say a contest, or a festival, or a holiday – try to enjoy it with the others.
  • Solitude will cure our aversion to the crowd; the crowd, the boredom of solitude.
  • Never call yourself a philosopher, and don’t talk much among laymen about philosophical principles, but act according to them.
  • While the body requires many things to be healthy, the mind grows by itself, nourishes itself, trains itself.
  • We suffer from diseases that are curable, and our very nature assists us – since we were born to follow the right path – if we are willing to be improved.
  • The way to the happy life is easy. Just take the first step. It is much more difficult to do what you are doing now.
  • Our lack of confidence is not the result of difficulty. The difficulty comes from our lack of confidence.

Chapter Thirteen: Stoicism and its Critics

  • Your attitude might resemble that of a doctor – a very good one, let’s say – who has had a long career of working with dying patients and their families. In the best doctor of that sort we would find kindness, warmth, and compassion. There would be feeling. But emotion would be unlikely. You would sympathize but you would not go through mourning of your own. You would have seen it all too many times for that.
  • Stoicism means to offer the wisdom while skipping the repetition; it tries to get by contemplation some of the lessons, immunities, and other features of character we would acquire naturally if we lived long enough.
  • I have emphasized here that, with respect to emotion and adversity, Stoics want the kind of wisdom that we associate with long experience.
  • 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.
  • Stoicism, at least for most who now study it, is a set of tools for thought, and a way of using them, with which some find they can help themselves. It is something to do, not something to say.
  • So 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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