Massimo Pigliucci's life was transformed when he read the following line:
I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived--and dying I will tend to later.
The line is from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Since encountering Epictetus, Massimo Pigliucci has become one of the best and prolific popularizers in Stoicism. His latest is A Field Guide to a Happy Life: 53 Brief Lessons for Living. This book is a remix of Epictetus - it includes ideas from the original ancient Stoics and advances Stoicism into Stoicism 2.0.
The book has three parts: an introduction to the philosophy of Stoicism, modern treatment of Epictetus' Handbook, and comments on Stoicism 2.0. It's short, built for being carried around.
A fine introduction to the philosophy, it begins by focusing on the most important ideas:
- The dichotomy of control.
- The 3 disciplines: judgment, desire, and action.
The dichotomy of control states that some things are under our power, others that are not. Those things that are not are "externals." We are in charge of our "deliberate judgment, endorsed opinions and values, and our decisions to act or not to act." What is directly under our control fundamentally matters. In a way, you can read the rest of Stoic philosophy as following from this tenet. The 3 disciplines were effectively Epictetus's substitute for the four cardinal virtues. The first notes, the discipline of desire, holds that we should align our desires with what is under our control: correct judgments and virtuous action. The discipline of action is concerned with "learning how to properly act in the world, both toward ourselves and towards others." For Epictetus, this meant balancing the roles that we play in society. Finally, the discipline of assent is concerned with improving our ability to arrive at sound judgments.
The middle of the book remixes the 52 sections of Epicetus's handbook - with additional an additional section filled with a selection of quotes from Epictetus. It would make a fine pairing with the original. Without saying too much about this here are two of my favorite passages:
If you truly wish to embrace the philosophical life, be ready for other s to make merciless fun of you...if you merely talk and do not act accordingly, you will be made fun of twice over, and deservedly so.
Have you ever been on a cruise? If so, you will know that when you are allowed ashore you may entertain yourself by looking around and doing some shopping, but you should always be aware of when the ship will depart, lest you end up stranded where you don't belong. The same goes with life...You should always keep in mind at some point the voyage will be over, since it does not last forever. When the time comes, be ready, and make sure that you look back and do not find that you have mispent your shore leave.
The last section is the most provocative of the book. It explicitly notes where Pigliucci's version of Stoicism is different from the ancient Stoicism. For instance, Pigliucci believes that we need despise externals or whatever is out of our control. Occasionally, the Stoics slip into negative speech and end up sounding like Cynics (another Greek philosophical school). This is a mistake and doesn't follow from the value system of Stoicism. Perhaps ancient Stoics did so to get others to pay attention or to persuade their students to think less of externals. Whatever the reason, we do not need to despise wealth, food, sex or other goods outside of us. Likewise, Stoics do not need to cultivate indifference to loss. I agree with these two points and have explained how some Stoics make the mistake of focusing too much on the defensive aspect of Stoicism here.
One way to think about externals is to conceive as your values as sets. In the first set lies the three disciplines and virtue. Perhaps the second is full of people you who you love, family and friends. And in the third lie other less important externals like material comforts. Never trade of items in the primary sets for those in the later ones. This is how a Stoic can prioritize what matters without despising externals.
Another way to think about externals is that what makes them valuable is how we use them. Money doesn't make a man, but a man can use money well - or not.
Neither of these conceptions lead us to denigrate externals. Indeed, the focus should be on cultivating what we primarily value and using externals virtuously.
Pigliucci includes other updates to the philosophy, such as standing firmly on the side of atoms in the God or atoms debate and updating Stoic ethics for the 21st century. He is careful to note that this will not be the last time the philosophy is updated.
The book ends with the line "it is my ambition that my work will allow several more future generations to benefit from the wisdom of the sage from Hierapolis and of the Stoics more generally." Time will tell whether the ambition comes to fruition, but he's made an excellent attempt.