How to Be a Stoic – Massimo Pigliucci


Paperback: 288 pages ISBN-10: 184604507X ISBN-13: 978-1846045073



Massimo Pigliucci explores Stoic philosophy and how its wisdom can be applied to our everyday lives in the quest for meaning. He shows how Stoicism teaches us the importance of a person’s character, integrity and compassion.


I derive satisfaction from knowing that, quite irrespective of the actual outcome, I’m doing my best.

“‘Lay aside the senator’s dress, and put on rags and appear in that character.’ Very well: is it not given me still to display a noble voice? In what part then do you appear now?” Epictetus is reminding us that whatever we don in the course of the day, the toga of a senator, the suit of someone working on Wall Street, or the stereotypical tweed jacket with elbow patches of a university professor, the true value of a person lies in their core, and that core—our character—remains regardless of the role we happen to play in society, whether by choice, happenstance, or necessity.

When he himself emerged from that experience, he remembered that, asked what was going to be the fruit of all his teachings, Epictetus replied: “Tranquillity, fearlessness, and freedom.”

It follows, then, that there are three sources of virtue: some comes from our natural endowment, some is obtained by habit, especially early in life, and some can be acquired intellectually and therefore can be taught.

The other thing to remember about role models—and the Stoics understood this very well—is that they are not perfect human beings, for the simple reason that there is no such thing. Moreover, making perfection an integral part of our concept of role model means that we are setting a standard that is impossibly high.

The emphasis, for every human being, should be on what we can do, not on what we cannot do. Instead of saying, “I can’t do that,” say, “I can do it this way.”

Through Stoicism, Andrew learned to turn depression into an asset of sorts. As he explains: “Depressed people are rather self-aware; in fact, they are too self-aware, and too negatively so, often deriding themselves for small infractions of their own idealized standards, putting themselves down for not being perfect even in a world they recognize as being full of imperfections and human capital squandered. Part of depression is fixating on failures in the past, ruminating continually on past events or circumstances, and even drawing a kind of negative confidence from them. This type of thinking is antithetical to good outcomes at the present time, at least the vast majority of the time. It causes failure in the present, building a feedback loop whose hunger cannot be easily filled. One failure builds atop another, and now another.”

Indeed, the Stoics taught that it is with mindful repetition that we change our own behaviors and even our internal feelings—something confirmed by a number of modern psychotherapies that are effective for the treatment of depression and other conditions.

The negative visualization exercise, what the ancient Romans called premeditatio malorum (literally, foreseeing bad stuff), may focus on something as mundane as the irritation you feel when someone cuts you off in traffic or on events as critical as the death of a loved one, or even your own.

Visualizing negative happenings decreases our fear of them and mentally prepares us to deal with the crisis when and if it ensues. But there is a flip side to visualizing the negative: we gain a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for all the times when bad things do not happen to us, when we leisurely drive down the road on a beautiful day or enjoy the presence of our loved ones because they are very much alive and well.

My favorite immediate reaction, whenever I sense that I’m beginning to lose control, is to excuse myself, retreat to a quiet place where I can do a little deep breathing (even a bathroom will do!), and mentally repeat my favorite mantra: bear and forbear, which is a standard Epictetian phrase.

The four Stoic virtues: (Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances Justice: Treating every human being—regardless of his or her stature in life—with fairness and kindness Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life

Appreciate very much what we now have, precisely because Fate may snatch it from us tomorrow.

Imagine a dog who is leashed to a cart. The cart begins to move forward, in whatever direction the driver, but certainly not the dog, chooses. Now, the leash is long enough that the dog has two options: either he can gingerly follow the general direction of the cart, over which he has no control, and thereby enjoy the ride and even have time to explore his surroundings and attend to some of his own business, or he can stubbornly resist the cart with all his might and end up being dragged, kicking and screaming, for the rest of the trip, accumulating much pain and frustration and wasting his time in a futile and decidedly unpleasant effort. We humans are, of course, the dog: the universe keeps churning according to God’s will (if you have religious inclinations) or cosmic cause and effect (if your taste is more secular). But you do have some room to maneuver, while you are alive and well, and can choose to enjoy the ride, even as you remain aware of the constraints you have and know that whatever you wish to accomplish always comes with a big caveat: Fate (the cart driver, God, the universe) permitting. This is what it means to do whatever you do while “keeping in line with nature.”

More importantly, I have begun to internalize the concept that an insult works, not because it is intended as such by the person who delivers it, but because the target allows it to become an insult.

“In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on your own deeds or adventures. Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.”

“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different.”

The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?”