The Practicing Stoic – Ward Farnsworth


Hardcover: 256 pages ISBN-10: 1567926118 ISBN-13: 978-1567926118



A valuable modern resource that organizes practical Stoic wisdom thematically into chapters including Emotion, Adversity, Virtue, and What Others Think.


The first principle of practical Stoicism is this: we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us.

Stoicism means to help us think better about our thinking, to teach the mind to understand the mind, to make the fish more aware of the water.

But even after making allowances of that kind, the Stoics would say that our ability to change our experience by changing our thinking about it is much greater than we usually suppose. Many of the judgments they urge us to notice and to reconsider aren’t so deeply rooted. They’re just habits and conventions.

But sometimes, to the contrary, it is easier than it sounds. You stop saying one thing to yourself and say another instead. Later you work on judgments less verbal in form. Squashing a noxious and conventional thought is a wholesome source of Stoic satisfaction, and an ability that improves with practice.

The spell of familiarity must be broken, and this is best done by looking at the great range of responses to the same things that have come to seem natural to people in different conditions.

The work of philosophy is to take responsibility for our own thinking, and in so doing to liberate ourselves from the attachments and misjudgments that otherwise dictate our experience.

If Stoics are distinguished by one policy as an everyday matter, it is a refusal to worry about things beyond their control or to otherwise get worked up about them.

Detachment also means not letting happiness depend on getting or avoiding externals – wealth, for example, or the good opinion of others.

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. More immediately it means avoiding vices such as greed, dishonesty, and excess.

It was a lively feature of Epictetus’s classroom style that those who worried or complained about externals would customarily be denounced as slaves.

As soon as an event happens, we are quick to assign it a meaning. It is tagged as good news or bad news, as a reason for excitement or outrage, and so on. Or we give it a place in a story that we tell ourselves, long-running or new. Then we react to those labels and narratives and imaginings. Stoicism regards this process as a trap.

A favorite Stoic method for the purpose involves viewing a subject in the most literal way possible, or breaking it down into parts that dissolve the formidable appearance it might have, whether of desirability or the reverse.

None of those who have been raised to a lofty height by riches and honors is really great. Why then does he seem great? Because you are measuring the pedestal along with the man.

“Human life the Stoics appear to have considered as a game of great skill; in which, however, there was a mixture of chance, or of what is vulgarly understood to be chance. . . . If we placed our happiness in winning the stake, we placed it in what depended upon causes beyond our power, and out of our direction. We necessarily exposed ourselves to perpetual fear and uneasiness, and frequently to grievous and mortifying disappointments. If we placed it in playing well, in playing fairly, in playing wisely and skillfully; in the propriety of our own conduct in short; we placed it in what, by proper discipline, education, and attention, might be altogether in our own power, and under our own direction. Our happiness was perfectly secure, and beyond the reach of fortune.”
—Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

The Stoics may be said, in general, to use two strategies to dissolve an illusion. One is analytical: using reason to take apart an external and show its true nature. The other is intuitive: looking at the world from a point of view that can produce an automatic change in how we see it. Viewing a problem, an adversary, or oneself from a certain perspective – seeing it from far away, or as part of a bigger picture – can sometimes detach us from an appetite or fear without need for analysis.

Mortality is the defining feature of our existence; Stoics want the imminence of it to inform their daily lives.

Meditation on death is thus used by the Stoic to stimulate humility, fearlessness, moderation, and other virtues.

Freedom from the fear of death is regarded by the Stoic as one of the central goals of philosophical work, from which many other liberties and goods follow.

If you want a vulgar form of comfort that touches the heart, reconcile yourself to death by observing, above all, the things from which you will be removed, and the morals of those with whom your soul will no longer have to associate.

“Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death.”
—Schopenhauer, Our Relation to Ourselves (1851)

The Stoic’s first observation about desire is that getting what we want tends not to produce the satisfaction that we imagined. It makes us want more.

When one is busy and absorbed in one’s work, the very absorption affords great delight; but when one has withdrawn one’s hand from the completed masterpiece, the pleasure is not so keen.

“When any calamity has been suffered, the first thing to be remembered is how much has been escaped.”
—Johnson, Letter to Hester Thrale (1770)

The Stoics hold that attachment to wealth has predictable consequences. Once we have money, we worry about keeping it, are anxious for more of it, and feel pain when it is lost.

Above all, though, the Stoic is attracted to the pleasures of the mind. Stoics regard wisdom and understanding as producing a kind of joy that is immune from interruption by circumstance.

Stoics view wealth not as an absolute state but as a favorable relationship between what one has and what one wants. Most people devote themselves to enlarging the first when they would do better to reduce the second. This is the classic Stoic inversion.

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.

The Stoic holds that pleasures arising from natural sources are rightly enjoyed. It merely should be done with moderation.

The Stoic develops a distrust for popular judgments, and a suspicion of people and things that have mass appeal. Stoicism tries instead to substitute a greater respect for one’s own opinions, and practice at valuing things for what they are rather than for what anyone else thinks about them.

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. They meant well, or at least said what seemed right and best to their limited capacities. And at any rate we all will be gone soon enough.

An effective insult requires a kind of cooperation from the victim – a judgment, for example, that the insult matters.

The Stoic regards the contempt of others with indifference, or contempt, or a welcoming spirit. Anything but fear will do.

The Stoics mean to correct our preoccupation with the past and future; they regard the time we pour into memories, hopes, and fears to be mostly ill-spent (though not always, as we shall see).

We overrate money and undervalue time, just as we overrate material goods and the approval of others while undervaluing the gains we get by forgoing them.

We worry and plan in the same spirit that we crave the next acquisition; whatever we look forward to, whether it be the future or some new object, looks more appealing than it ever quite turns out to be once it arrives.

The most important practical point to understand, however, is just the larger Stoic goal: to make reason the basis for one’s choices, actions, and sense of equilibrium, and to maintain a detachment from externals.

Some simple Stoic advice: wait before acting when angry.

the opposition of the Stoics to anger will sometimes raise questions about whether they are pacifists, and too detached to care about righting wrongs. Not in the least. The Stoic disposition affects the spirit in which justice is administered and in which the good is pursued, but it does not imply mild views about the substance of those things or timidity in securing them.

Stoics seek the value in whatever happens.

The Stoics recommend that we think ahead about adversity. Anticipating it can take away its terrors and reduce its force when it arrives.

The happiness centrally valued by the Stoic is eudaimonia, or well-being – the good life rather than the good mood.

If it isn’t the right thing to do, then don’t do it; but if it is, why be afraid of those who will criticize you wrongly?