The Practicing Stoic

A Philosophical User's Manual

[Amazon Link]

The author was invited to the Volokh Conspiracy recently to plug this book. I was intrigued enough to put in an Interlibrary Loan request for it; and up it came from Brown University, where apparently there aren't a lot of Stoic-curious students. Want to see if you'd be lured in as well? Those posts are here, here, here, here, and here.

I'm pretty sure this will go on my top ten list for this year.

The author, Ward Farnsworth (Dean of The University of Texas School of Law) has done a masterful job of presenting, and advocating for, Stoic philosophy. (My previous exposure: Tom Wolfe's A Man In Full, back in the previous century.)

Farnsworth's method is "progressive", but—whew!—not in a political sense. He starts with foundational building blocks, works upward to more advanced topics that follow from those basics. The text relies heavily on quoted snippets from the biggies: Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, with a host of "guest speakers": Kant, Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, et al. This works pretty well: we see things in a logical, topical, order; easier to take than trying to digest each philosopher's thoughts in the order in which he wrote them.

What you'll notice immediately: the Stoics were a lively and observant bunch. Their insights into human nature are revelatory and not at all dated. Yes, Seneca lived 20 centuries ago. Guess what? Humans still behave and think pretty much the same way as they did back then. Their remarks remain trenchant and not without humor. As an example, here's Seneca, from the "Death" chapter:

Does it do any harm to a good man to be smeared by unjust gossip? Then we should not let the same sort of thing do damage to death, either, in our judgment; for death also has a bad reputation, but none of those who malign death have tried it.

Doesn't that tickle your funny bone a little? Worked for me, anyway.

There's a downside of getting such a book at the library. It deserves to be studied and re-read every so often. I didn't find myself agreeing in places, but I may have been reading too superficially.