BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a great little guide for a person considering the Stoic life. Stoicism was one of more well-known philosophies to come out of the ancient world, though it suffered a setback with changing philosophical trends and the rise of the great monotheistic religions. For those who know the term “stoic” as a small-s adjective, it’s worth noting that its definition (emotionless / impassive) is not the distinguishing trait of this school of philosophy. (Something similar can be said for Cynic v. cynic and Epicurean v. epicurean.) Still, there is a thin connection in that Stoics believed in not being controlled by emotion to one’s detriment, and not becoming emotional over things about which one has no control.

This book offers some historical background, showing how Stoicism evolved as it moved from Greece to Rome (and later how it might continue to evolve to appeal to — and work for — a modern following.) It also gives one some idea of the subtle differences of perspective among the Stoics. Usually when one bones up on Stoicism, one does so through the writings of a particular philosopher, be it Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, and so it’s interesting to see how these men with varied backgrounds lived and taught Stoicism.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part discusses what a life philosophy is, it gives Stoicism a context within other ancient philosophies, and it compares and contrasts Greek and Roman Stoicism. The second part describes the techniques that Stoics used to achieve their worldview and approach to living. These techniques include negative visualization (mentally rehearsing worst-case scenarios in a way that one becomes desensitized to them), classifying events by whether one can do anything about them or not and adopting a fatalistic acceptance of what one cannot influence, self-denial (i.e. avoiding excessive pursuit of comfort or pleasure), and meditation (being aware of one’s behavior so one can learn to implement Stoic approaches to living.)

Part three describes the advice of Stoics on a range of issues that are confronted in life. These include: duty, social relationships, insults, grief, anger, desire for fame, desire for luxury, exile, old age, dying, and becoming a Stoic. You may note, most of these are as valid today as they were in the day of the great Stoics, if not more so, and even “exile” has modern day analogies.

Part four discusses Stoicism for modern living. Among the issues covered include how a secular humanist might justify the practice of Stoicism. (The historical justifications were couched in theistic assumptions about the world.) It also delves into nuts and bolts considerations for the would-be Stoic. (Specifically, Irvine suggests practicing something he calls “stealth Stoicism,” which involves living in accord with the tenets of the philosophy while avoiding drawing attention to it from friends and family who might think you’ve become a lunatic who will soon be showing up to the 4th of July BBQ in a toga.)

Besides annotations and a works cited section, the back matter also includes a Stoic reading program as an Appendix.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’ve read works by Stoics, but it was nice to learn about Stoicism through a broader, overhead lens. If you’re interested in a philosophy of life, in general, or Stoicism in particular, this is a good book to read.

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5 Philosophical Questions Life Forces You to Answer

Like it or not, life makes philosophers of us all. You may hate philosophy, but you can’t escape it. You can — as many people do — outsource how you answer these questions, but that still requires a decision.

5.) How do I know a thing is true?  Sometimes the answer is self-evident, but, more often then people acknowledge, it’s not. This is exacerbated by the confusion of subjective truth (a personal “truth”) with objective truth (the universally true.)

Some people relinquish decision to an authority — be it a teacher, a scripture, or the scientific consensus. Some people only believe what said person’s personal experience tells them.

There is a related question of how tightly should one hold onto whatever beliefs one acts as if are true. The scientific approach suggests one should be ready to abandon something one believes is true in light of new information (assuming the new information is sound and can be validated.) Religions tend to prefer that the truths that have been handed down should be grasped firmly no matter what one sees, hears, or learns. One’s philosophical stance may take either approach, or one in between.

4.) [Who] am I?  As the brackets suggest, this is actually two questions. The full question, “Who am I?” presumes that there is a self (an I.) Some philosophies, e.g. Buddhism, reject this presumption, hence the more fundamental question of “Is there an I?”

3.) What constitutes a virtuous or moral life? Of course, some philosophies would reject the ingrained presumption that one should care, but that’s a fringe position. Maybe the more general question of “What constitutes a good life?” is a better one.

2.) What does it mean for something to be real? Some will say, “Come on. I know what’s real. I don’t need to philosophize about that?” Really? Because the best minds in the world are constantly debating this and have reached no consensus on the subject. It’s certainly possible to get through life behaving as though reality is “x,” whether or not “x” turns out to be true. But that’s very different from knowing what is true.

1.) Is there free will, and — if so — in what sense?  It feels like we have complete free will, but there are a couple of grounds on which this has been questioned. For the religious, reconciling an omnipotent god and free will takes some mental gymnastics. (If one can act completely freely, how can a god also?)

But more recently, free will has been challenged by science as well. Benjamin Libet’s work showed that “decisions” take place before people become conscious of them, and — therefore — aren’t decisions in the sense we usually understand that word (i.e. the product of conscious deliberation.) Of course, while some have argued that the repeated validation of Libet’s work shows free will is purely an illusion, there remain many who argue there are still possible ways in which some form of free will exists. (Including, apparently, Libet who believed we at least have “free won’t” even if we don’t have free will — i.e. we can consciously veto deterministic “decisions.”)

Best of luck picking — or building — your own life philosophy.

POEM: Truth & Beauty

Philosophers speak of truth and beauty in the same sentence.

The only connection I see is that neither can be seized tightly.

Beauty blanches or crumples under the force of a tight fist,

and any truth that flies from a tender grip isn’t so true as you’d like it to be.

Sometimes, the truth is ugly.

Sometimes, beauty is a lie.

Hell, sometimes the truth is a lie and a lie is true,

and often times a beauty is ugly & ugliness is beautiful.

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Living by Epictetus; ed. by Sharon Lebell

The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and EffectivenessThe Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness by Epictetus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This thin volume is packed with the wisdom of Epictetus. Epictetus was a freed slave who made a name for himself as a philosopher in Rome about a century after the birth of Christ. While small-s “stoic” conjures an image of a dour automaton, the Stoics were philosophers who believed [he oversimplified] that there’s nothing worth getting broken up about. If you can do something to influence the outcome of an event, you just need to pick the virtuous course. And if you can’t do anything about it, getting mopey is futile. In many ways, Stoicism is the Western philosophy that is most in-line with Eastern philosophies in that it emphasizes that your internal mental state is independent of what is happening outside you; so, if you can rule your mind you can find your bliss. Lebell, the editor of this volume, heavily accentuates that similarity.

When I called this thin, I didn’t mean “thin” as a derogatory comment. That said, this book is even thinner than it’s 113-page count would suggest because (as with most poetry collections) there’s a lot of white space left under a few lines of text. I actually think it’s kind of nice that the publisher didn’t do what is usually done with such short books, which is to pad them out with various unnecessary ancillary material. That said, if you can get the e-book, you’ll save some trees from dying for blank space. If they would have placed more than one maxim per page, it would probably have been cut to about 60pp.

I found this book to be well-written and nicely presented, and would recommend it for someone who wants a simple and concise overview of Stoicism.

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POEM: Epictetus & the Gentleman

Epictetus asked a man if he was free.

“I own land, can vote, and am deemed gentry.”

“But are you free?” the stoic repeated.

“Are you daft?” the man’s words came out heated.

 

And in that outburst the truth was revealed.

 

POEM: Forced Philosophizing

Life makes philosophers of us all.

You’re forced to decide how you will know your truth.

And it is “your truth,” or “my truth.”

We are powerless to determine THE truth, having only a limited capacity to even discern it.

“Your truth” is the concoction of fact and fiction by which you dance through life.

Now, you may say,

“Life may force me to be a liar, a whore, and a scoundrel, but I’ll never stand for it to make me a philosopher!”

Maybe you think you can side-step philosophy by taking answers straight from science, scripture, or lockstep walking with your tribe, but making that decision has still forced you to philosophize.

No matter what default you choose, knowledge of truth will remain limited and sometimes faulty.

I favor holding truths like an intact bird’s egg found fallen out of a nest — careful not to grasp too tightly for fear of either crushing it or having a misidentified velociraptor chick pop out and bite off my thumb.

I can’t say that this is a better approach than those who hold truths in the way of a rodeo rider with a dislocated elbow and shoulder who — never-the-less — stayed his eight.

It’s not just in matters of truth and knowledge that we are forced to philosophize.

One also has to determine what constitutes a virtuous life, and to what degree one finds chasing said path worth the effort. Again, the choice to outsource future thought to a holy book is still an act of philosophizing.

I understand that most people don’t want to be seen as a philosopher anymore than than they would want to be seen as a masochist — a lifestyle which bears something in common with philosophy.

After all, the philosopher is one who insists on engaging in rigorous and tedious thought on subjects that offer no right answers — just a huge slate of equally least-worst options.

If she wanted to engage in such thought AND uncover the right answer, she’d be a scientist.

If he wanted to wax eloquent on his love of living in the dark, he’d study language or literature.

But the philosopher likes his thought like he likes his tragic figures of Greek mythology –Sisyphean.

BOOK REVIEW: Crazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa

Crazy WisdomCrazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book collects the lessons of two seminars on crazy wisdom taught by Chögyam Trungpa in 1972. “Crazy Wisdom” is an awakened state of mind that was taught by Padmasambhava – the teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet from India. The two seminars consist of six and seven lessons, respectively. These thirteen lessons make up the chapters of the book. Each chapter consists mostly of a text discussion of the topic at hand, but with an interview at the end in which the teacher is asked to clarify points mentioned in the text or that are relevant to the topic under discussion.

The book starts with differentiating two approaches: trying to live up to what one would like to be (i.e. spiritual materialism), and trying to live what one is. While the former is a widespread phenomenon across many religions, it’s dismissed as not all that productive. Along the way, the book discusses how being childlike, ruthless, hopeless, fearless, and in touch with death can all have beneficial effects on the mind. Of course, one has to go about such things in a proscribed manner as it’s emphasized that crazy wisdom and being crazy aren’t identical states (even if they may share similar appearances in some instances.)

Like many books on wisdom, this one offers a mix of profound insight and a sort of double speak used to make profound-sounding but ineffable statements, or logically inconsistent statements, seem true and / or thought-provoking. A philosophizing style is employed rather than narrative style, and so it can read a bit blandly.

There are a few notes and several line-drawn artworks in the Tibetan Buddhist style, but otherwise it’s a straightforward text.

I found this book to be intriguing and to offer interesting food-for-thought. It’s a short book, but may be a bit challenging for a reader without a background in Tibetan Buddhism, or in Buddhism in general. If you’re interested in Vajrayana Buddhism, you should give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of Words by Abay Kunanbayev

Book of WordsBook of Words by Abay Kunanbayev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Book of Words is a collection of 45 short essays by Abay Kunanbayev (1845 – 1904), one of Kazakhstan’s preeminent men of letters. Abay is known both as a poet and philosopher. This book includes more prose philosophy than poetry, though it does contain a few lines in verse.

I picked this book up while traveling in Kazakhstan. It should be noted that much of the book is a rant against the Kazakhs of Abay’s day. The book advocates for individuals to be both more scholarly, more virtuous, and more piously religious, and it skewers Kazakhs as simpletons who only care about the size and state of their livestock herds and the wealth that said herds can bring them. It’s eloquently written, but there’s not much more to it than that. With his Book of Words, Abay is trying to goad the Kazakh’s into being more virtuous and well-read. Judging from both the prominence of his name in Almaty (a huge statue, a major road, and one of the Metro stops named for him) and the success seen in Almaty, many Kazakhs probably took his words to heart.

There was a forward by someone named Nursultan Umbetov who is living, but far less famous (internationally, at least) than Kunanbayev. However, that front matter is the only ancillary matter for the edition I read. It does have explanatory footnotes where necessary to clarify something that wouldn’t make sense to non-Kazakhs.

If you want to gain insight into Kazakh culture, and how it’s changed since the 19th century, this book is worth reading. Much of the book may be viewed as trite truisms rather than earth-shattering wisdom, but it’s concise and well-articulated.

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