How to Be a Stoic - Massimo Pigliucci

How to Be a Stoic - Massimo Pigliucci

 Video Book Summary

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Book Summary Notes

How to Be a Stoic

“So let us explore Stoicism together in a running conversation with Epictetus via his discourses. We will talk about subjects as varied as God, cosmopolitanism in an increasingly fractured world, taking care of our families, the relevance of our own character, managing anger and disability, the morality (or not) of suicide, and a lot more." 

"Other Stoic authors, both ancient and modern, will occasionally supplement what we learn from Epictetus, and sometimes I will gently push back against some of our guide’s notions, bringing up advances in philosophy and science over the intervening centuries and debating what a modern take on Stoicism might look like. The goal is to learn something about how to answer that most fundamental question: How ought we to live our lives?”

How ought we to live our lives?

The ancient Stoics developed a Philosophy that has lasted for nearly two Millenia..  

These were people from a much different time than us..

A time before cars, cell phones and social media!

One might wonder.. How could the Philosophy these people developed possible have relevance today? 

Well..  The human condition hasn't changed much!  We all seem to still be dealing with the same things.

  • Dealing with fears and doubts.. 
  • Dealing with wants and needs..
  • Dealing with each other and society..

Stoicism and it's teachings has been among the things I am most thankful for in my life!

The teachings of these philosophers has helped me get through some time times..  

Business dealings, relationships, distraction and cravings!

It's also taught me to be more grateful and thankful for things..  

People around me, life itself and the sheer time I have here on this planet!


Crippled Slave

“What a remarkable figure [Epictetus was], no?"  

"A crippled slave who acquires an education, becomes a free man, establishes his own school, is exiled by one emperor but is on friendly terms with another, and selflessly helps a young child near the end of a simple life that will continue until the very ripe age, especially for the time, of eighty."

"Oh, and most importantly, who utters some of the most powerful words ever spoken by any teacher in the entire Western world and beyond." 

"Epictetus is the perfect guide for our journey, not simply because he was the first Stoic I happened to encounter, but because of his sensitivity and intelligence, his dark sense of humor, and his disagreement with me on a number of important points, which will allow me to demonstrate the remarkable flexibility of Stoic philosophy and its capacity to adapt to times and places as different from each other as second-century Rome and twenty-first-century New York.”

Who are you learning from?

I think this is a great time to do a self inventory..  

  • Who are your teachers?
  • Who are your mentors?
  • Who are you listening too?

The fact that Epictetus had such a multifaceted and (sometimes) difficult life makes him the perfect guide for those new to Stoicism..  But why?

  • The first thing I like to look at when deciding if someone is a good mentor is: Have they been there and done that?
  • The second thing I like to look at is what are their motives?  Are they trying to sell me something and should I be skeptical because of that?
  • The third thing is who else has used this information..  What do their 'students' look like and how has the information helped other people?

When I read this passage I realized that I wasn't as stringent with the quality of my teachers, mentors and those who get my attention as I could be.. 

  • Sometimes I listen to people who don't have a proven track record..  I have bought into many a marketing plan from people who haven't actually done it before!  Almost without fail it was a mistake.
  • As an Entrepreneur many of the people who are 'looked up to' in my world are obsessed with wealth and building large businesses..  These people can often 'sell' that they are able to help you with something when they have no business doing so!
  • Once I found a mentor who was a really large business owner..  He agreed to teach me what he knew about selling in the business to business space!  After a few months working with him I had to stop.  Even though he was a great business man he was a very poor teacher.

Moral of the story?  Find yourself a high quality mentor..  Someone you can look up to, learn from and doesn't have a specific motive or something to sell.

Some Things

“One of Epictetus’s crucial points is that we have a strange tendency to worry about, and concentrate our energies on, precisely those things we cannot control."  

"On the contrary, the Stoics say, we should pay attention to the parameters in life’s equation we do control or influence: making sure that we have embarked on a voyage we really want to make, and for good reasons; spending some time researching the best crew (airline) for our ship (plane); and making related preparations."

"One of the first lessons from Stoicism, then, is to focus our attention and efforts where we have the most power and then let the universe run as it will. This will save us both a lot of energy and a lot of worry.”

What are you focusing on?

Most of the clients I see on a regular basis start our session of by 'venting' and that's a normal part of the coaching process!

  • My job as a coach quite often is to bring these people back to the moment..  
  • There might be a lot of things going on in their lives!  (Often there is).. And that's normal.
  • But just as often.. They can't control those things!  

So what should we do?

  • Let's turn our attention to the next positive step that we can take!  (This is a great way to simplify complex problems by the way). 
  • Then we go about planning our attack!  How can we accomplish the next positive thing?  (Ideally as quickly as possible). 

This is something I dealt with a lot when I was younger.. Worrying about things like

  • What other people thought about me.
  • What job I would be able to get in the future.
  • What my bank account would be eventually.
  • Most often..  If I focus on what I can control these things seem to have a way of working themselves out!

Four Virtues

“The Stoics adopted Socrates’s classification of four aspects of virtue, which they thought of as four tightly interlinked character traits: (practical) wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice." 

"Practical wisdom allows us to make decisions that improve our eudaimonia, the (ethically) good life."

"Courage can be physical, but more broadly refers to the moral aspect—for instance, he ability to act well under challenging circumstances, as Priscus and Malala did."

"Temperance makes it possible for us to control our desires and actions so that we don’t yield to excesses."

"Justice, for Socrates and the Stoics, refers not to an abstract theory of how society should be run, but rather to the practice of treating other human beings with dignity and fairness."

"One crucial feature of the Stoic (and Socratic) conception of virtue is that the different virtues cannot be practiced independently: one cannot be both intemperate and courageous, in the Stoic-Socratic meaning of the term. Although it makes perfect sense for us to say that, for instance, an individual has shown courage in battle and yet regularly drinks to excess or is ill-tempered, for the Stoics that person would not be virtuous, because virtue is an all-or-none package. I never said Stoic philosophy wasn’t demanding.”

“The Stoics derived their understanding of virtue from Socrates, who believed that all virtues are actually different aspects of the same underlying feature: wisdom. The reason why wisdom is the ‘chief good,’ according to Socrates, is rather simple: it is the only human ability that is good under every and all circumstance.”

Are you living up to these Stoic virtues?

This is a good time to do a little self inventory..

  • Think about the last few days; the interactions you've had, the temptation for gluttony you may have had or the fear that you might have felt..
  • How did you show Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice in those moments?  
  • Often this little self inventory can cause us to feel like we should have done better..  But don't beat yourself up (that's not what Stoicism is about) instead use this exercise to gather wisdom!

Here is my own personal self inventory!

  • The past few days have been VERY busy for me..  I feel as though I have been just going through the motion and not stopping - and being still enough to gain wisdom from it!
  • Lately I have been presenting in front of large crowds for my marketing business and have gained a great deal of courage (through taking actions I normally fear) which is great!
  • Temperance is probably the hardest virtue for me..  I have a real hard time being controlling my actions with food!  But lately I have been working on this virtue and gaining a lot of wisdom.
  • Justice hasn't been a virtue that I've though much about!  But here I am committing to focusing more on it in the upcoming months.

Take some time!  Write down some things for yourself (this might make a really great reflective Mind Mapping exercise!)

Right Now

“How can I use virtue here and now?" 

"‘For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it. Provoked by the sight of a handsome man or a beautiful woman, you will discover within you the contrary power of self-restraint.

"Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance."

"If you are insulted, you will discover patience."

"In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.’"

"I think of this passage as one of the most empowering Stoic writings. Epictetus, the former slave, lame, because of a once-broken leg, tells us to use every occasion, every challenge, as a way to exercise virtue, to become a better human being by constant application. Notice how he counters each temptation or difficulty with a virtue that can be practiced, deploying the Stoic concept that every challenge in life is a perfectly good chance to work on self-improvement.”

Every minute there is an opportunity to flex your virtue muscles!

Just like throwing a baseball, speaking on stage or wrestling Virtue is a set of skills you need to learn..

  • Massimo points out here how in every minute there is a chance to flex your muscles of virtue..  Making them stronger and more able to overcome harder obstacles!
  • Thus.. We could say that the harder our lives the more chance we have to develop our virtues!  (Just as Epictetus did).

Think about some of the situations in your upcoming week that might require you to flex your virtue muscles! (Then commit to flexing them and growing stronger).

  • Patience: Boredom at your job
  • Courage: Stand up for yourself 
  • Wisdom: Time for a tough decision
  • Temperance: Not giving in to office donuts
  • Justice: Interacting with someone you don't like

Here are two from me!  (Encouraging you to try your own).

This week I decide whether to make quite a large change to my business..  Something I have been waiting for!  The business is likely to be sold and I will have sold my second business successfully!

Wisdom is coming into play here..  There is a lot of emotion around this decision!  

This is a chance to step into wisdom and not let myself be swayed by emotion.

Over the next few weeks I will be traveling and won't be able to pack food with me!  I will need temperance in the face of hunger to ensure I eat in a way that will keep my energy up..

Temperance when it comes to food for me used to be 'you can't eat that because (insert reason) and that worked for a while..  But eventually it was too restrictive!

Instead I have been using Temperance in the way that I believe it was designed (Stoically) which is more like..  'That food looks delicious!  Do I want some of it?' this gives me the ability to have a portion if I am truly hungry for it!  But doesn't let me off the hook of Temperance all together.

If you have ever struggled with issues around food I really recommend you work on building this skill (it wasn't easy) but it was worth it!

12 Exercises

1. Examine your impressions.  

Epictetus exhorts us to practice what is arguably the most fundamental of his doctrines: to constantly examine our “impressions” (that is our initial reactions to events, people, and what we are being told), by stepping back to make room for rational deliberation, avoiding rash emotional reactions, and asking whether whatever is being thrown at us is under our control (in which we should act on it) or isn’t (in which case we should regard it as not of our concern).  “None of our concern” bit is often misunderstood.  The idea isn’t that we shouldn’t care about what is happening to us.  But if truly is nothing more to be done about the given situation, then we should  no longer “concern” ourselves with it, we should stop trying to do something about the situation precisely because it is outside of our control.

2. Remind yourself of the impermanence of things.  

In case of particular things that delight you, or benefit you, or to which you have grown attached, remind yourself of what they are that everything is mortal.  Then, you won’t be so distraught if they are taken from you.  Life is ephemeral and people we deeply care about maybe snatched from us suddenly and without warning.  We should constantly remind ourselves of just how precious our loved ones precisely because they may soon be gone.  Therefore, care and appreciate very much what we now have, precisely because Fate may snatch it from us tomorrow.

3. The reserve clause.  

Some people always assume that of course things will go well, since bad things only happen to other people (possibly because they somehow deserve them).  Instead, as Stoics, we should bring the reserve clause to anything we do, and even use it as personal mantra: Fate permitting.

4. How can I use virtue here and now?  

For every challenge, remember the resources you have within you to cope with it.  Faced with pain, you will discover the power of endurance.  If you are insulted, you will discover patience.  In time, you will grow to be confident that there is not a single impression that you will not have the moral means to tolerate.  Remember the goal isn’t to live an unhappy and grim life.  On the contrary, it is to achieve what the Stoics called apatheia, means tranquility of mind, as well as equanimity toward whatever life happens to throw at us.

5. Pause and take a deep breath. 

 As we have seen, Stoics handled insults very well, ideally like rocks (have you ever tried to insult rock?).  The point here, is to practice the crucial step that allows us to more rationally examine our impressions, regardless of whether they are negative, such as insults, or positive such as feeling of lust: we need to resist the impulse to react immediately and instinctively to potentially problematic situations.  Instead, we must pause, take a deep breath, perhaps go for a walk around the block, and only then consider the issue as dispassionately (in the sense of equanimity, not lack of care) as possible.  This is simple advice, and yet it is very difficult to pull off.  It is also very, very important.  Once you start seriously practicing this exercise, you will see dramatic improvements in the way you handle things, and you’ll get positive feedback from all the others who also see those improvements.

6. Other-ize.  

Epictetus reminds us her of just how differently we regard an event has affected other people when the same event affects us.  Naturally, it is far easier to maintain equanimity when little inconveniences, or even disasters, happen to others than to ourselves.  But why, really?  What makes us think that we are the universe’s special darlings, or that we ought to be?  Accidents, injuries, disease, and death are unavoidable, and while it is understandable to be distraught over them, we can take comfort in knowing that they are in the normal order of things.  The universe isn’t after anyone or at least, it isn’t after any one of use in particular!

7. Speak little and well. 

Let silence be your goal for the most part, say only what is necessary, and be brief about it.  On the rare occasions when you’re called upon to speak, then speak but not the empty one.  Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them. Begin by responding less and less talk of empty topic and occasionally introduce a more challenging one based on what you have recently read or watched and that you feel might lead to a mutually beneficial conversation with your friends.

8. Choose your company well.  

Epictetus suggests that we should be friend with other who are interested in following virtue and cultivating their character.  Our life is short, temptation and waste are always lurking, and so we need to pay attention to what we are doing and who our companion are.

9. Respond to insults with humor.  

Instead of getting offended by someone’s insults (remember, what they say is not yours to control), respond with humor.  You will better, and your vilifier will be embarrassed, or at the least disarmed.  Furthermore, it is always worth asking yourself a number of questions when you are on the receiving end of what feels like an insult.  Is this person a friend or someone you look up to?  If yes, then it is more likely that the person is just offering advice, perhaps in a somewhat pointed fashion, but with good intentions nonetheless.  Even if the person is not likely to be friendly or particularly well positioned to provide you with constructive and useful counsel, perhaps he/she is seeing something that you don’t?  In that case too, it is worth ignoring the cutting aspect of what he/she is saying in order to focus on what is that he/she may have gotten right and that may have eluded you.  There is no reason at all why insults, even when as such, cannot also be teaching moments for us.

10. Don’t speak too much about yourself.  

In your conversation, don’t dwell at excessive length on you own deeds of adventures.  Just because you enjoy recounting your exploits doesn’t mean that others derive the same pleasure from hearing about them.  Just as no one wants to sit through a slide show from your latest vacation, no one really wants to hear another person going on and on about himself/herself.  It is pretty safe to say that we are not as interesting as we think we are.

11. Speak without judging.  

The idea is to distinguish between matters of fact (to which we can assent if we find them justified by observation) and judgments (from which we generally ought to abstain, since we usually don’t have sufficient information).  Just pause for a moment and try to imagine how much better the world would be if we all refrained from hasty judgments and looked at human affairs matter-of-factly, with a bit more compassion for our fellow human beings.

12. Reflect on your day.  

Find a quiet place in your house and reflect on what has happened during the day.  The goal is to focus on the important happenings of the day, particularly those that have ethical valence.  Perhaps you had a bruising interaction with a colleague today, or didn’t treat the partner as well as you should have.  Then again, maybe we were magnanimous to other, or helpful to a friend.  For each of these types of occurrences, we write a couple lines in our philosophical diary, add as dispassionate a comment as we can muster (as if were grading our own ethical performance that day) and make a mental note of what we have learned from our experiences.

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