Top critical review
Look elsewhere for better books on Stoicism, virtue ethics, or meditation
Reviewed in the United States on October 3, 2019
This is my first book by Ryan Holiday, and I must say, I'm not overly impressed. The book wavers back and forth between insightful and inane. There is some useful advice, to be sure, including the benefits of being fully present, limiting inputs to prevent information overload, cultivating silence, turning off your cell-phone, and embracing the Stoic virtues of optimism, honesty, courage, justice, toleration, gratitude, and wisdom. This is all good advice, if not necessarily original or better covered by other Stoic philosophers.
But it is into the second part of the book where it all starts to fall apart, leading up to the cliche-fest that is the chapter titled “Accepting a Higher Power.” I get the unfortunate impression that Holiday doesn’t understand the difference between religion and philosophy. For someone supposedly well-versed in the practice of Stoicism, talk of “surrendering to a higher power” is entirely antithetical to the philosophy. Stoicism teaches us that the greatest goods are reason and virtue, and that the cultivation of virtue is entirely independent of anything external to ourselves and the people around us.
Holiday writes, “There is no stillness to the mind that thinks of nothing but itself.” This is supposed to imply that some sort of religious faith in a higher power is necessary for a meaningful life, as if a sense of awe cannot be achieved by, for example, looking through the Hubble Space Telescope, or that actually helping other people isn’t a better way to be selfless than praying. I’ll admit that I’m growing tired of reading authors projecting their own psychology into the text and assuming that those lacking religious faith are selfish and miserable. Science and humanism are enough for me, and for many other Stoics, humanists, atheists, and agnostics, thank you.
Holiday also betrays his lack of training as a professional philosopher when he insists, more than once, that if many different people believed something in the past, it must be true. This “appeal to the bandwagon” fallacy is constantly repeated, with the implication that because belief in a deity was widespread in the past that it must be true. As Holiday writes, “That was the story with Lincoln. Like many smart young people, he was an atheist early in life, but the trials of adulthood, especially the loss of his son and the horrors of the Civil War, turned him into a believer.” It’s interesting to note that Holiday doesn’t mention David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jeremey Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Denis Diderot, John Dewey, and most contemporary philosophers and scientists that were or are atheists. (Diderot and Russell didn’t have easy lives, both being imprisoned for their beliefs. But neither “smart young person” recanted their atheism later in life.)
And here’s some condescension for you: Holiday writes, in the chapter on accepting a higher power, “Perhaps you’re not ready to do that, to let anything into your heart. That’s okay. There’s no rush. Just know that this step is open to you. It’s waiting. And it will help restore you to sanity when you’re ready.”
If you enjoy being talked down to like this, you’ll love the book!
The structure of the book is also somewhat redundant. It’s broken up into three parts: mind, spirit, and body. However, the chapters titled “Say No” and “Seek Solitude” in the body section are largely a repeat of the chapters titled “Limit Your Inputs” and “Cultivate Silence” in the mind section. There is, in fact, a lot of redundancy found throughout the book, along with a large dose of empty phrases with little substance.
There are, to be fair, some redeeming qualities. The numerous biographical details are interesting, and, again, there is some genuinely good advice, particularly when Holiday sticks closest to Stoicism. However, this is not something I could recommend. I think you’d be better off reading the classics of Stoicism or contemporary philosophers specializing in Stoicism like Massimo Pigliucci.