Top positive review
Courage, Temperance, Justice, Wisdom
Reviewed in the United States on September 30, 2020
This book is a history of Stoicism. More accurately it is a compilation of mini-biographies of the most famous Stoics from Zeno (334 BCE – 262 BCE) to Marcus Aurelius (121 AD - 180 AD), the Platonian philosopher king, as well as Cicero, Cato the Younger, and Porcia Cato the Iron Woman, among others.
Stoicism is built around four virtues: “Courage, Temperance, Justice, [and] Wisdom.” And that’s pretty much it. There are no rituals, no sacred text, and no organized institution of worship.
There were recognized “leaders”, Zeno being the first, but they didn’t have offices or official duties, as Stoics at least. They were teachers, authors, politicians, and generals. Aurelius even became Emperor.
They were considered philosophers, but few resembled philosophers as most of us think of that moniker today. The word philosophy has had an extremely fluid and often imprecise etymology over the centuries. The first definition offered by Webster’s today is “all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts.” At the time of Newton, however, science and philosophy were used synonymously. During the early days of Stoicism, “Zeno divided the curriculum of Stoicism into three parts: physics, ethics, and logic.”
The meaning of stoicism has changed as well. “The word ‘stoic’ in English [today] means the unemotional endurance of pain.” To the Stoics, however, Stoic was all about the active pursuit of virtue and justice. It was a pro-active quality, not a defense mechanism.
There was/is an emphasis on listening. “Zeno said that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason…” And it was forward looking. We die the day we are born in the sense that the time already past in our lives is not something we can do anything about. We can only try harder, pursuing to improve that which we can control and accepting that which we can’t. Don’t worry about the rules, just do it, to adopt a modern commercial tag line.
The other distinguishing characteristic of Stoicism is the emphasis on the common good, not self-interest. Many Stoics went into politics out of a sense of obligation, not a grab for power and wealth.
Stoicism is a way to live that no Stoic has ever fully achieved, however, although some of the Stoics described clearly led virtuous lives by any standard. But not perfect.
Many were born into wealth and privilege. Nearly all accepted the institution of slavery (one of the most famous Stoics had been a slave) and the brutality of war. But, as the authors conclude, “Most of all, the Stoics taught us by the fact that they tried.”
I was often reminded of Confucius (551 BCE – 479 BCE) throughout the book and he is referenced a few times. Confucius lived during a tumultuous time in the history of China. Neighboring fiefdoms were at constant war and Confucius was ultimately called upon to help sort it all out.
He concluded that peace could never be fully maintained by the armed agents of the state (i.e. the police or the military). As soon as that authority leaves, as lethally as it may be armed, the mayhem would return. He understood, quite correctly, that self-restraint is the only weapon against constant bedlam and that self-restraint would only take hold if there was a value system of peace and cooperation shared by all. And for him that value system turned on the internalization of values and behaviors built on an inviolate sense of obligation to others. (Pretty Stoic, I think.)
It is a worthy set of values, to be sure. But not always easy to live by 24/7. There are contradictions in every philosophy and belief system. A devout Stoic, Rusticus had a Christian who did no more than follow his faith put to death. Not because he found him deserving – he didn’t - but because that was the law of Rome at the time. And Seneca, one of history’s most famous Stoics, was a tutor and advisor to Nero, perhaps the most deranged and ruthless leader of all time.
But why write this book now? Stoicism remains an active, if inconspicuous, philosophy among many, including some in positions of political power.
Well, there is little possible debate that America today is starting to look a lot like Rome before its collapse. Greed, corruption, and the pursuit of self-interest at the expense of the common good are in abundant supply. And these are, in fact, the antithesis of the virtue and justice that Stoicism stands for. If only we had three ears and four eyes and could look away from our technology for just a moment we’d see it.
In the end this is a very good book and very well written by two authors who are eminently qualified to write it. I didn’t give it a 5 only because that didn’t seem like the Stoic thing to do. Just kidding. I would have liked to see more philosophical exploration of why the four virtues are the right ones, but that is admittedly a failure of my own expectation, not the authors’ promise, which they deliver fully on.
Read it. You will learn much from the lives portrayed.