I used to associate the word “stoic” with absence of emotions and stubbornness. Apparently, I was wrong. A bit. Apparently it is all about having principles and concentrating on the things of life one can actually change (the circle of influence). Everything outside of this circle is neither good nor bad, just facts and circumstances, and one can live happily by developing an indifferent attitude towards them.
The daily stoic comes in the format of an almanac, offering a short quotation by a famous greek stoic and an explanatory part offering interpretation and context. The idea is to read and meditate on a stoic teaching of the day everyday, but don’t worry, if you buy the book after January 1st you don’t need to wait a whole year to start. Although each moth has a central topic and three months are grouped around one of the key stoic principles (perception, action, will), the daily witticisms do not need to be read in order. The short format (maximum one page, sometimes only a few lines) is also makes this the ideal bathroom lecture.
So Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca, the most quoted stoics of the book, came from very different places of life. One was a roman emperor, the other a former slave made teacher and the third a rich but later exiled playwright. Yet all three shared a philosophy based on firm internal principles of self-control, justice and prudence, regarding external factors of life as unimportant. In our time of minimalism and reductionism on one side and overabundance of stimuli on the other, stoicism sounds pretty modern, and indeed, the explanatory part often shows parallels to bestselling modern self-help books. The thing is: I think I don’t get stoicism.
I am aware that The Daily Stoic wants to be a daily motivator, not a textbook for stoicism, but I do not really get it. Half of the book tells me to be good, to work hard to improve myself and get things done. The other half tells me to never aspire to have or be anything. To simply wait for good things instead of thriving for them. One half is about being just and wise, the other one is about ignoring injustice and stupidity in the world. Also, there are some problematic implications. I already did that an important principle is to concentrate on what you can influence and reduce the impact uncontrollable circumstances have on your happiness. That’s good. The stoics, however, take it up a notch and regard everything outside of their mind as irrelevant, because it could be taken away, and the key to happiness is to never desire anything. That’s terrible. It is also very easy to have no desire, if you can have everything. Remember the ancient guys that contributed most of the quotes in the book? Two of them were filthy rich and the other one made a living telling students how he didn’t have desires even before he was a well-respected citizen with a steady income. When a homeless person asks for some money, would you tell them to concentrate on their own mind instead of external, material banalities. Our world is, in many parts, pretty OK, thanks to people who decided to change their circumstances instead of blocking them out. Then we have the terrible notion that it’s your fault when you are sad, because you can always simply choose to be happy. Can you really? Maybe a better advice would be: life can be real shit and it’s OK to get upset sometimes, just don’t overdo it.Also, some of the meditations are simply annoying trivialities, reciting the endless litany of mostly disproven motivators: TV dumbs you down, social media is shallow, read lots of good books, successful people aren’t really happy, don’t waste your time reading books, the list goes on.
Stoicism has lots of great ideas, and it is intriguing to see how it influenced many modern motivational authors. I am still confused how you can at the same time have a bias for action and remain completely passive, though, and this book won’t help me. If you don’t need details, and just want a “thought of the day”, this is for you. Just keep in mind that half of the book is actually inspiring, while the other half is on the same level as those (usually misattributed) motivational quotes people slap on random images to post on their blogs. If you are interested in a stoic lifestyle but need more details, examples and instructions on how to integrate it in your life, then don’t bother.
I somewhat enjoyed it.
- Concentrate on things you can change
- Ignore other influences
- Train your mind
Holiday is a marketing and media professional and wrote several books on both marketing tricks and modern stoicism, which get advertised in this book; Hanselman is a theologist with experience in the publishing industry.
Portfolio (October 18th, 2016), english