Can Stoicism teach us how to live? A lot of people seem to think so. They identify as “modern Stoics,” a movement that has gained traction over the past two decades, with thousands of members now congregating online and off to practice a self-help version of the philosophical life. They include athletes, military officers, CEOs, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and writers like The New Yorker’s Elif Batuman, who described in a 2016 feature for the magazine how the Stoic philosopher Epictetus helped her cope with a long-distance relationship and sneaky taxi drivers in Turkey.

Though modern Stoicism has its roots in the culture of self-improvement, it also has more serious philosophical champions. One of these is Massimo Pigliucci, whose recent How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life proposes to bring Stoicism from “second-century Rome” to “twenty-first-century New York.” A professor of philosophy at the City College of New York, Pigliucci is best known for his work in the philosophy of science. In his latest book, he discusses his Catholic upbringing in Rome and his rejection of religion as a teenager. To find meaning in his life and, as he grew older, to prepare for death, Pigliucci tried out different systems of belief. Buddhism was “too mystical,” secular humanism “too dependent on science,” but Stoicism hit the spot. It was “a rational, science-friendly philosophy” that offered him an answer to the “most fundamental question: How ought we to live?”

In How to Be a Stoic, Pigliucci aims to demonstrate how we can use this philosophy to develop a moral character and attain peace of mind in three ways: by taking charge of our desires, by acting virtuously in the world, and by responding appropriately to events we can’t fully control. To update Stoicism for our 21st-century needs, he replaces its theology and cosmology with contemporary scientific views and applies it to the challenges we are likely to encounter in the modern world. Yet I question whether the core tenets of Stoicism can survive this reinvention—and even if they did, I remain doubtful that they provide the right ethical and moral framework for our time.

Like all philosophical schools in antiquity, the Stoics sought to determine what happiness is and how we can best achieve it. The Greek term for “happiness” is eudaimonia, which refers to something broader than just being in a happy state; it refers, roughly, to living a good, flourishing life. For most ancient philosophers, living virtuously was a key ingredient of eudaimonia. But the Stoics went further: Virtue, they claimed, is all we need. On this point they disagreed with Aristotle, who argued that people “talk nonsense” if they say that a virtuous person is happy even when he’s being tortured or experiencing great misfortune. The Stoics, however, stood their ground: A virtuous person, they held, is as happy on the rack as he is enjoying a fine dinner in his Roman villa surrounded by loved ones. So long as he (or she) is virtuous, the Stoic is happy under all circumstances.


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