Seneca’s suicide, at the order of the emperor Nero, presents a macabre scene. Previously adviser to the fickle, impetuous, paranoid, thin-skinned emperor, Seneca was erroneously implicated in an assassination plot and was ordered to take his own life. Seneca’s wife, Pompeia Paulina, distraught at her aged husband’s sentence, convinced him that they should die together, and so both opened their veins in the hope of expiring at the same moment.
Hearing of this, Nero intervened and Pompeia was spirited away and patched up, the philosopher condemned to die alone. Scholar Simon Critchley writes in his irreverent and appropriately titled The Book of Dead Philosophers that Seneca’s “death is more tragicomic than heroic.” Critchley explains that “because of an aged frame attenuated by a frugal diet,” Seneca’s blood was too thin; he requested the hemlock in imitation of Socrates, but the poison didn’t take. Finally, he was placed in a scalding bath and suffocated to death with steam, like an ancient Roman Rasputin ultimately done in by the shower.
Seneca was a theorist of Stoicism, that classical philosophical school drawing its name from the “Stoa Poikile,” the painted porch at Athens’ agora where the earliest proponents taught. Stoics recommended living according to reason and virtue; they extolled moderation above all things and advocated facing fortune and adversity, even death, alike with an even temper. Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne contended that to “study philosophy is to learn to die.” Montaigne had in mind the lessons of Seneca himself, who argued that “He who has learned how to die has unlearned slavery,” for it may be a “great deed to conquer Carthage, but a greater deed to conquer death.” Critchley explains that for Seneca, the “important thing is to be prepared for death, to be courageous.”
As with Socrates, whose death was famously depicted by the neoclassical French painter Jacques-Louis David as a variety of class seminar that happened to end with the teacher’s suicide, Seneca’s execution provides means to contemplate the philosophical end. Spanish artist Manuel Dominguez Sanchez presented the subject in his 1871 painting “The Suicide of Seneca,” showing us the elderly, emaciated, pale body of the philosopher with his arm over the side of the bathtub like Jean-Paul Marat in David’s more famous painting. One of Seneca’s students, in a seemingly non-Stoic pose, lies slumped near the corpse, grieving with face obscured. To the back left a crowd of calmer men stand, but of the corpse itself it’s impossible to say whether Seneca met eternity with courage or not. Yet if there is any lesson about Stoicism for its critics, it might as well be in the waxy pallor of Seneca’s languid body, for the very word “Stoicism” has long connoted insult, signifying the stern, unemotional, robotic, unforgiving ethos of somebody who lives life as if they were already a corpse.
According to Ward Farnsworth, that understanding is wrong, and he exonerates an unfairly impugned philosophy in his idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual. Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and former clerk for retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Farnsworth previously authored two well-received books: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, and as with those earlier volumes, his tone is erudite, patient, and at times dryly whimsical.
Contrary to being stern and unfeeling, Farnsworth argues that Stoicism is “a humble philosophy … a regimen for training the mind” that is deeply concerned with others and is fundamentally a “form of psychological hygiene.” Stoicism shares with the similarly maligned ancient philosophy Epicureanism a concern with “human nature and its management,” eschewing abstraction for pragmatism, metaphysics for what actually works. Farnsworth explains that the Stoics were “highly practical,” having “offered solution to the problems of everyday life, and advice about how to overcome our irrationalities.” As part of his defense, Farnsworth hopes to produce an actual guide for living the Stoic life, as based on concisely presenting “what the Stoics themselves said.”
A succinct expression could be summarized in Marcus Aurelias’s assertion that “If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.” From that observation comes all of Stoicism’s insights; Seneca’s approach to life is that “We must make it our aim to have already lived long enough,” and his position on acquisition is that the “shortest way to riches is to despise riches.” Human life is buffeted too much by arbitrary “externals,” by the desire for wealth, acclaim, sex, power, and so on, but the feeding of the beast never brings respite, for the beast can always hunger more. Rather, tranquility is attained by learning to silence the beast.
The Practicing Stoic is organized into 12 “lessons,” ranging from how to approach death to how to contend with adversity, desire, and emotion. In pursuit of those queries, he gathers short selections from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (who was an emperor as well as a philosopher), whose lives briefly overlapped during the first century of the Common Era when men like Caligula, Claudius, and Nero reigned in a manner that was anything but even-tempered and moderate.
Several later “students,” including Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, and Arthur Schopenhauer, are included, naturally raising the question: Why those philosophers and not others? Why not Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, or the Buddha, whose approach to suffering and detachment is shockingly similar to that of the Stoics? For that matter, in giving modern Stoics their due, an argument could be made for Bill W., author of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous which explored a sort of folk-cognitive-behavioral version of the doctrine and is arguably the most widely read “Stoic” text in the world today. What all of these varied figures share is the principle that “We should stake our well-being on what we can control and let go of attachment to what we cannot.”
Farnsworth explores manifestations of that axiom, providing short, elegant commentary on quotes that contend with whatever is under discussion. Despite sometimes being dry, he is insightful; though he is occasionally repetitive, he is convincing. Farnworth’s prose, is, well, stoic, but it’s also useful—as it should be. As Farnsworth writes, “A large share of Stoicism might be viewed, in effect, as interpretation of two famous inscriptions above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself; nothing in excess.” What could be more helpful than that?
The Practicing Stoic is one of many philosophical self-help books, contending with the primordial question: “How am I to live?” Julian Baggini has made a cottage industry out of the genre, having authored The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Alain de Botton rivals Baggini; his “School of Life” is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence,” and he cribbed from Boethius with his The Consolations of Philosophy, considered God (or the lack thereof) in Religion for Atheists, and penned the amazingly titled How Proust Can Change Your Life—even if the French novelist isn’t a philosopher, he’s at least philosophical.
Farnsworth hasn’t even cornered the market on Stoicism alone, as there is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, Massimo Piglucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, and even The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (prepared for leap years), by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, including more scholarly considerations by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum. Indeed there is a Stoic Solutions Podcast, The Practical Stoic Podcast, and an Annual Stoic Week held online, with the nerdy, masculinist ethos particularly popular in Silicon Valley. In The Conversation, Matthew Sharpe describes this online community “numbering over 100,000 participants” as being “Stoicism 5.0.” And of course, the biggest seller in the category of “philosophical self-help,” though not Stoic in nature, is the controversial right-wing Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s grandiosely titled 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Seemingly there is a genuine desire for not just answers but meaningful answers, which this somewhat gimmicky genre supplies. Of variable insight, I can’t speak to the efficacy of all of these titles, but I can attest to the intellectual honesty of Farnsworth’s volume and the helpfulness in his centering on the primary sources themselves. Peterson’s best-seller is basically a mixture of Jungian pablum and unconvincing sociobiology masquerading as science, whereas Farnsworth’s guide is rigorous, well-argued, and applicable. No doubt Peterson would (and does) dispute such characterizations of 12 Rules for Life, and yet the thread of Western chauvinism, misogyny, and nativist triumphalism peers out through his claims, the better to counter with a cosmopolitanism as exemplified by Epictetus’s credo that “When asked what country you are from, do not say ‘I am Athenian’ or ‘I am from Corinth.’ Say … ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (A crucial position as nationalists polish their jackboots.)
One of Farnsworth’s strengths is that he’s resolutely nonpartisan, as opposed to the thinly veiled reactionary politics of a Peterson, and in the process, Farnsworth actually speaks far more to contemporary concerns by counterintuitively not particularizing our moment. Where Peterson offers a banal “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” Marcus Aurelius invokes the profound “everything you see changes in a moment and will soon be gone”; one hopes that 12 Rules for Life is one of those transient things. Farnsworth jokes that “Some would regard Marcus Aurelius as a notably poor motivational speaker. For the Stoic he is among the only kind tolerable,” but who needs Peterson with his lobster serotonin when you can have Marcus Aurelius?
Farnsworth is valuable because he isn’t transient, keeping with the seemingly universal character of the movement that he advocates, though he quips that despite “repeating … claims written 2,000 years ago,” the honest “Stoic would presumably say it’s still early.” Such is his good-natured humor, reflecting the humility of his philosophy. There is a stolid Victorianism in Farnsworth’s prose, the better to convey timelessness so that he’s convincing when he claims that the “most productive advice anyone offers nowadays, casually or in a bestseller, often amounts to a restatement or rediscovery of something the Stoics said with more economy, intelligence, and wit long ago.”
Farnsworth’s claim may be sweeping, but he convinces you, not by making those connections explicit but in letting you infer them. When Seneca writes, “there is not one [person] whose life is not focused on tomorrow. What harm is there in that, you ask? Infinite harm. They are not really living. They are about to live,” I note the concept of “mindfulness,” of “living in the present.” When the poet Horace, a Stoic fellow-traveler, observes that “they change their climate, not their disposition, who run beyond the sea,” I hear echoes of the warning in the recovery community against “pulling a geographic.” And when Seneca imagines the possibility of “looking down upon the earth from above” and saying to oneself, “Is this the pinpoint that is divided by sword and fires among so many nations?” I see prophetic intimations of the beautiful “Earthrise” photograph taken in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot.”
Strangely, Stoicism’s most helpful sentiment is that cosmic sensibility. A crackerjack account of intellectual history emphasizes a tendency toward humility as humans realized their less privileged place in existence, from Copernicus to Darwin to modern cosmology, but the Stoics anticipated this by two millennia. Marcus Aurelius noted that “the whole of the sea is a drop in the universe … all the present time is one point in eternity”; while other emperors built themselves monuments, this particular emperor had the wisdom to understand that this, too, shall pass. Such comes the ethic that “Our ultimate insignificance makes the case for living well in the present, for no other purpose survives,” as Farnsworth explains.
Stoicism’s continuing relevance is its ability to help us cope with the ever-mounting anxieties of postmodernity, the daily thrum of Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the queasy push notifications and the indignities of being a cog in the shaky edifice of late capitalism (or whatever). Even more than that, Stoicism is attuned to the largest problems that our species faces, perched on the verge of extinction. Quoting Marcus Cato, Seneca wrote that “As for the cities that ever held sway over the world … someday people will ask where they were,” adding with almost eerie insight that perhaps “severity of climate will drive their people away, and neglect will destroy what they have abandoned.”
Mature insights offered by Stoicism during the humid days of the Anthropocene. Such may be the position of the literary scholar Roy Scranton, who in We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change is an eloquent theorist of what it means to live on the precipice of ecological collapse. Hard not to hear Seneca’s voice as Scranton imagines “some unknown future, on some strange and novel shore, human beings just like us … sitting circled around a fire on the beach … one telling a story about a mighty civilization doomed by its hubris, an age of wonders long past.”
We need not distinguish between the planet’s mortality and our own, for as Seneca wrote, “We live in the midst of things destined to die.” What Stoicism offers is a way of life in the midst of death, a maturity toward what extinction means. Seneca claimed that “We go astray in thinking that death follows, when it has both preceded and will follow. Whatever conditions existed before our birth, was death.” I’d heard similar arguments before, but after reading that in Farnsworth, something about the reasoning struck me like a neophyte in a Zen parable who is suddenly enlightened.
What is death to fear when there was a time that we did not exist? When we were already dead? I’ve read of a tradition where a Roman general would triumphantly parade through the streets, with golden laurels and purple-trimmed robe, and as part of this precession, an enslaved person would whisper in the ear of the victor that “You too are mortal.” Stoicism is a philosophy of memento mori, of reminding us of that simple yet profound fact. What The Practicing Stoic argues—and convinces us of—is that this philosophy of mortality provides a measure of freedom to both the general and the person whispering in his ear.