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.
In 2010, Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric became an unlikely bestseller and was immortalized here at The Millions by Steven Dodson. Rhetoric functions on a micro scale, and some of its instructive value may even come across as perfunctory because, like linguistics and grammar, we all regularly employ rhetorical techniques without knowing their names.
But even for those familiar elements, there is still use in learning its definition and seeing some effective examples. For instance, here is Ward Farnsworth on asyndeton, which is when a writer omits a conjunction that would ordinarily be there:
a. The omission of the conjunction is irregular and unexpected, and thus can create a moment of emphasis.
b.The omission suggests that each of the items has independent force…
c. Omitting conjunctions may suggest that the items mentioned are restatements of one another, or that each is a substitute for the last, rather than a list of independent entries.
And so on through the letter g. Though we all undoubtedly have read and used asyndeton, it is unlikely that many were aware of the term or had heard it defined so eloquently. People rarely realize the linguistic tools in their arsenal but still use them to their full effect; English speakers can conjugate a verb into the pluperfect verb tense, successfully and comprehensively, without ever having heard of it by name.
Besides helping common readers understand the things they’re already saying and making them very easy to understand, Farnsworth also takes you on a tour of literary efficacy. Rhetoric as a subject, and Farnsworth as a writer, are not interested in the larger and more ineffable artfulness of literature — structure, setting, character, dialogue, et al (and good thing, too, because those components are not teachable the way rhetoric is, and often those how-to-write-better volumes end up discouraging and daunting, as if one’s inability to learn from The Great Gatsby or In Cold Blood pointed to an overall failing. I’ve read over a dozen such books, and mostly they succeed only at showing just how great the great writers are, and just how large the gap between you and them really is).
Farnsworth focuses on subtler and more achievable examples, like this one for asyndeton, which comes from former MP Neil Kinnock: “The House of Lords must go — not be reformed, not be replaced, not be reborn in some nominated life-after-death patronage paradise, just closed down, abolished, finished.” This is an extremely effective use of asyndeton but it’s also clear and practically instructive example. You can see how you might use it.
Farnsworth’s Rhetoric succeeded despite the many barriers to success in the marketplace for a book on classical writing because it repeatedly and implicitly reiterates the reasons these rhetoricians and writers were so successfully and memorably communicative. But instead of merely extolling their virtues and leaving the aspiring writer in the literary dust, Farnsworth, by getting down to the nitty-gritty of sentences, actually winds up doing something much more worthwhile — that is, he uses iconic figures as representative examples without making the reader feeling hopelessly inadequate. When Charles Dickens or Herman Melville, et al, put all their sentences together, something enigmatic and more profoundly artful emerges — but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the sentences without even stepping into the paragraphs or the chapters in which they appear.
With his last book, Farnsworth was able to make ancient methodologies relevant, the craftsmanship of major authors explicable, and the fine and minute mechanisms teachable. And all of it done with typical British primness — i.e., with unceremonious eloquence, zero contemporaneous sources, and little humor — which actually aids in Farnsworth’s project, because it means he doesn’t fuck around. With each chapter set up like an entry in a dictionary, his Rhetoric is like an encyclopedia of selected terms, less essayistic than it is economical, which ought to make it dry and dull. There is no fat in Farnsworth’s work, but it’s nonetheless a nourishing meal.
Now, six years on, Farnsworth has produced a sequel (a term associated more with Hollywood franchises than with manuals on literary technique). Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor duplicates its predecessor in approach and structure and voice and directness, and for all intents and purposes is just as fun and accessible, too. But Farnsworth’s latest subject, the metaphor, makes his follow-up better and more insightful than the first one, but also, in some ways, less useful, a fact that has less to do with Farnsworth’s skill and more to do with the metaphor’s nuanced utility. It is not that Farnsworth doesn’t do an excellent job illuminating the various ways we use language to compare things — sometimes the only means of apt description — or that his examples are less instructive or applicable. Rather, it is that the metaphor is simply employed far less often than the enormous toolbox of rhetoric, and, when it is used, its power stems less from its structure and more from the lucidity and the inventiveness and the clarity of the comparison. Metaphors have a quality of “wrongness,” as Walker Percy put it in 1975’s The Message in the Bottle (a book way too recent to have assumed Farnsworth has read it), and “that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.”
Farnsworth, of course, is acutely aware of his subject’s elusiveness and sets about his project with clear-eyed fortitude:
Good metaphors are not usually the result of calculation and planning; they are made intuitively, just as they are consumed, and often well up from sources that seem half-conscious (as perhaps they are; we dream in metaphors). They process of educating the intuition and imagination is best carried out with light doses of theory and long immersion in examples. This books supplies illustrations in heaping quantities. It puts related cases near each other to invite comparisons of comparisons, to inspire the eye, and to suggest, in a short space, the range of uses that a give metaphorical idea may have.
Moreover, he separates out what he sees as the general effect of metaphor types from the specific content of individual cases, and because — as was his practice in his Rhetoric — Farnsworth spends no time extolling the skills of his paragons, the types emerge as cumulatively edifying instead of discretely intimidating. He also disavows the arbitrarily emphasized distinction between metaphors and similes, choosing instead to include all literary comparisons in the one term. Farnsworth knows the score and makes a point to simplify things down to their most instructional essence.
But as we all know, the best laid plans of mice and academics mean shit in the end. So how does Farnsworth, in a practical sense, approach the enterprise? Is he successful? What can an ordinary reader (or an aspiring novice) gain from it? And lastly but most significantly, are the insights as transferable as they were in Rhetoric?
The answer to the first question is that his approach remains exactly the same — that is, dividing the metaphor into usage subcategories, briefly commenting on their effects, and providing, to use his term, “heaping quantities” of demonstrative quotations. The answer to the second — regarding whether or not he’s successful — is a resounding hell yes. Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor is a feat of elegant demystification. The metaphor, for all its slipperiness, turns out to be just as divisible and as generalized as rhetorical devices, though the classifications are different. Whereas rhetoric comes equipped with esoteric terms and specific definitions, here Farnsworth delineates the various sources from which comparisons are made — “the animal kingdom; nature (apart from animals); human behavior, circumstances, and institutions; stories of various kinds, as from history, myth, or literature; [and] man-made objects: machines, architecture, tools, etc.” Though, as Farnsworth admits, this list is a tad reductive, the book is all the better for it, as it points to a seemingly obvious but oft-obscured fact that although the things writers hope to describe or communicate are infinite, the things to which they refer in order to do so are, in a sense, not. Thus is Farnsworth able to focus on the finite material of metaphorical referents — which are, again in a loose sense, somewhat stable — without having to bother with the original item or idea those referents aid in depicting. Writers, then, can begin with their own content and then can mine Farnsworth’s text for potential sources — and what’s more, there is also intelligent commentary on each source’s tonal implications and general efficacy. It’s quite a brilliant strategy, both in its utility for writers and the inherent insight Farnsworth’s divisions suggest about his subject — i.e., that metaphors can be defined by the things to which they compare rather than the things being compared. To use a classic metaphor, if the world is a stage, Farnsworth’s lessons lie inside the theater; the world, on the other hand, is up to you.
But here’s the rub: any sentence you write is filled with rhetorical potential, so even a cursory glance at rhetoric’s principles can greatly assist your impact; metaphors, meanwhile, are less frequently employed, so even though the lessons of Farnsworth’s Metaphor are more nuanced and astute, they are also less applicable. Now of course anyone picking up the book will know what they are getting into and so probably wouldn’t even register (let alone complain about) such a subtle distinction. I only make this comment because of the wild success of its predecessor — which is why this new work exists in the first place — and, more importantly, to disavow any attempt to connect the immense value of this book with its sales and how it does or does not fail to live up to financial expectations. Farnsworth’s Rhetoric was a good book for a wide audience; Farnsworth’s Metaphor is a great book for a smaller one. But for those who venture into Farnsworth’s level-headed take on murky abstractions, the benefits will be less far-reaching, less comprehensively employable, but they will also be richer, longer-lasting, and as demystifying and powerful as the strongest metaphors — an unexpected perspective that allows you see the thing anew, or even for the first time.