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The Practicing Stoic, by Ward Farnsworth

Over the years I’ve read a number of different books on stoic philosophy, including some of the “modern Stoic influencers” like Ryan Holiday as well as a few translations of older philosophers like Marcus Aurelius. While I’d hardly call myself a follower of the philosophy, I do think it includes some helpful ideas, and it’s occasionally been a useful lens for dealing with some problem I’ve been dealing with.

I struggled with both sets of writing, however, for different reasons. The modern writers often made me roll my eyes, often clearly pitching at entrepreneurs and CEOs, and billing an ancient philosophy as a life hack. The work of the ancients, I found more interesting, but difficult to contextualize and navigate.

Over the recent US holidays, during some much needed time off, I ran across The Practicing Stoic, a book by Ward Farnsworth which took an interesting approach. Farnsworth chose a number of Stoic philosophers from the late Roman Empire, specifically Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca, then organized excerpts of their work around particular topics such as adversity, managing emotion, virtue, and so on. He also included occasional commentary from later European philosophers, though as far as I can tell avoided quoting from anyone writing later than 1900 or so. Importantly, while he includes some explanatory text around these excerpts, he doesn’t seem to inject too much of his own opinions or try to “adapt” the philosophy to modern problems.

(The choice of those late-Roman Stoics is an intentional one that Farnsworth comments on, interestingly. He chooses this variation of the philosophy because he feels it’s more pragmatic than the earlier Greek Stoics, as well as due to more complete availability of the literature IIRC. It makes me interested to read some of that earlier work, though!)

The result, at least for me, was much more helpful than my previous reading. By organizing excerpts of the ancient philosophers’ writings and commentary, it made it much easier for me to think deeply about particular concepts. Ideally I would read the original, unexcerpted works, and find those commonalities on my own — but this isn’t a study I’ve been able to devote that much time to, and it was helpful to have someone else provide that level of organization and editing.

At the same time, this book resonated much better with me than other authors’ attempts to “modernize” the philosophy. So many of the current crop of Stoic writers seem to be using it to build a brand, pitching it as a lifestyle hack, or trying to use it in very capitalistic self-help ways. That may be helpful for many readers, but bluntly it often seemed really awkward and pandering to me. To the extent I read about philosophy, I’m looking for thinking on living “the good life” — not advice on how to level up at work or better thrive as a capitalist.

One result of reading The Practicing Stoic is that I’m actually much more motivated to go back and read (or reread) some of the original philosophers’ works.

On its own, though, this is also a book that I can see myself revisiting from time to time, for perspective or to help think more deeply about something that’s bothering me.