Book review

The Daily Stoic

366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

by Ryan Holiday

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

There’s been a huge revival in the Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism in the past few years, and this book is a good example of what it yields. It’s a series of daily quotations from the great Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Each quotation is accompanied by a paragraph or two of discussion, underlining the key points. It’s well done, with readable and un-stuffy new translations of the originals, and the presentation is good.

I read this book at the average pace of the one meditation a day for which it was written, although I must admit I would sometimes loose track for a week or ten days, and then do some catching up. If one can hold a thought in one’s head, and follow through on it for the day, it’s hard to see the day not being the better for it. There’s a reason why these observations have lasted nearly two thousand years.

My qualms, such as I have them, are I suppose based on an underlying niggle of disquiet. Look at the philosophers quoted: Marcus Aurelius – very successful general, somewhat reluctant but well-regarded emperor; or Seneca – senator, playwright, adviser to the emperor Nero. These are powerful men, at the top of whatever power hierarchy was going. Is this a philosophy for the rich and powerful, enabling them to keep what they have with a clear conscious, thinking they could give it all up if they had to (although, mostly, they don’t…)? And all the while lecturing us that we, too, should be content with what we have? Sometimes it seems that way: on June 23rd we have Marcus Aurelius telling us:

You could enjoy this very moment all the things you are praying to reach by taking the long way around – if you’d stop depriving yourself of them

Epictetus, to be fair, was born a slave, and grew up crippled (and Seneca was exiled, and eventually forced to take his own life when accused of plotting against Nero). Although none of Epictetus’ writings survive directly, we do have several volumes of his discourses from his pupil, including a “best of…” compilation known as the Enchiridion. It is this work that perhaps is most responsible for the modern revival of Stoicism: James Stockdale, the vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot, was shot down in the Vietnam War and spent seven and a half years in captivity, which included torture and four years of solitary confinement. He had read the Enchiridion at college, and credits it with enabling him to survive this horrific ordeal in his book Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. There are a good few Epictetus quotes in The Daily Stoic; for January 19th, for example, we have Epictetus saying:

A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish

Focus on what is in your control, as opposed to what is not. Good advice, however and wherever you are living.

In the end, it is to Epictetus’ quotations that I was perhaps most drawn. And he won’t care that I rounded my 3 1/2 star view of this book down to 3 stars, for the disquiet. “Not things, but opinions about things, trouble men”, he once wrote. Enough said.

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