Book review: The complete picture of Stoicism

“The little book of Stoicism” by Jonas Salzgeber

I am an avid student of Stoicism, who has read numerous books on the philosophy, from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, all the way to Ryan Holiday. I listen to all the available podcasts on the subject, read as many articles as I can find, and I read the Daily Stoic every morning for the 2nd year running (the 3rd reading of the book).

But as tremendously helpful as these materials are, I still left wondering on several things about Stoicism, mainly due to the scattered knowledge and wisdom from these various sources with no single source for summary that I’m aware of. This book is the answer for exactly that, the complete picture of Stoicism, which is divided into 2 parts: the background theories and the practical tools.

The first part of the book provides us with the proper history of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism. It tells the fascinating background stories of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and the fourth lesser known Stoic philosopher, Musonius Rufus, and the anonymous Stoics living in the Roman Empire time.

It is interesting to read how Zeno look up to the teachings of Socrates, and just like Socrates the Stoics met outside in the public (or on the porch) where everyone from academics to ordinary people can listen. It is also interesting to learn that Epictetus was the student of Musonius Rufus, and how Marcus Aurelius became a great Stoic philosopher after reading Epictetus’ Discourses. While a reader of Stoicism will know that Seneca was a wealthy man, this book shows by how much: his wealth was three hundred million denarii (to get an idea of how much that is worth, a month’s salary was around thirty denarii, which, at about the same period of time, was the amount of money Judas received to betray Jesus).

Moreover, in the first part of the book, there is also the author’s own Stoic Happiness Triangle, which is simple but powerful. The concept consists of Eudaimonia (living a supremely happy and smoothly flowing life) as the objective at the centre of the triangle, and the three approaches at every corner of the triangle to achieve it: 1. Live with Areté (or express your highest self in every moment) 2. Focus on what you control 3. Take responsibility.

But the real gem of the book got to be the 2nd part of the book, the practical tools. It consists of 55 Stoic practices, 1-21 of which are on preparing practices, 22-38 on how to deal with yourself when life gets tough, and 39-55 on how to handle yourself when other people challenge you. These Stoic practices serve like Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic, with the organisation of information similar like Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, which makes the book a perfect go-to source for “what would a Stoic do?” in seemingly every situations imagined.

At the very core, what you do with the given circumstances matters much more in Stoicism. It’s not what happens in the uncontrollable world around us, but our choice of action in response to it. It’s not what happens to us, but our interpretation on it that will hurt us.

Stoicism also emphasis the importance of self-reflection. As the author, Jonas Salzgeber, said “[t]his is why daily reflection routines are crucial in Stoic philosophy—if you don’t know where you went wrong, how are you supposed to improve as a person? If you don’t know how you want to behave in the world, how can you be your best?”

Another favourite of mine is the attitude towards hardship, in which Seneca commented “I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” He then elaborate that God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him, and fits him for his own service.” On this note, Epictetus made a remark that, without struggles, “[o]bviously, [Hercules] would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.”

The book also covers the side of Stoicism that resonates with my 2nd favourite life philosophy: minimalism. According to Jonas Salzgeber, the Stoics favour a simple lifestyle. In fact, Musonius Rufus advises us to, as written by Salzgeber, “dress to protect our bodies, not to impress other people. Seek the necessary, not the extravagant. The same is true for our housing and furnishings. They should be functional and do little more than keep out heat and cold, and shelter us from the sun and wind.” Meanwhile Seneca commented that “no person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” Yes, that’s contentment checked too.

Naturally, in the 55 practices there are also the Stoicism “greatest hits”, with the likes of putting ourselves in temporary discomfort to eliminate the fear of worst case scenario (practice no 8), contemplating our own death to better appreciate our life (practice no 5), keeping a role model (practice no 11), and another of my favourite, what Seneca teaches that “wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness” (practice no 44). And what happens if someone directly insult you, lie to you, hurt your feeling, cheat on you, steal from you, annoy you? Chapter 8 (practice no 39 – 55) give the solution for all of them.

All in all, it is yet another excellent book on Stoicism, that I will surely read and re-read in the future, especially for the 55 practices that are timeless and will be very useful until old age. Highly recommended.

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