Book Review: The Practicing Stoic

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual is a new book by Ward Farnsworth. Farnsworth is Dean of the University of Texas School of Law. He has previously written books on rhetoric, one specifically about the use of metaphor. This book struck me first and foremost as having been written with exceptional verbal clarity and precision. Perhaps that’s due in part to the author’s knowledge of rhetoric and his interest in the law.

I really enjoyed the book. It’s a valuable and well-written addition to the growing body of literature on Stoicism. In addition to being very nicely written, it’s also very well-organized and it includes many quotes from ancient Stoics and related thinkers that will probably be unfamiliar to most readers interested in Stoicism. So it definitely adds something – it’s not just another beginner’s guide to Stoicism.

The content consists of quotations from various relevant authors – from Epictetus and Cicero to Montaigne and Schopenhauer. Some of these were taken from existing translations and some are new. They’re organized thematically in chapters about the topics of judgement, externals, perspective, death, desire, wealth and pleasure, what others think, valuation, emotion, adversity, virtue, and learning. Farnsworth includes his own commentary, which I found insightful, original, and therefore quite valuable.

He concludes with a chapter called Stoicism and its critics which cites important criticisms of Stoicism made by other authors. These are addressed and, again, this is worth reading because it dispels several common misconceptions about Stoicism such as the idea that Stoics are cold-hearted, unemotional, or lacking compassion.

I particularly liked his point that the goal of Stoicism resembles the sort of emotional response we’d expect someone to have to distressing events if they could have lived much longer and experienced them enough times to become used to them. He explains the Stoic attitude to consoling grieving friends as follows…

Your attitude might resemble that of a doctor – a very good one let’s say – who has had a long career of working with dying patients and their families. In the best doctor of that sort we would find kindness, warmth, adn compassion. There would be feeling. But emotion [passion] would be unlikely. You would sympathize but you would not go through mourning of your own. You would have seen it all too many times for that.

In conclusion, I’d definitely encourage others interested in Stoicism to read this book. It’s probably one of the best books on the subject that I’ve read recently. As I mentioned above, it’s very well-written, using admirably precise language, and the selection and organization of quotes from the primary sources was very well done. Those of you who have read some books on Stoicism already will definitely find this a fresh take on things and I’d also think that newcomers to the subject would enjoy it and find it accessible.

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