‘How to Live a Good Life’ Is a Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy
By BETH HARPAZ
Professor Massimo Pigliucci (City College, The Graduate Center) was scrolling through Twitter one day when he spotted an invitation to celebrate “Stoic Week.” He clicked through to a website about a modern version of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
He’s now an adherent, and better for it: “I don’t get as anxious or angry as before, and I’m developing an attitude of equanimity toward whatever the universe throws at me.” He enjoys good things “without becoming too attached.”
He shrugs off bad things because “you can’t always win, and there will possibly be better days ahead.”
Pigliucci is co-editor, with Skye C. Cleary and Daniel A. Kaufman, of a new book called How to Live a Good Life. The book is billed as a “guide to choosing your personal philosophy.” Each chapter examines a different way of thinking, from religions and ancient tenets to modern philosophies: Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, Hinduism, Progressive Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Ethical Culture, existentialism, pragmatism, effective altruism, and secular humanism.
Pigliucci wrote the chapter on Stoicism. To live your best life as a Stoic, he writes, you must embrace four fundamental virtues: practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Speaking at a recent event to launch the book, Pigliucci explained how those four virtues might be incorporated in response to a hypothetical situation: What would a Stoic do if a boss were mistreating a co-worker?
Practical wisdom means it’s “good for me, for my character, to do the right thing” by speaking out, he said. Courage means “I should do it even though I could get fired.” Justice means that you’d defend your co-worker because if the situation were reversed, you’d want them to speak up for you. Temperance means you’d neither punch your boss in the nose, nor speak so softly that you wouldn’t be heard.
Being a Stoic also means recognizing that some things are beyond your control, so you can’t control how the boss will respond to your speaking up. But “so long as we have done all we could, we should be at peace with whatever happens,” Pigliucci writes. And if that part of the philosophy sounds familiar, Pigliucci notes that it’s “found in a number of different traditions,” including the famous Serenity Prayer recited by 12-step groups everywhere: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”