Finished reading: The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth 📚

If I were in the business of judging books by their covers, this one would be a solid 10/10.

The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth is the best secondary introduction to the wisdom of the Roman Stoics I have yet seen, owing to the book’s unique structure. Each chapter takes on a recurring theme of Stoic wisdom, and presents a wealth of quotations from the Stoics1 (and adjacent thinkers, such as Cicero) with commentary from the author. Unlike many other secondary popular works on Stoicism, this format allows the Stoics to speak in their own words. The result is a book that is scholarly but not academic, and accessible without being a dumbed-down self-help popularisation.

Farnsworth openly admits he is not trying to give a full, rigorous account of Stoicism as philosophy per se. Rather, his goal is to provide a readable and useful collection of what the Stoics said on a range of topics such as death, desire, and adversity, while offering some of his own thoughts in each chapter on how one might learn from these teachings today. It’s clear that this is a personal interpretation of these ancient thinkers that is faithful and reverent without being dogmatic. After all, the Stoics each had their own spin on the philosophy, and so can we.

This is most evident in the final chapter, in which Farnsworth responds to the common criticisms of the Stoics. On the perceived heartlessness of the Stoics, Farnsworth offers an idiosyncratic but quite instructive analogy as to the kind of emotional character the student is Stoicism is aiming toward — essentially, that of the kindly old person. Their hotheadedness, greed, and anxieties have been softened through experience, allowing a gentle compassion to shine through without interference from emotional reactivity. In Farnsworth’s view, Stoic wisdom and practice accelerate the student toward something like this ideal.

I would recommand this book to anyone interested in Stoicism. There’s no substitute for the primary texts, but if you’ve read Marcus’s Meditations and Epictetus’s Handbook, this book is a wonderful thematic tour of the rest of the Stoic canon.

  1. By “the Stoics”, I mean the three Roman Stoic writers — Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — whose works have survived. Virtually nothing has survived from the earlier Greek school. ↩︎