I have been reading many modern philosophical and Stoical books recently and they have proved very enlightenning, comforting and inspiring. Below are my reviews of my six current favourites.
Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann, Polity Press, 2017
I read this book after reading a passage of it featured in the Guardian's 'Inner Life' section. It was the book that lead me to explore Stoicism further and reconnect with my earlier love of philosophy. The book is a kind of 'anti-self-help' guide and uses a seven step model to help us resist the craziness of an accelerating culture. The steps recommended include stop trying to find yourself, practice negative (Stoical!) thinking, say no to change for the sake of change, read more fiction and spend time reflecting on the past.
The antidote by Oliver Burkeman, Canongate Books, 2012
This book felt much lighter than the other books I have been reading. It is less about philosophy in general or Stoicism in particular and more an entertaining romp through modern self-help ideas, which he goes on to dissect and offer 'antidotes' to. I'm happy that Stoicism is offered as one of the cures as is Buddhism and John Keats.
A guide to the good life by William B. Irvine, Oxford University Press, 2009
This is my favourite book on modern Stoicism written in a very readable style. It contains lots of good, common sense advice on dealing with insults, doing your duty, overcoming 'anti-joy' and facing death. It also explains how to use Stoic techniques to live a better life, such as negative visualisation which can help you escape the hedonic treadmill by encouraging you to contemplate the loss of that which you cherish. It also covers fatalism, self-denial and meditation. There is a historical look at the ancient Greek and Roman stoics at the beginning and some guidance on how to adopt stoicism as a philosophy of life today at the end.
Philosophy for life and other dangerous situations by Jules Evans, Random House, 2012
My philosophical reading had been somewhat fixated on the Stoics and I was beginning to wonder what valuable insights other ancient philosophers might be able to bring to my modern life. This book and its author satisfied my curiousity quite nicely. The book follows an imaginary study day at the ancient School of Athens, an interesting mind excursion to a different time and place. The day begins with a lesson about practical philosophy influenced by Socrates. The author discusses Socrates' teaching, illuminated by his recent encounters with CBT. The day continues in a similar way, the Stoics take over the morning lessons, with excursions into Epictetus and the serenity prayer, Musonious Rufus and Seneca. We get Epicurus for lunch and mysticism and skepticism in the afternoon. After a bit of Plato, Plutarch, Aristotle and politics we return to Socrates to contemplate our own ends. Despite its ancient roots many of the experiences illuminating the philosophy were modern. It felt a very relevant and satisfying read.
How to be a stoic by Massimo Pigliucci, Penguin Books, 2017
This book is more specific than just being about stoicism. The author focuses on one particular stoical philosopher, Epictetus. Epictetus is known as the slave-philosopher and his tough, but also gentle, advice runs throughout this thought-provoking book. The part I found most useful were the twelve practical spiritual exercises at the end, these were a kind of stoical twelve steps to help you live more in tune with the four stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. In these twelve steps the author encourages us to look beyond the impression of things, to see into their nature, to pause and reflect, to make good choices and to be humble and generous.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, Penguin Books, 2001
I nearly forgot that my modern interest in philosophy began with Alain De Botton's 'Consolations of Philosophy' and before that Jostein Gaarder's 'Sophie's World'. This book was turned into a wonderful six part TV series called 'Philosophy: a guide to happiness', about seventeen years ago.
The book begins with Socrates who offers us a consolation for unpopularity. Socrates was ugly, eccentric and annoying, but also wise and the be-all and end-all when it comes to philosophers. He was so unpopular that the people of Athens condemned him to death, which lead to him being compelled to take his own life. He shows that regardless of whether it's popular or unpopular you should always endeavour to do the right thing.
Epicurus offers us a consolation for not having enough money. The Epicurean way was to enjoy a simple diet, a few friends and to savour what you have, not waste money on extravagant luxuries that ultimately won't make you any happier.
Seneca on frustration is a brief introduction to this great Stoical philosopher. He lived in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty and was eventually sentenced to death by Emperor Nero. Seneca and the Stoics believed that a life of practising virtue and reflection could lead to inner peace and a better world. Eventually the Roman Empire would be ruled by the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, which I think is a great advert for the steadfast, Stoical approach, which could also be a workable solution in our own lives of quiet desperation.
In Montaigne on inadequacy we become acquainted with a lesser known philosopher who made a habit of dwelling on humankind's more embarrassing aspects, frailties, failures and weaknesses. Perhaps this is why he is lesser known.
Unromantic, grumpy and misogynistic: Schopenhauer does not seem the ideal candidate to offer us consolations for a broken heart, but by concentrating on the biological need to reproduce and to reproduce well, he does just that.
Difficulties are left up to Nietzsche. He had interesting things to say about striving for better things in life, that good comes from a struggle. He didn't like Christianity and criticised it for celebrating subjection, weakness, mediocrity and failure, or something like that. I think I'm a Stoic Christian, which, for me, is about accepting my weaknesses and living a virtuous life while also striving for something better; a kind of middle way approach.