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Should you buy this book?
on 17 February 2015
Should you buy this book?
*skip to summary for quick version*
If you buy this book, it is something you will need to read, reread, and look over again to draw out all of the good bits of information and exercises.
But if you do this, then you will find behind these words, a most thorough introduction to how Stoicism can be used in everyday life. The author does well in mixing Stoicism with modern CBT advice, giving the ancient texts a new breath of modern relevance.
Ignore the philosophical snobs (funny they call themselves Stoics) who will tell you that to understand Stoicism you need to treat the ancient texts of Aurelius and Epictetus like a Bible. Of course you should read these books, but the modern reader will require their Stoicism to be grounded in a modern well-researched practice, and that is what this book provides. Whether you read this book before the ancient texts, or after, you will no doubt find lots of use in how lessons from Stoicism can be put into practice in a modern, scientifically backed context. Just be prepared to make a few notes as to where the exercises and key lessons are in the book, so you can return to them and put them to use.
The way the author writes about proto passions is really one of the strengths of this book. Donald Robertson explains how the ancient Stoic practice of noticing our initial psychological and bodily reactions to an external stimulus has been documented again and again by modern psychological research. And that the practice of not giving ascent to these initial reaction is one of the keys to self-discipline and psychological well-being. Its very effective, how the modern CBT practice is placed within the context of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism, and demonstrates this book at its best.
A couple of negatives. The book gets a little repetitive. The author often falls into the folly of claiming in one chapter things like "the concept of '***' is the key cornerstone to all Stoic considerations". And then undoes that in a chapter later by saying, "probably the most important concept in Stoicism is that of '&&&". I'm not saying the author contradicts himself, its just that it can be difficult for the reader to place the Stoic concepts into a kind of framework in one's mind, without going over it a couple of times.
Also, I feel the author really had to clutch at straws on a few concepts. This is particularly the case regarding some of the cosmological stuff, which is likely to raise the eyebrows of scientifically minded readers. I would say the author does a good job of sidestepping the fact that aside from ethics and practical psychological advice, the ancient Stoics truly were a wacky bunch. For example, the concept of 'eternal recurrence' receives some attention at the end of the book, where the author explains that the Stoics believed the universe to be in a constant cycle of self-detonation and restarting again, which means that ultimately the passage of time is repetitive for all of us humans who experience it. Without offering any comment as to whether or not there is any truth to this whatsoever, the author simply ends the chapter with:
"This is certainly a mind-bending concept! Perhaps it's also a good place to end, with the revelation that you've read this book countless of billions of times before, having identical thoughts and feelings along the way, and will continue to do so, over and over again, for all eternity..."
That's great, its just, you forget to mention how scientifically unfounded this claim is, and if it is at all true, we have no real way of knowing it to be so. Its the equivalent of saying, “the ancient Stoics taught that at the end of our lives, a bowl of Kellog's Corn Flakes rains down from the heavens supreme, and therefore we should all before death prepare ourselves, by taking a yearly swim in a pool of milk”. You get my point. No doubt people who enjoy horoscopes and crystals will enjoy this kind of addition to the book, but it will make more practical thinkers feel slightly alienated from a book that has otherwise stayed true to rationally founded principles.
Leaving that aside, what we have here is a book that is so well written and so demonstrative of a thoughtful author, that you cannot help be enticed to take onboard some of that ancient Stoic wisdom. The author clearly understands the importance of placing the ancient texts within a modern context, and I really enjoyed how links to modern CBT practices were made.
Don't be put off by its slightly repetitive nature. Don't be put off by the fact that the author's name is not Aurelius. If there is one thing that Donald Robertson has proven with this book, its that one of the greatest things about Stoicism is that its lessons do not need to come from some holy reverence of ancient almost biblical-like figures. In fact, the beauty of these Stoic lessons is that they can be shown to hold a relevance that is in-line with modern life. And it is the ideas and lessons themselves that are key, not those that are speaking them.