“Stoicism has always been a self-help philosophy with a twist, precisely because it helps us to develop the critical thinking skills and moral accountability that stop us from mistaking feeling better with being better. As Zeno taught, being better means that we are more intentional in our progress toward living virtuously.”
- Kai Whiting & Leonidas Konstantakos, Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In
One of the most common misconceptions about Stoicism is that it’s a self-centered or isolating philosophy, and that it requires practitioners to stop caring about other people. But this is a complete misunderstanding of Stoicism. Stoics do care about other people and about the world we live in, but we care wisely. We love others knowing they aren’t immortal, and we try to make the world a better place even knowing that we have only a limited capacity to change things. Our goal is to see things clearly, the way they really are, and not to allow our judgment to be clouded by false opinions or unhelpful emotions.
A new book by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos, called Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In, does an excellent job of explaining the what, why, and how of caring for our world. In a highly readable and accessible text, they show how the underlying Stoic idea of virtue helps us fulfill our responsibilities toward our planet, our families, and our communities. I really enjoyed the personal touches the authors provide about applying Stoicism in their own lives. For example, Kai writes about committing himself as a Stoic due to his grandmother’s unexpected death, and Leo tells us about participating in python hunts alongside other veterans in the swampy Everglades. The authors both expertly show the power of Stoicism to guide and shape our real-world thoughts and decisions.
Another outstanding feature of Being Better is the way it blends ancient and modern: we learn about the lives of ancient philosophers alongside the lives of contemporary role models. Kai and Leo certainly know their stuff when it comes to the ancient sources, and this helps ground the book in its original Greek and Roman context. I particularly like their imaginative reconstruction of the life of Sphaerus, a Stoic philosopher who became an advisor to Spartan royalty and implemented enlightened and successful policies.
But they also shed Stoic light on people who are actively engaged in the world today, like Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant to the United States who founded a successful yogurt company, and Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Even though role models like Ulukaya and Adichie probably aren’t Stoics, we can still find inspiration in their humane and courageous actions. They help bring to life new ways we can apply Stoicism in the 21st century.
And of course, some of the primary ways we can apply Stoicism in the 21st century involve taking care of our communities and our planet. The authors’ passion for this topic shines through in their discussion of the circles of Hierocles and living in agreement with nature. I think one of the most important contributions of this book is expanding the traditional circles of concern (which we at Stoicare call circles of care!) to include the earth. This is a great reminder that the natural world is intrinsically worthy of our respect and that part of being a moral person is caring for the planet.
For anyone looking for a readable, engaging book on serious Stoicism--that is, Stoicism based on virtue and not materialistic success--I highly recommend Being Better. You don’t need to agree with everything Kai and Leo write (vegetarianism, for instance) to get a lot out of the book. I’ll leave you with a small taste of Being Better, from the first chapter:
“Stoicism helps us to understand ourselves and other people better and to navigate a path through life’s challenges and successes. Zeno and his Stoics understood that the “good life” is rooted in communal living, which includes partaking in civic duties, building strong local ties, and being open to, and appreciative of, the universal community that extends across the whole world. Stoicism won’t remove all of life’s obstacles, but it helps us to think differently about them. It won’t provide us with all the answers, but it gives us the ability to form the questions that ultimately lead to the solutions. Stoicism may be more than two thousand years old, but Zeno’s wisdom is as powerful as ever.”