Reading List: 2013
Enchiridion – Epictetus (Dover Thrift Editions)
READ: 12-12-2013 | RATING: 8/10
Continuing onward on 2013’s stoic binge, this goes back to the forefather of the philosophical movement itself. Epictetus, born into slavery and crippled at the knee, used his curiosity about life and the question of virtue to overcome his difficult beginnings and lead one of the most preeminent schools of philosophy in the history of Ancient Rome. Far briefer than the recorded thoughts of counterparts Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, Epictetus’ teachings offer further reading on the pre-concerns of the movement (namely: the pursuit of tranquility, the abandonment of unhealthy desire and how best to live). A necessary accompaniment to understanding more about this school of thought.
READ: 13-12-2013 | RATING: 10/10
The de-facto read for anyone wishing to understand stoicism and the positive impact it can have on life. Irvine gives a detailed explanation of the roots of the philosophy, its first practitioners, its reception and its precepts. Particularly interesting are Irvine’s suggestions about “negative visualisation”, the practice of deliberately catastrophizing or mindfully rehearsing the worst case scenario that might befall you in life, in the hope of liberating you of unnecessary fear and anguish. Irvine also makes important points about how ancient stoicism lends itself to modern living (and a more atheistic world view) while revealing to the reader his own experimentations with aspects of the philosophy and the advantages and disadvantages of things like practicing poverty, rehearsing death and practicing stoicism in secret (stealth stoicism). An honest, thought-provoking and integral read for people hoping to learn more about the human condition, taming the mind and living a more meaningful life.
Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in the Laboratory of Human Behaviour – James Stockdale
READ: 15-12-2013 | RATING: 8/10
Former US Vice Presidential candidate James Stockdale recounts his four year long period of imprisonment at the hands of the Northern Vietnamese after getting shot down as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. Interweaving memoir (and the particularly brutal recounting of shock torture and long-term isolation), with the stoic teachings of Epictetus (whom Stockdale accounts to helping him pull through), this book is a relevant, yet brief read, for understanding how humans might persevere in the face of dire circumstance. Also worth reading up on the famed “Stockdale Principle” made popular in corporate psychology and the book Good to Great by Jim Collins.
Musonius Rufus on How to Live – Ben White
READ: 16-12-2013 | RATING: 8/10
Musonius Rufus, mentor to Epictetus and another preeminent founder of the stoic movement, shares thoughts and opinions on topics as varied as gender politics, food, clothing, wealth and work. Particularly interesting are his comments on foregoing the trappings of luxury and living more simplistically – clothes for comfort not fashion, food for nourishment not taste – in order to live more in accordance with nature. An important read for understanding the roots of stoicism and its evolution from a movement directing subjugation to the will of the gods (in Rufus’ case Zeus) to the more modern atheistic reading made by William Irvine in A Guide to the Good Life.
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – Oliver Burkeman
READ: 20-12-2013 | RATING: 10/10
Fantastically useful book by British journalist and Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman that dispels all the quackery behind NLP, optimistic thinking and the calls to action of self-appointed gurus like Tony Robbins and other “feel-good hokeys. Focuses on how negativity (or perceived negativity) can be used to work proactively towards improving your sense of wellbeing. Chapters dedicated to the stoics (and meetings with real life practitioners of “negative visualisation”), to non-attachment and Zen Buddhist principles, to the dangers of goal forming and to actively dwelling on death (Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech), among the highlights. A refreshing read that blows the lid off the less-than-effective self help industry and and offers up more useful and practical conduits that also happen to be more ancient and less dependent on modern marketing hype too.
How to Find Fulfilling Work – Roman Krznaric & The School of Life
READ: 24-12-2013 | RATING: 9/10
My first introduction to the media arm of philosopher Alain De Botton’s The School of Life, this guide on the subject of work – one that has dominated a large part of the anguish and anxiety in my life up until now, is a brilliant rumination on what we do, why and how we might change it in order to become more fulfilled. Krzanir’s main premise is that we need to find work that offers meaning, flow and freedom and how limiting beliefs about what we do, due mainly to modern pressures, expectations and the overwhelm of choice, make this particularly difficult to do. The solution is refreshingly different from other books on the subject that throw psychometric tests at the reader in order to better define their personality (Krzanir goes to some lengths to debunk the usefulness of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), instead asking the reader to “act first and then reflect”. The action points here, like conducting conversational interviews, branching (starting new jobs in spare time) and the radical sabbatical (road-testing a bunch of jobs you find interesting) are similar to that of seminal career bible, What Colour is Your Parachute, but go a little bit further in soothing our fears about making a life defining transition. A definite read for anybody feeling uninspired, stuck or unfulfilled in their work. Plenty of great philosophy too!
Help! How to Become Slightly Happier & Get a Bit More Done – Oliver Burkeman
READ: 26-12-2013 | RATING: 9/10
After reading one of my book’s of the year, The Antidote, I felt I had to revisit Oliver Burkeman’s first book Help! to see where the genesis of his arguments about “negative thinking” stem from. This book, a collection of Burkeman’s writing from his brilliant Guardian column “This Column Will Change Your Life”, is a comprehensive guide through the sticky quagmire of the self help genre and delivers exactly what it’s craftily ingenious title suggests. Funny, poignant and wildly explorative, Burkeman meanders through the science and ebullient claims of the gurus of productivity, goal setting, happiness, relationships and everything else that keeps us all from losing our minds and dancing around like chimps – which is basically what the writer seems to have narrowly avoided doing thanks largely to his stance of “journalistic objectivity”. Help! also boasts a super useful bibliography of books you should really spend your time reading (and points out the flaws in those that simply ride the crest of skilfully engineered hype).
READ: 30-12-2013 | RATING: 6/10
Bennett’s Edwardian-era commentary on the lives of the working masses. Explores philosophical themes like attachment to time and offers up solutions on how best to spend it (revolving around: self-reflection, reading widely on topics of interest and the observation and cause and effect in human life and nature). A little outdated but makes interesting points about our desperation to tightly manage our day to day activities (which Bennett suggests being relaxed about) that still resonate more than a century later. Included as part of his 1925 book How to Live. Not too dissimilar to that of the modern day self help genre, if only a little less self-conscious and awkward.