Written by William Ferraiolo
Reviewed by Nancy Eichhorn
Can philosophers create change? Or do they merely entertain intellectual conversations as they ask abstract questions about the nature of human thought, the nature of the universe, and the connections between them, and then ponder the possibilities?
If you’re William Ferraiolo and you practice Stoicism, a philosophy of personal ethics, you are in fact learning “spiritual exercises” that lead to the development of “self-control and fortitude to overcome destructive emotions”.
Reading Ferraiolo’s newest publication, I can see how Stoicism, as a conscious practice, can provide effective scaffolding to support self-help, self-growth.
From what I understand, Stoics are not concerned with complicated theories about the world. Their purpose is not to debate lofty questions about human nature or thought. They choose action over reaction; they offer practical ways to become better and happier people who can deal with the problems that arise in life. Their writings, teachings, and spiritual exercises remind us that we can’t control what happens outside of ourselves (considered externals in this realm, more on this); we can only control what happens within ourselves and our responses to situations in our lives. They offer teachings to be “steadfast, strong and in control of yourself”.
Considered a Hellenistic philosophy, Stoicism has a long history since Zeno founded it in 300 BC. Two significant teachers stand out in Ferraiolo’s writings: Epictetus, a former slave who was brutally terrorized and permanently disabled and later founded his own school; and Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor whose daily writings to remind himself about restraint, compassion and humility became known as his book of Meditations.
The essays in A Life Worth Living are Ferraiolo’s “ruminations about Stoic philosophy, the existence and nature of God, the inevitability of mortality,” and other parts of our human lives. The content examines what it means to incorporate classic stoic philosophy in modern day life.
According to Ferraiolo, stoic counsel may serve just as effective today as nearly 2,000 years ago. The human condition remains stable, he writes, and we must still make our way in a world we cannot control.
Ferraiolo offers what he calls the IDEA Method, which is comprised of a few central tenets of Stoic counsel as a means to pursue a good life:
I Identify the real issue: this involves our ability to deal with desire and aversion. According to Ferraiolo, proper self-regulation of these two states is necessary to avoid distress and dissatisfaction. “When we are dissatisfied, it is typically a poor ‘fit’ between our desires and the unfolding of events that cause our distress. We want what is not so. The facts, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad, but one’s attitude toward the facts may cause them to appear fearsome” (pg. 5).
D Distinguish internals (conditions directly related to and determined by a person’s will; our opinions, aims, desires and aversions are within our power) from externals (not subject to our will and beyond our power including our bodies, property, reputation, and office). “The wise seek to know their own minds so they may better govern themselves, and do not pin their contentment to winning the hearts and minds of others” (pg. 8).
E Exert effort only where it can be effective. When we focus on what we can control, we can release psychological and emotional distress. “It is unwise, unhealthy, and wasteful to expend energy trying to control or change circumstances that lie beyond one’s control and one’s ability to enact change” (pg. 8).
A Accept the rest. Amori Fati. When we resist or reject the world as it is, we end up struggling. The world will always have its way. “Demand not that events should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will be serene [Enchiridion, 8].”
Ferraiolo writes that Death can’t be outdistanced but the fear of death can be mastered (which is part of his conversation about anxiety). Stoicism, he writes, holds the promise of gaining control over one’s attitude concerning the inevitability of death. His practice of letting go of fear reaches far beyond death itself in my opinion. There’s an old saying, there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. And in this sense, fear is the factor we can control. We can let fear confine us, confuse us, cripple us. Or we can step out of our flight/fight/freeze sympathetic arousal state and breathe and calm and move from reactivity into logic, from knee jerk response to conscious consideration. Fear is a choice. We always have the power of choice. Sometimes fear is a good thing, it signals something is amiss and we need to react. Sometimes, however, fear is ancient, related to events in our past that are not occurring in the present tense even though our brain may tell us they are. We need to be able to distinguish when fear is real here and now and when it is not so we can choose how to proceed. A practice for sure.
I appreciated the reality that “Stoics believed in a god of some description, that they lived within a framework of a rationally ordered and governed cosmos. The believed that a properly managed human life must accord with Nature or with the Logos or with the will of Zeus” (pg. 47). It was noted that references to God might just as easily be replaced with the word Nature or The Universe and offer the same meaning. Modern Stoics may subscribe to any religious worldview i.e., Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. According to Ferraiolo, you can separate stoic ethics and stoic self-rectification from a religious worldview and still attain equanimity. The Stoics appear to be more “centered on cultivating virtue and living in harmony with reason and being indifferent to pleasure or pain” . . . they maintain a take “the world as it comes” and do not seek to govern what is not within their power.
There’s always more for me to say, and yet I want to balance my perspective with space for you to read the book and see what resonates for you. When I started reading, I wasn’t sure this dense philosophical writing (this is not a fast read) might lead to some sort of personal change. And, as I’ve grown to learn from Ferraiolo’s writing, his depth, his presentation of fact and opinion, and his willingness to nudge readers (and at times outwardly confront them) to consider their place in their lives, not as a hapless victim but as a living being with the ability to look at what is happening and decide how to react (action) or respond (words) is the point and it doesn’t come easily. It takes time to read, reflect, consider, decide.
The sense of neutrality— there is no good or bad, there just is, and how you frame it impacts your being—works for me when I’m grounded and conscious. When I’m in a reactive state however, it’s not as easy. It’s doable but it takes practice so that my old patterns are replaced with new. I keep processing the book. A specific quote comes to mind and I’m thinking. This is one reason I appreciate Ferraiolo’s writing style. His words stay with me far beyond the pages of the book and invite me to both ponder and act.
William Ferraiolo received a PhD in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma in 1997. Since then, William has taught philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in California. A practicing Stoic, Ferraiolo has published numerous articles in a variety of professional and academic journals. His first book, Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure was published by O-Books in 2017.
Nancy Eichhorn, PhD is an accredited educator with a doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in somatic psychology. Her current projects include publishing Somatic Psychotherapy Today, work as a writing mentor, workshop facilitator, freelance writer, and editor. Her writing resume includes over 5,000 newspaper and magazine articles, chapters in professional anthologies, including About Relational Body Psychotherapy and The Body in Relationship: Self-Other-Society. She is an avid hiker, kayaker, and overall outdoor enthusiast. Nature is her place of solace and inner expression.