Book Review: The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity by Ryan Holiday

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A one-a-day stoicism situation that mostly tells you to think about how you’re going to die soon. Marcy Marcus and the whole funky bunch are accounted for; Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus. It’s a real star-studded affair, and since they’re broken down into these easily digestible daily affirmations (although that doesn’t feel like the right word, given the grim content), you really get a good idea of the contrast between the different Stoic thinkers. For example, Marcus Aurelius? Deeply dour dude. The misery just seeps right out of his aphorisms.

Seneca, on the other hand? A certified chiller. Much more upbeat. Epictetus’s philosophical style is closer to bullying than anything, and Rufus could have passed for a hire-off-the-street orator.

After 365 days, I am positive that I’m going to die soon. And you know what? 2020 was the right year to read this, because at no point did I feel like soiling myself over the Fungus. Mortality is the price of living. Like Marc said, this life is on loan. And like I said, something’s got to kill me.

I just googled it and none of the stoics are quoted as having said “something’s got to kill me”. That’s a BT original. Maybe that’ll be my Stoic legacy, once I succumb to the Fungus or get cut down in a hail of police gunfire. I wouldn’t care for a headstone, as even things carved in stone aren’t carved in stone, but if I had to get one, “Something had to kill me. And did.” wouldn’t be the worst I could do.




View all my reviews

Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A well-read dweeb gives us a play-by-play of his utilization of stoic thought as a means of coping with his fear of death and the inferiority complex that often accompanies being a dweeb. A surprising amount of the text is devoted to avoiding or surviving insults, and vigorous mental exercises one can undergo to prepare for being mocked.

I have to imagine few of the ancient stoics devoted as much mental energy to contemplating how they could be bullied as does our buddy Irvine.

As a philosophical exploration, it succeeds, but it only peripherally captures stoicism, and the bulk of the book is apologizing or overexplaining how the modern world gets it wrong; the stoics weren’t grumpy and emotionally deadened, they were super happy because they were Buddhists but not religious! It’s a translation error bro i swear passion meant something different in ancient greek bro its a different word bro please.

This is then contradicted by his woefully misinformed chapter about grief where he cherrypicks 80-year-old statistics on mental illness rates following WWII in areas without access to grief counseling to demonstrate “a stiff upper lip” is not only a stoic approach, but more effective than therapy.

I believe it was Marcus Aurelius who first said:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with misinformation, pandering, callowness, misquoted statistics, and writers for the Huffington Post – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Still, not a total wash. I always like hearing from Musonius Rufus, and he was well represented. This was also the first book with the honesty to scrub off the antiquarian deification and treat philosophical schools as the jockeying popularity contest that they were in ancient Rome.

I might have been too hard on Irvine in this review, but I’d hate for him to have squandered all that preparation.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Little Book of Stoicism

The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and CalmnessThe Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness by Jonas Salzgeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our man Salzgeber opens this cute little think piece with:
“So you went to school for twelve years, then college for four to ten more, and come out the other side realizing they didn’t teach you dick about how to be alive. All you learned was math, and not even the useful tax evasion math. Well, good news. These four dead guys figured it out two millennia ago.”

And from there, he rattles off the hits. Epictetus, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, and my long-time #MCM Marcus Aurelius. Here’s why:

“When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous, and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil.”

You can imagine him waking up and staring at his saturnine, perpetually drowsy mug in the mirror, as we all do when gripped with existential dread, then heaving a sigh. “All right, Mark. You’re gonna have to see some motherfuckers today. They’re not awful on purpose, they’re just too stupid to know better. All right. Good talk. Carpe diem.”

We call this a meditation.

The book itself has an introductory vibe, and Salzgeber’s deliberate distancing from academic language makes it a quick and pleasant read, despite the volume of content. 225 pages is no longer “little” book status, but it would be immodest to just call it “the book of stoicism”, not to mention misleading since it’s a conjecturing deconstruction of Salzgeber’s opinions on the writings of each philosopher, interspersed with little biographical snippets to give a better understanding of why they think like they do. Besides, the official book of stoicism is basically the Enchiridion.

Salzgeber holds a high respect for the philosophy, especially as applied to hardship. Most of the latter half of the book, the “55 Practices”, are rephrasings of “sometimes life sucks. Think of it as a challenge. And if you can’t control it, whining won’t help.” I’ve got to assume much of this was his experience having the last name “Salzgeber”.

(Fun fact: Catastrophic phonetics aside, Salzgeber is German for “Salt giver”, which also describes anyone who plays competitive overwatch. This philosophy can and must be applied to placement matches.)

The book dwells on the concept of excellence as attained by virtue. The big take-home is play your part and do your best in whatever it is you’re doing. Rather than making that into a middle-aged lady yard sale wooden wall-hanger quote, they called it “arete”. Coupling that with contemplative acceptance of impermanance and a staunch anti-bitching policy, Salzgeber distills an otherwise complex philosophy down to a concise, almost clickbaity list of applicable tenets for living well.

I think my favorite part of the book is how he kept saying, “But don’t tell roll up to the function and tell everyone you’re stoic now. They will bully you.”
View all my reviews

Vienna: Empires, Ashes, and the Mysterious Wiener Grant

November 25, 2017. Vienna, Austria.

The Chinese food had only mildly poisoned me. It’s unbelievable that I needed to experience it to give this advice, but listen: Don’t eat the Chinese food in Austria. I was down, but not out, and I decided that only a coward would let some mild food-poisoning interrupt a travel, especially a Bastard one. I hit the gloomy, perpetually moist streets of Vienna.

24093741_1139454022857569_1278680448_o

when did herbie come thru

 

India from the Metro had been backpacking on the fly. He tailed me to the hostel and booked a room there, then asked if I wanted to head into town together. I was leery. I travel alone. There are more opportunities that way, I don’t have to be double-checking if my co-pilot wants to do this thing, or if they’re comfortable hopping a fence, or if they’re too soft-spoken and respectable to blithely ask the locals dumb questions in lazy American English. But, he came along for part of the morning, and he was utterly transfixed by the palaces.

24140131_1139454066190898_1437357135_o.jpg

Europe is filthy with palaces. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and each is ostentatious in its own way. The Austrian baroque style is big into imposing white rock, ostentatious statuary, and just enough gold that you have to do a double-take and say, “shit, is that gold?”

For my own part, I’d had my fill of palaces. I’d been too long away, I was tuning into the old gutter frequency again. I wanted to get lost somewhere seedy and low-profile. Instead, we peeped a couple unpronounceable palaces.

 

He found another palace that I didn’t think warranted photography. It had been repurposed into the brick-and-mortar arm of a QVC jewelry magazine. It was plenty opulent, if you’re into that sort of thing. All my belongings are made of wood, leather, and stone, so…

 

We were trying to get into the city center by way of Albertinaplatz. It was a snarl of foot traffic and odd monument sculptures.

For those of you whose German is even worse than mine, Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus means “monument against war and fascism”. This chunk of the city is a way of apologizing for Hitler without having to mention Hitler. More on him later.

24167165_1139454039524234_1520412925_o

this hideous bronze dog is an absolute steal at $3000

I found the Hungarian house, where Countess Elizabeth Báthory harvested her victims in . The story runs deeper than the factoids we got in grade school. Lizzie split her time between her husband’s Hungarian house and Cachtice castle. Eventually she had to flee to the latter full-time after arousing too much suspicion. Everyone knows she bathed in and drank the blood of these virgin girls, but that was the endgame.

She’d send her servant Ficzkó into the market to collect likely peasant maids for employment at the Hungarian house and the castle. Being as they were hired servants, it wasn’t that unusual that she flogged so many of them and left them naked in the snow. It started getting a little more unusual when the servants were walking around with fingers torn off and flesh bitten from their faces. You could hear the screaming echo through the Hungarian quarter at night, but nobody dared question the countess. Government, am I right? The estimated head count was 600 virgins, but there’s obviously no documentation.

From History Today:

“She believed that drinking the blood of young girls would preserve her youthfulness and her looks. Witnesses told of her stabbing victims or biting their breasts, hands, faces and arms, cutting them with scissors, sticking needles into their lips or burning them with red-hot irons, coins or keys. Some were beaten to death and some were starved.”

A Lutheran minister told Hungarian authorities, and by December of 1610 the countess was “arrested”. She wasn’t tried, of course, because she was a countess, but she was locked in a single room of her castle until she died four years later. She dropped off real quick after she stopped getting her blood baths. Maybe she was onto something.

24139135_1139454019524236_276485606_o.jpg

Unbelievably, they’re still using it as apartments. For Hungarians, I assume. It’s a closed house, no tours or anything, so the best I could do was take a picture of the unassuming door and soak up as much of the aura of 400-year-old evil as I could. It’s a pretty busy street, though. Not terribly conducive to reflection on Renaissance atrocities. Probably why she chose it.

Then I stumbled upon the Kaisergruft, the Austrian Imperial crypt. My travelling companion dipped out at this point. We had both expressed how tired we were of museums, but our definitions of “museum” appeared to differ.

I’ll say this about the Austrians: they knew how to die.

 

 

 

 

 

Even at Sedlec, you didn’t see death glorified like this. Death was incidental there, a sort of means to an end dedicated specifically to the art and then, as an afterthought, Jesus. These crypts were a full embrace of death, a momentous momento mori emblazoned with crowned skulls and gargoyle heads and every kind of Imperial seal, crest, or design you could imagine. I couldn’t help but be awed. All this time, money, and labor, for a suitcase full of bones.

Brings to mind a Marcus Aurelius quote.
“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”

Well, Imperial Austria was, and continues to be, grinning like Schwarzenegger.

I made my way out of the crypt and, after the only affordable breakfast I could find in Vienna, I crossed the street and discovered this burrito place.

24167222_1139454109524227_1175402291_o

Wiener Grant! What the fuck could that mean? Is it that guy? Why is he so mad? Why is his tattoo so incredible? I needed to know more.

I barged into the burrito store without a moment’s hesitation and asked the poor, unsuspecting counter girl.

“Who, or what, is Wiener Grant?”

She looked at her hipster coworker then said, “Was?”

I wasn’t fooled. She spoke English. 75% of the Austrian population speaks English, and it’s a damn certainty that a Viennese girl in her twenties will.

“Outside, on the sign. Over that painting of the dude in his shorty-shorts, it says ‘A burrito a day keeps Wiener Grant away’.” What is Wiener Grant? Is there any other way to avoid him?”

“It is… hard to explain,” she said. Well, yeah, I knew that already.

“It is like…” the hipster said, gesturing. “Vienna is… grumpy?”

“Viennese are cranky people,” the girl said, making a demonstrative face. “Wiener Grant is when you feel blahhhh. Cranky, because you are Viennese.”

“So it’s not a guy.”

“No.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Thank you.”

There’s more to this chronicle, but I have to catch a bus soon. I’ll have another post later today.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

 

Rome: Slowin’ it Down

November 4, 2017. Rome, Italy.

I read that it was Madrid’s night life that really shines, and since I had to catch a bus to the airport by 5 AM I opted not to book a hostel and spend the night homelessly bar-hopping. I spent an hour in Museo Chicote, Hemingway’s “best bar in Spain, certainly” and had his recommended daiquiri. I imagine when he was there the lighting was less fish-tank neon and they played fewer techno remixes of Sweet Dreams, but I could be wrong. Maybe that’s why he liked it.

I walked down a street grabbing tapas and beer at each place until I felt full for the first time that week, then chased it with a coffee to make sure I’d catch the bus. This proved to be unnecessary, since the entirety of Madrid closed by 2 AM. I don’t know where all these travel writers are getting the idea of “Madrid goes hard until at least 4 AM”, but I imagine probably the on-season. There were, however, so many insistent prostitutes who literally chased me up the Gran Via, trying as hard as they could across several language barriers that I had just happened to discover a stone-sober, sexually liberated young woman who found me irresistibly attractive, and that in this part of the world “how about a blow job?” is a common icebreaker.

“I just feel like it’s too early in our relationship,” I told the first.

“Only one night! One night relationship,” she clarified.

“Tell me, sweetheart, this relationship. Does it cost money?”

“Not even that much! Not even much money!”

I caught the 2:30 bus and slept on the airport floor and a sequence of planes until I arrived in Rome, where they tried very hard to convince me that the only way I would get to my hostel was by $50 taxi.

I explained to them that I could easily just take a $6 bus to center city and walk the half mile to my hostel, but they insisted that it was impossibly far, and my only chance of survival in the unnavigable maze of Rome was to take a taxi. I told them thanks, and took the bus, settled into my hostel, showered, shaved, took a nap, then went down and had free pasta dinner cooked by an immensely outgoing receptionist named Doniella. At dinner, I got drunk off $2 wine with a German med student and a 700-year-old American named Herbie, who extended me this sage advice:

“You gotta slow down. You’re taking this too fast. It’ll all be there, you’re not gonna die next month.”

“You don’t know that,” I said, because I’ve never been able to project myself more than 2 days into the future.

“That’s true, but you’re probably not. You can’t keep rushing around like this or you won’t enjoy anything. Take a week. Really see Florence. You should take at least two if you want to see everything in the countryside, but maybe that’s another trip. You have time.”

I fought him every step of the way during the conversation because my pastiche of personal philosophies draws heavily from zen and existentialism, both of which are really specific about “This day will not come again.”

“You didn’t come all the way across the world to not spend the money,” he chided, which was weird because we hadn’t talked about money. “Slow down, take your time. There’ll always be more time and money. Learn the Greek alphabet. Go to Istanbul!”

His advice became a little meandering from that point on, but it was the thought that counts.

“You don’t have to rush. Just go out, see everything. Then you can die.”

“Hear, hear,” I said, and we clonked (it wasn’t a clink) our plastic cups of grocery store wine.

Then, after a moment, “Welp, the wine’s gone. I’m going to bed. See you all tomorrow.” And off he went.

I was good and drunk and still tired because it turns out sleeping on planes in 1 hour increments is not the same thing as a night’s rest, so I stumbled upstairs and went dead to the world for 10 hours. But as I did, I internalized what Herbie said. I fundamentally disagree. I don’t have time. None of us have time, life is too short to not Go For It, whatever the present It happens to be, but I think he’s right in that I’ll enjoy myself more if I slow my roll a little. You can Go For It strategically. It can be a plan.

I’m going to reread the Stoics while I’m here, I think. Marcus Aurelius was always my favorite, and seeing his colossal, melon-shaped head in a marble bust at the Prada brought his Meditations screaming back to me. I’ll wrap this up with what seems like an unrelated Epictetus quote, but just replace “books” with “travel”, or “making money”, or anything else people collect like Pokemon cards as though the collection is enough.

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” 
 Epictetus, The Art of Living 
Love,
The Bastard