The Obstacle is the Way
© 2014 Ryan Holiday
Let us say, dear reader, that you have heard of Stoicism, hailed as the go-to philosophy of mental fortitude. You want to read about it. But you don’t want to take on Epictetus or Aurelius in their full, because the one time you peeked into a copy of the Meditations or the Discourses in the local bookstore, it was full of florid Victorian prose. What if you could have a Stoicism lite, watered down to a few punchy self-help lines, mixed in with other advice, and illustrated with a variety of various politicians, warriors, and businessmen who faced adversity head-on and triumphed? Well….here you are, The Obstacle is the Way! One pinch Stoicism, one pinch life coach, and a spoonful of people more successful than you are. It is energetic, quotable, and I suspect, forgettable.
A few concepts from Stoicism wander in: first, the essential tenet that there are things under our power, and things not, and that wisdom lies in only concerning ourselves with that which is under our power, The second is ‘impressions’, or the automatic reactions/judgments our brains create about things, the reactions that cause us more misery than the actual events. If we have escaped a burning home, we are in no danger; the suffering comes from lamenting over the possessions. We can choose to cease the wailing. A few Stoic practices appear, too, like negative visualization — imagining the worst that could befall you, and thinking practically about the consequences in order to steel your brain for what is to come. To this is added “The Process”, or approaching a problem one step at a time, and other sundry advice that includes the gem, “What Works is Right”. This section is supported by that contemptible little soundbite from Rahm Emanuel — “never let a crisis go to waste”. Straying a little close to the ends justifying the means, aren’t we? It rather brings to mind the Reichstag fire or other machiavellian manipulation. Oh, this advice can be made innocent, translated to truisms like ‘don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good’, but Holiday cares nothing for context. That’s the entire problem of the book, actually. The cohesiveness of Stoicism is abandoned altogether, and his attempt at mentioning ethics is tacked on at the end, in a “Oh, yeah, and be nice, because we’re all in this together”. It’s about as inspirational as a schoolroom public service announcement. (“Just say no, kiddos!”)
The Obstacle is the Way has its merits, in potentially introducing people who view philosophy as academic naval-gazing to its practical benefits. If any of this advice actually sticks, it would prove fruitful…but like most self-help books, there’s just one witticism after another and most will float right out. It doesn’t help that the author devotes a section at the end to congratulating his reader for having become a philosopher, a Stoic ubermensch. What indulgent nonsense! Stoicism is practiced, not read, and so as rebuttal I offer Epictetus,
“Suppose I should say to a wrestler, ‘Show me your muscle’. And he should answer me, ‘See my dumb-bells‘. Your dumb-bells are your own affair; I want to see the effect of them.
‘Take the treatise ‘On Choice’, and see how thoroughly I have perused it.’
I am not asking about this, O slave, but how you act in choosing and refusing, how you manage your desires and aversions, your intentions and purposes, how you meet events — whether you are in harmony with nature’s laws or opposed to them. If in harmony, give me evidence of that, and I will say you are progressing; if the contrary, you may go your way, and not only comment on your books, but write some like them yourself; and what good will it do you?
Holiday might make a good read for people with a vague interest in taking back control of their emotional life, but if you’re even remotely aware of Stoicism, there’s not much here for you.
For an introduction to Stoicism, the mark to beat is still A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, authored by William Irvine.
Other books of note:
The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton.
Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, which casts an appraising eye on Stoicism among other philosophies, like Epicureanism
The Stoics themselves: