Last Saturday, my family and I left Denver, Colorado and drove home to Tennessee.
For those who do not know, on April 13, my son was in a terrible car accident just outside of Denver. My wife, my girls and I were in Athens, Greece at the time. I was there to study Greek intensively. When we received the news, we canceled our lives in Greece and flew to Denver. We lived in Denver for almost two months while my son recovered. He is doing very well, by the way.
After my son spent a few months in the hospital and in physical therapy, we decided it was time to head home.
We were not sure how much Jackson would be able to endure cramped in the van, so we took it slow. Our drive from Denver to Nashville took four days.
During the trip, we listened to the fourth Harry Potter book. We really enjoy the Harry Potter series. In fact, I taught a few classes on the series some time ago. Those lectures are still available to subscribers.
There were long stretches of quiet on the road, too. During those quiet stretches, I listened to a book by Ryan Holiday. The book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a modern overview of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
If you are not sure what Stoicism is, there is a brief overview here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism. According to tradition, the stoic philosophy was founded in Athens by the philosopher Zeno. It was popular among the Greeks and Romans, fell from grace as Christianity spread, and enjoyed a resurgence during the Renaissance.
Stoicism is the belief that virtue is based on knowledge, and that the wise live in harmony with the divine laws that governs nature. Stoics strive to show indifference to the vicissitudes of fortune, pleasure, and pain.
Stoics strive to endure pain or hardship without displaying their feelings and without complaint.
I read the book because stoicism appeals to me immensely.
Three main names pop up frequently in any discussion of stoicism. Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
Though Mr. Holiday respects them all, he really likes Marcus Aurelius. This is evident throughout the book. This is a red flag for me. I will explain in a bit.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. My family and I have been through much lately. Life has been quite difficult. I handled the difficulties in the exact opposite manner of the Stoics. In other words, I lost my cool. More than once.
For this reason, I read this book on the way home. I felt I needed a Stoic refresher. After all, the Stoics are the guys who tried to remain cool while everything around them fell apart. This is what I strive to be. I want to be cool under pressure. Sang-froid.
In Denver, I failed.
So, on the way home from Denver, I read The Obstacle is the Way. I needed a reminder. I needed a re-set.
There is much to learn from this book. Mr. Holiday delivers countless examples of those who remained cool under pressure. Those stories justify the price of the book, in my opinion. But, it is also my opinion that we learn best when we learn from stories.
There is a reason Jesus teaches in parables. Stories drive the point home.
I liked the stories from the book best. But, there is also a lot of what I would call moralistic pontificating in this book. I found that tedious. As I was listening to this book during a long drive, it really did not bother me that much. I just had to focus to ensure that my mind did not wander.
In Mr. Holiday’s defense, I felt he was only imitating his heroes. There exists much moralistic pontificating among the writings of the Stoics as well.
Back to my concerns with Marcus Aurelius.
Those who adopt the Stoic philosophy love this guy. This is where I hesitate.
You may remember Marcus Aurelius from the movie Gladiator. He was the old emperor killed early on in the movie by his son Commodus. The movie itself is rather inaccurate historically, and yet the movie accurately depicts much of Roman culture at the time.
Marcus Aurelius is depicted in the movie, and by modern proponents of Stoicism as a wise, benevolent, kind old man. Maybe he was on a personal level.
In the movie, he wants to restore the power of the Roman Senate. In reality, he did everything he could to strip power from the Roman Senate.
In the movie, he does not want his idiot son Commodus to assume power over Rome. In reality, he groomed his son for power. He had elevated his son to positions of authority before the boy was six years old. Commodus did become emperor after his father’s death. He was an idiotic tyrant. Among other things, he re-named all of the calendar months in his own honor. January became the first month of Commodus. February became the second month of Commodus, and so on.
In the movie, no mention is made of the persecution of Christians during his reign. Marcus was one of the great Roman persecutors of Christians. The persecutions started as soon as he came to power in 161 A.D. He kicked the persecutions into high-gear in 177 A.D. Justin Martyr wrote directly to Marcus Aurelius. He defended the Christians in his letters to the emperor. In response, Marcus Aurelius had Justin Martyr beheaded.
I am torn. I like what the Stoics are going for. I like the idea of staying cool under pressure. I just don’t like some of the Stoic heroes. Marcus Aurelius is not someone I would imitate. Among other things, he was clearly a very bad father.
Still, I feel there is much to learn from this book. I found the stories inspiring.
As I am a teacher, I know students sometimes read my blog and sometimes follow my recommendations. With that in mind, I recommend this book… half-heartedly.
There is a bit of swearing in the book. I found this completely unnecessary. But, this just seems to be the zeitgeist of our times. Can’t seem to escape it anymore. It isn’t terrible, so I would give the book a PG-13 rating.
I will often read a book multiple times if I find the book helpful, or inspiring. I will only read this one once. It was worth reading once.