July 17, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Book Review: Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction
Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood is an outstanding introduction to Stoicism. In its structure, exposition and clarity, it is unlike any other introductory book on Stoicism.
Inwood does not begin the book with an obligatory summary of Stoic principles or try to distinguish between what people generally mean by Stoicism and what it actually is.
Rather, he starts his book with a well-known quote from Marcus Aurelius, discusses it at length and relates it to modern life.
He then discusses the tension between Minimal Stoicism (which maintains that Stoic Ethics alone is sufficient) and Large Stoicism (which includes Physics and Logic, in addition to Ethics) that goes back to the founding days of Stoicism – a topic seldom discussed with such clarity in an introductory book.
Next, Inwood puts the writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca into context and discusses what Stoics shared with Plato and his followers (such as putting Socrates on a pedestal) and how the metaphysics of the Stoics diverged from that of Plato (matter vs. form). This is followed by three vibrant chapters on physics, ethics and logic.
In the final chapter of the book, Inwood returns to the issue of reconciling Minimal Stoicism with Large Stoicism. The prominence of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius has “made it natural to focus primarily on its potential as a source of moral advice and self-improvement … Works produced in the current revival of Stoicism do not have sections on Chrysippus’ syllogistic or the cosmic conflagration… modern Stoics aiming primarily to improve human lives through moral betterment, setting aside physics and logic, can see themselves as the heirs to Aristo’s tradition, one that goes back to the early days of the school.” He then concludes that “the narrow focus on ethical improvement is also an authentic component of ancient Stoicism.” (Emphasis mine.)
This book provides a very clear explanation of how Stoicism started and developed, its rationale, its subject matter and suggestions for reconciling Large Stoicism with Minimal Stoicism. Brad Inwood packs a lot of information into a very small book. Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction is easy to read and understand, yet full of insights that one would normally expect to gain from more advanced text.