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Book review: 'A Field Guide to a Happy Life' offers easy-to-read solace

Book review: 'A Field Guide to a Happy Life' offers easy-to-read solace

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A FIELD GUIDE TO A HAPPY LIFE: 53 Brief Lessons for Living.

By Massimo Pigliucci. Basic Books. 151 pages. $20.

As we approach the end of a tumultuous 2020, you may be asking, “What will give me a happy life?” Is it having the physical symbols of financial success, or social status or loving relationships or something else? In a year full of personal and community turmoil: COVID-19, floods, fires, unemployment, melting ice caps, factious politicians, etc., a guide to a happy life may be a solace to many.

Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor at The City College of New York, explores the path to happiness in his new interpretation of the work of Stoic philosopher Epictetus.

Here is a statement by Epictetus that inspired Pigliucci:

“I have to die. If it is now, well, then, I will die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

Here is the author’s comment on that Epictetus statement: “…a first-century guy who in two sentences displayed both a delightful sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude toward life, and death.”

Pigliucci based the structure of his book on the Enchiridion (Greek for “handbook”), which contains the teachings of Epictetus recorded by Arrian, a disciple of the Greek philosopher. He has divided the lessons of the Enchiridion into six sections and added his modern interpretations to some, along with introductions to Epictetus and to Stoicism.

Most readers are likely to find familiar-sounding advice as they work through the 53 lessons. Epictetus and Saul of Tarsus (Paul, the author of the Epistles that comprise a large part of the Christian New Testament) were contemporaries, and Paul’s travels took him into areas where Stoicism was an active philosophy.

As you read this book, you may ask whether Paul’s far-reaching evangelism had an effect on the Greek philosopher, but what you may conclude is that behaving justly toward others, reorienting your misguided desires, and improving your judgements about things and people may have been behaviors a higher authority led many to discover.

Pigliucci’s presentation of the teachings of Epictetus includes some changes he made to update the wisdom of the ancient teacher along with an explanation of the many changes made by previous stoics, including the changes Epictetus made to the teachings of Zeno.

The explanation of stoicism reminds me of my wife’s oft-used phrase: “Porch life is the best.” The porch reference is apropos since the term “stoic” is derived from the name of the place where Zeno, the original stoic, taught his disciples about the art of living: the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, one of the most important places in Athens.

“The Field Guide to a Happy Life” is an easy-to-read book written in an easy style that allows for reading it in one sitting and/or carrying it with you to read between meetings or when you need to try to make sense of a crazy day or month or year.

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