Monday, 10 May 2021

Book review: BEING BETTER by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos

Being Better, book cover image
 I received (gratefully) a copy of the book from Kai and volunteered to review it. I don't write reviews in the same way other people do, so I won't blame you if you would rather not go to the trouble of reading this review.

I won't rehash the synopsis nor the contents of non-fiction books, there are other reviews(1) if you prefer those instead. My review is purely based on my experience of reading the contents and how it will (or do) impact my life as a Stoic practitioner.

That being said, let's get stuck in.

I have been a student and practitioner of Stoicism going for five years now. I started the practice because I needed to learn to deal with the incredibly stressful environment of the industry I was working in at the time. Since leaving my last employer, I am now fully self-employed, I have continued the practise purely because of the benefits to myself.

This book has enriched my practice but also increased my understanding of Stoicism as being more than a way of improving myself. Studying translations of the original texts of the Stoics is not easy for someone who is not a linguist nor a trained philosopher. Being Better, and the work done by the authors helps to make the original texts more palatable for a modern mind.

Stoicism is a practical philosophy that provides an antidote for troubled times, while it also keeps our ego and excesses in check when things are going well. Stoicism helps us to understand ourselves and other people better and to navigate a path through life’s challenges and successes. Zeno and his Stoics understood that the “good life” is rooted in communal living, which includes partaking in civic duties, building strong local ties, and being open to, and appreciative of, the universal community that extends across the whole world.

Stoicism won’t remove all of life’s obstacles, but it helps us to think differently about them. It won’t provide us with all the answers, but it gives us the ability to form the questions that ultimately lead to the solutions. Stoicism may be more than two thousand years old, but Zeno’s wisdom is as powerful as ever.”

Although a very practical philosophy, I found that there is more to learn about Stoicism and to understand my place in the greater society I live in. Oftentimes we see ourselves as an island, but with more study and greater understanding, it has become clear that my life has an impact on more than my own improvement as a person.

Using my work as a consulting engineer to explain: What I do directly impacts the products and companies that I work with. This then ripples out to the people and industries that end up using these products worldwide.

Although I have been aware of this for some time, the greater influence of what I do (or neglect to do) could have a much wider impact than what I thought at first. The details are not important, but what is important is that I need to be continually aware that I have to do the right thing, make the right decisions, and advise my clients to the best of my knowledge and abilities. This is not easy to do, but a constant reminder of the Stoic principles of wisdom, self-control, justice, and courage makes it possible.

Being Better reminded me that slacking on my own learning, could be detrimental to others around me. I love learning, but it is the awareness that it is continuous learning that contributes to living a virtuous life. I am by no means the only person who does what I do, so it also brings the added responsibility of bringing this mindset to those within my influence, Stoic philosophy notwithstanding.

One thing about Being Better that particularly spoke to me was “the principle of 'Only the educated are free' [which] embodies a continual search for wisdom and a perpetual questioning in order to know what to do or not to do and how best to succeed.”

Only once I understood the impact this had on Sparta (discussed in chapter 7) did it resonate with my own opinion of the situation in my own country. South Africa has had turbulent times due to corruption and crime at the highest levels of government.

Overcoming the wrongs of decades of history, by the more wrongdoing of the “uneducated recent past” will not be simple. But learning from the Stoics like Sphaerus could provide a way forward even for the modern problems that countries dragged down by corruption could benefit from.

This sounds like an impossible task for a modern country with massive issues of which economic decline is just one. But what will happen if I in my own small way manages to influence someone, who then influences someone else, who eventually is in the right position to make the right impact at the right time? I am not that important, nor do I think that it will necessarily be because of me living a virtuous life, but what if it does?

Another aspect that was clarified (at least to my mind) is the principle of “living in accordance with nature”.

...a Stoic’s appreciation of Nature goes beyond taking selfies and a superficial enjoyment of breathtaking sights and sounds. It involves a profound thirst for the kind of knowledge that helps us understand how the world works and our position within it.”

Living in accordance with nature has always been a matter of interpretation in many articles on the subject that I have read over the years, but I think that the authors explained it in a way that makes sense irrespective of my own beliefs.

Being Better is a book to introduce people to think about these things, and could have a much wider impact on how we think about our roles, our circles, our lives, than what we can imagine.

The questions posed at the end of each chapter raised my thinking about these issues. The book does not provide the answers, because the answers cannot be given. After all, it is up to us, up to me, to ask the right questions for our situations, to seek the answers that we need for our own lives and communities.

Stoicism is not about doing the impossible or trying to singlehandedly solve complex social or environmental issues. It’s about consistently doing what you can within the life you lead using the personality, knowledge, social role, network, and skillset that you already have.”

And this in essence is why I decided to study Stoicism and why I wanted to read this book. To practice Stoic philosophy and to live a virtuous life with “the decision to strive for eudaimonia, that is to say, for a life worthy of being lived and for a world worth living in.”

I recommend reading Being Better because it increased my understanding of some of the practical aspects of Stoicism. The examples (both historical and modern) provided the practical ways that people have lived their lives in a way that can inspire every one of us to strive for eudaimoniaa life worth living.

A last comment: I own and study several translations of the works by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, a comprehensive list is given at the end of the book with the appropriate references to the text in each chapter.

(1) Academic review, and Kai's comments about the book

Linzé's rating: 4.5 💜

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