At a time when public nobility is hard to come by, this is a good reminder of the power of ethical leadership.

LIVES OF THE STOICS

THE ART OF LIVING FROM ZENO TO MARCUS AURELIUS

An introductory guide to the luminaries of Greco-Roman ethical philosophy—and their checkered histories.

Stoicism is famously prescriptive: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is cherished for its aphoristic guidance on virtue and leadership, and Epictetus’ best-known work, Encheiridion, loosely translates to “handbook.” But Holiday and Hanselman, founders of the website the Daily Stoic, avoid a strict how-to approach, instead structuring the book as chronologically arranged pocket biographies of Stoic figures, from Zeno, a merchant who founded the school in Athens in the fourth century B.C.E., to Aurelius, who applied its tenets of calm resilience as Roman emperor in the second century C.E. The approach means there are many filler chapters on lesser-known thinkers like Panaetius, Porcia Cato (a rare woman Stoic), and Thrasea. (Some seem extraneous. The authors have little to say about Diotimus, who wrote some libelous letters. Bad form, but what of it?) The upside of their approach is that it thoughtfully complicates Stoicism. Rather than emphasizing Spock-like, unemotional rigor (as pop culture often does), the authors reveal how the philosophy often debated its identity and how many of the leaders fell short of its ideals. Cicero, for instance, gained fame as a statesman but ran aground thanks to his reputation for self-aggrandizement; Seneca’s seriousness gave him the thankless task of serving as counsel to Nero, who used him as cover for his own despicable actions as Roman emperor. Still, the authors see Stoicism as inherently inspirational, and there are plenty of examples, from corruption-fighters like Publius Rutilius Rufus to Epictetus, who rose from slavery to become a much-admired thinker. The finest Stoics, they write, were “able to focus in even the most distracting of situations, to be able to tune out anything and everything—even creeping death—so that we lock in on what matters.”

At a time when public nobility is hard to come by, this is a good reminder of the power of ethical leadership.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-54187-5

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Portfolio

Review Posted Online: June 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2020

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED

The Book of Genesis as imagined by a veteran voice of underground comics.

R. Crumb’s pass at the opening chapters of the Bible isn’t nearly the act of heresy the comic artist’s reputation might suggest. In fact, the creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural is fastidiously respectful. Crumb took pains to preserve every word of Genesis—drawing from numerous source texts, but mainly Robert Alter’s translation, The Five Books of Moses (2004)—and he clearly did his homework on the clothing, shelter and landscapes that surrounded Noah, Abraham and Isaac. This dedication to faithful representation makes the book, as Crumb writes in his introduction, a “straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes.” But his efforts are in their own way irreverent, and Crumb feels no particular need to deify even the most divine characters. God Himself is not much taller than Adam and Eve, and instead of omnisciently imparting orders and judgment He stands beside them in Eden, speaking to them directly. Jacob wrestles not with an angel, as is so often depicted in paintings, but with a man who looks not much different from himself. The women are uniformly Crumbian, voluptuous Earth goddesses who are both sexualized and strong-willed. (The endnotes offer a close study of the kinds of power women wielded in Genesis.) The downside of fitting all the text in is that many pages are packed tight with small panels, and too rarely—as with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—does Crumb expand his lens and treat signature events dramatically. Even the Flood is fairly restrained, though the exodus of the animals from the Ark is beautifully detailed. The author’s respect for Genesis is admirable, but it may leave readers wishing he had taken a few more chances with his interpretation, as when he draws the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a provocative half-man/half-lizard. On the whole, though, the book is largely a tribute to Crumb’s immense talents as a draftsman and stubborn adherence to the script.

An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-393-06102-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2009

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