Monday, 28 August 2017

Practical philosophy and stoical self-help

I have been reading many modern philosophical and Stoical books recently and they have proved very enlightenning, comforting and inspiring. Below are my reviews of my six current favourites.

 Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann, Polity Press, 2017

I read this book after reading a passage of it featured in the Guardian's 'Inner Life' section. It was the book that lead me to explore Stoicism further and reconnect with my earlier love of philosophy. The book is a kind of 'anti-self-help' guide and uses a seven step model to help us resist the craziness of an accelerating culture. The steps recommended include stop trying to find yourself, practice negative (Stoical!) thinking, say no to change for the sake of change, read more fiction and spend time reflecting on the past.

The antidote by Oliver Burkeman, Canongate Books, 2012

This book felt much lighter than the other books I have been reading. It is less about philosophy in general or Stoicism in particular and more an entertaining romp through modern self-help ideas, which he goes on to dissect and offer 'antidotes' to. I'm happy that Stoicism is offered as one of the cures as is Buddhism and John Keats.

A guide to the good life by William B. Irvine, Oxford University Press, 2009

This is my favourite book on modern Stoicism written in a very readable style. It contains lots of good, common sense advice on dealing with insults, doing your duty, overcoming 'anti-joy' and facing death. It also explains how to use Stoic techniques to live a better life, such as negative visualisation which can help you escape the hedonic treadmill by encouraging you to contemplate the loss of that which you cherish. It also covers fatalism, self-denial and meditation. There is a historical look at the ancient Greek and Roman stoics at the beginning and some guidance on how to adopt stoicism as a philosophy of life today at the end.

Philosophy for life and other dangerous situations by Jules Evans, Random House, 2012

My philosophical reading had been somewhat fixated on the Stoics and I was beginning to wonder what valuable insights other ancient philosophers might be able to bring to my modern life. This book and its author satisfied my curiousity quite nicely. The book follows an imaginary study day at the ancient School of Athens, an interesting mind excursion to a different time and place. The day begins with a lesson about practical philosophy influenced by Socrates. The author discusses Socrates' teaching, illuminated by his recent encounters with CBT. The day continues in a similar way, the Stoics take over the morning lessons, with excursions into Epictetus and the serenity prayer, Musonious Rufus and Seneca. We get Epicurus for lunch and mysticism and skepticism in the afternoon. After a bit of Plato, Plutarch, Aristotle and politics we return to Socrates to contemplate our own ends. Despite its ancient roots many of the experiences illuminating the philosophy were modern. It felt a very relevant and satisfying read.

How to be a stoic by Massimo Pigliucci, Penguin Books, 2017
This book is more specific than just being about stoicism. The author focuses on one particular stoical philosopher, Epictetus. Epictetus is known as the slave-philosopher and his tough, but also gentle, advice runs throughout this thought-provoking book. The part I found most useful were the twelve practical spiritual exercises at the end, these were a kind of stoical twelve steps to help you live more in tune with the four stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. In these twelve steps the author encourages us to look beyond the impression of things, to see into their nature, to pause and reflect, to make good choices and to be humble and generous.

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, Penguin Books, 2001

I nearly forgot that my modern interest in philosophy began with Alain De Botton's 'Consolations of Philosophy' and before that Jostein Gaarder's 'Sophie's World'. This book was turned into a wonderful six part TV series called 'Philosophy: a guide to happiness', about seventeen years ago.

The book begins with Socrates who offers us a consolation for unpopularity. Socrates was ugly, eccentric and annoying, but also wise and the be-all and end-all when it comes to philosophers. He was so unpopular that the people of Athens condemned him to death, which lead to him being compelled to take his own life. He shows that regardless of whether it's popular or unpopular you should always endeavour to do the right thing.

Epicurus offers us a consolation for not having enough money. The Epicurean way was to enjoy a simple diet, a few friends and to savour what you have, not waste money on extravagant luxuries that ultimately won't make you any happier.

Seneca on frustration is a brief introduction to this great Stoical philosopher. He lived in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty and was eventually sentenced to death by Emperor Nero. Seneca and the Stoics believed that a life of practising virtue and reflection could lead to inner peace and a better world. Eventually the Roman Empire would be ruled by the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, which I think is a great advert for the steadfast, Stoical approach, which could also be a workable solution in our own lives of quiet desperation.

In Montaigne on inadequacy we become acquainted with a lesser known philosopher who made a habit of dwelling on humankind's more embarrassing aspects, frailties, failures and weaknesses. Perhaps this is why he is lesser known.

Unromantic, grumpy and misogynistic: Schopenhauer does not seem the ideal candidate to offer us consolations for a broken heart, but by concentrating on the biological need to reproduce and to reproduce well, he does just that.

Difficulties are left up to Nietzsche. He had interesting things to say about striving for better things in life, that good comes from a struggle. He didn't like Christianity and criticised it for celebrating subjection, weakness, mediocrity and failure, or something like that. I think I'm a Stoic Christian, which, for me, is about accepting my weaknesses and living a virtuous life while also striving for something better; a kind of middle way approach.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Poems for Yin

I spent some of the late 1990s and early noughties trying to get to grips with what femininity was all about. It was also the time in my life when I became a mother and was also trying to get to grips with being the best mum I could be to my baby daughter. With hindsight maybe the best thing to do with femininity is just be it, if that's how you feel and maybe try not to analyse it too much. My 'Poems for Yin' are written at a time when I was trying to analyse femininity. I heard an Indian saying once, intended for both men and women, which states 'Walk in the feminine but be mindful of the masculine,' so maybe this subject is worthy of deeper thought.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Twelve of the best

After being caught short on the church art exhibition in July I decided to work on getting six paintings by Amy (above) and six paintings by me (below) ready for the next church art exhibition or in preparation for another opportunity to show our art somewhere else in real life. I'm pleased with the results.

Sunday, 6 August 2017


SunDazed follows the  progress of Charlotte Brown, a gentle soul who is struggling with self discovery in a harsh and unforgiving busy city. Charlotte's journey is psychological, emotional and spiritual rather than physical but by the end of the story she is a lot more self-aware and confidant than she was at the beginning.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

London Interrupted Part Two

I've been busy lately and felt time slipping by on my London Interrupted project. So, with my daughter off on a camping trip, I decided to explore several places around Notting Hill I'd been meaning to see for quite a while.

Kensal Green Cemetery is one of the 'Magnificent Seven' cemeteries of London. It was a very pleasant summer's day, the morning mum and I wandered around this impressive green space, with its grand tombs and humble crosses. Like a lot of London the place is quite full up, this time with the dead rather than the living.

In the middle of the cemetery is a modern gazebo-like tomb for a philanthropist millionaire, erected in 2014. We sat here and ate sandwiches.

At every turn I was reminded of my favourite Dr Who episode 'Blink' starring the lovely Carey Mulligan. The cemetery boasts a creepy selection of 'Weeping Angels'. Here are just a few of them.


Being a Monday my intended visit to the Museum of Brands was not possible. As an alternative I decided to venture into The Electric Cinema. The cinema is both retro and decadent. There are red velvet king-size beds closest to the screen and armchairs, with accompanying cocktail tables and desk lamps, in the centre. At the back was a lounge area and a bar. I think it would be quite something to experience watching a film in this environment.

Portabello Road Market is open seven days a week. I think it's busier at the weekends, on this particular day we got some good fruit and veg stalls, clothes and brick-a-brack. There are also some interesting shops with an Eastern or vintage flavour to them. We enjoyed Guinness and chips in an attractive cafe-bar before walking to Notting Hill and boarding a modern double decker bus back to Shepherd's Bush.