Review: Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way

The Obstacle if the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph

Ryan Holiday

When I first heard of Ryan Holiday, and his mini-stoicism inspired empire, I figured he was probably an asshole. It was all a bit too Silicon Valley bro-y for me (and I’m someone with a deep interest in stoicism and ancient though in general). But then I heard some interview with him, and was struck by his thoughtfulness and poise, and I began to change my mind. He has something to say.

This book is, at heart, a self-help book. But you know what else is a self-help book? Aurelius’s meditations. This isn’t as poetic as the Mediations, or as brilliant, but it’s still a thoughtful short read on the benefits of viewing the world through the lens of stoic philosophy. Meaning, through a lens, not of avoiding pain, or of silencing our emotions, but of valuing perseverance, and of focusing on that which we can control.

I don’t know that I learned much that was new from this book, but I did appreciate the reminder, and take inspiration from Holidays clear examples and advice on how to live a life of perseverance and reflection.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

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Ryan Holiday

Your Occasional Stoic — Do Not Mourn An Unknown Future; Do Not Fear Death

Even if you are going to live three thousand years, or as many times ten thousand years, remember that no man loses any other life than the one which he now lives, or lives any other life than the one he now loses. The longest and shortest are then to the same. For the present is the same to all, though that which perishes is not the same; and so that which is lost appears to be a mere moment. For a man cannot lose either the past or the future — for if you do not have it, how can anyone take it? Bear these two things in mind: all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, and that it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time; and second, that the longest liver and he who will die soonest lose just the same. For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose a thing if he has it not.
Meditations, 2. 14

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Marcus was obsessed with Death and deals with it repeatedly throughout the mediations. Here, he takes an almost Buddhist view of it –be here now and all that. Do not mourn an unknown future, or a past already lived. What you have, what you can control, is today. Focus on this, and you need not fear death, because today is all anyone ever has.

Ok, fine, cool story bro. But as I’ve struggled with in many of these annotations, this radical insistence on the present isn’t practical. If I do not look forward to an old age I may not have, I cannot prepare for it. If I fail to prepare, I will fail to survive.
Herein lies one of the central contradictions in stoicism. It insists on controlling the moment, but if we fail to look past the moment, we’re doomed. Wrestling with this contradiction, finding the right balance, will be a subject of many, many of these annotations.

Your Occasional Stoic — Pity the Gossiping Neighbor

Nothing is more wretched than a man who is always out and about, running around in circles. As Pindar says, the poet says, “delving deep in the bowels of the earth” seeking by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbors, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the divinity within him. Reverence to the divine in himself consists in keeping it pure from passion and thoughtlessness, and dissatisfaction with what comes from gods and men. For the things from the gods merit veneration for their excellence; and the things from men should be dear to us by reason of kinship; and sometimes even, in a manner, they move our pity by reason of men’s ignorance of good and bad; this defect being not less than that which deprives us of the power of distinguishing things that are light and dark.

  • Meditations 2.13

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The Greek doesn’t actually name Pindar, it merely says the “poet” but the quopte is from a Pindar Fragment.

There’s a lot going on here – first the now standard cheerleading of Marcus to himself to be not like the gossiping neighbor, judging the motivations of his friends, but more like the stoic sage focused on his own, inner strength (and weaknesses).

Stay away from thoughtlessness, Marcus tells himself, again. Focus on facts. Don’t let you passions control your actions.

Still and also, pity the gossiping neighbor, the harm he does it not just to those he judges, but also to himself, moving farther from knowledge by failing to interrogate his own mind before worrying about the minds of others.

Your Occasional Stoic — Only Children Fear Death

 

How quickly all things disappear, our bodies lost, in time even the memory of them will disappear, what is the nature of the things we experience, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain? How worthless, contemptible, sordid, perishable, and dead they are — all this is part of the intellectual faculty to observe. And further considerations. What are they, these people whose judgments and voices confer or deny esteem?
What is death? Someone looking at death per se, and applying the analytical power of his mind to divest death of its associated images, will conclude then that it is nothing more than a function of nature – and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child.

And death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit. Further, how does man touch god, with what part of his being, and when that part of him is in what sort of disposition.

~2.12

ROMAN ART

as part of collection, Roman Art from the Louvre, currently on display at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN ORG XMIT: KOD

The Mediations are repetitive, and so are my reflections upon them. But that’s part of the exercise. It isn’t that Marcus was coming upon these ideas are world busting revelations, he was repeating mantras to himself over and over hoping that they’d stick.

Again, here, he wrestles with mortality, like we all do, steeling himself against its inevitability. Getting upset at a fact of nature is absurd. We all die, all that we ever know will die, all that remember us will die. Even emperors because ghosts, barely visible through the fog of history. Know this, feel this, and death looses some of its power.

Your Occasional Stoic — You May Die Today

It is possible you may die today. Regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to die, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve you in evil. But if indeed the gods do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man’s power to enable him resist real evils. If after death there was anything evil, they would have provided man with the power to resist it. If it does not harm your character, how can it harm your life? Nature would not have overlooked such dangers through failing to recognize them nor is it possible that it has made so great a mistake, either through want of power or want of skill, that good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad,  as these are things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore, they are neither good nor evil.

  • Meditations, 2:11

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We all die. We all feel pleasure, and pain. These feelings are universal and therefore devoid of moral weight. It is what we do with them that creates our character. It is how we accept the inevitability of death, the temporary nature of pleasure (and pain) which gives us our philosophical bearings.

Do not try to avoid the ups and downs of life, try to navigate them, not let them set you adrift.

This is part of an ongoing project of idiosyncratic translations and annotations to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. You can see the whole series at Your Occasional Stoic. 

Your Occasional Stoic: True to My Nature

Keep this in mind — what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what relation it is, and of what kind, to the whole; and that there is no one who hinders me from always doing and saying the things which are according to my nature.

2.9

As we’ve said before, the mediations can be repetitive. As far as we know, Marcus wrote them for himself, and he’s trying to hammer home the same points again and again. This thought, that one has free will, and can always stay true to one’s own nature, even when that flies in the face of the nature of the whole is a simple point, but one worth remembering. Perhaps especially in these times.

Of course, its easy to stay true to yourself when you can put your enemies to death (as Marcus could). But still, worth it for the rest of us to try.

NOTE: This is part of a continuing series of my own renderings and reflections on classical works of stoicism. See them all at the Your Occasional Stoic page.

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Your Occasional Stoic — Knowledge of Self

Not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.

-Meditation 2:8

Others are unknowable, you know this. It should not sadden you. But not knowing yourself? That’s a problem.

Like many of the meditations, its easy to read this as a call to meditation. Meditation, as we conceive it, would likely have been foreign to Aurelius, but a certain type of mindfulness? Of self-knowledge? I think that is what he is getting at here.