“A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art Of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irvine
Introduction. A Plan for Living.
A grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.
The second component of a philosophy of life is a strategy for attaining your grand goal in living. This strategy will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life that you take to be ultimately valuable.
For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.
The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling — who wishes, that is, to have a good life.
Part One. The Rise of Stoicism
Whatever philosophy of life a person ends up adopting, she will probably have a better life than if she tried to live — as many people do — without a coherent philosophy of life.
The pursuit of virtue results in a degree of tranquility, which in turn makes it easier for us to pursue virtue.
Part Two. Stoic Psychological Techniques
Negative Visualization. What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
Living as if each day were our last is simply an extension of the negative visualization technique: As we go about our day we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity.
By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.
Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But is simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for change that will deprive us of the things that delight us.
The Dichotomy of Control. On Becoming Invisible.
If what you seek is contentment, it is better and easier to change yourself and what you want than it is to change the world around you.
By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control.
Fear of failure is a psychological trait, so it is hardly surprising that by altering our psychological attitude toward “failure” (by carefully choosing our goals), we can affect the degree to which we fear it.
A practicing Stoic will keep the trichotomy of control firmly in mind as he goes about his daily affairs. He will perform a kind of triage in which he sorts the elements of his life into three categories: those over which he has complete control, those over which he has some but not complete control. The things in the second category — those over which he has no control at all — he will set aside as not worth worrying about. In doing this, he will spare himself a great deal of needless anxiety. He will instead concern himself with things over which he has complete control and things over which he has some but not complete control. And when he concerns himself with things in this last category, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals for himself and will thereby avoid considerable amount of frustration and disappointment.
Fatalism. Letting Go of the Past… and the Present
We have no control over the past; nor do we have any control of the present, if by the present we mean this very moment. Therefore, we are wasting our time if we worry about past or present events.
Stoic philosophy, while teaching us to be satisfied with whatever we’ve got, also counsels us to seek certain things in life.
Self-Denial. On Dealing with the Dark Side of Pleasure
Besides contemplating bad things happening, we should sometimes live as if they had happened.
If all we know is comfort, we might be traumatized when we are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as we someday almost surely will.
A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts at some future time will not, at present, be a source of anxiety for him.
If we lack self-control, we are likely to be distracted by the various pleasures life has to offer, and in this distracted state we are unlikely to attain the goals of our philosophy of life.
Whereas the ordinary person embraces pleasure, the sage enchains it; whereas the ordinary person thinks pleasure is the highest good, the sage doesn’t think it is even a good; and whereas the ordinary person does everything for the sake of pleasure, the sage does nothing.
By practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing.
Meditation. Watching Ourselves Practice Stoicism
To help us advance our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.
Part 3. Stoic Advice
Duty. On Loving Mankind
On examining our life, we will find that other people are the source of some of the greatest delights life has to offer, including love and friendship. But we will also discover that they are the cause of most of the negative emotions we experience.
Man is by nature a social animal and therefore that we have a duty to form and maintain relationships with other people, despite the trouble the might cause us.
Throughout the millennia and across cultures, those who have thought carefully about desire have drawn the conclusion that spending our days working to get whatever it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or tranquility.
Social Relations. On Dealing with Other People
We should seek, as friends, people who share our (proper Stoic) values and in particular, people who are doing a better job than we are of living in accordance with these values.
A good Stoic, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest.
Insults. On Putting Up with Put-Downs
Stoics thought it worthwhile to develop strategies to prevent insult from angering us — strategies for removing, as it were, the sting from an insult.
On of their sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true. “Why is it an insult,” Seneca asks, “to be told what is self-evident?”
Another sting-elimination strategy is to pause to consider how well-informed the insulter is.
One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn’t upset me.
One other important sting-elimination strategy, say the Stoics, is to keep in mind, when insulted, that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult.
What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things
By laughing off an insult, we are implying that we don’t take the insulter and his insults seriously.
If a humorous response to an insult shows that we don’t take the insulter seriously, a nonresponse to an insult makes it look as if we are indifferent to the existence of the insulter.
Grief. On Vanquishing Tears with Reason
Although it might not be possible to eliminate grief from our life, it is possible to take steps to minimize the amount of grief we experience over the course of a lifetime.
In retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never having had something that we have lost. By engaging in retrospective negative visualization we can replace our feelings of regret at having lost something with feeling of thanks for once having had it.
Anger. On overcoming Anti-Joy
By allowing ourselves to get angry over little things, we take what might have been a barely noticeable disruption of our day and transform it into a tranquility-shattering state of agitation.
The idea is that by choosing to think of the bad things that happen to us as being funny rather than outrageous, and incident that might have angered us can instead become a source of amusement.
We are bad men living among bad men, and only one thing can calm us — we must agree to go easy on one another.
Why experience anti-joy when you have it in your power to experience joy?
Personal Values. On Seeking Fame
The Stoics claim that the price of fame is sufficiently high that it far outweighs any benefits fame can confer on us.
If we wish to retain our freedom we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval.
Before we try to win the admiration of these other people, we should stop to ask whether their notion of success is compatible with ours.
Realize that many other people, including, quite possibly, your friends and relatives, want you to fail in your undertakings. People do this in part because your success makes them look bad and therefore makes them uncomfortable.
Personal Values. On Luxurious Living
The Stoics value highly their ability to enjoy ordinary life — and indeed, their ability to find sources of delight even when living in primitive conditions.
People who achieve luxurious lifestyles are rarely satisfied: Experiencing luxury only whets their appetite for even more luxury.
When we find ourselves wanting something, we should pause to ask whether the desire is natural or unnatural, and if it is unnatural, we should think twice about trying to satisfy it.
Exile. On Surviving a Change of Place
It is the mind that makes us rich; this goes with us into exile, and in the wildest wilderness, having found there all that body needs for its sustenance, it itself overflows in the enjoyment of its own goods.
Old Age. On Being Banished to a Nursing Home
Downside of failing to develop an effective philosophy of life: You end up wasting the one life you have.
The proximity of death, rather than depressing us, can be turned to our advantage. In your youth, because we assumed that we would live forever, we took our days for granted and as a result wasted may of them. In our old age, however, waking up each morning can be a cause for celebration.
Dying. On a Good End to a Good Life
Someone with a coherent philosophy of life will know what in life is worth attaining, and because this person has spent time trying to attain the thing in life he believed to be worth attaining, he has probably attained it, to extent that it was possible for him to do so. Consequently, when it comes time for him to die, he will not feel cheated.
When Stoics contemplate their own death, it is not because they long for death but because they want to get the most out of life.
On Becoming a Stoic. Start Now and Prepare to Be Mocked
The most important reason for adopting a philosophy of life, though, is that if we lack one, there is a danger that we will mislive — that we will spend our life pursuing goals that aren’t worth attaining or will pursue worthwhile goals in a foolish manner and will therefore fail to attain them.
Stoics will do their best to enjoy things that can’t be take from them, most notably their character.
We need to learn how to enjoy things without feeling entitled to them and without clinging to them.
Because they have learned to enjoy things that are easily obtainable or that can’t be take from them, Stoics will find much in life to enjoy.
Part 4. Stoicism for Modern Lives
The Decline of Stoicism
The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation. More precisely, they thought the first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The second step in transforming a society is to change people’s external circumstances.
Others may have it in their power to affect how and even whether you live, but they do not, say the Stoics, have it in their power to ruin your life. Only you can ruin it, by failing to live in accordance with the correct values.
Rather than working to fulfill whatever desires we fin in our head, we need to work at preventing certain desires from forming and elimination many of the desires that have formed. And rather than wanting new things, we need to work at wanting the things we already have.
We should become self-aware: We should observe ourselves as we go about our daily business, and we should periodically reflect on how we responded to the day’s events.
We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions. We should use reason to convince ourselves that things such as fame and fortune aren’t worth having — not, at any rate, if what we seek is tranquility — and therefore aren’t worth pursuing.
Although we should enjoy wealth, we should not cling to it; indeed, even as we enjoy it, we should contemplate it loss.
We are social creatures; we will be miserable if we try to cut off contact with other people. Therefore, if what we seek is tranquility, we should form and maintain relations with others.
Other people are invariably annoying, though, so if we maintain relations with them, they will periodically upset our tranquility — if we let them.
The Stoics pointed to two principal sources of human unhappiness — our instability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control — and they developed techniques for removing these sources of unhappiness from our life.
To conquer our instability, the Stoics advice us to engage in negative visualization. We should contemplate the impermanence of all things.
To curb our tendency to worry about things beyond our control, the Stoics advise us to perform a kind of triage with respect to the elements of our life and sort them into those we have no control over, those we have complete control over, and those we have some but not complete control over.
When we spend time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control, we should be careful to internalize our goals.
We should realize that what has happened to us in the past and what is happening to us at this very moment are beyond our control, so it is foolish to get upset about these things.
Those who could experience pain were therefore more effective at transmitting their genes than who couldn’t, and as a result we humans have inherited the ability to experience pain.
Evolutionary processes made us susceptible to suffering but also gave us — accidentally — a tool by which we can prevent much of this suffering. The tool, once again, is our reasoning ability. Because we can reason, we can not only understand our evolutionary predicament but take conscious steps to escape it, to the extent possible.
There is no one philosophy of life that is ideal for everyone, and there are some philosophies of life that no one should adopt. Furthermore, in almost all cases, a person is better off to adopt a less than ideal philosophy of life than to try to live with no philosophy at all.
By practicing Stoicism stealthily, you can gain its benefits while avoiding one significant cost: the teasing and outright mockery of your friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers.
Not to try to master all the Stoic techniques at once but start with one technique and, having become proficient in it, go on to another.
After mastering negative visualization, a novice Stoic should move on to become proficient in applying the trichotomy of control.
By routinely internalizing your goals, you can reduce what would otherwise be a significant source of distress in your life: the feeling that you have failed to accomplish some goal.
One of the worst things we can do when other people annoy us is get angry. The anger will, after all, be a major obstacle to our tranquility.
Those who lack self-discipline will have the path they take through life determined by someone or something else, and as a result, there is a very real danger that they will mislive.