Sunday, April 16, 2017

On Stoicism: A Guide to the Good Life

Those who know me might understand why so much time has passed since my last blog, it’s been a tough year!  Through it one pleasure (of many) I could count on is my bicycle commute which virtually guaranteed an hour of audio-book reading five days a week.  I'd seen Stoicism mentioned in Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way so I searched for a book on this philosophy.  

Good books on Stoicism are hard to find!  Finally I stumbled across A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine.  I liked it so much that I listen to it twice through and then
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bought a copy to mark up.  This entry is mainly a summary of that book, of that philosophy, as explained by the author.

Stoicism fell from the public eye when philosophers began emphasizing theory at the expense of lifestyle wisdom -- Socrates had taught both.  Modern psychology’s emphasis on exploring all emotions runs counter to some of the Stoic methods, and the term “stoic” itself has taken on a meaning that is less than attractive.  Besides, people today tend to think they don’t need a life goal (and by default become what Irvine calls “enlightened hedonists:” basically, sophisticated pleasure-seekers).
The core idea of Stoicism is summarized by Irvine this way “Stoicism … is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear and various other emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence." (p 238)  Thankfully, unlike the original Stoic philosophers Irvine doesn’t refer to Zeus to explain how these emotions were embedded in us.  He looks no farther than evolution which, through natural selection, built emotions into our psyche for the purpose of survival and reproduction.  Evolutionary psychology is fascinating.  But the world has changed and the impulses that once helped don’t serve us well anymore.  Fortunately, one of the tools evolution has given us is rationality and we can hijack that  to reset our own life goal.  Our life goal doesn't have to be reproduction.  Stoics would recommend tranquility.

Tranquility is not the only goal possible, to be sure.   Hedonists seek to maximize pleasure and this is probably the default goal of most everyone. We're pleasure seekers because in geologic time the things that gave us pleasure steered us in ways that increased survival and procreation.  “Enlightened hedonism” today uses rationality to weigh long and short term pleasures and costs but in the end, he who has had the most pleasure wins.  The Cynics’ goal was virtue, harmony with nature, and to reach this they advocated rejection of all conventional desire.  Stoicism is in between: not ascetic, not hedonistic.   The stoic's goal is virtue and tranquility.  Tranquility is a goal of Buddhism and Epicurianism too but they go about it in a different way. 

Unlike Cynics who strive to eliminate desire the Stoics try to minimizing negative emotions and to live a 'virtuous'  life. Virtue and tranquility go hand in hand -- both rely on rational thought.  In this book Irvine focuses on tranquility and explains how Stoics learned to increase it. Maybe he'll write another on virtue. 

The Roman Stoics Irvine highlights are Seneca, Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius who was the  Roman Emperor from 161 to 180.  Each of these contributed something to the philosophy and most of them were exiled. Some were killed for being philosophers.  According to Irvine Descartes was a Stoic, so was Henry David Thoreau, but for the most part the philosophy waned as philosophers turned to theory, the public felt no need for a philosophy of life, psychologists emphasized methods that ran counter to Stoic ones, and religions pressed competing ideas too.   But here are some highlights of the book.

This is one of the core techniques.  We are set up psychologically to swing from desire to desire, satisfying one, forming the next, and so on.   Each time we attain a desired object we are rewarded but the psychological surge soon flattens and we pursue the next desire. For example, Irvine observed,  people often go to the mall not because they need something but in hopes to stimulate a desire which they can satisfy... for that dopamine boost.  We are insatiable; the Stoics suggest that instead of trying to satisfy desires endlessly we would do better to manage them. And confounding things more is what behavioral economists call hedonic adaptation: We place more value on things once we own them.  If you find $500 that’s nice, but if you lose $500 that’s very bad.  To use a recent example, if you think you won the Academy Award for Best Picture 2016 and then learn it was just a mistake you’re absolutely worse for the experience.

We are driven to acquire, we take our acquisitions for granted, and when we lose them it is an outsized blow.

So what do Stoics do about this?  One important exercise is negative visualization, that is, periodically imagining losing something valuable before it happens.   It’s not actually worrying, it’s contemplation.  Doing this can inoculate ourselves so when the pet (or child!)  does die or the teapot breaks … well we sort of knew it might happen ..  and that hurts less.  We’ve reduced the negative impact of grief.  If you consider for just  a moment that your daughter might die that makes actually being with her so much sweeter and every moment more meaningful. If she were to actually die and you had appreciated her life fully you may suffer less grief - - and less regret too.  The Stoic way provides more joy while she’s alive and - -  if it comes to it - - less pain when she's gone.  All from negative visualization

Stoics also recommend what Irvine calls voluntary discomfort: sometimes taking on a loss or suffering purposefully -- not in a masochistic way but an instructive one.  Reading this I was reminded of when I told my dentist before what was basically a root canal that I would like to do it without anesthetic.  I wanted to experience extreme pain without actually suffering harm.  Doing this has several benefits: it inoculates one against the full shock when actual hardship occurs, it widens one’s zone of comfort, it helps one appreciate what we do have, and we gain confidence going forward that we can bear what life might deliver.  The flipside, also recommended, is, mindfully abstaining from pleasurable things now and then. 

There are other tools related to negative visualization...  like imagining that the bad things that happen to other people have happened to you, or trying to see bad things that happen in a more cosmic perspective. In the universe, how bad is it really that I just suffered, <fill in the blank>? 

The serenity prayer suggests we accept the things we can’t change, change the things we can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.  I’ve heard that all my life, but it was a bit eye opening to look just a little deeper.   Nothing in the past can be changed, it’s over. Then what is the use of all regret, it’s just a useless negative emotion!  A lot of anger goes out the window too. We can still learn from the past, but that certainly takes a lot of sting out of it.

More strangely, though, is that we can’t actually change the present either – the one we live in.  As soon we take an action that present has past.  Therefore, if we follow this line of reasoning, there is no anxiety or unhappiness about the way things are, in an immediate sense.  That’s very calming; we really can't entertain thoughts on how things right now could be better.

And then there are those things over which we have some but not complete control -- Irvine's simple example is a tennis match.  As much as you’ve practiced, as well as you play (both are things you can control) … you don’t control the skill of your opponent and therefore you can’t control the outcome of the game.  If you set a goal of winning the game and you lose it you will be disappointed.  Even if you win you likely will have suffered anxiety along the way.  Stoics recommend not trying to win the game, but rather set an internal goal … “playing your best.”  That goal you can control completely.  You can lose the match and still feel satisfied and accomplished if you've played your best... and you have no less chance of actually winning.  Opponents become teammates. With that internal focus, which you can control, you're likely to play better and may well succeed and win.

Other lessons relate to what we think of others and what they think of us.  Insults are interesting in this regard.  They’re not really injurious in themselves, like a punch in the face would be.  But they hurt only because of what we make of them. The advice?  It’s very clever.

First, consider the source; if it’s someone whose opinions you don’t respect, their insult can be dismissed out of hand. Irvine suggests considering it like a dog snarling at you – you might make a mental note of it but you don’t go through your day worrying about the fact that the dog doesn’t like you! But, if it’s someone you respect or someone who is well-informed about the topic at hand, look straight past the insult - - perhaps you’ve found a teacher. 

Second, if the insult is true and obvious, then it’s just a statement of fact.  I’m bald … ok, so?   But if it’s not true perhaps it should be corrected, like a parent correcting a child's bad behavior. It can be done kindly.

Third, if you choose to respond, the best way is often with humor because that can erase the intended sting.  Self-deprecating humor is best as it can send an ironic message of confidence when the insulter intended the exact opposite effect.  If the quick wit is not not at hand, don’t respond at all.  Either way you signal your disregard for the person's opinion rather than take them on.  I like that. 

Already we know that negative visualization can diminish grief because you’ve imagined the loss.  But one can also practice retrospective negative visualization, that is, imagine not having ever had the thing which you've lost.  In essence, “be happy with what you have had.”

If grieving the death of a loved one you also might do well to wonder how much pain the person would have wanted you to suffer.  When someone else is grieving, the Stoic advice as expressed by Irvine was don’t catch the grief deeply, but you might feign grief if it makes them feel better.  Personally, I think actually sharing the grief, even if briefly, could be a good thing -- also a form of voluntary discomfort. 

In any case, although it's a negative emotion they say the griever should grieve.  Seneca wrote to a friend “Let your tears flow but let them also cease, let deepest sighs be drawn from your breast, but let them also find an end.” (p 154)  Here the Stoic advice runs against popular grief therapy which often advises lingering much longer in grief, fully embracing it.

Anger is not only “anti-joy” but also is also irrational.  “Reason,” Seneca advises, “will never enlist the aid of reckless unbridled impulses over which it has no authority.” (p 160)  Yet feigning anger can serve a purpose -- signaling that you are likely to act irrationally (and therefore are unpredictable). But actually abandoning reason by way of anger is not recommended by Stoics.  

So how do you reduce anger?  Resist thinking the worst of people, don’t get so comfortable that you’re easily angered, and notice how much more the anger causes your own suffering than the trigger for the anger itself did. With anger we punish ourselves.  Attempting to view the offense from a more cosmic perspective can diminish its effect.  And if you can, turn anger upside down by finding humor. Laugh.

And apologize later … that matters.

Fame should be avoided -- we basically should be indifferent to social status, they say.  Irvine paraphrased Epictetus: “If we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves.”  Just as insults and criticism don’t have to infect us with negative emotion, we should become impervious to praise and compliments too.  It’s a slippery slope, relying on others in this way; better to set those internal goals.

Interestingly, luxury is a bit different (although various Stoics apparently disagreed on how much one should enjoy it).  Basically, wealth can be a fine thing as long as you control it, and not it you.  Its dangers include 1. not being prepared to lose it and 2. the loss of one's ability to enjoy simpler things.    

It makes sense that Stoics are often wealthy.  They set internal goals that can result in external successes just the same, and they are happy with a simple lifestyle. They may well earn an excellent wage and not spend nearly as much as others.

An interesting short chapter dealt with exile -- probably because most of the Stoics mentioned were exiled, sometimes repeatedly.  From the unflappable Stoic perspective exile is just a change of place.  Irvine brought this home by comparing exile to being “banished” to a nursing home, a fate many do still suffer today.  He explains, using Stoic principles, how one near the end of life might suffer fewer and less intense negative emotions and still find joy, if they know how.

The book is nicely written, it appears to be an excellent synthesis of the original Stoic literature with modern applications. It's nicely indexed and well referenced and the audio edition is well read.

Since writing this summary I've read a translation of Marcus Aurelius - - The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations. I think Irvine did well - - his book was better IMO! Most of his observations. I think, were drawn from Seneca - - I haven't read Seneca yet but will.  


  1. This is excellent! I've thought for a long time that the stoics have the richest yield of good advice. I listen to "Philosophize This!" by Stephen West (and support him through Patreon), who has run through all the classic philosophy curriculum, and it's really been helpful to how I look at my life. I think about the stoic way of life every day. I think that somewhere near the intersection of stoicism and Buddhism, lies happiness. Thanks for the thoughtful write-up.

  2. Didn't know it covered old age "exile". Thanks !


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