A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – by William B. Irvine

This book resonated with me more than any I've read. It felt like a formalization and validation of my finding of life for the past ten to twelve years. At the same time, I'm sure, 18-year-old me wouldn’t go past seemingly cheesy title. I can't tell you more, or even recommend reading it. If I have to, this would be my pitch: If you value calmness and tranquility, read it.

Highlights

Furthermore, these ancient philosophers did not keep their discoveries to themselves or share them only with their fellow philosophers. Rather, they formed schools and welcomed as their pupils anyone wishing to acquire a philosophy of life.

As I read about the Stoics, I found myself filled with admiration for them. They were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and self-disciplined—traits I would like to possess. They also thought it important for us to fulfill our obligations and to help our fellow humans—values I happen to share.

Although modern philosophers tend to spend their days debating esoteric topics, the primary goal of most ancient philosophers was to help ordinary people live better lives.

Thus, although Lutherans, Baptists, Jews, Mormons, and Catholics hold different religious views, they are remarkably alike when encountered outside of church or synagogue. They hold similar jobs and have similar career ambitions. They live in similar homes, furnished in a similar manner. And they lust to the same degree for whatever consumer products are currently in vogue.

ZENO’S PHILOSOPHY had ethical, physical, and logical components. Those who studied Stoicism under him started with logic, moved on to physics, and ended with ethics.

A modern-day ethicist might wonder, for example, whether abortion is morally permissible, and if so, under what circumstances. Stoic ethics, in contrast, is what is called eudaemonistic ethics, from the Greek eu meaning “good” and daimon meaning “spirit.” It is concerned not with moral right and wrong but with having a “good spirit,” that is, with living a good, happy life or with what is sometimes called moral wisdom.

After importing Stoicism, the Romans adapted the doctrine to suit their needs. For one thing, they showed less interest in logic and physics than the Greeks had. Indeed, by the time of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the great Roman Stoics, logic and physics had essentially been abandoned: In the Meditations, we find Marcus congratulating himself for not having wasted time studying these subjects.

Stoics from whom, I think, modern individuals have the most to gain—were Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Besides thinking that philosophy should be practical, Musonius thought the study of philosophy should be universal. Indeed, he argued that both women and men “have received from the gods the same reasoning power.” Consequently, women, like men, can benefit from education and the study of philosophy.17 Because he held these views when he did, Musonius has been applauded by modern feminists.

BEGIN EACH DAY by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”29 These words were written not by a slave like Epictetus, whom we would naturally expect to encounter insolence and ill will; they were written by the person who was at the time the most powerful man in the world: Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome.

It is therefore with good reason that Marcus observed, in his Meditations, that “the art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.”

We normally characterize an optimist as someone who sees his glass as being half full rather than half empty. For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point. After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen. And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and—miracle of miracles!—allow us to see what they contain.

One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted. To them, the world is wonderfully new and surprising. Not only that, but they aren’t yet sure how the world works: Perhaps the things they have today will mysteriously vanish tomorrow. It is hard for them to take something for granted when they can’t even count on its continued existence.

Some people don’t need the Stoics or a priest to tell them that the key to a cheerful disposition is periodically to entertain negative thoughts; they figured it out on their own. In the course of my life, I have met many such people.

Marcus, immediately after advising readers to spend time thinking about how much they would miss their possessions if these possessions were lost, warns them to “beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”16 Along similar lines, Seneca, after advising us to enjoy life, cautions us not to develop “over-much love” for the things we enjoy. To the contrary, we must take care to be “the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune.”

IN HIS STATEMENT of the dichotomy of control, Epictetus suggests, quite sensibly, that we are behaving foolishly if we spend time worrying about things that are not up to us; because they are not up to us, worrying about them is futile. We should instead concern ourselves with things that are up to us, since we can take steps either to bring them about or prevent them from happening.

When I am on a diet, for example, I might suddenly find myself craving a bowl of ice cream. I have a degree of control over whether I act on this craving but no control over whether this craving spontaneously arises within me. Likewise, I can’t help it that I detect within myself an aversion to spiders. I might, through an act of sheer willpower, pick up and handle a tarantula despite this aversion, but I can’t help it that I don’t like spiders. These examples suggest that Epictetus is wrong to include our impulses, desires, and aversions in the category of things over which we have complete control.

If, on the other hand, we set playing our best in a match as our goal, we arguably don’t lessen our chances of winning the match, but we do lessen our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. Thus, internalizing our goals with respect to tennis would appear to be a no-brainer: To set as our goal playing to the best of our ability has an upside—reduced emotional anguish in the future—with little or no downside.

If we want our life to go well, Epictetus says, we should, rather than wanting events to conform to our desires, make our desires conform to events; we should, in other words, want events “to happen as they do happen.”

To solve this puzzle, we need to distinguish between fatalism with respect to the future and fatalism with respect to the past. When a person is fatalistic with respect to the future, she will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on future events.

When a person is fatalistic with respect to the past, she adopts this same attitude toward past events. She will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on the past. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about how the past might be different.

BESIDES RECOMMENDING that we be fatalistic with respect to the past, the Stoics, I think, advocate fatalism with respect to the present. It is clear, after all, that we cannot, through our actions, affect the present, if by the present we mean this very moment.

It is why Marcus reminds us that all we own is the present moment and why he advises us to live in “this fleeting instant.” (This last advice, of course, echoes the Buddhist advice that we should try to live in the moment—another interesting parallel between Stoicism and Buddhism.)

To begin with, by undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort—by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed—we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future.

What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.

The Stoics will then point out that exercising self-control has certain benefits that might not be obvious. In particular, as strange as it may seem, consciously abstaining from pleasure can itself be pleasant. Suppose, for example, that while on a diet, you develop a craving for the ice cream you know to be in your refrigerator. If you eat it, you will experience a certain gastronomic pleasure, along with a certain regret for having eaten it. If you refrain from eating the ice cream, though, you will forgo this gastronomic pleasure but will experience pleasure of a different kind: As Epictetus observes, you will “be pleased and will praise yourself” for not eating it.

The bedtime meditation Seneca is recommending is, of course, utterly unlike the meditations of, say, a Zen Buddhist. During his meditations, a Zen Buddhist might sit for hours with his mind as empty as he can make it. A Stoic’s mind, in contrast, will be quite active during a bedtime meditation. He will think about the events of the day. Did something disrupt his tranquility? Did he experience anger? Envy? Lust? Why did the day’s events upset him? Is there something he could have done to avoid getting upset?

Other signs of progress, says Epictetus, are the following: We will stop blaming, censuring, and praising others; we will stop boasting about ourselves and how much we know; and we will blame ourselves, not external circumstances, when our desires are thwarted.

Indeed, Epictetus thinks that in our practice of Stoicism, we should be so inconspicuous that others don’t label us Stoics—or even label us philosophers.

Part of the reason we marvel at Marcus’s accomplishment is that we have a different notion of duty than he did. What motivates most of us to do our duty is the fear that we will be punished—perhaps by God, our government, or our employer—if we don’t. What motivated Marcus to do his duty, though, was not fear of punishment but the prospect of a reward.

People tend to talk about certain things; back in Epictetus’s time, he says, they talked about gladiators, horse races, athletes, eating and drinking—and, most of all, about other people. When we find ourselves in a group that is conversing about such things, Epictetus advises us to be silent or to have few words; alternatively, we might subtly attempt to divert the talk to “something appropriate.”6 This advice, to be sure, is a bit dated; people no longer talk about gladiators (although, significantly, they still do talk about horse races, athletes, eating and drinking—and, of course, about other people).

[…] when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him.

A good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest.

“Remember,” says Epictetus, “that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting.” As a result, he says, “another person will not do you harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed.”7 From this it follows that if we can convince ourselves that a person has done us no harm by insulting us, his insult will carry no sting. This last advice is really just an application of the broader Stoic belief that, as Epictetus puts it, “what upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things.”

Refusing to respond to an insult is, paradoxically, one of the most effective responses possible. For one thing, as Seneca points out, our nonresponse can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result.

Anger, says Seneca, is “brief insanity,” and the damage done by anger is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.”

To avoid becoming angry, says Seneca, we should also keep in mind that the things that anger us generally don’t do us any real harm; they are instead mere annoyances. 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. Furthermore, as Seneca observes, “our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us.”7 What fools we are, therefore, when we allow our tranquility to be disrupted by minor things.

PEOPLE ARE UNHAPPY, the Stoics argue, in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. Because of their confusion, they spend their days pursuing things that, rather than making them happy, make them anxious and miserable.

One of the things people mistakenly pursue is fame. 

Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor.

Marcus agrees with Epictetus that it is foolish for us to worry about what other people think of us and particularly foolish for us to seek the approval of people whose values we reject. Our goal should therefore be to become indifferent to other people’s opinions of us. He adds that if we can succeed in doing this, we will improve the quality of our life.

Realize that many other people, including, quite possibly, your friends and relatives, want you to fail in your undertakings. They may not tell you this to your face, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t silently rooting against you. People do this in part because your success makes them look bad and therefore makes them uncomfortable: If you can succeed, why can’t they? Consequently, if you attempt something daring they might ridicule you, predict disaster, and try to talk you out of pursuing your goal. If, despite their warnings, you make your attempt and succeed, they might finally congratulate you—or they might not.

When, as the result of being exposed to luxurious living, people become hard to please, a curious thing happens. Rather than mourning the loss of their ability to enjoy simple things, they take pride in their newly gained inability to enjoy anything but “the best.”

Musonius advocated a simple diet. More precisely, he thought it best to eat foods that needed little preparation, including fruits, green vegetables, milk, and cheese. He tried to avoid meat since it was, he thought, a food more appropriate for wild animals. He advised that when someone eats, he should choose food “not for pleasure but for nourishment, not to please his palate but to strengthen his body.”

The Buddhist viewpoint regarding wealth, by the way, is very much like the view I have ascribed to the Stoics: It is permissible to be a wealthy Buddhist, as long as you don’t cling to your wealth. This, at any rate, is the advice Buddha gave to Anathapindika, a man of “unmeasurable wealth”: “He that cleaves to wealth had better cast it away than allow his heart to be poisoned by it; but he who does not cleave to wealth, and possessing riches, uses them rightly, will be a blessing unto his fellows.”

[…] the proximity of death, rather than depressing us, can be turned to our advantage. In our youth, because we assumed that we would live forever, we took our days for granted and as a result wasted many of them. In our old age, however, waking up each morning can be a cause for celebration. As Seneca notes, “If God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts.”

Many more, though, are disturbed because they fear that they have mislived—that they have, that is, lived without having attained the things in life that are truly valuable. Death, of course, will make it impossible for them ever to attain these things.

ANYONE WISHING to become a Stoic should do so unobtrusively. This is because those who hear of your “conversion” to Stoicism will likely mock you. You can avoid this sort of harassment, though, by keeping a low philosophical profile and practicing what might be called stealth Stoicism. You should have as your model Socrates, who kept such a low profile that people would come to him, not realizing that he himself was a philosopher, and ask whether he could introduce them to any philosophers. Socrates was, Epictetus reminds us, “tolerant of being overlooked,” and those practicing Stoicism should likewise be tolerant.

The Stoics, while doing their social duty, will not think in terms of sacrifice. Ideally, they will, as a result of practicing Stoicism, want to do what their social duty requires them to do. If this sounds strange, think about the duties involved in parenting. Parents do lots of things for their children, but Stoic parents—and, I suspect, good parents in general—don’t think of parenting as a burdensome task requiring endless sacrifice; instead, they think about how wonderful it is that they have children and can make a positive difference in the lives of these children.

[…] consequence of the practice of Stoicism is that one seeks opportunities to put Stoic techniques to work. I will have more to say about this phenomenon below.

It is curious, but when I started experiencing these outbursts, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. Should I embrace my feelings of joy or hold them at arm’s length? Indeed, should I, as a sober-minded adult, attempt to extinguish them? (I have since discovered that I am not alone in being suspicious of feelings of joy.) Then it dawned on me what utter foolishness it would be to do anything other than embrace them.