Marcus Aurelius… looking all stoic.
I finally finished “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” and absolutely loved it. Reading it made me realize I have a lot of stoic tendencies, or I am what the author called a “congenital stoic”. Sometimes books seem to come into your life at the perfect time, and that is the situation here for me. I’ve always had an interest in philosophy but never pursued it much, partly because of my own ignorance and partly because modern philosophy seems overly stuffy and pedantic. I am finding that early philosophy was different.
Stoicism falls into the category of “life philosophy”. Stoics, like many Greek and Roman schools of thought, look to find the best way to have a good life. They don’t get stuck on definitions like what “good” or “life” means, instead it is an observation of the human condition, and then applying the lessons learned from observation to your life. While much of human existence has changed in the last two thousand years a lot of it remains the same. Stoic pursuit of tranquility may be even more important in the modern world where society tells us that joy comes from owning certain things, making a certain amount of money, becoming famous, etc. Stoics believe (and I gladly count myself as one of them) that tranquility comes from the inside only, and that consumerist pursuits are fleeting and bring no real lifelong happiness.
The author, William B. Irvine, wrote the book in a format that would be perfect for teaching a college course on Stoicism. In fact, as a professor that was precisely his goal. It starts with some history, then moves on to techniques Stoics advise to reach tranquility, then comes the application of these techniques to specific circumstances the ancient Stoics faced, and finally using Stoicism in the modern world. Personally, I found the history part to be interesting but unnecessary, it was really the five techniques that serve as the “meat and potatoes”.
The first technique is called Negative Visualization and is something I have found myself naturally doing ever since my time in the military. Practicing Negative Visualization is simply taking a few moments throughout the day, maybe when you are driving to work or in the shower, and think about how fleeting the things in your life could be. It is thinking about the “worst case” scenario so that you can appreciate the blessing in your life. If occasionally I think about how my life would differ if my wife died tomorrow or if I was hit by a car and became paralyzed from the neck down then I can really enjoy the blessing in my life. This isn’t dwelling on things to a point of paralysis, it is just meditating on things for a bit to get perspective.
The author uses two hypothetical fathers as an example. The first father never things about the possible death of his daughter, and because of that he thinks there will always be tomorrow to teach her to ride a bike, enjoy some time bonding, or to express his love. The days will go by quickly and with little appreciation for this father. The second father weekly meditates on what life would be like if his daughter became ill and died. He takes advantage of the limited time he has to play with her, learn about her interests, and express his love. The second father has a much more joyful existence due to negative visualization.
The second technique is the Dichotomy of Control. It is recognizing what is in your control and what is not, with the former category breaking down into things completely in your control and things partly in your control. Things that are out of your control completely (the weather, other people, traffic, a brain aneurysm coming out of nowhere and killing you) you shouldn’t even think about. It is a waste of mental energy and will only bring about disappointment to focus on those things.
Instead, we should focus on the things that we have at least some control of. Our own emotions, our response to the weather, preparing our property for our death, etc are all things that we control in some way. In fact, we should work on shifting our perception of events that are partially in our control so that we are only effected by things we can change. For example, if you are in a tennis match with someone you are in control of your own performance but can’t do anything about your opponent or the weather. So, the stoics believe that instead of focusing on winning the match you should focus on doing your best. Your best performance is completely in your control, winning the match is not.
The third Stoic technique is to practice is a type of Fatalism, which is the idea that things happen because of fate. The modern practice is more of a Buddhist belief that you can’t change the past or the immediate present so it does no good to focus or worry about it. The past is already done, all you can do is impact life moving forward so you should focus on that. It reminds me a lot of the economic principle of “sunk costs”.
The fourth technique is Self-Denial. Basically, we benefit when we deny ourselves things we could have. For the ancient Stoics this meant going around without shoes, living in poverty occasionally, and wearing clothes that don’t block the cold instead of being comfortable. I struggle with determining where I am with this practice. My current bike ride and minimalist lifestyle could be considered Self-Denial because I could surely find a better paying job and make my life more comfortable, and my current life puts things in perspective because I know I can survive periods of time without a stable food and water supply, no shelter, bad weather, being stranded, and unexpected changes to my life. But, I don’t find the ride difficult or really a challenge, I am not attempting to deny myself anything. So I guess I need to work on this a little more in my practice, though Irvine does explain this is kind of an advanced technique and shouldn’t be practiced early on in a Stoic’s journey
The final technique is Meditation, though it isn’t the type of meditation we normally think about. This would be more properly called Reflection. It is looking back on our past and observing how we handled situations. We shouldn’t look at them with regret or desire to change the situation, but instead we should coldly observe what we did and what we would do if the same situation came up again.
The application of these techniques to specific scenarios, both modern and ancient, is discussed for many chapters. They are a great read but really only one stuck out at me at this time, and when I made the realization it caught me by surprise… the application of Stoicism to luxurious living. While I don’t have a luxurious life I have found myself in the trap of being a “connoisseur” in two areas, sex and beer.
The problem with being a connoisseur is the pursuit of richer things prevents you from living a life of tranquility. If you are a foodie you may have once enjoyed a bowl of macaroni and cheese, but as you experience more things and desire greater experiences you are no longer satisfied. Soon, a $2 box of pasta tastes disgusting and you are dedicating more and more time and resources for a “refined” palate. Instead of being satisfied and content to have all the nutrition you need to survive (which is the purpose of food) instead you want more and more and more. That is kind of how I stand with beer and sex, I’ve had probably a wider variety of both than most people but I find myself wanting more. I need to stop focusing on the “new” and enjoy what I have easily available to me.
All in all, I really loved the book and plan on reading it again soon. I am also going to jump into the reading recommendations the author provides. Admittedly though, reading this and/or practicing Stoicism isn’t for everybody. I have a particular disposition to this way of life at this point and many people don’t, which is fine. There is no monopoly on the “right” life philosophy, though I think everyone would benefit from having one. Finding a philosophical standpoint allows us to navigate this world using our ability to reason instead of just our evolutionary urges to increase pleasure and avoid pain. So, at this point I call myself a Stoic with some sprinkling of Hedonism, though I haven’t read anything about ancient Hedonism which means that might be the next step.