Guest article: On Irvine's Guide to the Good Life

[This is a POW guest essay by Greg Linster, a writer and essayist living in Denver, Colorado. It's a review of William Irvine's popular work on Stoicism: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Thanks for contributing this Greg. You can find his blog, Coffee Theory, here.]

The ancients knew that we, as humans, are often ill equipped psychologically to deal with many of the frustrations that are endemic to existence. This is, at least in part, why I think philosophy (especially Greco-Roman philosophy) is incredibly important. It helps us learn how to cope with the psychological struggles that come with being human.
Do you have ‘a philosophy of life’? Many people use religion (or even secularism) as a guide for their moral compass, but that is distinctly different from ‘a philosophy of life’. I think the distinction can best be understood using the following metaphor. Metaphorically, your moral compass guides you to your destination, it doesn’t, however, tell what your destination ought to be. This is where your philosophy of life, regardless of where your morals come from, enters the picture. The central purpose of a philosophy of life is to thus provide an answer to the following question: What things in life do you find most valuable, i.e, what is your grand goal in living?

In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Dr. William B. Irvine beautifully writes about an ancient school of philosophy, Stoicism, that I was first exposed to several years ago.
According to Dr. Irivne, “Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease.” If you don’t currently have a coherent philosophy of life, rest assured, you’re not alone. As Dr. Irvine puts it: “Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to.” The great danger in not having a philosophy of life, however, is that you are liable to waste the one life you’ve been given.
The Problem With Academic Philosophy
In the past, many ancient philosophers believed finding an answer to the question I initially posed at the beginning of this essay was the raison d’être of philosophy. That, however, has changed in the modern era. In fact, you will scarcely hear a word spoken, in present times, about philosophies of life from most academic philosophers at most research universities. Why this happened is not exactly mysterious, but the explanation is not entirely within the scope of this essay. What, however, can possibly be more important than teaching our young and impressionable youth about the art of living well and developing a philosophy of life?
An Introduction to Stoicism
It’s interesting to note that, in many ways, Stoicism is similar to Zen Buddhism. Stoics, however, place a huge emphasis and analytical and logical thinking, which suits my personality quite well. The Stoics’ interest in logic is a natural consequence of their belief that man’s distinguishing feature is his rationality.” It’s important to note that Stoicism is not some static non-evolving philosophy that is one-size fits all. I believe, as does Dr. Irvine, that each of us can have our own brand of Stoicism so long as we adhere to a few Stoic principles. One of the most appealing aspects of Stoicism, I find, is that although Stoics favor a simple life, they don’t reject wealth outright and they certainly don’t practice severe asceticism like the Cynics.
Stoic Psychological Techniques
So, you may be wondering, how exactly does one become a Stoic philosopher? Fortunately, it is very simple to become a Stoic. It simply requires that you focus on four basic Stoic psychological techniques that can be practiced at any time and for free. These techniques, which I’ll briefly describe are: negative visualization, understanding the trichotomy of control, having a fatalistic attitude, and self-denial.
Negative Visualization simply involves contemplating (not dwelling) on the fact that life is good and things could always be worse. Essentially, Stoics use negative visualization to imagine bad things happening to them.[2] This, in turn, helps Stoics come to appreciate what they already have and it’s medication for the hedonic adaption that constantly occurs whenever we gain something we desire. The Stoic, Epictetus, observed something that many of us moderns fail to, i.e., “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.”
The Trichotomy of Control forces us to realize that some things are in our complete control, some things aren’t, and some things are only partly in our control. This Stoical technique has a similar message to the Christian serenity prayer, i.e., focus on things you can control and don’t worry about things you can’t. After-all, what’s the point of worrying about something you can’t control?
Fatalism is a way to preserve tranquility by avoiding dwelling on the past. We can’t control what happened in the past, it has already happened. All we can do is focus on the best choices we can make in the future.
Self-denial is another Stoic technique which meshes well with something I have personally been doing for years, i.e, intermittent fasting. Aside from the health benefits, I’ve found this self-denial actually increases my enjoyment of life. When I fast all day, I enjoy my dinner much more than I do on days when I eat 3+ meals. Any formally trained economist can tell you about the law of diminishing marginal utility, i.e., in colloquial terms, that the second beer never tastes as good as the first and the third doesn’t taste nearly good as the second. I told you it was in my nature to be a Stoic!
The Good Life
The Stoics believe that we should live as we were designed to, but we have to realize that nature doesn’t necessarily work in our interest of being happy and content. I think the field of evolutionary psychology can explain why. We didn’t necessarily evolve to be happy or tranquil, but rather to seek genetic eternity through mating. We have to choose to be happy or tranquil using philosophy. If we fail to realize this, we run the great danger of making a mistake with our one and only life. It seems foolish to spend your life suffering from mental anguish when having a philosophy of life, like Stoicism, can help cure these ailments and bring you tranquility. In short, this is why I have become a Stoic.
[1] I’ve read Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic and On the Shortness of Life; I’ve also read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. [2] See my essay: “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, For Today We Learn How To Die”