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

  • There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have. This seemed to be an important insight, but it left open the question of how, exactly, we could accomplish this.
  • In defense of simple living, Diogenes observed that “the gods had given to men the means of living easily, but this had been put out of sight, because we require honeyed cakes, unguents and the like.” Such is the madness of men, he said, that they choose to be miserable when they have it in their power to be content. The problem is that “bad men obey their lusts as servants obey their masters,” and because they cannot control their desires, they can never find contentment.
  • A Stoic sage, according to Diogenes Laertius, is “free from vanity; for he is indifferent to good or evil report.” He never feels grief, since he realizes that grief is an “irrational contraction of the soul.” His conduct is exemplary. He doesn’t let anything stop him from doing his duty. Although he drinks wine, he doesn’t do so in order to get drunk.
  • Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.
  • Thus, for the Roman Stoics, the pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of tranquility are components of a virtuous circle—indeed, a doubly virtuous circle: The pursuit of virtue results in a degree of tranquility, which in turn makes it easier for us to pursue virtue.
  • “It is difficulties that show what men are. Consequently, when a difficulty befalls, remember that God, like a physical trainer, has matched you with a rugged young man.” Why do this? To toughen and strengthen you, so you can become “an Olympic victor”27—in other words, so you can have the best life possible.
  • “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.”
  • We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.
  • One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.
  • the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.
  • In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, “we should love all of our dear ones …, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.”6 While enjoying the companionship of loved ones, then, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. If nothing else, our own death will end it.
  • But thanks to hedonic adaptation, as soon as we find ourselves living the life of our dreams, we start taking that life for granted. Instead of spending our days enjoying our good fortune, we spend them forming and pursuing new, grander dreams for ourselves. As a result, we are never satisfied with our life. Negative visualization can help us avoid this fate.
  • Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them. Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. 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.
  • I would argue, though, that what is really foolish is to spend your life in a state of self-induced dissatisfaction when satisfaction lies within your grasp, if only you will change your mental outlook. To be able to be satisfied with little is not a failing, it is a blessing—if, at any rate, what you seek is satisfaction.
  • In his Handbook, Epictetus advocates this sort of “projective visualization.” Suppose, he says, that our servant breaks a cup. We are likely to get angry and have our tranquility disrupted by the incident. One way to avert this anger is to think about how we would feel if the incident had happened to someone else instead. If we were at someone’s house and his servant broke a cup, we would be unlikely to get angry; indeed, we might try to calm our host by saying “It’s just a cup; these things happen.”
  • By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.
  • He will look “for all benefit and harm to come from himself.”1 In particular, he will give up the rewards the external world has to offer in order to gain “tranquility, freedom, and calm.”
  • While most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them, Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves—more precisely, by changing our desires. And he is not alone in giving this advice; indeed, it is the advice offered by virtually every philosopher and religious thinker who has reflected on human desire and the causes of human dissatisfaction.
  • Since the thing is not up to us, there was a chance that we wouldn’t get it, and this probably worried us. Thus, wanting things that are not up to us will disrupt our tranquility, even if we end up getting them.
  • I should add that although I have complete control over which of these goals I set for myself, I obviously don’t have complete control over whether I achieve any of them;
  • the reward for choosing our goals and values properly can be enormous. Indeed, Marcus thinks the key to having a good life is to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.
  • 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.
  • Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. Similarly, my goal with respect to my boss should be to do my job to the best of my ability. These are goals I can achieve no matter how my wife and my boss subsequently react to my efforts. 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.
  • 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 a considerable amount of frustration and disappointment.
  • In particular, if we reject the decrees of fate, Marcus says, we are likely to experience tranquility-disrupting grief, anger, or fear. To avoid this, we must learn to adapt ourselves to the environment into which fate has placed us and do our best to love the people with whom fate has surrounded us. We must learn to welcome whatever falls to our lot and persuade ourselves that whatever happens to us is for the best. Indeed, according to Marcus, a good man will welcome “every experience the looms of fate may weave for him.”
  • Alternatively, if we can learn to want whatever it is we already have, we won’t have to work to fulfill our desires in order to gain satisfaction; they will already have been fulfilled.
  • 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. 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. In other words, voluntary discomfort can be thought of as a kind of vaccine: By exposing ourselves to a small amount of a weakened virus now, we create in ourselves an immunity that will protect us from a debilitating illness in the future.
  • intense pleasures, when captured by us, become our captors, meaning that the more pleasures a man captures, “the more masters will he have to serve.”5
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Indeed, Epictetus thinks the admiration of other people is a negative barometer of our progress as Stoics: “If people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.”
  • The most important sign that we are making progress as Stoics, though, is a change in our emotional life. It isn’t, as those ignorant of the true nature of Stoicism commonly believe, that we will stop experiencing emotion. We will instead find ourselves experiencing fewer negative emotions. We will also find that we are spending less time than we used to wishing things could be different and more time enjoying things as they are.
  • We might also discover, perhaps to our amazement, that our practice of Stoicism has made us susceptible to little outbursts of joy: We will, out of the blue, feel delighted to be the person we are, living the life we are living, in the universe we happen to inhabit.
  • What, then, is the function of man? Our primary function, the Stoics thought, is to be rational. To discover our secondary functions, we need only apply our reasoning ability.
  • Indeed, when we awaken in the morning, rather than lazily lying in bed, we should tell ourselves that we must get up to do the proper work of man, the work we were created to perform.
  • Thus, if we find ourselves shocked or surprised that a boor behaves boorishly, we have only ourselves to blame: We should have known better.
  • Thus, when men behave inhumanely, we should not feel toward them as they feel toward others. He adds that if we detect anger and hatred within us and wish to seek revenge, one of the best forms of revenge on another person is to refuse to be like him.
  • Fine wine, thus analyzed, turns out to be nothing more than fermented grape juice, and the purple robes that Romans valued so highly turn out to be nothing more than the wool of a sheep stained with gore from a shellfish. When Marcus applies this analytical technique to sex, he discovers that it is nothing more than “friction of the members and an ejaculatory discharge.”15 We would therefore be foolish to place a high value on sexual relations and more foolish still to disrupt our life in order to experience such relations.
  • A wise man, Musonius says, will marry, and having married, he and his wife will work hard to keep each other happy. Indeed, in a good marriage, two people will join in a loving union and will try to outdo each other in the care they show for each other.18 Such a marriage, one imagines, will be very happy.
  • 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.
  • Suppose, however, that I don’t respect the source of an insult; indeed, suppose that I take him to be a thoroughly contemptible individual. Under such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel relieved:
  • 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.”
  • When the person subsequently realized who Cato was and apologized to him, Cato, rather than getting angry at the man or punishing him, simply replied, “I don’t remember being struck.”14 Cato, says Seneca, showed a finer spirit by not acknowledging the blow than he would have by pardoning it.
  • This is what might be called retrospective negative visualization. In normal, prospective negative visualization, we imagine losing something we currently possess; in retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never having had something that we have lost. By engaging in retrospective negative visualization, Seneca thinks, we can replace our feelings of regret at having lost something with feelings of thanks for once having had it.
  • What worries Seneca about employing anger as a motivational tool is that after we turn it on, we will be unable to turn it off, and that whatever good it initially does us will (on average) be more than offset by the harm it subsequently does. “Reason,” he cautions, “will never enlist the aid of reckless unbridled impulses over which it has no authority.”
  • Likewise, there are individuals who, when they wrong us, are incapable of changing their behavior in response to our measured, rational entreaties. When dealing with this sort of shallow individual, it does not make sense to become actually angry—doing so will likely spoil our day—but it might make sense, Seneca thinks, to feign anger.4 By doing this, we can get this person to mend his ways with minimal disruption of our own tranquility.
  • Seneca suggests that besides being an effective response to an insult, humor can be used to prevent ourselves from becoming angry: “Laughter,” he says, “and a lot of it, is the right response to the things which drive us to tears!”
  • 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. Indeed, Epictetus says that when others praise us, the proper response is to laugh at them.3 (But not out loud! Although Epictetus and the other Stoics think we should be indifferent to people’s opinions of us, they would advise us to conceal our indifference. After all, to tell someone else that you don’t care what he thinks is quite possibly the worst insult you can inflict.)
  • 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.
  • Besides being seemingly fixated on death while alive, the Stoics had an unfortunate tendency to die in an unnatural manner. The Greek Stoics Zeno and Cleanthes apparently committed suicide,5 and Cato unquestionably did so. It isn’t clear how Musonius died, but while alive, he was an advocate of suicide. In particular, he advised old people to “choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.” He added, “It is better to die with distinction than to live long.”
  • More generally, having a philosophy of life, whether it be Stoicism or some other philosophy, can dramatically simplify everyday living. If you have a philosophy of life, decision making is relatively straightforward: When choosing between the options life offers, you simply choose the one most likely to help you attain the goals set forth by your philosophy of life. In the absence of a philosophy of life, though, even relatively simple choices can degenerate into meaning-of-life crises. It is, after all, hard to know what to choose when you aren’t really sure what you want.
  • To begin with, they will do their best to enjoy things that can’t be taken from them, most notably their character. Along these lines, consider Marcus’s comment that if we fall victim to a catastrophe, we can still take delight in the fact that it has not, because of the character we possess, made us bitter.
  • Finally, the Stoics are careful to avoid becoming connoisseurs in the worst sense of the word—becoming, that is, individuals who are incapable of taking delight in anything but “the best.” As a result, they will be capable of enjoying a wide range of easily obtainable things.
  • “Always to seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, to change my desires rather than the established order, and generally to believe that nothing except our thoughts is wholly under our control, so that after we have done our best in external matters, what remains to be done is absolutely impossible, at least as far as we are concerned.”
  • THE STOICS HAD many important psychological insights. They realized, for example, that what makes insults painful is our interpretation of the insults rather than the insults themselves. They also realized that by engaging in negative visualization we can convince ourselves to be happy with what we already have and thereby counteract our tendency toward insatiability.
  • The obvious conclusion to draw from this research is that “forced grieving” in accordance with the principles of grief therapy, rather than curing grief, can delay the natural healing process; it is the psychological equivalent of picking at the scab on a wound.
  • More generally, the psychiatrist Sally Satel and the philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, in a book that challenges certain aspects of modern psychological therapy, write, “Recent findings suggest that reticence and suppression of feelings, far from compromising one’s psychological well-being, can be healthy and adaptive. For many temperaments, an excessive focus on introspection and self-disclosure is depressing. Victims of loss and tragedy differ widely in their reactions: Some benefit from therapeutic intervention; most do not and should not be coerced by mental health professionals into emotionally correct responses. Trauma and grief counselors have erred massively in this direction.” These authors add that they reject the doctrine, now commonly accepted, that “uninhibited emotional openness is essential to mental health.”
  • If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take.
  • A much better, albeit less obvious way to gain satisfaction is not by working to satisfy our desires but by working to master them. In particular, we need to take steps to slow down the desire-formation process within us. Rather than working to fulfill whatever desires we find in our head, we need to work at preventing certain desires from forming and eliminating many of the desires that have formed. And rather than wanting new things, we need to work at wanting the things we already have.
  • The question isn’t, I think, whether self-disciplined and duty-bound people can have a happy, meaningful life; it is whether those who lack self-control and who are convinced that nothing is bigger than they are can have such a life.
  • MY NEXT PIECE OF ADVICE for would-be Stoics is not to try to master all the Stoic techniques at once but to start with one technique and, having become proficient in it, go on to another. And a good technique to start with, I think, is negative visualization. At spare moments in the day, make it a point to contemplate the loss of whatever you value in life. Engaging in such contemplation can produce a dramatic transformation in your outlook on life. It can make you realize, if only for a time, how lucky you are—how much you have to be thankful for, almost regardless of your circumstances.
  • Self-deprecating humor has become my standard response to insults. When someone criticizes me, I reply that matters are even worse than he is suggesting. If, for example, someone suggests that I am lazy, I reply that it is a miracle that I get any work done at all. If someone accuses me of having a big ego, I reply that on most days it is noon before I become aware that anyone else inhabits the planet.
  • Anger, in other words, resembles a mosquito bite: It feels bad not to scratch a bite and feels good to scratch it. The problem with mosquito bites, of course, is that after you scratch one, you typically wish you hadn’t done so: The itch returns, intensified, and by scratching the bite, you increase the chance that it will become infected. Much the same can be said of anger: Although it feels good to vent it, you will probably subsequently regret having done so.
  • I have also found that it is quite useful to use humor as a defense against anger. In particular, I have found that one wonderful way to avoid getting angry is to imagine myself as a character in an absurdist play: Things aren’t supposed to make sense, people aren’t supposed to be competent, and justice, when it happens at all, happens by accident. Instead of letting myself be angered by events, I persuade myself to laugh at them. Indeed, I try to think of ways the imaginary absurdist playwright could have made things still more absurd.
  • Seneca, I am certain, was right when he pointed to laughter as the proper response to “the things which drive us to tears.”2 Seneca also observes that “he shows a greater mind who does not restrain his laughter than he who does not restrain his tears, since the laughter gives expression to the mildest of the emotions, and deems that there is nothing important, nothing serious, nor wretched either, in the whole outfit of life.”
  • THE GOAL OF STOICISM, as we have seen, is the attainment of tranquility. Readers will naturally want to know whether my own practice of Stoicism has helped me attain this goal. It has not, alas, allowed me to attain perfect tranquility. It has, however, resulted in my being substantially more tranquil than was formerly the case.
  • And I think the biggest mistake, the one made by a huge number of people, is to have no philosophy of life at all. These people feel their way through life by following the promptings of their evolutionary programming, by assiduously seeking out what feels good and avoiding what feels bad. By doing this, they might have a comfortable life or even a life filled with pleasure. The question remains, however, whether they could have a better life by turning their back on their evolutionary programming and instead devoting time and energy to acquiring a philosophy of life. According to the Stoics, the answer to this question is that a better life is possible—one containing, perhaps, less comfort and pleasure, but considerably more joy.
  • Those wishing to read the Stoics would do well to start with the essays of Seneca, especially, “On the Happy Life,” “On Tranquility of Mind,” and “On the Shortness of Life.” These can be found in Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (Oxford University Press, 2008). Alternatively, they are available in volume 2 of Seneca: Moral Essays, in the Loeb Classical Library.
  • Readers might also want to take a look at Arthur Schopenhauer’s essays in The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims.