This is a series of posts in which I read William B Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. The idea is to read and comment one chapter after another.
The Why of This
I’ve been fascinated be early Greek philosophy for a while now. Not so much the more common, and historically much more important, Pythagoras-Plato-Aristotle line of thought but rather the natural philosophers that came before, largely out of Ionia, Democritus in particular, but also Epircurus and the Stoics.
Democritus is fascinating for the depth of thought he displayed which was completely different from Plato, who famously thought all Democritus books ought to be burned, and who’s methodology and thinking was much closer to our own, modern minds than any of Socrates or Aristotle.
Epicurus and the Stoics are fascinating because they seem to have latched on to practical way of making life better, using philosophy for the betterment of the student and the students mind. And this before the early church high-jacks Greek thought to spin it into its own, not very liberating, mindset.
So when I stumbled upon a blog post by Irvine entitled Twenty-First Century Stoic on Boing Boing (highly recommended reading) I was intrigued, and hence this reading excercise.
Without further ado, here goes.
The first thing the author sets out is of course an introduction like my own above, as to why the book was written in the first place. He introduces us to the idea of a “philosophy of life” as opposed to the academic, analytic philosophy we’re accustomed to. This philosophy of life ought to concentrate not on what life is, but what we, as beings, ought to aim for. What are our goals? What should our goals be? Are some more worthy of pursuit than others? And if a goal is worthy of pursuit, how ought we go about it?
Both Epicurus and the Stoics had quite a few things to say here and thought that this was precisely what philosophy was about. Epicurus said:
Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.
And he was echoed much later by Seneca:
He who studies with a philosopher should take away with him some one good thing every day: he should daily return home a sounder man, or on the way to become sounder.
Today “being stoic” is often associated with being devoid of feelings, however says the author, this was not the case originally. The Stoics did want to get rid of emotions, but not all of them: to live a good life they wanted to rid themselves of all, as they perceived, “bad” emotions.
The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life.
Even in the above short sentence we can perceive hints of problems that are among the more commonly heard criticisms against Stoicism: fear, after all, keeps us alive and even anger can be put to good use. If for example your lover says something inconsiderate, and it is your anger that compels you to confront him or her, does that not give your partner a chance to learn something important, and your relationship to become stronger? It is all very easy to say that we should get rid of these emotions, but practically it doesn’t look to be desirable. However, I’m getting ahead of the book here, these criticisms will be dealt with later.
Irvine continues with comparing Stoicism with Zen Gnosticism. In particular in their near unanimous idea that we ought to control our desires. That in order to have a good and meaningful life we much overcome our insatiabilities. Note again, that this doesn’t necessarily mean not having desires, but it does mean not being controlled by them.
Here’s the authors continued outline of the rest of the book:
- Consider and reconsider our goals in life.
- Learn Stoic techniques for attaining and maintaining tranquillity in everyday life.
- Learn to be better observers in life.
As the idea of Stoicism isn’t only to think, but to actually practise it is fair to point out that this will cost, in time, commitment and possibly even wealth and status as we go along, but as Irvine rightly points out: not considering a philosophy of life also costs.
I find the premise of the book promising. Irvine does not pertain to only retell what the Stoics said, but also to bring Stoicism forward to modern times. Obviously this will be a subjective journey, but I’m fine with that as long as it is stated up front, and indeed it is:
I wrote this book with the following question in mind: If the ancient Stoics had taken it upon themselves to write a guidebook for twenty-first-century individuals—a book that would tell us how to have a good life—what might that book have looked like? The pages that follow are my answer to this question.
Now we’re ready, bring it on!