BMCR 2009.09.28

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xii, 314. ISBN 9780195374612. $19.95.

William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is not meant to be a scholarly work on Stoicism in the spirit of Brad Inwood or A. A. Long. The book is aimed at a popular audience—indeed, at an audience with no more acquaintance with the subject of stoicism than the ideas connoted by the adjective ‘stoical’ itself. Irvine does not concern himself with the many varied technical distinctions of Stoic ethical theory. Despite some talk of a ‘life lived in accordance with nature’, there is no mention of ‘indifferent things’, or the distinction between ‘perfect and intermediate duties’. The majority of this technical baggage is left aside as Irvine takes us on a journey of what he himself describes as a ‘resolutely practical’ approach to Stoicism. He takes us inside the soul of a Stoic, informing us not of what they thought, but how they thought: how they tackled grief, insults, anger, the desire for fame and luxury and other such everyday challenges to tranquility.

The book is divided into four parts, preceded by a short introduction. In the introduction Irvine puts forth his twin notions of a ‘philosophy of life’ and ‘a philosopher of life’. Not to be found in the Philosophy department of any university, a philosopher of life is one who concerns himself with the question: How does one live a good life? And likewise a philosophy of life is an eminently practical affair. This affair was taken up by the early Greek philosophers who followed Socrates: the Cynics, the Cyrenaics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics, and the Stoics. Following the latter, Irvine offers a manual to the Stoic way of living a good life.

The first part is entitled “The Rise of Stoicism”. Here Irvine offers a rudimentary overview of the history of philosophy highlighting the contribution of Socrates, who turned philosophy away from natural science and toward what is good and bad for human beings and the discovery of the human soul. He goes on to recount the appearance of the early Greek Stoics. In this section, by what may seem to some as a sleight of hand, Irvine substitutes tranquility for virtue as the aim of Stoic ethics. (Virtue he has earlier surmised to be the province of nuns!) This emphasis on tranquility Irvine hoists especially upon the Roman Stoics as he asserts that Musonius and Epictetus highlighted tranquility as a way of maximizing their “market share” of students. So too with tranquility rather than virtue installed as the end of Stoic ethics, Irvine imagines himself able to better appeal to his popular audience. Moving on to discuss the Roman Stoics—upon whom his own exposition will most stand—Irvine rehearses briefly what is known about the lives and careers of Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius, and Marcus Aurelius. In another effort to expand his own market share even more, Irvine assures us that one need not share Epictetus’ belief in God to employ Stoic strategies for attaining tranquility.

Part two is entitled “Stoic Psychological Techniques”; part three is entitled “Stoic Advice”. These two chapters constitute the heart of the book. Here Irvine recommends various techniques to insure tranquility in life. The foremost technique is what he calls ‘negative visualization’. Drawing from Seneca and Epictetus, Irvine recommends that we imagine the loss of good things in our lives (life, possessions, friends, family) as a way of insuring that we do not take them for granted. In short, he recommends that we count our blessings by imagining the loss of those things we most easily take for granted. Another technique is what he calls ‘the dichotomy of control’. This involves dividing life’s occurrences into those over which we do or do not have control. Those over which we do not have control are again divided into those over which we have absolutely no control (like the rising of the sun) and those over which we have some control (whether we win while playing tennis). Viewing things under this trichotomy of control enables us to enhance our tranquility if we do not worry about things over which we do not have any control and if regarding those things over which we have some control we seek internal rather than external goals. For instance in playing tennis our goal should be not to win, but to compete as hard as we can. By limiting goals in this way, Irvine suggests, one’s tranquility is preserved. Besides these techniques, Irvine recommends a brand of fatalism toward the past that frees one from concern for yesterday’s events. We should take life’s lessons seriously and move forward with a wisdom based on the past, but we should not bemoan the past. Likewise Irvine advises fatalism concerning the present. Irvine considers Stoic fatalism to be a reverse mirror image of negative visualization: “instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better”. This exhortation to fatalism is followed by remarks concerning Stoic self-denial and Stoic meditation. By the former is meant inviting voluntary discomfort; by the latter is meant a type of review of one’s daily activity to see how one responds to life’s challenges.

Part three follows with ‘Stoic Advice’. Here Irvine offers tips for dealing with social relations, bearing with grief, insults, lust for fame and fortune, and even exile. (The latter, in fitting modern context, he deals with in terms of being exiled to a nursing home.) He completes this section with thoughts concerning old age and death. Regarding social relations, Irvine suggests that we be careful to avoid contamination from those who do not share our Stoic values; he advises a brand of social fatalism: “in our dealings with others, we should operate on the assumption that they are fated to behave in a certain way. It is therefore pointless to wish they could be less annoying”. Likewise, he advises that we view our daily annoyances in their cosmic context and thus render them insignificant. Finally, he explains how, though committed to marriage, the Stoics showed a wariness regarding sex. Regarding insults Irvine suggests that a Stoic respond with humor or with no response whatsoever. Regarding grief he suggests that we control excessive grief through reason and what he calls retrospective negative visualization: here we imagine never having the thing that we’ve lost and thus come to appreciate our limited exposure to it. Regarding anger Irvine quotes Seneca’s famous quip about anger being brief insanity. He then denies that anger can be a proper motivating factor, since it cannot be controlled—though he does assert that a Stoic may feign anger to motivate others. Here again he counsels us to consider the cosmic (in)significance of the thing that is causing us to be angry. But if in the end we cannot help expressing our anger, he counsels us to simply apologize for it. Regarding fame he advises that the Stoic attitude is to be indifferent to the opinions of others in order to concentrate one’s concern on things that are truly shameful. Concerning luxurious living he asserts that this can undermine our ability to enjoy simple pleasure. He likewise cautions that enjoyment of wealth should be thoughtful and not slavish. When he comes to consider exile he asserts the Stoic truism that it is one’s virtue and not their place that is responsible for one’s happiness. Concerning old age he remarks that it is the time of life when one’s youthful illusions of fame and fortune have passed and one is more likely willing to settle for the Stoic goal of tranquility. Finally, regarding death he discusses the Stoic preoccupation with suicide and asserts that it is a far different phenomenon than that of individuals who kill themselves “on a whim or out of boredom with life, the way a nihilist might.”

The final part is entitled “Stoicism for Modern Lives”. Here Irvine challenges modern psychotherapeutic dogma—specifically its advocacy of grief counseling. He argues that Stoics who swallowed their grief after a reasonable period of sorrow may well be better off than modern advocates of grief counseling who pick at the scab of sorrow and hence worsen it. In this final section Irvine as well employs the language of modern evolutionary theory to highlight how as followers of Stoicism we can by means of reason “misuse” our evolutionary training by flouting our normal reactions to sexual stimuli, abuse, and insults in order to attain tranquility. The book ends with Irvine’s personal testimony as to how Stoicism has bettered his life.

All in all Irvine does a fine job in offering his “resolutely practical” brand of Stoicism to a popular audience. His citation of the original sources is effective and stimulating of interest. His tone is just the right one for the popular audience he wishes to reach. But Irvine’s work has more to offer than that. I believe he has unwittingly done a service to the scholarly audience as well by reminding us that the Stoics (and other ancient schools) were indeed all concerned with ‘meaning of life’ questions, and that the Roman Stoics in particular did have a “resolutely practical” side which gets lost if we allow ourselves to get transfixed by their theoretical queries concerning physics, epistemology, and logic. Irvine’s work could well, and I hope will, inspire more detailed research into the hortatory side of Stoic ethics, providing a pathway of entrance into new readings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca’s Letters, and the works of Epictetus.