Contented Reader

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A Guide to the Good Life

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

William B. Irvine

Oxford University Press

I have found this book very, very useful.  I agree with Irvine that modern culture doesn’t emphasize the importance of forming a coherent philosophy of life, and that the pursuit of a coherent philosophy of life is one of the most practical and pleasant ways a person can spend her time.  I find the Stoic and the Epicurean philosophers both very useful, but this is a truly practical guide to some of the ways a person can create a good life by choosing how to think about that life.  This excerpt sums up, as a series of bullet points, the practice of modern Stoicism.

  • We should become self-aware: We should observe ourselves as we go about our daily business, and we should periodically reflect on how we responded to the day’s events.  How did we respond to an insult?  To the loss of a possession?  To a stressful situation?  Did we, in our responses, put Stoic psychological strategies to work?
  • We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions.  We should also use our reasoning ability to master our desires, to the extent that it is possible to do so.  In particular, we should use reason to convince ourselves that things such as fame and fortune aren’t worth having – not, at any rate, if what we seek is tranquility – and therefore aren’t worth pursuing.  Likewise, we should use our reasoning ability to convince ourselves that even though certain activities our pleasurable, engaging in those activities will disrupt our tranquility, and the tranquility lost will outweigh the pleasure gained.
  • If, despite not having pursued wealth, we find ourselves wealthy, we should enjoy our affluence; it was the Cynics, not the Stoics, who advocated asceticism.  But although we should enjoy wealth, we should not cling to it; indeed, even as we enjoy it, we should contemplate its loss.
  • We are social creatures; we will be miserable if we try to cut off contact with other people.  Therefore, if what we seek is tranquility, we should form and maintain relations with others.  In doing so, though, we should be careful about whom we befriend.  We should also, to the extent possible, avoid people whose values are corrupt, for fear that their values will contaminate ours.
  • Other people are invariably annoying, though, so if we maintain relations with them, they will periodically upset our tranquility – if we let them.  The Stoics spent a considerable amount of time devising techniques for taking the pain out of our relationships with other people.  In particular, they came up with techniques for dealing with the insults of others and preventing them from angering us.
  • The Stoics pointed to two principal sources of human unhappiness – our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control – and they developed techniques for removing these sources of unhappiness from our life.
  • To conquer our insatiability, the Stoics advise us to engage in negative visualization.  We should contemplate the impermanence of all things.  We should imagine ourselves losing the things we most value, including possessions and loved ones.  We should also imagine the loss of our own life.  If we do this, we will come to appreciate the things we now have, and because we appreciate them, we will be less likely to form desires for other things.  And besides simply imagining that things could be worse than they are, we should sometimes cause things to be worse than they would otherwise be; Seneca advises us to “practice poverty,” and Musonius advises us voluntarily to forgo opportunities for pleasure and comfort.
  • To curb our tendency to worry about things beyond our control, the Stoics advise us to perform a kind of triage with respect to the elements of our life and sort them into those we have no control over, those we have complete control over, and those we have some but not complete control over.  Having done this, we should not bother about things over which we have no control.  Instead, we should spend some of our time dealing with things over which we have complete control, such as our goals and values, and spend most of our time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control.  If we do this, we will avoid experiencing much needless anxiety.
  • When we spend time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control, we should be careful to internalize our goals.  My goal in playing tennis, for example, should be not to win the match but to play the best match possible.
  • We should be fatalistic with respect to the external world: We should realize that what has happened to us in the past and what is happening to us at this very moment are beyond our control, so it is foolish to get upset about these things.
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Written by Contented Reader

August 11, 2012 at 6:47 am

Posted in Reviews

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