Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stoic joy sounds like it might be decidedly tepid, if you take the commonly held view of Stoicism and apply it such an ebullient emotion. But, the author argues, we have confused Stoicism as a philosophy of life with the commonly-held view of stoicism. It turns out that as a Stoic, you get to enjoy the positive emotions, while minimizing the effects of the negative ones. You are not required to give up or repress your emotions. Good days are celebrated. But dark days are sure to come. Marcus Aurelius famously said:

"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."

The Stoics do not wear rose-colored glasses, especially when it comes to humanity. Instead, they re-frame many of the situations that typically cause anger, fear, or jealousy, so as to minimize the damage that these emotions do to ourselves and others. A good life is one marked by tranquility (as opposed to mere comfort), and the Stoics recognize that it is hard-won in this life. Why would you throw it away by indulging your anger or ruminating on fears that may never come to pass or striving to become rich and famous? Stoics are also bullet-proof when it comes to insults, one of the favorite weapons regularly deployed on the Internet and in real life.

For example, the author tells a story of an academic colleague who told him he was considering what stance he should take in refuting the author's position on an issue. This colleague said he hadn't decided whether to portray Irvine as merely misguided or actually evil. The author laughed and suggested to his colleague that he should consider painting him as both misguided and evil. Why limit himself to only one?

For a short, introductory type of book, "A Guide to the Good Life" has a number of practical suggestions that may help reduce the harmful effects of negative emotions, as well as a suggested reading program for those interested in learning more. Irvine is clear that a Stoic philosophy of life isn't for everyone. Many will choose to keep their default philosophy of "enlightened hedonism", thank you very much. But there's no reason it might not work for some.

“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.”

“One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted.”

“The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation. More precisely, they thought the first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The second step in transforming a society is to change people’s external circumstances. The Stoics would add that if we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life.”

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