What do you want from your life? Rather than encouraging us to ask such deeper questions, it seems modern culture provides an endless stream of distractions to successfully evade them. Our contemporary society not only lacks those famous ancient academies of philosophy, but is devoid of any relevant living tradition of wisdom.
However, as William B. Irvine contends in his “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, such absence might constitute a grave oversight. Without a compelling philosophy of life, we risk floating adrift in the tumultuous waters of ceaseless change, wrestling with the waves of fleeting desires without ever finding fulfilment. In spite of our tireless effort, we might find ourselves at the end of our days discovering that we have squandered our precious lives. Thus, it is imperative to revive the ancient teachings on the art of living a good life. William urges us to consider resurrecting, above all, the often-misunderstood philosophical system of Stoicism.
Stoicism In a Nutshell
Stoicism, in its essence, strives for a well-lived life through the practice of rational virtues, seeking to enhance both inner tranquillity and joy. By refining our ability to think with clarity and impartiality, we understand and align our life with the laws of nature. Through the cultivation of self-control and inner strength, we can mitigate the impact of destructive emotions — such as anger, grief, disappointment and anxiety — resulting in greater serenity and delight in our surroundings. Eminently practical, and based on keen human observation, Stoicism furnishes us with concrete strategies to confront all those potential daily disruptions to our serenity, and it endeavours to train us in contentment with what we already possess.
It is true therefore that Stoicism, to a certain extent at least, upholds a somewhat fatalistic worldview. It recognizes that many of our relentless pursuits and accomplishments do not contribute to lasting fulfilment. Furthermore, it notices that a considerable portion of life’s events lies beyond our control. Therefore, it suggests that our primary sources of unhappiness stem from unchecked desires and an irrational tendency to dwell in disappointment. Consequently, the art of living involves honing our internal faculties to render our happiness independent of external circumstances. Echoing Descartes’ wisdom in his Discourse on Method, Stoicism advocates conquering ourselves rather than fortune, changing our desires instead of trying to change the world, and believing that nothing except our own thoughts rests wholly withing our control.
Maybe Stoicism could be viewed, in a modern interpretation, as a remedy for a pervasive ailment — the growing sense of diminished control over our own destiny. Yet, far from being “a philosophy for losers”, Stoicism can improve our lives both in times of prosperity and, perhaps especially, during adversity and change. Stoic joy, it turns out, is not merely a fleeting sentiment, but a continuous practice, a way of living our lives with a sense of duty and a firm character.
That said, much of Stoic wisdom, as William asserts, might appear foreign to modern readers. Our contemporary “philosophy of life” tends to be much simpler: a) identify all our desires; b) formulate a plan to satisfying as many of them as possible; c) execute. Many of our desires are expressed simplistically in terms of external goods, like material acquisitions, money or status. This often leads to relentless pursuit of wealth and power. Stoicism challenges such an approach. It posits that for each external desire we satisfy a new one emerges, ensuring perpetual discontent. Moreover, fate more often than not will obstruct our path with obstacles, thwarting our meticulously devised plans. Hence, to truly take responsibility for our lives, we must harness our natural rationality. Rather than yielding to our desires, we must master them. Instead of incessantly seeking new things, we must learn to cherish the things we already have. As Marcus Aurelius once quipped, the art of living is much more akin to wrestling than dancing!
The 20 Best Practices of Stoic Wisdom
William’s book offers a highly pragmatic and accessible exploration of fundamental Stoic principles and practices. Meticulously outlining a multitude of specific techniques, he argues persuasively that Stoicism equips individuals with the necessary tools to navigate life’s trials and tribulations and find lasting happiness, all the while underscoring its relevance in our modern world. Synthesising his suggestions with his recommended further readings, here is my personal summary of best practices for “Stoic living”:
1) Embodying Virtues as the Ultimate Good: Genuine happiness arises from living a virtuous life, in harmony with the natural order of the universe. This necessitates aligning actions and attitudes with reason and practicing the Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline. By nurturing these virtues, we redirect our attention and valuable time towards what matters most — our growth and character, thus establishing the foundation of a meaningful existence.
2) Mastering Our Desires: Chasing pleasure is akin to “pursuing a wild beast”. Once captured, it often becomes our captor. To embrace harmony and enduring contentment, we must tame our insatiable desires. We must ensure “our mind is not slave to the body’s whims and pleasures”. Fame and fortune, and many other pleasures, are not worth pursuing. Moreover, we should simplify our desires and recognise that the more pleasures we pursue, the more masters we have to serve. Interestingly, Stoics suggested that decomposing our passions into their parts might give us a hint about their true worth: they suggested that wine is nothing but “fermented grape juice”, fashionable attire nothing more than the “wool of sheep”, and sex, well, “friction and ejaculatory discharge”.
3) Practicing Mindfulness and Tranquillity: Full engagement with the present, avoiding fixation on past regrets or future worries, equips us to confront daily challenges with clarity and composure. Recognising that external circumstances have no power over our emotions unless we allow them to, enables us to achieve greater inner piece.
4) Fostering Wisdom and Rational Self-Examination: We must learn to become simultaneously participant and spectator, as we observe ourselves in our daily activities. Gradually gaining more insight into our thoughts and emotions, empowers us to regulate them. Regular reflection on our responses to life’s events enables us to increasingly align ourselves with Stoic values.
5) Stoic Journaling and Continuous Self-Improvement: Documenting how successfully we apply Stoic principles in daily life, allows us to celebrate progress and learn from experience, whether positive or negative. We will slowly refine our understanding and practice and thus become better at practicing how to be a good human being.
6) Internalising Our Goals: Discontent often stems from irrational behaviour. People ignore what is truly valuable and instead focus on the acquisition of fleeting fame and fortune — the former enslaving us to the opinions of others, the latter being ephemeral due to continual hedonic adaptation. Redirecting our focus from external status and possessions to inner development will ensure lasting satisfaction. The pursuit of self-improvement, rather than being a battle with others, can be framed as a competition with our “other self” — that part of our personality that is still lazy, undisciplined, cowardly and easily confused. Our goal is to master ourselves. Of course, how we set our internal goals will also affect external performance, but, above all, it will have a dramatic impact on our subsequent emotional state.
7) Resilience in Face of Adversity: Our cherished possessions are akin to “leaves on a tree, ready to drop when a breeze blows”. We must always bear in mind that the nature of life is transient — everything we hold is but a loan from a capricious fortune, liable to be reclaimed without our permission, nor advance notice. Contemplating hardship and the potential loss of what we most value — including our loved ones and material wealth — we foster an appreciation of and active engagement with the present. This practice, known as Negative Visualisation, diminishes our desires for other things and reduces our attachment to material goods. Thus we strengthen our resilience and capacity to maintain inner tranquillity in difficult times. “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their combing beforehand”.
8) Embracing Our Mortality (Memento Mori): Contemplating our own mortality, we appreciate the ephemeral nature of our existence and reorient our priorities towards what truly matters. As we prepare for the inevitability of death, we savour the vitality of existence and infuse each day with new purposeful activity. However, the goal is not to alter what we do, but to transform our state of mind whilst we are pursuing our daily work.
9) Enjoying our Possessions at Arm’s Length: Unlike Skepticism, Stoicism does not advocate ascetism; it endorses modest living, rather than self-inflicted hardship. However, while we may enjoy affluence, we must never cling to it. We should be master of our blessings, not the slave of the gifts of Fortune. “The man who adapts himself to live on a little sum, is the truly rich man.” Even as we revel in abundance, we should always contemplate its potential loss and remain unassuming in other’s perceptions of us.
10) Practicing Purposeful Discomfort: Periodic self-imposed discomfort through abstention from certain pleasures or material possessions reduces dependency on consumerism and external sources of joy. “True contentment arises from within”, by mastering our own desires. By intentionally leaving our comfort zone and causing things to be worse than they really are, we enhance our resilience and diminish reliance un unnecessary external gratification.
11) Refraining from Worrying About the Uncontrollable: Understanding the so-called Dichotomy of Control clarifies our priorities — simply said, “some things are up to us, and some are not”. We must realise that happiness and the yearning for what is unattainable are incompatible. Therefore, fixating our attention on uncontrollable factors will disrupt our tranquillity, even if we eventually attain them. Therefore, a pivotal choice in life is whether to expend our energy on external circumstances or internal well-being. Recognizing our power over our own thoughts, beliefs, values, and actions versus the lack of control over external events and the actions of others or outcomes, we can focus our effort on inner contentment rather than changing the world. Similarly, acknowledging that past events and present moments are beyond our control will render our anxiety futile.
12) Exercising Disciplined Dissent: Our judgments mould our emotional response. We therefore must scrutinise our interpretation and only grant assent to those congruent with reason and virtue, Capricious impulses devoid of rational authority should never sway our responses, nor should our responses betray undue emotional disturbance of the people we are engaging with.
13) Defusing Anger: Our world brims with opportunities to get angry. Unless we can learn to control our anger, we will be perpetually be upset. While venting anger might feel satisfying, it seriously jeopardises our inner tranquillity. Hence, understand the triggers of our anger and defusing them is key. When getting angry we should practice relaxation techniques — such as forcing ourselves to relax our facial expression, soften our voice, and slowing our pace — so that we regain inner serenity. Moreover, Stoicism suggests our anger is often about vulgar trivialities. Thus, we should always pause to consider the cosmic (in)significance of our irritation. Equally, we often get angry about things we cannot influence. Here, it might sometimes help to imagine ourselves as a character in an absurdist play. Things are not supposed to make sense, people aren’t’ supposed to be competent. Hence, instead of being angered by events we cannot change, we should persuade ourselves to laugh at their absurdity.
14) Navigating Righteous Anger: Even when we are right, our anger often serves no purpose. Frequently, circumstances elude our influence, rendering our righteous anger futile. Eventually, we only hurt ourselves. Sometimes imagining adverse events befalling not us but others can dilute our resentment. For example, if someone breaks an object we treasure, we can imagine that it was someone else’s object in someone else’s house. Most likely, we would be far less inclined to be upset. Moreover, we must practice caution in our righteous anger we punish other people. As it turns out, it often proves counterproductive. Therefore, we should never punish them as retribution for what they have done, but for their own good, to deter them from doing again whatever they did. Punishment in other words should never be an expression of our righteous anger, but of rational caution.
15) Preparedness for Grief: Grief is an irrational contraction of the soul and must be curbed through gratitude for life’s gifts. Rather than mourning our losses, we should be thankful for what we have experienced. Above all, in all proper grief we must always guard affectionate sentiment against spiralling (self-)sorrow. We often harbour “if only” thoughts — e.g., if only we had spent more time with someone whom we have lost. Yet, it is irrational to load our grief with feelings of guilt. The only way to avoid those sentiments is to treasure the presence of those around us while we are with them, practicing virtues and mindfulness.
16) Loving All Mankind and Fostering Compassion: Stoics advocate the importance of contributing positively to society and fulfilling social roles. Recognizing our shared humanity and interconnectedness, we should live with others in a manner that is mutually advantageous. Genuine love, goodwill and compassion to the people with whom destiny has surrounded us is vital. We should honour our parents, be aggregable to our friends, and be concerned with the interests of our countrymen and humanity at large.
17) Nurturing Genuine Friendships (and Engaging Socially with Caution): It is essential that we select friends wisely; corrupt values might corrupt ourselves. Genuine friendships must hinge on mutual respect and foster personal growth and virtue. In our general dealings with others, it is prudent to assume certain behavioural patterns: although people offer immense joys like love and friendship, they also often disrupt our peace. Yet, people do not choose the faults they have and we our patience is warranted. Hence, indifference to other people’s opinions — both in approval and disapproval — is key. Our shame should be reserved genuine faults, and we must dismiss men’s low opinion on other things. Moreover, speculating over what others might be doing, saying, thinking or scheming is fruitless.
18) Engaging with Insults Gracefully: If we engage with others, we must tolerate criticism and handle insults with grace. It goes without saying that we should never be upset by remarks of someone we do not value. Rather than feeling hurt, we should be relieved when those we disapprove of disagree with us. In general, Stoics suggest, it is preferable to respond to insults with self-deprecating humour. When someone criticises us, we could reply that matters are even worse than suggested. If, for example, someone accuses us that we are lazy, we could reply it is a miracle that we get any work done at all. If someone alleges that we have a big ego, we might reply that on most days it is noon before we become aware that anyone else inhabits the planet. In a nutshell, by using humour we defuse our anger and make it clear to the insulter that we have enough confidence in who we are to be imperious to insults. Thus, responding to insult can becomes a social game that increases our resilience. We should always remember: we will only be harmed when we let ourselves be harmed.
19) Embracing the Natural Order (Amor Fati): Deeply acknowledging the interconnectedness of all things and the inevitability of change as part of a rational universal order, we must learn to embrace life’s unfolding events. We should want events to happen exactly as they do happen. Amor fati urges us to welcome both positive and negative occurrences as avenues for growth and learning. Living every day as if it was our last, we are set free from the fear of death and pointless rumination.
20) Cultivating Stoic Joy: Seneca tells his friend Lucilius that if he wishes to practice Stoicism, he will have to make it his business to “learn how to feel joy”. Stoic Joy, the pinnacle of stoicism, emanates from a delight in our own resources and circumstances — it is anchored in the pursuit of excellence and transcends fleeting pleasures or external goods. Stoic joy can best be described as objectless enjoyment: inner serenity that results from virtuous living. It is not enjoyment of any particular thing, but of “all this”, a delight at our capacity to fully participate in life.
An Interesting Book With Some Flaws
What else to say about the book? William’s aim is to deliver a practical guide to Stoicism for modern readers, a goal he partly accomplishes. Spanning an impressive 300 pages, “A Guide to the Good Life” offers a captivating overview of the rise and fall of ancient Stoicism, with many references to Roman philosophers. The bulk of the book, however, delves into a thorough exposition of Stoic teachings and practices; culminating in a final section dedicated to personal learnings and reflections. The text brims with intriguing facts and practical insights. However, it frequently adopts a highly subjective tone, moving from teaching into personal reflections and discourse, verging on an ‘apologia pro vita sua’. Repetition and verbosity sometimes mar its flow.
Critically, the book lacks an in-depth analysis of Stoicism, beyond the repeated commonplace assertion that Stoicism is often misunderstood, and a philosophical contextualisation in relation to other philosophical systems, beyond some superficial hints at Buddhism. It would be useful, for example, to compare Stoic concepts with Aristotelian virtue ethics, Christian religion, or Kantian deontology. Moreover, whilst extensively discussing passions and desires, it fails to integrate insights from modern developmental or moral psychology, in relation to a more systematic understanding of (the challenges of) personal development, construction of identity and moral emotions, like grief and anger.
Finally, the absence of deeper metaphysical or cosmological aspects of Stoicism renders the book vulnerable to being viewed as yet another superficial self-help manual. Stoic apathia and ataraxia quickly become simplistic techniques for a hasty withdrawal from an uncontrollable world — as we cannot conquer the complex system around us, we might as well be content to tame ourselves. The deeper significance of virtues and the wider Stoic deontology for societal betterment thus remain mostly obscure and ineffective. That all said, the book’s final chapter shines, where William reflects on his own practical experiences and successes with “stealthy stoicism”.
In summation, whilst certainly more remains to be said both for and against a Stoic philosophy, the book is a compellingly practical introduction for anyone who wants to better understand the ancient wisdom of Stoicism.
Defending All Philosophy
Will I therefore adopt Stoicism myself? Personally, I find the Stoic’s emphasis on handling adversity and tempering emotions and desires very valuable, particularly in our postmodern ‘age of anxiety‘ where our power over our own destiny is often limited. Nonetheless, the somewhat pessimistic perspective and overly rationalised worldview of Stoics does not fully resonate with me. I hold that friendship and community, despite their obvious ambiguity, are a value in and for themselves. A commitment to justice must transcend mere duty. And life itself, as Nietzsche highlighted, would lose some of its beauty if we solely cherished Apollo, neglecting Dionysus.
But for what it’s worth, I fully concur with William that while it would be nice to have evidence that Stoicism is the one and only “correct” philosophy, such proof must remain elusive. While seeking to live our lives as well as we can, errors are inevitable — and we might well err in either embracing or rejecting any kind of philosophy. Yet, the greatest error, as William aptly notes, is having no philosophy of life at all. Ultimately, as the ancient philosophers taught, it is hard to live a meaningful life, if nothing is worth dying for. Here, William merits commendation as an academic who not only discusses philosophy theoretically, but seeks to live it, steadfastly advocating his beliefs. In the final analysis, one truth prevails: without our willingness to commit, stumble and even sacrifice, our path to authentic fulfilment remains uncertain and arduous.
Let us assume for a moment that the old adage is correct:
(1) KNOWLEDGE = POWER. But what if…
(2) KNOWLEDGE = Fn(Self)?
Then it would follow that:
(3) Knowledge = Power => ONLY IF: Fn(Self) == Power
In other words, knowledge becomes power only if we understand our identity in terms of the amount of power we wield. The only knowledge we value is that which makes us more powerful.
Seems rather basic? Well, not necessarily. It points to a fundamental onto-epistemological conundrum. Is knowledge simply out there to be discovered by us? Or is it just subjectively inside us? Here I am - as rarely happens - with Ken Wilber (and Dreyfuss): knowledge is neither fixed and external, to be divided in some zero-sum struggle, nor just dependent on subjective perspectives, but rather a function of personal identity. What we CAN know depends on WHO we are. So, if knowledge is power, it says more about ourselves than about knowledge. We are at a state of maturity where we instrumentalise our world, and consequentially, ourselves.
That would also imply that we hold a maximum amount of knowledge when we are at our very best:
(4) MAX Knowledge <=> MAX Fn(Self)
In fact, Socrates suggested that knowledge and goodness are ultimately the same. If we fail to be good, it just shows our deficiency of knowledge, rather than that humans are intrinsically evil. In other words:
(5) VIRTUE <= max KNOWLEDGE
Does this mean we just need to learn more in order to be good? Or be good in order to learn more? This is where I somewhat disagree with both ancient scholastics (who sought perfection through sophisticated dialectics) as well as modern mystics (who advocate deep consciousness as the key to salvation). Dialectics or "consciousness" as such are worth little - beyond "intellectual self-celebration" - if it does not lead to wise action.
Instead, I believe Aristotle was right: it is not enough to know in order to be virtuous. Knowledge begets WISDOM when it is enacted for good throughout our lives.
(6) CHARACTER <=> PRACTICAL WISDOM are indeed two sides of the same coin.
Eventually, knowledge changes us, and our conscious and committed acting "with knowledge" changes the character of the knowledge we hold. Good living requires habitual and purposeful cultivation of character, based on and constituting wisdom, i.e., the ability to contextualise our own lives within the whole, and to connect our contingent acting with the essence of who we shall be. When we combine curiosity and zest for learning with a commitment to use our personal power to become our best self, we truly grow.
#leadership #leadershipdevelopment #power
Popular articles in the KnowledgeHub: Good Society
F**k Purpose! 4 Reasons Why New Narratives Cement the Old Status Quo
In the beginning organisational purpose was just a word, synonymous with ‘mission’ or ‘goal’. And few took note. Then, suddenly, it became fashionable for global corporations to ‘come out’ to the world and declare how they had, eventually, found ‘proper’ meaning, deep inside themselves…
THE SUSTAINABILITY LIE: WHY RESPONSIBILITY COMES FIRST
Isn’t it funny that sustainability is on everybody’s lips these days, but environmental and societal degradation are occurring at unprecedented levels? And ain’t it curious that the planet is burning, but few people in (solar-powered!) corporate or political headquarters are sweating?
THE PROBLEM WITH DEMOCRACY
We often speak of democracy as an “ethical ideal”. “Undemocratic” has become synonymous with illegitimate — and we often find it appropriate to reprimand others who do not operate “democratically”. Sadly, commentators mostly resort to a black-and-white dichotomy of “democractic vs undemocratic”...
DIVERSE OR NOT: WHEN (FORCED) DIVERSITY BECOMES DUMB…
“Diversity” has become a staple. Undoubtedly, this is positive. However, diversity discourses have a tendency to shift from diversity as a descriptive concept to diversity as a moral norm — and when a “dogma of diversity” starts to crowd out critical voices as “illegitimate” we must dig a little deeper.
SUSTAIN-ABILITY: TO BECOME OR NOT TO BECOME?
“Future” focuses our mind’s attention on the implications of our present action, in the same way that “death” focuses our life on its significance.