A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy [100%]
prevention failed. Even those readers who are leery of philosophical speculation should take an interest in these techniques. Who among us, after
They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus.5 It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.
Consider, for example, a passenger on an airliner, the engines of which have just burst into flames. This turn of events is likely to cause the passenger to reassess his life, and as a result, he might finally gain some insight into what things in life are truly valuable and what things are not. Unfortunately, moments after this epiphany he might be dead.
The Stoics are not alone in harnessing the power of negative visualization. Consider, for example, those individuals who say grace before a meal.
Sometimes the world gives us advance notice that we are about to do something for the last time. We might, for example, eat at a favorite restaurant the night before it is scheduled to close, orwe might kiss a lover who is forced by circumstances to move to a distant part of the globe, presumably forever. Previously, when we thought we could repeat them at will, a meal at this restaurant or a kiss shared with our lover might have been unre-markable. But now that we know they cannot be repeated, they will likely become extraordinary events: The meal will be the best we ever had at the restaurant, and the parting kiss will be one of the most intensely bittersweet experiences life has to offer.
e m e m b e r t h at a m o n g the things over which we have complete control are the goals we set for ourselves. I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.
Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. Similarly, my goal with respect to my boss should be to do my job to the best of my ability.
To begin with, by undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort— by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed—we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future. If all we know is comfort, we might be traumatized when we are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as we someday almost surely will.
A second benefit of undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort comes not in the future but immediately. A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well, so the prospect of experiencing such discomforts at some future time will not, at present, be a source of anxiety for him.
A third benefit of undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort is that it helps us appreciate what we already have. In particular, by purposely causing ourselves discomfort, we will better appreciate whatever comfort we experience.
Significantly, though, the Stoics’ mistrust of pleasure doesn’t end here. They also counsel us to make a point of sometimes abstaining from other, relatively harmless pleasures. We might, for example, make a point of passing up an opportunity to drink wine—not because we fear becoming an alcoholic but so we can learn self-control. For the Stoics—and, indeed, for anyone attempting to practice a philosophy of life— self-control will be an important trait to acquire. After all, if we lack self-control, we are likely to be distracted by the various pleasures life has to offer, and in this distracted state we are unlikely to attain the goals of our philosophy of life.
consequently, rather than correcting the person, the admonition
The bedtime meditation Seneca is recommending is, of course, utterly unlike the meditations of, say, a Zen Buddhist. During his meditations, a Zen Buddhist might sit for hours with his mind as empty as he can make it. A Stoic’s mind, in contrast, will be quite active during a bedtime meditation. He will think about the events of the day. Did something disrupt his tranquility? Did he experience anger? Envy? Lust? Why did the day’s events upset him? Is there something he could have done to avoid getting upset
Besides reflecting on the day’s events, we can devote part of our meditations to going through a kind of mental checklist. Are we practicing the psychological techniques recommended by the Stoics? Do we, for example, periodically engage in negative visualization? Do we take time to distinguish between those things over which we have complete control, those things over which we have no control at all, and those things over which we have some but not complete control? Are we careful to internalize our goals? Have we refrained from dwelling on the past and instead focused our attention on the future? Have we consciously practiced acts of self-denial? We can also use our Stoic meditations as an opportunity to ask whether, in our daily affairs, we are following the advice offered by the Stoics
Are we practicing the psychological techniques recommended by the Stoics? Do we, for example, periodically engage in negative visualization? Do we take time to distinguish between those things over which we have complete control, those things over
We can also, Marcus suggests, lessen the negative impact other people have on our life by controlling our thoughts about them. He counsels us, for example, not to waste time speculating about what our neighbors are doing, saying, thinking, or scheming. Nor should we allow our mind to be filled with “sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other sentiments” about them that we would blush to admit. A good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest
As we make progress in our practice of Stoicism, we will become increasingly indifferent to other people’s opinions of us. We
As we make progress in our practice of Stoicism, we will become increasingly indifferent to other people’s opinions of us. We will not go through our life with the goal of gaining their approval or avoiding their disapproval, and because we are indifferent to their opinions, we will feel no sting when they insult us. Indeed, a Stoic sage, were one to exist, would probably take the insults of his fellow humans to be like the barking of a dog. When a dog barks, we might make a mental note that the dog in question appears to dislike us, but we would be utter fools to allow ourselves to become upset by this fact, to go through the rest of the day thinking, “Oh, dear! That dog doesn’t like me!”
We should, he says, fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and our tendency to jump to conclusions about their motivations. We need to keep in mind that just because things don’t turn out the way we want them to, it doesn’t follow that someone has done us an injustice.
By implication, this will be the fate of our generation: What seems vitally important to us will seem unimportant to our grandchildren. Thus, when we feel ourselves getting angry about something, we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance.
When angry, says Seneca, we should take steps to “turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.” We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated.
Everyone occasionally experiences anger: Like grief, anger is an emotional reflex. There are also people, though, who seem to be angry pretty much all of the time. These individuals are not only easily provoked to anger, but even when provocation is absent they remain angry. Indeed, during leisure hours, these individuals might spend their time recalling, with a certain degree of relish, past events that made them angry or things in general that make them angry. At the same time that it is consuming them, anger appears to be providing them with sustenance
we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of
If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval.
The failures that many people seek to avoid, though, will not cost them their life or health. The cost of failure is instead having to endure the open mockery, or maybe the silent pity, of those who learn of their failure. It is better, failure-averse people reason, not even to attempt an undertaking than to run the risk of public humiliation.
Ironically, by refusing to seek the admiration of other people, Stoics might succeed in gaining their (perhaps grudging) admiration. Many people, for example, will construe the Stoics’ indifference to public opinion as a sign of self- confidence: Only someone who really knows who she is—someone who, as they say, feels good about herself—would display this kind of indifference. These people might wish that they, too, could ignore what other people thought of them.
When should we begin our practice of Stoicism? Epictetus makes the case for starting immediately. We are no longer children, he says, and yet we procrastinate. Keep this up and we will one day realize that we have grown old without having acquired a philosophy of life—and that, as a result, we have wasted our life.
The Stoics had many important psychological insights. They realized, for example, that what makes insults painful is our interpretation of the insults rather than the insults themselves. They also realized that by engaging in negative visualization we can convince ourselves to be happy with what we already have and thereby counteract our tendency toward insatiability
Modern politics presents another obstacle to the acceptance of Stoicism. The world is full of politicians who tell us that if we are unhappy it isn’t our fault.
The Stoics understood that governments can wrong their citizens; indeed, the Roman Stoics, as we have seen, had an unfortunate tendency to be unjustly punished by the powers that be.
The Stoics, as I have suggested, are not alone in claiming that our best hope at gaining happiness is to live not a life of self-indulgence but a life of self-discipline and, to a degree, self-sacrifice. Similar claims have been made in other philosophies, including Epicureanism and Skepticism, as well as in numerous religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Taoism. The question isn’t, I think, whether self-disciplined and duty-bound people can have a happy, meaningful life; it is whether those who lack self-control and who are convinced that nothing is bigger than they are can have such a life.
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.
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 are 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.
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.
Because he cares about us, Zeus wanted to design us so that we would always be happy, but he lacked the power to do so. Instead, he did for us what he could: He gave us the means to make life not just endurable but enjoyable. More precisely, he designed for us a pattern of living that, if followed, would enable us to flourish. The Stoics used their reasoning ability to discover this pattern of living. They then designed a philosophy of life that, if followed, would enable us to live in accordance with this pattern—in accordance, as they put it, with nature—and thereby to flourish. In conclusion, if we live in accordance with Stoic principles, we will have the best life it is possible for a human to have. QED. Adherents
It is also because of evolutionary processes that we possess the ability to experience fear: Our evolutionary ancestors who feared lions were less likely to be eaten by one than those who were indifferent to them. Likewise, our tendency to experience anxiety and insatiability is a consequence of our evolutionary past. Our evolutionary ancestors who felt anxious about whether they had enough food were less likely to starve than those who didn’t worry about where their next meal was coming from. Similarly, our evolutionary ancestors who were never satisfied with what they had, who always wanted more food or better shelter, were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who were easily satisfied.
Our ability to experience pleasure also has an evolutionary explanation. Why, for example, does sex feel good? Because our evolutionary ancestors who found sex to be pleasurable were far more likely to reproduce than those who were indifferent to sex or, even worse, found it to be unpleasant. We inherited the genes of those ancestors for whom sex felt good, and as a result we also find it to be pleasurable.
The first tip I would offer to those wishing to give Stoicism a try is to practice what I have referred to as stealth Stoicism: You would do well, I think, to keep it a secret that you are a practicing Stoic. (This would have been my own strategy, had I not taken it upon myself to become a teacher of Stoicism.) By practicing Stoicism stealthily, you can gain its benefits while avoiding one significant cost: the teasing and outright mockery of your friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers.
My next piece of advice for would-be Stoics is not to try to master all the Stoic techniques at once but to start with one technique and, having become proficient in it, go on to another. And a good technique to start with, I think, is negative visualization. At spare moments in the day, make it a point to contemplate the loss of whatever you value in life. Engaging in such contemplation can produce a dramatic transformation in your outlook on life. It can make you realize, if only for a time, how lucky you are—how much you have to be thankful for, almost regardless of your circumstances.
After mastering negative visualization, a novice Stoic should move on to become proficient in applying the trichotomy of control, described in chapter 5. According to the Stoics, we should perform a kind of triage in which we distinguish between things we have no control over, things we have complete control over, and things we have some but not complete control over; and having made this distinction, we should focus our attention on the last two categories. In particular, we waste our time and cause ourselves needless anxiety if we concern ourselves with things over which we have no control.
As a Stoic novice, you will want, as part of becoming proficient in applying the trichotomy of control, to practice internalizing your goals. Instead of having winning a tennis match as your goal, for example, make it your goal to prepare for the match as best you can and to try your hardest in the match.
One of the things that makes insults difficult to deal with is that they generally come as surprises. You are calmly chatting with someone when—wham!—he says something that, although it might not have been intended as an insult, can easily be construed as one. Recently, for example, I was talking to a colleague about a book he was writing. He said that in this book, he was going to comment on some political material I had published. I was delighted that he was aware of my work and was going to mention it, but then came the put-down: “I’m trying to decide,” he said, “whether, in my response to what you have written, I should characterize you as evil or merely misguided.”
In my pre-Stoic days, I would have felt the sting of this insult and probably would have gotten angry. I would have vigorously defended my work and would have done my best to unleash a counterinsult. But on that particular day, having fallen under the influence of the Stoics, I had the presence of mind to respond to this insult in a Stoically acceptable manner, with self-deprecating humor: “Why can’t you portray me as being both evil and misguided?” I asked. Self-deprecating.
Another source of discomfort—and admittedly, of entertainment and delight as well—is rowing. Shortly after I began practicing Stoicism, I learned to row a racing shell and have since started racing competitively. We rowers are exposed to heat and humidity in the summer and to cold, wind, and sometimes even snow in the spring and fall. We are periodically splashed, unceremoniously, with water. We develop blis-ters and then calluses. (Whittling down calluses is a favorite off-water activity of serious rowers.) Besides being a source of physical discomfort, rowing is a wonderful source of emotional discomfort. In particular, rowing has provided me with a list of fears to overcome.
I have become dysfunctional as a consumer. When I go to a mall, for example, I don’t buy things; instead, I look around me and am astonished by all the things for sale that I not only don’t need but can’t imagine myself wanting. My only entertainment at a mall is to watch the other mall-goers. Most of them, I suspect, come to the mall not because there is something specific that they need to buy. Rather, they come in the hope that doing so will trigger a desire for something that, before going to the mall, they didn’t want. It might be a desire for a cashmere sweater, a set of socket wrenches, or the latest cell phone.