Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review - "A Guide to the Good Life"

“A Guide to the Good Life,” by William B. Irvine is an attempt to take the Stoic philosophy and provide a guide to applying this world-view to modern life.

In doing so, Irvine cautions that some adaption is required.  For example, few modern people believe in Zeus, but a large part of the Stoic doctrine is based on the idea that we act “in accordance with nature,” as the Gods intended. 

Stoics believed that humans are close to God-like in the sense that we have the ability to reason.  Unlike plants or animals, we have the ability think and decide what is the proper action for any given situation.  This is both a curse and a blessing, as our “living a good life” is to act in the appropriate way that a man (or woman) should.  A dog does not need to think about what it means to live well.  He performs a dog’s responsibilities by acting dog-like.  It is not in its nature to be otherwise.  Man is not so lucky.  Because we are able to reason, we can often talk ourselves out of the appropriate actions that befit a human. 

The ultimate goal for a Stoic is to obtain tranquility.  This is achieved by valuing things appropriately and by viewing them with the proper amount of importance.  Appropriate actions are taken on things that we have at least some control over.  No thought is given to the worrying or fretting of things completely outside of our control.  Here, Irvine’s commentary is particularly valuable.  The example he uses is that of an individual setting a goal of winning a tennis match.  No matter how much the individual practices or trains, the actual victory is outside of his control to a large degree.  Rather than avoiding tennis, the aim is to internalize the goal to something that you can control.  Here, the goal of “winning the tennis match” could be changed to being as prepared as possible, playing up to his potential, or some other internal goal that shifts the focus from external circumstances to something entirely within his control.  It goes without saying that playing up to one’s potential will make the likelihood of winning much greater.  Additionally, without the potential stress and choking up that may come from setting goals on events outside of one’s direct control, internalizing goals provides a more stress-free approach that will allow an athlete to be loose and confident during their match.

Stoics placed a very low level of importance on many of the things that people care about.  They felt that fame was something to be avoided, if possible.  Trying to be famous or working towards being highly-regarded by friends and associates was wrong if taken by itself.  Rather, one should carefully reason out the correct responses, act accordingly, and these friends and associates would form their own opinions.  Since we cannot control how our actions will be received by others, it is a waste of time to worry about it.  If we are doing the correct thing, that is all that we can control, and that is more than enough.  Fame or good-standing can take care of itself.  By worrying about how an action will be viewed, we risk filtering or diluting the act that we have reasoned out to be “correct.”

Additionally, the Stoics believed that one should not seek wealth.  By working for money only, we sacrifice our ability to do the right thing at the right time.  An example could be the Enron employees who knew that illegal and unethical practices were taking place, but did not blow the whistle out of the fear of losing their job (salary).  All this aside, the Stoics (most, anyway) were not intentionally ascetic.  Marcus Aurellius was the Emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world, as well as being a Stoic philosopher.  One could enjoy wealth and the freedom and comfort it provided so long as it was kept in its proper place, and the individual was not tied to it.  To ensure that individuals did not cling to their wealth, Stoics encouraged the practice of negative visualization.  They would contemplate that they had lost everything they cared about, including family members, friends, money, security, etc.  This practice was used in part to prepare themselves for the inevitable hard times that would come, as well as working to reinforce the idea that life would still go on without these things that we care so much about.  This practice had the additional benefit of making people value what they had that much more strongly.  Not taking things for granted was a huge part of Stoic philosophy.

The Stoics believed that joy was not dependent on any of the creature comforts that most of us strive for, and in some cases, they would hinder our ability to be happy.  Because of this, Stoics would often practice discomfort and loss.  They would under-dress in cold weather to remind themselves to be thankful that they have a jacket that they could wear when they chose.  Some would take on voluntary poverty for a time, or go without rich food or drink.  It is important to note that the goal here was not to inflict a punishment on the individual, but to inspire gratitude.  The Stoics strongly believed that no man could be a victim of someone else, as it was always easy to imagine how things could be worse.  A man who lost an eye could still see out of the other.  A blind woman may find that her hearing improved because she could no longer depend on her sight.  In our own lives, we can apply this to remind ourselves that things could be worse, and that we  should be focusing on what we have more than what we have lost. 


Venom said...

Dear Rugged,
You have summed up all I ever needed to know about Stoics right here, so thanks for that.

Also, your year in review photos were artsy and well composed.

Now, just wondering - is there ANY chance you're going to write anytime soon about kicking the shit out of somebody (kickboxing, boxing, fight club, whatever!) accompanied by maybe a picture of you and your opponent, all sweaty and muscle-y and maybe a little bit bloody?

gaijinass said...

This is interesting.
The parallels between "stoics" and the ideas espoused in Hagakure and to some extent Bushido are undeniable.

-No thought is given to the worrying or fretting of things completely outside of our control.-

"The Veteran Samurai thinks not of victory or defeat, but fights insanely to the death" Book 1 Hagakure.

-They felt that fame was something to be avoided, if possible.-

"A man that earns a strong reputation for being skilled at a technical art is idiotic."

-This practice was used in part to prepare themselves for the inevitable hard times that would come, as well as working to reinforce the idea that life would still go on without these things that we care so much about.-

"Truly important problems are few; they occur probably no more than trice or thrice in a lifetime. Everyday reflection will tell you this. Therefore it is necessary to plan ahead what to do in case of a crisis, and then when the time comes to remember the plan and dispose of the problem accordingly. Without daily preparation, when faced with a difficult situation one may be unable to reach a quick decision, with disastrous results."

I need to look into Stoic Philosophy a bit more perhaps.

Trouble said...

Sometimes it is difficult to not focus on what we have lost, especially where emotions are involved. I definitely have moments of clarity and chaos within the lines of gratitude. The more you practice it, the more it comes naturally and the more you see the things you are to be grateful for.

Martin said...

Venom - Actually, I took quite an ass-kicking recently. Perhaps it will make its way to a blog post soon.

Gaijin Ass - The parallels don't stop there. I basically stopped writing because I got bored, not because there wasn't more valuable insights to write about. I would definitely recommend reading some of the Stoic writing, especially since you got so much out of the Hagakura. Lots of similarities between the two.

Trouble - Agreed. Feelings of loss, greed, jealousy, or grief are all reflexive. We will all feel these things no matter how much we practice. The goal...err.."my" goal is to limit the length of time I allow myself to be bothered by these emotions.

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