BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

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: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a great little guide for a person considering the Stoic life. Stoicism was one of more well-known philosophies to come out of the ancient world, though it suffered a setback with changing philosophical trends and the rise of the great monotheistic religions. For those who know the term “stoic” as a small-s adjective, it’s worth noting that its definition (emotionless / impassive) is not the distinguishing trait of this school of philosophy. (Something similar can be said for Cynic v. cynic and Epicurean v. epicurean.) Still, there is a thin connection in that Stoics believed in not being controlled by emotion to one’s detriment, and not becoming emotional over things about which one has no control.

This book offers some historical background, showing how Stoicism evolved as it moved from Greece to Rome (and later how it might continue to evolve to appeal to — and work for — a modern following.) It also gives one some idea of the subtle differences of perspective among the Stoics. Usually when one bones up on Stoicism, one does so through the writings of a particular philosopher, be it Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, and so it’s interesting to see how these men with varied backgrounds lived and taught Stoicism.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part discusses what a life philosophy is, it gives Stoicism a context within other ancient philosophies, and it compares and contrasts Greek and Roman Stoicism. The second part describes the techniques that Stoics used to achieve their worldview and approach to living. These techniques include negative visualization (mentally rehearsing worst-case scenarios in a way that one becomes desensitized to them), classifying events by whether one can do anything about them or not and adopting a fatalistic acceptance of what one cannot influence, self-denial (i.e. avoiding excessive pursuit of comfort or pleasure), and meditation (being aware of one’s behavior so one can learn to implement Stoic approaches to living.)

Part three describes the advice of Stoics on a range of issues that are confronted in life. These include: duty, social relationships, insults, grief, anger, desire for fame, desire for luxury, exile, old age, dying, and becoming a Stoic. You may note, most of these are as valid today as they were in the day of the great Stoics, if not more so, and even “exile” has modern day analogies.

Part four discusses Stoicism for modern living. Among the issues covered include how a secular humanist might justify the practice of Stoicism. (The historical justifications were couched in theistic assumptions about the world.) It also delves into nuts and bolts considerations for the would-be Stoic. (Specifically, Irvine suggests practicing something he calls “stealth Stoicism,” which involves living in accord with the tenets of the philosophy while avoiding drawing attention to it from friends and family who might think you’ve become a lunatic who will soon be showing up to the 4th of July BBQ in a toga.)

Besides annotations and a works cited section, the back matter also includes a Stoic reading program as an Appendix.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’ve read works by Stoics, but it was nice to learn about Stoicism through a broader, overhead lens. If you’re interested in a philosophy of life, in general, or Stoicism in particular, this is a good book to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Living by Epictetus; ed. by Sharon Lebell

The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and EffectivenessThe Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness by Epictetus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This thin volume is packed with the wisdom of Epictetus. Epictetus was a freed slave who made a name for himself as a philosopher in Rome about a century after the birth of Christ. While small-s “stoic” conjures an image of a dour automaton, the Stoics were philosophers who believed [he oversimplified] that there’s nothing worth getting broken up about. If you can do something to influence the outcome of an event, you just need to pick the virtuous course. And if you can’t do anything about it, getting mopey is futile. In many ways, Stoicism is the Western philosophy that is most in-line with Eastern philosophies in that it emphasizes that your internal mental state is independent of what is happening outside you; so, if you can rule your mind you can find your bliss. Lebell, the editor of this volume, heavily accentuates that similarity.

When I called this thin, I didn’t mean “thin” as a derogatory comment. That said, this book is even thinner than it’s 113-page count would suggest because (as with most poetry collections) there’s a lot of white space left under a few lines of text. I actually think it’s kind of nice that the publisher didn’t do what is usually done with such short books, which is to pad them out with various unnecessary ancillary material. That said, if you can get the e-book, you’ll save some trees from dying for blank space. If they would have placed more than one maxim per page, it would probably have been cut to about 60pp.

I found this book to be well-written and nicely presented, and would recommend it for someone who wants a simple and concise overview of Stoicism.

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POEM: Epictetus & the Gentleman

Epictetus asked a man if he was free.

“I own land, can vote, and am deemed gentry.”

“But are you free?” the stoic repeated.

“Are you daft?” the man’s words came out heated.

 

And in that outburst the truth was revealed.

 

Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them

Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

Public domain image of Epictetus, sourced from Wikipedia

There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”

 

(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)

 

To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?

 

I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.

 

This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious.  But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life.  For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.

 

Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers.  The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.

 

As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.

BOOK REVIEW: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus by Epictetus

The Golden Sayings of EpictetusThe Golden Sayings of Epictetus by Epictetus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Epictetus was a slave-turned-philosopher who was born in Hierapolis and famously lived in Rome until Emperor Domitian banned philosophers from the city. Like Socrates—who Epictetus quotes and refers to frequently—we would know nothing of the thoughts of Epictetus if it were not for one of his enthusiastic students, Arrian, who compiled his mentor’s teachings.

Epictetus was one of the Stoics, philosophers who believed that one should be unmoved by the situations and conditions handed one by the universe—for such things are beyond one’s control. While the word “stoic” has come to mean emotionless in the colloquial, the philosophy might better be summed up by the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

In other words, one must not be made unhappy by what one cannot change, and one must strive towards self-improvement (changing the things one can) through intense discipline.

As the title suggests, the book consists of a collection of numbered sayings, some are pithy sentences and others are full paragraphs, but few are as long as a page. After the body of the text there is a collection of fragmentary sayings. Some of these “fragments” pack a whollop in themselves, such as, “Give me by all means the shorter and nobler life, instead of the one that is longer but of less account.” This is a central idea in Stoicism–that fear of death is the cause of many of man’s worst features.

Lest giving up one’s anger and fear of the unknown seem too daunting, Epictetus does advocate a gradual approach to self-improvement. He says that if one can at first say that one went a day without anger, one is on the path. As long as one works in the direction of saying it has been a week and then a month without anger.

As intimated above, Epictetus shows a great admiration for Socrates and applauds the elder philosopher for accepting that which he didn’t know and for his continual struggle to be a better man.

While the Stoics are often perceived as hard people, it should be noted that some of Epictetus’s ideas echo those of Mahatma Gandhi and other pacifist leaders. He praises the ability to forgive, not just letting a transgression go, but not allowing one’s mind to become fixated on perceived slights. Epictetus also echoes the notions read in Indian works such as the Bhagavad-Gita when he says, “Reward! Do you seek any greater reward for a good man than doing what is right and just?”

Epictetus shows his wisdom in suggesting that people lead others by example and not by trying to force them into changing their ways.

I think everyone should read this brief work of wisdom.

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