Corentin Derbré


A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William B. Irvine

ISBN: 0195374614
Date read: 2016-04-04
How strongly I recommend it: 9/10
(See my list of books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

History, techniques, advice and how to about Stoicism. Captivating and easy to use. The author frequently gives his opinion and expericene along the great Stoics examples, wich is really humble and welcome, especially to understand how Stoicism applies well to modern life.

my notes

Keep my head in the boat even when I’m not rowing.

[We find modern] philosophers specializing in metaphysics, logic, politics, science, religion, and ethics.

[The Stoics] were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and self-disciplined. They also thought it important for us to fulfil our obligations and to help our fellow humans.

We will turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue. We will also recognize how easy it is for other people to disturb our tranquility, and we will therefore practice Stoic strategies to prevent them from upsetting us. We will become a more thoughtful observer of our own life.

Man’s distinguishing feature is his rationality. Logic is, after all, the study of the proper use of reasoning.

[Virtue depends on our] excellence as a human being — on how well we performs the function for which humans were designed. To be virtuous, then, is to live as we were designed to live; it is to live, as Zeno put it, in accordance with nature. We differ from other animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. We were designed to be reasonable. Most significantly, since nature intended us to be social creatures, we have duties to our fellow men.

The Stoic sage

A Stoic sage, according to Diogenes Laertius, is “free from vanity; for he is indifferent to good or evil report.” He never feels grief, since he realizes that grief is an “irrational contraction of the soul.” His conduct is exemplary. He doesn’t let anything stop him from doing his duty. Although he drinks wine, he doesn’t do so in order to get drunk. The Stoic sage is, in short, “godlike.” Whereas the ordinary person embraces pleasure, the sage enchains it; whereas the ordinary person thinks pleasure is the highest good, the sage doesn’t think it is even a good; and whereas the ordinary person does everything for the sake of pleasure, the sage does nothing.

Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy. Serenity (tranquility) is the result at which virtue aims.

“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.”

Combine days full of intense activity with periods of relaxation. (Marcus)

On Desire

Misfortune weighs most heavily, he says, on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.” We should keep in mind that “all things everywhere are perishable.” We experience hedonic adaptation in our career. (What about Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is he stoic?)

The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have. All we have is “on loan” from Fortune. [He] will be glad that she (his daughter) is still a part of his life. As we think about and plan for tomorrow, to remember to appreciate today. Instead of spending our days enjoying our good fortune, we spend them forming and pursuing new, grander dreams for ourselves. As a result, we are never satisfied with our life. Negative visualization can help us avoid this fate. One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted. To them, the world is wonderfully new and surprising. To take delight in things, they (non stoics) think, is childish.

What, I would ask, could possibly be worth sacrificing satisfaction in order to obtain?

Negative Visualization

A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him. Furthermore, there is a difference between contemplating something bad happening and worrying about it. We can also practice negative visualization by paying attention to the bad things that happen to other people and reflecting on the fact that these things might instead have happened to us.

To practice negative visualization, after all, is to contemplate the impermanence of the world around us. We must take care to be “the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune.” There will be—or already has been!—a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch. There will be a last time you hear the sound of snow falling, watch the moon rise, smell popcorn, feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms, or make love. You will someday eat your last meal, and soon thereafter you will take your last breath.

He will look “for all benefit and harm to come from himself.” In particular, he will give up the rewards the external world has to offer in order to gain “tranquility, freedom, and calm.”

Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfil. In conclusion, whenever we desire something that is not up to us, our tranquility will likely be disturbed: If we don’t get what we want, we will be upset, and if we do get what we want, we will experience anxiety in the process of getting it. There are things over which we have complete control and things over which we don’t have complete control.

Trichotomy of Control

We have complete control over the goals we set for ourselves. We have complete control over our values. Marcus points out that we have complete control over our character.

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). These are goals I can achieve no matter how my wife and my boss subsequently react to my efforts. By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control. They internalized their goals. Their goal was not to change the world, but to do their best to bring about certain changes.


Letting go of the Past and the Present

We should want events “to happen as they do happen.” In saying that we shouldn’t dwell on the past, the Stoics are not suggesting that we should never think about it. We sometimes should think about the past to learn lessons that can help us in our efforts to shape the future. Most of us reject the notion that we are fated to live a certain life; we think, to the contrary, that the future is affected by our efforts. At the same time, we readily accept that the past cannot be changed, so when we hear the Stoics counseling us to be fatalistic with respect to the past, we will be unlikely to challenge the advice. Instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better.

Practicing Poverty

We should periodically “practice poverty”: We should, that is, content ourselves with “the scantiest and cheapest fare” and with “coarse and rough dress.” The problem is that we can live perfectly well without some of these things, but we won’t know which they are if we don’t try living without them. We should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless. Or we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though water and food are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available. By experiencing minor discomforts, he is, says Musonius, training himself to be courageous. The more pleasures a man captures, “the more masters will he have to serve.” 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. There is, after all, a fine line between enjoying a meal and lapsing into gluttony. Practice refusing something we would enjoy. Willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. Not exercising self-control also takes effort. You will “be pleased and will praise yourself ” for not eating it. “Water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread,” Seneca tells us, “are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive plea- sure from this sort of food.”

On Improvement

“What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?”A sign of progress in our practice of Stoicism is that our philosophy will consist of actions rather than words. A more advanced Stoic, having adopted a simple lifestyle and having given up wine in favor of water, will feel no need to comment on the fact. We should be so inconspicuous that others don’t label us Stoics. For the ultimate proof that we have made progress as Stoics, though, we will have to wait until we are faced with death. It is only then, says Seneca, that we will know whether our Stoicism has been genuine. He takes his progress to be adequate as long as “every day I reduce the number of my vices, and blame my mistakes.” Continue to practice Stoicism, “even when success looks hopeless.”

On Other People

They (Stoics) warn us to be careful in choosing our associates; other people, after all, have the power to shatter our tranquility—if we let them. Man is by nature a social animal and therefore that we have a duty to form and maintain relationships with other people, despite the trouble they might cause us. Our primary function, the Stoics thought, is to be rational. “Fellowship is the purpose behind our creation.” Thus, a person who performs well the function of man will be both rational and social.

And when I do my social duty, says Marcus, I should do so quietly and efficiently. Marcus says that he no more expects thanks for the services he performs than a horse expects thanks for the races it runs. This, for Marcus, is the reward for doing one’s duty: a good life.

Vices, Seneca warns, are contagious. Marcus counsels us, for example, not to waste time speculating about what our neighbors are doing, saying, thinking, or scheming. One of the best forms of revenge on another person is to refuse to be like him.

Few people, Musonius would have us believe, are happier than the person who has both a loving spouse and devoted children.

On Insults

“I’m relieved that you feel that way about me.” As we make progress in our practice of Stoicism, we will become increasingly indifferent to other people’s opinions of 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. “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things.” And how are we to respond to an insult, if not with a counter insult? One wonderful way, say the Stoics, is with humor. A second way to respond to insults: with no response at all. “I don’t remember being struck.” Cato, says Seneca, showed a finer spirit by not acknowledging the blow than he would have by pardoning it. If in the course of trying to train a horse, we punish him, it should be because we want him to obey us in the future, not because we are angry about his failure to obey us in the past.

On Grief

Reason is our best weapon against grief, he maintains, because “unless reason puts an end to our tears, fortune will not do so.” In cases of extreme grief, though, such appeals are unlikely to succeed for the simple reason that the grieving person’s emotions are ruling his intellect. Restore his intellect. Take care not to “catch” the grief of others.

On Anger

The damage done by anger is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.” We are punishing people not as retribution for what they have done but for their own good, to deter them from doing again whatever they did. “Our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us.” What fools we are, therefore, when we allow our tranquility to be disrupted by minor things. “Laughter,” he says, “and a lot of it, is the right response to the things which drive us to tears!” When we feel ourselves getting angry about something, we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Because two opposite thoughts cannot exist in one mind at one time, the wholesome thought will drive out the unwholesome one.Indeed, what if we find ourselves lashing out at whoever angered us? We should apologize.

On what is valuable

People are unhappy, the Stoics argue, in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. Because of their confusion, they spend their days pursuing things that, rather than making them happy, make them anxious and miserable. Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. If we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. “Make the best of today.”

He dressed differently in order to accustom himself “to be ashamed only of what was really shameful, and to ignore men’s low opinion of other things.” Cato consciously did things to trigger the disdain of other people simply so he could practice ignoring their disdain.

Many people, for example, will construe the Stoics’ indifference to public opinion as a sign of self-confidence.

Not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself is. The Stoics value highly their ability to enjoy ordinary life—and indeed, their ability to find sources of delight even when living in primitive conditions. He should choose food “not for pleasure but for nourishment, not to please his palate but to strengthen his body.” Rather than living to eat—rather than spending our life pursuing the pleasure to be derived from food—we should eat to live. Luxury, Seneca warns, uses her wit to promote vices: First she makes us want things that are inessential, then she makes us want things that are injurious. Life’s necessities are cheap and easily obtainable. Self-respect, trustworthiness, and high-mindedness are more valuable than wealth, meaning that if the only way to gain wealth is to give up these personal characteristics, we would be foolish to seek wealth. It is indeed ironic: A Stoic who disparages wealth might become wealthier than those individuals whose principal goal is its acquisition.

When someone reported to him that he was being tried in the Senate, Paconius was uninterested; he merely set off for his daily exercise and bath. Musonius’s exile, as we have seen, was one of the worst exiles possible, to the “worthless” island of Gyara. Nevertheless, he says, those who visited him during his exile never heard him complain or saw him disheartened. If we are not virtuous, though, exile will deprive us of much of what we (mistakenly) think is valuable, and we will therefore be miserable.

An eighty-year-old knows full well that the world isn’t her oyster and that her situation is only going to worsen with the passing years. Seneca remarks that despite his age, his mind “is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body.”

Someone with a coherent philosophy of life will know what in life is worth attaining. “Be set free from the fear of death.” They tell us to practice Stoicism in part so we will not fear death. Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.” “It is better to die with distinction than to live long.” End that good life with a good death, when it is possible to do so. Whether a life in which nothing is worth dying for can possibly be worth living.

On Practicing Stoicism

It will take effort, for example, to practice negative visualization, and practicing self- denial will take more effort still.

It is, after all, hard to know what to choose when you aren’t really sure what you want.

stealth Stoicism

Delight in the world around us. Do their best to enjoy things that can’t be taken from them, most notably their character.

The contest that is our life has already begun. Consequently, we do not have the luxury of postponing our training; we must start it this very day.

If we prevent or overcome an emotion, there will be nothing to bottle.

I think people are less brittle and more resilient, emotionally speaking, than therapists give them credit for. “A man is as wretched as he has convinced himself that he is.”

We are encouraged to vote for the candidate who claims to possess the ability, by skillfully using the powers of government, to make us happy. The Stoics don’t think it is helpful for people to consider themselves victims of society—or victims of anything else, for that matter. If you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take. Others may have it in their power to affect how and even whether you live, but they do not, say the Stoics, have it in their power to ruin your life. Only you can ruin it, by failing to live in accordance with the correct values. It is only when we assume responsibility for our happiness that we will have a reasonable chance of gaining it.

Indeed, an individual who is utterly miserable but manages, despite his misery, to survive and reproduce will play a greater role in evolutionary processes than a joyful individual who chooses not to reproduce.

“I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters; I, too, have the right to form an opinion.” The Stoics regarded the principles of Stoicism not as being chiseled into stone but as being molded into clay that could, within limits, be remolded into a form of Stoicism that people would find useful. We will have to choose, for starters, among Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism, and Zen Buddhism.

They (most people) spend their days on evolutionary autopilot.

Starting Stoicism

A good technique to start with, I think, is negative visualization. After mastering negative visualization, a novice Stoic should move on to become proficient in applying the trichotomy of control. As a Stoic novice, you will want, as part of becoming proficient in applying the trichotomy of control, to practice internalizing your goals.

Author’s Experiences

I know this sounds strange, but one consequence of the practice of Stoicism is that one seeks opportunities to put Stoic techniques to work. When someone criticizes me, I reply that matters are even worse than he is suggesting. I find myself having black thoughts about him. Again, these feelings of anger are point- less: They disturb me but have no impact at all on the person at whom I am angry. Because I was thinking about anger during that hour, I found it impossible to get angry. It is quite useful to use humor as a defense against anger.

It is an immunization, though, that will wear off with the passage of time, and I will need to be reimmunized with another dose of butterflies.

I view myself—or at any rate, a part of me—as an opponent in a kind of game. This opponent—my “other self,” as it were—is on evolutionary autopilot: He wants nothing more than to be comfortable and to take advantage of whatever opportunities for pleasure present themselves.

[Our lower self is] an enemy lying in wait. When I row competitively, it may look as though I am trying to beat the other rowers, but I am in fact engaged in a much more significant competition: the one against my other self. 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. As a Stoic, you will constantly be preparing yourself for hardship. I found myself reflecting on how I would respond to being blind in one eye. They neglected, while young, to prepare for old age.

It is a delight in simply being able to participate in life.

It is when times are bad that the efficacy of these techniques becomes most apparent.

© 2018 Corentin Derbré.