Friday, May 27, 2011

A Guide to the Good Life, by William Irvine

The author, a philosophy professor, appropriately subtitles his book The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.This is unlike any book I've read and presents philosophy in an entirely practical way. 

 Sure, we've all read the standard Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas, but Irvine begins by putting the study of philosophy into context. The ancient Greeks were the very first members of Western Civilization to have been afforded the luxury of time to actually think about the big questions of existence, happiness and metaphysics. As such they sat down and codified the nature of the human condition and it's relationship with the natural and the divine. Irvine points out that a leap occurred in human understanding in the 6th century BCE and over the intervening centuries philosophers had every intention of solving the mystery of why we were here and what makes us happy and fulfilled. To me, they were like the Google and Apple engineers of their day.

Various systems, or schools, were developed: the Stoics, Aristotle's Academy, the Cynics, the Epicureans, etc. They competed for followers by presenting true philosophies for living and not just presenting ivory tower psychobabble. Irvine concentrates on the Stoics and points out that the goal of this system was to eliminate or mitigate negative emotions, only in the modern vernacular has stoicism (small S) come to mean the elimination of all emotion. In jargon-free prose, Irvine presents a readable synopsis of philosophy and puts it into a context that makes it real.

There have been several famous Stoics, including Zeno, Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca and the Roman leader Marcus Aurelius. The Greek schools fell out of favor for various reasons as Christianity rose to political prominence in the first centuries after Christ.

Irvine says that humans are programmed to seek pleasure and this is a constantly increasing urge that saps our enjoyment of the world. He terms this adaptive hedonism: that no matter how comfortable or pleasurable our lives become, we soon adapt and need more, more, more. Without breaking this cycle of ever-increasing hedonism, we become miserable. Buddhists would call this attachment. Irvine presents psychological techniques developed by the first Stoics that are designed to increase our satisfaction with our current situation.

The first technique is negative visualization. The ancients would instruct their students to visualize, or imagine, the very worst case scenario or outcome. No matter how gruesome or disturbing, we should picture losing everything: our family, our job, our home, our health. This prepares us for the absolute worst and when these negative situations do not materialize, we gain more satisfaction and gratitude for the things we have. I would note that this is anathema to the usual teaching of modern Western society which instructs us to think positive! and avoid negative thoughts. Irvine points out that this attitude only increases our desire for more, and decreases our enjoyment of what we have.

Irvine admits that negative visualization seems counter-intuitive, but such active techniques are important especially in kids who can become jaded as they compete for the latest trendy consumer items or experiences. Just as a near-death catastrophe, such as a car accident or illness, can temporarily jolt someone out of their jadedness and put things into a cleaner perspective, negative visualization can do the same thing-- only it's actually more effective because it is done regularly, consciously and with discipline.

The Stoics also advocate a program of voluntary discomfort, such as fasting or wearing too little clothing in the cold, or making other physical sacrifices-- a practice which is done by many if not most religions in some manner...think hair-shirts and self-flagellation.  The Stoics taught that such practices, if done properly (and self-flagellation may not be considered a proper technique), have positive consequences on levels of happiness and satisfaction in life, and it also prepares us for the times when such sacrifices are necessary. As such, we become more confident that we could withstand hard times, if they ever were to come our way, thus increasing our joy and satisfaction in our current relatively plentiful situation.

Irvine also points out the power of self-deprecation (wisdom), self-denial (humility), concentrating only on factors that we can truly control (very few as it turns out), and eschewing worry about things we cannot change. The ultimate goal of the practice of Stoicism is to increase tranquility in our lives ... and to increase joy. Some individuals have natural tendencies toward Stoicism, while others would fight these techniques and view them as counter-productive or silly. Irvine points out that most, if not all, of Stoicism can be perfectly consistent with other religions and can easily be incorporated into Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths.

Personally, I tend toward many of the Stoic ideals already, and always have. Reading this book was refreshing... to know that some of my crazy behaviors have actually been codified by ancient philosophers and that more modern psychological techniques describe some of my behaviors; negative visualization does not lead to pessimism, and has been invaluable to me in my job. Irvine gives examples of meditations and practices that follow this philosophy-- and it is a way to live your life. True happiness does come from living within your means, knowing your limitations and practicing self-control, and as Irvine says, the most amazing-- truly amazing-- thing is that sometimes out of the blue a burst of unrestrained joy will come when you least expect it.

My review has not done the book justice. Irvine is a gifted writer and philosopher and this book gets my highest recommendation.

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