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Stoicism as a Philosophy of Life
on 5 August 2013
Academic life often leads people in unexpected directions. William Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. After receiving his PhD from UCLA in 1980, Irvine taught and practiced analytic philosophy for many years before gradually losing interest in it as overly technical and removed from life. Irvine looked for other philosophical and personal options and came close to adopting a Zen Buddhist practice. He ultimately rejected Zen because it did not fit the analytic quality of his mind. Irvine then began a serious study of the Greek and Roman stoics, philosophers he never had to read during his years of philosophical study. The result was his book "On Desire: Why We Want what we Want" (2006) followed by this book, "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" (2008) in which Irvine articulates a comtemporary stoic philosophy.
Irvine writes for the educated lay reader rather than for academic philosophers. He argues that an important task of philosophy is to help individuals form a "philosophy of life" that gives meaning and purpose. Without a philosophy of life, Irvine argues, "there is danger that you will mislive-- that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversion you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your lfie pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer."
Besides helping a person to discover his or her "grand goal in living", philosophy also has the task of pointing out a path or strategy for realzing the goal. As mentioned above, Irvine seriously explored Zen Buddhism but found ancient stoicism more suitable to his character in setting out a goal and a means for its attainment.
In his book, Irvine explains the need people to reflect and form a philosophy of life, the value of stoicism, and the means of practicing stoicism. He also takes stoicism out of its ancient theological and teleological (teleology means finding that nature acts purposefully) bases and restates it under assumptions of naturalism.
In the first part of the book, Irvine offers a rapid overview of ancient philosophy and ancient stoicism, culminating in four philosophers of the Roman Empire, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.Irvine shows that the "grand goal" of these philosophers shifted gradually from the reason and "eudamoneia" (a difficult word meaning roughly "virtue") of the Greeks to a goal of emotional tranquility. This, rather than the Greek goal, is the goal Irvine adopts. The goal of tranquility does not advocate supressing emotions or becoming a zombie. Rather, Irvine defines "tranquility" as "a psychological state marked by the absences of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy."
After identifying the goal, Irvine offers steps towards its attainment. He recommends living modestly, being content with what one has, letting go of the past and of feelings of remorse and guilt, and meditation and reflection on one's goals. A stoic life is internalized, which means it depends of developing what is in one's control rather than seeking for happiness in things outside one's control. To give examples from my own life. I get frustrated when my teachers and others do not rate my piano playing as highly as I would like. I have to remember that the goal of playing the piano is not to have a concert career or to impress others but to bring out music for myself and for those who want to hear. Then again, closer to home, I get angry when I spend time on an Amazon review only to have it curtly negated. I have to remind myself that I write to read and to learn rather than to seek approval from negginators.
In the third part of the book, Irvine offers more broadly-based discussions of stoicism as a guide to life. He discusses the control rather than the repression of emotions such as grief, and strategies for living contentedly with others. He focuses on his own and on his reader's mortality by eloquently reminding of the inevitability of old age and death and of the stoic wisdom of loving life in its transience and letting go.
In the fourth part of the book Irvine, describes again the metaphysical bases of ancient stoicism, which Irvine rejects by rephrasing stoic insights against a backdrop of evolutionary naturalism. Many readers may not be convinced by this attempt to jettision stoicism out of its original context. I think Irvine's point could be better made not by substituting one metaphysical view for another but rather by eliminating the need for a metaphysical "underpinning" for a philosophy of life altogether. The latter stoics showed little interest in teleology or metaphysics. In other words, stoicism stands of falls on its own merits and results as a philosophy and does not require a metaphysical support. This conclusion is consistent with much modern "technical" philosophy, as I understand it, which Irvine claims he no longer wishes to pursue. In the final part of the book, Irvine turns autobiographical and offers insights on what a stoic practice has meant to his own life.
Throughout the book, Irvine approaches his subject with enthusiasm and with at times an almost missionary zeal. There are two parts to the story to be distinguished. The first is the value to a person of developing a philosophy of life. Convincing the reader of the value of a philosophy of life is Irvine's greater goal and, most of the time, it is the source of his enthusiasm and preaching to the reader. The second is the stoic philosophy that Irvine has adopted for himself. Here too, Irvine develops his stoic philosophy and tries to persuade his readers. But he recognizes that a single philosophy will not suit all temperaments, and that there are varied approaches to the good life. His approach has strong components of pragmatism as taught by William James.
This is an excellent work of philosophy for non-specialists. A growing number of philosophers work to make their thoughts accessible, and Irvine is, perhaps, too harsh on the academic study of philosophy. The book has received substantial attention on Amazon, with many thoughtful reviews and valuable criticisms.