A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009)
William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) is probably the best-selling popular introduction to Stoic philosophy. It’s a good book and one I frequently recommend to people who are new to the subject and interested in learning about Stoicism, but who lack a background in academic philosophy. It’s written in a very readable and accessible style and has many good ideas and interesting personal observations. However, since I first read the book, I’ve had a few reservations about the way it portrays Stoicism. Recently, I was sent a copy of James Warren’s review of A Guide to the Good Life, which shares broadly similar concerns, and also a few points that I’m probably well-positioned to comment on as a cognitive-behavioural therapist – CBT is a modern form of “psychotherapy” that originated in ideas derived from Stoic philosophy. (Thanks to John Sellars for pointing me in the direction of the article.) While I basically agree with Warren’s review, I feel that there is scope for a more philosophically-consistent and yet “popular” account of modern Stoicism, one which addresses most of these concerns.
Irvine explicitly acknowledges that his version of “Stoicism” departs significantly from any existing form of Stoicism. For example, he writes:
The resulting version of Stoicism, although derived from the ancient Stoics, is therefore unlike the Stoicism advocated by any particular Stoic. It is also likely that the version of Stoicism I have developed is in various respects unlike the Stoicism one would have been taught to practice in an ancient Stoic school. (Irvine, 2009, p. 244)
The initial draft of this article caused some controversy so let me pause here to emphasise Irvine’s own words above. At the very least, it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to his claim that his version of “Stoicism” is unlike any previous version by asking “Are you sure it makes sense to call it by the same name then?” Ancient philosophers, particularly Socrates and the Stoics, placed great importance on the role of accurate definition in philosophical debate because this is the foundation on which our reasoning is necessarily based.
So Irvine describes this as his own version of “Stoicism”, and different from any preceding version. Crucially, it involves replacing the supreme Stoic goal of “living in accord with virtue” (aka “living in agreement with nature”) with the goal of attaining “tranquillity” or freedom from emotional suffering. He says that he’s doing this because he believes it is “unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word” (2009, p. 42). That’s odd because the Stoic concept of virtue is essentially practical wisdom and I would have said that people today place as much value on practical wisdom, or “the art of living”, as they did in the ancient world, and that it would make just as much, if not more, sense to the majority of people as the alternative goal of “tranquillity”.
What Irvine describes is Stoicism as a therapy of the passions, but without much of its philosophical framework – a kind of Stoicism-lite. However, this is arguably not a trivial aspect of Stoicism but its core doctrine, which distinguished Stoics from philosophers of opposing schools. As Warren concludes, what Irvine’s left with is “something which an Epicurean, for example, no less than a Stoic, might endorse without much concern.” I’d go further and say that ancient Stoics would have found acceptance of this definition of their philosophy deeply problematic, and that, paradoxically, Irvine’s version of “Stoicism” may be more like Epicureanism in some respects. The supreme goal of life is the most important concept in any school of ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism. For example, Cicero’s De Finibus, one of our major sources for ancient Stoic views, systematically distinguishes the different schools of philosophy from one another primarily in terms of their different definitions of the goal of life. The most important thing in life is pursued “at all costs”, by definition, so it makes a very big practical difference whether we pursue tranquillity or practical wisdom (virtue) “at all costs”, as the supreme goal in life.
In response to a previous draft of this article, I was asked to include more information on my own background… I’ve written three books which touch on Stoicism to some degree, particularly in relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy. Like Irvine, I’m interested in modern approaches to Stoicism, for the purposes of self-help and personal improvement, but I’m a registered psychotherapist by profession whereas he is a professor of philosophy, at Wright State University in the USA, so we’re, perhaps inevitably, approaching the subject from slightly different perspectives. Nevertheless, most of the doubts I have about Irvine’s book relate to its philosophical basis, its fundamental interpretation of Stoicism, which is also the focus of the criticisms in Warren’s review. As this is just a brief blog post, I won’t have space to go into the philosophy very thoroughly. (I’ve already enlarged it considerably to clarify certain points and add quotations, in response to online comments and emails.) For simplicity, I’ve broken down the key points into several headings below…
The Goal of Stoicism
Irvine clearly states that his book replaces the traditional goal of life in Stoicism, “living in accord with virtue”, with the goal of attaining emotional tranquillity. He claims that this is the central focus of the Roman Imperial Stoics. I would dispute this interpretation of the late Roman Stoics and I see it as a fundamental departure from Stoic philosophy in general. As Warren writes: “this interest in tranquillity rather than virtue is the first sign of what I take to be the major fault of the book.” As Warren notes, at times Irvine’s account of Stoicism is so far removed from what’s traditionally understood by that term that it bears more resemblance to those opposing schools of ancient philosophy such as Epicureanism (or possibly Skepticism) which did define the highest good as tranquillity (ataraxia), or freedom from pain and suffering.
The supreme virtue in Stoic Ethics is wisdom and traditional Stoic “philosophy” is literally the love of wisdom, not the love of tranquillity. All Stoicism is unquestionably concerned with tranquillity but I don’t think any ancient Stoics made this the supreme goal of their philosophy. Practical wisdom is the highest virtue, according to the Stoics, and indeed the basis of all other virtues, which are all one, being special forms of (moral) knowledge about what is good, bad or indifferent, across various aspects of life, e.g., wisdom takes the form of justice in the social sphere, and the form of courage and self-discipline when one’s irrational “passions” arise as an obstacle to appropriate action. The Stoics are clear that feelings of tranquillity are necessarily attributes of the ideal Sage, because otherwise he would struggle to maintain a life in accord with reason and wisdom. However, these feelings are the consequence of virtue in the form of self-mastery, or courage and self-discipline. Virtue leads to tranquillity, but tranquillity alone does not necessarily lead to virtue.
The Stoics clearly considered tranquillity to be important but, for several reasons, it is not as important as virtue. For example, the highest good is synonymous with what is praiseworthy according to the Stoics but we do not normally praise people merely for being tranquil unless they are also virtuous – a serial killer may experience tranquillity while chopping his victims’ bodies up. The Stoics argue that the highest good must be both “instrumentally” good and good-in-itself and that only virtue meets these criteria. Tranquillity may be good-in-itself but it is not (inherently) instrumentally good, it’s something of a dead end as the chief goal in life, compared to practical wisdom and virtuous action. Its precise status in Stoic philosophy isn’t entirely clear, and Stoics may have disagreed over it. However, it seems to me that the early Stoics typically believed that feelings of tranquillity (and joy) naturally supervene upon perfect virtue and are only “good” insofar as they are the product of wisdom and honour. One problem with making tranquillity the supreme goal of life is that it potentially justifies actions that are unwise and unhealthy. For example, if we could achieve lasting tranquillity by having a lobotomy and taking tranquillisers every day would someone not be justified in doing so if their supreme goal is tranquillity at all costs? However, if tranquillity is only valued insofar as it is consistent with our long-term mental health or ability to act wisely and honourably, that implies that virtue is after all being regarded as the chief good in life.
In modern psychotherapy, it’s widely-recognised now that the desire primarily to avoid unpleasant or painful feelings tends to backfire. A simple illustration of this: People who express strong agreement with the statement “Anxiety is bad” tend to be more vulnerable to developing subsequent psychiatric disorders. The desire primarily to avoid unpleasant feelings, or to attain emotional tranquillity, is-often called “experiential avoidance”. There’s a consensus now, based on research, that excessive experiential avoidance is highly toxic in terms of long-term mental health. For a number of reasons, people whose lives revolve around the goal of emotional tranquillity, or avoidance of unpleasant feelings, tend to achieve the opposite in many cases. The Stoics, throughout their history, consistently objected to the misinterpretation of their philosophy as endorsing the “absence of feelings”. Rather, they describe the ideal Sage as someone who engages emotionally with life rather than retreating from it, as the Epicureans sometimes did. He feels physical and emotional pain but overcomes it, and acts virtuously, with wisdom and justice.
Warren notes that Irvine rejects Stoic determinism and remarks that although this is probably not palatable to many modern readers, it is nevertheless an important Stoic commitment. He writes: “In its absence, it is unclear to me in what sense it is right to call what is left Stoicism at all.” That perhaps overstates the objection. Determinism is an important part of Stoic philosophy but it’s not clear that it’s completely indispensible. It seems to me that ancient authors, such as Cicero, regard the ethical theory that virtue is the only true good as the core of Stoic philosophy, and the feature which distinguished it from rival schools of thought. Someone who completely adheres to the Stoic ethical theory might reasonably be called a Stoic, even if they struggle to accept their determinism, or other aspects of Stoic “physics” such as their pagan theology. Neither can I see any reason to argue that belief in determinism is a necessary presupposition if one is to justify belief in the Stoic ethics of virtue.
However, from my perspective as a psychotherapist, I would also respond to Warren’s review by saying that belief in determinism is probably not as objectionable to ordinary people in the modern world as he assumes. In The Philosophy of CBT (2010), I wrote at length about an early 20th century psychotherapist called Paul Dubois. Dubois is largely forgotten now but he was an important precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). He was also heavily-influenced by the Stoics, not only referring to them frequently in his own writings but also assigning reading Seneca’s letters, for example, to his patients as therapeutic homework assignments. In particular, though, Dubois was thoroughly committed to Stoic determinism and felt it was important to educate patients in this view of life because of its potential therapeutic value. Subsequently, some of the founders of behaviour therapy in the 1950s, Wolpe and Lazarus, also taught their patients a deterministic outlook on life for its therapeutic value. I would agree with this. I’ve found that my own clients are able to benefit from a deterministic perspective, in a similar manner. For example, it helps to moderate feelings of guilt or anger if we can view our own actions and those of other people as the inevitable consequence of our hereditary characteristics and learning experiences during life.
For modern readers of Stoicism, who wish to become followers of the philosophy, Stoic theology is probably the most problematic aspect of their philosophical system. The Stoics were pantheists who believed that the cosmos is a single living organism, an immortal animal called Zeus, who possesses perfect reason and wisdom. Zeus is the father of mankind and creator of the physical universe. He is provident, having created the universe according to a prudent divine plan; he cares for the wellbeing of his creation and children. It’s true that the ancient Stoics seem very committed to this view, particularly Epictetus.
However, although it is a controversial area, there are some indications that the ancient Stoics considered their ethics, the core of their philosophy, to stand independently of their theological beliefs. Marcus Aurelius expresses this many times to himself by referring to the dichotomous slogan: “God or atoms”. Whether the universe is created by a provident God or by the random collision of atoms, either way virtue is still the only true good and Stoicism as a way of life still remains viable. There are several other indications in the ancient literature that suggest the Stoics may have been able to entertain a more agnostic or even atheistic worldview as consistent with the core of their philosophy, which I’ve surveyed in my article on God or Atoms. Their predecessors, the Cynics, were considered examplars of virtue by the Stoics, although they did not share their theological beliefs or interest in philosophical “physics”. It’s true that belief in a provident God makes it easier for Stoics to judge the universe as whole as good, and to accept their fate with equanimity and even joy or affection. However, even agnostic or atheistic Stoics can view individual external events with the detachment (“indifference”) required by Stoic Ethics. It also seems plausible to me that a modern atheist might judge the universe conceived in its totality as good, with an attitude of gratitude or even “piety” toward life as a whole, without having to adopt any theological assumptions at all – certainly without becoming a worshipper of Zeus!
“Negative Visualisation” & Hedonic Adaptation
The Stoics recommend an important psychological technique that involves repeatedly imagining future catastrophes as if they are happening now and viewing them with detached indifference. Seneca, who refers to this particularly often, calls is praemeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of adversity. Warren says he has “no sense of the potential efficacy of this manoeuvre.” That’s something I’m in a position to comment upon. The most robustly-established technique in the whole field of research on modern psychotherapy is “exposure” to feared event, a behaviour therapy technique for anxiety developed in the 1950s. This is ideally done in vivo, in the real world. However, it is also done in imagination, called “imaginal exposure”. There are many variations of the technique and it activates several different mechanisms of change. It is also employed differently for different forms of anxiety. However, in essence, when someone visualises an event that provokes anxiety in a controlled manner and for a prolonged amount of time, usually 15-30 minutes, their anxiety will naturally tend to decline (“habituate”), and when this is repeated every day for several weeks, the reduction tends to become lasting and to spread (“generalise”) to related situations.
The ancient references to this technique can be read as recognising the phenomenon of habituation, e.g., when they refer to anticipation of feared events as a way to blunt their terrors. The Stoics also make it requirement of irrational passions, such as anxiety, that the impression evoking them is “fresh”. It’s unclear what they meant by this except that they clearly imply that when impressions (including mental images of feared events) cease to be “fresh” they should no longer evoke the same level of anxious “passion” – that can perhaps be seen as a reference to the process psychologists now call anxiety “habituation”. However, this natural reduction in anxiety, although seemingly acknowledged by the Stoics, is clearly secondary to the emphasis they place on rehearsing Stoic principles in the face of anticipated adversity, such as the dogma that the good must be under our control and external events cannot be judged “bad”, either in the sense of being “evil” or “harmful”. Irvine departs from traditional Stoicism, though, in portraying Stoic premeditation of adversity, which he calls “negative visualisation”, as a means of reversing “hedonic adaptation”. To cut a long story short, this is clearly a means of enhancing sensory pleasure in the present by mentally rehearsing the privation of pleasurable experiences. As such, it’s not the main rationale for the traditional Stoic technique and would fit much more naturally with the goals of Epicurean philosophy.
Warren objects that “negative visualisation” or rehearsing indifference to anticipated misfortunes might preserve the “status quo” in a way that conflicts with widespread ethical assumptions. He’s concerned that Irvine’s account of accepting insults, when applied to things like sexist or racist abuse, might be the wrong course of action. “This is surely wrong, or at best, tells only half the story”, he says. “I can see why tranquillity might be won by caring less if one is insulted; but why not set out also to prevent or discourage insults?” I think Warren recognises, though, that this is only a problem for Irvine and not for Stoicism proper. Traditional Stoics are able to judge insults as fundamentally harmless while, nevertheless, preferring to have the offending person as a friend rather than enemy. This requires a delicate balance between emotional detachment and commitment to acting appropriately to resolve interpersonal conflict, as Stoics seek to live in harmony with other people and spread friendship and virtue as widely as possible.
The “Trichotomy” of Control
Irvine seeks to replace the Stoic dichotomy between things under our control (or “up to us”) and things not, with a “trichotomy” that classifies most events in a third category, consisting of things “partially” under our control. Again, this is not a trivial aspect of Stoicism. It’s an integral element of the whole philosophical system. Attempting to replace it with a threefold classification introduces many problems. Are we not thereby committed to the view that things “partially under our control” are “partially good”? However, this would seem to wreck the conceptual framework of Stoic Ethics. For example, it would mean that some aspects of Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia) are partially in the hands of fate, which would fundamentally doom the Stoic Sage to the experience of frustrated desire and emotional suffering. In any case, it seems to me that the Stoic dichotomy is more accurate. To say that something is “partially” under our control is surely just to say that some parts of it are under our control and some are not. It would be better to spell out which parts or aspects of a situation are within our control and which are not, and that inevitably brings us back to the traditional Stoic dichotomy.
Irvine then reintroduces the simple dichotomy found in Stoicism, perhaps unintentionally, in the form of his distinction between internal and external goals in life. Strangely, he says he can find no evidence of this doctrine in ancient Stoicism, although I think most modern readers of Stoicism would recognise it immediately as one of the central doctrines of the whole philosophy, famously illustrated by Cicero in the metaphor of the archer whose internal goal (telos) is to shoot straight, to the best of his ability, while his external goal or “target” (skopos) is to actually hit the bullseye. The former is under his direct control, whereas the latter is not. In life in general, only our voluntary intentions to act and judgements are under our direct control, and the consequences or outcome of our actions are not. This is really the essence of all Stoic Ethics, which is the core of their philosophy.