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

Ended: Oct. 15, 2012

In particular, we will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue. We will discover that Stoic virtue has very little in common with what people today mean by the word. We will also discover that the tranquility the Stoics sought is not the kind of tranquility that might be brought on by the ingestion of a tranquilizer; it is not, in other words, a zombie-like state. It is instead a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy. We will study the various psychological techniques developed by the Stoics for attaining and maintaining tranquility, and we will employ these techniques in daily living. We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control. 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. Finally, we will become a more thoughtful observer of our own life. We will watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and will later reflect on what we saw, trying to identify the sources of distress in our life and thinking about how to avoid that distress.
“pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.”
One thing that made Stoicism attractive was its abandonment of Cynic asceticism: The Stoics favored a lifestyle that, although simple, allowed creature comforts. The Stoics defended this abandonment by arguing that if they avoided the “good things,” as the Cynics did, they thereby demonstrated that the things in question really were good—were things that, if they did not hide them from themselves, they would crave. The Stoics enjoyed whatever “good things” happened to be available, but even as they did so, they prepared themselves to give up the things in question.
Although the Stoics were not the first to do logic—Aristotle, for example, had done it before them, as had the Megarians—Stoic logic showed an unprecedented degree of sophistication. The Stoics’ interest in logic is a natural consequence of their belief that man’s distinguishing feature is his rationality. Logic is, after all, the study of the proper use of reasoning. The Stoics became experts on argument forms, such as “If A, then B; but A, therefore B” or “Either A or B; but not A, therefore B.” These argument forms, which are called modus ponens and modus tollendo ponens, respectively, are still used by logicians.
IT IS EASY for modern readers to misconstrue what the Stoics had in mind by “a good life.” Indeed, many readers will equate having a good life with making a good living—with, that is, having a high-paying job. The Stoics, however, thought it entirely possible for someone to have a bad life despite making a very good living. Suppose, for example, that he hates his high-paying job, or suppose that the job creates conflict within him by requiring him to do things he knows to be wrong. What, then, must a person do to have what the Stoics would call a good life? Be virtuous! But again, “virtue” is a word that invites misunderstanding. Tell a modern reader that the Stoics advocate that she live in a virtuous manner, and she might roll her eyes; indeed, to this reader, nuns would be prime examples of virtuous individuals, and what makes them virtuous are their chastity, humility, and kindheartedness. Are the Stoics, then, advocating that we live like nuns? In fact, this isn’t at all what the Stoics have in mind when they talk about virtue. For the Stoics, a person’s virtue does not depend, for example, on her sexual history. Instead, it depends on her excellence as a human being—on how well she performs the function for which humans were designed. In the same way that a “virtuous” (or excellent) hammer is one that performs well the function for which it was designed—namely, to drive nails—a virtuous individual is one who performs well 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.18 The Stoics would add that if we do this, we will have a good life. And for what function were people designed? To answer this question, the Stoics thought, we need only examine ourselves. On doing this, we will discover that we have certain instincts, as do all animals. We experience hunger; this is nature’s way of getting us to nourish ourselves. We also experience lust; this is nature’s way of getting us to reproduce. But we differ from other animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. From this we can conclude, Zeno would assert, that we were designed to be reasonable. And if we use our reason, we will further conclude that we were designed to do certain things, that we have certain duties. Most significantly, since nature intended us to be social creatures, we have duties to our fellow men. We should, for example, honor our parents, be agreeable to our friends, and be concerned with the interests of our countrymen.19 It was this sense of social duty that led the Stoic Cato to be an active player in Roman politics, even though doing so cost him his life.
If we lived in perfect accordance with nature—if, that is, we were perfect in our practice of Stoicism—we would be what the Stoics refer to as a wise man or 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.”
After importing Stoicism, the Romans adapted the doctrine to suit their needs. For one thing, they showed less interest in logic and physics than the Greeks had. Indeed, by the time of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the great Roman Stoics, logic and physics had essentially been abandoned: In the Meditations, we find Marcus congratulating himself for not having wasted time studying these subjects.22 The Romans also made subtle changes in the Greek Stoics’ ethical program. As we have seen, the primary ethical goal of the Greek Stoics was the attainment of virtue. The Roman Stoics retained this goal, but we find them also repeatedly advancing a second goal: the attainment of tranquility. And by tranquility they did not have in mind a zombie-like state. (To advocate that kind of tranquility, after all, would be a rejection of the rationality that the Stoics thought essential to virtuous living.) Rather, 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.
WHY DID THE ROMAN STOICS give the attainment of tranquility a more prominent role than their Greek predecessors did? Part of the answer to this question, I think, is that the Roman Stoics had less confidence than the Greeks in the power of pure reason to motivate people. The Greek Stoics thought that the best way to get people to pursue virtue was to make them understand what things were good: If a person understood what the truly good things were, he, being rational, would necessarily pursue them and thereby become virtuous. The Greek Stoics therefore saw little need to mention the beneficial by-products of the pursuit of virtue, including, most significantly, the attainment of tranquility.
Thus, tell someone that you possess and are willing to share with him an ancient strategy for attaining virtue, and you will likely be met with a yawn. Tell him that you possess and are willing to share an ancient strategy for attaining tranquility, though, and his ears are likely to perk up; in most cases, people don’t need to be convinced of the value of tranquility. Indeed, if asked, he might go on at length about how his life has been blighted by tranquility-disrupting negative emotions. It is for this reason that in the following pages I focus my attention on the Roman rather than the Greek Stoics, and it is for this reason that the primary focus of my examination of the Roman Stoics is not their advice on how to attain virtue but their advice on how to attain and maintain tranquility. Having said this, I should add that readers who follow Roman Stoic advice on attaining tranquility might thereby attain virtue as well. Should this happen, so much the better!
THE MOST IMPORTANT of the Roman Stoics—and the Stoics from whom, I think, modern individuals have the most to gain—were Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.1 The contributions these four made to Roman Stoicism were nicely complementary. Seneca was the best writer of the bunch, and his essays and letters to Lucilius form a quite accessible introduction to Roman Stoicism. Musonius is notable for his pragmatism: He offered detailed advice on how practicing Stoics should eat, what they should wear, how they should behave toward their parents, and even how they should conduct their sex life. Epictetus’s specialty was analysis: He explained, among other things, why practicing Stoicism can bring us tranquility. Finally, in Marcus’s Meditations, written as a kind of diary, we are privy to the thoughts of a practicing Stoic: We watch as he searches for Stoic solutions to the problems of daily life as well as the problems he encountered as emperor of Rome.
“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.”29 These words were written not by a slave like Epictetus, whom we would naturally expect to encounter insolence and ill will; they were written by the person who was at the time the most powerful man in the world: Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome.
We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires. The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation. To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were.4 They start taking their new Ferrari and mansion for granted, the way they previously took their rusted-out pickup and cramped apartment for granted.
One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it. In other words, we need a technique for creating in ourselves a desire for the things we already have. Around the world and throughout the millennia, those who have thought carefully about the workings of desire have recognized this—that the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.
How, after all, can we convince ourselves to want the things we already have? THE STOICS THOUGHT they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus.5 It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.
In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, “we should love all of our dear ones …, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.”6 While enjoying the companionship of loved ones, then, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. If nothing else, our own death will end it.
This, however, is not what the Stoics had in mind when they advise us to live as if today were our last day. To them, living as if each day were our last is simply an extension of the negative visualization technique: As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity. This in turn will make it less likely that we will squander our days. In other words, when the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities. In particular, they don’t want us to stop thinking about or planning for tomorrow; instead they want us, as we think about and plan for tomorrow, to remember to appreciate today. Why, then, do the Stoics want us to contemplate our own death? Because doing so can dramatically enhance our enjoyment of life.
And besides contemplating the loss of our life, say the Stoics, we should contemplate the loss of our possessions. Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have. We would be much better off, Marcus says, to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours.12 Along these lines, we should think about how we would feel if we lost our material possessions, including our house, car, clothing, pets, and bank balance; how we would feel if we lost our abilities, including our ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe, and swallow; and how we would feel if we lost our freedom.
One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted. To them, the world is wonderfully new and surprising. Not only that, but they aren’t yet sure how the world works: Perhaps the things they have today will mysteriously vanish tomorrow. It is hard for them to take something for granted when they can’t even count on its continued existence. But as children grow older, they grow jaded. By the time they are teenagers, they are likely to take almost everything and everyone around them for granted. They might grumble about having to live the life they are living, in the home they happen to inhabit, with the parents and siblings they happen to have. And in a frightening number of cases, these children grow up to be adults who are not only unable to take delight in the world around them but seem proud of this inability. They will, at the drop of a hat, provide you with a long list of things about themselves and their life that they dislike and wish they could change, were it possible to do so, including their spouse, their children, their house, their job, their car, their age, their bank balance, their weight, the color of their hair, and the shape of their navel. Ask them what they appreciate about the world—ask them what, if anything, they are satisfied with—and they might, after some thought, reluctantly name a thing or two.
The negative visualization technique, by the way, can also be used in reverse: Besides imagining that the bad things that happened to others happen to us, we can imagine that the bad things that happen to us happened instead to others. In his Handbook, Epictetus advocates this sort of “projective visualization.” Suppose, he says, that our servant breaks a cup.15 We are likely to get angry and have our tranquility disrupted by the incident. One way to avert this anger is to think about how we would feel if the incident had happened to someone else instead. If we were at someone’s house and his servant broke a cup, we would be unlikely to get angry; indeed, we might try to calm our host by saying “It’s just a cup; these things happen.” Engaging in projective visualization, Epictetus believes, will make us appreciate the relative insignificance of the bad things that happen to us and will therefore prevent them from disrupting our tranquility.
AT THIS POINT, a non-Stoic might raise the following objection. The Stoics, as we have seen, advise us to pursue tranquility, and as part of their strategy for attaining it they advise us to engage in negative visualization. But isn’t this contradictory advice? Suppose, for example, that a Stoic is invited to a picnic. While the other picnickers are enjoying themselves, the Stoic will sit there, quietly contemplating ways the picnic could be ruined: “Maybe the potato salad is spoiled, and people will get food poisoning. Maybe someone will break an ankle playing softball. Maybe there will be a violent thunderstorm that will scatter the picnickers. Maybe I will be struck by lightning and die.” This sounds like no fun at all. But more to the point, it seems unlikely that a Stoic will gain tranquility as a result of entertaining such thoughts. To the contrary, he is likely to end up glum and anxiety-ridden. In response to this objection, let me point out that it is a mistake to think Stoics will spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes. It is instead something they will do periodically: 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. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and it is possible for us to conduct such exercises without its affecting our emotions. It is possible, for example, for a meteorologist to spend her days contemplating tornadoes without subsequently living in dread of being killed by one. In similar fashion, it is possible for a Stoic to contemplate bad things that can happen without becoming anxiety-ridden as a result. Finally, negative visualization, rather than making people glum, will increase the extent to which they enjoy the world around them, inasmuch as it will prevent them from taking that world for granted. Despite—or rather, because of—his (occasional) gloomy thoughts, the Stoic will likely enjoy the picnic far more than the other picnickers who refuse to entertain similarly gloomy thoughts; he will take delight in being part of an event that, he fully realizes, might not have taken place.
By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. Some people, I realize, will find it depressing or even morbid to contemplate impermanence. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.
IN HIS STATEMENT of the dichotomy of control, Epictetus suggests, quite sensibly, that we are behaving foolishly if we spend time worrying about things that are not up to us; because they are not up to us, worrying about them is futile. We should instead concern ourselves with things that are up to us, since we can take steps either to bring them about or prevent them from happening. On restating the dichotomy of control as a trichotomy, though, we must restate his advice regarding what is and isn’t sensible to worry about. To begin with, it makes sense for us to spend time and energy concerning ourselves with things over which we have complete control. In these cases, our efforts will have guaranteed results. Notice, too, that because of the degree of control we have over these things, it will generally require relatively little time and energy for us to make sure they come about. We would be foolish not to concern ourselves with them. What are the things over which we have complete control? In the passage quoted above, Epictetus says we have complete control over our opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions. I agree with Epictetus that we have complete control over our opinions, as long as we properly construe the meaning of opinion—more on this in a moment. I have qualms, though, about including our impulses, desires, and aversions in the category of things over which we have complete control. I would instead place them into the category of things over which we have some but not complete control, or, in some cases, into the category of things over which we have no control at all.
REMEMBER THAT AMONG the things over which we have complete control are the goals we set for ourselves. I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. 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). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted. It is worth noting at this point that playing to the best of your ability in a tennis match and winning that match are causally connected. In particular, what better way is there to win a tennis match than by playing to the best of your ability? The Stoics realized that our internal goals will affect our external performance, but they also realized that the goals we consciously set for ourselves can have a dramatic impact on our subsequent emotional state. In particular, if we consciously set winning a tennis match as our goal, we arguably don’t increase our chances of winning that match. In fact, we might even hurt our chances: If it starts looking, early on, as though we are going to lose the match, we might become flustered, and this might negatively affect our playing in the remainder of the game, thereby hurting our chances of winning. Furthermore, by having winning the match as our goal, we dramatically increase our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. If, on the other hand, we set playing our best in a match as our goal, we arguably don’t lessen our chances of winning the match, but we do lessen our chances of being upset by the outcome of the match. Thus, internalizing our goals with respect to tennis would appear to be a no-brainer: To set as our goal playing to the best of our ability has an upside—reduced emotional anguish in the future—with little or no downside.
Having said all this about the internalization of goals, let me pause here to offer a confession. In my studies of Epictetus and the other Stoics, I found little evidence that they advocate internalizing goals in the manner I have described, which raises questions about whether the Stoics in fact made use of the internalization technique. Nevertheless, I have attributed the technique to them, inasmuch as internalizing one’s goals is the obvious thing to do if one wishes, as the Stoics did, to concern oneself only with those things over which one has control and if one wishes to retain one’s tranquility while undertaking endeavors that might fail (in the external sense of the word). In talking about the internalization of goals, then, I might be guilty of tampering with or improving on Stoicism. As I shall explain in chapter 20, I have no qualms about doing this.
A practicing Stoic will keep the trichotomy of control firmly in mind as he goes about his daily affairs. He will perform a kind of triage in which he sorts the elements of his life into three categories: those over which he has complete control, those over which he has no control at all, and those over which he has some but not complete control. The things in the second category—those over which he has no control at all—he will set aside as not worth worrying about. In doing this, he will spare himself a great deal of needless anxiety. He will instead concern himself with things over which he has complete control and things over which he has some but not complete control. And when he concerns himself with things in this last category, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals for himself and will thereby avoid a considerable amount of frustration and
THIS LEAVES US, of course, with a puzzle: Although the Stoics advocate fatalism, they seem not to have practiced it. What are we to make, then, of their advice that we take a fatalistic attitude toward the things that happen to us? To solve this puzzle, we need to distinguish between fatalism with respect to the future and fatalism with respect to the past. When a person is fatalistic with respect to the future, she will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on future events. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about the future or trying to alter it. When a person is fatalistic with respect to the past, she adopts this same attitude toward past events. She will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on the past. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about how the past might be different. When the Stoics advocate fatalism, they are, I think, advocating a restricted form of the doctrine. More precisely, they are advising us to be fatalistic with respect to the past, to keep firmly in mind that the past cannot be changed. Thus, the Stoics would not counsel a mother with a sick child to be fatalistic with respect to the future; she should try to nurse the child back to health (even though the Fates have already decided whether the child lives or dies). But if the child dies, they will counsel this woman to be fatalistic with respect to the past. It is only natural, even for a Stoic, to experience grief after the death of a child. But to dwell on that death is a waste of time and emotions, inasmuch as the past cannot be changed. Dwelling on the child’s death will therefore cause the woman needless grief.
BESIDES RECOMMENDING that we be fatalistic with respect to the past, the Stoics, I think, advocate fatalism with respect to the present. It is clear, after all, that we cannot, through our actions, affect the present, if by the present we mean this very moment. It may be possible for me to act in a way that affects what happens in a decade, a day, a minute, or even a half-second from now; it is impossible, however, for me to act in a way that alters what is happening right now, since as soon as I act to affect what is happening right now, that moment in time will have slipped into the past and therefore cannot be affected. In their advocacy of fatalism, then, the Stoics were advising us to be fatalistic, not with respect to the future but with respect to the past and present. In support of this interpretation of Stoic fatalism, it is useful to reconsider some of the Stoic advice quoted above. When Epictetus advises us to want events “to happen as they do happen,” he is giving us advice regarding events that do happen—that either have happened or are happening—not advice regarding events that will happen.
The fatalism advocated by the Stoics is in a sense the reverse, or one might say the mirror image, of negative visualization: Instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better. In behaving fatalistically with respect to the past and present, we refuse to compare our situation with alternative, preferable situations in which we might have found or might now find ourselves. By doing this, the Stoics think, we will make our current situation, whatever it may be, more tolerable.
MY DISCUSSION OF FATALISM in this chapter and of negative visualization in chapter 4 might make readers worry that the practice of Stoicism will lead to complacency. Readers might admit that the Stoics will be unusually satisfied with what they have, whatever it may be—a blessing, to be sure. But won’t the Stoics, as a result, be terribly unambitious? In response to this concern, let me remind readers that the Stoics we have been considering were notably ambitious. Seneca, as we’ve seen, had an active life as a philosopher, playwright, investor, and political advisor. Musonius Rufus and Epictetus both ran successful schools of philosophy. And Marcus, when he wasn’t philosophizing, was hard at work ruling the Roman Empire. These individuals were, if anything, overachievers. It is indeed curious: Although they would have been satisfied with next to nothing, they nevertheless strove for something. Here is how Stoics would explain this seeming paradox. Stoic philosophy, while teaching us to be satisfied with whatever we’ve got, also counsels us to seek certain things in life. We should, for example, strive to become better people—to become virtuous in the ancient sense of the word. We should strive to practice Stoicism in our daily life. And we should, as we shall see in chapter 9, strive to do our social duty: This is why Seneca and Marcus felt compelled to participate in Roman government and why Musonius and Epictetus felt compelled to teach Stoicism. Furthermore, the Stoics see nothing wrong with our taking steps to enjoy the circumstances in which we find ourselves; indeed, Seneca advises us to be “attentive to all the advantages that adorn life.”6 We might, as a result, get married and have children. We might also form and enjoy friendships.
Will the Stoics seek fame and fortune? They will not. The Stoics thought these things had no real value and consequently thought it foolish to pursue them, particularly if doing so disrupted our tranquility or required us to act in an unvirtuous manner. This indifference to worldly success, I realize, will make them seem unmotivated to modern individuals who spend their days working hard in an attempt to attain (a degree of) fame and fortune. But having said this, I should add that although the Stoics didn’t seek worldly success, they often gained it anyway.
Musonius takes this technique one step further: He thinks that besides living as if bad things had happened to us, we should sometimes cause them to happen. In particular, 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.
OF THE STOIC TECHNIQUES I have discussed in part 2 of this book, the self-denial technique described in this chapter is doubtless the hardest to practice. It won’t be fun, for example, for a Stoic, because he is practicing poverty, to ride the bus when he could be driving his car. It won’t be fun going out into a winter storm with only a light jacket on just so he can feel uncomfortably cold. And it certainly won’t be fun saying no to the ice cream someone has offered him—and saying it not because he is on a diet but so he can practice refusing something he would enjoy. Indeed, a novice Stoic will have to summon up all his willpower to do such things. What Stoics discover, though, is that 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. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. They will, as a result, be thoroughly in control of themselves. This self-control makes it far more likely that they will attain the goals of their philosophy of life, and this in turn dramatically increases their chances of living a good life.
This last pleasure, to be sure, is utterly unlike the pleasure that comes from eating ice cream, but it is nevertheless a genuine pleasure. Furthermore, if we paused to do a careful cost-benefit analysis before eating the ice cream—if we weighed the costs and benefits of eating it against the costs and benefits of not eating it—we might find that the sensible thing for us to do, if we wish to maximize our pleasure, is not eat it. It is for just this reason that Epictetus counsels us, when contemplating whether or not to take advantage of opportunities for pleasure, to engage in this sort of analysis.13 Along similar lines, suppose we follow Stoic advice to simplify our diet. We might discover that such a diet, although lacking in various gastronomic pleasures, is the source of a pleasure of an entirely different sort: “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 pleasure from this sort of food.”14 Leave it to the Stoics to realize that the act of forgoing pleasure can itself be pleasant. They were, as I’ve said, some of the most insightful psychologists of their time.
TO HELP US ADVANCE our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them. He attributes this technique to his teacher Sextius, who, at bedtime, would ask himself, “What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?”1
What, then, is the function of man? Our primary function, the Stoics thought, is to be rational. To discover our secondary functions, we need only apply our reasoning ability. What we will discover is that we were designed to live among other people and interact with them in a manner that is mutually advantageous; we will discover, says Musonius, that “human nature is very much like that of bees. A bee is not able to live alone: it perishes when isolated.”3 We will likewise discover that, as Marcus puts it, “fellowship is the purpose behind our creation.” Thus, a person who performs well the function of man will be both rational and social.4 To fulfill my social duty—to do my duty to my kind—I must feel a concern for all mankind. I must remember that we humans were created for one another, that we were born, says Marcus, to work together the way our hands or eyelids do. Therefore, in all I do, I must have as my goal “the service and harmony of all.” More precisely, “I am bound to do good to my fellow-creatures and bear with them.”5
And when I do my social duty, says Marcus, I should do so quietly and efficiently. Ideally, a Stoic will be oblivious to the services he does for others, as oblivious as a grapevine is when it yields a cluster of grapes to a vintner. He will not pause to boast about the service he has performed but will move on to perform his next service, the way the grape vine moves on to bear more grapes. Thus, Marcus advises us to perform with resoluteness the duties we humans were created to perform. Nothing else, he says, should distract us. Indeed, when we awaken in the morning, rather than lazily lying in bed, we should tell ourselves that we must get up to do the proper work of man, the work we were created to perform.6
Marcus suggests that when we know our death is at hand, we can ease our anguish on leaving this world by taking a moment to reflect on all the annoying people we will no longer have to deal with when we are gone. We should also, he says, reflect on the fact that when we die, many of the companions we worked so hard to serve will be delighted by our passing. His disgust for his fellow humans is nicely summarized in the following passage: “Eating, sleeping, copulating, excreting, and the like; what a crew they are!”
Besides advising us to avoid people with vices, Seneca advises us to avoid people who are simply whiny, “who are melancholy and bewail everything, who find pleasure in every opportunity for complaint.” He justifies this avoidance by observing that a companion “who is always upset and bemoans everything is a foe to tranquility.”4 (In his famous dictionary, by the way, Samuel Johnson includes a wonderful term for these individuals: A seeksorrow, he explains, is “one who contrives to give himself vexation.”)
WHAT ABOUT those occasions on which, in order to do our social duty, we must deal with annoying people? How can we prevent them from disturbing our tranquility? Marcus recommends that when we interact with an annoying person, we keep in mind that there are doubtless people who find us to be annoying. More generally, when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him. When dealing with an annoying person, it also helps to keep in mind that our annoyance at what he does will almost invariably be more detrimental to us than whatever it is he is doing.7 In other words, by letting ourselves become annoyed, we only make things worse.
But having said all this, I should add that despite their misgivings about sex, the Stoics were big advocates of marriage. A wise man, Musonius says, will marry, and having married, he and his wife will work hard to keep each other happy. Indeed, in a good marriage, two people will join in a loving union and will try to outdo each other in the care they show for each other.18 Such a marriage, one imagines, will be very happy. And having married, a wise man will bring children into the world. No religious procession, Musonius says, is as beautiful as a group of children guiding their parents through the city, leading them by the hand and taking care of them.19 Few people, Musonius would have us believe, are happier than the person who has both a loving spouse and devoted children.
WHEN INSULTED, people typically become angry. Because anger is a negative emotion that can upset our tranquility, the Stoics thought it worthwhile to develop strategies to prevent insults from angering us—strategies for removing, as it were, the sting of an insult. One of their sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset. Suppose, for example, that someone mocks us for being bald when we in fact are bald: “Why is it an insult,” Seneca asks, “to be told what is self-evident?”3 Another sting-elimination strategy, suggested by Epictetus, is to pause to consider how well-informed the insulter is. He might be saying something bad about us not because he wants to hurt our feelings but because he sincerely believes what he is saying, or, at any rate, he might simply be reporting how things seem to him.4 Rather than getting angry at this person for his honesty, we should calmly set him straight. One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn’t upset me. Suppose, for example, that I am learning to play the banjo and that the person who is criticizing my playing is the skilled musician I have hired as my teacher. In this case, I am paying the person to criticize me. It would be utterly foolish, under these circumstances, for me to respond to his criticisms with hurt feelings. To the contrary, if I am serious about learning the banjo, I should thank him for criticizing me. Suppose, however, that I don’t respect the source of an insult; indeed, suppose that I take him to be a thoroughly contemptible individual. Under such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel relieved: If he disapproves of what I am doing, then what I am doing is doubtless the right thing to do. What should worry me is if this contemptible person approved of what I am doing. If I say anything at all in response to his insults, the most appropriate comment would be, “I’m relieved that you feel that way about me.” When we consider the sources of insults, says Seneca, we will often find that those who insult us can best be described as overgrown children.5 In the same way that a mother would be foolish to let the “insults” of her toddler upset her, we would be foolish to let the insults of these childish adults upset us. In other cases, we will find that those insulting us have deeply flawed characters. Such people, says Marcus, rather than deserving our anger, deserve our pity.
Do the things that happen to me help or harm me? It all depends, say the Stoics, on my values. They would go on to remind me that my values are things over which I have complete control. Therefore, if something external harms me, it is my own fault: I should have adopted different values.
Refusing to respond to an insult is, paradoxically, one of the most effective responses possible. For one thing, as Seneca points out, our nonresponse can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result.16 Notice, too, that by not responding to an insulter, we are showing him and anyone who is watching that we simply don’t have time for the childish behavior of this person. If a humorous response to an insult shows that we don’t take the insulter seriously, a nonresponse to an insult makes it look as if we are indifferent to the existence of the insulter: Not only don’t we take him seriously, but we don’t take him at all! No one wants to be ignored, though, and the insulter is likely to feel humiliated by our failure to respond to him—not with a counterinsult, not even with humor!
The Stoics realized this and offered advice on how to deal with such persons. In the same way that a mother might admonish or punish the child who pulled her hair, we will, in some cases, want to admonish or punish the person who childishly insults us. Thus, if a student insults her teacher in front of the class, the teacher would be unwise to ignore the insult. The insulter and her peers might, after all, interpret the teacher’s nonresponse as acquiescence and as a result unleash a barrage of insults against him. This behavior would obviously disrupt the classroom and make it difficult for students to learn. In such cases, though, the Stoic needs to keep in mind that he is punishing the insulter not because she has wronged him but to correct her improper behavior. It is, says Seneca, like training an animal: 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.17 W
How much should a Stoic grieve? In proper grief, Seneca tells Polybius, our reason “will maintain a mean which will copy neither indifference nor madness, and will keep us in the state that is the mark of an affectionate, and not an unbalanced, mind.” Consequently, he advises Polybius to “let your tears flow, but let them also cease, let deepest sighs be drawn from your breast, but let them also find an end.”2
THE STOICS’ PRIMARY grief-prevention strategy was to engage in negative visualization. By contemplating the deaths of those we love, we will remove some of the shock we experience if they die; we will in a sense have seen it coming. Furthermore, if we contemplate the deaths of those we love, we will likely take full advantage of our relationships with them and therefore won’t, if they die, find ourselves filled with regrets about all the things we could and should have done with and for them.
Besides being used to prevent grief, negative visualization can be used to extinguish it. Consider, for example, the advice Seneca gives to Marcia, a woman who, three years after the death of her son, was as grief-stricken as on the day she buried him. Rather than spending her days thinking bitterly about the happiness she has been deprived of by the death of her son, Marcia should, says Seneca, think about how much worse off she would be today if she had never been able to enjoy his company. In other words, rather than mourning the end of his life, she should be thankful that he lived at all.4 This is what might be called retrospective negative visualization. In normal, prospective negative visualization, we imagine losing something we currently possess; in retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never having had something that we have lost. By engaging in retrospective negative visualization, Seneca thinks, we can replace our feelings of regret at having lost something with feelings of thanks for once having had it.
Seneca then sets about using rational persuasion to cure Polybius of his excessive grief. For example, he argues that the brother whose death Polybius is grieving either would or wouldn’t want Polybius to be tortured with tears. If he would want Polybius to suffer, then he isn’t worthy of tears, so Polybius should stop crying; if he wouldn’t want Polybius to suffer, then it is incumbent on Polybius, if he loves and respects his brother, to stop crying. In another argument, Seneca points out that Polybius’s brother, because he is dead, is no longer capable of grief and that this is a good thing; it is therefore madness for Polybius to go on grieving.
Anger, says Seneca, is “brief insanity,” and the damage done by anger is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.” Because of anger, he says, we see all around us people being killed, poisoned, and sued; we see cities and nations ruined. And besides destroying cities and nations, anger can destroy us individually. We live in a world, after all, in which there is much to be angry about, meaning that unless we can learn to control our anger, we will be perpetually angry. Being angry, Seneca concludes, is a waste of precious time.
SENECA OFFERS lots of specific advice on how to prevent anger. We should, he says, fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and our tendency to jump to conclusions about their motivations. We need to keep in mind that just because things don’t turn out the way we want them to, it doesn’t follow that someone has done us an injustice. In particular, says Seneca, we need to remember that in some cases, the person at whom we are angry in fact helped us; in such cases, what angers us is that he didn’t help us even more.
Marcus also offers advice on anger avoidance. He recommends, as we have seen, that we contemplate the impermanence of the world around us. If we do this, he says, we will realize that many of the things we think are important in fact aren’t, at least not in the grand scheme of things. He reflects on the times, almost a century earlier, of Emperor Vespasian. People everywhere were doing the usual things: marrying, raising children, farming, loving, envying, fighting, and feasting. But, he points out, “of all that life, not a trace survives today.”9 By implication, this will be the fate of our generation: What seems vitally important to us will seem unimportant to our grandchildren. Thus, when we feel ourselves getting angry about something, we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Doing this might enable us to nip our anger in the bud.
It will help us to overcome our anger, says Seneca, if we remind ourselves that our behavior also angers other people: “We are bad men living among bad men, and only one thing can calm us—we must agree to go easy on one another.” He also offers anger-management advice that has a parallel in Buddhism. When angry, says Seneca, we should take steps to “turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.” We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated.10 Buddhists
What if we are unable to control our anger? Indeed, what if we find ourselves lashing out at whoever angered us? We should apologize. Doing this can almost instantly repair the social damage our outburst might have caused. It can also benefit us personally: The act of apologizing, besides having a calming effect on us, can prevent us from subsequently obsessing over the thing that made us angry. Finally, apologizing for the outburst can help us become a better person: By admitting our mistakes, we lessen the chance that we will make them again in the future.
Such cases, the Stoics would tell us, are tragic. For one thing, life is too short to spend it in a state of anger. Furthermore, a person who is constantly angry will be a torment to those around her. Why not instead, Seneca asks, “make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure?”12 More generally, why experience anti-joy when you have it in your power to experience joy? Why, indeed?
Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor. Epictetus therefore advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. We will, he says, have enslaved ourselves.
Marcus agrees with Epictetus that it is foolish for us to worry about what other people think of us and particularly foolish for us to seek the approval of people whose values we reject. Our goal should therefore be to become indifferent to other people’s opinions of us. He adds that if we can succeed in doing this, we will improve the quality of our life.4 Notice that the advice that we ignore what other people think of us is consistent with the Stoic advice that we not concern ourselves with things we can’t control. I don’t have it in my power to stop others from sneering at me, so it is foolish for me to spend time trying to stop them. I should instead, says Marcus, spend this time on something I have complete control over, namely, not doing anything that deserves a sneer.
One way to overcome this obsession, the Stoics think, is to realize that in order to win the admiration of other people, we will have to adopt their values. More precisely, we will have to live a life that is successful according to their notion of success. (If we are living what they take to be an unsuccessful life, they will have no reason to admire us.) Consequently, before we try to win the admiration of these other people, we should stop to ask whether their notion of success is compatible with ours. More important, we should stop to ask whether these people, by pursuing whatever it is they value, are gaining the tranquility we seek. If they aren’t, we should be more than willing to forgo their admiration.
EVEN THOUGH SHE DOESN’T pursue wealth, a Stoic might nevertheless acquire it. A Stoic will, after all, do what she can to make herself useful to her fellow humans. And thanks to her practice of Stoicism, she will be self-disciplined and single-minded, traits that will help her accomplish the tasks she sets for herself. As a result, she might be quite effective in helping others, and they might reward her for doing so. It is possible, in other words, for the practice of Stoicism to be financially rewarding. Suppose that this Stoic—thanks, once again, to her practice of Stoicism—has also lost interest in luxurious living and, more generally, has overcome her craving for consumer goods. As a result, she is likely to retain a large portion of her income and might thereby become wealthy. It is indeed ironic: A Stoic who disparages wealth might become wealthier than those individuals whose principal goal is its acquisition. The Roman Stoics we have been considering appear to have experienced this prosperity paradox. Seneca and Marcus were beyond wealthy, and Musonius and Epictetus, as heads of successful Stoic schools, would presumably have been financially comfortable. (Indeed, Musonius’s income was sufficient, as we have seen, for him to be able to give money to a philosophical imposter.)
Stoicism does not require her to renounce wealth; it allows her to enjoy it and use it to the benefit of herself and those around her. It does, however, require her enjoyment to be thoughtful. She must keep firmly in mind that her wealth can be snatched from her; indeed, she should spend time preparing herself for the loss of it—by, for example, periodically practicing poverty. She must also keep in mind that unless she is careful, enjoyment of her wealth can undermine her character and her capacity to enjoy life. She will, for this reason, steer clear of a luxurious lifestyle. Thus, the Stoic’s enjoyment of wealth will be strikingly different from that of, say, the typical person who has just won the lottery. We need to keep in mind the difference between the Cynics and the Stoics. Cynicism requires its adherents to live in abject poverty; Stoicism does not. As Seneca reminds us, Stoic philosophy “calls for plain living, but not for penance.”22 More generally, it is perfectly acceptable, says Seneca, for a Stoic to acquire wealth, as long as he does not harm others to obtain it. It is also acceptable for a Stoic to enjoy wealth, as long as he is careful not to cling to it. The idea is that it is possible to enjoy something and at the same time be indifferent to it. Thus, Seneca claims, “I shall despise riches alike when I have them and when I have them not, being neither cast down if they shall lie elsewhere, nor puffed up if they shall glitter around me.” Indeed, a wise man “never reflects so much upon poverty as when he abides in the midst of riches,” and he will be careful to regard his riches as his slave, not as his master.23 (And
To endure and even thrive in exile, Musonius says, a person must keep in mind that his happiness depends more on his values than on where he resides. Indeed, Musonius views himself as a citizen not of Rome but of “the city of Zeus which is populated by human beings and gods.”6 He points out that even in exile we can associate with others and that our true friends will not refuse to associate with us just because we have been exiled. If those in exile find themselves lacking things, he asserts, it is because they seek to live in luxury. Furthermore, those in exile have something that those in Rome lack—namely, freedom to speak their mind.
The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation. More precisely, they thought the first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The second step in transforming a society is to change people’s external circumstances. The Stoics would add that if we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life.
IF MODERN PSYCHOLOGY and politics have been unkind to Stoicism, so has modern philosophy. Before the twentieth century, those who were exposed to philosophy would likely have read the Stoics. In the twentieth century, though, philosophers not only lost interest in Stoicism but lost interest, more generally, in philosophies of life. It was possible, as my own experience demonstrates, to spend a decade taking philosophy classes without having read the Stoics and without having spent time considering philosophies of life, much less adopting one.
If you had gone to Epictetus and said, “I want to live a good life. What should I do?” he would have had an answer for you: “Live in accordance with nature.” He would then have told you, in great detail, how to do this. If, by way of contrast, you went to a twentieth-century analytic philosopher and asked the same question, he probably would have responded not by answering the question you asked but by analyzing the question itself: “The answer to your question depends on what you mean by ‘a good life,’ which in turn depends on what you mean by ‘good’ and ‘a life.’” He might then walk you through all the things you could conceivably mean in asking how to live a good life and explain why each of these meanings is logically muddled. His conclusion: It makes no sense to ask how to live a good life. When this philosopher had finished speaking, you might be impressed with his flair for philosophical analysis, but you might also conclude, with good reason, that he himself lacked a coherent philosophy of life.
Having said this, I should add that the word sacrifice, as I have just used it, is a bit misleading. The Stoics, while doing their social duty, will not think in terms of sacrifice. Ideally, they will, as a result of practicing Stoicism, want to do what their social duty requires them to do. If this sounds strange, think about the duties involved in parenting. Parents do lots of things for their children, but Stoic parents—and, I suspect, good parents in general—don’t think of parenting as a burdensome task requiring endless sacrifice; instead, they think about how wonderful it is that they have children and can make a positive difference in the lives of these children.
To develop and refine their strategy for attaining tranquility, the Stoics became keen observers of humanity. They sought to determine what sorts of things disrupt people’s tranquility, how people can avoid having their tranquility disrupted by these things, and how they can quickly restore their tranquility when, despite their efforts, it is disrupted. On the basis of these investigations, the Stoics produced a body of advice for anyone seeking tranquility. Among their recommendations were the following: • We should become self-aware: We should observe ourselves as we go about our daily business, and we should periodically reflect on how we responded to the day’s events. How did we respond to an insult? To the loss of a possession? To a stressful situation? Did we, in our responses, put Stoic psychological strategies to work? • We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions. We should also use our reasoning ability to master our desires, to the extent that it is possible to do so. In particular, we should use reason to convince ourselves that things such as fame and fortune aren’t worth having—not, at any rate, if what we seek is tranquility—and therefore aren’t worth pursuing. Likewise, we should use our reasoning ability to convince ourselves that even though certain activities are pleasurable, engaging in those activities will disrupt our tranquility, and the tranquility lost will outweigh the pleasure gained. • If, despite not having pursued wealth, we find ourselves wealthy, we should enjoy our affluence; it was the Cynics, not the Stoics, who advocated asceticism. But although we should enjoy wealth, we should not cling to it; indeed, even as we enjoy it, we should contemplate its loss. • We are social creatures; we will be miserable if we try to cut off contact with other people. Therefore, if what we seek is tranquility, we should form and maintain relations with others. In doing so, though, we should be careful about whom we befriend. We should also, to the extent possible, avoid people whose values are corrupt, for fear that their values will contaminate ours. • Other people are invariably annoying, though, so if we maintain relations with them, they will periodically upset our tranquility—if we let them. The Stoics spent a considerable amount of time devising techniques for taking the pain out of our relationships with other people. In particular, they came up with techniques for dealing with the insults of others and preventing them from angering us. • The Stoics pointed to two principal sources of human unhappiness—our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control—and they developed techniques for removing these sources of unhappiness from our life. • To conquer our insatiability, the Stoics advise us to engage in negative visualization. We should contemplate the impermanence of all things. We should imagine ourselves losing the things we most value, including possessions and loved ones.…
their proof of Stoicism, the Stoics first observe that Zeus created us and in doing so made us different from the other animals by giving us reason. Because he cares about us, Zeus wanted to design us so that we would always be happy, but he lacked the power to do so. Instead, he did for us what he could: He gave us the means to make life not just endurable but enjoyable. More precisely, he designed for us a pattern of living that, if followed, would enable us to flourish. The Stoics used their reasoning ability to discover this pattern of living. They then designed a philosophy of life that, if followed, would enable us to live in accordance with this pattern—in accordance, as they put it, with nature—and thereby to flourish. In conclusion, if we live in accordance with Stoic principles, we will have the best life it is possible for a human to have. QED.
It is also because of evolutionary processes that we possess the ability to experience fear: Our evolutionary ancestors who feared lions were less likely to be eaten by one than those who were indifferent to them. Likewise, our tendency to experience anxiety and insatiability is a consequence of our evolutionary past. Our evolutionary ancestors who felt anxious about whether they had enough food were less likely to starve than those who didn’t worry about where their next meal was coming from. Similarly, our evolutionary ancestors who were never satisfied with what they had, who always wanted more food or better shelter, were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who were easily satisfied. Our ability to experience pleasure also has an evolutionary explanation. Why, for example, does sex feel good? Because our evolutionary ancestors who found sex to be pleasurable were far more likely to reproduce than those who were indifferent to sex or, even worse, found it to be unpleasant. We inherited the genes of those ancestors for whom sex felt good, and as a result we also find it to be pleasurable.
Although our evolutionary programming helped us flourish as a species, it has in many respects outlived its usefulness. Consider, for example, the pain we might experience when someone publicly insults us. I have given an evolutionary explanation for this pain: We experience it because our evolutionary ancestors who cared deeply about gaining and retaining social status were more likely to survive and reproduce than our ancestors who were indifferent to social status and who, therefore, didn’t experience pain on being insulted. But the world has changed dramatically since our ancestors roamed the savannas of Africa. Today it is quite possible to survive despite having low social status; even if others despise us, the law prevents them from taking our food from us or driving us from our home. Furthermore, low social status is no longer an impediment to reproduction; indeed, in many parts of the world, men and women with low social status have higher rates of reproduction than men and women with high social status. If our goal is not merely to survive and reproduce but to enjoy a tranquil existence, the pain associated with a loss of social status isn’t just useless, it is counterproductive. As we go about our daily affairs, other people, because of their evolutionary programming, will work, often unconsciously, to gain social status. As a result, they will be inclined to snub us, insult us, or, more generally, do things to put us in our place, socially speaking. Their actions can have the effect of disrupting our tranquility—if we let them. What we must do, in these cases, is use—more precisely, “misuse”—our intellect to override the evolutionary programming that makes insults painful to us. We must, in other words, use our reasoning ability to remove the emotional sting of insults and thereby make them less disruptive to our tranquility.
Consider, finally, anxiety. We are evolutionarily programmed, as we have seen, to be worriers: Our evolutionary ancestors who, instead of worrying about where their next meal was coming from and about the source of that growling noise in the trees, sat around blissfully enjoying the sunset probably didn’t live to a ripe old age. But most modern individuals—in developed countries, at any rate—live in a remarkably safe and predictable environment; there are no growling noises in the trees, and we can be reasonably certain that our next meal is forthcoming. There is simply much less for us to worry about. Nevertheless, we retain our ancestors’ tendency to worry. What we must do, if we wish to gain tranquility, is “misuse” our intellect to overcome this tendency. In particular, we can, in accordance with Stoic advice, determine which are the things we cannot control. We can then use our reasoning ability to eradicate our anxieties with respect to these things. Doing this will improve our chances of gaining tranquility.
There are other people who, because of their personality, would find it psychologically challenging to practice Stoicism. These individuals simply refuse to consider the possibility that they are the source of their own discontent. They spend their days waiting, often impatiently, for the one thing to happen that will make them feel good about themselves and their lives. The missing ingredient, they are convinced, is something external to them: It is something that someone must hand to them or do for them. The thing in question might be a certain job, a certain sum of money, or a certain form of cosmetic surgery. They are also convinced that when this missing ingredient is provided, their dissatisfaction with life will be remedied and they will live happily ever after. If you suggest to one of these chronic malcontents that she try Stoicism, she will likely dig in her heels and refuse the suggestion: “It can’t work!” Such cases are tragic; the innate pessimism of these individuals prevents them from taking steps to overcome their pessimism and thereby dramatically reduces their chances of experiencing joy.
I am a relentlessly analytical person. For Zen to work for me, I would have to abandon my analytical nature. Stoicism, though, expects me to put my analytical nature to work. As a result, for me the cost of practicing Stoicism is considerably less than the cost of practicing Zen. I would probably be miserable trying to solve koans or trying to sit for hours with an empty mind, but for other people, this won’t be the case.
It is my experience that negative visualization is to daily living as salt is to cooking. Although it requires minimal time, energy, and talent for a cook to add salt to food, the taste of almost any food he adds it to will be enhanced as a result. In much the same way, although practicing negative visualization requires minimal time, energy, and talent, those who practice it will find that their capacity to enjoy life is significantly enhanced. You might find yourself, after engaging in negative visualization, embracing the very life that, a short time before, you had complained wasn’t worth living.
AFTER MASTERING negative visualization, a novice Stoic should move on to become proficient in applying the trichotomy of control, described in chapter 5. According to the Stoics, we should perform a kind of triage in which we distinguish between things we have no control over, things we have complete control over, and things we have some but not complete control over; and having made this distinction, we should focus our attention on the last two categories. In particular, we waste our time and cause ourselves needless anxiety if we concern ourselves with things over which we have no control.
As a Stoic novice, you will want, as part of becoming proficient in applying the trichotomy of control, to practice internalizing your goals. Instead of having winning a tennis match as your goal, for example, make it your goal to prepare for the match as best you can and to try your hardest in the match. By routinely internalizing your goals, you can reduce (but probably not eliminate) what would otherwise be a significant source of distress in your life: the feeling that you have failed to accomplish some goal. In your practice of Stoicism, you will also want, in conjunction with applying the trichotomy of control, to become a psychological fatalist about the past and the present—but not about the future.
Self-deprecating humor has become my standard response to insults. When someone criticizes me, I reply that matters are even worse than he is suggesting. If, for example, someone suggests that I am lazy, I reply that it is a miracle that I get any work done at all. If someone accuses me of having a big ego, I reply that on most days it is noon before I become aware that anyone else inhabits the planet. Such responses may seem counterproductive since in offering them, I am in a sense validating the insulter’s criticisms of me. But by offering such responses, I make it clear to the insulter that I have enough confidence in who I am to be impervious to his insults; for me, they are a laughing matter. Furthermore, by refusing to play the insult game—by refusing to respond to an insult with a counterinsult—I make it clear that I regard myself as being above such behavior. My refusal to play the insult game will likely irritate the insulter more than a counterinsult would.
It is one thing to vent anger (or better still, feign anger) with the goal of modifying someone’s behavior: People do respond to anger. What I have discovered, though, is that a significant portion of the anger I vent can’t be explained in these terms. When I am driving my car, for example, I periodically get angry—righteously, I think—at other drivers who drive incompetently, and sometimes I even yell at them. Since my windows and theirs are rolled up, the other drivers can’t hear me and therefore can’t respond to my anger by not doing again in the future whatever it was that made me mad. This anger, although righteous, is utterly pointless. By venting it, I accomplish nothing other than to disturb my own tranquility. In other cases, although I am (righteously) angry at someone, I cannot, because of my circumstances, express my anger directly to him, so instead I find myself having black thoughts about him. Again, these feelings of anger are pointless: They disturb me but have no impact at all on the person at whom I am angry. Indeed, if anything, they serve to compound the harm he does me. What a waste!
WHENEVER YOU UNDERTAKE an activity in which public failure is a possibility, you are likely to experience butterflies in your stomach. I mentioned above that since becoming a Stoic, I have become a collector of insults. I have also become a collector of butterflies. I like to engage in activities, such as competitive rowing, that give me butterflies simply so I can practice dealing with them. These feelings are, after all, an important component of the fear of failure, so that by dealing with them I am working to overcome my fear of failure. In the hours before a race, I experience some truly magnificent butterflies. I do my best to turn them to my advantage: They make me focus on the race that lies ahead. Once a race has begun, I have the pleasure of watching the butterflies depart.
WHEN DOING THINGS to cause myself physical and mental discomfort, 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. My other self lacks self-discipline; left to his own devices, he will always take the path of least resistance through life and as a result will be little more than a simple-minded pleasure seeker. He is also a coward. My other self is not my friend; to the contrary, he is best regarded, in the words of Epictetus, “as an enemy lying in wait.”4 To win points in the contest with my other self, I must establish my dominance over him. To do this, I must cause him to experience discomfort he could easily have avoided, and I must prevent him from experiencing pleasures he might otherwise have enjoyed. When he is scared of doing something, I must force him to confront his fears and overcome them. Why play this game against my other self? In part to gain self-discipline. And why is self-discipline worth possessing? Because those who possess it have the ability to determine what they do with their life. Those who lack self-discipline will have the path they take through life determined by someone or something else, and as a result, there is a very real danger that they will mislive.