Just like Epictetus’ The Manual, this book is an amazing first step in the World of Stoicism. William Irvine did an amazing job at condensing the heart of Stoic knowledge and making it very accessible. I also enjoyed that he drew some comparisons with Buddhism, as the two philosophies share many ideas.
Overall, a great read, with practical tips on how you can learn to become more Stoic and thus, get more out of life.
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What is Stoicism?
Philosophy to help enjoy life more
According to Epicurus, for example, “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.”
He also asserts that someone who practices Stoic principles “must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys”
Unlike Cynicism, Stoicism does not require its adherents to adopt an ascetic lifestyle. To the contrary, the Stoics thought there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things life has to offer, as long as we are careful in the manner in which we enjoy them. In particular, we must be ready to give up the good things without regret if our circumstances should change
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.”
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.
Dealing with hedonic adaptation
As thoughtful people throughout recorded history and across cultures have realized: For each desire we fulfill in accordance, a new desire will pop into our head to take its place. This means that no matter how hard we work to satisfy our desires, we will be no closer to satisfaction than if we had fulfilled none of them. We will, in other words, remain dissatisfied.
In particular, we need to take steps to slow down the desire-formation process within us. Rather than working to fulfill whatever desires we find in our head, we need to work at preventing certain desires from forming and eliminating many of the desires that have formed. And rather than wanting new things, we need to work at wanting the things we already have.
Appreciate what you have and know that it may be gone soon (Negative Visualization)
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.
Thus, Epictetus counsels that when we say good-bye to a friend, we should silently remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. If we do this, we will be less likely to take our friends for granted, and as a result, we will probably derive far more pleasure from friendships than we otherwise would.
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.
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.
Besides contemplating bad things happening, we should sometimes live as if they had happened. In particular, instead of merely thinking about what it would be like to lose our wealth, we should periodically “practice poverty”: We should, that is, content ourselves with “the scantiest and cheapest fare” and with “coarse and rough dress.”
Musonius would argue, that someone who tries to avoid all discomfort is less likely to be comfortable than someone who periodically embraces discomfort. The latter individual is likely to have a much wider “comfort zone” than the former and will therefore feel comfortable under circumstances that would cause the former individual considerable distress.
Amor Fati (Love your Fate)
We must learn to welcome whatever falls to our lot and persuade ourselves that whatever happens to us is for the best. Indeed, according to Marcus, a good man will welcome “every experience the looms of fate may weave for him”.
You will realize that inasmuch as the past and present cannot be changed, it is pointless to wish they could be different. You will do your best to accept the past, whatever it might have been, and to embrace the present, whatever it might be.
Focus on what you can control (internal vs external)
Epictetus says, we should, rather than wanting events to conform to our desires, make our desires conform to events; we should, in other words, want events “to happen as they do happen.”
Always to seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, to change my desires rather than the established order, and generally to believe that nothing except our thoughts is wholly under our control, so that after we have done our best in external matters, what remains to be done is absolutely impossible, at least as far as we are concerned.
Don’t give a damn about others’ opinions
A good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest
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.
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.
Practicing not giving a damn
Cato consciously did things to trigger the disdain of other people simply so he could practice ignoring their disdain
Dealing with Insults
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
- If I I don’t respect the source […]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
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.
Internalize your goals
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
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?
A Stoic’s mind, will be quite active during a bedtime meditation. He will think about the events of the day. Did something disrupt his tranquility? Did he experience anger? Envy? Lust? Why did the day’s events upset him? Is there something he could have done to avoid getting upset?