William B. Irvine | Stoicism

About William B. Irvine
William B. Irvine holds a PhD in Philosophy from UCLA and has been teaching at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, since 1983. He describes himself as “a philosophy professor who not only teaches, thinks, and writes about philosophy, but who practices the ancient philosophy known as Stoicism.” Irvine’s first book on Stoicism, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, was published in 2008. His most recent book is The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient. Because they were written with a general audience in mind, these books are a good starting point for anyone who wants to learn more about Stoicism and experiment with Stoic techniques for dealing with the stresses of daily life.

William B. Irvine’s two books on Stoicism.

What are the most common misunderstandings regarding Stoicism?
– Fortunately, there are fewer misunderstandings than there used to be. I like to distinguish between what I call uppercase-S Stoicism and lowercase-s stoicism. The latter doctrine advises you to grimly take whatever life throws at you without showing any emotions. That’s the common conception of the ancient stoics, and it’s quite mistaken. Stoics aren’t opposed to emotions; what they are opposed to is the needless experience of negative emotions like anger, fear, regret, and envy. They also think that the best way to avoid these emotions is not by suppressing them but by preventing them from arising in the first place; that way, there is nothing to suppress. Stoics are very much open to positive emotions, though. One of my favorite positive emotions is delight. You experience it when you can take delight in simple things, like nature and your relationships. If you experience enough delight, your life will be full of joy. It’s the negative emotions that Stoics quite sensibly want to avoid.

Different philosophies have different answers to the question of how to live a good life. What is the Stoics’ answer to this question?
– A philosophy for living should tell you what your ultimate goal should be, but unless this is accompanied by specific advice on how to attain that goal, it won’t be very useful. In Stoicism, the goal is tranquility. For the Stoics, tranquility did not mean a state in which you are devoid of emotions, but rather a state in which you are relatively free of negative emotions and your days are full of positive emotions. In order to achieve that state, the Stoics have developed a number of psychological techniques that are quite easy to use. Significantly, two philosophies of life can agree on the ultimate goal in living but disagree on the best strategy for attaining that goal

“if you negatively visualize that your daughter has suddenly disappeared from your life, then the next time you encounter her, you might find yourself absolutely delighted that she is still with you.”

What are the main techniques for attaining tranquility? Can I assume that being grateful and making the most out of what you have are among them?
– Those are more like sub-goals. It is good to be grateful, but this raises the question of whether there is a specific technique you can use to do so. The Stoics think there is: you can practice negative visualization. To do this, you imagine that you no longer have things you currently have. You don’t want to dwell on such thoughts; that would be a recipe for a miserable existence! You instead allow yourself to have flickering thoughts about, for example, what it would feel like to lose your job, spouse, or health. You simply form an image of such events and then let go of it. Doing this can have a profound impact on your psychological state. For example, if you negatively visualize that your daughter has suddenly disappeared from your life, then the next time you encounter her, you might find yourself absolutely delighted that she is still with you.

– Another exercise Stoics do is the last time meditation. When you’re doing something, they say, you should reflect on the possibility that this might be the last time you do it. Again, you don’t dwell on this possibility, it’s just a flickering thought. Doing this can dramatically change your perspective on the events of your daily life. Mowing my lawn can be a burden, particularly on a hot day, but I can lighten that burden by remembering that there will be a last time that I am physically able to mow a lawn, and that after that time has passed, I will likely look back on these as the good old days.

– Stoic psychological strategies, although easy to describe and easy to employ, can have a profound impact on a person’s psychological well-being. Some of these strategies involve what modern psychologists call anchoring. Our anchor is what we compare things to in our evaluation of what happens to us in daily life, and most of us set our anchor too high. As a result, we are disappointed by what life has in store for us: we are sure we deserved better. The Stoics advise us to set our anchor low. That way, we will be much more satisfied with what life has in store for us. We will also embrace and appreciate what we already have, and that is the key to having a happy life.

Three of the most prominent advocates of Stoicism: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.

How long does it take to become a Stoic?
– My standard answer is that you can accomplish this feat over the course of a three-day weekend. That’s enough time for you not only to understand the basic Stoic psychological techniques, but to give them a try in your life, to see whether they work or not. Becoming a Zen Buddhist might require years or even decades of daily practice, and at the end of that time you might or might not have something to show for your effort. Give Stoicism a try, though, and you will quickly find out whether Stoicism is, for you, an effective philosophy of life.

Could there be any benefits to sometimes having negative emotions? In other words, is there any downside in completely avoiding them?
– The Stoics realized that it is not possible to completely avoid negative emotions; we are, after all, human. We can, however, take steps to reduce the number and intensity of those that we experience. Suppose, for example, that you get a phone call telling you that somebody you love has died. It is likely that you will experience grief, and it is appropriate, say the Stoics, for you to do so. You don’t, however, want to spend months or even years in a state of grief, and the Stoics think they have a way to prevent this from happening. They think that one thing that makes us excessively grieve the death of a person is the realization that while the person was still alive, we didn’t enjoy that relationship as much as we could have, for the simple reason that we took it for granted. If we take a relationship for granted, we will feel guilt if the person dies. Rather than acknowledging our guilt, though, we will indulge in feelings of grief. And what, exactly, are we grieving? The fact that we wasted the relationship while the person was still alive.

“You may not be able to choose whether life treats you fairly, but when it treats you unfairly, you have a choice: you can think of yourself as a victim of injustice or as a target of injustice.”

How would you describe a person who is the exact opposite of a Stoic?
– Such people exist, and I refer to them as “anti-Stoics.” They always see the glass as half empty rather than half full, and they continually find things to worry about. They complain about life and the way they have been victimized. Besides these anti-Stoics, though, there are what I call “congenital Stoics.” They discovered Stoicism on their own. They habitually look for the bright side of things, for the silver lining of life’s clouds. When they come across my books, they might send me an email in which they complain that “I already knew about Stoic techniques. You just put fancy names to them and put them into historic context.”

What do you think of people who tend to play the role of victim?
– You may not be able to choose whether life treats you fairly, but when it treats you unfairly, you have a choice: you can think of yourself as a victim of injustice or as a target of injustice. If you think of yourself as a target, it’s a lot easier to stay emotionally upbeat. Think of yourself as a victim, though, and you’re likely to be needlessly miserable. Victims tend to wallow, thereby increasing the amount of harm they experience. Targets instead devote their energy to bouncing back, to overcoming the injustice they have experienced. Look through history and you can find people who, despite experiencing incredible injustice, fought bravely against it and thereby helped make the world a better place. This would not have happened if they had played the role of victim.

Which is better, everyone in a society being a Stoic, or different people having different philosophies of life?
– A society with only Stoics would be a wonderful place, but I’m not sure that everyone can successfully practice Stoicism. Some people, as I have suggested, seem to be wired to behave in an optimistic manner, while others seem to be wired to be pessimistic. Nevertheless, I think everyone should give Stoicism a try. It’s hard to be happy if you are angry. It is likewise hard to be happy if you are in the grips of envy. By helping people avoid negative emotions, Stoicism can increase the chance that a society will be filled with individuals who are on-balance happy, which is a good thing.

Zeno of Citium – the founder of Stoicism

Wouldn’t someone who never experienced bad things tend to take things for granted and therefore find it hard to enjoy them? And if this is the case, wouldn’t Stoics, by avoiding negative emotions, end up taking things for granted?
– In my most recent book, The Stoic Challenge, I address this question. As we go through life, we’re constantly experiencing setbacks. Some are small, some are big. A Stoic will lessen the emotional impact these setbacks have on him by framing them as challenges. Stoics know that in many cases, it isn’t the setback itself that hurts you, it’s the negative emotions the setback triggers. In much the same way, when a pipe breaks in your house, what causes you the most harm is not the break itself; it’s the flooding caused by the break. Thus, when we experience a setback, our first goal should be to avoid being “flooded” by negative emotions. By avoiding these emotions, we can increase our chances of coming up with the optimal solution to the setback. Also, to avoid taking things for granted, Stoics will go out of their way to do things that are challenging, just so they can experience setbacks. By doing this, they not only improve their ability to deal with setbacks but remain cognizant that however bad their life might seem, it could be worse.

You have said that in recent years, you’ve seen an incredible increase in the number of books being published about Stoicism. Why is this? Is there something about the 21st century that makes Stoicism particularly attractive to people?
– Although Stoicism has been around for more than two millennia, it had, late in the 20th century, fallen into disfavor, but fortunately it has been rediscovered and is at present in the midst of a renaissance as we moderns rediscover the wisdom of the ancients. When I first stumbled across Stoicism in the early 2000s, I realized that the philosophy had a lot to offer to modern individuals, including myself. Although books by the ancient Stoics are relatively readable, there was a paucity of books, intended for general audiences, about how to practice Stoicism and about the impact that doing so can have on your life. I therefore decided to write such a book. It became my Guide to the Good Life, which was published in 2008 and has done well since then.

– We are currently experiencing a pandemic that forces us to do what the Stoics say we should have been doing all along. In particular, we are being forced to do negative visualization—to think about how it would feel to lose the things we take for granted—because the pandemic is taking those things away from us. My favorite restaurant is no longer open. I can no longer go to my favorite theater or watch my favorite sport. When things get back to normal, as they someday surely will, people will appreciate the little things in life in a way they didn’t before the pandemic. Unfortunately, unless they use Stoic psychological techniques to prevent it from happening, it is only a matter of time before they again take things for granted.

“instead of complaining about your current situation, assess it and then do your best to improve it.”

How is Stoicism useful at a time like this, with a global pandemic?
– We have already encountered the Stoics’ last-time meditation. If you look back at your life, you will realize that you have already done many things for the last time. When, for example, was the last time you played hopscotch or dialed a rotary phone? The pandemic reminds us that we live in a fragile world, in which each time we do something, like go to a theater or restaurant, might be the last time we do it. We should therefore make a point of savoring the experience.

– Although they didn’t explicitly say the following words, the Stoics lived in accordance with them: Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are. In other words, instead of complaining about your current situation, assess it and then do your best to improve it. Doing this increases the chance that things will turn out well, and even if they don’t, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you did your best.

What’s your favorite book?
– My favorite Stoic book is Epictetus’s Enchiridion, which does a wonderful job of summarizing Stoicism in very few pages. The book I am currently reading and enjoying very much is One Blade of Grass by Zen master Henry Shukman.