Insights from Irvine’s book, part II: Stoic Psychological Techniques

a_glass_of_wine_01-750x1125Continuing my series on a section-by-section, very general, overview of Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which I am re-reading together with the New York City Stoics meetup group. Section II, on Stoic psychological techniques, comprises five chapters.

Chapter 4: Negative Visualization. The premeditatio malorum can be approached not just as a way to reduce fear of adversity, but in order to remind ourselves to appreciate what we have.

Relevant quotes:

“[The Stoics] 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. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.

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.

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 .

For a Stoic, though, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point. After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen. And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and —miracle of miracles!— allow us to see what they contain.

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.

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.”

Chapter 5: The Dichotomy of Control. Common sense tells us that there is a trichotomy of control: what is in our power completely, what is entirely outside of our power, and a number of things in-between. However, we can reduce the trichotomy back to a dichotomy by shifting our goals from external to internal: my goal is not to win the game, it is to play well.

Relevant quotes:

“Consider again Epictetus’s “dichotomy of control”: He says that some things are up to us and some things aren’t up to us. The problem with this statement of the dichotomy is that the phrase “some things aren’t up to us” is ambiguous: It can be understood to mean either “There are things over which we have no control at all” or to mean “There are things over which we don’t have complete control.”

We should understand the phrase “some things aren’t up to us” in the second way: We should take it to mean that there are things over which we don’t have complete control.

[The Stoic] 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.

My goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. Similarly, my goal with respect to my boss should be to do my job to the best of my ability.”

Chapter 6: Fatalism. One can consistently be fatalist about the past (it cannot be changed, so no sense in dwelling on it), but open about the future (and therefore actively work to bring about good outcomes).

Relevant quotes:

“What is interesting is that despite their determinism, despite their belief that whatever happened had to happen, the ancients were not fatalistic about the future. The Stoics, for example, did not sit around apathetically, resigned to whatever the future held in store; to the contrary, they spent their days working to affect the outcome of future events.

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.

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.”

Chapter 7: Self-Denial. Practice both mild self control (occasionally pass on a pleasure, like drinking a good wine) and mild self denial (occasionally go hungry, or walk outside underdressed).

Relevant quotes:

“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.

The Stoics didn’t go around flogging themselves. Indeed, the discomforts they inflicted upon themselves were rather minor . Furthermore, they did not inflict these discomforts to punish themselves; rather , they did it to increase their enjoyment of life.

Besides periodically engaging in acts of voluntary discomfort, we should, say the Stoics, periodically forgo opportunities to experience pleasure. This is because pleasure has a dark side. Indeed, pursuing pleasure, Seneca warns, is like pursuing a wild beast: On being captured, it can turn on us and tear us to pieces.

The battle is particularly difficult to win because pleasure “uses no open force but deceives and casts a spell with baneful drugs, just as Homer says Circe drugged the comrades of Odysseus.”

They also counsel us to make a point of sometimes abstaining from other, relatively harmless pleasures. We might, for example, make a point of passing up an opportunity to drink wine— not because we fear becoming an alcoholic but so we can learn self-control.

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.”

Chapter 8: Meditation. There are several measures, suggested by Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus, to gauge one’s progress as a Stoic. Nonetheless, one has to expect setbacks, pick oneself up, and resume practice.

Relevant quotes:

“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?”

[Epictetus] suggests that as we go about our daily business, we should simultaneously play the roles of participant and spectator.

Marcus advises us to examine each thing we do, determine our motives for doing it, and consider the value of whatever it was we were trying to accomplish.

We will discover, says Epictetus, that our feelings aren’t hurt when others tell us that we know nothing or that we are “mindless fools” about things external to us. We will shrug off their insults and slights.

Other signs of progress, says Epictetus, are the following: We will stop blaming, censuring, and praising others; we will stop boasting about ourselves and how much we know; and we will blame ourselves, not external circumstances, when our desires are thwarted.

We will find, more generally, that we are experiencing a degree of tranquility that our life previously lacked.

For the ultimate proof that we have made progress as Stoics, though, we will have to wait until we are faced with death. It is only then, says Seneca, that we will know whether our Stoicism has been genuine.”


7 thoughts on “Insights from Irvine’s book, part II: Stoic Psychological Techniques

  1. Michael Jennings

    Interesting. You’re already much better at this than I, by your very nature.

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Seth Leon

    Thanks Massimo,

    This about exactly where I am in my reading of the text. I am finding it to be extremely clear and accessible. I am looking forward to see what modifications Irvine interjects in his updated modern neo-stoicsm.

    I found it interesting the Roman Stoics moved in a direction that placed greater emphasis on tranquility and it’s relationship to virtue as compared to the Greek originators. I think you mentioned that a modern adaptation would probably need to give a less independently standing account for the role rationality plays in the philosophy. It looks like they were heading in that direction recognizing that tranquil emotional state enhances the type rational thought production the Stoics were seeking (and vice vesra). I think this is very much like Zhaungzi’s advice to place oneself at the center of the ‘Potters Wheel’, a place where one can ‘Walk a Double Path’ & ‘Allow Both Alternatives to Proceed’.

    I was also just reading a modern philosophy of mind take from Janardon Ganeri that I think could coherently merge these ideas. He naturalizes the self into 3 aspects; one he calls immersion, another participation, and the third (coordination) is the sub-personal integration of the first two. The participatory self is the normative rational aspect the stoics would see as performing assent. The immersion is the subjective flow of experience. I think when the immersion and participation align with each other one gets a tranquil state both traditions (Taoist and Stoic ) seek with differing emphasis. I think a stoic example would be when our wants align with what we currently have. I expect there are many ways one could coherently update stoic ideas so that could help one to make use of the philosophic ideas and practices.

    Here is a link to the ideas of Ganeri as he is currently being featured on the philosophy of brains blog :


  3. David David David

    Chuangzi’s “nothingness” in the middle of the wheel seems much different than what you are describing here, as you seem to be describing imagining all sorts of possible outcomes. That Chuangzi sits in the middle, means that he sits in the middle and prepared or whatever might happen–not imagining what might happen. This would take us away from the “middle” and put us to the “right” (left being past and right being future, while middle is the current moment). Although Buddhist, this seems closer to Chuangzi. Huang Po, : “If you wish to understand, know that a sudden comprehension comes when the mind has been purged of all the clutter of conceptual and discriminatory thought-activity. Those who seek the Truth [Stoic Goal] by means of intellect and learning only get further and further away from it. Not till your thoughts cease all their branching here and there, not till you abandon all thoughts of seeking for something, not till your mind is motionless as wood or stone, with you be on the right path.


  4. Seth Leon

    Hi David David David,

    I think the western way of interpreting ‘nothingness’ or ’emptiness’ often misses the eastern concept. It is not that ‘nothing’ is in the mind or the the mind is completely ’empty’. Emptiness means that no thing in and of itself contains a singular essence (this may differ from the Greek stoics views on human reason), things exist only through their relation to other things. So for Zhuangzi I think he is pretty clear that the middle of the wheel represents the tranquil place where we can see the way in which alternatives engage each other changing with context. So I would agree that the alternatives are not contemplated separately and compared, but instead both alternatives are present. This I think is the wu-wei concept. So yes for Zhaungzi I would agree the expression of wu-wei is anti-rational and that is a preferred state for the Taoist. He does describe the sage as making judgements as well in the ‘3 in the morning’ passage.

    The question I think becomes how does one best achieve the virtuosity to see the ways things interact in the moment. Here I think the Stoic practices serve as a useful for many who prefer a rational approach where the Taoist approach is about learning by doing. This may be less than fully thought out, just realized I need to run to a teaching assignment 🙂


  5. Sergio Fabbri (@fabbrise19)

    Mulling in my mind (as my today’s lunch time reflections) what Irvine writes in Chapter 4, and Massimo cites here, I feel a subtle perception as if something that Irvine says is eluding my grip. I try to explain what I mean. Is «premeditatio malorum» really a mere question of intensifying our gratefulness for what we “have” – even though undoubtedly such a technique could be very useful and consolatory? Considered we are arguing in the context of a «contemplation» exercise, what we are supposed to achieve doing it – I think – is a bit more than that, that is than a transfiguration from a pessimistic mood toward an optimistic one.
    Oh, my thoughts are so plain and my English even worse… But perhaps I can express my “emotion” appealing to Pierre Hadot. When I first read the following sentence I felt as if his thought concealed a sort of “metanoia”, instead of a simple perspective change. I mean, if I see all my life, all the universe in such a way, then I’m watching something really different – I can’t figure out at the moment what it deeply entails…
    Anyway, this is what Hadot wrote: «(…) vivre dans le moment présent, c’est vivre comme si l’on voyait le monde pour la dernière fois, mais aussi pour la première fois.» [La philosophie comme manière de vivre, p. 269, Le Livre de Poche, 2001] Perhaps, that word «aussi» (also) is really much significant…
    Does it make any sense what I said? I hope so, if not… I apologize.


  6. Seth Leon

    I think I understand what you are getting Sergio.

    While stoicism is framed in an appeal to rationality it seems to me it’s practice is designed to effect our momentary perceptual experiences so that the appearance of our emotions, desires, motivations etc… over time are more in ‘accord with nature’. Negative visualization allows the one to value what one has because in moment of perception an awareness of the the lack of having that thing is also present. We can cultivate empathy to our fellow humans by playing the roles of both spectator and participant. Becoming comfortable with some level discomfort, practicing small degrees of self denial, it seems to me all these practices are designed to re-organize the way our unconscious processes play out which allows more tranquility and less conflict between what we rationally want and unconsciously desire.


  7. Sergio Fabbri (@fabbrise19)

    Thank you, Seth Leon, for your clarification…
    Likely, all these techniques have more than one level, they are merely a first hint about a path one can pursue until s/he’s satisfied… For instance, “tranquillity” (highlitghted by late Stoics as Seneca) presumably is not a major aim for the Stoic Sage, because “virtue” (or eudaimonia) is her/his main goal; however, if it represents an appealing way that can bring us towards a more confident self-control… why not?


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