So, you want to be a Stoic. William Irvine, in chapter 19 of his Guide to the Good Life, suggests that you begin now, and prepare yourself to be mocked.
He points out that practicing Stoicism requires effort, since it isn’t going to be easy, say, to engage in negative visualization, or self-denial. He is right, of course, but I can think of precious few things that are worth pursuing in life and don’t require any effort.
Here is a more interesting point, though: “if you have a philosophy of life, decision making is relatively straightforward: when choosing between the options life offers, you simply choose the one most likely to help you attain the goals set forth by your philosophy of life.” Now, that may sound a bit too rigid and simplistic, but let’s remember that Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. As such, its demands can be negotiated and even, if need be, revised. So with that caveat in mind, I think Irvine is right: developing, or adopting, or modifying, a philosophy of life helps one set up her priorities, and makes it easier to follow through.
Irvine claims that if people hear of your “conversion” to Stoicism they may mock you, and goes so far as to suggest practicing “stealth Stoicism.” I think that’s going a bit too far. I have definitely not experienced the mockery he refers to (though I can, occasionally, detect unusual looking smiles in some of my friends and colleagues…), but even if I had, what is it to me? Other people’s opinions do not concern me as a Stoic.
As for the “stealth” part, well, clearly Irvine himself isn’t following that advice (I mean, he writes books on Stoicism, and a good thing it is, too!), and one can argue that neither did Musonius and Epictetus, who were very well known teachers. If the advice is not to flaunt one’s Stoicism in order to make oneself look good, or to focus more on one’s actions than one’s verbalization of the philosophy, then yes, for sure. But if Stoicism truly is a useful philosophy of life I think it is a good idea to tell other people about it. Perhaps they’ll be more inclined to take a look once they know that one of their friends or colleagues is a practicing Stoic.
Why should one consider becoming a Stoic? Irvine summarizes the advantages of practicing Stoicism as enjoying a degree of tranquillity, experiencing fewer negative emotions (like anger), and experiencing more positive emotions (like delight in the world around us).
He says Stoics have a three-pronged approach to achieve this: i) they do their best to enjoy things that cannot be taken away from them, like their character; ii) when they enjoy things that can be taken from them (which is fine for Stoics, unlike with the Cynics) they remind themselves that they could lose them, but that this would not be a big deal, because those things are indifferent to one’s moral character and value; iii) Stoics avoid becoming “connoisseurs,” the kind of people who are so used to luxury and exoticism that they lose the ability to delight in the simple things in life.
The chapter concludes with Epictetus’ suggestion that one needs to begin practicing Stoicism right now: “When faced with anything painful or pleasurable, anything bringing glory or disrepute, realize that the crisis is now, that the Olympics have started, and waiting is no longer an option; that the chance for progress, to keep or lose, turns on the events of a single day.” (Enchiridion, 51, 2).
Categories: Modern Stoicism