In the next to the last chapter of his A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine followed up his discussion of the decline of Stoicism with his personal attempt to revive the philosophy. He begins by reminding his readers of the value of developing a philosophy of life (which doesn’t necessarily have to be Stoicism): they tell us what to value, and they tell us how to get there. In the case of Stoicism, especially with the Roman Stoics, value is put on tranquillity, which is a state of mind that allows one to control negative emotions such as anger and develop positive ones, such as joy.
Irvine then lists a series of recommendations developed by the Stoics, who he (rightly, I think) labels “keen observers of humanity”:
- Become self-aware, observe yourself.
- Use reasoning abilities to control negative emotions.
- If you happen to be wealthy, enjoy it, but do not get attached to it.
- Remember that we are social creatures.
- Practice techniques to take pain out of relationships with others.
- There are two sources of human unhappiness: wanting things, and worry about things that are not under our control.
- To help decrease our wanting of things, engage in negative visualization.
- To help with control issues, remind yourself of the Stoic dichotomy (or Irvine’s trichotomy): some things are in our control, others aren’t (and still others only partially).
- When dealing with things partially under our control, shift away from a focus on outcomes, and move to one on internal goals.
- Be fatalistic with respect to the external world.
At this point Irvine does something interesting: he tells us that he doesn’t buy the ancient Stoics’ proof of the truth of Stoic doctrine — which depended heavily on their metaphysics and theology. And I think he is right.
But then what? He suggests — again, reasonably — to update Stoicism by replacing unworkable justifications with new ones based on a modern scientific understanding of the world.
Here is an example: an ancient thinker might have said that we experience pain because it was the will of Zeus that we do so, in order to learn from our experiences. But a modern scientist would say instead that pain evolved by natural processes that favored creatures capable of being acutely aware of when they have suffered an injury to their bodies, because such creatures had a higher likelihood of surviving comparing to animals who did not feel pain when injured. The same goes for other primal emotions, such as fear, or sexual pleasure, as well as for more complex instinctive behaviors, such as our gregariousness as social animals, and our penchant for seeking status within whatever group we find ourselves in.
Here comes the most interesting bit of Irvine’s argument: just because we were given certain abilities (say, the ability to reason, which is of course crucial for a Stoic) not by Zeus so that we could be like gods, but by natural selection so that we could survive and reproduce, it doesn’t mean we have to use these abilities for their original purpose.
The example Irvine discusses here is hearing: likely, this had great survival value, making us able to detect a prey, or stay away from a predator. But today we rarely have need for that kind of use, and instead we enjoy listening to Beethoven — an activity, Irvine drily points out — that has nothing to do with survival (and, likely, very little with reproduction, unless you are into dating only people who love classical music).
Irvine then suggests that we can “misuse” our evolutionary ability to reason, in particular in order to circumvent the sort of behavioral tendencies that were built into us by natural selection but that we have come to see as not conducive to a flourishing life. For instance, we could decide to skip on some opportunities to have sex (something our ancestors would hardly have contemplated) in order, among other things, to have time to go to the symphony and listen to Beethoven.
His next example is even more appropriate to Stoicism: if we have decided that we value not just survival and reproduction, but also tranquillity of mind, then perhaps we should work toward countering our innate instinct for seeking to improve our social status, since the latter activity rarely brings tranquillity. A similar reasoning goes for our insatiability about wanting more and more things.
Irvine makes the broad claim — which I find eminently sensible — that it is perfectly reasonable to reject the specific reasons that Stoics adduced to adopt Stoicism, and yet keep much of the practical aspects of the system in place. The ancients did not understand evolution, but they did discover a number of basic things about the human condition and human psychology. Stoicism can then be recast as a philosophical cure for a disease, the latter being the various negative emotions that grip most human beings throughout life. The Stoics found the right cure, even though they did not understand why it works.
Irvine elaborates on this analogy by pointing out that it has been known since ancient times that extract from willow bark has significant curative effects, and yet we haven’t discovered the mechanism of action of aspirin until as late as the 1970s!
At this point Irvine is very conscious of the fact that he is “tampering” with Stoicism, and that purists will reject his approach altogether. But of course Stoicism is not a religion, so “purism” is a category mistake here. (Indeed, even religions do change significantly over time, updating themselves to novel social situations and to new knowledge, as much as the more “purist” believers — we call them fundamentalists — usually need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the present.)
Besides, plenty of Stoics themselves had “tampered” with the philosophy, disagreeing with one another on some points, and at times incorporating ideas coming from other schools. As Seneca, quoted by Irvine, put it: “I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters; I, too, have the right to form an opinion.”
Irvine goes on to say that Stoicism may resonate with some people and not others, depending on one’s personality and goals. If it doesn’t, then you may want to pursue Buddhism, or Epicureanism instead. (As an aside: apparently Irvine did try Buddhism, of the Zen variety, and didn’t find it congenial to his analytical mindset.)
But, crucially, this doesn’t mean that any philosophy of life will do. If you are an hedonist, thinking that happiness will come from accumulating ever more things and seeking out ever more pleasures — basically going through life by following what Irvine calls the evolutionary autopilot — you are, in fact, mistaken. The analogy he develops is with seeking a mate: there is no such thing as the ideal one, and some people work for some and others don’t. But there definitely are people you want to stay away from, no matter what!