On the effects of practicing Stoicism

The Philosopher, Delphi Museum, photo by Massimo

The Philosopher, Delphi Museum, photo by Massimo

The last chapter of William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life, deals with the effects of a sustained practice of Stoicism.

Irvine advises his readers to practice Stoicism in “stealth mode,” one advantage of which is that one thereby avoids mockery from friends and family. I’m not so sure this is a good idea. First off, one of the standard Stoic (and Cynic) exercises was precisely to get used to public embarrassment: think Zeno being forced by his teacher to walk around the Stoa with a noisy pot hanging from his side; or Cato purposely dressing shabbily in public to train himself not to care about people’s comments. Second, I care about spreading the ideas of Stoicism, so I don’t want to go undercover, so to speak.However, Irvine’s point is well taken if one begins to flaunt one’s Stoicism as a badge of honor, something to use in order to feel superior to others. Though I would argue that in that case one is simply not acting as a Stoic.

Irvine advises a novice Stoic to start with what he considers to be relatively easy techniques, such as negative visualization and practicing the dichotomy (or, for Irvine, trichotomy) of control, i.e., how to distinguish what is from what is not in one’s power.

Another important thing is to learn from your past experiences while at the same time not dwelling in useless “if only” exercises of regret, which are a waste of mental and emotional resources, since you can’t change what has already happened.

Interestingly, Irvine says that practicing Stoicism has turned him into a “collector of insults,” where he finds himself looking forward to being insulted, as an exercise in self control. I have actually already begun to notice the same in myself, even though I have been practicing for significantly less time than Irvine.

He recalls an anecdote involving a colleague who told him that he was considering citing one of Irvine’s works in a book he was writing. Irvine was pleased, but then the put down came: his colleague was trying to decide whether what Irvine had written was “evil or merely misguided.” Taking a cue from a famous quote by Epictetus, Irvine at this point decided that instead of getting angry or feeling offended the best thing would be to deploy self deprecating humor: “Why can’t you portray me as being both evil and misguided?” he asked.

“If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumours; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.'” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 33.9)

He devotes a good section of the chapter to the nature and deleterious effects (on our tranquillity) of anger, just like Seneca famously did. He concludes that “anger … resembles a mosquito bite: it feels bad not to scratch a bite and feels good to scratch it.” But of course we all know that we will pay for that temporary sensation of relief we get from scratching the bite with even more hitching and annoyance down the road. It is best, therefore, to ignore both the bite and the anger.

Irvine then suggests that more advanced Stoic practice should include exercises in self discomfort, such as under-dressing for Winter weather, not using the car’s heater in the cold season, or the air conditioner in the Summer. I’m not sure one needs to wait for these exercises. I have started them pretty soon (my favorite include taking an at the least partially cold shower, abstaining from food for a day, or abstaining from alcohol on a regular basis). Both Irvine and I evidently don’t enjoy exercising (yoga and rowing in his case, standard gym in mine), so going regularly becomes yet another occasion to practice self discomfort. From a Stoic point of view, of course, the fact that exercising is also good for your health is a “preferred indifferent,” but not the focal reason for doing it (that would be practicing virtue).

Here is an interesting comment Irvine makes about this sort of practice: “When doing things to cause myself physical and mental discomfort, I view myself—or at any rate, a part of me—as an opponent in a kind of game. This opponent—my ‘other self,’ as it were—is on evolutionary autopilot.”

He suggests that there are two reasons to engage in this sort of boxing match with oneself: a) we gain self-discipline, which in turns gives us more control over our lives; b) it builds our character, which is something that, although somewhat out of fashion nowadays, the Stoics (rightly, in my mind) insisted on. Besides, as Irvine admits, it can be fun, as you get to score points against yourself, for instance when you successfully overcome a fear or a craving.

Another practice that Irvine proposes for “advanced” Stoics, but which I think can actually be engaged in sooner, is the embracing of a more minimalist life style, in particular a significantly decreased dependence on consumerism. This initially conscious practice has eventually changed his actual desires, just like it would happen if one where using cognitive behavioral therapy: “I have become dysfunctional as a consumer. When I go to a mall, for example, I don’t buy things; instead, I look around me and am astonished by all the things for sale that I not only don’t need but can’t imagine myself wanting.” (I guess Stoicism is bad for capitalism!) Again, I have increasingly experienced the same feeling myself, which has had the welcome “preferred indifferent” effect of allowing me to save more money for things I really need or care for (like my daughter’s college education).

Irvine points out that practicing Stoicism may yield an unexpected kind of disappointment: he cites historian Paul Veyne saying that for a Stoic “a calm life is actually disquieting because we are unaware of whether we would remain strong in the case of a tempest.”

Don’t worry, though, because all of us will face at the least two big tests of our Stoicism: the old age and death of loved ones, particularly our parents; and of course our own old age and death. Even if you have lived a happy life with few other challenges, those two will certainly put your character to the test, especially the second one, in agreement with Seneca’s idea that philosophy is a lifelong preparation for one’s death.

All in all, Irvine says that his practice of Stoicism has made him a much more tranquil person, and that he experiences far less dissatisfaction in life than he used to. He also talks about his new found joy for and appreciation of life: “The joy the Stoics were interested in can best be described as a kind of objectless enjoyment—an enjoyment not of any particular thing but of all this. It is a delight in simply being able to participate in life.” So much for the stereotype of the emotionless Stoic.

One additional good thing that emerges from this last chapter of A Guide to the Good Life is Irvine’s exercising critical thinking about his philosophical choices, asking himself if it might be possible for him, at some time in the future, to look back at the “Stoic phase” of his life as something in the past, possibly even a mistake. He recounts Seneca approaching the same question in his conversation with Serenus, where he gives voice to some possible misgivings about Stoicism.

Then again, Irvine reminds himself and his readers that certainty is not something to which human beings can aspire in this world, with the possible exception of mathematical knowledge. And he reaffirms his conviction that the important thing is to develop a philosophy of life (be that Stoicism or something else) to use as a guide to navigate one’s existence. He suggests that practicing Stoicism doesn’t actually take a lot of effort, and that therefore there is relatively little to lose if it doesn’t work out.

I would add to the above that, since Stoicism is a philosophy, not a science or a religion, there is little sense in which it could turn out to be “wrong.” Sure, specific Stoic doctrine, especially in physics, may be incorrect (in fact, we know they are), but the core of Stoicism is its ethics and general framework for a meaningful life. That cannot be wrong, it can only work or not work for any particular individual. If it doesn’t work for you, you’d probably figure it out pretty soon, and you’d be best advise to try something else (Epicureanism? Buddhism?). If it does, then there is little danger of you regretting it, even if at some later stage of your life you will move to something else that happens to work better for that phase of your existence.

6 thoughts on “On the effects of practicing Stoicism

  1. 3dbloke

    I’ve been reading Irvine’s “Good Life” on and off for a few months, taking it slow, allowing my stoic mindset to develop. I have found these discussions of the book very useful as a form of encouragement to persevere with my journey, wherever it eventually leads. Thank you Massimo. The reduced desire for “stuff” is certainly something I have noticed in myself.
    I spotted some typos:
    “Irvine advices a novice Stoic…how to distinguish what is from is not in one’s power.”
    (advices > advises) and (what is from is not > what is and is not OR what is from what is not)

    “…I have actually already began to notice…”
    (began > begun)


  2. Ted Petrocci

    Again an enjoyable morning read. Practicing stoicism as a way of life continues to both challenge and reward me. This past weekend I visited with old high school friends celebrating 45 yrs of friendship. I also spent a day with my 97 year old father and 94 year old mother.
    So many years of combined living. There were 25 old friends laughing and sharing food, drink, and assorted tales and lies. With the stoic perspective my time with these men seems different, more delightful. A with some, a bit of sadness is present. Lives unfulfilled in sharp contrast to others that are very full. The pain of attachment and distorted view taken of life evident in some, and everyday struggle in others. A few seem content, but this can often be masked resignation.
    My conversations with my father, also illuminating. A man who views himself as untalented and unintelligent yet has become for him wildly successful. Six children, 13 grand children, and 15 great grand children. Married for 75 years, and he and my mother continue to live together independently. His only adivce to me has been, ” put your head down and go, and don’t look back” . I wonder what Marcus might have thought of this old Italian from NJ.

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  3. Dean McGrath

    Four years ago I started my Stoic phase, not by studying but by facing one of the surefire tests that you listed. I lost both my parents in May 2011 within 2 weeks of each other. My 85 year old mother to pneumonia (she only had one lung left after a pneumectomy at the age of 22 to save her life from tuberculosis), then exactly 14 days later my father to suicide (just couldn’t live without my mom). I loved both my parents dearly, I saw them 3 or 4 times every week to help them with chores and errands, and did have an emotional reaction. What surprised me most was how well I took their deaths, not that I was not grieving, but I was not as devastated as I thought when I anticipated the event in the years prior. Friends and family seemed to think that I should have been gnashing my teeth and wailing for a longer period of time whereas my grieving was all about remembering the good times, listening to recordings of my dad playing his saxophone and yes, smiling… strangely enough.

    The reaction from my friends and family sent me into “research mode”. An old habit I still have from my academic days as a Psychology and Pharmacology student. I wanted to know whether I was “doing” my grieving in the wrong way. If my “lack” of hyper-emotional reaction was somehow abnormal. This is how I came to read about CBT and finally came into contact with Epictetus and Marcus. I’d found my “soulmates”, so to speak. Stoicism, as a philosophy of life, spoke to me more than anything else I’d read (except perhaps Hume), and I’d read every possible self-help crap book on the market in an attempt to better myself, my bookshelves were full of the pop-psych stuff. My Stoic phase has brought me back to philosophy in general. I’m rereading old favourites (Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche), confronting old foes (Kant) I had not patience to learn from when I was younger, and learning how to argue (informal logic, formal logic, modal logic) in a more civilized manner. I’ve got the Stoics to thank for all of this and their ideas still guide my daily behaviour like nothing else ever has in my life.

    Thanks for a great read, I look forward to more 🙂

    Be well

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Massimo Post author

    Dean, thanks so much for your touching testimony. Those are all the same reasons (personal details apart, of course) why Stoicism, as you put it, “spoke” to me, and why I have discovered a surprising kinship with Epictetus, Marcus, Seneca and the others. Not that we don’t disagree on a few things, of course… 😉


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