Do not panic. The world is about to be unmasked and according to our friend, Kafka, there are no alternatives. Furthermore, the revelation about to unfold is inescapable—and ecstatic.
Sound advice considering the way the financial and political world has unravelled in recent weeks. Throw in a couple of regional wars, towers burning in the UK, blood on the streets in Syria. If you try to embrace all this with our usual urbane irony, the basic tenets of civilization become questionable: stay invested for the long haul, my country right or wrong, shop ’til you drop.
But what if the we are approaching an historic turning point, a shift that will carry us all in a new direction? And what if this transition includes the erosion of the social, political and economic foundations that have brought us to our current sorry state?
Many people suggest that Earth can no longer sustain steady economic growth of two or five percent every year. If that’s the case, then the sound of grinding gears we hear is the engine of the world juggernaut seizing in mid-stroke. Soon jobs will become an artifact of the old order. Prepare for an era where self-awareness is paired with social responsibility. Where food is traded for clean water, shelter for warmth, conversation for compassion, music for books. If it all sounds somewhat Medieval, well....
Try to remember the stories from your great-grandparents’ era and blend it with your own knowledge of how catastrophe can strike when we fail to pay attention to our brothers’ and sisters’ needs and desires. Somewhere ahead of us there is a balance that we might be able to achieve, one that will tune our individual awareness to those around us and set it in harmony with the natural resources in the world. That would be a kind of ecstasy, I think; one that we can all embrace.
How foolish the ancient Stoics seem to our world-weary eyes. In an age when the average westerner has unfettered access to booze, sex, drugs, travel—and the limitless diversions of TV, film, and the internet—why would anyone consider the abstemious values of the Greek and Roman Stoics?
Yet that’s exactly what William Braxton Irvine urges us to do in A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Irvine employs a very personal account of his search for a cohesive understanding of the Stoics. More important, he reveals how Stoicism can be updated to serve contemporary readers who are seeking a viable philosophy of life.
According to Irvine, enlightened hedonism is the “default philosophy” for the average westerner. Despite differences of religion, politics, gender and age, enlightened hedonists are joined in a common pursuit: to satisfy what are, ironically, insatiable desires. In one of the best sections of his book, Irvine makes a good case that our insatiability—along with many other human traits—is a product of evolution. While they once may have served us well, these traits are now obsolete. Furthermore, enlightened hedonism ensures our lives are wasted on trinkets and diversions. And to Stoics both old and new, a wasted life is the ultimate sin.
The modern Stoic (or New Stoa as others would have it) can employ a number of strategies to extricate herself from our cultural hedonism, including two that are well articulated by Irvine. Negative visualization is a technique in which you imagine the loss of significant possessions in order to gain appreciation for what you already have. A second exercise—letting go of the past and present—provides another means to centre yourself in the here-and-now. Four or five other methods are offered, all of them based on the insights of the ancient Stoics and adapted by Irvine for contemporary readers.
While all this may appear to be a tad dreary and depressing, take heart from Irvine’s all-important subtitle: the ancient art of stoic joy. The ultimate goal of Stoicism is to achieve a state of “tranquility”—better translated as joy, or bliss, or the ecstasy of being.
If that sounds somewhat “eastern” in its philosophical orientation, so be it. Throughout the book, Irvine reveals the common bond between Stoicism and certain types of Buddhism—a subject I explored in my last novel, The Good Lie. Both emphasize present-mindedness. Both direct our attention to the few areas where we possess real power and freedom: on setting personal goals, asserting our will power, managing our behaviour with one another.
The universe is large, but we are small. Time is infinite, yet our lives pass in a flash. Stoicism offers a way to approach these unalterable facts of life—and Irvine’s book illuminates a path that leads to dignity and self-respect.