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.