Stoicism for Modern Lives: William B. Irvine and Marcus Aurelius

I’ve been interested in the Stoic school of philosophy for the last year or so, starting with my reading of Jules Evan’s brilliant Philosophy for Life (see my post here). This book primarily introduced me to Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations I’ve underlined, highlighted and flicked through extensively.

I included some of his main teachings in this post, but this is probably one of his most famous quotations:

“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All of this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong.”

Marcus Aurelius primarily focuses on the fear of being judged, the importance of mental calm, and the avoidance of indulgence in sensory affections. He advocates that we find our own place in the universe, and see that everything came from nature, and so everything shall return to it in due time. According to Aurelius, everything exterior to our mind is outside our control, so there is simply no point in trying to manipulate it. We should rather be serene, patient and honest at all times, if only because these things are in our power.

William B. Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, puts an interesting spin on Stoicism. Irvine explores the ancient philosophy of men such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, but applies their thought to modern living. In a world of ever-present technology, consumerism, stressful careers and increasing levels of divorce, it appears normal for an individual to wonder if this is all there is. It’s common to worry that, despite our best efforts, we have effectively wasted our lives. This is where Stoicism comes in, says Irvine.

Irvine looks at various Stoic techniques for reducing anxiety, and explains how we can implement these in our own lives in order to minimise worry, let go of the past, and deal with insults, grief, old age, and the temptations of fame and fortune.

The main Stoic techniques examined in A Guide to the Good Life:

  1. Practice Stocisim “stealthily” in order to avoid the comments and doubts of others. 
  2. Negative visualisation: At spare moments during the day, contemplate the loss of whatever you value in life. This can help you realise, if only for a time, how lucky you are and how much you have to be thankful for, regardless of your circumstances. 
  3. The “trichotomy of control”: Distinguish between things we have no control over, things we have complete control over, and things we have some but not complete control over. Irvine uses the following example: rather than wanting to win a game of tennis, we should play the best game we can under the circumstances. By doing this, we “internalise” our goals, or allow them to be within our control rather than dependent on external factors and other people. 
  4. Become an insult connoisseur. Irvine describes how he has learnt to respond to insults with self-deprecating humour. If someone calls him lazy, he may respond that it’s a wonder he gets any work done at all. He believes that this makes it clear he is impervious to such insults, or that he even finds them amusing. If this is too difficult, Irvine states that simply ignoring insults can be just as effective. 
These are the main techniques that Irvine advocates for modern Stoicism, although other tips and strategies are mentioned. I’ve found Irvine’s “trichotomy of control” to be incredibly useful in minimising worry and needless anxieties. It’s also a greatly useful tool for developing goals that are less likely to affect your self-esteem if they are not realised. On the contrast, negative realisation is not something that comes easily to me (not even in the slightest!) Perhaps it will grow on me. I currently find simple gratitude easier to carry out. 
I would recommend William B. Irvine’s book for anyone interested in Stoicism, and particularly its application to modern life. Stoicism today is shown to be as relevant as ever, and I find it a useful tool to consider even if I do not want to be a fully-fledged Stoic.

If you want to return to the original philosophy, I would, as always, recommend Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, although Seneca and Epictetus have also been valuable to me. I will end this post with a quote from the latter that I hope will appeal to fellow book-lovers:

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” ~ Epictetus


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