Stoicism for the Kids
November 21, 2011

Cover of "A Guide to the Good Life: The A...

Cover via Amazon

I really wish I could praise William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy without qualification, but instead I’ll just suggest that the book’s repetitive passages and occasional bursts of condescension*, while regrettable, are outweighed by the fact that Irvine has written a pretty good primer on Stoic thought with some handy tips for how to practice Stoicism in modern, everyday life. At the very least, Irvine’s book might be a half-decent gateway drug to the wisdom and compassion of Seneca and the other classic Stoics. That alone makes it well worth reading.

I would especially recommend the book to folks in my own age bracket (eighteen-to-twentysomething), which might sound a little counterintuitive, given that it’s a book about an ancient school of philosophy written by a late-middle-aged academic philosopher. But just as Irvine argues that Stoicism is still relevant and valuable today, I’d argue that it’s especially relevant and valuable to those of us who are starting our adult lives in post-financial crisis America.

Because here’s the thing: most of us young’uns in the 99% are going to make less money than our parents did. Nearly all of us are going to have less stuff than we’d like. And that’s just talking to those of you who come from relatively comfortable upbringings. The overall trend in living standards is bad news for us, but it’s terrible news for the people who aren’t as lucky as us.

I say this not because I want to depress the hell out of you, but because it’s self-evidently true, and we should probably all start getting used to it. The vast majority of us are going to have to downsize our lives at best, and fight like crazy to get by at worst. If your idea of happiness is a fat wallet and a life of conspicuous consumption, then you’re going to be significantly less happy than you were promised pre-recession.

So that leaves us with two options: we can live lives filled with bitterness and resentment at the shit deal the Boomers left us with, or we can consciously strive to find our joy in something else.

Stoicism is a strategy for doing the latter. As a philosophy of life, it melds theory and practice in a manner that has more in common with Zen Buddhism than modern Western philosophy. The key difference, I think, is that whereas the practice of Zen is intended to temporarily obliterate most conscious thought processes, Stoicism is a method for ordering conscious thought in a manner that will promote happiness and tranquility. Because one of the keys to tranquility is stability, most of the strategies Stoics use in daily practice are designed to insulate their tranquility from uncontrollable external conditions such as the state of one’s material possessions, social standing, and so on.

But that’s not to say Stoicism is a selfish or anti-social philosophy. One of Irvine’s most interesting claims is that the Stoicism, properly understood, not only allows for but necessitates some level of civic virtue (as evidence, he points to the fact that many of the most famous Stoics — Seneca, Cato, and, of course, Emperor Marcus Aurelius — were deeply involved in Roman politics). That message, given the grassroots mobilizations currently happening all over the country, seems particularly timely.

*PRO TIP: Skip every paragraph that includes any variation on the phrase, “political correctness.”

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