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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Stoicism For the Digital Age
June 14, 2011

Seneca, part of double-herm, Antikensammlung B...

Image via Wikipedia

This is old, but I just stumbled on it last week: Boing Boing’s three-part series on Stoicism, written by philosophy professor William B. Irvine. Irvine is also the author of a book on Stoicism, and his posts for Boing Boing serve as both an introduction to some of the concepts in the book and a pitch for why we all might want to consider becoming Stoics.

I’m fairly persuaded. In fact, I’ve been practicing some Stoic aggravation-management strategies with positive results. But while most of the strategies seem pretty timeless, I can’t help but wonder if a modern-day Stoic wouldn’t face some unprecedented challenges and temptations.

Mostly I’m thinking of social networking. Stoicism prescribes reflection, reserve and abstention from competing for social status. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al encourage certain behaviors that would seem to be entirely antithetical to that project. Twitter in particular is pretty bad: it creates a social hierarchy by follower-to-followee-ratio, retweet count, and so on. Playing the game and trying to accumulate more followers is one of its most addictive features. Plus, in order to do so successfully you need to produce as much content as you can. Complaining is a good content production strategy, especially if you figure out a way to do it ironically.*

And it (complaining) is addictive! “Venting” and “blowing off steam” are misnomers, because kvetching isn’t just some sort of release valve to set you back to zero. It’s an engaging, (superficially) rewarding activity in of itself. Once you get a taste, you want to do more of it. And if you have an audience — say your followers — at the ready to validate your complaints, that just ups the opiate quality.

Obviously Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and all the other Roman stoics struggled to various extents with the attractive qualities of status obsession, kvetching and thoughtlessness. Petty bullshit is at least as old as our species, and it will outlast all of us. But social networking, for all of its marvelous blessings, has a way of compounding the incentives to behave in a particularly un-Stoic manner.

That said, this isn’t some kind of cranky, anti-modern rant. Nor do I think it’s impossible to be a Stoic who embraces all of our modern communication tools. Where we run into trouble is when we use these tools without thinking about how they influence our real-world psychology and behaviors. The 21st century Stoic must, at the very least, be mindful of this.

*See also: #firstworldproblems

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