Merriam-Webster defines a Stoic as “a member of a school of philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium about 300 b.c. holding that the wise man should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submissive to natural law.”
After reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine, I would say that this definition, while sort-of correct, really misses the point of Stoicism. Irvine makes a convincing case that the ancient Stoics, far from being humorless individuals who silently suffered a life of privation and discomfort, were actually curious scholars and experimenters who sought to optimize their appreciation of life. Not only that, says Irvine, there’s a lot that we moderns can learn from the Stoics about living a joyful life.
Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, writes that Stoicism was one of many competing philosophies (such as the Cynics and the Epicureans) that ran schools to teach a “philosophy of life” to students in ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoics were interested in leading a life of “tranquility,” meaning a life free of “anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy.” To achieve such a life the Stoics developed, in the words of historian Paul Veyne, a “paradoxical recipe for happiness,” that included the practice of “negative visualization.” By frequently and vividly imagining worst-case scenarios — the death of a child, financial catastrophe, ruined health — the Stoics believed you would learn to appreciate what you have, and curb your insatiable appetite for more material goods, social status, and other objects of desire.
Reading the book, I had no trouble understanding how negative visualization could be an effective antidote against “hedonic adaptation.” By imagining ourselves to be homeless, for instance, we can reset our desire for a more luxurious home and once again appreciate the roof over our head that we started taking for granted shortly after moving in.
Irvine has taken the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and turned it into a modern day self help book. I dislike most self help books for being superficial and unrealistic, but I found Irvine’s to be beneficial for two reasons. One, it tells the history of Stoic philosophy in an exciting and engaging way, and two, the advice for living as a Stoic makes a lot of sense. Irvine’s explanations of how the early Stoics dealt with insults, grief, lust, jealousy, anger, the desire for fame and fortune, aging, and death show that these problems are timeless, and the Stoics’s methods for dealing with them are equally timeless.