#1: On Becoming a 21st Century Stoic
Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine
I am a practicing Stoic. This makes me a cultural outlier. Most Stoics lived two millennia ago, primarily in Greece and Rome, and before I became a Stoic, I had never encountered one in the flesh—at least not one who was overt in his practice of the philosophy.
Inasmuch as I am a professor of philosophy, I am also an academic outlier. One might think that professors, being thoughtful people, would appreciate the importance of living in accordance with a philosophy, but to a remarkable extent, they don’t.
Indeed, even those who spend their careers studying ancient philosophy seem to have little interest in adopting the philosophies of life advocated by the philosophers they study. They prefer to extemporize their way through their lives. It is a recipe for an unhappy existence. I find this behavior puzzling: these individuals study philosophy not so they can have a good life but so they can make a good living. The ancient philosophers they study would, in many cases, have been horrified by this behavior.
Before becoming a Stoic, I had planned to become a Zen Buddhist. Indeed, I wrote my book On Desire: Why We Want What We Want (Oxford University Press, 2005) in part so I could take a closer look at Zen. But as part of the research for that book, I had to see what philosophers had said about human desire, and among these philosophers were the Stoics. Despite having a doctorate in philosophy, I hadn’t read them before, and on doing so, I made several discoveries.
The first is that everything I knew about the Stoics was wrong. In particular, they were not stoical!
The second was that Stoicism had a surprising number of features in common with Zen. They both recommend, for example, that we spend time contemplating impermanence.
The third was that Stoicism was vastly better suited to my circumstances than Zen.
I found myself putting Stoic advice to work in my everyday life. It worked surprisingly well, so I extended my experiment with Stoicism. Before long, I realized that I had become, much to my astonishment, a practicing Stoic.
I then began work on a book that would share my discoveries about Stoicism with the general reading public. When I pitched the book to Oxford, I imagined that it would be a tough sell. The Stoics had been the recipients of a bad press. I imagined that there might be a dozen people on the planet who would have any interest in such a book. And indeed, its launch, in late 2008, was not propitious. It received not a single print review.
But as the months went by, sales of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy picked up momentum. A turning point seems to have been this interview on Pacifica Radio. The book has been selling at a brisk pace ever since. Indeed, for a book about Stoicism, it has done astonishingly well. It has also generated lots of e-mail, which has resulted in my devoting additional thought to what is involved in practicing Stoicism in the 21st century.
It became clear that I had stumbled onto something significant. There were lots of people in the world who were applying Stoic psychological techniques without realizing it. I call these people congenital Stoics. And there were many more people who, once they overcame their initial misunderstandings regarding Stoicism, seized on it as a philosophy for living.
Friends and readers have, over the years, suggested that I start a blog about Stoicism. I have resisted this suggestion, in part because I am a technological dinosaur. But since writing A Guide, I have learned a lot about Stoicism, usually in the process of answering questions about it. The insights I have gained, I have concluded, are sufficient to act as the basis for a blog. This is that blog.