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#11: The Stoic 2-Step Program for Better Living

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


Many blog postings consist of tips on how to improve aspects of your life—how to avoid procrastinating, perhaps, or how to lose ten pounds.  These tips are known as life hacks.


Rather than spending their time thinking about how to improve aspects of their life, the Stoics were interested in figuring out how to improve their life itself.  To this end, they came up with the following two-step program:


     Step #1: Figure out what in life is worth having.


     Step #2: Devise an effective strategy for attaining that thing.


As it turns out, Stoicism isn’t alone in advocating this two-step program; any coherent philosophy for living will.  Where philosophies differ is in the conclusions they reach in Steps #1 and #2.


The Stoics concluded that tranquility (by which they mean the absence of negative emotions; they have nothing against positive emotions such as joy) is the thing in life most worth having.  And Stoicism, it turns out, isn’t the only philosophy that identifies tranquility as the thing in life most worth having; so do such diverse philosophies as Zen Buddhism and Epicureanism.  Where these philosophies differ is in their strategy for attaining this goal.  They differ, in other words, in the conclusions they reach in Step #2.


In my Guide to the Good Life, I describe the Stoic strategy for attaining and then maintaining tranquility. Stoics recommend, for example, that we practice negative visualization: we should allow ourselves to have flickering thoughts about how our life could be worse.  A Zen Buddhist, by way of contrast, might recommend that we practice the strategy known as zazen: we should try to empty our minds of all thoughts so we can gain insight into the insidious nature of desire and thereby gain mastery over it.


Not all philosophies for living identify tranquility as the thing in life most worth having.  Consider, for example, “enlightened hedonists.”  They identify pleasure as the thing in life most worth having and go on to devise strategies for maximizing the pleasure they experience in the course of their lifetime.


Although philosophers will disagree about what philosophy of life people should adopt, they will be in general agreement that everyone ought to adopt some philosophy for living—that you are better off with even a flawed philosophy for living than with no philosophy at all.


People who lack a philosophy for living will, after all, make very little progress in life.  One day they will try to achieve one goal, and the next they will abandon it in favor of some other goal.   They will be like a ship captain who randomly changes his course every hour.  He is unlikely ever to reach land. He will instead spend his life literally at sea, which is the metaphorical fate of anyone who tries to go through life without a philosophy for living.


This is why it is important for you, whatever your age and your station in life may be, to spend time and energy choosing a philosophy for living—and to spend that time now, so that you can benefit from your philosophy in the days of life remaining to you.  Wouldn’t it be tragic if, on your deathbed, you finally figured out the point to living?


Many blog readers are in search of life hacks.  The Stoics, however, would recommend that instead of hacking your way through life, you philosophize.  More precisely, you should search for a coherent philosophy for living.  Yes, doing so will cost you time and effort, but not as much as you might think.  And yes, adopting a philosophy for living will require you to make adjustments in the way you spend your days.  But the price will be well worth paying, if what you seek is a happy and meaningful life.



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