Before reading “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” I knew almost nothing about philosophy. And… relatively speaking I probably still don’t. But, when DHH recommends something, I listen, and I was intrigued by what this ‘Stoic’ thing is.
At this point I’ve read two parts of the book. First, the history. Stoicism started 300 B.C. in Athens. Seneca is one of the more famous names, but there were of course many Stoic philosophers who kept the philosophy going. In addition to history, the first part gives a basic outline of why one should study philosophy. A stand out explanation was, “how otherwise could we hope to live well?” Stoicism (and it would seem philosophy in general) has a lot of opinions of how to live life.
But let’s be real, the history part is boring. Part two goes deeper into the values and ideals of Stoicism, and attempts to suggest ways to adjust your life for the better. Here are some of them.
Preparing Oneself for Negative Experiences — Negative Visualization
I would say that, personally, this is the biggest take away I have had from Stoicism. Many other themes come back to this idea throughout the book. The basic idea is: bad things happen in life. Death, loss of wealth, bad health, loss of friends, natural disasters, the list goes on. These things are inevitable and we have, put simply, two ways to deal with those things:
- Deal with them when they happen. The event would likely take us by surprise, resulting in anxiety and large amounts of grief.
- Prepare oneself for these events. Imagine what it may be like if they happened, and how we would feel. Realize that it is possible. Then, come back to reality, and be happy and smile because they haven’t.
Although I can’t say I agree or follow all beliefs presented by Stoicism, I can definitely say I can get behind this one. Let’s take a potential personal application of this belief.
For some reason, I worry a lot about car trouble. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of it in the past, maybe I’m just unreasonable, but I worry about my car breaking down, getting a flat tire, break-ins, etc. In a non-stoic world, I can continue to worry about car trouble. I can let it grab hold of my thoughts whenever I am driving, I can worry about where my car is parked when I am out getting dinner, etc. And, it may then eventually happen and it will be rather unenjoyable because I am unprepared for how to deal with the event.
OR, in a stoic world, I can prepare for it. I can think to myself, what if my car is broken into? Well, a window will likely be broken in. Whatever is in the car will be stolen. I’ll have to fix my car and I’ll have to repurchase lost items. I’ll file an insurance claim and more than likely after a week, maybe month, of effort I’ll be back to square one. Or, let’s make the situation worse, and say insurance does not come through and I am stuck paying for everything.
but really, think about it
It’s not that bad. It may happen, but I’m certainly not going to stop driving because of the potential. And by using negative visualization I can enjoy the time I’m not having my car broken into much more (which is all the time, so far) and be happy it hasn’t happened.
The example above is not the normal example given for negative visualization, but to me the beautiful part about the tool is how broadly it can be used to better day-to-day life.
Thus, Epictetus advises us to form “a certain character and pattern” for ourselves when we are alone. Then, when we associate with other people, we should remain true to who we are.
Like many other philosophers, Stoics seek tranquility. One of the biggest patterns portrayed is avoiding Vices. They are contagious, and if you spend time with those who have them you will become them, and interrupt your tranquility. As a result, it is recommended to pick your friends carefully and to pick friends which are better than you at living up to the values you have.
Of course you can’t pick everyone that you interact with. Social relations, therefore, become interesting, because stoics also believe they have a duty to help all of mankind. To help with this remember
- If someone seems annoying to you, remember that you too are annoying to someone else.
- If we find someone to have faults, remember that they certainly did not choose to have those faults on purpose. In fact, humans are precisely imperfect beings. We only have ourselves to blame for expecting others to not have faults.
Dealing with Insults
On the topic of human faults and error, is insults. We will undoubtedly be insulted in our lives. One piece of advice on taking advice: pause for a second and ask yourself if it is true. If it is, we have no reason to be upset.
Another question to ask upon being insulted is, do I respect the source? If you are being critiqued by a mentor, certainly you will not get upset but will rather learn.
But if we don’t respect the source? Well..
Under such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel relieved: If he disapproves of what I am doing, then what I am doing is doubtless the right thing to do. What should worry me is if this person approved of what I am doing. If I say anything at all in response… “I’m relieved that you feel that way about me.”
Lastly, a key takeaway with Stoicism is that enjoying life, and luxury and wealth is ok, but always be prepared to have it taken away. If we let ourselves get into a position where losing our luxuries in life (our comforts) is devastating, we are setting ourselves up for devastation.
Negative visualization can help with this. By imagining having to give up our car, nice apartment, television we can avoid any major problems of those happening.
Another cool way to help is to practice being uncomfortable. The examples given are drastic: ideas like living on the streets for a week or giving away our wealth.
Although I agree with the concept, the approach I might take is different. Instead of living on the street, go camping for a weekend. Sure it’s not the same, but you will quickly come to appreciate running water, heat, bathrooms, your bed, etc. I think this can also be extended from giving things up to shaking things up. A simple example is changing up where you eat lunch. Two outcomes are possible: You like the new place, or you don’t. If you don’t, you welcome the comforts of your go-to spot tomorrow at the cost of one bad lunch. And, even if you do like the new place, you’ll still welcome the old place tomorrow!
The beliefs of stoicism are surprisingly relevant to even today’s world, but become more so with a few small changes.