For many years now, a popular pathway to a better life—at least among the Western liberal set—has been Buddhism. Buddhism, which in its pure form, is secular—there is no deity–offers a complex and detailed pathway to reducing one’s suffering. Suffering, according to Buddha, is part of being human, but with the proper training and practice, a person can mitigate it.
Recently, however, a second pathway out of suffering has attracted many in the West–the philosophy of Stoicism. Like Buddhism, it offers specific ways of thinking, behaviors, and techniques to make our passage through this life less fraught.
William Irvine’s book, A Guide to the Good Life, is perhaps the most widely read introduction to Stoicism for the modern initiate or the curious. It is a good, workman-like overview of the philosophy, its origins, its benefits, the techniques and suggestions it offers, and how to bring it into your life.
The purpose of a life philosophy is to guide you in determining what is important and provide you with the tools to achieve those ends. Stoics argue that there are two purposes to a person’s life: to live life with tranquility (Buddhism—without suffering) and to do one’s duty to the community.
Key to your ability to achieve your ends is the development of self-discipline. If you lack self-discipline, you will be forever cast about like a leaf in the wind by your emotions and the demands of others. An undisciplined soul is a lost and miserable person. People who develop discipline are better able to achieve their long-term objectives and will, in the end, live life with greater tranquility.
This can be your greatest regret—realizing that you have mis-lived your life when you are at the end of it.
Stoicism: Making a Life Tranquil
A fundamental principle of Stoicism is that humans have a unique capacity to be rational and that we can use our reason to calm and hold at bay our turbulent emotions and animal urges.
A second Stoic principle and one that follows from the first is that regardless of what the universe throws at you—from petty insults to utter devastation—you can control your reaction to it. You needn’t be put out when your best friend insults you or when cancer invades your body.
Thus, with reason, we can manage our feelings and pursue a tranquil life.
The Stoic Tool Kit
Stoicism has a large collection of psychological and philosophical techniques for developing your inner control. Examples include:
- Each time you do something (kiss your child good morning), consider that it may be your last. This aids you in investing each action with greater meaning and heightens your appreciation of the action.
- Consider that you are living the dream life—it may just not be your dream life. This heightens your appreciation of your life—since by almost any planetary or historical standard it is exceptional and would be a dream life to most people.
- Negative visualization: Visualize the loss of something or someone dear to you. Feel what it would be like if that item or person were no longer in your life. This practice keeps you from taking things for granted.
- Be intentionally uncomfortable: If you learn to rough it—physically, emotionally, or spiritually—you will build resilience to overcome life’s obstacles.
- Don’t worry about what is not in your control: If you can’t do anything about it, don’t spend energy worrying about it. This frees you from needless anxiety.
- Live simply: If you live for fine wines and good food, you will be disappointed by the everydayness of life.
These are only a few of the tools Stoicism offers to bring tranquility into your life—and, with practice and diligence, the use of these tools may bring you peace and joy.
But I have my doubts–
Stoicism is Psychologically Naive
Stoicism rests on the psychological assumption that your reason can control your emotions. This assumption is incorrect. Thinking that our reason can master our feelings is akin to thinking that the mouse can direct the elephant. Or, to reprise Freud’s metaphor, that the hapless raft of our consciousness can manage the heaving sea of our unconscious on which it is adrift.
The modern—empirical—understanding of human psychology has demonstrated that there is an entire universe within us largely outside of our conscious awareness. It is this universe of body, brain, and emotions that manages and constructs who we are. Our reason, in fact, often serves to generate post facto rationalizations to justify what was previously decided outside of our awareness. Read The Emissary and his Master by Iain McGilchrist or How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett for a modern understanding of the relationship between our reason and the rest of ourselves.
Are Stoicism’s Goals the Ones for You?
But more importantly: Is tranquility what you want to live your life in pursuit of?
How many people on their deathbeds ranked not living a tranquil life as one of their greatest regrets? Zero. No doubt Romeo and Juliet would have lived long lives—married to the spouses of their families’ choosing—if they had prized tranquility. Irving Stone named his biography of Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy. Do you really think that a tranquil Michelangelo could have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?
Perhaps a tranquil shade of beige.
Irvine defends Stoicism from charges of austerity—but he misunderstands the charge. A Stoic’s life may not be austere materially—witness Seneca, a wealthy Stoic; the austerity of the Stoic is in their restricted embrace of the rich and varied tapestry of human experience. It is the austerity of a life ruled by reason.
I’m a life coach. No one has hired me—ever—because they want more tranquility in their lives. They come searching for more meaning, deeper connection, greater challenges, richer friendships—to live life fully, with courage and authenticity. To help them on their way, they must learn to manage and make friends with their emotional world.
Reducing negative emotions is important, but it should not be your end—instead, it should be your means to a greater goal.
Then, finally, in the past century, there has been an explosion of research into what makes us human and how to live better lives; knowledge and insight that weren’t available to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. If you want to add tranquility to your life, try the Stoics, but understand that it’s an atavistic approach–like churning butter or shoeing a horse; there are, today, better paths to a good and joyful life.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
Oxford University Press, 2009