William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. For more on his life and writings, visit his author website at WilliamBIrvine.com
There is the perception that practitioners of Stoicism tend to try to suppress their emotions or at least avoid acting on their emotions. Is that accurate? How do stoics treat positive and negative emotions differently, if at all?
Ideally, a Stoic won’t have many negative emotions to deal with, inasmuch as he will routinely take steps to prevent them from arising in the first place. If he does find himself experiencing a negative emotion, though, he will start applying Stoic advice on how to deal with it. If he is experiencing grief, for example, he will call to mind the advice given by Seneca in his Consolations. And after doing this, he will study the episode in an attempt to prevent it from recurring.
On the other hand, a Stoic will embrace positive emotions. Because he engages in negative visualization, he will likely experience many little moments of delight in the course of an ordinary day. He will also likely have an unusual capacity for the experience of joy.
How does today’s Stoicism differ from the Stoicism of ancient Rome? What would ancient and modern stoics agree on? What would they disagree about? How might their day-to-day practice of Stoicism differ?
My own practice of Stoicism is very close to that of the ancient Roman Stoics. Although the world has changed since then, human nature is largely unchanged, and Stoicism is all about how to deal with our nature. It is about how beings who are half god and half animal can best live.
In your book about stoic joy, A Guide to the Good Life, you make the point that stoic wisdom, though ancient, is still very much applicable to contemporary life. Do you find it challenging to live stoically? What technique(s) do you find most helpful for those who want to lead a stoic life?
Yes, it is challenging to practice Stoicism. When you focus on one area of your practice, the other areas tend to slide. When you are experiencing a long stretch of tranquil living, you start assuming that your tranquility will never again be disrupted. That is precisely when the Stoic gods are most likely to throw you a curveball—if not a beanball! I have been practicing Stoicism for more than a decade but can easily relate to those who have just initiated their practice. On some days, I feel like a novice myself!
You are a Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University: How do your students react to Stoicism? Would you say that their interest is markedly different than other schools of thought you teach? Have you seen their collective reaction to Stoicism shift throughout the years?
I periodically get to teach a class on Stoicism, and when I do, I am astonished by how receptive students are. I’m not sure I would have been that receptive back in my college days. But of course, at that time, I did not, in the philosophy classes I took, have any exposure to Stoicism as a philosophy of life. Back then, a philosophy professor who taught about “philosophies of life” would have been looked down on—and in some universities probably still would be.
Who do you consider the most influential stoic philosopher to you personally? Why? Do you have a favorite stoic quote?
I like all the Roman Stoics, but for different reasons. When I am dealing on an ongoing basis with annoying people, I turn to Marcus Aurelius. As Roman emperor, he had lots of experience dealing with annoying people. When I have an important decision to make, I turn to Epictetus and remind my self that there are things I can control and things I can’t. When I find myself lusting for consumer goods, I turn to Musonius Rufus, who managed quite well on being banished to the desolate island of Gyaros. And when I am feeling sorry for myself, I turn to Seneca. He reminds us that no matter how bad things are, they could be much worse.
As far as favorite quotes are concerned, I have a hundred of them. The Roman Stoics are wonderfully quotable. This one comes from Marcus Aurelius: “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.”