| June 27, 2017


Podcast #316: An Introduction to Stoicism

Interest in Stoicism has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Yet despite the increasing popularity of this ancient philosophy, misconceptions still abound about it. For example, many people assume that to be Stoic means to not feel or express any emotion, including happiness, and that Stoicism requires one to live a bland and spartan lifestyle. My guest on the show today debunks these myths, and shows that Stoicism can actually enrich our lives and allow us to experience real happiness. His name is Bill Irvine and he’s a professor of philosophy and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

In our discussion, Bill shares the origins of Stoicism and how the Romans modified Greek Stoicism to fit their culture. We then get into specific Stoic practices you can implement today to start improving your life. Bill shares the power of negative visualization, how to approach things you have some, but not complete control over, and how to purposely inject discomfort into your life to increase your grit. Bill then explains the Stoic duty of socializing and how to maintain your Stoic serenity even with the most difficult of people. We then discuss what the Stoics would have thought of political correctness and microaggressions and some of the critiques of Stoicism.

If you’ve been wanting to understand Stoicism more, but haven’t known how to get started, this podcast is a great introduction and is packed with not just background information but actionable advice.

Show Highlights

  • How Irvine settled on Stoicism as a guiding philosophy
  • The history of Stoic philosophy
  • Roman Stoicism vs Greek Stoicism
  • The misconceptions of Stoicism
  • The ways in which Stoics actually experience more joy and delight than other people
  • Why a guiding philosophy of life is important
  • Specific Stoic practices to start implementing in your life
  • Why thinking about negative outcomes can actually help you find more joy
  • The dichotomy of control
  • The role of emotions in Stoicism
  • Do Stoics have to be stoic people?
  • Why to inject hard and uncomfortable things into your life — “exercises of voluntary discomfort”
  • The role of fate in Stoic philosophy
  • What Stoicism might have to say about political correctness, microagressions, and trigger warnings
  • How a Stoic responds to insults
  • How Irvine responds to critiques of Stoicism

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Well, interest in Stoicism has experienced a renaissance in recent years, yet despite the increasing popularity of this ancient philosophy, misconceptions still abound about it. For example, many people assume that to be Stoic means to not feel or express any emotion, including happiness, and that Stoicism requires one to live a bland and Spartan lifestyle.

My guest on the show today debunks these myths and shows that Stoicism can actually enrich our lives and allow us to experience real happiness. His name is Bill Irvine, and he’s a professor of philosophy and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. In our discussion, Bill shares the origins of Stoicism and how the Romans modified Greek Stoicism to fit their culture. We then get into the specific Stoic practices you can implement today to start improving your life.

For example, Bill shares the power of negative visualization, how to approach things you have some but not complete control over, and how to purposefully inject discomfort in your life to increase your grit. Bill then explains the Stoic duty of socializing, and how to maintain your Stoic serenity even with the most difficult of people. We then discuss what the Stoics would have thought about political correctness and microaggressions and some of the critiques against Stoicism.

If you’ve been wanting to understand Stoicism more, but haven’t known how to get started, this podcast is a great introduction. It is packed with not just background information but actual advice. Make sure to check out the show notes at aom.is/stoic, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Right. Bill Irvine, welcome to the show.

William Irvine: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for asking me to be a guest.

Brett McKay: So I’m a big fan of your work, you’ve written a book about insults and how to handle them, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and it segues nicely with this book that we’re going to talk about today. It’s The Stoic Art of Joy. What I love about the book, it’s such a great introductory book to the topic of Stoicism. You get into the history of it and also just details about specific Stoic practices.

But let’s talk about your history with Stoicism before we get into Stoicism. You’re a philosopher. You teach philosophy. But you came to Stoicism later in life. Before you discovered Stoicism, what sort of philosophy did you focus on in your career?

William Irvine: Well I got into philosophy because I, in high school, late high school, I developed an interest in Henry David Thoreau and he was referred to as a philosopher, so I thought that by taking philosophy courses in college, I could go deeper into what he was doing and what other like-minded people have been doing. Only to discover that modern philosophy, at least in the United States, has pretty much lost its interest in coming up with stuff that’s applicable to life as we live it.

The exception to that would be the branch known as Ethics, which is trying to tell you what’s morally obligatory and what’s morally forbidden. But most of the choices, and some of the most significant choices, we make in daily living aren’t ethical choices but they’re just questions about, “What should I be trying to accomplish right now? What’s the best means for me to accomplish it? What do I need to do in order to have what, on balance, will be a good life?”

I found the classes I was taking were oblivious to such questions. I stuck on with it, though, and knew that if I wanted to get a job teaching philosophy, I had to master that portion of the philosophical discussion. So I did.

But then, it was much later that it dawned on me that I was becoming an old man and still hadn’t found a philosophy by which to live. Wasn’t that a sad state of affairs? Then I kind of did the next step. So I fiddled with Buddhism for awhile. I decided I was going to write a book in which I explored Buddhism. So as an aging human being, I decided I needed to adopt a philosophy for living. The one that attracted me initially was Buddhism.

I decided that what I would do is do research for a book on Buddhism. I had two goals in doing that. Number one is it would count as a publication. Which would be good for my career. Number two, I thought that by doing the research into Buddhism, I could convert myself into a functioning, practicing Buddhist. So I would get a double return on this investment of research time.

But a funny thing happened along the way, and that is that in order to be complete in my research, I had to have a section on the philosophical views in the ancient world, at least, to philosophy for living. Started looking into Stoicism. Very quickly realized I had a misconception about who the Stoics were and what they were after.

Before I knew it, I was practicing Stoicism in a low-grade experimental kind of way. Was surprised by the impact it was having on my life. So by the time the book was done, I no longer had an interest in being a Buddhist. I decided I was going to be a practicing Stoic.

Brett McKay: So, what were those misconceptions you had about Stoicism that made you to write it off for long?

William Irvine: Well, it was the standard misconception that Stoics, the capital S Stoics, uppercase S Stoics, were also lowercase s stoical and that is that their goal was to suppress all emotions and simply bottle themselves up so they became oblivious to the kinds of disasters that the world would present. What I discovered is that they weren’t anti-emotion. They can better be described as anti-negative emotion.

So they drew the conclusion, from their observation of humanity, that we human beings experience all sorts of negative emotions. It’s our own fault that we do. So negative emotions like anger, like grief, like envy, and you can fill out that list considerably, those are things that disrupt our days and disrupt our lives.

Yet, it dawned on the Stoics that to a considerable extent, if we’re experiencing those emotions, it’s self-inflicted. It’s because of certain values we’ve adopted. It’s because of certain strategies for living that we’ve chosen to use. So we have it in our power to change our goal in living and to change the strategies we use. We can thereby make those negative emotions, they never disappear from your life but you can diminish their impact on you.

At the same time, the Stoics had no problem at all with experiencing positive emotions. For instance, one of my favorite positive emotions is the feeling of delight. As a Stoic, you’re delighted by any number of things that normal people will take utterly for granted. Then you have, perhaps the ultimate positive emotion, and that is a feeling of joy. This disembodied feeling of just gratitude that you get to be part of this universe, populated by these people. So it’s a wonderful thing to have. Wonderful thing to experience. The Stoics said, “There’s nothing wrong with that.” So for me, that worked wonderfully well.

Now, before I go any further, if there are practicing Buddhists in your audience, there, they shouldn’t take this as a put-down of Buddhism. I’d be the first to say that what works for some people might not work for other people. Given my own intellectual frame of mind, Stoicism just works a lot better for me than Buddhism does.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about the history of Stoicism. It’s often associated with the Romans, Seneca and Cato, and Marcus Aurelius, but it got its start in Greece. What is Stoicism’s pedigree? Did it have any connection to the other schools of philosophy that were in Ancient Greece, like the Academy, or Plato’s school?

William Irvine: Yes. Back then, a school of philosophy would literally be a school. You know, now we say “school of philosophy,” it’s just kind of a system of thinking, or something like that. But it would be literally a school. If you wanted to make your living doing philosophy, you started a school. Now, if you had a school that taught purely theoretical things, probably you wouldn’t get very many students because the people of that time, this would be 400 BC, you know, in Greece, had other things on their mind. You know, they had things that they needed to worry about.

But if you had a school that promised them, or that offered them, advice on how to have a good life, and maybe brought in other kinds of theoretical material at the same time, then you could get students. So what they had at that time was multiple competing schools.

You know, and the analogy I use in the book is, it’s like schools of martial arts today. You know, if you tell me that you want to develop your ability to do street fighting, then I’d say, “Well, take a look, go online. You’ll find there’s any number of rival schools.” Some will tell you how to fight with your hands. Some will say, “No, you need to bring in your feet as well.” Then, the question is, which of those is going to work best for you?

Same was true in the ancient world with respect to schools of philosophy. You would have had many different schools to choose from. The schools would have offered different advice on what your goals should be in living. And the schools also would have given you different strategies for attaining whatever they took to be the thing of value.

So you had some schools, that said, “Party hard!” You had other schools that said, and this would be the Stoics, “If you want to have a good life, what you need to do is first realize that the thing of greatest value in life is tranquility.” Then secondly, they said, “If what you seek is tranquility, here’s the way to attain it.” So it’s an interestingly different approach to philosophy than what you find in modern colleges, for instance.

Another thing to realize is that, with respect to ancient Stoicism, it started out with the Greeks. The problem is, most of their writings have been lost. So we have only, by report, we know of most of the things they had to say. And then the second thing is, when the Romans acquired Stoicism, when they decided they were going to start their own Stoic schools, they put a different spin on it. The whole notion about tranquility as the goal, is really more closely associated with the Romans than with the Greeks.

Brett McKay: Right. So, I mean, I think in the … Lot of people don’t realize. I think when people hear Stoicism, they think about the ethics part, right? These sort of the Stoic practices to maintain tranquility. I think that’s because of the Greeks. But lot of people don’t realize that the Stoics also thought about, sort of, the theoretical. They had schools of logic, and ideas about physics. How did their idea of physics and logic influence their ethics, I guess is the question I’m trying to get at?

William Irvine: The physics is harder to see why that would tie in. You know, if you were a parent choosing a school of philosophy for your kid, you want your kid to come out a well-rounded person. So you want him to acquire ability at reasoning, for instance. You want him to acquire, at some level, a knowledge of the world. You want him to acquire, if he was going to be a lawyer or a politician, the ability to put together a cogent argument, which required logical skills. Also, the ability to spot the mistakes in the arguments of others.

And claim, if you really cared about your kid, one of the principle takeaways of education would be an understanding of what in life was most important and how to get the thing that was most important. And of course, colleges, you know, in the world today, will teach a career, but they have very little interest in saying to you, “Here’s what’s worth having and here’s a strategy for getting the thing worth having.”

So if you go to college now to become a lawyer, you’re going to get a lot of advice on how to be a lawyer, but, you know, unless you went out of your way, the advice on how to live is very much in the background.

Brett McKay: Why do you think we’re so tepid to teach students about, you know, acquiring a philosophy of life? Because that’s like, you make the case in the book, that’s probably the most important thing you can have, is to guide all other decisions you make in life.

William Irvine: I think it’s because we aren’t confident that we possess such a philosophy. As you’ve heard me already suggest, I don’t claim to have the answer, but I have an answer that works really well for a lot of people, and an answer that works better by far than what the default answer would be.

I mean, so most people, what do they do? If you ask them, “What is it you want in life?” They will, now maybe not in the direct way I’m going to state it, but they will suggest that what they’re pursuing in life is wealth and fame. That if you’re really famous and you have a ton of money, that means you’ve had a good life. There are any number of counter-examples to that claim. But that seems to be what people are working on. That’s kind of the default.

So, first thing you can do with a philosophy of life, is to try to talk people out of that default setting that they’re on. Then increase their chances of coming up with a better answer. So one thing modern colleges could do is expose students to a wide range of philosophies of life, and then let the students choose.

If nothing else, by doing that, what they could accomplish is to show people that it’s possible to live in a thoughtful manner in pursuit of some ultimate goal. Rather than just following the crowd and assuming that every other person around you has done their homework on this issue. Because most of them haven’t. They’ve simply gotten into default mode, where what they’re interested in is fame and fortune.

Brett McKay: So let’s dig into some of these specific Stoic practices you highlight in the book. The first one is negative visualization. So this is basically thinking about, you know, the worst possible outcome. How can thinking about what could, everything that could go wrong, how can that actually lead to more happiness?

William Irvine: Okay. Well, if the advice were to dwell on negative outcomes, then it would be terrible advice because you’re going to become quickly a horribly depressed individual. You’re just going to go around moping about how sad everything is. But that isn’t their advice. Their advice is that you should allow yourself to have flickering thoughts. So a flickering thought is the key phrase. About how things could be worse.

It’s amazing, number one, whatever life you are living, things could be worse. Things could be very, dramatically, worse than they are. I mean, if you’re telling me about how bad your life is, hey, guess what? You’ve got the ability to speak. There are people who don’t.

You know, there are these interesting cases of people who, not only lose the ability to speak, but lose the ability to communicate in any way. You know, they have what’s called Locked-in Syndrome. They might be able to blink one eye. Well, if you can tell me how miserable you are, you’re not in that situation. So, guess what? Things could be worse. People have that thought. Then they realize, you know, it’s true. Things could be worse.

Brett McKay: So yeah, you don’t dwell on it, because that will just turn you into a neurotic worrywart. What do you do, I mean, I think this would work well for folks who, okay, they’re living a comfortable life. You’re like, okay, my car is totaled. It could be worse. I still, I can take care of this.

What if, like, when you’re destitute? Is this still effective? I mean, you’re like, “Hey, at least you’re still alive.” It’s like, “Well, I’m alive but things are terrible.” Do you think that, the negative visualization works even if your life is actually really, really, it’s like rock bottom?

William Irvine: You know, we have the stories of ancient hardships. So there was Musonius Rufus, who was exiled to the Greek island of Gyarus. It was a desolate rock. Now there were some fishermen who lived there, but otherwise it was nothing. So from the Romans’ point of view, “Well, we aren’t going to kill him. We’re going to let him live. But we’re going to put him on this rock.” Then, the interesting thing was that he was able to find things to be thankful about even under those circumstances.

You know what? If you have that ability in you, you are pretty much bulletproof to an incredible extent. So life can really abuse you in a number of ways, which is unfortunate. But the key thing is, you don’t become a broken human being as the result of that.

Now Seneca, the Roman Stoic, was at the other end of the spectrum. He got in trouble with Emperor Nero and was eventually sentenced, not just to death, but to death by suicide. The accounts are that despite that particular fate, he remained an upbeat, complete human being until the last moment. Which is startling to think about.

Brett McKay: Okay, so another Stoic practice you talk about in the book is the Stoic Trichotomy of Control. This is actually, you modified an original Stoic idea. What was the original Stoic idea, and how did you modify it?

William Irvine: The original idea might be called the Dichotomy of Control. So it’s a dichotomy. It’s either one or the other. So when it comes to the issues in your life, the Stoics said, there are those that you can control and those that you can’t control, and you’re foolish to spend your time thinking and worrying about things you can’t control. Because, after all, you have no control over them.

I kind of tampered with that a little bit. I think I clarified it. Because if you think about it carefully, there’s actually three different possibilities. There’s things you have absolute control over. That might include your beliefs. It might include your desires, although maybe that’s arguable. There are things you have absolutely no control over. Such as whether the sun’s going to rise tomorrow. You obviously shouldn’t concern yourself with those things.

But, and the Stoics didn’t make this clear, it seems like there’s this middle class of things where you have some, but not absolute, control. For instance, how people treat you, and how they relate to you. If you treat everybody terribly, they’re going to be mean to you, probably, and if you’re nice to everybody, there’s a good chance, but it’s not a sure thing, that they’re going to be nice back to you.

But again, the Stoic advice would be, “You should really concern yourself with things you have complete control over.” One of them would be your character. You should word very hard to develop your character, since you have complete control over that. You should care very much about it. You should not allow yourself to think for even a microsecond about things you have no control over. Because you don’t have control over them.

Then, there’s an intermediate amount of thought to those things that you’re going to have some, but not complete, control over. You know, and then there’s all sorts of qualifications that come in. Although you may have zero control over whether an event happens or doesn’t happen. You might have considerable control over how the event affects you. So you can take preventative measures. You can take measures to make things not as bad as they otherwise might be.

The Stoics were absolutely fine with that. But if you look at the people around you, and maybe even think about yourself, and you realize there’s a whole bunch of just time wasted thinking, worrying, dreading things that you don’t have any control over. You know, life is precious. To spend it on that is a pity.

Then, also, not to spend the time, the investment of time, on things you do have control over, like your personality, that’s also tragic. Because that can have a huge influence on your life. You do have complete control. So if you’re ignoring it, shame on you.

Brett McKay: So where do emotions play in this trichotomy? Because I think there’s a perception out there that Stoics believe, like, you have complete control over your emotions. Did they think that, or was it something different?

William Irvine: No, it’s, Stoics realize that emotions are a real issue for human beings. So when it came to emotions, first thing they did is they distinguished between negative emotions and positive emotions. So negative emotions include anger, they include envy. Envy is a really terrible negative emotion. Underrated in the damage that it does.

Positive emotions are feelings of joy, are feelings of delights. The Stoics had nothing against the positive emotions. In fact, they thought we should live our life in a way that would increase the number of positive emotions we experienced. But they also thought we should go out of our way to reduce the number of negative emotions we experience.

They also realized that it was impossible for us ever to get the number down to zero. But we could reduce the number dramatically. For instance, in their discussion of grief, they said that if someone you know and love dies suddenly, that grief is the natural emotion, and so you will feel it, and in some sense you should feel it. But you should keep it within its proper confines. He describes people who, you know, a decade after the death of a spouse are still mourning the death of the spouse. Well, that’s just too much.

So they acknowledge the existence of emotions, they welcome some emotions, and they thought we needed to work on techniques for limiting the damage that the negative emotions could do to us. And they had some ideas on how we could do that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I guess one of them was, I guess Seneca was, “Imagine your son’s already dead” was one of them.

William Irvine: You should not imagine that he’s dead, but you should have a flickering thought that, a realization and acknowledgement of the fact that he will die. At first, when people hear that, actually that was Epictetus who kind of most famously said that. But when people first hear that, they think, “Well, what a terrible, terrible thing to think.”

But the Stoics would say just the opposite. They will just allow myself to have the flickering thought that this might be the last time I see that friend. It really is remarkable, because then the next time I see them, it’s this delightful event, you know, because it didn’t have to be that way.

So it’s curious, you know. They were some of the preeminent psychologists of their time, and they have these insights that, to our modern ears, sound just crazy. But if you, like the idea that by thinking about people dying we can actually improve our relationships with them, but I encourage your listeners to give it a try.

Again, don’t dwell on the deaths of other people. That’s a recipe for a miserable existence. But this whole notion of a fleeting thought that you allow yourself to have about bad things that can happen. It’s wonderfully easy to do and it’s wonderfully effective. At least that’s what I’ve found in my own life.

Brett McKay: So with this part of the trichotomy where there’s things you have control over but not complete control over, what’s the Stoic approach to those things? So that you put some effort into it but you don’t vex yourself too much. How should you go about those items?

William Irvine: Yeah, the example I give of that in my book I did, The Good Life, is I talk about a tennis match. So it’s in that middle ground. There are some things you can control, some things you can’t control. So how do you prepare for a tennis match? Well, you do the best you can to prepare for it. That might mean getting coaching, that might mean practice, that might mean, you know, how much you sleep the night before. That’ll mean a whole variety of things. So, that’s the part you can control.

So you exercise the control you can. But here’s the thing. Suppose that despite that, that you lose the match. Then the Stoics’ approach would be, “Well, so what?” I did the best I could. If that wasn’t good enough, that means the other person is simply a better player than I am. I can live with that.

But that whole notion of, in life, you know, pick your challenges and then do the best you can on those challenges. Then, win, lose or draw, you know, that’s it. You don’t allow yourself to get upset over it because that is the best you can do. To ask yourself, or to blame yourself for not doing better than the best you could do, again, that would be another recipe for a miserable life.

Now, there are people who do that. And they do seem to have miserable lives. It’s avoidable. Isn’t that tragic?

Brett McKay: Right. That sounds also an awful lot like Warren Buffet’s Inner Scorecard. He has this idea of, he keeps an Inner Scorecard. Doesn’t really worry about the externals. Just as long as I’m doing what I know I’m supposed to be doing, everything is fine.

William Irvine: Sure, and I’m a competitive rower. So I’m out there racing against other boats. I don’t win very often. I do come in last place some of the time. But internally, what am I actually doing? I’m racing against myself. I’m causing myself a degree of needless discomfort. How come? To build character.

So what counts as success in a race? Well, doing the best I could. Well, what if I’m last place? Well, the question is, did I do the best I could? And did I get the value out of the training that I hoped to get out of the training?

You know, it teaches you other things. One of them, it teaches you is self-discipline. It’s a chance to practice a kind of courage, a very valuable thing. It’s a chance to practice the strategy of, when things look hopeless, just keep trying. And, you know, there are a lot of people that, when things look, not even hopeless, but just they don’t look like sure things, they stop trying. And that’s a bad thing. Because there’s so much of life where, you know, really just a bit more effort on your part can make a huge difference in the outcome.

Brett McKay: So let’s talk about fate. Fate’s a big part of the Stoic philosophy because fate is a part of nature, and you have to just accept fate. But being a fatalist seems very passive. And just like, “Well, you can’t do anything about it because that’s what fate had in store for you.” So how did the Stoics approach fate, where they accepted it but still tried to be active in their life?

William Irvine: Stoics, again, would do a kind of division here. They would say, “You should be fatalistic with regard to things that have happened in the past. You should be fatalistic with regard to whatever is happening to you at this very instant. Because you can’t change those things. So you can either accept them the way they are or you can make yourself miserable.”

But they weren’t fatalists about, fatalistic about the future. So you can have an impact on what happens in the future. So we’re kind of back to the dichotomy of control. So it makes it sensible for you to invest time, energy, intellectual processes into trying to shape the future, but then, when that future arrives, you can’t change it. It’s there. So what do you do? You make best of it, and then you go on to whatever is going to happen the next day. You look forward to tomorrow.

There are people who, it’s a strange thing, but they’re perpetually hoping for a better future and they’re perpetually disturbed, disgusted, dismayed by whatever life they happen to be experiencing at that very moment. Downside is that means they get to spend their entire life dismayed, disturbed, disgusted. So you know what, embrace the life you find yourself living while simultaneously trying to improve that life in various sorts of measures.

I mean, when you’re a Stoic, and you look around at how people are living, and you know the same is probably true of other philosophies of life, if you’re a Buddhist and you look around at how people are living, and you’re struck by how needlessly miserable so many people are. It’s the choices they’ve made, and it’s the kind of techniques they use for dealing with life, that seem like they should work, but there’s just massive amounts of evidence that they simply don’t work. That’s too bad. That’s just too bad.

Brett McKay: Right. You also mention throughout the book different practices Stoics did to toughen themselves, not only psychologically, but physically. Do you have any favorites from the Stoics of these sort of daily practices to toughen the mental hide?

William Irvine: Well, I call it exercises in voluntary discomfort, right? Where you’re going out of your way to do something that you know is going to be difficult and uncomfortable to do. So I give some examples.

One is underdressing slightly for winter weather. You know what, underdress too much and you can get frostbite. That’s no fun at all. But to kind of go around thinking, “You know what, I’m going to allow myself to get a little bit cooler than I normally would. Or in summer I’m not going to turn on the air conditioning quite as much as I normally would.” What happens is, you expand what you might refer to as your comfort zone.

So there will be people that you encounter who have obsessed over keeping the temperature to within two degrees, you know, Fahrenheit, and their goal, and it’s one of these paradoxes, their goal is personal comfort. But because they’ve got it so narrow, the range which they can operate, they’re inevitable going to experience discomfort because they’ll move around, things will change, they’ll go places and it won’t be their ideal temperature. Whereas if you’re used to a wide range of temperature, you’ll be comfortable in a huge range of temperatures.

And it’s really interesting. Because in rowing, I’m rowing in short sleeves and in shorts. You know, well into the fall, early in the spring. There are days that are exceptions. I’m out there when it’s hot as well. So as a result, I come away with very wide range of comfortable temperatures. I accomplish that.

You know, similar thing about food. If you’re a gourmet, you’re probably going to get less pleasure out of food than if you simply take whatever food has been placed in front of you and you try to extract the maximal amount of delight from that food.

You’ve got it made, if you can experience delight over a glass of water. Ordinary water, too, not bottled stuff that you paid extra money for. But if you can be happy drinking a glass of water, you’re in a great situation as far being able to be pleased by what life has to offer you.

Brett McKay: So this is interesting, too. You highlight in the book, is you know, most of our vexations, I feel like in life, are caused by other human beings. Family members, just an annoying coworker, but instead of, I thought it was interesting about the Stoics, instead of becoming hermits and avoiding these people in order to maintain Stoic serenity, the Stoics felt duty-bound to be out there and interact with other people. Why did the Stoics feel that they had a duty to interact with these people that causes most of our problems in life? What was going on there?

William Irvine: Okay, the Stoics thought we have a social duty, you know, to be with and to try to help and relate to our fellow human beings. But that didn’t go as far as saying we had to go out of our way to find the most miserable company that we could. For one thing, it’s going to be a very depressing time for us. For another, there’s a good chance that we won’t be able to help those people, you know.

There are people whose idea of a relationship is simply to stand there and complain about everything. That person, what that person needs is major change in kind of their approach to life. So what do you do? You try to be helpful to other people. You know, I never go around preaching Stoicism because I’ve found it’s a great way to lose people’s attention. But you know what, you can throw these little bits of Stoic advice and you don’t even necessarily attribute them to Stoics. You can thereby make a difference in people’s lives.

So if somebody’s worried about something, and you know, just to throw out a suggestion like, “Well, is there anything that you can do to change this?” “Well, no.” “Okay, then don’t worry.” You know, it’s interesting how that can have a profound impact. How somebody can sort of realize, “You know what? He’s got a point there.” One other thing about adults is they have to be ready for whatever advice comes along.

You know, another thing is, you can lead by example in a way. If people can sense that in your own life, you’re thriving, then they get curious. And they wonder, “Well, what’s he doing that I’m not doing?” And if you’re miserable, people learn from that too. Same kind of thing, the opposite lesson. “What’s he doing, that I should avoid doing?”

But it’s a strangely paradoxical philosophy. Goes against what most people think is common sense. But then again, lots of people are pretty miserable.

Brett McKay: Right.

William Irvine: So maybe we shouldn’t pay attention to what most people go by.

Brett McKay: So there’s a lot of talk these days about like, trigger warnings and microaggressions and insults and slights and political correctness. What would the Stoics say about these ideas?

William Irvine: Stoics thought that we should become insult pacifists. That we should simply refuse to play the insult game. That when insulted, we should simply carry on as if nothing had happened. They can take criticism. I mean, as a Stoic, I’m always on the lookout for people who can teach me something important about something I don’t know. So I’m perfectly open to that and seek that out.

So I grant people what I think of internally as mentor status. So I don’t go around telling people they’ve be granted this, but there’ll be somebody I realize knows a whole lot about something and then the plan is, what you do is you listen very carefully. You take mental notes. If that person says something critical about what you’re doing, then you take that seriously. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for feedback. So that isn’t an insult. That’s a useful suggestion.

Now, there are other people, though, who being usual people, are used to playing the insult game. So there’ll be all these putdowns and everything else and then. So Stoics’ point of view is you shrug it off because look at the source.

Look at the source. You get angry when dogs bark at you? Hope not, right? And if you do, that’s silly, because dogs, you know, don’t bark for good reasons. I don’t know. I’m not a dog. Maybe they do. But dogs bark because that’s just kind of their reflexive way of responding, and that’s how humans are.

The other, deeper, Stoic insight with insults is that if you ignore insults it’s deeply disturbing to the person who insulted you. Because he’s out to hit you. He’s out to hurt you. He realizes he hasn’t accomplished his goal.

Brett McKay: So, we’ve talked a lot about some of these Stoic practices. And I think it’s fantastic, but you know, Stoicism has gotten a lot of criticism in the world of philosophy. I know Bertrand Russell, 20th century philosopher, said that, “There’s an element of sour grapes in Stoicism” because you know, it’s like, “Well, I can’t get that thing, so I just don’t care. I’m indifferent to it.” How would you respond to that criticism toward Stoicism?

William Irvine: A lot of philosophers, professional philosophers, who have an interest in Stoicism have an academic interest in Stoicism. So to play the academic game well, and I have played the game, because it’s what you want to do, it’s what you have to do if you want to have a career in philosophy. Well, what you do is you look at ancient texts that have been already looked at thousands of times. You write a paper about what the text says so some other academic somewhere else can write another paper that challenges your paper. Back and forth.

So there are academics who don’t understand what Stoicism is, for them it’s just an intellectual game that they play as part of making their living. Those same individuals would reject the idea of a philosophy of life. So that’s a curious thing. Because that’s precisely what the ancient Stoics intended it to be. They said, “It isn’t something you should just think about or write about, it’s a way of living.”

So I would suggest that the person you just described doesn’t really comprehend what Stoicism is about. They’ve picked one aspect of Stoicism and then focused their attention on that, and said, “That’s not an appropriate thing.”

Another thing to keep in mind about the ancient Stoics is there’s a great divide. First came the Greek Stoics and then came the Roman Stoics. And with the Roman Stoics, there seems to have been a real change in the focus of Stoicism. And that’s where this whole notion of tranquility comes in. The Greeks took a different line. It was all about virtue. So you can actually say in the ancient world there are probably, like, two Stoicisms, not a single document.

But again, if you look at the Roman Stoics, they didn’t have the reputation as being these soured individuals. In fact, they had a reputation for being friendly, in many cases. They did have friends. They did take delight in life. So it’s a kind of a criticism that rings hollow if you actually look at the ancient Stoics.

Brett McKay: Well, Bill, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your book and the rest of your work?

William Irvine: Well, they can take a look at the Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which was published about 10 years ago, but Oxford University Press and has gone on to have an incredible life in terms of sales, longevity, however else you want to measure it. I’m absolutely flabbergasted that it has, because when I wrote it, I wrote it with the assumption that probably nobody in the world’s ever going to read this book, but I have a social duty to write it.

So that says it as well as I can say the sorts of things we’ve been talking about. And also, it’s not a book written for academics. It’s a book for ordinary people who feel that their lives aren’t going as well as could be the case and who want to straighten their lives out in some sense. And also, the advice it offers, it isn’t like Buddhism, where you might have to practice it for several decades before it starts working for you. You will know within a matter of days whether you’re cut out to be a Stoic or not.

Since I wrote that book, there’s been a number of other Stoic books that have come out. You know, you can look on Amazon to find out some of the other titles. I’ve also written a book on insults that is highly Stoic-dependent. So people who had a particular interest in that, that book’s also published by Oxford University Press. So that’s where you can find out more.

I also had a, for awhile there I had a Stoic blog going, the title of it was 21stcenturystoic.org and the postings are still out there. I’ve gotten busy doing other things. So that’s actually a way you can get on top of Stoicism, at least as seen by me, without having even to invest in a book.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Bill Irvine, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

William Irvine: Oh, thank you for having me as a guest.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Bill Irvine, he’s the author of the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. It’s available on amazon.com and really, go out there and get it. It’s a great book. Really easy read and a great introduction to Stoicism. Plus, I just love how Bill makes everything very actionable and helps you try to implement this stuff in your life today. Also check out your show notes at aom.is/stoic, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Maniless website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show and have got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: July 18, 2017

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