Home » Blog » ‘A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy’

by William B Irvine

In view of the recent covid crisis, never before have I been so aware of how people can live in an unfulfilling state of fear. This is something that is directly addressed by Stoicism!

In 15 years of helping people with business and personal transformation, I am in no doubt that ‘your life philosophy’ (no matter how conscious or unconscious you are of it) determines the level of fulfilment and inspiration in your life. The Stoics herald from a powerful linage of ancient philosophers. Historically, Stoicism is a very understated philosophy, with most Stoics refusing to insist or even encourage people to follow their practice, this includes the most famous Stoic of all the Marcus Aurilius. Despite being the Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurilius was dedicated to Stoic philosophies and practices, he meditated extensively and rarely indulged in the riches that surrounded him. As is the Stoic way, Marcus Arilius did not push his Stoic philosophy and practices on to those around him. This maybe why the practice of Stoicism appeared to die out as the greater practice of various religious philosophies emerged.

The reason I love this book, is that instead of you having to trawl through masses of haphazardly written Stoic ancient texts like ‘The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’, the author William B Irvine has done all the hard work as he has read all of the Stoic works that still exist and has summarised how he has integrated them into his own modern practice of Stoicism. Irvine really brings Stoicism to life and puts its relevance firmly into 21st century. Even though the book was written prior to the current ‘covid crisis’, Irvine presents a philosophy that liberates an individual from fear and would serve many people living with any covid related anxieties. 

So, who are the Stoics and what can we learn from them?

Some years ago, when I heard that the Stoics are among the most fearless and fulfilled people in history! I wanted to find out if this was true and if so why. Stoicism is NOT a religion, it is a philosophy, once I studied the philosophy of Stoic living, I began to understand that whilst on the surface Stoics were labelled by many as ‘boring’ but in fact the Stoics really did live life to the full, fundamentally because they practiced something no longer taught known as ‘negative visualization’. 

Most people I encounter focus all their attention on ‘positive outcomes’ and would cringe at the concept of ‘negative visualisation’. What ‘negative visualisation’ does though is profound:
1- Once you imagine you have lost something or someone you love, it will magnify your gratitude, awareness and presence for that thing or person.
2- All future realities have both a positive AND a negative aspect, removing the negative element from whatever future you are visualising does not represent true reality.
3- Stoics typically embrace their own inevitable death everyday. The result is that when you are facing your own physical death there is little left in life to fear.
The Stoic approach to practicing negative as well as positive visualisation is that irrespective of how challenging their external world might appear (including wars, violence, power struggles, famines, plagues and illnesses) they lived their lives predominantly in a state of grace, appreciation and fulfilment and indeed they were among the most fearless of all people in history. Interestingly as a martial artist, I have studied the Japanese Samurai who with regards to ‘negative visualisation’ had a similar philosophy to the Stoics. Likewise, the Samurai were also known to live their lives to the full and with little fear.

Once you have visualized your own inevitable death enough times, you are much less fearful in how you live your life!  Indeed, even the many Stoics who lived to ripe old ages appeared to be able to get closer than most people to ‘living as if every day was their last’!

Stoicism began in Ancient Greece around 300 BC,  Zeno of Citium developed stoic philosophies from those of the Cynics, whose founding father, Antisthenes who had been a disciple of Socrates. The Cynics appear to have had a more prudent and reserved lifestyle that influenced Stoisism. Zeno’s most influential follower was Chrysopsis, who was responsible for shaping what is now called Stoicism. Later Roman Stoics included the infamous Seneca (the influential teacher of Emperor Nero) and most famously The Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius. The Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.

In my field of work, I have discovered that everyone I have encountered does have a ‘life philosophy’! Even those I have worked with who were not initially consciously aware of ‘their life philosophy’ beliefs, realised upon questioning that they indeed have a what amounts to a  life philosophy which is in essence a whole bunch of assumptions, definitions and rules for living that they follow and adhere to. 

It is wonderful that the author says, ‘use and adapt the bits of Stoicism that work for you in your life’. He is no at all attached to anything being too exact or literal. Indeed, he explains some of the literal texts and how he has adapted them to his life. I always encourage my clients to reflect on their life philosophy and a great tonic for that is to read a thought-provoking book like this (or listen to the audio book). 

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