The Stoic Challenge – William B Irvine


Hardcover: 224 pages ISBN-10: 0393652491 ISBN-13: 978-0393652499



Practical Stoic guidance from the author of A Guide to the Good Life on using centuries-old wisdom to cope with the stresses of modern living.


If you try to live without a philosophy of life, you will find yourself extemporizing your way through your days.

I call it the Stoic test strategy: when faced with a setback, we should treat it as a test of our resilience and resourcefulness, devised and administered, as I have said, by imaginary Stoic gods.

When you are angry that someone has set you back, it is helpful to recall that although other people are responsible for many of the setbacks you experience, you are likewise responsible for many of theirs.

You can gain important insight into setbacks by monitoring the impact they have on your life. Try keeping a setback journal in which you record the setbacks you experience, their source, their significance, and your response to them.

So what should we do when we feel that someone has wronged us? Our first objective, says Seneca, should be to avoid getting angry.

In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt offered this bit of Stoic-inspired advice: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”

A resilient person will refuse to play the role of victim. To play this role is to invite pity, and she doesn’t regard herself as a pitiful being. She is strong and capable.

By treating a setback as a Stoic test, we take our subconscious mind out of the setback-response loop. More precisely, we preclude it from suggesting a finger-pointing explanation for a setback, an explanation that assumes that someone else is taking advantage of us or abusing us. This prevents the activation of our emotions, which not only dramatically lowers the personal cost of being set back but also improves our chances of dealing with the setback in a thoughtful manner.

As another exercise in negative visualization, close your eyes for a few seconds and imagine that you have lost your color vision. Try to imagine a shades-of-gray world. Now open your eyes and inspect your environment. You will likely do so with an altered state of mind. You will start to see – really see – the colors that you have been seeing all your life, and you will likely be glad to see them.

A painting that looks hideous in one frame might look sublime in another. In art gallery terms, then, an optimist is someone who customarily places life’s paintings into frames that make them look beautiful, and a pessimist is someone who places them into ugly frames.

If you can bring yourself to laugh at the things that make most people cry, you have a powerful weapon to use against life’s adversities.

Engage in this kind of “mortality meditation,” say Stoics, and we will fully appreciate the existence of those we love while they are still alive, meaning that our love can make a difference in their lives.

In particular, by framing the setback as a test of our resilience and ingenuity, we could not only prevent the onset of negative emotions but transform the setback into a challenge that we might enjoy undertaking.

One of the best ways to “study for” Stoic tests is to embark on what I am going to call a Stoic adventure. In such an adventure, we go out of our way to put ourselves into challenging circumstances – circumstances, that is, in which we are likely to be unpleasantly surprised.

Suppose your goal is to succeed at some challenging undertaking. You need to go into it fully realizing that you will likely experience lots of failure . You can substantially reduce the sting of this failure – and thereby increase your chance of eventual success – by engaging in a bit of creative framing: you can, in particular, think of your failures as obstacles rather than setbacks.

In particular, if we make a point of exposing ourselves to things that make us either physically or emotionally uncomfortable, we can train ourselves to be comfortable with them and thereby expand our comfort zone.

To become emotionally tougher, you need to tackle your fears – you need, in other words, to deal with what we might think of as your scared self.

To last-time meditate, you periodically pause in your daily routine to reflect that no matter what you are doing, there is a chance that this is the last time you will ever do it.

These last-time meditations may sound depressing, but they have the power to infuse everyday occurrences with meaning.

Stoics would even go so far as to assert that you are lucky to be mortal. If you were immortal and knew it, you would be far more likely to take your days for granted.

The Stoics weren’t anti-emotion; indeed, they placed a high value on positive emotions, including delight, joy, and a sense of awe. They knew that without these emotions, ours would be a gray existence – and probably pointless as well. At the same time, though, they were intent on reducing the number of negative emotions they experienced, including frustration, anger, grief, and disappointment.

This sounds perverse, I know, but look at the unhappy people around you. The surest way to win their praise is to adopt and live in accordance with their values. It will then be easy for them to praise you, because by doing so, they are indirectly praising themselves. The snag, of course, is that by sharing their values you will likely end up sharing their misery.