Author Topic: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism  (Read 5617 times)

Offline Todd Becker

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William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« on: November 18, 2010, 01:32:42 PM »
I'd like to reinvigorate the philosophy discussions here on the forum. Those of you who have read the Stoicism page on my blog know that I think highly of William Irvine's contemporary interpretation of Stoicism, as presented in his highly readable book, "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy".  His book was certainly an inspiration to me; I reviewed it on my blog and tried to point out where I agree and where I differ.  

For those who would like to get an excellent synopsis of Irvine's view without having to read a whole book, I highly recommend his recent 3-part article, "Twenty-First Century Stoic" on Boing Boing, the on-line culture journal.  I've linked hear all three parts of the article.  The comments are also illuminating, and if you wade through them, you'll even see a comment by me, with Irvine's response:

Part 1: From Zen to Zeno: How I Became A Stoic
Part 2: Insult Pacificism
Part 3: Stoic Transformation

I'd be very interested in generating some discussion about how well suited Stoicism is to modern life -- not just its strengths, but also its weaknesses.
« Last Edit: November 18, 2010, 01:36:29 PM by Todd Becker »

Offline aelephant

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Re: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2011, 07:14:32 AM »
One major concern for me is the Stoic focus on avoiding negative emotions discussed in Part 1.

To me negative emotions are sort of like the canary in the coal mine. When I am irritated, rather than attempting to squash or avoid my irritation, I say to myself, "I wonder why I'm irritated?" Perhaps my perspective on a situation is creating an un-necessary tension. Perhaps my behavior is not in line with my internal preferences (i.e. I am doing something hypocritical or un-productive and the part of me that manages my time and energy is not happy with that). Perhaps X, Y or Z. It could potentially be something important for me to consider and address. If I feel nervous, maybe there is something dangerous in my immediate environment or perhaps I am subconsciously picking up on the feelings of someone else around me. In this way, I could gain useful or even imperative information about my situation. I think it is folly to simply say negative emotions are bad and must be avoided at all costs.

I also strongly disagree with this passage: "[...] the Stoics came to a profound realization: most of the negative emotions we experience are caused by other people."

Emotions arise within us, maybe as a result of past experiences, our perspective on the world, our mood at the time or any number of other factors. Someone who shows up late doesn't make us irritated; maybe we feel irritated in part because we have another appointment and don't have much time for this one. Maybe that someone arriving late is my boss and I'm frantically putting the finishing touches on a project to present to him. In that case, I'd feel relieved when he shows up late. Is the difference in the two situations caused by the other person? No, in both cases he arrived late. What changed was what emotion we felt. If someone insults us, we might feel angry or embarrassed. If our close friend insults us, we might feel good as it solidifies our sense of comradery and friendship. What people do is only one input into a complicated system. What emotion we feel is created within us as a result of numerous processes that are NOT under the control of any other person.

Offline Todd Becker

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Re: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« Reply #2 on: February 26, 2011, 05:14:14 PM »
Glad to see some rejuvenation of this discussion, aelephant.  I was beginning to think that there was nobody out there interested in Stoicism and other philosophical issues! A lot of this blog and forum are about our physical capabilities, but I'm equally if not more interested in how we can modify our attitudes and reactions to make ourselves stronger and more resilient.   And I think Stoics had a lot to say about this.

I do agree with you that we should pay attention to negative emotions because they are "telling us something" like a canary in a coal mine.  We should definitely not ignore them.  But what exactly are these emotions telling us?  Are they telling us more about events and other people, or are they telling us about how we react to those events and people?  Consider a single event:  your car gets a flat tire on the highway. Some people will calmly realize the problem and fix the tire themselves or call road service.  Others will freak out, become upset, start swearing and maybe even blaming other people for the problem. Do these negative emotions add anything or make us better able to deal with the situation? What the Stoics realized is that negative emotions are largely self-generated and conditioned, and frequently go well beyond being a "signal" about a problem, to actually getting in the way of solving problems and living life.  So I don't see that we actually need to have negative emotions to get us to recognize the existence of problems.  I feel I that I fully recognize many "problems" every day without feeling bad about them.  Sometimes problems even energize me to feel good about helping to solve or overcome them.

I re-read Part 2 of Irvine's series, from which you took the quote about people being the source of most negative emotions. I agree with you that his statement, as it is written, is definitely not true. It is not literally true that other people cause our negative emotions.  But in the context of the whole article, I think what Irvine meant to say, and could have said more accurately, is that many or most of our negative emotions are caused by the way we react to other people.  These emotions are not literally caused by other people, which can be proven by the fact that different individuals will respond differently to the actions of other people.  If you look at his concept of "insult pacificism", he is agreeing with the Stoics that it is not the insult, but our reaction to it, that generates negative emotions.

I think the key insight of the Stoics was in realizing that negative emotions are optional.  They are largely conditioned in a Pavlovian sense, and may seem "automatized" in the moment, but through reflection and training we can actually moderate and change the way we respond to external events, just as we can we change the way we respond to food.  Once I realized that (a) our reponses to events and people are conditioned and can be changed; and (b) a negative emotional response is rarely helpful in and of itself, that helped me to realize there was little value in getting frustrated, angry or sad about things.  

While I think that most reactive negative emotions are not helpful at all in any practical way, I do differ with the Stoics on on particular type of negative emotion, the type that dignifies us as human beings:  the sadness, wistfulness or longing we feel on losing a loved one, recalling a fond memory or hearing a certain piece of music; the indignity and hurt that comes from seeing a true injustice (rather than a minor personal insult), or other emotions that "make us human".  But I see these as being in a different class entirely than being quick to anger, easily frustrated, or crying at the drop of a hat.
« Last Edit: February 27, 2011, 10:43:18 AM by Todd Becker »

Offline Jbird

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Re: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« Reply #3 on: February 26, 2011, 07:18:44 PM »
Coincidentally, I recently got around to reading the three essays posted by Irvine. I was already familiar with Irvine's personal discovery and presentation of Stoic philosophy through this blog and his book, and I found a lot of resonance with things I already do that feel natural (like having fleeting negative thoughts that keep me from taking situations or people for granted or trying to control my response to a situation rather than trying to change a situation), but which I've likely picked up over the years through my liberal arts education and continuing exposure to people and ideas. I think a lot of this is already part of the culture we live in, especially 12-step/self-help therapeutic approaches to stress, self-destructive coping mechanisms, etc. These essays are a good introduction to how Stoic philosophy can be applied to 21st-century life, but I would argue that it is already with us. Oprah is probably an unwitting Stoic! Todd, in response to what you said about the sadness/wistfulness one feels in response to certain music, I think that's what Aristotle referred to as "catharsis," which my favorite classics/comparative literature professor had pointed out had a pruning/gardening meaning as well as the more common translation of "purging." He said we could see emotional catharsis in response to watching Greek tragedy, for example, as an opportunity to prune our emotions, that is, get them in order, pull out the weeds, etc. I think the arts, in general, can do that for those who are sensitive and responsive to them. They stir up our emotions and give us an opportunity to reflect on life and see the relationships between ourselves and others, life events, etc., in a fresh way that can be very therapeutic as well as aesthetically pleasurable. I see that as distinct from the negative emotions the Stoics refer to. Does that make sense?

Offline aelephant

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Re: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« Reply #4 on: February 26, 2011, 07:43:59 PM »
Todd, thanks again for clarifying.

I do think Stoicism has a lot to offer and it seems my concerns are not as catastrophically opposed to the actual theory behind Stoicism as I thought. Irvine may have picked the wrong words to convey his ideas clearly to me, thus my hackles went up and my Spidey sense started tingling. I agree with almost all of what you've said in your response. It seems we agree that negative emotions are not all or always bad, but that they often can be conditioned responses that impair our ability to respond to situations appropriately.

One caveat I'd like to mention before I agree to go on a conditioned-negative-emotion squashing expedition is that these feelings can offer us great insight into ourselves if we use them to explore where and how we were conditioned in the first place. In my experience, much of the way we react to others and the events of life is taught to us either explicitly by or through observation of our parents, siblings and peers. There is interesting evidence out there that suggests many of the basic facets of our personalities are in place by the time we enter kindergarten and change little throughout our adult lives. I do believe it is possible to change ones behavior, conditioned responses, etc. but it is a difficult process and not everyone's cup of tea.

Perhaps "willingness and motivation to change oneself" is itself a facet of our personalities that is impressed on us at a young age.

Offline Todd Becker

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Re: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« Reply #5 on: February 27, 2011, 11:01:51 AM »
Jbird,

Glad to see you bringing your classics perspective to bear on this question! Aristotelian catharsis is exactly the sort of emotional experience I had in mind, but I hadn't thought of it in these terms before you pointed that out. And I like your point that catharsis is a way of "ordering" or pruning the emotions.

I think that Aristotle's theory of the arts and the emotions has a lot of merit.  Aristotle and the Stoics represent a common tradition, but there were some sharp differences between them regarding the significance of emotion and what is valuable in life. I came across this amusing but instructive imaginary dialogue between a Stoic and and Aristotelian that discusses this.  The first part is a bit pedantic, but it gets better towards the end:

http://people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/stoa/twoethix.htm#ebv

Todd

Offline Todd Becker

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Re: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« Reply #6 on: February 27, 2011, 11:13:50 AM »
aelephant,

I agree with you that the way we respond to people and events is strongly influenced by genetics, our upbringing, and our life experiences. While we can never escape this (nor should we necessarily want to), I do think it is possible to "step outside", observe the way we react and decide what we like about our habits of mind and emotion and what we don't like and would change if we could. The desire to change one's desires and reactions is what some philosophers have called "second-order" desires or emotions, and they can help give us the motivation to change.  If done thoughtfully, selectively and bit by bit, I think the process of self-change can be beneficial - just as dieting and exercise can help improve our physical selves. It doesn't require whole-sale remodeling, just cautious tweaking and persistence. Or to use the term that Jbird used in her post above, we can "prune" the emotions to put them in better order.

Todd

Offline Jbird

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Re: William Irvine's 21st century Stoicism
« Reply #7 on: February 28, 2011, 01:30:27 PM »
Todd, thanks for the link to the Aristotelian/Stoic dialog, which I found very interesting and thought provoking. I think Irvine makes a good case for Stoicism till you see it pitted against other viewpoints, as here. There are aspects of each point of view that make sense to me, and I found myself cheering for Aristotelicus (the mouthpiece for Aristotelian thought) at certain points. Good stuff!