Raise your hand if your job title is I work with assholes all day. Wow, that was a lot, you might want to read this book. The full title of the book is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.
I have read blog posts and perused Wikipedia but this is the first book I have read on stoicism. It probably doesn’t help that the word Stoic is used commonly to refer to someone who seems without emotion. But for the un-initiated, stoicism is a Greek and Roman philosophy that is concerned with minimizing bad emotions. It’s different in that is very practical, it’s not very abstract. It’s better to think of it as a set of tools that help you navigate your day and your life with minimal negative thoughts like jealousy, anxiety, anger and so on.
Like so many topics I think I gravitated towards this because instead of showing me something I never thought of before it more codifies an approach or ideology I already have. There’s a lot of value in firming up your existing beliefs but it’s good to be aware of the selection bias that you have.
The book covers the history of stoicism. That was interesting although some notable Stoics seemed to die early. That might not be encouraging when you’re browsing for philosophies.
It goes on to cover some techniques to help you in your daily life. The author doesn’t hide the fact that he is interpreting original Stoic literature for us and applying it to modern life. It’s not a big book, seems to be a great introduction overall to the philosophy.
If you’ve ever reasoned what is the worst that could happen to get yourself through something then you have practiced negative visualization. For example if you have anxiety about entirely losing your livelyhood you could imagine living with family. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, maybe you’d connect more than you would have otherwise. Alright, perhaps a bad example but you get the idea. There are other variations on this theme but that’s the gist.
Dichotomy of Control
If you’ve ever read the Serenity Prayer you’re familiar with this Stoic principle.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
It’s really about working through the things that you can absolutely control (the thoughts in your mind), the things you sort of control (your actions) and the things you absolutely don’t control which is pretty much everything else in the world. There’s much more useful subtlety in the book.
Fatalism for the Past
Stoics also seem to practice a kind of fatalism on past events. I guess this is just a function of putting the past into the bucket of those things you can’t control. So let it guide your decisions but don’t dwell on it and don’t worry about it.
You might think that all this would make someone apathetic towards life. That’s not the case, Stoics seem to think you have a social duty based on your existence. You should strive to be productive and have a positive influence on others.
Still not sure, go read some quotes from Marcus Aurelius. He was the last big Stoic, a Roman Emporer and apparently an alright guy. His job description including having to work with assholes all day. These guys had it figured out, it’s cool something so old has a lot to offer in the present day.