Book Review: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Review of The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday (2014).

The Obstacle is the WayThe Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) by Ryan Holiday is a book about overcoming apparent setbacks and by turning them to our advantage.  It’s not exactly a book about Stoicism but it does contain a great many references to Stoicism, which reinforce the central message that every adversity is potentially an opportunity.

Ryan was the keynote speaker at the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York, where he talked about the profound influence that reading the Stoics had on his life.  The book he subsequently co-authored with Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, focuses exclusively on Stoic wisdom, presenting quotations from the classics for each day of the year.

Indeed, the title of The Obstacle is the Way is inspired by a famous quotation from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which reads:

The impediment to action advances action.  What stands in the way becomes the way.

This is a quote from the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations 5.20, which Marcus begins by reminding himself that in one respect other people are of concern to us and that we have a duty to help them, alluding to the Stoic concept of oikeiĂ´sis, or identifying with the welfare of others.  In another respect, though, he says other people are as indifferent to us as sun or wind, or wild animals, being external to our own mind and volition.  We shouldn’t place too much importance on what they think of us, as long as we’re aiming to do what’s right and acting wisely.

Ryan’s book contains a plethora of anecdotes about historical figures who have persevered in the face of social and material obstacles, under conditions that would make many people abandon hope.  In that respect, it stands in a venerable tradition of self-help books, one that goes back indeed to the Victorian classic Self-Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles.  It also harks back, as Ryan notes, to Plutarch’s Lives, the express purpose of which was to be simultaneously both an ethical and historical treatise by focusing on what can be learned from the characters and virtues of numerous great men.

There’s plenty of good advice in The Obstacle is the Way; it’s an interesting and entertaining read.  It will perhaps also inspire many people to study Stoicism in more depth and also to explore the range of psychological skills and strategies used by the Stoics to overcome such obstacles, and maintain their equanimity in the face of adversity.  That’s something I’ve written about but unfortunately I still don’t think there’s a really good popular introduction that covers the range of Stoic doctrines and practices.

I was pleased that the book made me realise the beautiful simplicity and appeal of the story of Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator.  I told my five-year old daughter this tale after reading about him in the book, and she made me tell it to her again and again, two or three times the same day.  There were many stories from American political history that I wasn’t very familiar with, which were also fascinating to read.

The most important thing about the book, though, is its message that a formula for turning obstacles into opportunities can be learned from the examples of these great (and in some cases not so great) men and women.  From Marcus Aurelius to Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Erwin Rommell, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.  Most of these individuals had their strengths and weaknesses, of course.  (As a Scot, my flesh crawls at the sight of Margaret Thatcher’s name, and Steve Jobs was a notorious bully who exploited his own friends and workers in ways that many people would balk at as unethical.)  However, what Ryan’s doing is trying to model specific examples of resilient behaviour and attitudes from these recognisable figures, not their whole lives and characters, which are inevitably a mixed bag.

That’s something I think he’s achieved admirably and I’m very pleased the book has already become so successful.  Every day, it seems to bring more people into the Stoic community, who say they “got into Stoicism” after reading The Obstacle is the Way, and now have a thirst to learn more.  That’s a good thing.  As the founders of the Stoa taught: the wise man has a duty and natural calling to write books that help other people.  Though none of us are indeed wise, we can help others by writing about the lives of people who exemplify virtues to which we might all aspire.  That’s why I think this is a book worth reading.  It gives people hope that they might be able to learn how to live like that, with admirable resilience and tenacity, and it surely motivates them to engage in self-improvement in the same direction.

Book Review: The Daily Stoic

Review of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

The Daily Stoic Cover

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living is a new book, co-authored by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.  The authors generously provided free copies to everyone attending the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York City, where Ryan was keynote speaker.

The book consists of new translations, by Stephen Hanselman, of passages from ancient Stoic authors, with accompanying commentary.  Each month is assigned a different theme, with daily readings on its different aspects.  Although book designed to provide material for daily contemplative practice, I read it straight through, mostly on a long flight back from London to Canada.  I found the new versions of the ancient texts very valuable, and especially the technical glossary of Stoic technical terms at the back of the book.  The commentaries were also very readable and worthwhile, and a wide range of literary and philosophical references, especially to famous figures in American history.  These will undoubtedly help to make the Stoic texts appear more relevant and accessible to modern readers.  The passages included are mainly from the philosophical writings of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus (via his student Arrian), and Marcus Aurelius.  However, there are also several gems from the Stoic sayings of Zeno included in Diogenes Laertius, and from the often-overlooked plays of Seneca.

I’ve no doubt many people will find this very-readable collection of Stoic sayings, a great introduction to the philosophy.  It stands in a long tradition: anthologies of philosophical sayings were common in the ancient world.  Indeed, it’s mainly thanks to compilations of philosophical sayings such as those found in the Anthology of Stobaeus and the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius that passages from the early Greek Stoics survive today.

Some Reviews of Teach Yourself Stoicism

Initial reviews of the new book, Teach Yourself Stoicism (2013) by Donald Robertson.

Teach Yourself Stoicism Cover 2013Teach Yourself Stoicism was released a few months ago in the UK and is now available in the USA and other countries in both paperback and ebook format.  Here are some quotes from the initial reviews posted by readers on Amazon and Goodreads.

“If you’re new to Stoicism, get this book. If you’re a long-time Stoic, get this book. (Just get this book.) […] this is far and away the best introduction to the modern-day practice of Stoic philosophy you’ll find. Even those who have been practicing Stoics for a while are likely to find plenty of useful reminders and helpful suggestions in these pages. In other words, if you’re a Stoic, or you’re interested in Stoicism, you should get this book.” [Five stars] Michael Baranowski on Amazon.com

“A good read that makes a difficult topic comprehensible. Accurate with the modern emphasis on Stoicism as a way of life. Highly recommended.” [Five stars] “John” on Amazon.com

“Donald Robertson has written a great book. […] It is clearly written and packed with fascinating information about this ancient philosophy. As the ‘Teach Yourself’ name suggests, it is not simply and explanatory text but it provides practical advice and exercises which help a person put Stoic teachings to use in the modern world. If you are interested in how you can apply Stoicism to your life then I would recommend this book.” [Five stars] “Matt” on Amazon.co.uk

“Accessible and practical rather than academic. As such a worthwhile read.” [Five stars] “P” on Goodreads

“Extraordinary. Really recommend reading this book. Particularly liked the practical exercises for applying stoic philosophy to every day challenges. [Five stars] By Luis Antonio Marin Noriega
on Amazon.com

Review: CBT for Work (2012) by Gill Garratt

Review of Gill Garratt’s CBT for Work: A Practical Guide (2012)

CBT for WorkCBT for Work:
A Practical Guide (2012)

Gill Garratt

ISBN 978-184831419-1

This is a handy little practical guidebook for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) self-help in the workplace, containing exercises and example case studies.  It’s about overcoming specific worries but also building a more general psychological resilience toward future adversities.  It’s written in plain English in a very readable and accessible style but the emphasis is on evidence-based practice, and how research can help us cope better with problems at work, as well as improving workplace happiness and wellbeing.

Gill is a psychologist and accredited CBT practitioner, with over twenty years’ experience using CBT in a variety of settings.  She’s part of the team responsible for the Stoic Week projects organized through the University of Exeter, which seek to apply Stoic philosophy to modern problems of everyday living, by combining it with elements of CBT.  She draws also on Positive Psychology, mindfulness-based CBT, and Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).  Indeed, Gill opens with the famous quotation from the Stoic Handbook of Epictetus, which became a kind of slogan of REBT:

Men are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them.

…or as Marcus Aurelius, also quoted here, put it: “life is opinion”.  CBT is based on the premise that, with training, we can learn to change our habitual emotional reactions by changing our voluntary thoughts and actions.  We do this by using our thinking and our behaviour to challenge the underlying beliefs typically responsible for our emotions.  Gill describes a broad armamentarium or toolkit for this purpose, specially adapted for managing workplace stress.  The basis is the fundamental CBT model, which Gill calls the “Think Kit”.  This helps us distinguish systematically between (A) the events that we’re reacting to, (B) the beliefs shaping our reaction, and (C) the emotional and other consequences that follow.

In sense, CBT encourages us to think like a scientist and to treat the beliefs underlying our emotional disturbances and problematic desires as if they were hypotheses, which deserve to be evaluated rationally, impartially, and objectively.  This metaphor of the individual as “scientist”, or rather as “natural philosopher”, was also central to ancient Stoicism.  Gill quotes Marcus Aurelius’ saying:

Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.

This little book provides a brisk overview of common psychological problems and solutions that arise in relation to your work.  It does so in a manner that I think will help the reader develop a generally more resilient attitude, grounded in this ancient Stoic advice to survey one’s whole situation calmly and rationally, facing challenges in a healthy “matter of fact” way.  It also includes a broad range of strategies, though, covering specific issues such as anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, low self-esteem, work-life balance, achieving happiness, and learning to relax, etc.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to learn CBT for self-help, especially if they’re new to the subject and looking for a good starting point.  Here’s a summary of the actual chapter headings:

  1. The CBT Think Kit
  2. You and your work
  3. Anxiety at work
  4. Anger and frustration at work
  5. CBT for guilt at work
  6. Depression at work
  7. CBT for low self-esteem at work
  8. Maximizing your happiness at work
  9. Balancing work and life
  10. And… relax

Stoic Week in the News

Some links to recent newspaper and magazine articles about Stoicism from around the world.

Teach yourself Stoicism Stoic Week 2013 is now over but there will probably still be more media coverage over the next few weeks.  My practical introduction to Stoicism is coming out in December 2013:

Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

Here are some links to recent newspaper and magazine articles…

Review: Stoic Spiritual Exercises by Elen Buzaré

A review of the book Stoic Spiritual Exercises by Elen Buzare.

Stoic Spiritual Exercises

Elen Buzaré

Review by Donald Robertson

Available on Lulu.com

Stoic-Spiritual-Exercises-Elen-BuzaréElen’s short book focuses on the practical psychological (or “spiritual”) exercises employed in ancient Stoicism, drawing mainly upon the seminal work of the French scholar Pierre Hadot.  She succeeds eminently in providing a very clear and concise account of a great many Stoic exercises.  These are described in such a way as to allow the average reader to make use of them.  However, those more familiar with Stoicism will undoubtedly find much of value within these pages.

The central part of Stoic Spiritual Exercises contains a superb description to a variety of Stoic techniques, including premeditation, physical definition, contemplation of impermanence, self-expansion, the view from above, action with reservation, and others.  It concludes with a section attempting to reconstruct a Stoic meditation based on the account of a Christian spiritual practice influenced by Stoicism, and drawing on analogies with Buddhist meditation.

According to the account preserved by Stobaeus, Zeno and the other Stoics said that the wise and virtuous “have an affinity to composing books, which can help those who encounter their writings”.  Elen’s book will undoubtedly be of tremendous help to those who encounter the writings of the ancient Stoics and wish to benefit from the Stoic art of living in their own daily lives.

Review of Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009)

Some comments on a critical review of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009).

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009)

A response to James Warren’s review in Polis, 26, 1, 2009

A Guide to the Good LifeWilliam Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) is probably the best-selling popular introduction to Stoic philosophy.  It’s a good book and one I frequently recommend to people who are new to the subject and interested in learning about Stoicism, but who lack a background in academic philosophy.  It’s written in a very readable and accessible style and has many good ideas and interesting personal observations.  However, since I first read the book, I’ve had a few reservations about the way it portrays Stoicism.  Recently, I was sent a copy of James Warren’s review of A Guide to the Good Life, which shares broadly similar concerns, and also a few points that I’m probably well-positioned to comment on as a cognitive-behavioural therapist – CBT is a modern form of “psychotherapy” that originated in ideas derived from Stoic philosophy.  (Thanks to John Sellars for pointing me in the direction of the article.)  While I basically agree with Warren’s review, I feel that there is scope for a more philosophically-consistent and yet “popular” account of modern Stoicism, one which addresses most of these concerns.

Irvine explicitly acknowledges that his version of “Stoicism” departs significantly from any existing form of Stoicism.  For example, he writes:

The resulting version of Stoicism, although derived from the ancient Stoics, is therefore unlike the Stoicism advocated by any particular Stoic. It is also likely that the version of Stoicism I have developed is in various respects unlike the Stoicism one would have been taught to practice in an ancient Stoic school. (Irvine, 2009, p. 244)

The initial draft of this article caused some controversy so let me pause here to emphasise Irvine’s own words above.  At the very least, it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to his claim that his version of “Stoicism” is unlike any previous version by asking “Are you sure it makes sense to call it by the same name then?”  Ancient philosophers, particularly Socrates and the Stoics, placed great importance on the role of accurate definition in philosophical debate because this is the foundation on which our reasoning is necessarily based.

So Irvine describes this as his own version of “Stoicism”, and different from any preceding version.  Crucially, it involves replacing the supreme Stoic goal of “living in accord with virtue” (aka “living in agreement with nature”) with the goal of attaining “tranquillity” or freedom from emotional suffering.  He says that he’s doing this because he believes it is “unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word” (2009, p. 42).  That’s odd because the Stoic concept of virtue is essentially a form of practical wisdom and I would have said that people today place as much value on practical wisdom, or “the art of living”, as they did in the ancient world.  In fact, I think it would make just as much, if not more, sense to the majority of people as the alternative goal of “tranquillity”.

Irvine says that “although the Stoics thought they could prove that theirs was the correct philosophy of life, I don’t think such a proof is possible” (p. 28).  This position perhaps has less in common with the ancient Stoics than with Academic Skeptics like Cicero, who appropriated some of the concepts and techniques of Stoicism, while rejecting its philosophical arguments.  What Irvine therefore describes is Stoicism as a therapy of the passions, but without any of its philosophical foundations– a kind of Stoicism-lite.  In particular, Irvine rejects the Stoic ethical argument that virtue is the goal of life and the highest good.  However, this is arguably not a trivial aspect of Stoicism but its core doctrine, which distinguished Stoics from philosophers of opposing schools.  As Warren concludes, what Irvine’s left with is “something which an Epicurean, for example, no less than a Stoic, might endorse without much concern.”  I’d go further and say that ancient Stoics would have found acceptance of this definition of their philosophy deeply problematic, and that, paradoxically, Irvine’s version of “Stoicism” may be more like Epicureanism in some respects.  The supreme goal of life is the most important concept in any school of ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism.  For example, Cicero’s De Finibus, one of our major sources for ancient Stoic views, systematically distinguishes the different schools of philosophy from one another primarily in terms of their different definitions of the goal of  life.  The most important thing in life is pursued “at all costs”, by definition, so it makes a very big practical difference whether we pursue tranquillity or practical wisdom (virtue) “at all costs”, as the supreme goal in life.

In response to a previous draft of this article, I was asked to include more information on my own background…  I’ve written three books which touch on Stoicism to some degree, particularly in relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy.   Like Irvine, I’m interested in modern approaches to Stoicism, for the purposes of self-help and personal improvement, but I’m a registered psychotherapist by profession whereas he is a professor of philosophy, at Wright State University in the USA, so we’re, perhaps inevitably, approaching the subject from slightly different perspectives.  Nevertheless, most of the doubts I have about Irvine’s book relate to its philosophical basis, its fundamental interpretation of Stoicism, which is also the focus of the criticisms in Warren’s review.  As this is just a brief blog post, I won’t have space to go into the philosophy very thoroughly.  (I’ve already enlarged it considerably to clarify certain points and add quotations, in response to online comments and emails.)  For simplicity, I’ve broken down the key points into several headings below…

The Goal of Stoicism

Irvine clearly states that his book replaces the traditional goal of life in Stoicism, “living in accord with virtue”, with the goal of attaining emotional tranquillity. He claims that this is the central focus of the Roman Imperial Stoics. I would dispute this interpretation of the late Roman Stoics and I see it as a fundamental departure from Stoic philosophy in general. As Warren writes: “this interest in tranquillity rather than virtue is the first sign of what I take to be the major fault of the book.”  As Warren notes, at times Irvine’s account of Stoicism is so far removed from what’s traditionally understood by that term that it bears more resemblance to those opposing schools of ancient philosophy such as Epicureanism (or possibly Skepticism) which did define the highest good as tranquillity (ataraxia), or freedom from pain and suffering.  Ancient critics observed that the Epicurean goal of tranquillity is obviously more passive, whereas the Stoic goal of virtue is more active.  We achieve virtue only by acting in accord with reason but we can achieve tranquillity, the absence of distress, by simple avoidance or not doing certain things.  Hence, Epicurus advised his followers to confine their concerns to a close-knit circle of friends, to live fairly reclusive lives, and to avoid marrying and having children, in order to achieve tranquillity.  In sharp contrast, the Stoics advise us actively to engage with life, through our relationships, and to extend our concern to all of mankind, philanthropically.

The supreme virtue in Stoic Ethics is practical or moral wisdom and traditional Stoic “philosophy” is literally the love of wisdom therefore, not the love of tranquillity. All Stoicism is unquestionably concerned with tranquillity but I don’t think any ancient Stoics made this the supreme goal of their philosophy. Practical wisdom is the highest virtue, according to the Stoics, and indeed the basis of all other virtues, which are all one, being special forms of (moral) knowledge about what is good, bad or indifferent, across various aspects of life, e.g., wisdom takes the form of justice in the social sphere, and the form of courage and self-discipline when one’s irrational “passions” arise as an obstacle to appropriate action. The Stoics are clear that feelings of tranquillity are necessarily attributes of the ideal Sage, because otherwise he would struggle to maintain a life in accord with reason and wisdom.  However, these feelings are the consequence of virtue in the form of self-mastery, or courage and self-discipline.  Virtue leads to tranquillity, but tranquillity alone does not necessarily lead to virtue.  Julia Annas sums up the Stoic attitude toward virtue and tranquillity in her scholarly analysis of Hellenistic philosophies, The Morality of Happiness,

If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)

The Stoics clearly considered tranquillity to be important but, for several reasons, it is not as important as virtue. For example, the highest good is synonymous with what is praiseworthy according to the Stoics but we do not normally praise people merely for being tranquil unless they are also virtuous – a serial killer may experience tranquillity while chopping his victims’ bodies up. The Stoics argue that the highest good must be both “instrumentally” good and good-in-itself and that only virtue meets these criteria. Tranquillity may be good-in-itself but it is not (inherently) instrumentally good, it’s something of a dead end as the chief goal in life, compared to practical wisdom and virtuous action. Its precise status in Stoic philosophy isn’t entirely clear, and Stoics may have disagreed over it. However, it seems to me that the early Stoics typically believed that feelings of tranquillity (and joy) naturally supervene upon perfect virtue and are only “good” insofar as they are the product of wisdom and honour. One problem with making tranquillity the supreme goal of life is that it potentially justifies actions that are unwise and unhealthy. For example, if we could achieve lasting tranquillity by having a lobotomy and taking tranquillisers every day would someone not be justified in doing so if their supreme goal is tranquillity at all costs? However, if tranquillity is only valued insofar as it is consistent with our long-term mental health or ability to act wisely and honourably, that implies that virtue is after all being regarded as the chief good in life.

In modern psychotherapy, it’s widely-recognised now that the desire primarily to avoid unpleasant or painful feelings tends to backfire.  A simple illustration of this: People who express strong agreement with the statement “Anxiety is bad” tend to be more vulnerable to developing subsequent psychiatric disorders.  The desire primarily to avoid unpleasant feelings, or to attain emotional tranquillity, is-often called “experiential avoidance”.  There’s a consensus now, based on research, that excessive experiential avoidance is highly toxic in terms of long-term mental health.  For a number of reasons, people whose lives revolve around the goal of emotional tranquillity, or avoidance of unpleasant feelings, tend to achieve the opposite in many cases.  The Stoics, throughout their history, consistently objected to the misinterpretation of their philosophy as endorsing the “absence of feelings”.  Rather, they describe the ideal Sage as someone who engages emotionally with life rather than retreating from it, as the Epicureans sometimes did.  He feels physical and emotional pain but overcomes it, and acts virtuously, with wisdom and justice.

Stoic Determinism

Warren notes that Irvine rejects Stoic determinism and remarks that although this is probably not palatable to many modern readers, it is nevertheless an important Stoic commitment.  He writes: “In its absence, it is unclear to me in what sense it is right to call what is left Stoicism at all.”  That perhaps overstates the objection.  Determinism is an important part of Stoic philosophy but it’s not clear that it’s completely indispensible.  It seems to me that ancient authors, such as Cicero, regard the ethical theory that virtue is the only true good as the core of Stoic philosophy, and the feature which distinguished it from rival schools of thought.  Someone who completely adheres to the Stoic ethical theory might reasonably be called a Stoic, even if they struggle to accept their determinism, or other aspects of Stoic “physics” such as their pagan theology.  Neither can I see any reason to argue that belief in determinism is a necessary presupposition if one is to justify belief in the Stoic ethics of virtue.

However, from my perspective as a psychotherapist, I would also respond to Warren’s review by saying that belief in determinism is probably not as objectionable to ordinary people in the modern world as he assumes.  In The Philosophy of CBT (2010), I wrote at length about an early 20th century psychotherapist called Paul Dubois.  Dubois is largely forgotten now but he was an important precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).  He was also heavily-influenced by the Stoics, not only referring to them frequently in his own writings but also assigning reading Seneca’s letters, for example,  to his patients as therapeutic homework assignments.  In particular, though, Dubois was thoroughly committed to Stoic determinism and felt it was important to educate patients in this view of life because of its potential therapeutic value.  Subsequently, some of the founders of behaviour therapy in the 1950s, Wolpe and Lazarus, also taught their patients a deterministic outlook on life for its therapeutic value.  I would agree with this.  I’ve found that my own clients are able to benefit from a deterministic perspective, in a similar manner.  For example, it helps to moderate feelings of guilt or anger if we can view our own actions and those of other people as the inevitable consequence of our hereditary characteristics and learning experiences during life.

Stoic Theology

For modern readers of Stoicism, who wish to become followers of the philosophy, Stoic theology is probably the most problematic aspect of their philosophical system.  The Stoics were pantheists who believed that the cosmos is a single living organism, an immortal animal called Zeus, who possesses perfect reason and wisdom.  Zeus is the father of mankind and creator of the physical universe.  He  is provident, having created the universe according to a prudent divine plan; he cares for the wellbeing of his creation and children.  It’s true that the ancient Stoics seem very committed to this view, particularly Epictetus.

However, although it is a controversial area, there are some indications that the ancient Stoics considered their ethics, the core of their philosophy, to stand independently of their theological beliefs.  Marcus Aurelius expresses this many times to himself by referring to the dichotomous slogan: “God or atoms”.  Whether the universe is created by a provident God or by the random collision of atoms, either way virtue is still the only true good and Stoicism as a way of life still remains viable.  There are several other indications in the ancient literature that suggest the Stoics may have been able to entertain a more agnostic or even atheistic worldview as consistent with the core of their philosophy, which I’ve surveyed in my article on God or Atoms.  Their predecessors, the Cynics, were considered examplars of virtue by the Stoics, although they did not share their theological beliefs or interest in philosophical “physics”.  It’s true that belief in a provident God makes it easier for Stoics to judge the universe as whole as good, and to accept their fate with equanimity and even joy or affection.  However, even agnostic or atheistic Stoics can view individual external events with the detachment (“indifference”) required by Stoic Ethics.  It also seems plausible to me that a modern atheist might judge the universe conceived in its totality as good, with an attitude of gratitude or even “piety” toward life as a whole, without having to adopt any theological assumptions at all –  certainly without becoming a worshipper of Zeus!

“Negative Visualisation” & Hedonic Adaptation

The Stoics recommend an important psychological technique that involves repeatedly imagining future catastrophes as if they are happening now and viewing them with detached indifference.  Seneca, who refers to this particularly often, calls is praemeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of adversity.  Warren says he has “no sense of the potential efficacy of this manoeuvre.”  That’s something I’m in a position to comment upon.  The most robustly-established technique in the whole field of research on modern psychotherapy is “exposure” to feared event, a behaviour therapy technique for anxiety developed in the 1950s.  This is ideally done in vivo, in the real world.  However, it is also done in imagination, called “imaginal exposure”.  There are many variations of the technique and it activates several different mechanisms of change.  It is also employed differently for different forms of anxiety.  However, in essence, when someone visualises an event that provokes anxiety in a controlled manner and for a prolonged amount of time, usually 15-30 minutes, their anxiety will naturally tend to decline (“habituate”), and when this is repeated every day for several weeks, the reduction tends to become lasting and to spread (“generalise”) to related situations.

The ancient references to this technique can be read as recognising the phenomenon of habituation, e.g., when they refer to anticipation of feared events as a way to blunt their terrors.  The Stoics also make it requirement of irrational passions, such as anxiety, that the impression evoking them is “fresh”.  It’s unclear what they meant by this except that they clearly imply that when impressions (including mental images of feared events) cease to be “fresh” they should no longer evoke the same level of anxious “passion” – that can perhaps be seen as a reference to the process psychologists now call anxiety “habituation”.  However, this natural reduction in anxiety, although seemingly acknowledged by the Stoics, is clearly secondary to the emphasis they place on rehearsing Stoic principles in the face of anticipated adversity, such as the dogma that the good must be under our control and external events cannot be judged “bad”, either in the sense of being “evil” or “harmful”.  Irvine departs from traditional Stoicism, though, in portraying Stoic premeditation of adversity, which he calls “negative visualisation”, as a means of reversing “hedonic adaptation”.  To cut a long story short, this is clearly a means of enhancing sensory pleasure in the present by mentally rehearsing the privation of pleasurable experiences.  As such, it’s not the main rationale for the traditional Stoic technique and would fit much more naturally with the goals of Epicurean philosophy.

Warren objects that “negative visualisation” or rehearsing indifference to anticipated misfortunes might preserve the “status quo” in a way that conflicts with widespread ethical assumptions.  He’s concerned that Irvine’s account of accepting insults, when applied to things like sexist or racist abuse, might be the wrong course of action.  “This is surely wrong, or at best, tells only half the story”, he says.  “I can see why tranquillity might be won by caring less if one is insulted; but why not set out also to prevent or discourage insults?”  I think Warren recognises, though, that this is only a problem for Irvine and not for Stoicism proper.  Traditional Stoics are able to judge insults as fundamentally harmless while, nevertheless, preferring to have the offending person as a friend rather than enemy.  This requires a delicate balance between emotional detachment and commitment to acting appropriately to resolve interpersonal conflict, as Stoics seek to live in harmony with other people and spread friendship and virtue as widely as possible.

The “Trichotomy” of Control

Irvine seeks to replace the Stoic dichotomy between things under our control (or “up to us”) and things not, with a “trichotomy” that classifies most events in a third category, consisting of things “partially” under our control.  Again, this is not a trivial aspect of Stoicism.  It’s an integral element of the whole philosophical system.  Attempting to replace it with a threefold classification introduces many problems.  Are we not thereby committed to the view that things “partially under our control” are “partially good”?  However, this would seem to wreck the conceptual framework of Stoic Ethics.  For example, it would mean that some aspects of Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia) are partially in the hands of fate, which would fundamentally doom the Stoic Sage to the experience of frustrated desire and emotional suffering.  In any case, it seems to me that the Stoic dichotomy is more accurate.  To say that something is “partially” under our control is surely just to say that some parts of it are under our control and some are not.  It would be better to spell out which parts or aspects of a situation are within our control and which are not, and that inevitably brings us back to the traditional Stoic dichotomy.

Irvine then reintroduces the simple dichotomy found in Stoicism, perhaps unintentionally, in the form of his distinction between internal and external goals in life.  Strangely, he says he can find no evidence of this doctrine in ancient Stoicism, although I think most modern readers of Stoicism would recognise it immediately as one of the central doctrines of the whole philosophy, famously illustrated by Cicero in the metaphor of the archer whose internal goal (telos) is to shoot straight, to the best of his ability, while his external goal or “target” (skopos) is to actually hit the bullseye.  The former is under his direct control, whereas the latter is not.  In life in general, only our voluntary intentions to act and judgements are under our direct control, and the consequences or outcome of our actions are not.  This is really the essence of all Stoic Ethics, which is the core of their philosophy.