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

William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) is a 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.

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

Would you recomend another introductory book on the philosophy of Stoics? Thanks and best regards, Vinícius

You clearly explain that your piece is a response to the thoughts of Mr. Warren. However, there is no reason to speak of the Stoic School in the past tense. For example, http://orderofchampion.com/

More than that, you make several valid arguments. The Stoic School still trains the same way as it has at all times, in all places, by all sages. The answer to the question, “What is the end of man?” is the essence of any school. It is what a school always is and never is not. You correctly point out that the Stoic school answers the primal question, “Virtue.” The school that answers, “Tranquility” with the common American meaning would more closely align with the Nirvana-in-this-lifetime of Theravada Buddhism without its metaphysical samsara cycle of rebirth. Nevertheless, the Epicurean school answers the primal question, “Pleasure” and not “Tranquility.” Therefore, Mr. Warren cannot be describing the Epicureans.

The inquiry into your background probably reveals an element of the confusion. Epictetus wrote us in many letters (and the oral tradition is the same) that Stoic training is not solely a mental activity. Unfortunately, many teach about Stoics who are not Stoics themselves. Studying how to kiss is not the same as kissing; neither is getting degrees in Stoicism the same as being a trained Stoic.

The comments about feelings of tranquility and others might be a little ambiguous. In English, “feelings” can mean either sensations (“that feels bumpy”) or emotions (“you hurt my feelings”). The former is indifferent. The latter is subject to the individual’s reason. Feelings of tranquility, peace, joy, and the like are of the former category. They are the sensations of the soul exercising right judgment. So we would say sensations such as peace or tranquility are the soul’s resonance with the universal reason, similar to the unison between the sympathetic oscillation in a finely tuned (trained) antenna (soul) and the harmonics of a particular frequency (universal reason) propagated through nature. Therefore, it is said that feelings of joy, for example, are indifferent and the action of virtue itself is the good.

The School teaches that pain is not to be avoided but harmonized with, as with all storms in nature. It is anathema to the sages to avoid pain, because “April showers bring May flowers.”

You also touched on the common confusion about Stoic determinism. Many of the uninitiated do not understand the reconciliation between Stoic determinism and free will. We consider it the same as all other laws of nature. For example, gravity is determined by the Universal Reason. An individual cannot do anything about it. Yet one soul chooses to jump off a cliff; another chooses to be a gymnast; a third chooses to land on the moon. In this way, we say natural characteristics are predetermined, yet the individual freely wills to jump off a cliff or land on the moon.

The prevailing sentiment is still that our ethics are intimately connected with our theology. This is because the Universal Reason is not reasonable if it is full of vice. The use of the name Zeus, or Universal Reason, or the Unknown God is not to be confused with popular mythological personifications of polytheistic vice. Similar to Socrates who always used “the God” when he was serious, as Plato wrote made clear in the Republic, the School has always taught that the Universal Reason is clearly seen by nature and is the inexcusable basis of sound reason by which we discern the virtues. So any school that adopts a theology of gods of vice would necessarily follow different virtues as the end of mankind. However, the School has always seen rationality in the universe and in its Universal Reason as the germ from which human virtue stems.

The premeditation of adversity is part of Stoic training and demonstrates how Stoicism is not simply a subject to study; it is action; it is the logos coming into the physical universe. Wrestlers understand the preparation involved prior to an important contest. The way to win is by practicing moves and defenses before the contest. The preparation is most “fresh” when it is most new. When new, the conscious mind engages every step. After proper preparation, the body memory takes over, and the wrestler instinctively responds to his opponent’s maneuvers and instantly pounces on any sign of weakness. This is an example of premeditation of adversity. The same applies for premeditation of challenges to virtue.

You are correct about the “trichotomy” of control being redundant. The School always has and always will train students that, “Of all existing things some are in our power, and others are not in our power” as the Enchiridion famously begins. The triple consideration of events is not whether they are under our control or not. However, all events can be categorized as good, evil, or indifferent. Of the events under our control, our response can be good or bad. Of external events, they are only indifferent. Therefore, all things can be viewed as in our power or beyond our power. But this has nothing to do with partially under our control.

Thank you for a fine response, and thank you for applying Stoicism in CBT. Good health to you!

This has piqued my interest in Cicero. Do you specifically recommend De Finibus or do you know if something like Penguin’s Selected Works would be better suited for a layman? Thanks

If you’re interested in Stoicism then, yes, take a look at De Finibus. It’s a little bit heavy going in places but worth reading.


I’m very glad that I found this very nice post by you on William B. Irvine’s book. His book is one of my favorites which I’ve read and listened to as an itunes book.

It’s a great book which I would recommend to anyone interested in Stoicism, particularly those new to it.

Thank you for your continued contributions to the field of Stoicism!


Donald, stimulating article. However, I have a small criticism. You present the situation as if is either virtue or tranquility. Whereas if virtue is a means to tranquility, an essential means that is (so that you cannot be tranquil unless you have been virtuous first) then I do not think your criticisms hold.

Firstly, if someone uses virtue as a means to tranquility, that person could not be tranquil serial killer or think a lobotomy a good idea. Since, to be tranquil he must be virtuous first.

Second, he would not passively avoid situations because he can only be tranquil after acting virtuously.

This may not be what Irvine means (I will have another look at his book) and it may not be Stoicism proper, but I don’t care whether I am being Stoic or not, I care that I have a philosophy I am happy with, even if it has no name.

Well, we obviously have to distinguish between what Irvine has said and what someone else might want to say in order to support similar conclusions, that opens it up to a much wider debate. However, the point your making appears to require the premise that virtue is an essential means to tranquility. I would dispute that premise, and I think most people would find it counter-intuitive. So you’d need to provide some sort of argument to support that claim before you could proceed to build upon it as your foundation. That’s definitely not what Irvine says in the book either. He actually rejects the whole discussion of virtue as irrelevant to his version of “Stoicism”. As to your last point, I think everyone else, myself included would agree that the name in itself is irrelevant. Nobody cares whether something happens to be called “Stoicism” or not. Except for the following reason, which I think I mentioned in the article. When we’re trying to discuss philosophy with other people, as Socrates was famous for emphasizing, it’s important that we’re clear about the meaning of key terms, otherwise we risk wasting everyone’s time speaking at cross purposes and misunderstanding one another. It’s actually been my experience that people who read this book tend to get into such confused discussions with other people about Stoicism because they come away believing that the goal of Stoicism is tranquility, and they don’t understand why other people think it has to do with virtue. That’s just not very helpful when it comes to discussing the subject. In private, though, you can redefine words to mean whatever you like, of course, and “black” can mean white or “up” can mean down, etc.

I don’t agree that my point requires the premise that virtue is essential to tranquility (necessary for tranquility), if that necessity is conceptual. I agree some necessity is required but that can be self-imposed or psychologically necessary.

In other words, there are two ways this can work:
1. Someone can simply decide to adopt virtue as a means to the higher goal of tranquility. We know that virtue can lead to tranquility. I think we all agree Stoics say as much. So, if someone simply insists on only attaining tranquility via virtue, then there is no cause for lobotomy or avoidance, and psychopathic killing would also be out.
2. Someone might realise that their psychology dictates that they can only attain tranquility via virtue. That psychology would, in my opinion, be not so different to a normal psychology. That is, they are disturbed if they treat people unfairly or act in a cowardly fashion etc. To lobotomise oneself or avoid things would not be treating others fairly who would have to look after you and would also not be true tranquility because one would not really understand what was happening and so would be disturbed by this lack of knowledge. Also someone who has something like a normal psychology would not find tranquility in murder.

In other words, for most of us virtue is psychologically necessary for tranquility. Hence, we can aim for tranquility via virtue.

Well, I don’t think that premise is self-evident and I think most people would have questions about it. So you’d need to provide some sort of justification for it. You’ve given a couple of comments that seem to elaborate but I’m not sure how they’re actually intended to provide support for your premise. I should say that there are also additional problems that the Stoics and others have identified with this notion about virtue being a means to tranquility. So you’d have to justify the premise somehow and then deal with the other objections on top of that to support your theory. For example, if virtue is a means to rewarding feelings, as Seneca notes, and there’s assumed to be any sort of delay in time between exercising virtue and experiencing the consequences, you introduce the problem that your action could be interrupted, which would negate the value conferred on it. The typical (most obvious) example is when someone acts bravely in the heat of battle and is killed before experiencing any joy or tranquility that might have resulted as a consequence – their virtuous action therefore no longer constitutes a means to the valued end because it’s been interrupted. But intuitively most people would say that we still have a moral duty to act bravely under those sort of conditions.

Do you mean the premise that for most of us (or many of us, at least), virtue is necessary for tranquility? If you you mean that premise, I agree it is not self-evident, but then not much is. However, it looks to me as if it follows naturally from the Stoic claim that virtue can lead to tranquility. And in any case, it is rather easy to argue for, at least to my satisfaction as follows: Only when my life goes smoothly can I be tranquil.

To clarify what I am arguing. In your article you are making the claim that having a chief goal of tranquility necessarily leads to avoidance and the possibility of lobotomy as a logical course of action. To challenge your claim all I need to provide is an account of how it might not. I have given two. The first does not need much justification because it is so simple. The second draws on premises we share. Ie virtue can lead to tranquility, or if my life goes smoothly it is likely tranquility will arise. If you have a specific criticism of either example I offer I would be interested to hear them.

The being killed in battle example does not persuade me. The fighter does not know whether he will die, but he knows that if he does not act bravely and stays alive he will feel bad and therefore no tranquility is possible. Therefore, he still has motivation to act bravely.

A harder example would be if he knows he will die. A premeditated act of sacrifice. But even then if he does not act bravely and therefore survives he would not attain tranquility, perhaps for the rest of his life. So, there is still a motivation to self–sacrifice, when necessary.

Incidentally it may help if you know my objection to making virtue my chief good. I feel psychologically repelled by the idea of trying to cultivate a virtuous character as it feels as if it could become problematic to me for several reasons. It could lead to stress as one tries to live up to it. It could lead to being hyper reflective. It can lead to a sense of superiority and then worse characteristics that follow from that. Eg arrogance. It’s hard to be improve one’s character without at the same time claiming it is better than other people’s who have not worked on their character in the same way.


Yes, I don’t think you’ve supported the premise that for most people virtue is necessary for tranquility. You’d actually need to justify the slightly stronger premise that virtue is the only means of achieving tranquility. I think most people, on reflection, would find those assumptions questionable, and possibly disagree with them, so they stand in need of some justification. You say it follows naturally from the Stoic claim that virtue can lead to tranquility. However, there’s a massive logical difference between saying that A can sometimes lead to B, and saying that A is the one and only means of achieving B – and conflating those two things seems to vitiate your whole argument. The Stoics treat tranquility (ataraxia) as a side-effect of virtue, which “supervenes”, sometimes but not always.

Your final points are interesting but it’s hard to sympathise with them entirely because surely more or less the same criticism could be made against the goal of tranquility, i.e., that could also lead to stress, being hyper-reflective, and arrogance. (The fact that excessive pursuit of emotional calm can backfire and lead to greater emotional distress and poorer long-term emotional resilience is a major theme in research on psychotherapy over the past couple of decades.) Your final sentence probably goes too far in coming across as a rejection of all attempts at self-improvement. Surely we’d be in trouble if we couldn’t risk attempting any sort of self-improvement whatsoever? (And again, surely the pursuit of tranquility would have to be considered another form of self-improvement.)


I don’t need to claim that for most people virtue is necessary for tranquility. All I need is that for one person at least, me, it is so. The reasons would simply to do with my psychological set up. This would be sufficient to show the consequence you claim follow necessarily from making tranquility my highest goal do not necessarily follow.

My objection to cultivating a virtuous character as opposed to other kinds of self-improvement are to do with the fact that virtue has a special status which other kinds of improvement do not have. Moral superiority is equivalent to someone saying ‘I am a better person than you.’ However, if I am better at being tranquil, it does not follow that someone is a superior person. Another person may reply, ‘I am not particularly interested in being tranquil’. But being more virtuous sounds very definitely that someone is claiming to be a better person.

I’ve been rereading Irvine. In the quote below, it looks like he claims Epictetus is claiming that virtue is a route to the goal of tranquility. This leaves open the possibility of other routes to tranquility. But I would be more open to aiming for virtue if it is in order to arrive at tranquility. Since, then it does not look like I am aiming to be a better person than other people. I would also be more open at aiming for virtue if it is a route to tranquility because it seems to me the most likely and realistic route to achieving tranquility, as all your examples in your book on Stoicism and CBT suggests.

“For the Roman Stoics, the goals of attaining tranquility and attaining virtue were connected, and for this reason, when they discuss virtue, they are likely to discuss tranquility as well. In particular, they are likely to point out that one benefit of attaining virtue is that we will thereupon experience tranquility. Thus, early in his Discourses, Epictetus advises us to pursue virtue but immediately reminds us that virtue “holds out the promise … to create happiness and calm and serenity” and that “progress toward virtue is progress toward each of these states of mind.” Indeed, he goes so far as to identify serenity as the result at which virtue aims. Fn 23” page 38


It’s taken me a while to get round to reading this because I’ve been busy. You’d have to prove, then, that virtue is indeed necessary for your own tranquility. But surely that’s beside the point in terms of the article above? It’s not about you as an individual but about Stoicism in general, of course.

Hi, I’ve been distracted by reading your book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness.
In that book you reaptedly emphasise that Stoics believe that humans are essentially rational and social. Hence, the corresponding virtues of wisdom and justice. If true, that means humans cannot reach contentment until both their rational and social sides are satisfied. Thus, to be tranquil they must first be rational and just, that is, virtuous. That is exactly my point.
In other words, the Stoic claim about our essential nature supports the idea that it not just me who must be virtuous in order to be tranquil. Hence, your argument in the article does not hold.
Regards Pete

I’m not sure I follow your reasoning, to be honest. The Stoics believed that a sort of peace called apatheia is part of what it means to have rational and social virtue. What we usually mean by tranquility or peace of mind today is a different concept. The Stoics believed that feelings of peace, which I think is what you’re talking about, “supervene” upon virtue and should not be confused with virtue itself. The pursuit of those peaceful feelings (ataraxia) is the goal of Epicureanism, but not Stoicism.

As I understood your argument in the article, you are claiming that if we make ataraxia our ultimate goal rather than virtue, unpleasant consequences occur. This is because without virtue guiding us we may just avoid difficult situations, or a psychopath may kill people because without virtue to guide him, he would find nothing wrong with doing this.
What I am saying is that these consequences would not follow for most of us if Stoics are correct about humans being essentially rational and social. Since, then, if we make ataraxia our ultimate goal our essential nature would require us to to be wise and just before we could reach our goal of ataraxia.
I am not arguing that Stoicism really does make ataraxia its goal. I am merely pointing out that your arguments against making ataraxia our ultimate goal do not hold.
It does however, follow, from my argument that making ataraxia my ultimate goal is still a workable way of using a good deal of Stoic philosophy.
To make this point stronger, I am still ploughing through Epictitus’s discourses looking for textual support or refutation that he thought virtue or something like ataraxia should be our ultimate goal. So, far he very rarely uses the word translated as virtue, and explicitly seems to argue for something like ataraxia. Of course, I may soon stumble against a refutation of my argument. However, I would still maintain that making ataraxia our ultimate goal is a workable philosophy that does not suffer from the problems you describe in the article, if the Stoics are correct that it is part of human’s essential nature to be just and rational. Since, then we must first be just and rational before we could attain ataraxia.

Not quite right. My argument in this article is that 1. It’s not what the Stoics taught and 2. That unhealthy consequences potentially follow. I don’t follow how you get from the Stoic premise that humans are essentially rational (in the sense of having the *capacity* for reason, not actually being perfectly rational) and social to the conclusion that the pursuit of ataraxia would never lead to unhealthy consequences. That seems like a non sequitur hence it doesn’t appear to work as a counter-argument against what I wrote in the article, unless you can provide some other argument to justify it.

HI Donald. Thanks for the review.

I’m just now reading the book.

I’m curious to know if you object to Irvine’s description of the “split,” in western philosophy that occured with the death of Socrates. The idea is that “practical,” life philosophy and theoretical philosophy split up with his death. Irvine says that theoretical philosophy was practiced by Plato and the academics, without any interest in letting said theory influence the way they lived life. On the other hand, he said that the Cynics implemented a philosophy of life but had disdain for the theoretical side of it.

Stoicism, he says, was the first philosophy to recombine the two sides.

Would you consider this accurate? What about the more than a dozen philosophies that grew up in Greece around this time? None of the others combined the two parts in their systems?


That’s not quite how I see things. I think Plato retained some practical concern but in the ancient world it was certainly perceived that Diogenes the Cynic and Plato symbolized divergent views about philosophy as a way of life: they Cynics being more concerned with strength of character and scornful of bookish, academic studies. The Stoics do combine these influences, basically, by saying that theoretical studies are of value *insofar* as they contribute to wisdom and virtue but that philosophical reading and discussion can become a vice if it’s divorced from the fundamental goal of life. Most Hellenistic philosophical schools combined theory and practice to some extent, in varying degrees.

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