Just this week I discovered I was a Stoic and you might be one too. Actually it is little more than living a reasonable life with the emphasis on living a tranquil life as opposed to a happy one. There doesn’t seem to be much difference until you get into the theory of what tranquility is versus happiness. Both are just fine when you are there but happiness is difficult if not impossible to attain, whereas tranquility is quite easy, with a little thought and practice.
The philosophy of Stoicism goes back to the Classic Greeks and was popular with the Roman citizens, and the slaves too, for hundreds of years. One of the greatest stoic authors, Epictetus, began his career as a slave to the secretary of the Emperor Nero. Early in his career, Nero was very popular and was educated in a wonderful way by the stoic Seneca, but a bit later apparently Nero had some kind of stroke and from then on was reported to be awful. That has little to do with the stoics or their philosophy, but they were living at a time that was probably as turbulent as is our present one. Perhaps as an Emperor of the Roman Empire Nero found it was difficult to be tranquil, and yet the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius seems to have done quite well.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine, covers what one would expect of a book on how to live — Beginning with – On loving Mankind – continuing with On Dealing with Other People – and ending with Dying well. A final tagged chapter is devoted to some practical things to do to move toward a tranquil life. One of the techniques is quite the opposite of the modern view of happiness which is based on the acquisition of better possessions. Modern advertising proclaims with great vehemence that possessing more and better stuff is the way to happiness. Stoicism challenges the foolish idea that unlimited acquisition of things, which have little value to stoics, aids in the attainment of tranquility.
The book states, “It will take both effort and willpower to abandon our old goals, such as the attainment of fame and fortune, and replace them with a new goal, namely, the attainment of tranquility. … that we would also be better off if, instead of working hard to become wealthy, we trained ourselves to be satisfied with what we have; if, instead of seeking fame, we overcame our craving for the admiration of others.” “What will be our reward for practicing Stoicism? According to the Stoics, we can hope to become more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word. We will also, they say, experience fewer negative emotions, such as anger, grief, disappointment, and anxiety, and because of this we will enjoy a degree of tranquility that previously would have been unattainable.”
One of the ways we avoid the empty quest for consumer based happiness is to practice negative visualization. Negative visualization is the opposite of positive visualization. The advertising-driven idea of positive visualization is to imagine how happy you will be when you possess this new item being proffered. Negative visualization is based on how you would live without things which you now have and how enjoyable it is to have exactly what you do have. Or visualize those things which can not be taken away, like your personal character, and your ability to be content with what you have, or even much less. Simply consider these things a few times a day, and soon you will feel comfortable with what you have at this moment, and you can be tranquil.
If you strive to possess the very best, you will be continually dissatisfied, because even when you have something very good you will soon discover someone else has something that is better in some way. It is impossible to have the best in every way. For the stoic, and everyone else, it is easy to obtain those things which are not considered valuable. But these easily obtained things serve to make life tranquil for one with a stoic attitude. When something might seem desirable but is unavailable a practicing stoic can easily shift their attention to some other thing which can be delightful. Why worry about the multitude of unattainable things when there are multitudes of others that are easily attainable just by shifting one’s attention? Enjoy things that are easily obtainable and ignore the unobtainable. I may freely enjoy the beauty of my neighbor’s yard without having to endure the work and expense of maintaining it.
A Guide to the Good Life, is a beginner’s guide to a better life. The suggestions it offers are easy to apply and after you realize how tranquil you can become with so little effort it is easy to simply turn away from false happiness that strident over-stuffed consumerism promises and instead possess a simpler more tranquil life.
When you are able to intellectually grasp the stoic life strategy it becomes easy to practice being tranquil with little. When questing after happiness it becomes impossible to attain it because better things are always beyond your grasp.
Happiness is always beyond the grasp of a consumer, but tranquility is within easy reach of a stoic.