Wednesday, February 18th 2009 | Ismael Ghalimi
Warning: what follows contains materials of philosophical nature that might offend religious readers. Such is not my intention, but reader care is advised. Also, the reason why such an article was published on a blog usually covering enterprise software and personal productivity is that it relates to a book that might be of interest to some readers of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which itself was covered repeatedly on these pages. Subsequent writings on the subject will take place at ghalimi.name, which is a more appropriate venue for such topics.
Once in a while, one comes across an idea so profound that it has the power to change one’s life. So was the case for me yesterday on my way to Columbus, OH. Feeling like Christopher Columbus (re)discovering the Americas, I re-discovered the ancient Stoic philosophy through the reading of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine’s, thanks to a program I recently listened to on KPFA. I had never read the philosophy of Zeno of Citium, Epitectus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, but I knew in my heart that such a liberating yet deceivingly simple way of living must have been devised before. I just did not know where to look for it. And much like the author, I had been recently intrigued by Zen Buddhism, but could not fully relate to its esoteric nature.
Classic Stoicism preaches a way of life that can bring tranquility and joy to anyone. Through simple psychological techniques such as negative visualization, dichotomy (/trichotomy) of control, or internalization of goals — all brilliantly described in Irivine’s book — one can suppress negative feelings such as anxiety, fear, or frustration, while learning how to better deal with insult or grief, and why fame and luxury should not be looked for (more on this later).
While reading through the 336 pages of Irivine’s book, I was amazed at how natural the overall philosophy felt to me. Its guiding principles were some of the very few absolute values that I could genuinely call mine, and many of its techniques I had discovered myself over time. In the author’s words, I must be a “congenital Stoic.” Nevertheless, I had never been able to spell out such a coherent system on my own, nor had I come across anyone who had until now.
Reading through the book’s last chapters, and especially Chapter Twenty-One — Stoicism Reconsidered — I experienced an exhilarating rush of wholesomeness, being confronted for the first time to a coherent philosophy of life. Religious minds would say I got a revelation. Being agnostic myself, I would call it an epiphany, and it came in the form of Irvine’s proof that Stoicism was a “correct philosophy of life,” not by referring to Zeus as the ancient Stoics did, but to evolutionary theory in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular. Not being a professional philosopher myself, I cannot adequately criticize Irvine’s argumentation, but it made sense to me. In fact, I would even go as far as challenging the author’s excessive modesty, and suggest that he actually delivered a modern proof for Stoicism’s overall correctness.
To say the book convinced me is an understatement. It converted me, not only to the doctrine, but to the scholastic approach of ancient philosophy. And as Seneca put it, “I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters; I, too, have the right to form an opinion.” (Seneca, “On the Happy Life,” III.2). So let me offer some suggestions as to how Stoicism could be extended to benefit from more recent discoveries.
First, the notion of “duty,” which ancient Stoics justify by the mere fact that we are social creatures and that we all mutually benefit from virtuous social behavior, should be further developed. In order for it to become more acceptable, its justification should go beyond the benefits of harmonious inter-personal relationships, and include a notion best described as statistical Karma: if more people act benevolently with others in a pass-it-forward kind of way, the world at large will become a better place, and we will all benefit from it indirectly.
Second, the notion that fame after death should not be set as a goal, while advisable at first, is unnecessarily challenging for those who do not believe in life after death. Instead, I believe that one’s goal could (should) be to create a lasting legacy, either by passing the virtuous of a Stoic life to one’s descendants, or by making positive contributions to mankind, small or large. Such a legacy can reasonably be considered as some form of life after death by agnostic philosophers, or a component of life after death by their religious counterparts. Furthermore, because such a legacy will be judged by those who survive us after our passing, setting its creation as a primary life goal should not expose us to the usual traps of fame seeking. Last but not least, it should be obvious to anyone that such a legacy should be a positive one, as in one that will benefit those who survive us and for generations to come, as opposed to a free entry into history books for reason of crime against humanity.
Third, I believe that the Stoic reaction to insult (offense might even be a more appropriate term) should be extended in order to include what is possibly the most powerful discoveries of the past two millennia: Christian forgiveness. Before explaining what I mean by that, let me give some personal background: my mother was born in France and received a Catholic education. My father was born in Algeria and was raised as a Muslim. I was born in France thirty-five years ago and grew up in a perfectly atheist environment, like many kids of this time in post-68, pre-socialist France. Nevertheless, I later developed a keen interest for Christianity and its principles, originally through the watching of movies from David Lynch. Fire Walk with Me gave me an intuitive understanding of the notion of the original sin and its repercussions on our collective psyche as members of a Judeo-Christian community, while The Straight Story offered a moving demonstration of the power of forgiveness. While I view the concept of original sin as fundamentally anti-Stoic, I consider the notion of forgiveness as the ultimate exercise of Stoic mastery. The reason for this is simple: on one hand, ignoring an insult or offense is neutral at best, even slightly negative as the author would admit, for it creates frustration on the side of the offender. On the other hand, genuine forgiveness, although tremendously challenging for the one who received the offense and arguably rare, has the power to deliver a transforming epiphany to the offender. In other words, forgiveness could be the ultimate act of Neostoicism, and is positively viral by nature, therefore should be practiced whenever possible.
I am now sitting on a plane on my way back home. Practicing negative visualization, I realize how fortunate I am that the previous three legs of my trip were completed without any incidents. And while I contemplate the prospect of the plane crashing before we make it back to SFO, I know in my heart that I am living a good life now, at this very moment (carpe diem). I realize that I shared through these lines more than I expected to, and that it does not make me a proper stealth Stoic as advocated in Irvine’s book, but I also know that many of the ideas he brought back to life were born through Socratic debate. I simply wish to contribute to the discussion, with as much innocence that my ignorance will afford me.
Tonight, I found my way (in a Taoist sense), and this brings me joy.
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