Book review: The Stoic Challenge, by William Irvine

Imagine you get to the airport, ready for a (you think) well deserved vacation to Paris. As I will be doing soon after finishing the first draft of this essay. You have a long experience in traveling internationally. You pack your bags following a comprehensive checklist. You get to the airport with plenty of time to spare, maybe even enough to indulge in a glass of red wine before boarding your plane.

Then the flights board updates and your flight is listed as cancelled! What? This is terrible! How am I going to get to Paris? I have to leave on that plane. It’s a catastrophe if I don’t get on it. And so forth.

Welcome to the Stoic Challenge, a new book by Bill Irvine, subtitled “A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.” In fact, the book begins and ends with two airport-related situations, though not exactly along the lines described above.

Irvine is not new to writing about Stoicism. His A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy was the very first book on modern Stoicism I have ever read (followed very closely by Don Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life, now in its second edition).

This new book is not a comprehensive introduction to Stoic philosophy, though it could pick the curiosity of people who have not encountered Stoicism before. The basic idea is simple: to use one very powerful mental trick, known to the ancient Stoics and well studied by modern cognitive scientists, to help us navigating life more easily. That trick is commonly referred to in psychology as the framing effect.

To see how it works, let’s go back to my (hopefully hypothetical!) predicament, presenting itself right at the beginning of my forthcoming trip to Paris. I could react in the way I indicated above, which is how many people would react. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy practitioners would call it “catastrophizing,” i.e., interpreting a series of facts in the worst possible fashion, and getting increasingly upset about them as a consequence.

But Stoics ought to always remember the opening lines of Epictetus’ Enchiridion:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (1.1)

Clearly, reversing a flight cancellation decreed by the airline, the airport authorities, or the Federal Aviation Administration is not up to me. Decide to resist the temptation to catastrophize, however, very much is up to me. That is my locus of action, given the circumstances.

I know, I know, the obvious objection is: “but I can’t control my emotions!” Yes, you can. There is plenty of evidence from modern cognitive science that emotions are a combination of raw, instinctual feelings and cognitive elaboration. You can’t do much about the first component, but you can work on the second one. That is the whole principle behind cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most efficacious, evidence-based types of psychotherapy.

The thing is, though, you need to train in order to be able to successfully argue with your own bad judgments. If you just try to do it cold turkey, on the spot, you won’t succeed, for the same reason that you can’t get into a boxing ring with no preparation whatsoever and hope to make it past the first few blows from your opponent. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61)

One effective way to train yourself to withstand the challenges and setbacks of life is to reframe things in a more helpful way. Notice that I said helpful, not optimistic. Stoics are realists, neither optimists nor pessimists, so Irvine’s advice is certainly not to just look at the bright side of things. Instead, whenever he encounters a situation that requires Stoic virtue he thinks to himself: “Ahah! I recognize the signs: this is yet another challenge from the Stoic gods! Let’s see how I’m going to do with it.”

Bill does not believe in any Stoic gods. The phrase is simply a shorthand for: okay, I could feel sorry for myself, get angry, curse, etc. Or, I can think of what’s happening as a kind of training session for life. I’m going to keep track of how I perform during the session, and at the end of it I’m going to score myself for how well I did, which will provide me material for critical reflection, learning from my experience, and doing better the next time around.

Although The Stoic Challenge is divided into four sections (Dealing with life’s challenges, The psychology of setbacks, Taking Stoic tests, and Living a Stoic life), comprising a total of 15 chapters, the bottom line is what I have just described. It’s a breezy read, useful particularly to people who are just beginning with Stoicism, or who are not acquainted with the philosophy. So, are you ready for the next challenge from the Stoic gods? I’m heading to the airport right now…

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