How Stoic Philosophy Builds Resilience, with Dr. William Irvine
Stoic philosophy is an ancient life philosophy, originating in Rome and Greece, that may help you face challenges more effectively and with greater tranquility. One technique involves briefly visualizing the loss of someone or something precious, restoring gratitude for and awareness of that element of life. Another method is to review and analyze the surfacing of negative emotion to hopefully prevent it in the future. The practice of Stoic philosophy provides a balance to modern goals of material gain and status, and may contribute to increased well-being, feeling happier, and more resilience.
Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC: Hey everyone, welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Ruscio. Today I’m here with Dr. William Irvine. We’re talking about Stoic philosophy, which we’ll come to in a moment.
Essentially this is a form of thinking, to put it simply, that may be very helpful for struggles we all face in life. I read one of William’s books and found it very instructive and helpful. So I’m very glad to have him on the show today to elaborate. William, welcome to the show.
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Dr. R’s Fast Facts Summary
What is Stoicism?
- A philosophy for life – to attain tranquility
- Founded in ancient Greece
- Outwitting the component of the brain that plays tricks on us
- Not a religion
How to practice?
- Negative visualization
- Briefly think of something in life that you take for granted and think about not having it or them
- Try voluntary discomfort
- Sleep on the floor to appreciate your bed
- Wear the simplest of clothing to appreciate the clothes you have
- Eat limited, inexpensive food (ex: beans and rice), to appreciate other foods
- Value the hard
- Stoic meditation requires thought
- Bedtime meditation – review your day, did you experience negative emotions? What could you have done to make that experience different?
- Health practice
- Remember that to be in a state of anxiety or hatred deprives you of a happy healthy life
Where to learn more
Dr. William Irvine: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be here.
DrMR: Can you tell people just briefly about your background?
DrWI: Let’s see. I had an interesting youth. I grew up out West, mostly in mining towns. Went off to college, University of Michigan, thinking I wanted to be a physicist, but it turns out that physics is really hard. So I ended up with a double major in math and philosophy.
I went on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy, and then beat the odds to find gainful employment in philosophy. It’s very difficult to find jobs. And it still is, it’s just a continuing depression as far as philosophers are concerned. But having lucked into a job, I’ve been now with Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio for coming on 36 years now and it’s been an excellent home for me. And during that time, early in my career, I did what you have to do in order to get promoted and get tenure, which publishes various research articles that your fellow philosophers will be interested in.
Then, having gotten tenure, I decided I was going to branch out. I had developed an interest in the ancient Stoics. The interesting thing is, they wrote lots of stuff, but they didn’t write it for their fellow Stoics. They wrote it for general audiences because they thought that the techniques they had developed could help ordinary people. You didn’t have to be a philosopher to be helped by them. And so they reached out to the ordinary people.
And in the books I’ve written on Stoicism, I’ve attempted to do the same thing. To write them in a style where somebody can come in with zero exposure to philosophy and yet pick it up and find it readable, understandable, and applicable to their own life and circumstances.
So it’s an unusual thing for an academic philosopher to be doing. But I think if we could revive the Stoics, they would say, “Yeah, but that’s exactly what you should be doing.”
DrMR: Well, I guess one of the ultimate goals of philosophy is to come away with lessons that can help people in their day-to-day life. So it makes sense to me.
DrWI: Yeah, and Stoicism is one example of what I refer to as a philosophy of life or philosophy for living. The interesting thing is, if you look at how most people live their lives, they extemporize. They just go from day to day, from minute to minute, thinking, “Okay, so what should I be doing now?” And they assume that their friends and the other people in their culture have figured it out, so they take their lead from other people. Except that in many cases other people haven’t figured it out.
So philosophy of life does two things. The first is, it identifies the thing in life most worth possessing. And you might think, isn’t it fame? Isn’t it fortune? And the Stoic philosophers were unanimous in agreeing that if that’s what you are after, you would spend your life constantly dissatisfied. You would simply never feel that you had reached the top because there was always more that you could want. So it’s a recipe for a life of dissatisfaction, and yet it’s the recipe that most people have chosen.
So the Stoic philosopher said, instead of aiming at those things, you should be aiming at tranquility. And we can unpack that some more. So if all they did was identify the goal for you, that would be nice, you’d know what you’re supposed to be aiming at. But you wouldn’t have any idea at all on how to get there. So they very helpfully provided specific techniques you could use for, first, attaining and then maintaining the tranquility that they thought you should be pursuing.
What Is Stoic Philosophy?
DrMR: Mm-hmm. And let’s just define Stoic philosophy. If someone’s never heard this term, how would you define that at the entry level?
DrWI: The Stoics themselves actually did a variety of things. They had an interest in physics, logic, ethics. And you can explore them just for those other things they were interested in. But as a primary focus, most people who take to them are going to be interested in the philosophy of life that they developed. And it’s really interesting because it’s philosophical and yet it borders on what we would, in modern terms, think of as psychology.
You know who Daniel Kahneman is, right? The guy who came up with this whole notion of framing. He was the author of the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, and came up with all of the ways our mind tricks us. We like to think we’re in control, but we aren’t. We have these internal voices that lure us off the proper path.
The Stoics realized that our minds play these tricks on us. This would’ve been in the first century AD and before that. Then they thought, “Okay, given that those are the sort of tricks the human mind plays on us, what can we do? What can we do to outwit that component of our brain that’s playing those tricks?” And they came up with some very interesting techniques.
DrMR: So it originated, unless I’m mistaken, with Epictetus in Greece?
DrWI: It originated with Zeno of Citium. So, a long history. We’re going back to 300 BC. First there were the Greek Stoics. Zeno was the most famous of them, and he was the original Stoic. Just an interesting way things worked back then: he decided he wanted to form his own school of philosophy. It was one way you could make a living, and you’d have students. He explored the different schools of philosophy that were out there at the time. There were a lot of them. He picked some of them, kind of melted together with the insights of a variety of schools, and came up with Stoicism.
Now, the kind of Stoicism that is of primary interest to me is Roman Stoics. So in about 0 AD or first century AD, Stoicism had been exported to Rome and individuals took it up there. Among the famous Roman Stoics were Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and then the fourth, Marcus Aurelius, who we also know was one of the greatest Roman Emperors.
Epictetus is probably, of the names I just mentioned, the leading thinker of the Stoics. Seneca was very interesting because besides being a philosopher, he was also a playwright and a counselor to Emperor Nero. He was an investment banker, one of the richest people of his time. And Marcus Aurelius was a very, very passionate Stoic, at the same time, one of the greatest Roman Emperors. You could make the case that he needed Stoicism desperately, because of all the pressures he was under as a Roman Emperor who was interested not in partying, but in trying to do the best for the people who were under him.
DrMR: Mm. One of the things that really struck me about Stoic philosophy is it provides a counterbalance to the forces that we’re all inundated with nowadays, these market (or marketing) pressures: nicer car, nicer clothes, nicer stuff, a better body, whatever it is. And there’s always this urgent drive and desire for more. Stoicism seems to provide some tools for countering that.
The other thing that I really liked about Stoic philosophy was, at least as far as I’m able to understand (clearly not a philosopher), in comparison to something like Buddhism… Buddhism had some valuable concepts, but it felt like no one in Buddhism was trying to achieve more. It was just like, we’ll give up on any worldly possessions. And I have no problem with working hard, but I also don’t want to totally resign any aspirations to hedonistic thinking, if I’m going to conform to Buddhism.
So this is what I liked about Stoicism. Stoicism would allow someone to preserve that want to advance themselves, but it would bridle that unhappiness of never feeling like they’ve achieved enough, by helping them practice—for lack of a better term—having less so they’re thankful for what they have. But it doesn’t mean you have to totally resolve not to want to have anything, as Buddhism would espouse.
I’m not sure how good of an encapsulation I’m giving there, but what would you remark in that regard?
DrWI: Okay. You’ve triggered several thoughts here. One of them is that Buddhism—and I’m going to focus on Zen Buddhism—is a philosophy of life as Stoicism is. The interesting thing is, they both agree on the same ultimate goal and that is tranquility. And by the way, tranquility is not just this zoned-out state of mind, but the absence of negative emotions in your life like anger, fear, anxiety, envy, greed. The Stoics had nothing against positive emotions though.
It’s interesting because before I became a Stoic and got interested in doing research, I was doing research on desire. That book was actually this interesting side trip, because I thought I was going to become a Zen Buddhist. I thought, this is the classic example of an academic two-for-the-price-of-one; I’ll learn more about Buddhism while writing a book about desire. And in the process of doing research for that, I stumbled across the Stoics and realized, wait a minute, the Stoics are aiming at the same goal, but they have what, to my mind, is just a much better way of getting to that goal. Now, if you’ve got Buddhists in your audience, please, I’m not saying that Stoicism is better. I’m not saying any such thing. I’m saying that for some people, Stoicism is just the natural choice. For other people, Zen Buddhism is a natural choice.
To be a practicing Zen Buddhist, you have to meditate. They have their own plan for attaining this ultimate goal of tranquility. You have to meditate, you have to do a variety of things, and there’s no guarantee. You can meditate for 30 years and still not have had your moment of enlightenment. Or it could happen tomorrow.
Whereas in Stoicism, anybody who gave Stoic principles a try would know by next week whether they had an aptitude for it or not. And it doesn’t have to be done in that dramatic way. You don’t have to shave off your hair or anything like that. You can be practicing these techniques without anybody at all, except for yourself knowing it.
So this notion also. I’d identified tranquility, and that’s also what Buddhists were aiming at. Buddhist monks tend to be very tranquil individuals. And yet there are any number of people, businessmen, entrepreneurs who would also self-identify as a Buddhist.
The Stoics, if we look at people like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, were highly active, highly involved. The Stoics thought they had a duty to help their fellow human beings. To help their fellow human beings in particular who—because they lacked Stoicism in their life—had much more complex lives full of turmoil than needed to be the case. They were in need of help. So it’s altogether possible to be an ambitious person in one sense, wanting to do things, wanting to help people, wanting to experience life. So where does Stoicism come in? It says, as you’re pursuing those ends, the goal should be to stay as free of negative emotions as you can.
You know, it turns out—and I’m only recently beginning to realize this—the Silicon Valley is a hotbed of Stoicism, of Stoic thought (there was an article in the New York Times yesterday). And a lot of these people who have worked very hard and done startups and so on are practicing Stoics. If you ask them, “Well, what’s in it for you? You’ve got all this money, you’ve got everything else,” they said, “Well, it’s a very stressful existence and it is also an existence that raises questions of, ‘What’s it all about?’” For them, Stoicism provides an answer to that question.
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Tips for Practicing Stoicism
DrMR: What are some methods that you think people could incorporate into their life to start putting this into practice? Because like we’re alluding to here, the Stoic practice can provide an antidote to never feeling happy because you’re always looking for more.
And I know from your book that Stoics in ancient Greece used to spend a day, as an example, dressed in rags to appreciate the clothes that they have. Or sleeping on the floor to appreciate the bed that they have. So it makes sense, almost analogous to a biological concept, to make sure that your receptors are always re-sensitized. Like if you give someone too much hormone, their hormone receptors downregulate, they become desensitized to the hormone. If you eat too much sugar, you become desensitized to the taste of sweetness. So this would be a practice to help re-sensitize your body to what you have so you could appreciate it more.
Are there some techniques that you find particularly helpful to that endpoint?
DrWI: Yeah, let’s explore some of the techniques. By the way, you used the word desensitize, or re-sensitize. Psychologists like Daniel Kahneman would use a word like ‘framing’, so it’s the psychological equivalent. So when we have an experience, we frame it, we put it into some kind of context. If all we’re used to experiencing is a very easy life where everything just comes to us, then we stop appreciating that.
So one of the Stoics’ techniques—and this is what I hold out to a lot of people who tell me that they want to give Stoicism a try, just the easiest technique used—is called ‘Negative Visualization’. So what you do is, you think about the bad things that could happen to you. Stated in those terms, that sounds like a recipe for a miserable and anxiety-ridden existence. Except you don’t dwell on the things. You allow yourself to have a flickering thought of something you have suddenly disappearing. It could be a loved one, it could be your possessions, it could be your bank account. We take so much for granted, so much for granted.
I’ve been doing some traveling lately in places where rule one is, you don’t drink the sink water. And then you come back home and you can drink it. It’s like a miracle. But you just take something in your life that you take for granted and then allow yourself to have a flickering thought of, well, you know nothing is forever. What if that thing wasn’t there? And then you go about life again. I’ve done that with people I know, people I love, people who are very good friends, and it’s just amazing because the next time you see them it revitalizes the relationship. You’re not going to take them for granted anymore. You’re going to realize, isn’t it an absolutely wonderful world that I have this person as one of my friends?
And you talk about going around in ragged clothes and sleeping on the floor. Stoics can do that and that’s the more extended form of this. That’s called a program of ‘Voluntary Discomfort.’ So if you want to enjoy your existence, be uncomfortable for a while. Then, when you get back into your regular existence, it’s like a dream come true. It’s like you’re living in heaven.
Again, you see these are low-key kinds of things. They can be done in a stealthful manner. If you don’t want to be broadcasting your Stoic experiment, if you’d just like to give it a try, those are things that you can do. Now again, I’m not counseling people to dwell on bad things that can happen. I’m saying, just allow yourself to visualize it and then put that thought away and move on. It will have an impact on your psychological well-being because it will reset the frame that you compare everything to. If you’re a normal American, you have a very high frame. You expect everything. And if it suddenly isn’t there, you’re going to be really crippled emotionally by it.
Meditation in Stoic Philosophy
DrMR: So how would you meld this into a meditation practice? We’ve discussed meditation a few times in the podcast. And I’m thinking or hoping most of our audience is doing at least some kind of meditative or mindfulness practice, once a day for 10 minutes or at least a few times a week. Would you say, as part of your meditation, to visualize some of these losses or undesired circumstances just briefly? Maybe you do it for a minute or two minutes at the end of a meditation. Or is there another way you’d program that into someone’s daily routine?
DrWI: Okay, the word meditation is used in many different ways. So for instance, if you’re a Zen Buddhist, one of the meditations is to empty your mind of all thoughts. And it’s really hard to do. It should be easy, but it’s really hard to do. And there are other Buddhist meditations.
For Stoics, meditations tend to not be that you’re letting your mind go blank or anything like that. Instead, they involve thought. For instance, the negative visualization techniques I just described require you to imagine something. Imagine your world not being quite as pleasant as your world is. It can be done in 5 to 10 seconds. And it helps if you have a mental image; it helps if you think about it. So if you have a spouse, if you have a lover… give yourself a fraction of a minute in which you contemplate: relationships end, people die, and I have this person in my life. This person has made a big difference and I should not take that for granted. And that’s it.
Another kind of meditation is described as bedtime meditation. As a practicing Stoic, you’re not only going to be an agent in life, you’re also going to be watching yourself as you go about life. For the bedtime meditation—as you’ve laid your head on the pillow and you’re thinking about drifting off—one of the things you need to think about is just to review your day. What did you do? Did you experience negative emotions in the day? What triggered those emotions? And what could you have done to prevent those emotions from arising? It’s a thoughtful, analytical tool, whereas various other forms of meditation can be analytical in different ways than that. But that’s what the Stoics mean by meditation.
Stoic Practices and Health
DrMR: Now if someone listening or reading this is struggling with a health ailment (as probably a decent number of our audience is), is there something you could provide there for these people, who are trying to optimize everything but maybe floundering a little bit due to how they feel?
DrWI: Yeah, so Stoics do not claim to be able to heal anything in physical terms. Their message is aimed at the psychological person. There are psychological problems that Stoicism can potentially alleviate. Anxiety would be one. There’s a branch of psychology known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT that has a lot in common with Stoic practice. They provide patients with exercises to help them deal with and overcome anxiety. And a lot of it sounds like it. If you could bring the Ancient Stoics into the modern world to see that, they would say, “Yeah, yeah, they’re stealing from us!”
As far as physical health goes, there would be indirect routes there. One is that if you’re highly anxious about the world, that’s going to put stresses on many medical systems. Now, you’re the medical doctor so you would know about these things better than I would. But to go around in a state of anxiety, to go around filled with hatred… pick your negative emotions, and those negative emotions are going to deprive you of the quality of your life. There’s a good chance that, in an indirect way, they’re going to deprive you of your health in the long run as well. And it is so sad.
So the Stoics had advice on how to prevent anger and how to deal with it. If your attempts at prevention fail, they had how to avoid regret, grief, envy. And if your efforts at avoiding them fail, how you can try to get back on track. They were filled with insights. My favorites are the essays of Seneca. The guy just had a ton of insights.
So I’m not an angry person, but occasionally things happen that will anger me. And it’s amazing because that awakens Seneca in my deep mind. I hear his voice and hear him saying the things he says in his essay. You know, “You fool, is this really how you want to spend this day of your life, in this unpleasant state of anger?” There, the question is, so where do we go from there? I’m not free of negative emotions by any means, but even the Stoics themselves said, “You’re a work in progress. Take each day at a time.” But I think I’m a more joyful person than was previously the case. I think I’m a less angry person, a less anxious person.
With respect to anxiety, another Stoic practice is what’s called ‘The Dichotomy of Control.’ In life, you should realize there are the things you can control and the things you can’t. If you concern yourself with the things you can’t control, you’re wasting your time and your emotional energy. So focus your attention on the things you can control.
Again, it’s a little technique. Easy to state, easy to put into practice, and yet it can remove a lot of anxiety from your life.
The Stoic Challenge: Learning Resilience
DrMR: And you have a book coming out soon that is going to be a refinement of your first book, with more of a focus on how to apply these principles. Do you want to tell people a little bit about that, and please tell them the title also?
DrWI: Sure. The title is The Stoic Challenge. It’s coming out from W.W. Norton this September. In the book, I describe an exercise in framing. When life deals you a setback, you can get angry or become despondent about that. When some people face a setback, it just rips them apart. And other people bounce. So you want to be the kind of person who bounces, who’s resilient in the face of setbacks.
The Stoics thought the proper way to do that is to reframe your setbacks. Instead of thinking of them as punishments directed towards you, think of them as challenges directed your way. That then raises the question of who’s challenging you. So I come up with these semi-mythical characters and call them the Stoic Gods, but you just have to imagine it.
It’s like you’ve got this coach. Why did something bad happen to you? Well, it’s a test. They’re testing to see how well you can cope with it, how well you can think of a workaround, how well you can avoid getting depressed and resentful over it. It’s interesting because now, in life, when I experience setbacks, that’s my default mode. Oh, a setback to work on. Not just anger about being set back.
I mentioned before we went on air, this morning I had a real challenge directed at me. I had spent a lot of time planning a trip. It had all sorts of intricate connections; this is a trip to Iceland and Ireland. Then this morning, I woke up, turned on the news and it turned out that the airline I was using, Wow Airline, a discount air carrier, had ceased flights. It was done, going belly-up. It could’ve been something very anger-inducing. But for me with my frame of mind, it was, “Oh, this is a challenge.” So what’s the challenge? The challenge is to find the best workaround I can, with the fewest negative emotions I can experience. I gave myself a B+. I did well in those terms. And yet there are a lot of people, for whom if something like that happens, they just crawl into a shell and feel self-pity.
A curious thing is, if you look at the successful people in life—the people who have done a lot in reaching whatever goals they’ve set for themselves—they have the ability to bounce. And the people who haven’t done a lot, typically, simply aren’t resilient. They experience failure and then they quit, and that’s unfortunate.
The Stoics said it’s a question of framing. And if you think of these things as challenges or tests rather than just as bad things happening to you, they become a lot more tolerable.
DrMR: I think that’s very well said. It reminds me of this mantra I’ve been trying to keep in the front of my mind after listening to the interview where we had Tom Bilyeu on the podcast. He essentially said, “Successful people value the hard.” And I’ve been trying to remind myself that, when you have a challenge thrown at you (just like you said), rather than getting frustrated at the work that poses, understand that people who are doing well generally are doing so because they have undergone the pressure and discomfort of challenges. And they come out better on the other side.
And a simple analogy we can all likely identify with is exercise. It’s not easy when you’re trying to get in better shape, whether it’s squatting or running or whatever it is. But you know if you keep subjecting yourself to that hard work, you’ll become better on the other side of that. So it’s easier to get frustrated when life throws you a curveball, but if we can reframe it as an exercise in mental dexterity—like you’re saying—then we will eventually become more mentally able to bounce back and solve problems. And have a life where, when something gets thrown in your way, you adapt quickly, move forward with a smile on your face, and now you’re through it.
DrWI: You know, to grow as a human being, you have to give yourself hard things to do. If all you ever do is easy things, you will not grow as a human being. But if you’re trying hard things, sometimes you’re going to fail. Then the question is, are you going to regard it as a failure? Or are you just going to regard it as part of the price of tuition? This is what you have to do in order to develop as a human being. So you learn from your failures and then go on to try other things.
So for exercise, I’m a masters rower. I’m not a very good rower, but I’m rower and I do it competitively. It really is interesting, because I’ll be out there working really hard on the river, and am I out to win races? No. What am I out to do? I’m out to give myself challenges, and then to rise to the best of my ability to those challenges. So it’s not about medals, it’s not about victory. It’s about building and maintaining that resilience. Sports are very good for that. A lot of people are in it for victory, but there’s a lot more to be had from them. Even if you never win a race, there’s so much self-development that’s possible.
DrMR: It reminds me of that old saying, something along the lines of, “If you’re not failing, you’re not reaching high enough.”
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DrMR: Great. Are there any closing thoughts that you want to leave people with? And will you again remind us of the name of the book and/or any website that you want to point people to?
DrWI: Okay. So you need a philosophy of life. That’s one takeaway from this. And the philosophy of life will tell you what the grand goal in living is and give you a strategy for getting there. Simply to become rich and famous won’t work. We have a long history that proves that that doesn’t work. Rather, it’s a road to a kind of misery. Stoicism is one such philosophy of life. There are others as well, but you owe it to yourself to explore that.
For those interested in my books, the one that has done remarkably well (I had very low expectations for it) is titled A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. The other book, which will be out from W.W. Norton in September, is titled The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.
I also have a website, WilliamBIrvine.com, and I have another website titled 21stcenturystoic.org. It’s gone dormant but I’ve done some essays about Stoicism that are meant to be at an introductory level for people who simply want to explore it.
DrMR: Awesome. Well, there you have it, folks, Stoic philosophy. Something to ruminate on and consider building into your practice, to help counterbalance the hedonistic lifestyle that we can so easily fall into in today’s society. William, thank you again for taking the time. It’s been a really interesting call.
DrWI: Thank you very much.
What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts or experience with this.
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