“Stoic Joy”, “Practical Philosophy”, and other Oxymorons
I majored in philosophy many years ago in college, and ever since, I made a practice of reading a book on philosophy every ten years, rain or shine. But if all philosophical books were as clearly written, easily digestible, and potentially life-changing as William B. Irvine’s “Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, then I’d be reading this genre far more frequently.
In this book one learns that practitioners of Stoicism included prominent scions of Roman society such as Seneca, and even one of the greatest of the Roman Emperors, Marcus Aurelius. In contemporary times, Stoic thinking is a precursor to a predominant school of psychotherapy, called cognitive-behavioral therapy, and Stoic philosophy was credited by Viet Nam-era P.O.W. James Stockdale for his ability to withstand the horrors of captivity by the North Vietnamese. Such a powerful school of thinking deserves a thoughtful presentation, and Irvine’s tome did not disappoint.
Just as biology divides living organisms into two great kingdoms, animal and plant, so the field of philosophy divides itself into two realms: theoretical philosophy (including metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, and so on), and practical philosophy (ethics, existentialism). The vast majority of philosophizing done in universities today is in the realm of theoretical philosophy which is highly abstract and inaccessible to most, but the philosophy that intuitively appeals to people involves questions of how to live a better, wiser, richer, and more insightful life.
This is a great work of practical philosophy. I was amazed to read excepts from writings of the ancient Stoics showing just how little human nature has changed in thousands of years. And then I was delighted to discover how Prof. Irvine has applied these writings to the challenges of modern life. I laughed out loud from the author’s dry sense of humor and irony. The author reminded me of another great popularizer of philosophical ideas, Will Durant (author of “The Story of Philosophy”, published around 60 years ago); Irvine is similarly gifted in his ability to explicate complex ideas in a manner that is engaging for a general audience.