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William B. Irvine


Twenty-First Century Stoic -- Stoic Transformation

This is the third and final essay, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world.

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Twenty-First Century Stoic -- Insult Pacifism

This is the second in a series of three essays, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world.

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Twenty-First Century Stoic -- From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic

Stoic-Shadow-Art-2 This is the first in a series of three essays, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the second essay.)

I never intended to become a Stoic. Who, after all, were the Stoics? They were those grim, wooden figures of ancient Greece and Rome whose goal it was to stand mutely and take whatever the world could throw at them. Right?

About a decade ago, though, I began a research project on human desire. The goal of the project was to write a book on the subject, but I also had a hidden agenda in conducting my research: I was contemplating becoming a Zen Buddhist and wanted to learn more about it before taking the leap. But the more I learned about Zen, the less it attracted me.

Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities, something I found it quite difficult to do. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment -- or you might not. It would be tragic, I thought, to spend the remaining decades of my life pursuing a moment of enlightenment that never came. Zen doubtless works for some people, but for me, the fit wasn't good.

Then something quite unexpected happened. As part of my research, I investigated what ancient philosophers had to say about desire. Among them were the Stoic philosophers -- people like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus -- about whom I knew little. As I read them, I discovered that they were quite unlike I imagined they would be. Indeed, it soon became apparent that everything I "knew" about the Stoics was wrong. They were neither grim nor wooden. If anything, the adjective that I thought described them best was "buoyant" or maybe even "cheerful." And without consciously intending to do so, I found myself experimenting with Stoic strategies for daily living.

Thus, when I found myself in a predicament -- being stuck in traffic, for example -- I followed the advice of Epictetus and asked myself what aspects of the situation I could and couldn't control. I couldn't control what the other cars did, so it was pointless -- was in fact counterproductive -- for me to get angry at them. My energy was much better spent focusing on things I could control, with the most important being how I responded to the situation. In particular, I could employ Stoic strategies to prevent the incident from spoiling my day.

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