Over at credit.com, I reviewed a terrific book called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William B. Irvine.
Irvine, a professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, writes that Stoicism was one of many competing philosophies (such as the Cynics and the Epicureans) that ran schools to teach a "philosophy of life" to students in ancient Greece and Rome. The Stoics were interested in leading a life of "tranquility," meaning a life free of "anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy." To achieve such a life the Stoics developed, in the words of historian Paul Veyne, a "paradoxical recipe for happiness," that included the practice of "negative visualization." By frequently and vividly imagining worst-case scenarios -- the death of a child, financial catastrophe, ruined health -- the Stoics believed you would learn to appreciate what you have, and curb your insatiable appetite for more material goods, social status, and other objects of desire.
Reading the book, I had no trouble understanding how negative visualization could be an effective antidote against "hedonic adaptation." By imagining ourselves to be homeless, for instance, we can reset our desire for a more luxurious home and once again appreciate the roof over our head that we started taking for granted shortly after moving in.
My review was edited down at credit.com because it was too lengthy. Here's a part that was cut out:
I had a harder time buying into the idea that imagining the death of one of my children was good for my mental well being. The Stoic teacher Epictetus advised his students that, "In the very act of kissing a child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow." Why would anyone want to do that? Irvine answers the question by offering the example of two fathers, one who practices negative visualization and one who pushes such thoughts out of his head. The second father assumes his daughter will outlive him and will "always be around for him to enjoy." The first father assumes that every moment he spends with his daughter might be the last. Which father, asks Irvine is more attentive to and appreciative of his daughter, and which father is more likely to put off spending quality time with his daughter, believing that he'll have plenty of opportunities in the future? By thinking of our kids as precious gifts that could be taken from us at any moment we will come to treasure the time we spend with them. I've been trying this kind of negative visualization for the past week or so, and it really works. (But it packs a quite an emotional wallop.)
Read the rest of the review at credit.com
John Perry Barlow lived many lives: small-time Wyoming Republican operative (and regional campaign director for Dick Cheney!), junior lyricist for the Grateful Dead, father-figure to John Kennedy Jr, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, inspirational culture hero for the likes of Aaron Swartz and Ed Snowden (and, not incidentally, me), semi-successful biofuels entrepreneur... He died this year, shortly after completing his memoir Mother American Night, and many commenters have noted that Barlow comes across as a kind of counterculture cyberculture Zelig, present at so many pivotal moments in our culture, and that's true, but that's not what I got from my read of the book -- instead, I came to know someone I counted as a friend much better, and realized that every flaw and very virtue he exhibited in his interpersonal dealings stemmed from the flaws and virtues of his relationship with himself.
David Graeber defined a "bullshit job" in his viral 2013 essay as jobs that no one -- not even the people doing them -- valued, and he clearly struck a chord: in the years since, Graeber, an anthropologist, has collected stories from people whose bullshit jobs inspired them to get in touch with him, and now he has synthesized all that data into a beautifully written, outrageous and thought-provoking book called, simply, Bullshit Jobs.
Peter Watts (previously) is a brilliant bastard of a science fiction writer, whose grim scenarios are matched by their scientific speculation; in his latest, a novella called The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Watts imagines a mutiny that stretches out across aeons, fought against a seemingly omnipotent AI.
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