How to Live?

That’s the question my writing students and I are focusing on this semester. I can’t think of a better age to craft a philosophy of life. Most of them are on their own for the first time in their lives. Having to make many, many more decisions by themselves and find their way.

William Irvine, philosophy professor and modern day Stoic, argues you’re likely to waste your life away without a well thought through philosophy of life. Here’s his argument.

You have three choices in how to live. One is “unenlightened hedonism” in which you thoughtlessly seek short-term gratification. Think Faber College, 1962.

A second is “enlightened hedonism” in which you seek to maximize pleasure in the course of your lifetime. People practicing this philosophy of life will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects they might have. Then they’ll devise strategies for maximizing pleasure.

Regarding hedonism, Irvine writes, “In my research on desire, I discovered nearly unanimous agreement among thoughtful people that we are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome our insatiability.” He adds, “There was also agreement that one wonderful way to tame our tendency to always want more is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.”

But I digress. The third and final choice in how to live is to carefully think through what you most want out of life and then organize your life accordingly. Not the goals you form as you live day-to-day, but one “grand goal in living”. Of the many goals in life you might pursue, which one do you believe to be most valuable?

Most people have trouble naming their grand goal in living because our culture doesn’t encourage thinking about such things. Instead, it provides an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. To their credit, some people swim against the stream of distractions by journaling, taking digital sabbaticals, enrolling in my writing seminar, and going on silent retreats.

If determining a grand goal of living isn’t challenging enough already, it’s only half the battle. The other half is developing effective strategies for attaining it. These strategies will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life you take to be of most value.

This is where Irvine says Christian pastors and the ancient Stoics differ. Most Christian pastors, Irvine argues, focus on what people must do to have a good afterlife. Pastors, he says, have far less to say about what people must do to have a good life. That’s why, he notes, it’s tough to distinguish among the religious and non-religious.

For his own philosophy of life, Irvine chose to update Roman Stoicism for modern times. Stoics claim that many of the things we desire—most notably fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they developed strategies for achieving tranquility and inner joy by eliminating negative emotions like anger, grief, anxiety, fear, and envy.

Eight years ago, when I was on sabbatical, I took time to write a guiding paragraph that I can’t find anymore in my computer files. I can remember most of it, but it’s okay I misplaced it, because it’s time to update it. And then reference it way more regularly.

If your curious about my philosophy of life, just eavesdrop on me as I live my day-to-day life. Because actions, of course, speak louder than words.

Steve Jobs—A Life Well Lived?

I enjoyed and recommend Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio. The overarching question it has left me with is what’s the best way to assess whether one’s living or lived a good life? And how best to define “good life”? Specifically, do professional successes trump the personal or vice versa? Do you most want to be remembered as an amazing chief executive, lawyer, teacher, trooper, counselor, sales manager, engineer, doc, pastor, carpenter, nurse, or as a caring and loving father, mother, husband, wife, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, neighbor, friend, citizen?

Everyone answers those questions somewhat differently in the way they live their lives. Jobs’s professional activities—he reinvented six separate industries—were clearly more important to him than his personal roles and identities—he was self absorbed, he was a distant father to his three daughters, and he rarely cared about anyone else’s feelings.

We seem to excuse people like Jobs—people at the very top of their field—for being what some readers of the book have described as a “self absorbed asshole”. Why is that? Is it because people at the very top of their fields tend to be extremely wealthy? Do we give the ultra rich a pass on being shitty parents or people?

Most of the time I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished throughout my thirty year teaching career, but in my own personal calculus of assessing whether I’m living a good life, I emphasize the personal. It’s most important to me that I be a good husband, father, friend. I can’t help but wonder though is that because I haven’t accomplished more professionally? Is my personal orientation an excuse for not being more ambitious and not working harder? Or do I emphasize the personal because I’m overcompensating for my dad’s explicit “professional accomplishment” orientation?

Jobs didn’t have the ideal balance, but I’m not sure I do either. More questions than answers.

Living Peacefully and Joyfully

During Sunday night’s Skype session with Nineteen I learned she’d been on a nice walk with KN, the uber-nice mother of one of her best friends, who was visiting Midwest leafy liberal arts college for Parents’ Weekend. On that walk KN revealed that she has read three books that I’ve recommended. Cool dat. Note to self: Make a batch of “I read PressingPause.com” t-shirts to give to subscribers and loyal readers. No doubt a future status symbol*.

I have another book recommendation for KN. I don’t read books consistently enough, as a result I don’t get through all that many, as a result, I choose what I read carefully. I don’t know if I’ve ever chosen as well as in 2011. The ten month long hot streak continues with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine (2009). So good I read it twice, the second time taking nine pages of notes since I plan on using it in a future writing seminar.

Irvine says the public’s preconceived notions about Stoicism are wrong. Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked to make the world a better place. The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions like anger, anxiety, grief, and envy. Musonius Rufus (Is there a better jazz/funk name?) said that “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow those who live in accordance with Stoic principles. Would be Stoics, Irvine writes, will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they will turn their attention to the pursuit of tranquility and virtue.

The word “tranquility” is hardly ever used in conversation today, probably because few of us experience much of it, but it’s the central concept of the book. Irvine says “Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular joy.” On a scale of one to ten, what’s your tranquility quotient?

The bulk of the book is about how to practice Stoicism. Irvine does a great job of adapting the Ancient Roman philosophy to modern times. He acknowledges that people should choose a philosophy of life that fits their personality and that Stoicism won’t be for everyone. He points out that in some significant ways Stoicism and Christianity overlap; consequently, they can be complementary.

For Irvine the greatest problem is that few people have any coherent philosophy of life. As a result, they succumb to mindless consumerism; consequently, at the end of the road they often regret that they’ve squandered their time. What is your philosophy of life? To what degree does it shape your day-to-day actions?

The body of the book is a description of five Stoic psychological techniques and Stoic advice on ten topics such as dealing with other people, anger, old age, and dying. Probably best read with a significant other or a small group of friends who you can discuss it with.

* Any graphic artists out there interested in creating a PressingPause logo? If so, please email me (see the “contact” tab at upper right).