A Few Questions for Dr. William Irvine on Stoicism

This was published at Skepoet at the Crossroads of Critical thinking in 2009. That blog is now defunct.  

C. Derick Varn:  Do you think your book on stoicism is particularly well timed given a lot of the global political and economic situations?

Dr. Irvine: Stoicism works when times are good, but it works wonderfully when times are tough–when we are old, sick, or unemployed.

C.D.V.: Are there anythings about stoicism, outside of the Zeus-centered bits, that may not be worth reviving?

Dr. Irvine: I leave it to individual Stoics to determine what parts of classical Stoicism are and aren’t worth incorporating into their own Stoic practice. I also encourage modern Stoics to interpret the writings of the ancient Stoics for themselves. (This is what I did.)

C.D.V.: In your book, you make a convincing psychological case for Stoicism… it reminded me of cognitive behavioral therapy. How much do modern psychological theories help you in building your philosophy of life?

Dr. Irvine: I became aware of cognitive behavioral therapy late in my research on Stoicism. There was a section on it in the book, but it got dropped. I suppose that if a Stoic sought psychological counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy would be the obvious choice.

C.D.V.: Do you think psychology has a role in why the idea of a “philosophy of life” has stayed out of favor even as traditional religion starts to loose its grasp?

Dr. Irvine: Some role, doubtless. More generally, we live in a time in which people want to pursue whatever desires pop into their heads. (They equate doing this with “freedom.”) Having a philosophy of life or a religion interferes with this simple-minded pursuit of pleasure.

C.D.V.: Do you think the Greek Stoics are harder to bring into a modern context?

Dr. Irvine: Yes, for two reasons. The writings of the Greek Stoics are lost, so we can’t be captivated by their words the way we can with the words of Seneca, say, or Marcus Aurelius. Also, the Greeks played down the pursuit of tranquility and played up the pursuit of virtue. Most modern individuals, though, value tranquility more than virtue.


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