Jim Fleming: Although it can be uncomfortable, to look death in the face, contemplatives and philosophers have been doing that for a millennium. Zen Buddhists and Hindu Mystics, the Hedonists of Ancient Greece, the Cynics of Rome, when philosopher William Irvine went looking philosophy of life, he wandered those obvious paths. Then he stumbled upon the Stoics. Irvine says Stoicism teaches that minding our mortality can help us live a more joyful life.
Irvine: Stoics thought a lot about death. When you tell people that, they think it’s a horribly morbid thing to do. The thing about death is, if you fully realize that your days on earth are limited, it can have the effect of making you want to maximize your use of those days. You want to reach a stage where we wake up in the morning; it is a cause for excitement and joy.
Jim Fleming: Yeah, that is really a wonderful thing; it is exactly the opposite of the way an awful lot of people do it. You wake up in the morning and you think, “OK, I have one day less.” The end is coming closer, your saying forget about it. Not exactly forget about it. Acknowledge it and take joy in the fact that you are still here.
Irvine: Yeah, you don’t dwell on death. You contemplate it. The contemplation consists of flickering thoughts that go through your mind. Suppose I’m doing something utterly ordinary. Suppose I’m taking a walk with my wife, simple enough a thing, but while I’m doing it, I find myself, trying to imagine what this event will seem like retrospectively. I can easily imagine a situation where I have outlived my wife, or that I’m old and bed ridden in a nursing home and can’t walk. Under those circumstances, I would find myself wanting to go back in time, to that very walk, then the thought to return to the present, but here I am, actually experiencing the thing that I someday might really wish I could experience.
Fleming: Do you have much personal experience of death?
Irvine: Fortunately, not in the last five or six years. A person I knew, he was a rower, and I took up competitive rowing and he kind of took me under his wing. He basically fell down dead in the street. It was a very important event in my life. A chance to reflect on how that happens. If you have friends, you can’t count on them being there forever. Contemplating the death of friends, which again sounds horribly morbid, but it needn’t be. It is a flickering thought that goes through your mind. You know I might not see this person again. People fall down dead, or friendships end. Then the most wonderful thing happens when you encounter that person again, and they are still there. It causes this mini burst of joy.
Fleming: Aren’t we in some senses tricking ourselves into finding joy? A lot of people would say, that it is morbid to think about your death, your friends death, your wife’s death, your parents death.
Irvine: I don’t mind the phrase, tricking yourself, at all. Think about how most people pursue happiness. They think their happiness lies in the external world, and what is preventing them from being happy is the external world.
The Stoic insight is that, almost regardless of the external world you find yourself in, if you are in the right frame of mind. That world that you find yourself in can itself be a cause for great joy, then how do you put yourself in that frame of mind. The technical term is negative visualization.
Think about somebody you really love, now think for five seconds, what your life would be like if they were gone. Whenever I do that I find it’s an almost instant little rush of joy that, that hasn’t happened.
Fleming: About negative visualization, when you talk about that, you did say think about the death of your friend for five seconds. That is the real key, isn’t it? You don’t dwell on it.
Irvine: No, you don’t dwell on it. That would be a recipe for a life of misery. It is there in your mind then it is gone. I found that that’s a perfectly enough. My wife will be off of work, she is supposed to be driving home. Sometimes I will have that thought, you know accidents happen. It is not a worry, it is not anxiety, it is just this thought, because its true accidents happen. Then when she shows up at the door, that is just the greatest delight there is, because she is here and those things didn’t happen, so it works.
Fleming: What does Stoicism help you do when you are faced with real catastrophe? Both my parents are gone, and on both occasions, I don’t think I could of done anything about the grief I felt. I don’t think that I could look back at all the great times that I had with them, and make that moment of loss any less.
Irvine: Yeah, grief is a very interesting emotion. It contains anger, anxiety, rand regret. The idea is live your present so you won’t need to have regrets in the future. That is if you have a friendship, if you have someone that is very meaningful to you, you don’t let opportunities to enjoy the friendship go by. If a person passes away, instead of thinking about your loss, you should think about how much poorer your life would have been if you had never known that person to begin with.
Fleming: Again, I find myself agreeing with everything you said. My trouble comes in that everything you’re describing is the triumph of reason over gut feeling, and it’s not just in the case of death, although I think that is one of the real kicks in gut you can’t do much about. How do you make reason cancel out base instincts?
Irvine: Practice, practice, practice would be the answer.
Fleming: My wife always accuses me of being a Pollyanna, trying to find a positive look for the glass half full as opposed to the glass half empty, and that is not quite what you’re talking about, nor is it I think, always look on the bright side, but I guess what you’re saying a Stoic believes, or a Stoic tries to practice, is recognition of the dark side, but enjoyment of the bright side.
Irvine: You know when you talk about the glass half full, the glass half empty, a Stoic if he was atop his game, would not only say that the glass was half full, but he would go on to tell what a wonderful thing it is that glasses exist. That there is a substance called glass, that transmits light and doesn’t impart bad taste to the thing inside of it, and so on. If you are characterized as Pollyanna, what would that be?
What most people think a Stoic advocates is, a kind of unemotional response to everything in life. It turns out most people are wrong, they were anti negative emotions. They were very interested in developing strategies to prevent and if prevention attempts failed to eliminate negative emotions, they had nothing against positive emotions. Including that most positive of emotions joy. Cheerful is the word I would use to describe them.
Fleming: William Irvine is a professor at Wright State University. His book on Stoicism is a guide to the good life.