The Stoic Challenge Review: Ancient Advice for Modern Times

I’m currently reading William Irvine’s book The Stoic Challenge and I think it’s just brilliant. Since he is drawing upon the lessons of ancient Stoic philosophy, nothing is fundamentally new but I really enjoy his modern framing of Stoicism. Particularly, I like his core concept of the “Stoic test strategy,” which he defines as:

…Stoic test strategy: when faced with a setback, we should treat it as a test of our resilience and resourcefulness, devised and administered, as I have said, by imaginary Stoic gods. Their goal in throwing these curveballs our way is to make our days not harder but better.”

I love this for so many reasons. It reframes the typical idea of a “positive mindset” insofar as the goal is not to learn to be resilient through suffering, but rather, to learn not to suffer at all. As he says,

“[The Stoics] goal was not to remain calm while suffering a setback but rather to experience a setback without thereby suffering. It is an important difference.”

Going back to the Stoic test strategy, suppose you were passed over for a promotion. Instead of seeing this as a setback, the strategy urges you to consider it as a challenge.

You might say, “Alright! Excellent! The Stoic gods have given me a challenge: how to overcome this setback and make myself better because of it? How cunning of you, Stoic gods! But you will not defeat my efforts so easily! What a delicious challenge!”

You might then begin formulating ways to be even more valuable to your company, positioning you to be better off than if you had achieved the “easy path” in the first path.

This is all about our mindset, how we frame the obstacles we face in light of our goals. The Stoic test asks us to roll up our sleeves and appreciate a good challenge qua challenge. It is the very fact of it being a challenge that makes it good for our souls! By proving to the Stoic gods that we can overcome anything they throw our way, we thereby prove how resilient and resourceful we are, securing our resolve as committed followers of the Stoic philosophy.

“The struggle is great, the task divine – to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquility.” ~ Epictetus

Life will always be a struggle. But the task to be resilient and not suffer is divine. We can transmogrify the setback into a challenge and learn from it, gaining a new opportunity to achieve mastery of our emotions, achieve tranquility in the face of tribulations, and find inner peace despite outer turmoil.

As Irvine shows, Stoic philosophy is not some stale philosophy from the ancients. It is a living, breathing philosophy all the more needed in today’s hectic world.

Our senses are assaulted with a million distractions every day. The economy is complex and ever-changing. The alienation and isolation of modern life is more real than ever. Social media distorts our brain patterns, hooking us into negative feedback-loops.

Boredom is omnipresent despite more ways of entertaining ourselves than have ever existed in human history.

A global pandemic besets the world. For many across the globe, life is not easy. There is pain. But pain and suffering are different. Suffering is our attitude to pain. This is where Stoic philosophy comes in. If we are experiencing pain, the Stoic test looks at it objectively, as a challenge from the gods to test our resolve.

The only other option is to suffer. But that does nobody any good. As Irvine says,

“When the number of options available is limited, it is foolish to fuss and fret. We should instead simply choose the best of them and get on with life. To behave otherwise is to waste precious time and energy.”

So next time you are backed into a corner, ask yourself: how do you reframe the issue? The gods have blessed you with a challenge today! How you respond is up to you.

…framing effect: how we mentally characterize a situation has a profound impact on how we respond to it emotionally.” ~ William Irvine, The Stoic Challenge

Choose your frame. Accept your challenge. Set yourself free.

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