• Rein Van Imschoot
    I am quite new to the practice of Stoicism but I am now reading "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

    Something that did spark a question however, was the idea of negative visualisation.

    In the book, the two main reasons for practicing negative visualisation would be:

    • To make sure you prepare for the inevitable loss of whatever you are visualising
    • To make sure you appreciate what you have and not fall prey to hedonic adaptation.

    But this, to me, feels like it leads to two different thought processes.

    Let's say I would visualise my apartment burning down with all my possessions along with it.

    On one hand, this would lead me to realise that this wouldn't be so bad, since I would still have my job, friends and family and although it would take some time, I would be able to rebuild what I have lost. Plus, a lot of people have it way worse than me.

    To me, this thought process feels like it achieves the first reason why one would practice negative visualisation but it also leaves me with a sort of detachment to my apartment and all my belongings.

    On the other hand, this visualisation could lead to realising what a great apartment I have and I should be lucky that I have it and appreciate it more. Again, a lot of people have it way worse than me.

    This would achieve the second reason why you would practice negative visualisation.

    To me, these two thought processes feel a bit contradictory as in the first, you are actively trying to lessen your attachment while in the second, you are creating more appreciation and as such, maybe also a bit more attachment?

    To give another example, I could visualise that I lost my job.

    On one hand, I would come to the conclusion that, again, this is not so bad since I still have my wits and skills and for someone who wants to work, there is always work to be found.

    On the other hand, this would make me realise that I do really like my job and the freedom and financial benefits it entails and I should be lucky to have it and appreciate it. Which kind of leads to this feeling that I should make sure I won't lose it by my own doing.

    And this again feels a bit contradictory?

    I hope I explained my feelings well. Maybe negative visualisation should be practiced for either the first or the second reason (as described above and in the book), but not both at the same time? Or maybe it should be practiced for the second reason only if you feel you are falling prey to hedonic adaptation?

    I'd be very curious to hear what you think!

    Kind regards
  • Shawn
    Hi Rein.

    The Cynics chided the Stoics for not partaking, as least not in as an extreme an extent as the Cynics, in voluntary discomfort.

    I guess it's a matter of adaptability and resilience training...
  • boethius
    I am quite new to the practice of Stoicism but I am now reading "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" and I am thoroughly enjoying it.Rein Van Imschoot

    These "Stoic" books for a popular audience are generally written by fools that don't understand stoic philosophy, but are just trying to cash in on the cachet the word stoicism has, since we use it today sort of as a proxy to say someone is wise about things, and of course one of the emperors of Rome with good name recognition was a stoic (and our culture heavily romanticizes the Roman period).

    I would suggest reading the source stoic material. Boethius goes without saying. As well as more academic analysis of the history of stoic philosophy. A really approachable academic view is "history of philosophy without any gaps", has a few podcasts on stoicism.

    Why "pop" stoicism should be avoided, is because the authors, being fools striving to spin stoicism into gold, can't help but psychologize stoicism: that stoic ideas and outlook will "help you in your life" by building a "more resilient psychology" in one way or another. They may allude to the stoics having a different purpose for their philosophy, but being fools, can't or don't bother to explain it.

    This is particularly evident in your post and to the large extent the author has mislead you or then
    is confused themselves.

    Although a term "negative visualization" could be used in the context of stoicism, it is misleading and I would suggest avoiding the term. Without a lot of caveats, "negative visualization" is a straight up contradiction in stoic philosophy.

    The core of stoic philosophy is that the only thing that has value is your own intentions, as that's all that you can control. Therefore, in this moral system the only "negative visualization" available would be visualization that you adopted intentions that you view as profoundly evil. There is zero reason to carry out such a visualization.

    What the author has, due to either their total incompetence or then complete disrespect of the stoic philosophers (probably both), confusingly borrowed from stoicism for their vain purpose of writing a crappy book, is the practice of accepting all the potential consequences of ones intentions and decisions.

    The consequences of intentions in stoicism are accidental, as we cannot control outcomes, and so there they are all equivalent in terms of moral evaluation.

    Now, in a context where we are using "good and bad" or "positive or negative" without any moral connotation -- for instance we can talk of a "good" chess move or a "bad" chess move in a given chess position and there is clearly zero moral evaluation going on about the chess pieces or chess players -- then we can categorize, for the purpose of analysis, potential consequences in "good" and "bad" or "negative" and "positive" with the mentioned caveats to remove all moral evaluation.

    However, this is a confusing use of language when talking about ethics, even if in normal life we'd of course agree that your apartment burning down "would be bad", in thinking about a philosophical subject where good and bad are used to evaluate moral worth, and easily carry a moral connotation -- for instance, if I say "you're a bad chess player" it can easily carry a tinge of moral judgement; that being a bad chess player makes you a lesser person in my view -- depending on how I say the words or then the context of the discussion.

    And the Stoic writers take some pains to make this as clear as possible, that of course from a purely analytic and abstract point of view they prefer their house not to burn down. However, the goal of stoicism is not to accept the core stoic ethical perspective, and then add on a whole bunch of "but, but, but" to reconstruct a completely banal view of life where it remains "better to be rich" and that stoicism can help one have a "strong psychology" which both increases the probability of getting rich as well as serves as an arrogant hedge in the event one loses something.

    The ethics of stoicism is profoundly non-material. Yes, we live in a material world and the consequences of our decisions play out in the material world, but it is not the material that has value.

    Understanding stoic philosophy should not lead to the question "how does this help me" but rather a cascade of self-doubts about one's roll in the world and society: what one's intentions really are and if those intentions are good or not, and what standard of morals are the good standard of morals. Stoic philosophy is not a tool, crutch or hedge, to accomplish better the flippant goals provided by social conformity or then better coping with being left out of those goals: it is rather first and foremost a profound critique of conformity and rejection of all intentions that has crept in from being brought up in society but have no justification when looked at more closely, and second a system of analysis to help in a search for the good and true intentions.

    As a last note, stoicism, although an advanced intellectual system, does not place value on the intellect, it is an accidental feature like anything else material that has no value in itself. Anyone with whatever faculties and whatever knowledge can be striving toward the good much more so than someone with the best faculties to understand and the best knowledge about stoicism. The effort towards the good, which stoicism prizes, is not an analytical construct but rather an intuitive fundamental effort of the will, soul, core or being or whatever you want to call the intentions that precede conceptualization. Stoicism is therefore not needed to be morally worthy, indeed more morally worthy than any stoic, but rather stoicism is a natural consequence of people with the intention to improve their intentions and who happen to have the time, faculties, access to knowledge to engage in analysis about themselves; given the opportunity and capacity, someone with good intentions will likely conclude they should verify, as far as is possible, if their intentions are as good as they think. To do this is a lengthy project that must encompass not only analysis of oneself but also society and the natural world. To "accept the consequences of one's actions" is not meant as an easy going, wishy-washy "ke sera sera" attitude, but it is implied actually knowing what those consequences are likely to be, which requires knowing as much about people and the natural laws as one possibly can, to then accurately predict what's likely to happen (the distribution of potential results and their relative probabilities) and to then evaluate if that is really in line with what one intends, and if not reforming one's intentions. For the ancient philosophers, it went without saying that one should try to know things, but in our age of shortcuts and glorification of laziness, focusing on the "accepting outcomes" is completely meaningless if one is clueless to what is actually going on in the world and what affect one's actions actually have or could have.
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