A Response to Two Books by William B. Irvine

I have just finished reading two excellent books by William B. Irvine, a Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University.  His second book, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, was recommended to me by an anonymous friend through Twitter, so I read that one first, and since I found it so interesting, I bought and read his first book, On Desire:  Why We Want What We Want.  I enjoyed experiencing the reverse order of Dr. Irvine’s thinking, and both books were easy for a layperson like me to understand, while at the same time he does not assume a lack of intelligence on the part of the reader.

I appreciate being respected as a reader.  It is disagreeable to me to pick up a book that gives the illusion of intelligent discourse only to find watery pabulum intermixed with a lot of “shoulds”.   I dropped the word “should” from my lexicon over 30 years ago, and that one simple act changed how I proceed through life.  Not using the word “should” and replacing it with “could” made my life one filled with possibilities and choices rather than one of inferred failures.  And having raised JT without the word “should”, I think has given her a confident peacefulness that allows her to take risks, and thereby experience rewards, greater than a life full of “shoulds” might offer.

How do “could” and “should” relate to these two books?  Both books are about how we choose to live, or how we might build a philosophy of life within the context of Stoicism and desire.  For me, it means that I realize and understand that I live my life by choice and not by the dictates of fate.  And since I live by choice, I weigh my options carefully before making a move.  Knowing that I have made my choice rather than having been dropped into a situation (for the most part anyway) allows me to stay in touch with contentment and tranquility.  When I am dropped into a situation that I find difficult, challenging, or downright nasty, I am still left with the choice of living with integrity and dignity, or not, and I will not let the experience rob me of either.

It dawned on me while reading A Guide to the Good Life that over the years I have quietly embraced many aspects of Stoicism.  TT and I have made choices to not purchase the latest toys or gadgets.  We do our own work on our house, because even though the work is tedious and hard and cuts into what would be considered by others leisure time, we have the satisfaction of living in a home that has been upgraded to our standards of workmanship, rather than paying someone to do a potentially disappointing job.  Doing our own work also means we can afford better quality materials.

I cook from scratch, in part because I love to cook, but also because we know it is the better choice for our bodies.  We eat mostly at home, because it is hard to justify the expense of eating out, although we do enjoy dinner out with friends occasionally.  We also like to host parties when we can, but not for any reason other than we would like to see our friends and enjoy their company and lively conversation.

We wear our clothes until they wear out, and we are not fashion mavens, although since my bread and butter comes from the jewelry industry, one might think that I go through life bauble encrusted.  In fact, I own almost no jewelry since we were robbed two years ago and all of my jewelry was taken by some desperate soul who could not get a handle on his or her desires.

We drive our cars until the wheels fall off.  We find that we are well entertained by our projects and hobbies so we do not pursue much costly entertainment, although I do enjoy the theater and will indulge once in a while at a couple of reasonably priced good local theaters.  We do not own stacks of CD’s or DVD’s.  I confess to clinging to a passion for books, but even with that I have found that books from the Library are just as readable as books that have been purchased.

We tend to grab a sweater or a blanket before turning up the thermostat.  While we most certainly do enjoy good wine (and TT good Scotch), for the most part, we are water drinkers.

These things happened naturally and sometimes through necessity, and yes, I am struck with envy sometimes, especially when I hear of others’ travels and exciting experiences, or when we are on the road and I see someone driving that roadster convertible I would like to own.   Or when we take a ride to Little Compton or Newport and I sigh from the desire for my own little waterfront cottage, I have to make a conscious effort to be grateful for the home I do have, and then I count it as a gift that we live close enough to beaches and beautiful ocean views that we can enjoy them for an afternoon without the expense of care and upkeep.

Sometimes I find myself in a place that I am call “stuck between desires”.  For example, today I am between the desires of wanting company because I have been laying low healing from Thursday’s laparoscopic procedure and feeling lonely, and the desire for a full recovery, which probably requires that I not invite company today for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Another example of being stuck between desires is my wanting my daughter, JT, to be closer to home versus wanting her to make an excellent life for herself, even if it means being far from her parents, and these become a matter of choosing the best of the lot and wanting that.

On Desire also got me to thinking about the desire to buy things, and I wonder if the desire is not necessarily to own the object we are buying, but in our isolated society, maybe the desire is simply to have human-to-human interaction, even if one has to pay for the brief encounter.  If that is the case, is the fulfillment of that desire submission to a form of retail prostitution?  If that is the case, then why not reject the degradation and join a church, even if only for the social outlet, or join a club, play Chess at the local Library, take a class, or volunteer at a soup kitchen or a hospital?

I do not think that desire is a bad thing; in fact a desire in a good and healthy mind may well be the essence of motivation.  I have suffered at the hand of desire, and I have benefited from sifting through my desires and carefully choosing which to pursue and which to put down.

I see a healthy marriage (read committed relationship if you wish) as a safe haven for desire.  At least my healthy marriage is such, thanks to the help we had years ago from our trusted therapist who patiently and consistently pointed us toward the light, and given the hard work we put into clearing and following the path.  It is the place where I can safely carry the greatest of desires, and that is the desire to be desired, and return the gift without fear.



  1. Brandon said,

    April 18, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Excellent blog! Very thought provoking.

  2. April 18, 2010 at 7:52 pm

    Very insightful thoughts and am grateful you chose to share them.

    • Andrea Twombly said,

      April 18, 2010 at 8:01 pm

      Thanks, Jennifer!

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