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A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

An easily digestible introduction to the Stoic philosophy of life: a history, overview, and practical guide to living well. William Irvine has taken the teachings of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and others and distilled them into guidelines that can be applied to everyday life.

Irvine’s style of writing can tend to drag on at times, but sometimes the repetitive rewording of an idea can be the one that really resonates.

My Highlights and Notes

if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life. Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life.

“Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.” — Antisthenes

“BEGIN EACH DAY by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.

One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.

the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.

Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.

By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.

While most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them, Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves—more precisely, by changing our desires.

Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.

The Stoics realized that our internal goals will affect our external performance, but they also realized that the goals we consciously set for ourselves can have a dramatic impact on our subsequent emotional state.

Fear of failure is a psychological trait, so it is hardly surprising that by altering our psychological attitude toward “failure” (by carefully choosing our goals), we can affect the degree to which we fear it.

What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.

We will shrug off their insults and slights. We will also shrug off any praise they might direct our way. Indeed, Epictetus thinks the admiration of other people is a negative barometer of our progress as Stoics: “If people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.”

The Stoics, as we have seen, think we cannot be selective in doing our social duty: There will be times when we must associate with annoying, misguided, or malicious people in order to work for common interests. We can, however, be selective about whom we befriend. The Stoics therefore recommend that we avoid befriending people whose values have been corrupted, for fear that their values will contaminate ours. We should instead seek, as friends, people who share our (proper Stoic) values and in particular, people who are doing a better job than we are of living in accordance with these values. And while enjoying the companionship of these individuals, we should work hard to learn what we can from them.

A good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest.

According to Marcus, the biggest risk to us in our dealings with annoying people is that they will make us hate them, a hatred that will be injurious to us. Therefore, we need to work to make sure men do not succeed in destroying our charitable feelings toward them.

One of their sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset.

ONE OTHER important sting-elimination strategy, say the Stoics, is to keep in mind, when insulted, that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult.

We should, he says, fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and our tendency to jump to conclusions about their motivations. We need to keep in mind that just because things don’t turn out the way we want them to, it doesn’t follow that someone has done us an injustice.

we should also keep in mind that the things that anger us generally don’t do us any real harm; they are instead mere annoyances. By allowing ourselves to get angry over little things, we take what might have been a barely noticeable disruption of our day and transform it into a tranquility-shattering state of agitation.

We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated.

Stoicism does not require her to renounce wealth; it allows her to enjoy it and use it to the benefit of herself and those around her. It does, however, require her enjoyment to be thoughtful. She must keep firmly in mind that her wealth can be snatched from her; indeed, she should spend time preparing herself for the loss of it—by, for example, periodically practicing poverty. She must also keep in mind that unless she is careful, enjoyment of her wealth can undermine her character and her capacity to enjoy life. She will, for this reason, steer clear of a luxurious lifestyle. Thus, the Stoic’s enjoyment of wealth will be strikingly different from that of, say, the typical person who has just won the lottery.

Parents do lots of things for their children, but Stoic parents—and, I suspect, good parents in general—don’t think of parenting as a burdensome task requiring endless sacrifice; instead, they think about how wonderful it is that they have children and can make a positive difference in the lives of these children.

we waste our time and cause ourselves needless anxiety if we concern ourselves with things over which we have no control.

Practicing Stoicism doesn’t take much effort; indeed, it takes far less effort than the effort one is likely to waste in the absence of a philosophy of life. One can practice Stoicism without anyone’s being any the wiser, and one can practice it for a time and then abandon it and be no worse off for the attempt. There is, in other words, little to lose by giving Stoicism a try as one’s philosophy of life, and there is potentially much to gain.


My Rating: ★★★★☆

ISBN: 9780195374612

Date Finished: 2018-07-02

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