A Guide to the Good Life – William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – by William B. Irvine
Date read: 5/8/17. Recommendation: 9/10.

There's no better modern introduction to Stoicism. Contrary to today's understanding of the term as a lack of outward emotion, it's a life philosophy which cultivates rationality, appreciation, and joy. Irvine discusses the practicality of Stoicism, how it applies to our every day lives, and the importance of adopting a coherent philosophy of life that suits us as individuals. He hits on key concepts in Stoic philosophy and wraps them in a modern, logical context. I originally read this book over a year ago, and almost every single word struck a chord with me. It was one of my first encounters with Stoicism and I was surprised to find it matched almost identically with my existing worldview, which I had pieced together over the years.

See my notes below or Amazon for details and reviews. 


My Notes:

The Stoics feel somewhere between the Cyrenaics and the Cynics: They thought people should enjoy the good things life has to offer, including friendship and wealth, but only if they did not cling to these good things.

The sage is to Stoicism as Buddha is to Buddhism.

Greek Stoics: Primary ethical goal was the attainment of virtue.
Roman Stoics: Retained this goal, but we also find them repeatedly advancing a second goal, the attainment of tranquility.

Stoic tranquility: psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.

Roman Stoics argue tranquility and virtue are connected. Someone who is not tranquil, who is distracted by negative emotions such as anger or grief, might find it difficult to do what his reason tells him to do: His emotions will triumph over his intellect. This person might therefore become confused about what things are really good, consequently might fail to pursue them, and might, as a result, fail to attain virtue.

According to Epictetus, the primary concern of philosophy should be the art of living: Just as wood is the medium of the carpenter and bronze is the medium of the sculptor, your life is the medium on which you practice the art of living.

Negative visualization: spending time imagining that we have lost the things we value. The single most valuable technique in the Stoics' psychological tool kit.

As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity.

Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world...Negative visualization is therefore a wonderful way to regain our appreciation of life and with it our capacity for joy.

One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted. To them, the world is is wonderfully new and surprising.

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. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life.

Our most important choice in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal. Most people choose the former because they think harms and benefits come from outside themselves.

The trichotomy of control:
-Things over which we have complete control: goals we set for ourselves
-Things over which we have no control: whether the sun rises tomorrow
-Things over which we have some but not complete control: whether we win while playing tennis. Setting internal rather than external goals (playing to the best of your ability, not to always win).

It will clearly make sense for us to spend time and energy setting goals for ourselves and determining our values. Doing this will take relatively little time and energy. Furthermore, the reward for choosing our goals and values properly can. Indeed, Marcus thinks that the key to having a good life is to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.

Marcus thinks that by forming opinions properly – by assigning things their correct value – we can avoid much suffering, grief, and anxiety and can thereby achieve the tranquility the Stoics seek.

Musonius would point to three benefits to be derived from acts of voluntary discomfort:
1) Harden ourselves against misfortune that might befall us in the future.
2) Grow confident that we can withstand major discomforts so they aren't a present source of anxiety. Training to be courageous.
3) Help us appreciate what we already have.

Someone who tries to avoid all discomfort is less likely to be comfortable than someone who periodically embraces discomfort. The latter individual is likely to have a much wider "comfort zone"

The worse a man is, the less likely he is to accept constructive criticism.

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.

If we detect anger or hatred within us and wish to seek revenge, one of the best forms of revenge on another person is to refuse to be like him.

When you don't respect the source of an insult, you should feel relieved. If he disapproves of what you are doing, then what you are doing is doubtless the right thing to do.

The political correctness movement has some untoward side effects. One is that the process of protecting disadvantaged individuals from insults will tend to make them hypersensitive to insults...Epictetus would argue we shouldn't punish these individuals, but instead teach them techniques of insult self-defense.

"Unless reason puts an end to our tears, fortune will not do so." -Seneca

The advice that we respond to the grief of friends by grieving ourselves is as foolish as the advice that we help someone who has been poisoned by taking the poison ourselves or help someone who has the flu by intentionally catching it from him. Grief is a negative emotion and therefore one that we should, to the extent possible, avoid experiencing. If a friend is grieving, our goal should be to help her overcome her grief.

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.

People are unhappy, the Stoics argue, in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. Because of their confusion, they spend their days pursuing things that, rather than making them happy, make them anxious and miserable.

Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor.

It is foolish to worry about what other people think of us and particularly foolish for us to seek the approval of people whose values we reject. Our goal should therefore be to become indifferent to other people's opinions of us.

Most people use their wealth to finance a luxurious lifestyle, one that will win them the admiration of others.

Desire for luxuries is not a natural desires. Natural desires, such as a desire for water when we are thirsty, can be satisfied; unnatural desires cannot.

Those who crave luxury typically have to spend considerable time and energy to attain it; those who eschew luxury can devote this same time and energy to other, more worthwhile undertakings.

A Stoic who disparages wealth might become wealthier than those individuals whose principal goal is its acquisition (lost interest in luxurious living, overcome craving for consumer goods, more likely to retain a large portion of income).

What stands between most of us and happiness is not our government or the society in which we live, but defects in our philosophy of life.

If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim–if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances–you are likely to have a good life.

The Stoics pointed to two principal sources of human unhappiness–our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control.

There are people, I think, whose personality is uniquely well-suited to Stoicism. Even if no one formally introduces these individuals to Stoicism, they will figure it out on their own. These "congenital Stoics" are perpetually optimistic and they are appreciative of the world they find themselves in. If they were to pick up Seneca and start reading, they would instantly recognize him as a kindred spirit.

And why is self-discipline worth possessing? Because those who possess it have the ability to determine what they do with their life. Those who lack self-discipline will have the path they take through life determined by someone or something else, and as a result, there is a very real danger that they will mislive.

Most people go to the mall not because they have a specific need, but in hopes that doing so will trigger a desire for something that before going they didn't want. Why go out of their way to trigger a desire? Because if they trigger one, they can enjoy the rush that comes when they extinguish that desire by buying its object. It is a rush, of course, that has little to do with their long-term happiness.

The profound realization, thanks to the practice of Stoicism, that acquiring things that those in my social circle typically crave and work hard to afford will, in the long run, make zero difference in how happy I am and will in no way contribute to my having a good life.