A Guide to the Good Life – William B Irvine


Hardcover: 336 pages ISBN-10: 0195374614 ISBN-13: 978-0195374612



The first book I read on Stoicism and one of the most popular modern Stoic books in general. Irvine makes Stoicism accessible and clear to all in this work and it’s probably one that every aspiring Stoic should read.


This means that 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.

Another thing to realize is that although Stoicism is a philosophy, it has a significant psychological component. The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life.

Rather than being passive individuals who were grimly resigned to being on the receiving end of the world’s abuse and injustice, the Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked hard to make the world a better place.

One thing that made Stoicism attractive was its abandonment of Cynic asceticism: The Stoics favored a lifestyle that, although simple, allowed creature comforts.

The Stoics enjoyed whatever “good things” happened to be available, but even as they did so, they prepared themselves to give up the things in question.

As the philosopher Lawrence C. Becker puts it, “Stoic ethics is a species of eudaimonism. Its central, organizing concern is about what we ought to do or be to live well—to flourish.” In the words of the historian Paul Veyne, “Stoicism is not so much an ethic as it is a paradoxical recipe for happiness.”

But we differ from other animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. From this we can conclude, Zeno would assert, that we were designed to be reasonable.

we should remember that Zeno himself, to concoct Greek Stoicism, bent and blended the doctrines of (at least) three different philosophical schools: the Cynics, the Megarians, and the Academy.

To the contrary, the Stoics thought there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things life has to offer, as long as we are careful in the manner in which we enjoy them. In particular, we must be ready to give up the good things without regret if our circumstances should change.

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”

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.

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.

In other words, we need a technique for creating in ourselves a desire for the things we already have.

THE STOICS THOUGHT they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value

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.

It is hard to imagine a person who could not somehow be worse off. It is therefore hard to imagine a person who could not benefit from the practice of negative visualization.

This might sound a bit silly, but to someone who has not lost his capacity for joy, the world is a wonderful place. To such a person, glasses are amazing; to everyone else, a glass is just a glass, and it is half empty to boot.

To be able to be satisfied with little is not a failing, it is a blessing—if, at any rate, what you seek is satisfaction. And if you seek something other than satisfaction, I would inquire (with astonishment) into what it is that you find more desirable than satisfaction. What, I would ask, could possibly be worth sacrificing satisfaction in order to obtain?

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.

OUR MOST IMPORTANT CHOICE in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal.

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.

ONE WAY TO PRESERVE our tranquility, the Stoics thought, is to take a fatalistic attitude toward the things that happen to us.

If we want our life to go well, Epictetus says, we should, rather than wanting events to conform to our desires, make our desires conform to events; we should, in other words, want events “to happen as they do happen.”

More precisely, they are advising us to be fatalistic with respect to the past, to keep firmly in mind that the past cannot be changed.

One of the things we’ve got, though, is this very moment, and we have an important choice with respect to it: We can either spend this moment wishing it could be different, or we can embrace this moment.

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.

TO HELP US ADVANCE our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.

The most important sign that we are making progress as Stoics, though, is a change in our emotional life. It isn’t, as those ignorant of the true nature of Stoicism commonly believe, that we will stop experiencing emotion. We will instead find ourselves experiencing fewer negative emotions.

To fulfill my social duty—to do my duty to my kind—I must feel a concern for all mankind. I must remember that we humans were created for one another, that we were born, says Marcus, to work together the way our hands or eyelids do.

Ideally, a Stoic will be oblivious to the services he does for others, as oblivious as a grapevine is when it yields a cluster of grapes to a vintner. He will not pause to boast about the service he has performed but will move on to perform his next service, the way the grape vine moves on to bear more grapes.

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.

More generally, when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings.

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.

Another sting-elimination strategy, suggested by Epictetus, is to pause to consider how well-informed the insulter is. He might be saying something bad about us not because he wants to hurt our feelings but because he sincerely believes what he is saying, or, at any rate, he might simply be reporting how things seem to him.

One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn’t upset me.

From this it follows that if we can convince ourselves that a person has done us no harm by insulting us, his insult will carry no sting.

THE STOICS’ PRIMARY grief-prevention strategy was to engage in negative visualization. By contemplating the deaths of those we love, we will remove some of the shock we experience if they die; we will in a sense have seen it coming.

Furthermore, if we contemplate the deaths of those we love, we will likely take full advantage of our relationships with them and therefore won’t, if they die, find ourselves filled with regrets about all the things we could and should have done with and for them.

SENECA OFFERS lots of specific advice on how to prevent anger. 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 wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us.

In other words, Cato consciously did things to trigger the disdain of other people simply so he could practice ignoring their disdain.

“Is it not madness and the wildest lunacy to desire so much when you can hold so little?” Furthermore, he says, it is folly “to think that it is the amount of money and not the state of mind that matters!”2

There is indeed a danger that if we are exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, we will lose our ability to take delight in simple things. At one time, we might have been able to savor a bowl of macaroni and cheese, accompanied by a glass of milk, but after living in luxury for a few months we might find that macaroni no longer appeals to our discriminating palate; we might start rejecting it in favor of fettuccine Alfredo, accompanied by a particular brand of bottled water.

People who achieve luxurious lifestyles are rarely satisfied: Experiencing luxury only whets their

appetite for even more luxury. In defense of this claim, Seneca asks his friend Lucilius to imagine that he has become magnificently wealthy, that his house has marble floors and is decked with gold, and that his clothing is royal purple. Having all this, he observes, will not make Lucilius happy: “You will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”

Luxury, Seneca warns, uses her wit to promote vices: First she makes us want things that are inessential, then she makes us want things that are injurious. Before long, the mind becomes slave to the body’s whims and pleasures.

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.

Seneca’s comment to Lucilius that “the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man.”

EVEN THOUGH SHE DOESN’T pursue wealth, a Stoic might nevertheless acquire it. A Stoic will, after all, do what she can to make herself useful to her fellow humans.

“I shall despise riches alike when I have them and when I have them not, being neither cast down if they shall lie elsewhere, nor puffed up if they shall glitter around me.”

Such cases are tragic inasmuch as these people had it in their power—and, indeed, still have it in their power—to experience joy, but they either chose the wrong goals in living, or chose the right goals but adopted a defective strategy to attain those goals. This is the downside of failing to develop an effective philosophy of life: You end up wasting the one life you have.

Furthermore, when Stoics contemplate their own death, it is not because they long for death but because they want to get the most out of life.