A Guide To The Good Life, William B. Irvine – Book Review

Title: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
Author: William B. Irving
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Release Date: November 4, 2008
Pages: 336

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A Guide to the Good Life Review

I was first introduced to Stoicism through Tim Ferris’s podcast where he talked about Seneca and emphasized Letter 18 – On Festivals and Fasting. And it couldn’t have happened at a better time, I was in really rough place in life and it completely changed my perspective on everything.

From there I wanted to learn more about Stoicism so I started with Seneca’s letters, which are absolutely brilliant. But I wanted to learn more about the roots of Stoicism, after doing thorough research this book came up quite often. It was exactly what I was looking for, ‘A perfect starting point for all would-be Stoics’ as the author puts it.

The author uses really good, practical examples to demonstrate his points. Not only does he use examples from Stoic times, he also explains how Stoicism can be applied today. On top of that, the author takes on counter arguments himself to shed a different perspective on things.

The one negative thing about this book was its length. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against longer books, especially good ones, but this book definitely could have been condensed without losing any informative content.

A Guide to the Good Life Summary

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.

Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.

The Stoics discovered that exercising self-control has certain benefits that might not be obvious. In particular, as strange as it may seem, consciously abstaining from pleasure can itself be pleasant. I can personally attest to this from experimenting with Seneca’s Letter 18 – On Festivals and Fasting.

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

Negative visualization is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.

When the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities. The author concludes with his own personal advice on pursuing Stoicism. First, pursue stealth Stoicism to avoid judgment and mockery. Next, proceed gradually and adopt one technique at a time.


5 Key Lessons:

  1. If despite not having pursued wealth, we find ourselves wealthy, although we should enjoy the wealth, we should not cling to it. Even as we enjoy it, we should contemplate its loss.
  2. The Stoics pointed to two principle sources of human unhappiness – our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control.
  3. When we spend time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control, we should be careful to internalize our goals. My goal in playing tennis, for example, should be not to win the match but to play the best match possible.
  4. To conquer our insatiability, the Stoics advise us to engage in negative visualization. We should contemplate the impermanence of all things. We should imagine ourselves losing the things we most value, including possessions and loved ones.
  5. We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions. In particular, we should use reason to convince ourselves that things such as fame and fortune aren’t worth having – not at any rate, if what we seek is tranquility – and there for aren’t worth pursuing.

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