“A Guide to the Guide Life” by William Irvine (Book Summary)
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine tries to answer the question, “How to have a good life?” and it’s written for those seeking a philosophy of life.
“The Stoic philosophy of life may be old,” Irvine explains, “but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling – who wishes, that is, to have a good life.”
And who doesn’t want to have a good life?
If you’re open for a practical philosophy that promises the good life, then this book is for you. In my opinion, it’s the best book out there to explain Stoic philosophy.
Who is A Guide to the Good Life for?
- Anyone seeking a guide to the good life
- Anyone who wants to learn more about Stoicism
- Anyone interested in practical life advice
1. You Need a Philosophy of Life
The most important reason for adopting a philosophy of life is that if we lack one, there is a danger that we will mislive – that we will spend our life pursuing goals that aren’t worth attaining or will pursue worthwhile goals in a foolish manner and will therefore fail to attain them.
This is the downside of failing to develop an effective philosophy of life: You end up wasting the one life you have.
I think the biggest mistake, the one made by a huge number of people, is to have no philosophy of life at all. These people feel their way through life by following the promptings of their evolutionary programming, by assiduously seeking out what feels good and avoiding what feels bad.
Many people go through life repeatedly making the same mistakes and are no closer to happiness in their eighties than they were in their twenties.
People are in need of a philosophy of life.
“Who, then,” asks William Irvine, “should give Stoicism a try? Someone who, to begin with, seeks tranquility.”
2. Stoicism Promises Tranquility
The primary ethical goal of the Greek Stoics was the attainment of virtue. The Roman Stoics retained this goal, but we find them also repeatedly advancing a second goal: the attainment of tranquility. And by tranquility they did not have in mind a zombie-like state. Rather, Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.
Someone who thinks something is more valuable than tranquility would therefore be foolish to practice Stoicism.
The book is called A Guide to the Good Life for a reason. The author states that a reward of practicing Stoicism is to experience less negative emotions and because of this you will enjoy more tranquility in life.
Avoiding negative emotions will increase your chances of experiencing one particular positive emotion: delight in the world around you.
3. Stoicism Is Attractive as It Allows Comforts
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 defended this abandonment by arguing that if they avoided the “good things,” as the Cynics did, they thereby demonstrated that the things in question really were good – were things that, if they did not hide them from themselves, they would crave.
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.
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.
We shouldn’t seek for comfort, but if it happens to be there, we should also enjoy it. The challenge is: don’t get attached and be ready to let go.
As Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, if you must live in a palace, you can also live well in a palace.
4. Negative Visualization: The Most Valuable Stoic Technique
No matter how hard we try to prevent bad things from happening to us, some will happen anyway. Seneca therefore points to a second reason for contemplating the bad things that can happen to us. If we think about these things, we will lessen their impact on us when, despite our efforts at prevention, they happen: “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” Misfortune weighs most heavily, he says, on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.”
They recommend that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value – that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.
While enjoying the companionship of loved ones, then, we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end.
Irvine coined this technique negative visualization and he thinks it’s “the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.”
The idea is simple: periodically reflect on what “bad” could happen. Reflect on the facts that people are mortal, your relatives and friends could die or fall ill, and you yourself will not live forever.
5. How Is Your Self-Control?
For the Stoics… self-control will be an important trait to acquire. After all, if we lack self-control, we are likely to be distracted by the various pleasures life has to offer, and in this distracted state we are unlikely to attain the goals of our philosophy of life.
More generally, if we cannot resist the pleasures, we will end up playing, Marcus says, the role of slave, “twitching puppetwise at every pull of self-interest,” and we will spend our life “ever grumbling at today or lamenting over tomorrow.”
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.
They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing the things that others cannot resist doing.
Such willpower is immensely powerful. Irvine argues that we can practice it with the Stoic practice of voluntary discomfort: We should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided.
We could underdress for cold weather, fast for 24 hours, or sleep a night on the floor.
6. How to Preserve Tranquility While Interacting with Others?
The Stoics 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 values.
Besides advising us to avoid people with vices, Seneca advises us to avoid people who are simply whiny, “who are melancholy and bewail everything, who find pleasure in every opportunity for complaint.” He justifies this avoidance by observing that a companion “who is always upset and bemoans everything is a foe to tranquility.”
Marcus recommends that when we interact with an annoying person, we keep in mind that there are doubtless people who find us to be annoying. More generally, when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings.
According to the Stoics, we shouldn’t gossip and talk about unimportant stuff. And we shouldn’t get annoyed by others, because by letting ourselves become annoyed, we only make things worse.
Let’s always keep in mind that we’ve been annoying before, and show compassion, empathy, and tolerance toward others.
7. How to not Get Hurt After an Insult
When insulted, people typically become angry. Because anger is a negative emotion that can upset our tranquility, the Stoics thought it worthwhile to develop strategies to prevent insults from angering us.
When we consider the sources of insults, says Seneca, we will often find that those who insult us can best be described as overgrown children.
When a dog barks, we might make a mental note that the dog in question appears to dislike us, but we would be utter fools to allow ourselves to become upset by this fact, to go through the rest of the day thinking, “Oh, dear! That dog doesn’t like me!”
“Remember,” says Epictetus, “that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting.”
William Irvine shares some Stoic sting-elimination strategies. We should pause to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it’s true, we shouldn’t get upset because it’s true. And if it isn’t true, well, it isn’t true.
Also, we should consider the source of the insult and how well-informed the insulter is. In many cases, we will find that those insulting us have deeply flawed characters. Such people, says Marcus, rather than deserving our anger, deserve our pity.
8. Anger Is Brief Madness
Anger, says Seneca, is “brief madness,” and the damage done by anger is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.” Because of anger, he says, we see all around us people being killed, poisoned, and sued; we see cities and nations ruined… We live in a world, after all, in which there is much to be angry about, meaning that unless we can learn to control our anger, we will be perpetually angry. Being angry, Seneca concludes, is a waste of precious time.
To avoid becoming angry, says Seneca, 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.
Furthermore, as Seneca observes, “our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us.” What fools we are, therefore, when we allow our tranquility to be disrupted by minor things.
What seems vitally important to us will seem unimportant to our grandchildren. Thus, when we feel ourselves getting angry about something, we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Doing this might enable us to nip our anger in the bud.
The point the Stoics are making is simple: Anger is not helpful. Therefore, we should minimize our anger by, for example, zooming out and getting a different perspective on the situation that makes us angry.
The Stoics fight anger with cold logic. If it doesn’t make sense to be angry, then why be angry?
9. Seeking Luxuries Is Unnatural
Seneca reminds us how small our bodies are and poses this question: “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.” Musonius agrees with this assessment. Possessing wealth, he observes, won’t enable us to live without sorrow and won’t console us in our old age. And although wealth can procure for us physical luxuries and various pleasures of the senses, it can never bring us contentment or banish our grief.
The desire for luxuries is not a natural desire. Natural desires, such as a desire for water when we are thirsty, can be satisfied; unnatural desires cannot.
Epictetus encourages us to keep in mind that self-respect, trustworthiness, and high-mindedness are more valuable than wealth.
The Stoics value a simple lifestyle, like that of a minimalist. They value their ability to find sources of delight in ordinary things.
However, Irvine reminds us that Stoicism does not require us to renounce wealth, but to be thoughtful of it, and not to cling to it. Stoic philosophy “calls for plain living, but not for penance,” as Seneca says.
10. Practice Stealth Stoicism
Anyone wishing to become a Stoic should do so unobtrusively. This is because those who hear of your “conversion” to Stoicism will likely mock you. You can avoid this sort of harassment, though, by keeping a low philosophical profile and practicing what might be called stealth Stoicism.
You would do well, I think, to keep it a secret that you are a practicing Stoic.
Epictetus thinks that in our practice of Stoicism, we should be so inconspicuous that others don’t label us Stoics – or even label us philosophers.
This is Irvine’s first tip on becoming a Stoic: Don’t talk about your new philosophy and practice stealth Stoicism.
What matters is not your ability to recite Stoic principles, but that you live by them. It’s your actions, not your words, that matter most in your quest for the good life.
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