William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) is one of the best-selling and most immediately accessible introductions to Stoic philosophy. It’s one I recommend to people who are new to Stoicism and want to learn more about it. I do, however, advise you to read The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman too. Between the two books you’ll have a well rounded understanding of how to attain a happier, calmer life.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is split into four parts:
- Part one introduces the ancient Stoics, and gives some context to the philosophies that come later in the book.
- Part two contains the first half of the book’s “tricks”: the techniques ancient Stoics used for a happier life. These include practicing negative visualization, learning to deal with things you can’t control, letting go of the past, avoiding complacency with your worldly possessions, and meditation.
- Part three continues part two’s practical advice, but dealing more with the general emotions that befall us: loving mankind, dealing with other people, making yourself impervious to insults, vanquishing grief, overcoming anger, cultivating personal values, dealing with old age, and more.
- Part four finishes up the book with advice on how to make use of these ancient techniques in modern life.
The rest of this post is a summary of what I learned from the book. It does not always follow the structure of the book itself. To avoid repetition I’ve grouped ideas together in a way that I believe makes more sense.
We start with a history lesson:
Philosophical thinking took a giant leap forward in the sixth century BC. Philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Confucius and Buddha to name but a few provided their pupils with a philosophy of life.They taught them what things in life were worth pursuing and how best to get them.
The original Stoics fell somewhere between the Cyrenaics and the Cynics (see the image below).
The Cynics thought people should enjoy the good things life has to offer, including friendship and wealth, but only if you did not cling to them. They thought we should periodically interrupt our enjoyment of what life has to offer to spend time contemplating the loss of whatever it is we are enjoying.
The Cyrenaics taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, which meant not just the absence of pain, (as it did for Epicurus) but positively enjoyable sensations. Of these, momentary pleasures, especially physical ones, are stronger than those of anticipation or memory.
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. The goal of the Stoics was not to eliminate emotions, rather it was to reject negative emotions like anger, jealousy, grief, fear and anxiety, and embrace positive emotions like happiness and joy. The Stoics realised that humans differ from other animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. We were designed to be reasonable.
Where should this reasoning lead you? A benchmark to aim for is the contemplation of a Stoic sage: an idealised person who is free from vanity. He is indifferent to good or evil and never feels grief, since grief is an irrational contraction of the soul.
While the Sage is a target to aim at, you will always fail to hit it. The Sage is to Stoicism as Buddha is to Buddhism. Most Buddhists can never hope to become as enlightened as Buddha, but nevertheless, reflecting on Buddha’s perfection can help them gain a degree of enlightenment.
Back to School
Philosophies such as Stoicism differ from religions. Religions, after telling adherents what they must do to be morally upstanding and get into heaven or the after life, leave it to followers to decide what things in life are and aren’t worth pursuing. These religions see nothing wrong with an adherent working hard so he can afford a huge mansion and an expensive sports car. Adherents of the various religions, despite the differences in their religious beliefs, end up with the same impromptu philosophy of life, namely, a form of enlightened hedonism.
Not so with Stoicism. A Stoic school was like a physician’s consulting room and not a church: “patients” should leave feeling bad rather than feeling good – the idea being that any treatment likely to cure a patient is also likely to cause him discomfort.
Parents sent their children to schools of philosophy not only so they could learn how to live well but so they could sharpen their skills of persuasion. By teaching their students logic, the Stoics were helping them develop these skills: Students who knew logic could detect the fallacies committed by others and thereby prevail over them in arguments.
A Philosophy of Life
So, armed with this background, the first question to ask yourself is, “what is my plan for living?” Or put another way, what is your philosophy of life?” Philosophies of life have two components:
- they tell us what things in life are and aren’t worth pursuing, and
- they tell us how to gain the things that are worth having.
If you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.
You have one chance at life. Sitting on your deathbed, don’t look back over your time on Earth with regret. Simply put, we regret choices we make, because we worry that we should have made other choices.
We think we should have done something better, but didn’t. We should have chosen a better partner, but didn’t. We should have taken that more exciting but risky job, but didn’t. We should have been more disciplined, but weren’t.
We regret these past choices, which can’t be changed, because we compare them to an ideal path that we think we should have taken. We have an idea in our heads of what could have been, if only a different choice had been made.
The problem is that we have already made those choices. So we keep comparing the unchangeable choice we actually made, to this ideal. This fantasy. It can’t be changed, and it will never be as good as the ideal. The unchangeable choice we made will always be worse. It spins around and around in our heads.
Having a coherent philosophy of life leads to a quest for something genuinely valuable. What is of value is up to you to decide. Whatever you decide to pursue you need self-control and discipline. 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.
Self-discipline is a skill you have to work on day in and day out. When you commit to this you achieve huge positive change in your life. If you don’t stick to it, your results can be disappointing. No amount of “blitzing” a series of workouts, “cramming” for exams, or “crash dieting” will get you the results that the daily, mindful practice provides. The daily practice of self-control works because, quite simply, little things add up to a big thing if you have enough little things. Given enough time, the steady drip-drop of water becomes an ocean. Given enough time, small regular deposits become a small fortune.
Willpower is like muscle power: the more you exercise your will, the stronger it gets. Practise this over an extended period and you will be able to do things that others fear doing, and refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. You will be thoroughly in control of yourself. This self-control makes it far more likely that you will attain the goals of your philosophy of life, and this in turn dramatically increases your chances of living a good life.
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. By doing this, they might have a comfortable life or even a life filled with pleasure. The question remains, however, whether they could have a better life by turning their back on their evolutionary programming and instead devoting time and energy to acquiring a philosophy of life.
The Trichotomy of Control
So, we’ve seen from the previous section that a philosophy of life requires control. Certainty of attaining something only comes when you are in full control. When you desire something you can’t control then this will disturb your tranquility and increases your anxiety. Midway between the two extremes is things you have some control over for example the amount of effort you put into an activity. Perhaps you can’t control the outcome of the activity but at least you can control your own thoughts. You may want your spouse to love you but you can’t control another person’s feelings. What you can control is how you can act to make yourself as lovable as possible.
You also can’t control the past, you can only chose to accept it, whatever it might have been. You can also embrace the present, whatever it might be. Refuse to spend time engaging in “if only” thoughts about the past and present.
- what you can control, for example your attitude and what goals are important to you,
- what you can’t control, for example the weather, other people’s beliefs and perceptions about you, and
- what you only some control over: for example, a game of tennis; here you can control the amount of effort you put into the match and how much you practice and train but you can’t control the ability of your opponent. So in the end you’ll only have some influence over the outcome of the tennis match.
This means that you should expend your efforts and energy on those things you can directly control or perhaps influence, but avoid to try to control uncontrollable things which is just be a futile anxiety generating exercise.
I’ve written about goals before. As mentioned above, any time and energy spent on events you can’t control will have no effect on the outcome of events and will therefore be wasted time and energy. Its therefore better to set internal rather than external goals. Don’t make a goal to change the world, rather try your best to bring about certain changes. Even if your efforts prove to be ineffectual, you can rest easy knowing you accomplished your goal: You tried your best. What more can you do than that?
Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune
Spend time imagining that you have lost the things you value – that your partner has left you, your car was stolen, you lost your job. Doing this will make you value these things more than you would have. While kissing your child, silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow. As we go about our day, pause to reflect from time to time to think that you will not live forever and therefore this day could be your last.
Think about how you would feel if you lost your material possessions. How you would feel if you lost your abilities, including your ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe, and swallow; and how you would feel if you lost your freedom.
When you wake step through your plans for the day and meditate momentarily about the worst case scenario for everything you’re involved in or you have to do. By doing this you attain two benefits:
- You think about how best to prevent these undesirable issues occurring in the first place.
- You mentally brace yourself so if they do actually happen then your “tranquility” won’t be too affected. Your willpower, self-discipline and self-control are all improved.
The purpose of this exercise isn’t to generate overly pessimistic expectations. Rather it’s an attempt to turn our natural optimism bias into a something which is more realistic. By reflecting back on the day you realise that all the worst-case scenarios you envisaged never happened. This then has the following effects:
It reminds you of the positive things in your life. It makes you happy about the people in your life, whether they’re loved ones or just a stranger you met who was kind to you in some ways. You may be married to the person you once dreamed of marrying, have the children and job you once dreamed of having, and own the car you once dreamed of buying. You are living in what to your ancestors would have been a dream world. You take for granted things that your ancestors had to live without.
It turns bad things into good things. Having problems at work? Be grateful you have work. Be grateful you have challenges, and that life isn’t boring. Be grateful that you can learn from these challenges. Be thankful they make you a stronger person.
It reminds you of what’s important. It’s hard to complain about the little things when you give thanks that your children are alive and healthy. It’s hard to get stressed out over paying bills when you are grateful there is a roof over your head. This may be the last time you hear the sound of rain falling, watch the sun rise, or feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms. Every time you do something could be the last time you do it, and this recognition can invest the things you do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.
You are living the dream you once had for yourself. We’re unhappy because we’re insatiable. After working hard to get what we want, we 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.
The easiest way to gain happiness is to want the things you already have. Want only those things that are easy to obtain. Want only those things you can be certain of obtaining. Gain contentment by changing ourselves, by changing our desires.
Set Yourself Challenges
Besides contemplating bad things happening, sometimes live as if they had happened. Instead of merely thinking about what it would be like to lose your wealth, periodically practice poverty: Examine the things you thought you needed so you can determine which of them you can in fact live without.
By periodically experiencing discomfort that you could avoid if these events were to happen then you can still practice virtue. Stoics practice these unpleasant things as preparation: that entails that they have some likelihood of usefulness. It’s very likely that nature will change wealth into poverty, health into sickness, education into ignorance, and duty into obligation. Remember: you’re not inflicting these discomforts to punish yourself; rather, do it to increase your enjoyment of life.
Harden yourself against misfortunes that might befall you in the future. If all you know is comfort, you might be traumatized when you are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as you someday almost surely will. If you periodically experience minor discomforts, you will grow confident that you can withstand major discomforts as well.
So you won’t fear experiencing such discomforts and you’re more likely to be comfortable than someone who tries to avoid all discomfort. You’ll have a much wider comfort zone than others and will therefore feel comfortable under circumstances that would cause others distress.
Paradoxically, consciously abstaining from pleasure can itself be pleasant, for example you will be pleased and will praise yourself.
Meditation and Reflection
Reflect periodically on the events of daily life, how you responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, you should have responded to them. An experienced stoic will let actions speak louder than words. For example: a beginner will give up wine for water and then tell his friends about his self-control; an experienced stoic will drink the water and let his action speak for themselves.
A suggested daily regime is outlined in the image below:
Perform with resoluteness the duties we humans were created to perform. Help people but don’t expect any thanks. Provide assistance then look for someone else to help. Nothing else should distract you. When you wake, rather than lying in bed, you must get up to do the work you were created to perform.
You cannot simply avoid dealing with annoying people, even though doing so would make your life easier. Nor can you capitulate to these annoying people to avoid discord. Instead, you should confront them and work for the common welfare. Show true love to the people with whom destiny has surrounded you. Doing your social duty will give you the best chance at having a good life.
Form a certain character and pattern for yourself when you are alone. Then, when you associate with other people, remain true to who you are.
People and Friends
You must associate with annoying, misguided, or malicious people to work for common interests. But be selective about who you befriend and which social functions you attend. Avoid befriending people whose values have been corrupted, so their values won’t contaminate yours. Instead seek people who share our values and in particular, people who are doing a better job than we are of living in accordance with good values. While enjoying the companionship of these individuals, work hard to learn what you can from them.
When dealing with other people, be indifferent to what they think of us. Be consistent in your indifference. Be as dismissive of approval as you are of disapproval. When irritated by someone’s shortcomings, pause to reflect on your own shortcomings. Doing this will help you become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him. Practice social fatalism: When dealing with others, assume they are fated to behave in a certain way. It is therefore pointless to wish they could be any other way.
Firstly, ask who has said the insult to you and do you respect that person? If you do then take this as feedback and act on this advice. If you don’t then treat the insults like the barking of a dog. When a dog barks, you might make a mental note that the dog appears to dislike you, but you would be a fool to become upset by this fact. And always remember that people get upset not at the things themselves but their judgments about these things.
The most effect response is no response at all. And don’t protect people from insults. If you do then when someone insults them when you’re not there, they will be much more susceptible to being hurt.
When people experience personal catastrophes, it is perfectly natural to experience grief. After this bout of reflexive grief, though, a Stoic will try to dispel whatever grief remains in him by trying to reason it out of existence. He will invoke the kinds of arguments Seneca used in his consolations: “Is this what the person who died would want me to do? Of course not! She would want me to be happy! The best way to honor her memory is to leave off grieving and get on with life.”
Because grief is a negative emotion, the Stoics opposed it. At the same time, they realized that because we are mere mortals, some grief is inevitable in the course of a lifetime, as are some fear, some anxiety, some anger, some hatred, some humiliation, and some envy. The goal of the Stoics was therefore not to eliminate grief but to minimize it.
Grieving the death of his brother, Seneca writes, “Nature requires from us some sorrow, while more than this is the result of vanity.” Difficult times can be a testing time, and as such can be some of the most instructive times possible.
It’s easy to be happy and motivated when things are going well. But what happens when they fall apart, or unexpected troubles come your way, or things go exactly as you don’t want them to? What do you do then? One way of dealing with grief is retrospective negative visualization. Imagine never having had something that you have lost. By using this exercise the feelings of grief at having lost something are replaced with feelings of thanks for once having had it.
Our lives are filled with miraculous gifts, and we are constantly taking them for granted, and complaining that life isn’t better. I do it myself, all the time. But when you catch yourself doing this, and remember to be grateful, life is suddenly so much better.
You might be grateful for your health, if you have it. Or you might not have perfect health, but you have legs to walk on. If you have no legs, perhaps you have eyes to enjoy the sight of a cherry blossom or sunset. If you have no eyes, perhaps you can hear music. If you have none of these, perhaps you can still learn things from reading in Braille. Remember: You have life and in itself this is such an incredible gift.
Question why you want to become well known? To get people to admire you then you have to do things other people define as good which may not be how you define good. You then live your life in conflict with your values. An ideal state is to keep up a sense of indifference towards approval or otherwise. Paradoxically, being indifferent to the opinions of others makes you seem self –confident which in turn garners an increased amount of admiration.
We are bad men living among bad men, and only one thing can calm us: we must agree to go easy on one another.
People mistakenly pursue fame. Some want to be known around the world. Some seek regional fame or popularity within their social circle or recognition in their chosen profession. Almost everyone seeks the admiration of friends and neighbors.
The price of fame is so high that it far outweighs any benefits. Don’t seek social status, since if you make it your goal to please others, you will no longer be free to please yourself. You will have enslaved yourself.
Not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself. Dress to protect our bodies, not to impress other people. Likewise, our housing should be functional.
The first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The second step in transforming a society is to change people’s external circumstances.
If we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life.
There are three possible strategies here:
- Laugh – instead of a source of frustration treat the initiating event as a source of hilarity. This will then dissipate the negative emotions.
- Put the anger into context. Think, “In 100 years will this actually matter?” In the grand scheme of things the anger will be cosmically insignificant.
- Think about the brevity of life. Your life is too short to waste time choosing to be angry.
Death: There’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing that comes before it—the fear of it. – Seneca
The abilities you once took for granted are slowly leaving you. The most delightful time of life is when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline. In your youth, because you assumed that you would live forever, you take your days for granted and as a result wasted many of them. In old age, however, waking up each morning can be a cause for celebration.
Having a coherent philosophy of life can make you more accepting of death. With a philosophy of life you’ll know what in life is worth attaining, and because you spent time trying to attain the thing in life you believe to be worth attaining, you have probably attained it, to the extent that it was possible for you to do so. Consequently, when it comes time for you to die, you will not feel cheated.
A question raised by Lucretius was you’ve already experienced one period of non-existence, before you were born (as shown in the image below). Why don’t you think about that period of non-existence in the same way as non-existence following death? The difference is that once you are born then you start to accumulate experiences so death deprives us of having more of these experiences.
So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more – Epicurus
Those who have lived without a coherent philosophy of life, though, will desperately want to delay death. Because their improvised philosophy of life has convinced them that what is worth having in life is more of everything, and they cannot get more of everything if they die. However, if you have developed a coherent philosophy of life and spent time attaining the things in life you value to the best of your ability, then how many more experiences do you need?
So, I can recommend Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy to anyone interested in exploring how Stoicism can help with the ordinary problems of living. In summary, the key messages are we would also be better off:
- if, instead of working hard to become wealthy, we trained ourselves to be satisfied with what we have
- if, instead of seeking fame, we overcame our craving for the admiration of others
- if, instead of spending time scheming to harm someone we envy, we spent that time overcoming our feelings of envy
- if, instead of knocking ourselves out trying to become popular, we worked to maintain and improve our relationships with those we knew to be true friends.
- if, instead of feeling entitled to things, we learn how to enjoy them without clinging to them.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a great primer of useful thinking and excellent advice, presented in a clear and straightforward manner.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Have I missed any important points? Please leave a comment below: