Book Review/Notes: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Finished: July 30th, 2017. Rating: 8/10

Overall Thoughts:

Is this book a guide to the good life? Yes. A Guide to the Good Life is a brilliant introduction to Stoicism. It outlines the history, the evolution, the core principles, the exercises, and much more. If you want to practice Stoicism, this is your introduction.

Check out the Amazon page.


Stoicism is not about the death of emotions. It’s about the death of destructive ones. Seneca the Younger, one of the four major figures in Stoicism (others being Gais Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius), reminded his friend Lucilius that he must “learn how to feel joy” so he is not “ever deprived of gladness.”

Negative Visualization: How happy are lottery winners when they become instant millionaires or billionaires? Pretty damn happy. But after some time, they end up no happier than they were before winning. Yes. Even with the millions and billions, they are no happier than you and me. Why? Because we rarely ever appreciate what have. When we get something we’ve always wanted, we’re happy for a time, but then the joy fades out. For example, you’re single and yearn to have a special someone in your life. You go out on a date, you hit it off, and now you have a girlfriend/boyfriend. You’re happy. But, of course, this only lasts for a bit. Now you have to check in with your significant other before you go out, you have to wait for them before you can binge Netflix, you have to work around their schedule, and on and on and on. You think about how free singledom was. You are now no happier than you were before. A frustrating cycle.

Negative visualization fixes all this. Set aside time to imagine you’re deprived of all that you value, remember a time where you lost or did not have what you valued, or think of someone who lacks what you value. Try to make this visualization as concrete and as real as possible. Be specific and personal.

If you understand that “all things everywhere are perishable,” you will gain a deeper appreciation for them and you will lessen the impact of their loss.

  • Think of it this way: you’re eating at your favorite restaurant and find out that they’ll be closing down in a month. You will be upset, of course, but you’ll cherish every single meal you have here between now and when this restaurant closes. But now let’s say that you’re eating at your favorite restaurant and find out that today is their last day of business. You will be even more upset, and you may even be filled with regret that you did not enjoy this restaurant as much as you could have.
  • “All we have is ‘on loan’ from Fortune . . . ‘we should love all of our dear ones . . . , but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise that we may keep them for long.’ ” (Irvine 68)

Self-Denial: Everyone will face pain and struggle; therefore, we must put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to inoculate ourselves to pain and struggle. We won’t be able to completely eliminate stress, of course, but you will be ready to face it. By living the discomfort, you become more confident that you can endure greater discomfort.

Besides envisioning negatives, we should live them periodically:

  • Set aside a day for fasting.
  • Take cold showers.
  • Wait until you’re thirsty to drink.

Furthermore, we should even forgo pleasures on occasion:

  • Deny yourself a warm shower.
  • Deny yourself wine, beer, whiskey, etc.
  • Deny yourself a steak dinner, ice cream, sweets, etc.

These are just two of the many exercises in A Guide to the Good Life. If you liked these, you will like the book. If you like Stoicism, you will like the book.


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