Nick Klagge's Reviews > A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine
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really liked it

(tl;dr--nice book, Stoicism is awesome)

This was a very enjoyable and accessible book on Stoicism. The author describes himself as a "congenital Stoic," i.e. one whose mind is naturally in accordance with many aspects of Stoic philosophy, and I think I could be described as the same (thus my interest in reading this). For anyone who is interested, I also highly recommend some of the primary sources: the "Handbook" of Epictetus and the "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius. They are very accessible too. (After reading this book, I know I need to read some of Seneca as well.)

In addition to giving a broad overview of the major Roman Stoics and the tenets of their philosophy, Irvine talks about some Stoic practices you can do. Some of these are things I've done before, and others I've only recently tried, but in general I think they are quite useful. To use some modern terminology, they seem to me to fall under the general category of avoiding hedonic adaptation. The Romans did not have "happiness economics," but they were certainly aware of this tendency in people, and its negative effects on our lives. So for example, Irvine talks about practicing regular minor deprivations, which has the positive effect of making us appreciate things more when we do have them, and also of getting us more comfortable with deprivation (which is often unavoidable). In my own life, I practice a very basic form of this: I alternate "beer nights" and "dessert nights," meaning that on a normal day, I may have a beer (or less often wine) with dinner or I may have dessert, but not both. (I don't always have either, and I'll occasionally break this rule for a special dinner out.) It's an almost absurdly minor deprivation, but I have found that it greatly enhances my appreciation of each--I have the minor excitement of "beer night!" or "dessert night!" most nights. Similarly, I think that one of the things I enjoy about backpacking is the way it entails temporary enforced deprivation of things we usually take for granted. When you come back to the "real world," you really appreciate these things! (Bill Bryson is really funny writing about this phenomenon in "A Walk In The Woods.") Another practice Irvine talks about is "negative visualization," which means occasionally imagining not having some of the good things in life that we take for granted. This can feel a little forced or silly sometimes, but I have found it to be quite effective in certain cases. The main example is a practice I read from David Cain of the "Raptitude" blog, which is: when you are in a normal situation, imagine that you have been dead or in some kind of limbo (I always picture the underworld from "The Amber Spyglass"), and that you have been temporarily granted a short time back in the world of the living. Try it some time and see what you think.

Irvine also spends some time writing about why Stoicism might be effective (in achieving its goal of increasing tranquility). The Roman Stoics thought that the gods had given man reason as his distinguishing characteristic; therefore, allowing our reason to rule was the best way of living in accordance with nature and "being the best we can be." Irvine wants to give his own description of why it is effective, without drawing on any religious beliefs. He gives an "evolutionary psychology" explanation that is closely linked to the ideas in "The Selfish Gene." Humans are "wired" with the emotional reactions that are most conducive to reproductive success, but these are not necessarily--in fact not at all--most conducive to human happiness. These include the fact that dissatisfaction tends to overtake temporary satisfaction (leading us to pursue more resources and more potential mates), and the preoccupation with what others think of us. Humans can overcome these evolutionarily coded triggers through the application of our reason and regular practice. Ironically, says Irvine, his explanation is in a sense exactly the opposite of the classical explanation--in his reading, we must overcome our nature rather than live in accordance with it.

I think there is some truth in Irvine's description, but I am also somewhat skeptical of it, since ev-psych explanations for phenomena can often be "just-so stories." Specifically, I am not convinced that genetics are the whole story, or even the main story. From my fairly minimal knowledge of "primitive" societies (mostly from non-authoritative sources: "Ishmael," "Debt," "Mutual Aid"), they are not actually that stressful of places to live for the most part--a lot of leisure with fairly rare stressful periods. The differences in observed social behavior between bonobos and common chimpanzees (our two closest cousins) also call into question any "pure" evolutionary explanation. Briefly, my feeling is that Irvine does not give enough "credit" to modern consumer society, which tends to play upon and accentuate these particular human instincts, because they are profit-generators. I wonder whether similar societal forces were at play in the Roman Empire; it certainly seems plausible. But whatever the reason, I feel that Stoic thought and exercises are extremely insightful.

Irvine also discusses the general idea of a "philosophy of life," of which Stoicism is an example, but also rival schools such as Epicureanism or other traditions such as Buddhism. He laments how selecting a philosophy of life is not seen as an important personal endeavor in our culture as it was (for the upper classes) in classical Greece and Rome, which, inter alia, has deeply changed the role of philosophy in culture. He sees it as important to adopt a philosophy of life, because otherwise there is a risk that you will come to the end of your life and feel unhappy with how you have conducted yourself. I would add that in our culture, if you don't make a point of doing this, your philosophy of life will probably end up being some version of "enlightened hedonism," which is again what is most agreeable to consumer capitalism. Religions also may play this role, but in my view, they are so tied to cultures as to make conscious individual choice quite rare--and they also come with many aspects that are not strictly philosophy-of-life. I thought this was a very interesting point, and I agree that it's lamentable.

A final note--Irvine has a related blog that I've started following:
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Reading Progress

July 23, 2014 – Started Reading
July 23, 2014 – Shelved
August 1, 2014 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by James (new)

James Klagge How did you find this book?

Nick Klagge I don't remember!

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