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What’s a good life? How can you live one?
According to William B. Irvine, those are the basic questions at the heart of Stoic philosophy, an ancient Greek and Roman school of thought whose answers, he says, are just as relevant today as they were almost 2,000 years ago. In his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, he shares those answers.
Keep reading for an overview of the book, including a brief history of Stoicism, a description of its philosophical tenets, and a step-by-step guide to Stoic techniques designed to help you live well.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy was published in 2008 and predates other contemporary reinterpretations of Stoicism such as Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way (2014), Ego Is the Enemy (2016), and The Daily Stoic (2016). The book aims to explain and promote Stoic thought to a modern audience while answering the skepticism some readers might have about Stoicism. Irvine, a philosophy professor and a practicing Stoic, combines analyses of classical Stoic texts with insights gleaned from his life experience in order to create a practical how-to guide to Stoic practice.
We’ve organized this overview into two parts. In Part 1, we’ll explain what Stoicism is, how it promises to deliver a good life, and why its ideas still matter today. In Part 2, we’ll outline six practices you can follow to become a practicing Stoic and build a good life of your own.
Part 1: Why Stoicism Matters Today
Before we get into specific techniques for practicing Stoicism, it’s worth unpacking just what we mean when we say that Stoicism is a guide for living well.
What Stoicism Is—and Isn’t
Irvine’s version of Stoicism involves developing joy and minimizing unhappiness by controlling your desires and finding internal—rather than external—sources of fulfillment.
The Pursuit of the Good Life
Stoicism began in Greece around 300 BC and spread to Rome around 140 BC. Irvine describes it as a “philosophy of life.” In other words, Stoicism isn’t interested in abstract theoretical questions—it’s interested in how to live well. Irvine argues that ancient Stoic philosophers were concerned with dispensing practical advice about how you should think and behave in order to achieve a good life.
But what is a good life? For the Greek Stoics, Irvine says, having a good life meant living virtuously—that is, living as humans were designed to live. The Greek Stoics prized logic and rationality, so for them, to live virtuously meant to exercise reason as fully as possible.
By contrast, Irvine says, the Roman Stoics dropped the emphasis on logic and physics and instead focused on tranquility—the lack of negative emotions such as anger and anxiety and the presence of joy—as the basis of a good life. Irvine bases his version of Stoicism entirely on the Roman Stoics because he thinks this emphasis on tranquility is more likely to appeal to modern audiences than the Greeks’ focus on logical virtue.
Stoic Beliefs vs. Contemporary Misconceptions
Irvine says that, when people talk about “being stoic” today, they often mean suppressing your emotions or managing not to feel anything in the first place. Irvine explains that the truth is just the opposite: The ancient Stoics weren’t opposed to emotions in general—they were only interested in minimizing negative emotions, and they looked for ways to actively cultivate joy.
Similarly, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics believed you could enjoy pleasures and luxuries as long as you related to them correctly, which meant neither craving them nor getting attached to them. Consequently, several of Irvine’s Stoic practices are designed to help you tame your desires by appreciating what you already have and ignoring things that don’t really matter.
Moreover, Irvine argues, the ancient Stoics emphasized life’s temporary nature. They warned that if you rely on external things to make you happy, you’ll be unhappy when you inevitably lose those things.
Why Practice Stoicism?
Irvine argues that Stoicism is valuable because most people today don’t actually know what they want out of life. As a result, they pursue things that society says they should value. Irvine argues that external rewards like these can’t make you happy and that, if you spend your life pursuing them, you run the risk of regretting your choices later on. Moreover, Irvine points out that, even if you do know what you want out of life, you might not know how to get it.
Irvine says that Stoicism answers both of these concerns. It tells you what to pursue—tranquility—and how you can achieve it.
Part 2: How to Practice Stoicism
We’ll take a look at how you can actually develop a Stoic practice by following six basic techniques Irvine derives from ancient Stoic philosophy. Irvine recommends practicing one technique at a time.
Practice #1: Learn to Want What You Have Using Negative Visualization
Because one of the main goals of Stoicism is to tame desire, one key skill to learn is how not to want things you don’t have. According to Irvine, one of the best ways to do so is to learn to want the things you already have by taking time each day to imagine losing them. Irvine says that this practice, known as negative visualization, teaches you to appreciate what you already have and helps you deal with actual loss when it happens.
Negative visualization makes you happier in several ways. First, negative visualization makes you appreciate what you have instead of wanting something more. Second, anticipating calamities prepares you to deal with them when they do occur. Third, Irvine argues that you can ease your grief after a loss with a variation on this technique—think about what your life would have been like if you’d never had the person or thing that you’ve lost.
Practice #2: Focus on What You Can Control
Irvine points out that one of the reasons to get rid of desire is that, often, we lack the power to actually get the things we want. Therefore, he says, the ancient Stoics recommended that you worry about only the things that you can actually control. Irvine explains that the key is to recognize that you have degrees of control over different aspects of your life:
- There are things you have total control over.
- There are things you have no control over.
- There are things you have partial control over.
Irvine says the important lesson is that it’s fine to care about and work toward things you have partial control over, but he suggests that as you do so, you should be careful to set goals based only on things that are fully under your control.
Similarly, Irvine recommends keeping in mind that the past and the present are beyond your control: You can’t do anything to change what’s already happened, and because the present itself is determined by the past, you can’t change it either. He recommends that you accept the past and present as they are, and instead worry about the future, which you can still influence.
Practice #3: Don’t Let Other People Bring You Down
As you learn to focus on only the things you can control, you’ll gradually realize that one thing you can’t control is other people. For that reason, Irvine suggests being careful about how you relate to others. According to Irvine, the ancient Stoics argued that you should avoid people who put an unnecessary strain on your Stoic practices, such as overly negative people and people who value the wrong things in life. At the same time, Irvine explains, the ancient Stoics believed that you have a duty to other people, so you should be patient and forgiving.
Irvine cautions that, as a Stoic, you must learn to shrug off insults. Irvine suggests that you consider your opinion of the other person—do you even care what she thinks? Remember that you can only control your own thoughts and that you can only be hurt if you let yourself be. Instead of fighting back against the insult, Irvine recommends that you disarm the situation by responding either with humor or not at all.
Above all, Irvine points out, the ancient Stoics recommended that you avoid anger at all costs—speaking or acting in anger ultimately gives other people control over you and your behavior. The ancient Stoics suggested remembering that life is short and that most things don’t matter as much as we think they do in the moment.
Practice #4: Ignore Things That Don’t Matter
As you practice focusing on only what you can control and ignoring what other people think of you, you’ll eventually realize that many of the things we think are important—such as fame, luxury, and wealth—actually aren’t. In fact, Irvine says that pursuing these things tends to make us unhappy.
For instance, the ancient Stoics argued that you shouldn’t seek fame or approval. Likewise, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics suggested that you should avoid luxury (meaning unnecessarily fine, expensive, or high-quality things). Irvine explains that the ancient Stoics weren’t opposed to pleasure in and of itself, but they were cautious about luxury because they feared it would destroy their capacity to enjoy simple things.
That said, according to Irvine, if you happen to achieve fame or wealth, enjoy them—just don’t cling to them. Be prepared to lose them at any time.
Practice #5: Seek Out Discomfort
One way to avoid clinging to wealth and status is to deliberately seek out discomfort. Doing so builds up your tolerance for unpleasant experiences and makes them less of a big deal for you. Irvine notes that this voluntary discomfort can be physical or emotional.
If you follow this practice regularly, Irvine says, you’ll worry less about bad things that might befall you in the future because you’ll already know you can handle any situation.
Practice #6: Monitor Your Progress
Irvine recommends that you keep track of your growth as a Stoic by analyzing your day-to-day progress and noting ongoing changes in your emotions and behaviors. To do so, Irvine recommends that you take time each night to reflect on the day’s events and evaluate your responses to challenges you faced.
What Progress Looks Like
Irvine says you’ll experience the following as you strengthen your Stoic skills:
- You’ll feel fewer and less intense negative emotions and more joy.
- You’ll be less perturbed by others.
- You’ll take more responsibility for your behavior.
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Here's what you'll find in our full A Guide to the Good Life summary:
- A simple step-by-step guide to developing a Stoic practice
- How to be happier, calmer, and more fulfilled in life
- How you can evaluate your Stoic progress daily