Living a Virtuous Life in an Unvirtuous World

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Obstacle Is The Way" by Ryan Holiday. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is virtuous life? What exactly does it mean to live virtuously?

According to Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle Is the Way, we have a moral obligation to live a virtuous life. A virtuous person, by Holiday’s definition, is someone who honestly works to improve their lives and the lives of others as much as possible.

Here’s what it means to live virtuously, according to Holiday.

Living Virtuously

According to Ryan Holiday, pursuing virtue is the most fulfilling thing you can do with your life. Holiday asserts that virtuous action can and should be our source of pride—the motivating energy that makes us happy to be alive.

To this end, the ability to find opportunities within a problem is necessary to live a virtuous life. When you see obstacles as opportunities, they lose the power to upset you or diminish your motivation to live virtuously. In contrast, whenever you fail to see the opportunity in any problem, you have an excuse not to act. According to Holiday, we’ve all used these excuses at some point to avoid our responsibility to live virtuously. In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the forward momentum necessary to live a good life.

Holiday argues that even if your current task seems insignificant in the grand scheme of things, or you end up failing miserably, the long-term pursuit of virtue will fulfill you. If you’re constantly trying your hardest to improve the lives of yourself and others, every task is meaningful.

The Benefits of Living Virtuously

Holiday expands on why he believes a life of virtue is so important in his book Stillness Is the Key, the third in his trilogy on Stoic philosophy. While he reiterates that morally, we should live our lives as virtuously as possible, he focuses more on the fact that virtue benefits the one practicing it.

While Holiday expresses in The Obstacle Is the Way that you need the ability to see the opportunities within problems to live virtuously, in Stillness Is the Key he emphasizes the reverse: Living virtuously ensures that you’ll see opportunities in any situation. When you define success as a virtuous life, you’ll never be stuck or disappointed, because there’s always an opportunity to practice virtue.

A life without virtue is stressful, unfulfilling, and exhausting, as every decision requires you to calculate possible outcomes and fear you won’t get what you want. In contrast, making your decisions based on virtue gives you peace, as practicing virtue is fulfilling in itself, even if things don’t turn out the way you hoped. Virtue pays off the most in difficult moments—you can be certain and feel proud about living virtuously when there’s nothing else to feel certain or proud about.

Living a Virtuous Life in an Unvirtuous World

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  • Why you should think of any obstacles as opportunities
  • How Stoicism can show you the way to overcome challenges
  • How Theodore Roosevelt's struggle with asthma prepared him for future struggles

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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