A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

TL;DR

A modern organization of the lost archives of Stoicism. A good primer for the uninitiated. A handy reference book with practical tips on life situations. Recommended for people with mild, analytical nature that would like to live a simple life.

Summary

This book is divided into four parts.

Part one is history and context. Mr. Irvine traces the roots of Stoicism from the times of Socrates. A “philosophy of life”, like Stoicism, is not only commonplace but an important part of civil pursuit in classical Greece. He then leads the reader through the historical evolution of Stoicism through the lens of the great Roman sages, from Seneca to Marcus Aurelius.

Part two explains the central doctrines of Stoicism. These doctrines are carried out through psychological practices and are interconnected.

  • Negative visualization allows you to enjoy things without clinging to them.
  • The dichotomy of control is resolved by internalizing our goals.
  • Fatalism is applied when observing past and present, but not with future outlooks.
  • Self-denial, or voluntary discomfort, will strengthen our minds against the hedonist treadmill.
  • Meditation is a daily retrospective analysis to measure our stoic progress.

Part three is advice on practical life situations. These independent short chapters can be categorized into three types: maintaining social relationships (“Duty”, “Social relations”), handling emotions (“Grief”, “Insults”) and reacting to changes in life (“Exile”, “Old Age”, “Dying”).

Part four is the “call to actions”. To begin, Mr. Irvine narrates the decline of stoicism, concluding that annals of history aside, modern psychology, politics and even capitalism are to blame, making people more distant from pursuing a philosophy of life.

In the following chapter “Stoicism Reconsidered”, we are given a recap of the entire body of Stoicism’s doctrines, so impatient readers can just read this part to get a summary. Mr. Irvine then explains reasons to choose Stoicism over other philosophies, followed by a lengthy religious and evolutionary explanation. To conclude, Stoicism is not for everyone, but can be beneficial if you are attracted by its qualities.

The last chapter is Mr. Irvine’s personal reflection on his decades of Stoic journey, bringing forward some of the hardest moments that put his philosophy to test.

My thoughts

It’s eerie to be introduced to a philosophy that I’m already practicing.

I appreciate Mr. Irvine breaking down the differences between Stoicism and other tranquility-driven philosophies, such as Zen Buddhism. The special part about Stoicism? It’s highly engaging and analytical. This explains my following, even before I heard of the word Stoicism.

Although many readers criticize its overly defensive tone, I can’t help but feel a personal connection to the author. This was written in 2008, a time where the outlook was truly grim for Stoics, it’s understandable that Mr. Irvine needed to hold his ground by unleashing series of refutations.

I also appreciate his effort on questioning the profit-driven industrialization of modern psychology and politics during the decline of Stoicism. His heavy criticism on consumerism, the hedonistic treadmill, also resonates with me a lot.

It offers an honest outlook that Stoicism isn’t the ultimate answer; in fact, a lot of it is up for interpretations, even Mr. Irvine himself frequently disagrees with Epictetus or Musonius Rufus.