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A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine

It almost felt like this book was written for me. I’ve always been looking to draw ideas from philosophers about how to lead a better life. My questions must have already been figured out. But I was disappointed as those introductions discuss at length about topics like metaphysics and epistemology. With Darwin’s theory, I’m less interested in those. Irvine, as a professor of philosophy, acknowledged in the book that current academia indeed pays little attention to “philosophy of life”, but it hasn’t always been the case. Stoicism was one.

It doesn’t mean Stoicism ignore those aspects. It is a complete system with physics, logic and ethics. Partly it’s how the book was written that makes Stoicism attracting to me. The book is highly practical and coherent. Irvine drew ideas from writings by Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. He thoughtfully compiled them into different topics, supplemented with his own analysis and even with modern science. Some ideas like negative visualization and dichotomy of control are not foreign to us, but explaining them with the words from ancient Stoics make it more refined and compelling. Discussion on pleasure, fame, luxurious living has made me think a lot.

Notes #


  • A philosophy of life
    • It consists a grand goal in living and an effective strategy to attain the goal
    • Why: without one, one is likely to waste the only chance at living if he pursues something other than genuinely valuable.
  • Currently academic philosophy doesn’t discuss too much about it anymore, but it hasn’t always been the case — Greek and Roman philosophers thought about it and taught people about it.
  • Even the author, a professor of philosophy, saw no need to ponder a philosophy of life.
    • “I instead felt comfortable with what is, for almost everyone, the default philosophy of life: to spend one’s day seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure. My philosophy of life, in other words, was what might charitably be called an enlightened form of hedonism.”
    • “Modern individuals tend to spend their days working hard to be able to afford the latest consumer gadget, in the resolute belief that if only they buy enough stuff, they will have a life that is both meaningful and maximally fulfilling.” (p60)
    • Irvine started thinking about this in his fifties because of the book A Man in Full and his research on desire.
  • Similarities between Zen Buddhism and Stoicism, they both stress
    • The importance of contemplating the transitory nature of the world (impermanence)
    • The importance of mastering desire
    • Marcus advises us to live in “this fleeing instant” (fatalist about the present)
    • To pursue tranquility, and give us advice on how to attain and maintain it
    • “I came to realize that Stoicism was better suited to my analytical nature than Buddhism was.”
      • [I don’t think Buddhism prohibits analytical thinking. ]
  • The dictionary definition of stoic is not the same as Stoic.
    • The goal of Stoic is not to banish emotions, but negative ones.
    • Stoics are cheerful about life and fully capable of enjoying life’s pleasures (but not be enslaved by those)
      • “a cheerful disposition and secure joy”

T‌he Rise of Stoicism

Philosophy Takes an Interest in Life

  • Socrates changed the focus of philosophical inquiry
    • Before him, philosophers were mostly focused on explaining the world
    • Socrates focused on human conditions, and he lived by it
  • There are two aspects, one for his theory and another for his lifestyle
    • Plato was more interested in the first aspect, forming Academy
    • Antisthenes, for the second, founding the Cynic school
    • The practical side withered away in history however
  • There are different schools of philosophy at that time (hellenistic period)
    • Cynicism, Cyrenaicism and Stoicism
    • One should choose depends on her personality and circumstances

The First Stoics

  • Zeno of Citium started Stoicism from Crates the Cynic
  • Stoicism abandoned Cynic asceticism, arguing that if they avoided the “good things”, they thereby demonstrated that the things in question really were good — were things that, if they did not hide them from themselves, they would crave.
  • Zeno’s philosophy had three components: students study logic, then physics and then ethics.
    • Logic is a natural consequence because they believe man’s distinguishing feature is his rationality.
      • logic is also important in arguing (as in democratic politics)
    • Physics tries to explain the world, which we now called theology
    • The stoic concept of ethics is different from the modern conception
      • Modern: moral right and wrong
      • Stoic: eudaemonistic ethics (good spirit in Greek), not only moral right and wrong, but also about living a good, happy life
  • Good life
    • Stoics’s definition of good life is not equal to good living (e.g. having high-paying job)
    • Stoicism believes being virtuous makes one a good life
    • Stoics’s virtue depends on one’s excellence as a human being — how well she performs the function for which humans were designed
      • meaning live in accordance with nature
    • What function were human designed
      • Like animals, we have instincts that we experience hunger, lust, etc.
      • Importantly we differ from animals that we have the ability to reason
      • Furthermore, we are social creatures and have certain duties to fellow men (which led the Stoic Cato to engage in politics)
  • At a later time, Roman made some changes to Greeks Stoics
    • They were less interested in logics and physicals than the Greeks had
      • Marcus Aurelius congratulated himself for not having wasted time studying logic and physics
    • They advanced the goal of the attainment of virtue to the attainment of tranquility, which is a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions (grief, anger and anxiety) and the presence emotions such as joy
      • in part to make it easier to “sell” it
  • For the Roman stoics, the pursuit of virtue results in a degree of tranquility, which in turn makes it easier for us to pursue virtue

Roman Stoicism

  • Roman stoics: Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius
    • Their contributions are complementary from which we have the most to gain
  • Lucius Antaeus Seneca
    • He was incredibly wealthy — there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things, as long as we’re careful in the manner in which we enjoy them. In particular, we must be ready to give up the good things without regret if our circumstances should change
    • On the Happy Life: we need to use our reasoning ability to drive away negative emotions.
    • He suggested his friend that, to practice Stoicism, he will have to make it his business to “learn how to feel joy”
  • Gaius Musonius Rufus
    • The practice of philosophy required one not to withdraw from the world (as the Epicureans advised), but to vigorous participant in public affairs
  • Epictetus
    • Previously slave, Musonius’s student
    • He taught his students the art of life by showing them practical ways to deal with everyday events
  • Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome
    • He thought the value of tranquility is obvious and doesn’t need to prove, like the other Roman Stoics

‌Stoic Psychological Techniques

Negative Visualization: what’s the worst that can happen

  • People think about bad things in order to prevent them from happening, but no matter how hard we try, some will still happen
  • Seneca points out that another reason for thinking about bad things is to lessen the impact on us when they happen
  • A third reason, arguably more important, is to deal with our nature of insatiability, or hedonic adaptation
    • It happens in our consumer purchases, to our job, to our relationships
  • The easies way to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have
    • The way is to imagine we have lost the things we value
  • This applies to relationships (relatives, friends)
    • Seneca: “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 even that we may keep them for long.”
  • This applies to our own
    • Seneca says we should live as if this very moment were our last.
  • It also applies to our possessions
    • house, car, clothing, pets and bank balance
    • our ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe and swallow
    • freedom
    • there will be a last time in our life for doing anything (p84)
  • Negative visualization brings what is similar to catastrophe-induced transformation but without the drawbacks of actually experiencing it
  • We can also imagine the bad things that happen to others happen to us
  • We can imaging the bad things that happen to us happened instead to others
    • Epictetus says that whether you’re angry at a servant breaking a cup depends on whether you’re in your house or someone else’s house
  • Stoics do such practices occasionally (not all the time)
  • While advising us to enjoy life, Seneca cautions use not to develop “over-much love” for the things we enjoy. We must take care to be “the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune.”

The Dichotomy of Control: on becoming invincible

  • Epictetus argues that we should concern ourselves with things internal to us, not external
    • This echoes previous point — to gain contentment, not pursue more, but to want only the things that are easy to obtain
  • “If you refuse to enter contests that you’re capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.” — Epictetus
  • Turning into a trichotomy
    • Things over which we have complete control (all skills)
    • Things over which we don’t have complete control
      • No control at all (all luck)
      • Have some but not complete control (luck + skill)
  • Complete control by Epictetus: opinions, impulses, desires and aversions
    • The author thinks it’s partial control for the latter three
      • the author also adds that this mistake could be a result of unknown loss from translation
  • More on things we have complete control
    • Goals, values (what do we value)
      • these could be the “opinions” mentioned by Epictetus
    • Marcus: the key to having a good life is to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value
    • Besides, Marcus argues we have complete control over our character
  • It’s foolish to spend time and energy concerning the things we have no control at all
  • How do we maintain tranquility for the things we have some control?
    • We have complete control of our goals, and the key is to set internal rather than external goals
    • Think about tennis, external goals (winning a match) not only disturbs our emotions (when we fail to achieve), but also hurt the chances of winning, while internal goals (play to the best of our ability) increases the chances.
    • Setting internal goals increases the upside with little of no downside
  • One could argue it’s just a mind game — novelist certainly wants to get his book published
    • It might be possible that, through practice, one will not look beyond internalized goals
    • Nonetheless, it is a useful mind game, a psychological trick, like negative visualization
  • This also explains why stoics actively engages in the society — their goal was not to change the world, but to do their best to bring about certain things.

Fatalism: letting go of the past… and the present

  • The author believes that the Stoics advocate fatalism (“fate”) for the past
    • We can think about the past to learn lessons, and then let go of the past
  • They also advocate fatalism for the present, this very moment
    • How is this helpful?
  • It means we embrace this very moment, instead of hoping it to be different. This leads to satisfaction
  • This is consistent with previous point that to not concern ourselves with things over which we have no control
  • This is also connected with negative visualization — instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better
  • Does it lead to complacency?
    • Keep in mind that the famous Stoics were notable ambitious
    • While they teach us to be satisfied with what we have, they advise us to seek certain things
    • We should be virtuous (in the ancient sense), should practice Stoicism, should do our social duty (see “Duty: On Loving Mankind”)
    • They don’t seek fame or fortune, although they usually get them (see “Personal Values: On Seeking Fame” and “Personal Values: On Luxurious Living”)

Self-Denial: on dealing with the dark side of pleasure

  • Besides think about bad things happening, Seneca recommends also live as if they had happened, so that one can appreciate what he has. For example, practice poverty
  • Epicurus (Epicureanism) also practiced poverty, with the goal of examining the things he thought he needed but in fact could live without
  • Musonius takes one step further to sometimes cause bad things to happen
    • For example, underdress for cold weather, become thirsty or hungry, sleep on hard bed
    • It can be described as voluntary discomfort
  • Musonius gives three reasons to practice voluntary discomfort
    • Harden ourselves against misfortunes if they really happen (feel less miserable)
    • Help grow confidence that he can withstand major discomforts (feel less anxious and more courageous)
    • Help appreciate what we already have (appreciate the comfort)
      • e.g. food taste better when we’re hungry
  • We should also sometimes forgo opportunities to experience pleasure
    • Pleasure has the dark side as they will capture us
  • There are some pleasures that should always abstain, such as pleasures that capture us in a single encounter
  • We’ll experience another form of genuine pleasure if we don’t do something that brings simple body pleasure (and no regret)

Meditation: watching ourselves practice stoicism

  • Think about the events of daily living — how we responded and how we should according to Stoic principles
  • Marcus advises us to examine each thing we do — whether we are being governed by our reason or by something else
  • Assess the progress as Stoics — our relationship with others, our dream life, our emotional life, etc.

‌Stoic Advice

Duty: On Loving Mankind

  • Using reasoning, Stoics think that being social is our secondary functions — do good to fellow-creatures and maintain relationships with other people (be useful to other people), in a non-selective manner.
  • Marcus thinks that if we fulfill this function, doing our social duty, we will enjoy “a man’s true delight”.
  • People will argue that escaping all duty life (not doing something we have to do, but things we want to do) brings a good life, but the author wants to say that, it’s very true, throughout millennia and across cultures, that spending our days working to get whatever it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or tranquility (more on “The Decline of Stoicism”)

Social Relations

  • there is a dilemma between fulfilling social duty (be involved with other people) and maintaining tranquility, so Stoics came up with a lot of advices
  • We cannot be selective in doing our social duty, but we should be selective about the people we befriend
    • avoid people with vices
    • avoid people who are simply whiny
    • also be careful for meeting with people that talk about things against Stoics values (e.g. talking about eating, drinking, and other people)
  • … more on insults, grief and anger

Personal Values: On Seeking Fame

  • Fame can be understood from a broader perspective
    • world fame, what we usually think about
    • there are also region or local fame
    • even admirations from friends or neighbors
  • The price of fame far outweighs its benefits
    • spend time trying to favor some people — we have to adopt their values
    • being disappointed if they fail to recognize us
  • Stoics value their freedoms, so they are reluctant to give people power over them — we must be indifferent to what people think of us
    • and be consistent, either with their approval or disapproval
    • this is consistent to not to bother with ourselves for the things we cannot control
  • Marcus also thinks immortal fame is “an empty, hollow thing”. You cannot enjoy it, but it’s foolish to think the people will admire you without meeting you
  • Stoics sometimes go out out the way to trigger people’s disdain so they can practice ignoring their disdain
  • Being indifferent to other people’s opinions also help with the fear of failure

Personal Values: On Luxurious Living

  • Stoics believe that wealth does not lead to better lives
  • Musonius advocates a simple diet with little preparation, since once people are used to luxurious lifestyle, they will lose the ability to enjoy simple things
    • and eating is something that we do everyday, compared to other source of pleasure
    • same for clothes and houses
  • it’s acceptable to enjoy something and at the same time be indifferent to it
    • it’s similar to Buddhist viewpoint (p181)

More about exile, old age, and dying…

‌Stoicism for modern lives

The Decline of Stoicism

  • Modern psychology advocates for acceptance of all emotions
    • Stoics says we can prevent or overcome an emotion from happening by practicing
    • The goal is to minimize rather than eliminate them
  • The best hope in gaining happiness is to live not a life of self-indulgence but a life of self-discipline. Similar claims have been made in other philosophies, including Epicureanism and Skepticism, as well as in numerous religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism.
    • “the question isn’t, I think, whether self-disciplined and duty-bound people can have a happy, meaning life; it is whether those who lake self-control and who are convinced that nothing is bigger than they are can have such a life.”

Stoicism Reconsidered

  • Stoics: tranquility, meaning few negative emotions but abundance of positive emotions, is worth pursuing
    • They assume its value will become apparent at some point for most people
  • They developed techniques and advice to avoid having their tranquility disrupted, and if so, how to restore it
    • Be self-aware: as in “Meditation: watching ourselves practice stoicism”
    • Use reasoning to
      • overcome negative emotions
      • convince ourselves that fame and fortune are not worth having
      • some pleasures are not worth pursuing
    • Enjoy our affluence if we’re in such state, but not cling to it, and contemplate its lose
    • Maintain relationship with others
      • be careful about whom we befriend
      • avoid people with corrupted values
    • Have techniques to deal with insults and annoyance
    • Two major source of unhappiness
      • our insatiability
        • technique: “Negative Visualization: what’s the worst that can happen”
      • our tendency to worry about things beyond our control
        • technique: “The Dichotomy of Control: on becoming invincible”
    • Be fatalistic about past and present: “Fatalism: letting go of the past… and the present”
  • The proof
    • reasoning ability is what human is designed (by Zeus), so should be used to discover the pattern of living
    • the philosophy would allow us to live with this pattern, or live in accordance with nature, as they put it, and thereby to flourish
  • Modern explanation
    • Evolutionary process is indifferent to we flourish
    • Our evolutionary ancestors who are more capable of experiencing pain are more likely to survive and reproduce. That’s why we have such ability to experience pain
      • as well as fear, anxiety, insatiability
    • Same for pleasure (e.g. sex)
    • Humans are social also because of evolutionary process. Individuals who joined groups are more likely to survive and reproduce
    • The process also favor people who see social status, people who feel good about praise and painful when insulted
    • The ability to reason also helps with survival and reproduce
  • Misuse our ability to reason, if we don’t use it for survival and produce?
    • The author argues that we’re “misusing” a lot of our abilities already
      • hearing: use to to listen to music; to hold glasses
      • hands and legs: use it for climbing, which reduces their chances of surviving
  • The stoicism the author advocates is not from a particular Stoics, since there are differences between different practicing Stoics. Rather, it’s a brand of Stoicism that works for modern people (himself).
    • He says that it’s more of a tool that he found works very well
    • Most people don’t bother about the purity of Stoicism
  • Try Stoicism if you seek tranquility
    • Hedonism, with the goal to maximize pleasure, will be avoided
    • Epicureanism, Skepticism and Zen Buddhism all share the same goal
  • Adopting a less than ideal philosophy is better than no philosophy at all

Practicing Stoicism

  • Insights on how to practice Stoicism
  • Keep practicing Stoicism as a secret for oneself
  • Start with one technique and become proficient in it before going on to another
  • May start with negative visualization, at the same time each day (e.g. driving to work), then practice trichotomy of control, and be fatalistic about the past and present
  • Dealing with other people
    • insult
      • “I look forward to being insulted inasmuch as it affords me the opportunity to perfect my ‘insult game’. ”
      • “refuse to respond an insult with a counter-insult”
    • angry
  • Yoga (and some other exercises ) creates voluntary discomfort
    • More on practicing…
  • Some misgivings: what if Stoics are wrong?
    • The author argues that the upside is much bigger than the downside to practice Stoicism
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