A Guide to the Good Life

I first read William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life sometime last year. It stuck with me as something I’d like to re-read, which I got around to doing last month. The book itself looks at stoicism and the main philosophers involved. Irvine’s hope is to provide the guidebook a Stoic would have written for 21st-century life.

The book is one part history one part philosophical exploration. What I want to pull out and remember are three traits of stoicism.

Tranquility

Stoic philosophy first came from the ancient Greeks. People like Zeno and Cleanthes taught the philosophy of a good life to their students. This was around the turn of the fourth century BC. From there stoicism spread to the Roman world. As they did with many things Greek, the Romans added elements to Greek stoicism. Core to Roman stoicism was the attainment of tranquility.

The Romans viewed tranquility as a psychological state with both the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions. Irvine details how part of the rationale in this philosophical shift was due to recruitment concerns. After all, if you’re a Roman Stoic teacher of the fourth century BC you’re competing against other philosophical schools for students. You need students in order to cover your expenses. And you need to attract students and interest them in your school of thought.

Negative visualization

One of the common practices of Stoics was to contemplate the bad things that can happen to us. As Seneca wrote, “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”1 If we’ve already thought through the ramifications of a potentially negative event then our mind is better prepared to face that same event in reality.

These philosophers felt that negative visualization can imbue our experiences with a significance and intensity by focusing our attention on the present moment. Their goal, though, was not to change our activities. Rather it was to change our state of mind. The hope is to strike a balance. To contemplate negative events without worrying about them. And to think of tomorrow while appreciating today.

Desire

Our desire for things can be one surefire way of disturbing our tranquility. As Epictetus wrote, “It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”2 The Stoic approach was to make it our goal to want only those things we can be certain of obtaining.

Their sense of what we have certainty over was also limited. It’s really just our goals, our values, our character. When it comes to goals these philosophers advocate setting internal ones (e.g. perform to the best of our abilities) rather than external ones (e.g. win).

  1. A Guide to the Good Life, pg. 65
  2. A Guide to the Good Life, pg. 85