A Guide ToThe Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine

William Braxton Irvine (The middle name helps to distinguish between the other famous personality of the same name, albeit of another era), is a philosopher who has lived a life of a gypsy, both as a learner and as a teacher. So you have a philosopher who keeps changing base often and yet remains grounded in his core, that leaves you with some amazing insights about the good life.

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Author : William B Irvine
Originally Published : 2008
Publication :Oxford University Press
Pages :336
Genre(s) :
Non-Fiction, Philosophy

Irvine dwells on Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic Philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in ancient Athens (3rd Century BC). The word stoic bears so many roots to this philosophy. It proposes to experience every moment as it presents itself, without bringing in joy or pain in the midst. A stoic person is indifferent to external aspects like pain, pleasure, grief or pain.

Irvine starts out by asking what one wants out of life. He clarifies that wanting good things is part of what we want in life, not out of life.

I found this book particularly relevant in the present times when what we want in life may not be in our control, but what we want out of life, definitely is.

The author is aware that although he has taken efforts to understand and apply the principles of stoicism in his life, it wouldn’t be easy to do so for everyone. Studying philosophy is one thing, applying it in one’s life is another. Many religions try to preach certain philosophies, but unless you accept it wholeheartedly, it would be futile, he says. Having our own life philosophy is, in my opinion, the biggest game changer for humans. All living beings abide by physiology, whereas only humans can have a philosophy.

Irvine introduces us to the famous Roman Stoics- the oft quoted Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Marcus Aurelius and Apictetus. You get a glimpse of the life of Seneca, whose popularity in the court of Claudius, then his banishment and then being recalled to tutor Nero and his rise to a fortuitous life is well documented. Stoicism does not dwell on an ascetic life, it’s all about enjoying all the pleasures that life has to offer, it’s just the way we earn it and enjoy it that matters. Seneca has spoken about pursuing tranquility- using our reasoning ability to drive away everything that excites or affrights us. We meet the exemplary stoic, the Roman emperor Marcus who ruled a just reign.

Stoic philosophical techniques for a good life

  • Irvine brings forth several techniques from stoicism that help us lead a good life. Negative visualization, for example, allows a person to see beforehand what worse can happen in any given scenario and to rise above it. Live each day as if it were your last and you will understand the power of living to the full.
  • When we have visualized anything bad that can happen, we have in effect, realized the insignificance of it, thereby learn to understand the impermanence of all things and learning to enjoy every moment as if it were the last.
  • Irvine deals with the dichotomy of control- Your primary desire must be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill. Why worry about what is not in your control?
  • Fatalism is another gem of a philosophy offered by Irvine. Knowing that we are just a speck of dust in this universe or mere players in this game of life, allows us not to take it too seriously. Fatalism is suggested not just in the past but also in the present.
  • Self -denial is a mode of stretching this technique a bit further. Not just thinking about what bad could happen, think as if it has happened. Why, make it happen, he says, through self -denial. Wear less clothes in cold, sleep on the ground, eat less or don’t eat even when food is available. Enjoy every discomfort, he advises, as though it is some kind of vaccine. Willpower is like muscle-power, he says, the more you exercise it, the more strength it gains.
  • Irvine quotes Seneca freely, when he says that Seneca practiced bedtime meditation, pondering on what one did good, what one learned during the day and how much we grew. Play the role of participant and spectator, he advises, so that you know both sides and get less affected.
  • Harping on why we seek wealth – to seek fame basically, Irvine shows us how to develop personal values. From embracing banishment, ill health and old age, to leading ourselves to a good death after a good life, Irvine completes his book on a marvelous note.

Key takeaways

  1. Living in the present and not allowing any emotion override your equilibrium of the mind is the key to staying stoic
  2. A person must learn and adopt an appropriate philosophy of life early on, just like the ancients would do.
  3. Face each moment as if it were your last. Embrace the good and the bad with equanimity and you will never feel overwhelmed
  4. Living a good life and dying without any regrets or fears makes for a fulfilling life

Why I recommend this book

It wouldn’t have been a more opportune time than the current one to recommend this book. In times when everything seems uncertain, remaining unaffected by the happenings around is a strength that we can develop. This is even more important when everything around us is trying to influence in the way we are to be. This too shall pass, tell yourself this and live the moment.

I would recommend this book to everyone who is feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic. Why lose your cool when you have very little to control. What stands in between us and our happiness is not the pandemic or the government but our defective philosophy of life.

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