A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine

This is definitely one of the harder PN to summarize as I am not very good with Stoic philosophers (for those who aren’t familiar with Stoicism, it’s an ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge, and that the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.)

According to William Irvine, “This book is written for those seeking a philosophy of life. In the pages that follow,I focus my attention on a philosophy that I have found useful and that I suspect many readers will also find useful. It is the philosophy of the ancient Stoics. The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling—who wishes, that is, to have a good life.”

One of the main ideas is that “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.” – William Irvine. What William means is that we’re so focused about trying to get our external goals and affirmations that we don’t spend time to understand what drives us internally – hence never being satisfied. One of the ways that the Stoics suggested we find our values is through negative visualization – that is, “they recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus.”

I have not personally done this yet, and truthfully, am a bit hesitant in doing so. I’m not sure why – maybe it’s because I’m afraid of being that vulnerable at this point.

Another big idea in this book is to use projective visualization. We tend to spend a lot of time focused on what happens to us – so much that we amplify the whole situation. But with projective visualization, instead of reacting to what happened to you, you would imagine it happening to your friend and what you would say to them. So instead of hating the world because you dropped your phone and it cracks, you will imagine it happening to someone else. Yes you would still feel bad for the person, but you would also tell them that it’s okay, that they can simply get it fixed. By thinking that, you instantly avoid all the anger and become a lot calmer.

I think of this as seeing yourself and the things that happen to you as a third person. This allows your logical part to continue working instead of letting your emotional side take control of the brain. This is something I’m starting to see myself do more and more. In the past, I would get upset very easily. However, now when something happens, I take a nice deep breath and am able to become a lot more logical and calm.

Another way to avoid the negative emotions is to realize that we’re living in a dream world. Quote, “we can do some historical research to see how our ancestors lived. We will quickly discover that we are living in what to them would have been a dream world—that we tend to take for granted things that our ancestors had to live without, including antibiotics, air conditioning, toilet paper (!), cell phones, television, windows, eyeglasses, and fresh fruit in January. Upon coming to this realization, we can breathe a sigh of relief that we aren’t our ancestors, the way our descendants will presumably someday breathe a sigh of relief that they aren’t us!” – William Irvine

This definitely resonates the most with me. While in university, I was fortunate enough to see parts of India with my own eyes. During the two weeks there, I know I wasn’t seeing the extreme poverty, but I also was not staying at any hotels – instead I was staying with locals. Through that time, I had the opportunity to take the local bus, see a bunch of people who lived in the slums and saw what NGOs were doing to change it. That was when I truly understood just how fortunate I was to be born into a family that lived in Canada. Ever since those two weeks, the way I see everyday luxuries such as A/C, internet and transportation have completely changed.

Another reason why people tend to be unhappy is because we tend to resist change. Change is part of life and because we’re trying to resist something that we have no control over, we end up becoming frustrated and upset. However, if you accept that change will happen no matter what, you will be on the path to changing yourself.

My Take Aways

As mentioned, this was a very hard PN for me to summarize, after whining about how I didn’t understand this to my girlfriend and her encouraging me to look at it from a different angle, it started to come along. Of course, I know that this is nowhere near the true insight of the book so if you’re interested in Stoicism, I suggest you pick this up and give it a read yourself. This will definitely be on my radar as Stoicism has been mentioned by many successful people as a mentality that they truly respect so I know there is still a long way for me to go before I understand the appreciation. You can buy A Guide to the Good Life here (please note that I will be getting a small amount from Amazon, though it does not affect how much you pay – Amazon just makes less money than if you were to go onto the website yourself). I also suggest you check out the actual Philosopher’s Notes (note they even have courses that consolidate many of the concepts in the books that Brian Joshnson covers and puts them into videos that are really easy to digest). This is the first program that I’ve signed up for and am definitely getting my money’s worth!

Are you familiar with Stoicism? Is there anything you can share about their work with the rest of us?


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