A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy's notes, summary and lessons

By William B Irvine

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  • [...] of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable? Many people will have trouble naming this goal. They know what they want minute by minute or even decade by decade during their life, but they have never paused to consider their grand goal in living. It is perhaps understandable that they haven’t. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to think about such things; indeed, it provides them with an endless stream of distractions so they won’t ever have to. But a grand goal in living is the first component of a philosophy of life. This means that if you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

    Page: 1
  • Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.

    Page: 39
  • I would argue, though, that what is really foolish is to spend your life in a state of self-induced dissatisfaction when satisfaction lies within your grasp, if only you will change your mental outlook. To be able to be satisfied with little is not a failing, it is a blessing—if, at any rate, what you seek is satisfaction. And if you seek something other than satisfaction, I would inquire (with astonishment) into what it is that you find more desirable than satisfaction. What, I would ask, could possibly be worth sacrificing satisfaction in order to obtain?

    Page: 78
  • Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.

    Page: 83
  • If you ask most people how to gain contentment, they will tell you that you must work to get it: You must devise strategies by which to fulfill your desires and then implement those strategies. But as Epictetus points out, “It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.” A better strategy for getting what you want, he says, is to make it your goal to want only those things that are easy to obtain—and ideally to want only those things that you can be certain of obtaining.

    Page: 85
  • In conclusion, whenever we desire something that is not up to us, our tranquility will likely be disturbed: If we don’t get what we want, we will be upset, and if we do get what we want, we will experience anxiety in the process of getting it.

    Page: 87
  • There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control. Each of the “things” we encounter in life will fall into one and only one of these three categories.

    Page: 89
  • Fear of failure is a psychological trait, so it is hardly surprising that by altering our psychological attitude toward “failure” (by carefully choosing our goals), we can affect the degree to which we fear it.

    Page: 99
  • [...] we should keep firmly in mind that we are merely actors in a play written by someone else—more precisely, the Fates. We cannot choose our role in this play, but regardless of the role we are assigned, we must play it to the best of our ability.

    Page: 102
  • One of the things we’ve got, though, is this very moment, and we have an important choice with respect to it: We can either spend this moment wishing it could be different, or we can embrace this moment. If we habitually do the former, we will spend much of our life in a state of dissatisfaction; if we habitually do the latter, we will enjoy our life.

    Page: 107
  • Throughout the millennia and across cultures, those who have thought carefully about desire have drawn the conclusion that spending our days working to get whatever it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or tranquility.

    Page: 133
  • By laughing off an insult, we are implying that we don’t take the insulter and his insults seriously. To imply this, of course, is to insult the insulter without directly doing so. It is therefore a response that is likely to deeply frustrate the insulter. For this reason, a humorous reply to an insult can be far more effective than a counter-insult would be.

    Page: 148
  • If we are overly sensitive, we will be quick to anger. More generally, says Seneca, if we coddle ourselves, if we allow ourselves to be corrupted by pleasure, nothing will seem bearable to us, and the reason things will seem unbearable is not because they are hard but because we are soft. Seneca therefore recommends that we take steps to ensure that we never get too comfortable.

    Page: 161
  • [...] if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor. Epictetus therefore advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves. We will, he says, have enslaved ourselves.

    Page: 167
  • [...] in order to win the admiration of other people, we will have to adopt their values. More precisely, we will have to live a life that is successful according to their notion of success. (If we are living what they take to be an unsuccessful life, they will have no reason to admire us.) Consequently, before we try to win the admiration of these other people, we should stop to ask whether their notion of success is compatible with ours.

    Page: 169
  • When, as the result of being exposed to luxurious living, people become hard to please, a curious thing happens. Rather than mourning the loss of their ability to enjoy simple things, they take pride in their newly gained inability to enjoy anything but “the best.”

    Page: 175
  • Many of us have been persuaded that happiness is something that someone else, a therapist or a politician, must confer on us. Stoicism rejects this notion. It teaches us that we are very much responsible for our happiness as well as our unhappiness. It also teaches us that it is only when we assume responsibility for our happiness that we will have a reasonable chance of gaining it. This, to be sure, is a message that many people, having been indoctrinated by therapists and politicians, don’t want to hear.

    Page: 221
  • [...] why is self-discipline worth possessing? Because those who possess it have the ability to determine what they do with their life. Those who lack self-discipline will have the path they take through life determined by someone or something else, and as a result, there is a very real danger that they will mislive.

    Page: 263
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