The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered Atomic Habits by James Clear.
A few months ago, I wrote a list of my “five books” for financial and life improvement. In that article, I made a nod to a few additional books that I thought would make great supplemental reading for my choices, and A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine was one of them.
So, what’s A Guide to the Good Life all about? The subtitle really sums it up beautifully: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. This book draws upon the philosophy of stoicism and puts it in a modern context, aiming to show how the principles of stoicism can help you find inner peace, calmness, and joy without constantly buying new things and luxury experiences. While I believe that many of the original Stoic texts are more powerful, they’re not nearly as approachable to a modern audience; this book, on the other hand, is very applicable today, particularly in a sense of overcoming the struggle with chronic dissatisfaction with modern life. It takes those ancient principles and puts them in a context that works today. Let’s dig in.
The Rise of Stoicism
The first part of the book is the slowest, at least for people who are mostly interested in learning about how stoicism can apply to their lives. It’s 70 pages or so that covers the history of stoicism in ancient times, discussing how it grew and thrived and eventually became the guiding philosophy of one of the Roman Empire’s greatest emperors, Marcus Aurelius. While this opening material is great in a historical context, if you’re mostly just here for how stoicism can impact your life, you can probably skim this section for now and come back to it after you’ve read the rest of the book.
After this comes a bunch of shorter chapters on techniques based on stoicism that can help your life or how to use those techniques to handle specific challenging life situations that many of us will face.
Negative Visualization: What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
Modern life is full of challenges and stress. We’re often expected to provide excellent performance in many different areas of life, often all at once. It’s easy to feel like we’re constantly walking a tightrope, especially when a real challenge comes up.
One technique that stoicism offers to help overcome that stress is that of negative visualization. Rather than visualizing a situation coming out perfectly, you should actually visualize the worst possible outcome (within reason). How do you handle that worst case scenario? Furthermore, is it really all that bad?
Often, what you’ll find is that if you imagine that worst case scenario, you’ll recognize that even if that disastrous outcome happens, it’s really not all that bad, and it’s likely that something better than that will happen. In other words, you might still be walking a tightrope, but rather than being 50 feet in the air without a net, you’re actually more like ten feet in the air with a net. You don’t want to fail, but it’s not really apocalyptic if you do, and that reduces the stress and enables you to actually focus on the task at hand much better.
The Dichotomy of Control: On Becoming Invincible
One key element of stoicism is the idea of a locus of control. There are some things you can control – generally, your emotions, your words, and your personal actions – and many more you can’t control – nature, other people, and so on. Understanding where that line is and realizing that you do actually control the things on your side of that line, like your emotional responses to things, is vitally important.
It’s worth noting that we all have emotional responses to things. We feel things inside of us, powerful things – anger, sadness, frustration. The thing is, we can control how we choose to act on those emotions. We might feel a swell of anger inside of us, but we control how we act in response to that anger. We might feel very sad, but we choose how to act in response to that sadness.
What about things we can somewhat control, like whether we win a tennis match? Focus on the aspects of those things that you can control, like who you’re associating with, how much you practice and how, and so on.
The idea of “becoming invincible” is that you recognize that things outside of your control are just that, outside of your control, but you have full control over how you respond to it. You choose what to feel and you choose how to respond to it.
Fatalism: Letting Go of the Past … and the Present
Many people adopt a fatalistic view of life, one that tells a story in which they are swept along by things outside of their control. People who blame others for many of their problems and seem to accept that either fortunate events or unfortunate ones have entirely shaped their past or will entirely shape their future fall prey to this.
Stoicism seems to value this kind of fatalistic view of the past – you can’t control the past, after all – but opposes it going forward, believing that acting within the areas that you can control influences greatly the impact on your own life of the things outside of your control.
In other words, stoicism says that dwelling on the past is a waste of time beyond merely mining it for lessons on how to live life going forward. You can’t control it, so don’t spend your time or energy on it.
Self-Denial: On Dealing with the Dark Side of Pleasure
This section overlaps a lot with the principles of secular buddhism, which deal directly with the challenge of overcoming desire. Desire is a very powerful emotion which drives us to making very suboptimal decisions.
The stoic perspective on this is to try living for periods as though bad things have happened in our life so that we can appreciate all of the pleasure of a more modest life that we often overlook as it becomes rote and familiar. Spend three months without Netflix and it feels like an overwhelming smorgasbord of viewing options. Spend a month without spending a dime on anything unnecessary and suddenly buying a small treat seems like an extreme pleasure.
I often do 30 day and 90 day challenges that center around self-denial of some particular thing that I enjoy and desire but isn’t wholly good for me, just so I can re-learn how to appreciate it in moderate amounts and not be driven by desire into a state of gluttony. It’s easy – try it with things like drinking soda or drinking beer or eating sugar or drinking coffee or going shopping at a particular store, or even more extreme actions like spending 90 days without buying anything unnecessary.
Meditation: Watching Ourself Practice Stoicism
To be clear, the meditation that stoics prescribe is a lot different than the “emptying the mind” type of meditation that often comes from Buddhist traditions. Rather, stoic meditation is simply a reflection of the day’s events, an “after action report” in which you reflect on some of the choices you made throughout the day and consider whether you followed the right course of action or could have done them better.
The goal here isn’t to beat yourself up, but rather to guide yourself toward better practices going forward. You shouldn’t feel bad for making a mistake, but rather view it as an opportunity to see firsthand what the wrong move is so that you don’t make it again.
If there’s any principle I’ve really pulled from stoicism, it’s this one. I spend a surprising amount of mental free time (like when I’m driving a child to soccer practice or something like that) doing this kind of “after action” reflection, where I recall a situation where I’m not sure I did the right thing, tease it around in my mind a little, decide with more reflection what the right thing would have been, and visualize myself doing the right thing when a similar situation comes up.
Duty: On Loving Mankind
Marcus Aurelius often had negative thoughts toward his fellow people, as do many of us. For him, one of the major struggles in life was to figure out how he could interact in a society with people who he didn’t like, that in many cases he felt were bad people. He largely felt that humans were bad people with poor behavior and not to be trusted. Yet he is widely regarded as one of the best emperors of Rome and ruled during a period of peace and prosperity.
He was able to balance that because he was able to separate his duty not just as emperor but as a person from his feelings toward others. His belief, and it’s one shared as a general stoic principle, is that we’re all born with a certain skill and a duty to perform and that following such duty is the key to happiness.
I tend to translate this into modern living as a twofold recommendation for life. If you aim to live life as a good person as much as possible (your duty as a member of society) and put genuine work and effort into doing the things you’re skilled at, you’ll find the closest thing to genuine happiness there is in this world. For me, I view the former as being the good feeling you get when you do good things, and the latter as the good feeling you get when you’re in a “flow state,” where you’re deeply engaged at applying your skills to create or fix or make something. (Note that neither of those elements involves buying stuff or spending money.) That’s a stoic ideal of living, and it does create a pretty good life.
Social Relations: On Dealing with Other People
The advice here is straightforward. Try your best to associate with people that share your true values. However, doing that all the time is impossible, so when you’re dealing with people who do not share your true values, try to avoid actions or other things that go against those values and look for areas of commonality where you do share values.
I like to think of this in terms of family sitting around the Thanksgiving table. You are going to have some values in common with those people and some values not in common. In those situations, try to aim for the values you do have in common – the things you both genuinely care about – and avoid the values you don’t have in common.
In terms of broader social settings, engage with lots of people, but develop deeper relationships with people with whom you have a significant number of values in common. When you do that, it’s much easier to live by the values you hold true.
This is even true in the workplace. You should aim to find work and find tasks within your work that are in line with your values as much as you can.
Insults: On Putting Up with Putdowns
Insults and slights are a part of life. They can hurt. They can stir anger. They can bring about sadness. How does one avoid the emotional response and the disruption of tranquility that they can bring?
Stoics offer a great deal of advice for taking the sting out. Is it true? If so, there’s nothing to be upset about. Is it coming from a dubious source? If so, don’t be bothered by the words of a dodgy person. Is the person misinformed? Just correct that person if the insult is inaccurate.
How do you handle the insult, though? If you’re quick-witted, respond with humor. If you’re not that quick-witted, just ignore it and go about your business, because the person firing insults mostly just wants to see your response. If it becomes a persistent problem for some reason, ask for advice from others as to how to handle that specific situation.
This is advice that I’ve given my children many times for dealing with playground bullies and it works well with adults, too.
Grief: On Vanquishing Tears with Reason
All of us feel grief at some point in their lives, often at the loss of a loved one. It hurts – there’s no getting around it.
The stoic advice on dealing with grief is to actively engage in negative visualization (discussed above) in advance, so that the sting isn’t as intense. You’ll inherently know that life will go on and that things will be okay. Furthermore, such negative visualization often leads to saying the things that you want to say now rather than later, when it might be too late, and thus there are no regrets to add to the grief.
It’s in situations like these, however, that stoicism gains its modern reputation. Stoicism leans heavily into addressing your emotions within and not acting upon them, which often results in being outwardly calm during moments where others might express emotional distress. When you’re the only person not crying at a funeral, it can seem cold and off-putting. The middle road seems to be to express such emotion when it fits the situation, but to evaluate it internally when outside the situation. Cry at the funeral, but process it internally afterwards.
This does somewhat fly in the face of many modern ideas of being more open with one’s emotions, but it’s an issue that Irvine gets back to later in the book.
Anger: On Overcoming Anti-Joy
What should you do when you feel anger? Stoics often identify anger, not sadness, as the antithesis of joyful living, as anger is even more effective at destroying tranquility. How can it be handled?
Stoicism offers a bunch of tools to help you avoid an angry outburst. Remind yourself that most things that make you angry do no actual harm, or consider that humor is a much better response to the situation.
If you do find anger bubbling up regularly, spend some time when not angry reflecting on the fact that acting on anger almost never does you any good and doesn’t do anything good for the people around you. If you still do act out, apologize genuinely with the blame going directly to yourself.
Personal Values: On Seeking Fame
The stoic advice for people seeking fame is very simple. Don’t worry about what others think of you. Instead, live according to your own values and if others find that admirable, fame will come naturally. It’s when you bend your own values and do things in accordance to what you think will bring you acclaim that internal tranquility is disrupted.
If you want to be famous, live life according to values that bring you peace, work to build skills that others will value, and treat others in a way according to your values. Sticking with that will eventually bring renown.
It’s much like happiness itself: if you aim for that and seek that, it’s elusive and you’ll never have it for more than a moment. Rather, don’t seek it and merely live a life that cultivates fertile soil for it to grow.
Personal Values: On Luxurious Living
Modern thinking often links stoicism to minimalist living and self-denial, which is true, but it misses the point. The purpose of minimalist living and self-denial, as discussed above, is so that you can adequately and deeply appreciate the good things in life.
In other words, someone following stoic ideals doesn’t have to inherently avoid luxury. Rather, what they seek to do is to put themselves in a mindset to truly appreciate luxury.
If you live next door to the best coffee shop in the world, you might think that’s great and you’ll go there every day, but before long… that coffee is ordinary. Stoics would instead encourage you to drink ordinary coffee every day and then go to the amazing coffee shop only on occasion, so you can appreciate that wonderful coffee rather than having it be relegated to the ordinary.
This, of course, also saves you a lot of money along the way to happiness.
Exile: On Surviving a Change of Pace
What about when there’s a rapid change in your life? How do you handle a sudden job loss, a sudden move, a sudden change in your personal relationships?
The key thing to remember is this: your happiness should revolve around your values, not in where you reside or what your surroundings happen to be like at a given moment. Yes, a rapid change can have an impact on your opportunities and choices, but they have no reason to change the values under which you operate, and if those values are solid, keep on trucking.
The truth is that unexpected events do happen, but they are outside of our control. They only can disrupt us if we allow those unexpected events to cause us to act against our values or cause us to abandon our values.
Old Age: On Being Banished to a Nursing HomeDying: On a Good End to a Good Life
A major part of stoicism is contemplation of one’s death and asking yourself if you’ve really lived a life well lived. While one might see that as a form of preparation for death, the real reason for such reflection is to ensure that you’ve lived a life well lived.
If you continue that train of thought, the conclusion becomes clear: if you live a life well lived, then death isn’t a great tragedy. You have already given much to the world and enjoyed much. What else is really left other than decline? To know you lived a life in accordance with your values up to the last moment is the best balm against the sting of death.
It still remains a fear – how could it not – but it’s a reasonable answer.
On Becoming a Stoic: Start Now and Prepare To Be Mocked
Practicing stoicism takes effort. Many of the practices – negative visualization, reflection on your day, control over one’s response to emotion – aren’t easy. Furthermore, proclaiming you’re a stoic is often going to get you some odd looks.
So, what should one do if this philosophy is appealing? Start practicing it anyway and keep the fact that you’re practicing it to yourself. Aim to live a virtuous life. Practice negative visualization and consider worst case scenarios so that you recognize life isn’t so bad after all. Reflect on your days. Practice some degree of self-denial so that you can truly appreciate the good things. Most of all, keep quiet about it and don’t wear it as a badge; share it if people wish to know, but don’t shout it from the rooftops.
It’s surprising how well all of this integrates into modern life, really.
The Decline of Stoicism
So, why did stoicism decline? What made it fall out of favor in the later years of the Roman Empire?
The big reason is that stoicism is hard to practice in a truly corrupt society, and that’s what Rome became after the death of Marcus Aurelius. If you can’t find people around you with which you share values, it’s easy to simply not have values at all or to watch the ones you do have degrade into nothingness.
Another reason is that stoicism doesn’t really promise anything beyond a more content life. It doesn’t promise an afterlife or anything metaphysical. It’s about living a good life here, even amidst troubling times. It doesn’t offer a promise of another plane of existence, something which is attractive to many.
The pieces of stoicism that people did recall tended to lead to a view of stoicism as grim and unfeeling. It encouraged people to not act out in anger or to make choices in a strong emotional moment, and when acting upon emotion is the norm, stoicism can seem strange.
The thing is, these criticisms were more relevant in the intervening period between ancient Rome and today than they are today.
In today’s world, there is often more harm than good that comes out of acting out in anger or with strong emotion. A purely emotional response to something like road rage or to someone’s internet postings isn’t going to do you or anyone else any good.
In today’s world, people often feel unhappy with their life here on Earth and want to know how to make their life here on Earth better, something that stoicism directly addresses. People want their lives to be good, rather than merely a struggle towards some promised afterlife.
Furthermore, today’s world is in many ways less corrupt than ancient Rome. While there is still great corruption, we live in a world that is relatively peaceful and relatively virtuous in comparison to the fall of Rome. It is easier to find like-minded good people out there with which we share values.
Stoicism is actually quite a good fit for a philosophy for living modern life.
How can you start practicing it? Irvine offers a few specific suggestions.
First, start quiet. Don’t shout out that you’re a stoic. Instead, start practicing and reflecting without talking openly about it.
Second, start with just one practice, then add more later. Start off with a practice of self-reflection, for example. Practice negative visualization. Start a simple thirty day challenge to recharge your appreciation of something.
Try to simplify your lifestyle a bit. We’re primed to react with emotion and instinct when we’re overwhelmed. Look for pieces of your life that can be pared down a little so you have time to breathe and reflect.
Consider what your values are and what you consider to be a great life, then try to live in accordance with those values. What are the values of what you consider to be a great person? Try to live by them.
A Guide to the Good Life is just one of several books that do a wonderful job of putting stoicism’s principles in a modern context. Here are a few others that are excellent, too, and why and how they differentiate themselves from A Guide to the Good Life.
The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient by William Irvine is a sort-of sequel to A Guide to the Good Life. It’s a new release and I’m actually reading it for the first time as I write this review of Irvine’s earlier book. It very much feels like a complement or sequel, and it’s definitely a worthwhile follow-up read that address a lot of specific modern issues that aren’t dealt with in the earlier book.
A Handbook for New Stoics by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez is something of a “workbook” for people interested in stoicism, offering 52 week-long exercises to delve into this philosophy of living.
How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci is just as good of an introduction to stoicism in the modern life as A Guide to the Good Life, but it just happened to be the one I read a little later. My general feeling is that A Guide to the Good Life handles specific life issues better with the individual chapters on specific life problems, while How to Be a Stoic seems to offer more general-purpose strategies.
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday offers a daily reading from an ancient Greek or Roman text on a stoic issue, along with an application to modern life by Holiday. This book will feel wonderfully familiar to anyone who’s ever read a yearlong devotional. Holiday’s other books, The Ego Is the Enemy and The Obstacle Is the Way, are also worthwhile; while not quite strictly about stoicism, the books do draw in a lot of stoic ideas when discussing how to handle specific challenges of modern life.
I would also strongly encourage you to read some of the original works of Stoicism, translated from ancient Latin and Greek. Here are three key ones worth reading.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is essentially excerpts from the personal journals of the Roman emperor, offering a lot of insight as to how he used stoic ideas to help him not only be a better governor, but be a better and more virtuous person. This is probably the single most powerful work on stoicism around, because it’s so personal.
Letters from a Stoic by Seneca are a series of letters he wrote in his retirement to a younger Roman official, outlining much of what he had learned about good living and death. The letters cover a lot of detail about applying stoicism to life.
Discourses and Selected Writings by Epictetus is a large collection of writings by the philosopher perhaps most responsible for stoicism’s growth; while Seneca was a wealthy advisor and Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor, Epictetus started off as a slave and eventually became a freedman who taught what he had learned in a small school in Greece. This book is a collection of transcriptions of many of his lectures; while some are a bit dry, there are moments of absolute brilliance on almost every page.
One of my themes/goals for next year is to do a deep study of several philosophies of living, and most of these books are on my reading list for the year for a first read or a re-read.
Over the last few years, I’ve struggled with a few central questions in my life. How do I overcome bad emotional responses to the world around me? How do I overcome desire? How do I feel contentment and joy without expending my life’s resources? What does it mean to be a good person, and how can I do that? What kind of mark am I leaving on the world?
All of those questions absolutely have a financial component to them, but they’re far from just financial questions, either. They each drive to a core part of the entire human experience, cutting across all spheres of life.
For me, stoicism has been the answer to the question of how I can overcome bad emotional responses to the world around me, and has provided some secondary help to most of the other questions. A Guide to the Good Life was really my introduction to stoicism and, for many people, would be my recommended introduction to the ideas.
Many people identify the word “stoic” with someone who rarely shows emotion. Rather, I think it’s just a guide to a healthy way of processing that emotion, one that doesn’t result in damaging outward action. I find that stoicism, through the ideas in this book and others, has helped me greatly in figuring out how to better process my emotions in the moment so that I don’t react in a foolish way – spending money on something I don’t need, for example, or having some kind of emotionally-driven outburst.