Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Review of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Philosophy
Book Club Event = Book List (11/30/2024)

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“As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill.  They are unhappy when they detect an unfulfilled desire within them.  They work hard to fulfill this desire, in the belief that on fulfilling it, they will gain satisfaction.  The problem, though, is that once they fulfill a desire for something, they adapt to its presence in their life and as a result stop desiring it - or at any rate, don’t find it as desirable as they once did.  They end up just as dissatisfied as they were before fulfilling the desire.” – William B. Irvine, Chapter Four: Negative Visualization, Page 75

“Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them.  But 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.” – William B. Irvine, Chapter, Page 174

“Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease.  The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear, and various other negative emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence.  By practicing Stoic techniques, we can cure the disease and thereby gain tranquility.  What I am suggesting is that although the ancient Stoics found a “cure” for negative emotions, they were mistaken about why the cure works.” – William B. Irvine, Chapter Twenty-One: Stoicism Reconsidered, Page 244


Is This An Overview?

Having a philosophy of life can prevent an individual from mis-living life.  To not waste the chance one has at living.  By having a philosophy of life, an individual can find effective strategies to attain life goals, and adjust behavior to increase the likelihood of attaining the goals.  The goal of the Stoics was to live a virtuous life, a life of tranquility.  Tranquility found through a lack of negative emotions.  The Stoics did not want to remove all emotions, just to limit the effect of negative emotions.  Stoics practiced preventing and overcoming negative emotions, rather than repressing emotions.  Stoicism is a cure for negative emotions that prevent a joyful existence.  Stoic methods can help an individual handle social relations, insults, grief, anger, fame, luxury, and various other aspects of life.


The Stoics use various practices to find tranquility such as negative visualization.  Thinking of a potential loss can create behaviors to prevent the loss, and find appreciation of what the individual has.  Negative visualization overcomes hedonic adaptation.  Stoics practice voluntary discomfort, voluntary self-denial of what they have or can have.  Voluntary self-denial prepares the individual for situations in which they are not voluntarily deprived, provides an appreciation for the comforts they do have, and builds willpower that develops self-control to enable freedom to choose one’s behavior.  Stoics create an appreciation of each day when reflecting on mortality.  But they do not worry about what they cannot control, such as mortality, as that would be futile.  Stoics focus on what they can control, such as the state of mind.  Finding contentment by changing oneself.


How To Explain Stoic Philosophy?

A Stoic practice of negative visualization, thinking about a potential loss, can change behavior to prevent the problem.  If the problem was inevitable, then the person can be emotionally prepared to handle the problem.  People are insatiable, for when what is wanted is obtained, the happiness derived is adapted to.  Adapting to happiness reduces the effect of happiness, causing the individual to want more.  Through negative visualization, people can think of losing what they do have, which makes them understand the value of what they have. 


Stoics reflect on mortality, the finite time they have available, to bring about an appreciation of each day.  To make the day fulfilling and productive, rather than waste the time they have available to them.  Reflecting on mortality changes the state of mind when carrying out activities, to not take their experiences for granted.  Stoics think about what they have control over, as that can lead to a change in a future situation.  They avoid thinking about things they cannot control, as that would be a waste of time.



The author uses and updates Stoic claims, which are given a complex understanding.  The Stoic claims can still be misunderstood, and the application of some methods can harm rather than improve a situation.  The claims made provide a foundation, but need to be adjusted and improved upon using local, tacit experiences and cultural values.


Claims provided on the effect of Stoic values and why people avoid Stoicism, have stereotypical reactions.  Stereotypical reactions based on age and other social features.  Stereotypical reactions are popular in the media, but are not representative of people’s diverse views. 


The explanation for why a philosophy of life is needed, can be effective, but makes life appear static.  As if a chosen goal, one chosen earlier, cannot change.  That all of life needs to be about strategies for accomplishing the goal. 


Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is your philosophy of life?
•How have the Stoics, and the philosophy of Stoicism been misunderstood?  
•What is a general goal of Stoics?
•How were Stoics treated in Rome?
•Why did Stoicism decline?
•What is virtue?
•What is tranquility? 
•What is a sage to the Stoics?
•What are the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism? 
•What is the difference between Stoicism and Roman Stoicism? 
•Is asceticism required of Stoicism?
•How do Stoics treat wealth?
•How should Stoics treat public affairs? 
•Who were the Stoics? 
•What is negative visualization?
•What is hedonic adaptation? 
•How does negative visualization effect mortality? 
•What to control? 
•What is up to the individual? 
•Are Stoics fatalistic? 
•Why practice self-denial?  Why experience voluntary discomfort?
•How to develop self-control? 
•How to become a Stoic? 
•What do Stoics think of other people? 
•How should a Stoic handle other people?
•How to handle an insult? 
•How have political correctness effected people’s ability to handle an insult?
•How to handle grief? 
•What is angle to the Stoics?
•How to handle anger?
•How does fame effect the person who becomes famous? 
•How to handle the effects of luxury? 
•How to handle aging? 
•How to handle death?
•How to handle emotions? 
•Is there need for a deity in Stoicism?
•How would a Stoic consider taking drugs? 

Book Details
Publisher:               Oxford University Press
Edition ISBN:         9780199792627
Pages to read:          274
Publication:             2008
1st Edition:              2008
Format:                    eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          4
Overall          4