A Guide to the Good Life

Summary Written by William Zahn
"Just as wood is the medium of the carpenter and bronze is the medium of the sculptor, your life is the medium on which you practice the art of living."

- Epictetus, quoted in A Guide to the Good Life, page 52

The Big Idea

Developing a Philosophy of Life

"The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing."- Marcus Aurelius, quoted in A Guide to the Good Life, page 59

In a sweeping statement, Irvine suggests that his book is about setting “a grand goal for living”. Rather than answering the question of what do you want in life with specific things (e.g., big house, loving wife and children, high paying job, etc.), Irvine suggests that we should answer that question by stating how you want to live your life. That is, you should develop a life philosophy. Without a coherent life philosophy, Irvine argues that when you look back on your life, you may realize that you “wasted your one chance at living”.

In the case of the Stoics, their grand goal for living is to experience as much “tranquility” as possible. One should minimize experiences with negative emotions (note that the Stoics did not say to suppress all your negative emotions, just to do your best in limiting the impact they had on your peace of mind). A complete life philosophy involves both a grand goal for your life and tools/strategies for helping you achieve your goal.

Insight #1

Negative Visualization

"He robs present ills of their power who has perceived them coming beforehand."- Seneca, quoted in A Guide to the Good Life, page 65

The thoughtful person will, periodically, reflect on potential bad things that may happen to them. Irvine argues this is useful in the sense that by understanding where threats may come from, it gives us the chance to eliminate them, and that, should bad things happen to us (as they do to everyone), we will have lessened their impact on us through thinking about these things beforehand.

In addition, negative visualization helps reset our insatiable appetite for more: more fame, more money, more material goods. Comparing our desire for more with being on a treadmill, Irvine argues that we start with a goal in mind and work extremely hard to achieve that goal, but when we achieve that goal, we start to take it for granted and begin focusing on the next thing that will satisfy us. The key to getting off this treadmill is to value what we already have. We learn to do this by practicing negative visualization.

To practice negative visualization, the Stoics recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost things that we value. What would life be like, for example, if you were no longer on speaking terms with your best friend? What about life without your job? Sit and actually think about what life would be like without your best friend. Who would you call when you wanted to share good news? Who would you call when you needed a shoulder to cry on? Who would you call when you faced a difficult decision?

Imagining what life would be like without the people and things we value in our life helps us appreciate those things more. We will not take our loved ones for granted when we periodically reflect on what life would be like without them.

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Insight #2

The Trichotomy of Control

"Our most important choice in life is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal."- Epictetus, quoted in A Guide to the Good Life, page 85

Fans of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits will recognize this Stoic method of focusing our efforts as distinguishing between our “Circle of Concern” and “Circle of Influence.” In short, Stoics consider it pointless to worry about things over which we have no control.

But it is a false dichotomy to say we either have control over something or we don’t. In fact, the large majority of the goals we set out to accomplish are things that we have some, but not complete, control over. For example, one of my goals as an academic is to have my work published in peer-reviewed journals. This is an end-goal that I ultimately have incomplete control over.

Stoics suggest that rather than setting an external goal of having someone publish my work that I should, instead, set an internal goal of writing high quality articles that are of significance to my field. By setting internal rather than external goals, my tranquility will not be disturbed if an editor decides not to publish my work.

As an additional benefit, Stoic writers noted that concerning yourself with achieving your internal goals greatly increases external performance. By internalizing goals, we can preserve our tranquility while working in areas in which we have incomplete control.

Philosophy as it was known in Ancient Greece and Rome is no longer in favor today. We no longer have philosophical schools that search for deeper meaning from life or debate the finer points of living a good life. Instead, philosophy today is more about debating semantics. A Guide to the Good Life provides an excellent primer on one ancient school of philosophy, and for those of us who are interested in enjoying our lives, it is a book I recommend.

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William B. Irvine

Early Life: I grew up in mining towns, mostly in Montana and Nevada. My father was a construction engineer for Anaconda Copper Company. We stayed long enough in one place for something to get built–usually 12 to 18 months–and then moved on to the next project. Among the more exotic places I lived are Schroeder, Minnesota (on the north shore of Lake Superior; current population, 187) and Tocopilla, Chile.

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