A guide to the good life | William Irvine


Published: 2008
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Stoicism is a philosophy that originated in Athens around 300 BC. and is based on self-control, peace of mind and composure. The first Stoics were the Greeks Zeno, Kleanthes and Krysippos. During the first and second centuries AD, the Romans joined: Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Stoicism can be used against anxiety, sadness, fear and other negative emotions. By practicing stoic techniques, we can achieve self-control, peace of mind and composure and live more balanced and happy lives. 

NEGATIVE VISUALIZATION. The Stoics used negative visualization and imagined losing everything that was highly valued – that our partner was leaving us, that our car had been stolen or that we had lost our job. Through this, we value our partner, our car and our job more than we otherwise would. Seneca considered that all we have is a loan from “Fortune” which can be taken away from us at any time and without notice.

”Epictetus counsels that when we say good-bye to a friend, we should silently remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. If we do this, we will be less likely to take our friends for granted.”

SIMULATE POVERTY. Seneca believed that we should also practice living as if the negative has already happened. To train in poverty or disease. Live a weekend on rice and water or sleep one night on the floor. If the only thing we know is comfort, we will be traumatized when we face discomfort. Since discomfort in life is inevitable, it is irresponsible not to prepare for it. By forcing uncomfortable situations forward, we appreciate more what we have and create a self-image that we can cope with greater discomfort.

DON’T GET ATTACHED TO WHAT YOU HAVE. The Stoics enjoyed all the good life had to offer but at the same time prepared to give it all up. All things everywhere are perishable. If we expect that everything we have today will always be available, we will feel great sadness and anxiety the day it does not.

STOIC INDIFFERENCE. The goal is to be indifferent to other people’s opinions about us. We should not go through life with the goal of gaining the approval of others or avoiding their disapproval. The price of winning the admiration of others is adopting their values – a far too high price. Epictetus takes it so far that he believes that when others praise us, the appropriate treatment is to laugh at it (in silence). A Stoic is indifferent to positive as well as negative response.

AVOID EMPTY TALK. In addition to being selective about socializing, we should be selective about what we talk about. People tend to talk about things like sports, food and drink as well as other people – empty talk. When we are in a group with those topics of conversation, we should be quiet or say only a few words, or subtly try to bring the conversation into something more appropriate. There is a danger that too much such social interaction can pollute a stoic way of thinking and negatively affect your development.

INSATIABILITY CREATES MISFORTUNE. After working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in what we have received. This is called hedonic adaptation. People are unhappy in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. The confusion leads us to spend our days chasing after things that, rather than making us happy, make us anxious and unhappy. The easiest way to achieve happiness is to instead learn to appreciate what we already have.

FOCUS ON WHAT CAN BE CONTROLLED. There are things over which we have complete control. There are also things that we have some control over as well as other things that we have no control over at all. When we set goals, we should only do so when we ourselves can completely influence the outcome or set process goals when we can partly influence the outcome. We should avoid setting goals in regards to things we have no control over.   

THE DANGER OF LUXURIOUS THINGS. The Stoics believe that those who live a life of luxury have impaired their ability to enjoy life. One result of a luxurious life is that we lose the ability to enjoy simple things and easily start bragging that we only consume “the best”. A wine or a piece of meat of medium quality is no longer enough – if it is not the best, it is not interesting. On the contrary, the Stoics find great value in finding sources of joy even in the simple and primitive. Musonius advocated a simple diet, a simple home and simple furniture. The Stoics believed that a wise man never reflects as much poverty as when he lives in the midst of wealth. He is then careful to regard his wealth as his slave, and not as his master.

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