Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

This is a great modern take on Stoicism. It helps to frame Stoicism in the context in which it developed and evolved. It also helps to apply it in the modern context. For anyone interested in finding their philosophy on life, or taking their understanding of stoicism further, I would highly recommend it.

For those new to stoicism, it is a great philosophy on life which has parallels with the teachings of many major religions – in particular with the focus on appreciating what you have in life. One of the core concepts is the idea that happiness and satisfaction is a function of expectations minus reality. It therefore focuses on trying to reset / lower expectations. The secret to happiness in life is wanting what you have, not having what you want. Seneca would take this further by reseting his expectations and sleeping in harsh conditions once every several months.

More generally, having a philosophy of life, whether it be Stoicism or some other philosophy, can dramatically simplify everyday living. If you have a philosophy of life, decision making is relatively straightforward: When choosing between the options life offers, you simply choose the one most likely to help you attain the goals set forth by your philosophy of life. In the absence of a philosophy of life, though, even relatively simple choices can degenerate into meaning-of-life crises. It is, after all, hard to know what to choose when you aren’t really sure what you want. The most important reason for adopting a philosophy of life, though, is that if we lack one, there is a danger that we will mis-live—that we will spend our life pursuing goals that aren’t worth attaining or will pursue worthwhile goals in a foolish manner and will therefore fail to attain them.

Truly a great read for anyone looking for a roadmap to this thing we call life. Enjoy!


On happiness:

In the words of the historian Paul Veyne, “Stoicism is not so much an ethic as it is a paradoxical recipe for happiness.”

Recognize that there are things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control.

Such is the madness of men, he said, that they choose to be miserable when they have it in their power to be content. The problem is that “bad men obey their lusts as servants obey their masters,” and because they cannot control their desires, they can never find contentment.

On desire and negative visualization:

We meet the man or woman of our dreams, and after a tumultuous courtship succeed in marrying this person. We start out in a state of wedded bliss, but before long we find ourselves contemplating our spouse’s flaws and, not long after that, fantasizing about starting a relationship with someone new. 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. One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it.

those who have thought carefully about the workings of desire have recognized this—that the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have. This advice is easy to state and is doubtless true; the trick is in putting it into practice in our life. How, after all, can we convince ourselves to want the things we already have? The stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological tool kit.

Seneca takes things even further than this: We should live as if this very moment were our last. What does it mean to live each day as if it were our last? Some people assume that it means living wildly and engaging in all sorts of hedonistic excess. After all, if this day is our last, we will not pay any price for our riotous living. We can use drugs without fear of becoming addicted. We can likewise spend money with reckless abandon without having to worry about how we will pay the bills that will come to us tomorrow. This, however, is not what the Stoics had in mind when they advise us to live as if today were our last day. To them, living as if each day were our last is simply an extension of the negative visualization technique.

We will not live forever and therefore this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity. This in turn will make it less likely that we will squander our days. In other words, when the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities. In particular, they don’t want us to stop thinking about or planning for tomorrow; instead they want us, as we think about and plan for tomorrow, to remember to appreciate today.

Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy. One reason children are capable of joy is because they take almost nothing for granted. To them, the world is wonderfully new and surprising. Not only that, but they aren’t yet sure how the world works: Perhaps the things they have today will mysteriously vanish tomorrow. It is hard for them to take something for granted when they can’t even count on its continued existence.

Seneca points to a second reason for contemplating the bad things that can happen to us. If we think about these things, we will lessen their impact on us when, despite our efforts at prevention, they happen: “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” Misfortune weighs most heavily, he says, on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.” Epictetus echoes this advice: We should keep in mind that “all things everywhere are perishable.” If we fail to recognize this and instead go around assuming that we will always be able to enjoy the things we value, we will likely find ourselves subject to considerable distress when the things we value are taken from us.

or even worse, of those Stoic optimists who go on at length about what a wonderful thing glass is—they are likely to respond with disparaging remarks: “Such people are clearly fools. They shouldn’t be satisfi ed with so little. They should want more and not rest content until they get it.” 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 satisfi ed 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?

Live life as if you’re about to do something for the last time. We might, for example, eat at a favorite restaurant the night before it is scheduled to close, or we might kiss a lover who is forced by circumstances to move to a distant part of the globe, presumably forever. Previously, when we thought we could repeat them at will, a meal at this restaurant or a kiss shared with our lover might have been unremarkable. But now that we know they cannot be repeated, they will likely become extraordinary events: The meal will be the best we ever had at the restaurant, and the parting kiss will be one of the most intensely bittersweet experiences life has to offer. By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. Some people, I realize, will find it depressing or even morbid to contemplate impermanence. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.

While most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them, Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves—more precisely, by changing our desires. And he is not alone in giving this advice; indeed, it is the advice offered by virtually every philosopher and religious thinker who has refl ected on human desire and the causes of human dissatisfaction.4 They agree that if what you seek is contentment, it is better and easier to change yourself and what you want than it is to change the world around you. Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfi ll. Your other desires should conform to this desire, and if they don’t, you should do your best to extinguish them. If you succeed in doing this, you will no longer experience anxiety about whether or not you will get what you want; nor will you experience disappointment on not getting what you want. Indeed, says Epictetus, you will become invincible: If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.

On tranquility and virtue:

fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue.

a virtuous individual is one who performs well the function for which humans were designed. To be virtuous, then, is to live as we were designed to live; it is to live, as Zeno put it, in accordance with nature.

Someone who is not tranquil—someone, that is, who is distracted by negative emotions such as anger or grief—might fi nd it diffi cult to do what his reason tells him to do: His emotions will triumph over his intellect. This person might therefore become confused about what things are really good, consequently might fail to pursue them, and might, as a result, fail to attain virtue. Thus, for the Roman Stoics, the pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of tranquility are components of a virtuous circle—indeed, a doubly virtuous circle: The pursuit of virtue results in a degree of tranquility, which in turn makes it easier for us to pursue virtue.

If something negative happens to us we are likely to get angry and have our tranquility disrupted by the incident. One way to avert this anger is to think about how we would feel if the incident had happened to someone else instead. If we were at someone’s house and his servant broke a cup, we would be unlikely to get angry; indeed, we might try to calm our host by saying “It’s just a cup; these things happen.” Engaging in projective visualization, Epictetus believes, will make us appreciate the relative insignificance of the bad things that happen to us and will therefore prevent them from disrupting our tranquility

On struggle:

Seneca, by the way, argued along similar lines: God, he said, “does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him, and fi ts him for his own service.” In particular, the adversities we experience count as “mere training,” and “those things which we all shudder and tremble at are for the good of the persons themselves to whom they come

On living a good life:

he must, as Zeno put it, live in accordance with nature. The person who does this won’t simply pursue pleasure, as an animal might; instead, he will use his reasoning ability to refl ect on the human condition. He will then discover the reason we were created and the role we play in the cosmic scheme. He will realize that to have a good life, he needs to perform well the function of a human being, the function Zeus designed him to fulfi ll. He will therefore pursue virtue, in the ancient sense of the word, meaning that he will strive to become an excellent human being. He will also come to realize that if he lives in accordance with nature, he will be rewarded with the tranquility that Zeus promised us.

On control vs. non-control in life:

I shall now argue for this second alternative. Remember that among the things over which we have complete control are the goals we set for ourselves. I think that when a Stoic concerns himself with things over which he has some but not complete control, such as winning a tennis match, he will be very careful about the goals he sets for himself. In particular, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.

Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. Similarly, my goal with respect to my boss should be to do my job to the best of my ability. These are goals I can achieve no matter how my wife and my boss subsequently react to my efforts. By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control

He will perform a kind of triage in which he sorts the elements of his life into three categories: those over which he has complete control, those over which he has no control at all, and those over which he has some but not complete control. The things in the second category—those over which he has no control at all—he will set aside as not worth worrying about. In doing this, he will spare himself a great deal of needless anxiety. He will instead concern himself with things over which he has complete control and things over which he has some but not complete control. And when he concerns himself with things in this last category, he will be careful to set internal rather than external goals for himself and will thereby avoid a considerable amount of frustration and disappointment.

On fatalism, past, present and future:

When a person is fatalistic with respect to the future, she will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on future events. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about the future or trying to alter it. When a person is fatalistic with respect to the past, she adopts this same attitude toward past events. She will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on the past. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about how the past might be different. When the Stoics advocate fatalism, they are, I think, advocating a restricted form of the doctrine. More precisely, they are advising us to be fatalistic with respect to the past, to keep firmly in mind that the past cannot be changed. Thus, the Stoics would not counsel a mother with a sick child to be fatalistic with respect to the future; she should try to nurse the child back to health (even though the Fates have already decided whether the child lives or dies). But if the child dies, they will counsel this woman to be fatalistic with respect to the past. It is only natural, even for a Stoic, to experience grief after the death of a child. But to dwell on that death is a waste of time and emotions, inasmuch as the past cannot be changed.

In their advocacy of fatalism, then, the Stoics were advising us to be fatalistic, not with respect to the future but with respect to the past and present. In support of this interpretation of Stoic fatalism, it is useful to reconsider some of the Stoic advice quoted above. When Epictetus advises us to want events “to happen as they do happen,” he is giving us advice regarding events that do happen—that either have happened or are happening—not advice regarding events that will happen. He is, in other words, advising us to behave fatalistically with respect to the past and present.

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.

On fame, fortune and success:

Seneca advises us to be “attentive to all the advantages that adorn life.” We might, as a result, get married and have children. We might also form and enjoy friendships. And what about worldly success? Will the Stoics seek fame and fortune? They will not. The Stoics thought these things had no real value and consequently thought it foolish to pursue them, particularly if doing so disrupted our tranquility or required us to act in an un-virtuous manner. This indifference to worldly success, I realize, will make them seem unmotivated to modern individuals who spend their days working hard in an attempt to attain (a degree of) fame and fortune. But having said this, I should add that although the Stoics didn’t seek worldly success, they often gained it anyway. Indeed, the Stoics we have been considering would all have counted as successful individuals in their time. Seneca and Marcus were both wealthy and famous, and Musonius and Epictetus, as heads of popular schools, would have enjoyed a degree of renown and would presumably have been financially comfortable. They therefore found themselves in the curious position of people who, though not seeking success, nevertheless gained it.

On voluntary discomfort:

To begin with, by undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort— by, for example, choosing to be cold and hungry when we could be warm and well fed—we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future. If all we know is comfort, we might be traumatized when we are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as we someday almost surely will. In other words, voluntary discomfort can be thought of as a kind of vaccine: By exposing ourselves to a small amount of a weakened virus now, we create in ourselves an immunity that will protect us from a debilitating illness in the future. Alternatively, voluntary discomfort can be thought of as an insurance premium which, if paid, makes us eligible for benefits: Should we later fall victim to a misfortune, the discomfort we experience then will be substantially less than it otherwise would have been. A second benefit of undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort comes not in the future but immediately. A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well, so the prospect of experiencing such discomforts at some future time will not, at present, be a source of anxiety for him. By experiencing minor discomforts, he is, says Musonius, training himself to be courageous. The person who, in contrast, is a stranger to discomfort, who has never been cold or hungry, might dread the possibility of someday being cold and hungry. Even though he is now physically comfortable, he will likely experience mental discomfort—namely, anxiety with respect to what the future holds in store for him. A third benefit of undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort is that it helps us appreciate what we already have. In particular, by purposely causing ourselves discomfort, we will better appreciate whatever comfort we experience. It is, of course, nice to be in a warm room when it is cold and blustery outside, but if we really want to enjoy that warmth and sense of shelter, we should go outside in the cold for a while and then come back in. Likewise, we can (as Diogenes observed) greatly enhance our appreciation of any meal by waiting until we are hungry before we eat it and greatly enhance our appreciation of any beverage by waiting until we are thirsty before we drink it.

lacking in various gastronomic pleasures, is the source of a pleasure of an entirely different sort: “Water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread,” Seneca tells us, “are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food.”14 Leave it to the Stoics to realize that the act of forgoing pleasure can itself be pleasant. They were, as I’ve said, some of the most insightful psychologists of their time.

On managing emotions:

Those ignorant of the true nature of Stoicism commonly believe, that we will stop experiencing emotion. We will instead fi nd ourselves experiencing fewer negative emotions. We will also fi nd that we are spending less time than we used to wishing things could be different and more time enjoying things as they are. We will f i nd, more generally, that we are experiencing a degree of tranquility that our life previously lacked. We might also discover, perhaps to our amazement, that our practice of Stoicism has made us susceptible to little outbursts of joy: We will, out of the blue, feel delighted to be the person we are, living the life we are living, in the universe we happen to inhabit.

On the people you associate with:

We avoid befriending people whose values have been corrupted, for fear that their values will contaminate ours. We should instead seek, as friends, people who share our (proper Stoic) values and in particular, people who are doing a better job than we are of living in accordance with these values. And while enjoying the companionship of these individuals, we should work hard to learn what we can from them. Vices, Seneca warns, are contagious: They spread, quickly and unnoticed, from those who have them to those with whom they come into contact. Epictetus echoes this warning: Spend time with an unclean person, and we will become unclean as well. In particular, if we associate with people who have unwholesome desires, there is a very real danger that we will soon discover similar desires in ourselves, and our tranquility will thereby be disrupted. Thus, when it is possible to do so, we should avoid associating with people whose values have been corrupted, the way we would avoid, say, kissing someone who obviously has the flu.

On sexual reserve:

When asked how to handle feelings of lust towards a woman, Seneca advocates you imagine her body in the various stages of decomposition. Advocacy of sexual reserve will sound prudish to modern readers, but they had a point. We live in an age of sexual indulgence, and for many people the consequences of this indulgence have been catastrophic in terms of their peace of mind. Think, for example, about the young woman who, because she could not resist sexual temptation, is now faced with the hardship that generally accompanies single parenthood, or the young man who, because he could not resist temptation, is now burdened with responsibilities (or at least child-support payments) that prevent him from pursuing the dreams he once had for himself. It is easy these days to find people who will agree that their life would have gone better if they had shown more sexual reserve; it is hard to find people who think their life would have gone better if they had shown less.

On handling criticism and insults:

One of their sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset. Suppose, for example, that someone mocks us for being bald when we in fact are bald: “Why is it an insult,” Seneca asks, “to be told what is self-evident?” Another sting-elimination strategy, suggested by Epictetus, is to pause to consider how well-informed the insulter is. He might be saying something bad about us not because he wants to hurt our feelings but because he sincerely believes what he is saying, or, at any rate, he might simply be reporting how things seem to him. Rather than getting angry at this person for his honesty, we should calmly set him straight. One particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of an insult. If I respect the source, if I value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn’t upset me. Suppose, for example, that I am learning to play the banjo and that the person who is criticizing my playing is the skilled musician I have hired as my teacher. In this case, I am paying the person to criticize me. It would be utterly foolish, under these circumstances, for me to respond to his criticisms with hurt feelings. To the contrary, if I am serious about learning the banjo, I should thank him for criticizing me.

Seneca points out, our nonresponse can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result. Notice, too, that by not responding to an insulter, we are showing him and anyone who is watching that we simply don’t have time for the childish behavior of this person. If a humorous response to an insult shows that we don’t take the insulter seriously, a nonresponse to an insult makes it look as if we are indifferent to the existence of the insult.

On seeking social status:

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. If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval. Indeed, Epictetus says that when others praise us, the proper response is to laugh at them. (But not out loud!)

On victim culture:

In particular, the Stoics don’t think it is helpful for people to consider themselves victims of society—or victims of anything else, for that matter. If you consider yourself a victim, you are not going to have a good life; if, however, you refuse to think of yourself as a victim—if you refuse to let your inner self be conquered by your external circumstances—you are likely to have a good life, no matter what turn your external circumstances take. (In particular, the Stoics thought it possible for a person to retain his tranquility despite being punished for attempting to reform the society in which he lived.)

In summary:

  • We should become self-aware: We should observe ourselves as we go about our daily business, and we should periodically reflect on how we responded to the day’s events. How did we respond to an insult?  To the loss of a possession? To a stressful situation? Did we, in our responses, put Stoic psychological strategies to work?
  • We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions. We should also use our reasoning ability to master our desires, to the extent that it is possible to do so. In particular, we should use reason to convince ourselves that things such as fame and fortune aren’t worth having—not, at any rate, if what we seek is tranquility—and therefore aren’t worth pursuing.
  • Likewise, we should use our reasoning ability to convince ourselves that even though certain activities are pleasurable, engaging in those activities will disrupt our tranquility, and the tranquility lost will outweigh the pleasure gained.
  • If, despite not having pursued wealth, we find ourselves wealthy, we should enjoy our affluence; it was the Cynics, not the Stoics, who advocated asceticism. But although we should enjoy wealth, we should not cling to it; indeed, even as we enjoy it, we should contemplate its loss.
  • We are social creatures; we will be miserable if we try to cut off contact with other people. Therefore, if what we seek is tranquility, we should form and maintain relations with others. In doing so, though, we should be careful about whom we befriend. We should also, to the extent possible, avoid people whose values are corrupt, for fear that their values will contaminate ours.
  • Other people are invariably annoying, though, so if we maintain relations with them, they will periodically upset our tranquility—if we let them. The Stoics spent a considerable amount of time devising techniques for taking the pain out of our relationships with other people. In particular, they came up with techniques for dealing with the insults of others and preventing them from angering us.
  • The Stoics pointed to two principal sources of human unhappiness—our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control—and they developed techniques for removing these sources of unhappiness from our life. To conquer our insatiability, the Stoics advise us to engage in negative visualization. We should contemplate the impermanence of all things. We should imagine ourselves losing the things we most value, including possessions and loved ones. We should also imagine the loss of our own life. If we do this, we will come to appreciate the things we now have, and because we appreciate them, we will be less likely to form desires for other things. And besides simply imagining that things could be worse than they are, we should sometimes cause things to be worse than they would otherwise be; Seneca advises us to “practice poverty,” and Musonius advises us voluntarily to forgo opportunities for pleasure and comfort.
  • To curb our tendency to worry about things beyond our control, the Stoics advise us to perform a kind of triage with respect to the elements of our life and sort them into those we have no control over, those we have complete control over, and those we have some but not complete control over. Having done this, we should not bother about things over which we have no control. Instead, we should spend some of our time dealing with things over which we have complete control, such as our goals and values, and spend most of our time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control. If we do this, we will avoid experiencing much needless anxiety. When we spend time dealing with things over which we have some but not complete control, we should be careful to internalize our goals. My goal in playing tennis, for example, should be not to win the match but to play the best match possible.
  • We should be fatalistic with respect to the external world: We should realize that what has happened to us in the past and what is happening to us at this very moment are beyond our control, so it is foolish to get upset about these things.

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