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A Guide to the Good Life - The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - William Irvine

Buch-Review - Hannes Kleist - 17.12.2019

A Guide to the Good Life - The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

For almost everyone, the default philosophy of life: to spend one’s days seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure.

Introduction: A Plan for Living

For almost everyone, the default philosophy of life: to spend one’s days seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure.

Oh, that is sooooo me. ;-)

Part One: The Rise of Stoicism

Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

That is a very nice mantra: Assume ignorance rather than malevolence.

Part Two: Stoic Psychological Techniques

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”

I literally spent 10 times more time worrying about future events and are stressed during that time, that the actual event.

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.

Good advice. But when do you do that? Do you make that part of your daily meditation?

We have complete control, for example, over whether we value fame and fortune, pleasure, or tranquility. 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).

That’s sound. If you“play to win” you might lose. If you “play to improve ourselves” or “play for fun” you always win.

They therefore found themselves in the curious position of people who, though not seeking success, nevertheless gained it.

I read that a couple of times — I think this appears in Buddhism and Harry Potter as well. When you play just for the fun of it, you will get better at it and win more often automatically.

In particular, we should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless.

I do that regularly. I stretch daily to experience pain. I talk to a new stranger every day to experience discomfort. I am on a path to become a discomfort connoisseur.

To become thirsty or hungry, even though water and food are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available.

I do intermittent fasting to that effect. Only eat dinner during the week.

The Stoics, by way of contrast, welcomed a degree of discomfort in their life. 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.

You are much more relaxed in life if you can live without all the creature comforts you acquired.

What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets.

I like that idea. Very close to the reason, why we should do mindful meditation daily.

Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.

I have a “shit journal”. I review all hard situations from yesterday and review, how I did handle the situations and how I should handle them.

We will stop blaming, censuring, and praising others; we will stop boasting about ourselves and how much we know; and we will blame ourselves, not external circumstances, when our desires are thwarted.

That would be nice.

Part Three: Stoic Advice

How are we to respond to an insult, if not with a counterinsult? One wonderful way, say the Stoics, is with humor.

Won’t work ;-)

Part Four Stoicism for Modern Lives

We should become self-aware: We should observe ourselves as we go about our daily business, and we should periodically reflect: 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?

Here it ties nicely into mindfulness meditation.

We should use our reasoning ability to overcome negative emotions. We should also use our reasoning ability to master our desires, two principal sources of human unhappiness — our insatiability and our tendency to worry about things beyond our control — negative visualization. We should contemplate the impermanence of all things.

I wonder if the “reasoning” will lead to in due time accepting all those things emotionally as well.

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. 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.

This sums it up nicely.

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.


Seneca, for example, advises us periodically to live as if we were poor, and Musonius advises us to do things to cause ourselves discomfort.

I know somebody who does a “poorness month” every year where he and his wife lives from less than social security.

We will try this year by going camping for a week and leave all creature comforts at home.

But besides conferring these and other benefits on me, yoga has been a wonderful source of voluntary discomfort.

I stretch daily for 15 minutes. I will try yoga as well.

Likewise, people will notice if you keep driving the same old car or — horrors! — give up the car to take the bus or ride a bike.

Surely this is taking it too far ;-)

A Stoic Reading Program

Buy on amazon


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Hannes Kleist
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