324 of 333 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2008
I first read Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" while flying to the eastern United States for a scientific meeting. It was during a rather difficult period in my life and I had picked up on "Meditations" because of a mention of this work by Edwin Way Teale in "Near Horizons" as a book he turned to in times of trouble. I was not disappointed by these insightful notes written for his own use nearly 2000 years ago by the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher. It was thus that I was primed to read William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy." This is one of those books that can be really life changing, if the reader is ready for it.
Irvine briefly discusses the history of Stoic philosophy and its relationship to other philosophies in ancient Greece and Rome. He concentrates most of the book, however, on the Stoics of the Roman Empire, namely Seneca, Gaius Musonius Rufus, Epictetus and of course, Marcus Aurelius. After his historical review Irvine spends some time on the practical aspects of Stoicism, including negative visualization (visualizing how your life could be worse), dichotomy of control (what we can and cannot control), fatalism (about the past and present, not the future), self-denial (putting off pleasure so as to appreciate it more when you have it), duty (what we owe to others), social relations (how we relate to others), insults (how to react to them), grief (how to deal with loss), anger (how to turn it to humor), personal values (how to deal with fame and fortune, or the lack thereof), old age (how to deal with the aging process), and dying (how to prepare for this certainty). The last part of the book is devoted to the practice of Stoicism in the modern world, with both its pluses and minuses.
Although I would have to practice a modified Stoicism (I doubt that most of us would like to sleep even occasionally on a board or give up sex except for procreation), there is much of Stoicism that we can use in the modern world. Unlike the Cynics who slept on boards all the time and generally followed ascetic practices, Stoics wanted to enjoy life and followed something akin to the Middle Way of Buddhism. This attitude could certainly be of use to counter the worst of this "me first" society of rampant consumerism. In truth you really cannot take it with you when you die and to act like you can is the height of folly.
This book is a fascinating exposition of Stoic philosophy and its possible uses in the present day. The current economic collapse and other disasters of modern living could be a fertile ground for a revival of Stoic ideas. I also recommend it as a refreshing antidote for the hectic modern world in general. Take what is useful, and leave the rest, but read it if you would live deliberately and thus be free!
159 of 163 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2009
Once in a while, one comes across an idea so profound that it has the power to change one's life. So was the case for me yesterday on my way to Columbus, OH. Feeling like Christopher Columbus (re)discovering the Americas, I re-discovered the ancient Stoic philosophy through the reading of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine's, thanks to a program I recently listened to on KPFA. I had never read the philosophy of Zeno of Citium, Epitectus, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius, but I knew in my heart that such a liberating yet deceivingly simple way of living must have been devised before. I just did not know where to look for it. And much like the author, I had been recently intrigued by Zen Buddhism, but could not fully relate to its esoteric nature.
Classic Stoicism preaches a way of life that can bring tranquility and joy to anyone. Through simple psychological techniques such as negative visualization, dichotomy (/trichotomy) of control, or internalization of goals--all brilliantly described in Irivine's book--one can suppress negative feelings such as anxiety, fear, or frustration, while learning how to better deal with insult or grief, and why fame and luxury should not be looked for (more on this later).
While reading through the 336 pages of Irivine's book, I was amazed at how natural the overall philosophy felt to me. Its guiding principles were some of the very few absolute values that I could genuinely call mine, and many of its techniques I had discovered myself over time. In the author's words, I must be a "congenital Stoic." Nevertheless, I had never been able to spell out such a coherent system on my own, nor had I come across anyone who had until now.
Reading through the book's last chapters, and especially Chapter Twenty-One--Stoicism Reconsidered--I experienced an exhilarating rush of wholesomeness, being confronted for the first time to a coherent philosophy of life. Religious minds would say I got a revelation. Being agnostic myself, I would call it an epiphany, and it came in the form of Irvine's proof that Stoicism was a "correct philosophy of life," not by referring to Zeus as the ancient Stoics did, but to evolutionary theory in general, and evolutionary psychology in particular. Not being a professional philosopher myself, I cannot adequately criticize Irvine's argumentation, but it made sense to me. In fact, I would even go as far as challenging the author's excessive modesty, and suggest that he actually delivered a modern proof for Stoicism's overall correctness.
To say the book convinced me is an understatement. It converted me, not only to the doctrine, but to the scholastic approach of ancient philosophy. And as Seneca put it, "I do not bind myself to some particular one of the Stoic masters; I, too, have the right to form an opinion." (Seneca, "On the Happy Life," III.2). So let me offer some suggestions as to how Stoicism could be extended to benefit from more recent discoveries.
First, the notion of "duty," which ancient Stoics justify by the mere fact that we are social creatures and that we all mutually benefit from virtuous social behavior, should be further developed. In order for it to become more acceptable, its justification should go beyond the benefits of harmonious inter-personal relationships, and include a notion best described as statistical Karma: if more people act benevolently with others in a pass-it-forward kind of way, the world at large will become a better place, and we will all benefit from it indirectly.
Second, the notion that fame after death should not be set as a goal, while advisable at first, is unnecessarily challenging for those who do not believe in life after death. Instead, I believe that one's goal could (should) be to create a lasting legacy, either by passing the virtuous of a Stoic life to one's descendants, or by making positive contributions to mankind, small or large. Such a legacy can reasonably be considered as some form of life after death by agnostic philosophers, or a component of life after death by their religious counterparts. Furthermore, because such a legacy will be judged by those who survive us after our passing, setting its creation as a primary life goal should not expose us to the usual traps of fame seeking. Last but not least, it should be obvious to anyone that such a legacy should be a positive one, as in one that will benefit those who survive us and for generations to come, as opposed to a free entry into history books for reason of crime against humanity.
Third, I believe that the Stoic reaction to insult (offense might even be a more appropriate term) should be extended in order to include what is possibly the most powerful discoveries of the past two millennia: Christian forgiveness. Before explaining what I mean by that, let me give some personal background: my mother was born in France and received a Catholic education. My father was born in Algeria and was raised as a Muslim. I was born in France thirty-five years ago and grew up in a perfectly atheist environment, like many kids of this time in post-68, pre-socialist France. Nevertheless, I later developed a keen interest for Christianity and its principles, originally through the watching of movies from David Lynch. Fire Walk with Me gave me an intuitive understanding of the notion of the original sin and its repercussions on our collective psyche as members of a Judeo-Christian community, while The Straight Story offered a moving demonstration of the power of forgiveness. While I view the concept of original sin as fundamentally anti-Stoic, I consider the notion of forgiveness as the ultimate exercise of Stoic mastery. The reason for this is simple: on one hand, ignoring an insult or offense is neutral at best, even slightly negative as the author would admit, for it creates frustration on the side of the offender. On the other hand, genuine forgiveness, although tremendously challenging for the one who received the offense and arguably rare, has the power to deliver a transforming epiphany to the offender. In other words, forgiveness could be the ultimate act of Neostoicism, and is positively viral by nature, therefore should be practiced whenever possible.
I am now sitting on a plane on my way back home. Practicing negative visualization, I realize how fortunate I am that the previous three legs of my trip were completed without any incidents. And while I contemplate the prospect of the plane crashing before we make it back to SFO, I know in my heart that I am living a good life now, at this very moment (carpe diem). I realize that I shared through these lines more than I expected to, and that it does not make me a proper stealth Stoic as advocated in Irvine's book, but I also know that many of the ideas he brought back to life were born through Socratic debate. I simply wish to contribute to the discussion, with as much innocence that my ignorance will afford me.
Tonight, I found my way (in a Taoist sense), and this brings me joy.
101 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on March 12, 2011
In `A Guide to the Good Life' William Irvine makes a case for Stoicism in the modern Western world. A short popular work, the text does not presuppose or require prior acquaintance with philosophy in general or stoicism in particular. The following comments are offered for potential readers.
First a few words with respect to context. Along with Epicureanism and Cynicism Stoicism was a well-known school of Greek philosophy in the ancient world that thrived for many centuries. Stoicism is often divided into three periods, Early Stoicism (Zeno and Chrysippus), Middle Stoicism (Panaetius and Posidonis) and Late Stoicism (Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius). Irvine's book centered on the latter Roman period which has a pragmatic rather than theoretical focus; at least the extant texts are skewed in this direction. With the exception of some occasional pockets of resurgence Stoicism vanished from the intellectual landscape in the early centuries of the Common Era.
While I appreciate stoicism and think that it has something to offer to contemporary society, I have mixed feelings about this text. On the positive side Irvine writes in a manner that is accessible to a broad non-academic audience and as such may expose Stoicism to readers that it might not otherwise reach. His observations, while overly general, regarding the superficial and commercial nature of modern Western society are worth noting and likely to resonate with reflective readers. Additionally he does an adequate job of introducing and discussing some Stoic techniques for dealing the challenges of life (e.g. desire, anxiety and anger), and attempts to dispel the stereotype of stoics as cold and joyless people. Finally, while not a major aspect of the book, I enjoyed his critic of modern psychologically. These comments were necessary given that stoic and modern psychological presuppositions are often in disagreement. Time will tell, however, I agree with Irvine that Stoicism is as at least as likely to be true as aspects of modern psychology - perhaps more likely.
With regard to drawbacks the book's greatest weakness is that in naturalizing stoicism the author fundamentally changes and undermines this ancient philosophy. Irvine is a committed naturalist and in order for Stoicism to fit his worldview he needs to expunge its supernaturalism. What results from such an exercise does not seem to be Stoicism. Stoicism is anchored in a supernatural worldview; it is a pantheistic philosophy that understands human agents to be part of God. As a consequence of this supposition Stoics posit that there is value, purpose and hope in life. Divorced from its metaphysical underpinnings Stoicism seems to be just another example of feel good pop psychology. This is not intended as a particular critic of naturalism, but merely to point out that in a naturalistic worldview the Stoic belief in objective value and purpose is simply misguided.
Overall, while not a terrible little book, it is probably a pass for most readers seeking an introduction to Stoicism. Instead, I would recommend that readers access Stoic thinkers directly; Seneca's letters, Epictetus' Manual and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations are all readable and widely available. With regard to Latter Stoicism "Epictetus' by leading Stoic scholar A.A. Long is also especially good.
97 of 103 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2009
For the most part, reading contemporary philosophy is a bit like watching a rabid dog chase its tail: round and round it turns, growling here, nipping there, until exhausted it collapses in the same place it began, upon a sorry bed of deconstructed words, free-floating signifiers "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Ironically, philosophy has perhaps never been more sorely needed than now, and those who are skeptical of facile religious answers, and distrustful of scientific "theories of everything" (as String Theory claims to be), find themselves seemingly alone to contemplate life's most demanding questions. In this bleak scenario, William Irvine's book represents a timely exception, filling in a void and lighting a candle in an otherwise dark library.
Irvine's book works on many levels. In part, it is a manifesto, a call to arms--an insistence that philosophy address life's most important questions--about life, death, responsibility, etc.; in part, it is an attempt to revitalize interest in the offerings of a philosophical school that has been wrongly neglected, and as such it serves as a great introduction to its most important thinkers; and in part it is a guide, a personal look at how philosophy, particularly stoic philosophy, can empower a person.
The book will appeal to a large audience; indeed, the title and subtitle could easily be reversed. That is, one could read this book as a guide to the good life (without the ten-step pop-psychology), or, one might just as easily read it as an overview of "the ancient art of joy," a look at how the ancients dealt with problems similar to those which we face today, and how they found meaning and happiness despite (or even thanks to) them.
The Stoics have much to teach us in part because they lived in a period not unlike our own: as Rollo May, the existentialist psychologist, points out, "After the Golden Age of classical Greece, when the myths and symbols gave the citizen armor against inner conflict and self-doubts, we come down to the third and second centuries B.C.". The old myths and political ideals were collapsing and giving rise to doubt, anxiety, angst. This would continue for several centuries and carry over to the Romans. Just like they had gladiator sports, we have reality TV. This, of course, is a gross oversimplification, but it is worth mentioning because the Stoics, much more so than the representatives of current philosophical trends, provide us with tools to face the challenges of our time.
The book is divided into four sections, the richest of which are the second, "Stoic Psychological Techniques," and the third, "Stoic Advice." The table of contents is available, so I won't list the chapters. Suffice it to say, they address life's concerns--grief, anger, death and aging, personal values, etc.... Where Irvine's book really distinguishes itself is in its ability to synthesize the ideas of the Stoics into a coherent and orderly guide. Anyone who has read Marcus Aurelius has certainly found much to treasure, but as the book was a sort of diary, it jumps about, and so his thoughts on the nature of the universe, for example, are peppered throughout. Irvine does an excellent job of sifting through these rich texts and compiling the insights of the Stoics according to themes, in a way that is immediately accessible and stimulating.
In the final section of his book, "Stoicism for Modern Lives," Irvine is tempered but explicit in his critique of modern psychology and counseling. Stoicism teaches us to face and overcome life's greatest challenges; often, contemporary counseling does not. Instead, it encourages victimhood or prescribes a feel-good drug. Here, too, TV is a good indicator. With thousands of veterans returning from the Middle East with PTSD, the book is again a timely corrective to our contemporary milieu. "It would be bad enough," Irvine says, "if grief counseling were simply ineffective. In some cases, though, such counseling seems to intensify and prolong people's grief ... it is the psychological equivalent of picking at the scab on a wound." Here, too, Stoicism represents an intelligent and ethical alternative.
Reading Irvine's book is a pleasure: jargon-free, personal and intelligent, it is an example of what philosophy can be and ought to be. Readers will also find the suggested reading list and bibliography helpful. Highly recommended.
62 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2009
Stoicism in two words: Stop whining!
This is a simple and clear introduction to this great philosophy. It might have been too simple for me. I've been reading ancient philosophy for decades and found myself skipping ahead as I found that there were too many pages spent explaining what I thought was obvious. An easy to read companion to newcomers.
Notice: This printing is poorly done. Several pages are repeated in the book. That's not the author's fault. It's the publisher's.
Stoicism advises people to:
1) Stop whining; it accomplishes nothing.
2) Accept what you can't change in people, life, and society. You have very little control over the world; get used to it.
3) Count the blessings that you have and stop yearning for what you don't have.
4) Learn to control your negative emotions by studying their causes which are actually in your internal perception of events rather than the external events themselves.
5) Do your duty; a civilized society depends on it.
6) Put up with deprivation now and then so you do not get used to extravagances which may be taken from you one day.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Like many Westerners, I have always been attracted to the tranquility and detachment which are the hallmarks of Zen Buddhism. Yet when it comes down to the actual practice of Zen Buddhism, I fail miserably. I find that I am too analytical for Zen practice. Alas, I have become reconciled to the fact that Buddhist enlightment is a goal that I will never attain.
So it was with great pleasure that I started reading about Stoicism. It is a Western philosophical tradition that shares Buddhisms goal of achieving a state of tranquility. "A Guide to the Good Life" is a well written introduction to practice of Stoicism. Having finished this book, I look forward to discovering the wisdom of Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelias. Recommended.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on September 21, 2009
In this well written and thoughtful exposition of Stoicism, William Irvine not only explains the major ideas of the Stoics in their historical context, but he provides persuasive arguments in favor of this most practical of philosophies. In Stoicism, Irvine has found the West's answer to Buddhism, a philosophy of enlightened happiness through a studied detachment which is more compatible with rationalism and responsive to analytical inquiry than is its mystical Eastern counterpart. At the same time, Irvine positions Stoicism as a set of practical therapeutic tools which in many ways anticipate contemporary cognitive behavioral therapy, but go beyond that to provide a coherent philosophy of living. As I will note below, however, Irvine weakens the Stoic message by re-framing it in relativistic and evolutionary terms.
Irvine is quick to point out that Stoicism is often misundertood as a philosophy of emotional coldness, restraint and asceticism, based on the connotation associated with the contemporary meaning of "small-s" stoicism. He positions the Stoics as midway between the ascetic Cynics of old, and the hedonistic Cyrenaics. In short, the Stoics embraced life's pleasures but counseled its adherents on how to avoid craving or clinging to pleasures, and showed them how to overcome anger and the sting of insults by a series of practical techniques.
Irvine believes that the most effective of these techniques involve meditative techniques such as negative visualization (imaging the worst to appreciate what one has), fatalism about the past and events outside one's control, and developing a sense of humor about insults. However, I actually found the best ideas to involve changes in how one actually lives, not just in how one thinks. Specifically, I found that the most useful and compelling ideas in Chapter 7, on "Self-Denial: On Dealing with the Dark Side of Pleasure". The Stoics did not shun worldly goods and pleasures or embrace discomfort out of masochism or to pursue spiritual atonement or purification, as has been urged by religious ascetics. Rather, they advocated occasional and deliberate use of temporary poverty, voluntary discomfort, and refraining from pleasures in order to better appreciate their situation in life, to quiet their appetites for material goods and sensual pleasures, and -- most importantly -- to harden themselves against future misfortune and develop the courage to take on difficult challenges. In the final chapter of the book, Irvine notes that the strength and tranquility gained by practicing Stoicism creates a natural desire to "be tested" -- to rise to the occasion in overcoming hardships and challenges -- including helping their fellow man. I think Irvine could have expanded this chapter on Self-Denial to extend to other strengthening techniques to acheive courage. A lot of the influence of Stoicism has been in helping humans deal with extreme adversity, and such as war, imprisonment and the prospect of impending death. A contemporary example of this is James Stockdale's experience as a POW in North Vietnam. Stockdale found the writings of Epictetus to be critical to surviving those years. The character of Conrad Hensley in Tom Wolfe's "A Man in Full" very well exempflies how Stoic training prepare and give one the courage to face life-threatening "tests" that arise, in ways one could never anticipate. I wish Irvine had explored this aspect of Stoicism more.
There are a few sections of the book I found less than convincing. In Chaper 9, "On Duty", Irvine notes that the Stoics were socially and civically active and had a sense of public duty, and he tries to derive this duty from the fact that humans are social animals, but the argument is not well developed. I also think that Irvine's attempt to ground Stoicism in evolutionary terms -- instead of natural law -- does not succeed. He argues that our ancestors developed strong drives and fears as survival mechanisms, and that modern man -- who is less vulnerable to going hungry or become embroiled in social power struggles than his ancestors -- can pursue the goal of tranquility by learning to override his "evolutionary programming" through the application of Stoicism. This view posits Stoicism and self-discipline as contrary to human nature, as a way of overriding it. And it seems to put forth tranquility as an end in itself.
I think this misconstrues what the Stoics gave to modern man. They did not advocate tranquility as an end in itself (as Irvine seems to do), but rather identified tranquility to be the consequence of practicing their techniques of self-control and mastery of the emotions. Tranquility is valuable because it allows one to pursue to the good life -- the virtues -- freely and without distraction. The question returns to the ultimate one: what are you going to do with your tranquility, your freedom, your self-discipline? The Stoics and Greeks had a lot to say about ultimate ends. Despite claims to the contrary, Irvine also adopts a somewhat relativist perspective, arguing that Stoicism may be an appropriate philosophy of life for people with certain temperaments, but may not work for everyone, particulary "malcontents" or people who go through life on "evolutionary autopilot". On this point, Irvine lets us down, because in fact all of us -- particularly if we are temporarily malcontent or on autopilot - can become happier and flourish if we take the Stoic truths to heart.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2009
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
As a public librarian, I see countless popular philosophy books pass my way. Most of these works are terrible. Mr. Irvine's, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, is a wonderful exception. I find it to be the best layman's introduction to Stoicism that I have ever read. The reader will discover a good review of general Stoic doctrines coupled with advice to implement the philosophy in his or her life.
See also Mr. Irvine's other work, On Desire: Why We Want What We Want, which further develops themes examined in A Guide to the Good Life...
I eagerly await Mr. Irvine's next book.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2008
William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life" is a rare treat, a book from an academic philosopher that can actually help you improve your life. Irvine explains the ancient stoic way of life in a manner suited to the modern, non-academic reader. The result is a philosophy that will help you overcome suffering and achieve tranquility. While stoicism may not be the ideal way of life for everyone, Irvine's book will at the very least prompt everyone who reads it to consider what way of life may be best for them.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2009
Dr. Irvine presents Stoicism in its own context from the Roman period (which is the one where the ethics are more clearly developed, although it doesn't deal with the virtue and proto-physics of the Greek Stoics) and then puts it in a modern psychologized and evolutionary context.
First, this book is wonderfully layman friendly. He doesn't use the exact Greek and Roman terms. He doesn't discuss apatheia, prohairesis, and sunkatathesis. Dr. Irvine discusses tranquility, virtue, and reason. Dr. Irvine also uses some sound psychology in talking about hedonic adaption and how it leads to anhedonia--or, in short, how the more desires you have, the more you fullfill them, the less the things you lusted over make you happy.
The there are a good fifty pages devoted to putting Stoicism in its context, including all the Zeus-driven bits that alienate atheists and agnostics like me. Dr. Irvine, however, makes a fairly convincing polemic that Stoic philosophy is perfectly consistent with an evolutionary worldview and nontheistic elements.
The majority of the book is devoted to various psychological techniques that are designed to head off hedonic adaption. Or, as I like to call, "how to shoot the alcoholic, nymphomaniac, shopping-addicted inner-voice in the head." These include fatalism in regards to the past and present, negative visualization, voluntary discomfort, and delaying gratification. Irvine develops these from the writings of Seneca the Younger, Marcus Aerilius, and Epictetus. Dr. Irvine also puts these in a modern context and admits the difficulties of many of the techniques in modern culture.
If there are explicit flaws in the book, it could be that it is too layman-driven for people already somewhat familar with Classical philosophy and doesn't go into what the Stoics (particularly the Greek varieties) thought about politics and virtue. In fact, the Greek Stoics are largely ignored after the historical chapters in the beginning of the book. These faults will annoy people with my background, but I don't think we are the primary audience for this book.
I think if you want to take internal moral philosophy more seriously and perhaps attempt to slow hedonic adaption, this is a good book to start with. Dr. Irvine may not convince you to become a full blown Stoic, but he will have you take the classical philosophers of lifestyles much more seriously. It also gets a rationalist framework for ethics--including how to drive your own mind--in a way that does not demand either an explicit political OR theological point of view.