Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
© 2009 William Irvine
314 pages


Last year when I began to examine Stoicism in depth, having found strength in the works of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, I read or attempted to read various introductions to the philosophy. I was unable to find a truly useful guide: the accessible books were highly technical and intended for an audience well-versed in academic philosophy. While I was able to understand more about Stoicism’s history and context, I found nothing that truly added to the primary sources – nothing that knit what I understood already and shed light on what I did not.  William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life is the book I was looking for. I have not yet encountered a better introduction to Stoicism:Like Alain de Botton and Epictetus before him, Irvine brings philosophy to the level of everyday life and does so in a thorough, emimiently readable, and fair-minded style.

            Irvine begins by establishing context, explaining what philosophy is, why it was important to the classical world, and why it is still of use today. He differentiates academic and applied philosophy, and makes it clear that he believes philosophy ought to be used to help people live more fully.  He then introduces Stoicism proper, giving a history of the various Stoic teachers and famous practitioners. He focuses on Roman Stoicism particularly, given that the works of four -- Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus -- constitute the only surviving primary sources for understanding what the Stoics thought and how they lived.

 After this introductory portion of the book, Irivine examines how Stoic attitudes changed the way these people understood and responded to the world, devoting next sixteen chapters focus on Stoic attitudes, psychological techniques, beliefs, and practices. These range from the general (understanding Epictetus' "dichtomy of control") to the specific (handling insults). He gleans these concepts from the primary sources, but attempts to justify them through his and other's experiences. I remain dubious about some of them, but I'm hardly an orthodox Stoic. Irvine often draws connections between Stoicism's ideas and practices and those of other thought-systems, particularly the Zen Buddhism he espoused earlier in his life. If the book had stopped there, it would have been pretty good, but it gets better. The last part of the book sees Irvine give Stoicism a naturalistic rather than a theological justification and discuss the problems and benefits of living Stoically in the modern world. Grounding Stoicism in the natural is necessary, given that few people would accept Stoic theology and physics today.  What this does is turn around Stoicism's approach, as we are often fighting nature instead of following it. Because human nature was not created for our happiness in mind, we have to subvert the plans of what Richard Dawkins calls our "selfish genes".

This is the best book on Stoicism I've yet read, and I doubt I'll ever read a better practical introduction to the philosophy. I recommend it highly.


  1. Now isn't *that* weird..... I'm 50 pages from finishing this book & was going to recommend it to you!


  2. Great minds? ;)

    I spent a week trying to finish the review -- although now I'm glad I did. I should've waited a few more days so the book appeared on both our blogs at the same time! ;)

  3. I have at least four books ahead of it to review so it'll be a while yet. It would've been very funny though!

    As Sheldon (from Big Bang Theory) would no doubt say: It's what people who don't understand Large Number Theory would call a coincidence..... [grin]