Derek Sivers

Programmer, writer, avid student of life. I make useful things, and share what I learn.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy - by William Irvine

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

Amazon page for details and reviews.

Almost too personal for me to give an objective review, because I found when reading it that the quirky philosophy I've been living my life by since 17 matches up exactly with a 2000-year-old philosophy called Stoicism. Mine was self-developed haphazardly, so it was fascinating to read the refined developed original. Really resonated.

my notes

If you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.
When you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living.
Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted.

Whatever philosophy of life you adopt, you will probably have a better life than if you tried to live without a coherent philosophy of life.

Of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

Find delight in your own resources, and desire no joys greater than your inner joys.

You are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless you can overcome your insatiability.

Why is self-discipline worth possessing? Because those who possess it have the ability to determine what they do with their life. Those who lack self-discipline will have the path they take through life determined by someone or something else.

Philosophical thinking took a giant leap forward in the sixth century BC:
Pythagoras (570-500 BC) in Italy
Thales (636-546 BC), Anaximander (641-547 BC), and Heracleitus (535-475 BC) in Greece
Confucius (551-479 BC) in China
Buddha (563-483 BC) in India

Philosophers provided their pupils with a philosophy of life: They taught them what things in life were worth pursuing and how best to pursue them.

The Cynics thought people should enjoy the good things life has to offer, including friendship and wealth, but only if they did not cling to these good things. They thought we should periodically interrupt our enjoyment of what life has to offer to spend time contemplating the loss of whatever it is we are enjoying.

But if they avoided the "good things," as the Cynics did, they thereby demonstrated that the things in question really were good - were things that, if they did not hide them from themselves, they would crave.

The Stoics enjoyed whatever "good things" happened to be available, but even as they did so, they prepared themselves to give up the things in question.

The Stoics were not stoical!

Religions, after telling adherents what they must do to be morally upstanding and get into heaven, leave it to them to determine what things in life are and aren't worth pursuing. These religions see nothing wrong with an adherent working hard so he can afford a huge mansion and an expensive sports car. Adherents of the various religions, despite the differences in their religious beliefs, end up with the same impromptu philosophy of life, namely, a form of enlightened hedonism.

Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.

Hunger is the best appetizer, because if you wait until you're hungry or thirsty before you eat or drink, you'll eat simple food with greater pleasure than others do of the costliest of foods.

Parents sent their children to schools of philosophy not just so they could learn how to live well but so they could sharpen their skills of persuasion. By teaching their students logic, the Stoics were helping them develop these skills: Students who knew logic could detect the fallacies committed by others and thereby prevail over them in arguments.

We differ from other animals in one important respect: We have the ability to reason. We were designed to be reasonable.

A Stoic sage is free from vanity. He is indifferent to good or evil report. He never feels grief, since grief is an irrational contraction of the soul.

The sage is a target to aim at, even though you fail to hit it. The sage is to Stoicism as Buddha is to Buddhism. Most Buddhists can never hope to become as enlightened as Buddha, but nevertheless, reflecting on Buddha's perfection can help them gain a degree of enlightenment.

Tranquility is a psychological state in which we experience few negative emotions, such as anxiety, grief, and fear, but an abundance of positive emotions, especially joy.

Seneca explains how best to pursue tranquility. Use your reasoning ability to drive away all that excites or affrights you. If you can do this, there will ensue unbroken tranquility and enduring freedom.

A Stoic school should be like a physician's consulting room: patients should leave feeling bad rather than feeling good - the idea being that any treatment likely to cure a patient is also likely to cause him discomfort.

You rob present ills of their power if you expect them.
Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.

We're unhappy because we're insatiable. After working hard to get what we want, we lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.

The easiest way to gain happiness is to want the things you already have.

Spend time imagining that you have lost the things you value - that your wife has left you, your car was stolen, you lost your job. Doing this will make you value your wife, your car, and your job more than you otherwise would.

While kissing your child, silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow.

As we go about our day, periodically pause to reflect on the fact that you will not live forever and therefore this day could be your last.

Think about how you would feel if you lost your material possessions, including your house, car, clothing, pets, and bank balance. How you would feel if you lost your abilities, including your ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe, and swallow; and how you would feel if you lost your freedom.

You are living the dream you once had for yourself. Married to the person you once dreamed of marrying, have the children and job you once dreamed of having, and own the car you once dreamed of buying.

You are living in what to your ancestors would have been a dream world. You take for granted things that your ancestors had to live without.

An optimist sees his glass as being half full. For a Stoic, this degree of optimism would only be a starting point. After expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being completely empty, he will go on to express his delight in even having a glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen. And if he is atop his Stoic game, he might go on to comment about what an astonishing thing glass vessels are: They are cheap and fairly durable, impart no taste to what we put in them, and-miracle of miracles!-allow us to see what they contain.

There is a difference between contemplating something bad happening and worrying about it. Contemplation is an intellectual exercise. Conduct such exercises without affecting your emotions.

One father periodically contemplates the loss of his child and therefore does not take her for granted; to the contrary, he appreciates her very much.
Another father assumes that his child will always be there for him and therefore takes her for granted.

Do not over-love the things you enjoy. Be the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of fortune.

There will be a last time you hear the sound of snow falling, watch the moon rise, smell popcorn, feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms. Every time you do something could be the last time you do it, and this recognition can invest the things you do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.

It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.

Want only those things that are easy to obtain. Want only those things you can be certain of obtaining.

Gain contentment by changing ourselves - by changing our desires.

If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.

The key to having a good life is to value things that are genuinely valuable and be indifferent to things that lack value.

Any time and energy spent on events you can't control will have no effect on the outcome of events and will therefore be wasted time and energy.

Set internal rather than external goals.

Internalize your goals. Make a goal not to change the world, but to do your best to bring about certain changes. Even if your efforts prove to be ineffectual, you can rest easy knowing you accomplished your goal: You did what you could do.

Be fatalistic with respect to the past and present. Refuse to compare your situation with alternative, preferable situations in which you might have found or might now find yourself.

Be attentive to all the advantages that adorn life.

Besides contemplating bad things happening, sometimes live as if they had happened. Instead of merely thinking about what it would be like to lose your wealth, periodically practice poverty: Content yourself with cheap fare and rough dress.

Examine the things you thought you needed so you can determine which of them you can in fact live without.

If you coddle yourself and allow yourself to be corrupted by pleasure, nothing will seem bearable. Not because things are hard but because you are soft. Ensure you never get too comfortable.

Periodically experience discomfort that you could have avoided. Underdress for cold weather or go shoeless. Become thirsty or hungry, even though water and food are at hand.

Do not inflict these discomforts to punish yourself; rather, do it to increase your enjoyment of life.

Harden yourself against misfortunes that might befall you in the future. If all you know is comfort, you might be traumatized when you are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as you someday almost surely will.

If you periodically experience minor discomforts, you will grow confident that you can withstand major discomforts as well. So you won't fear experiencing such discomforts at some future time. By experiencing minor discomforts, you train yourself to be courageous.

You'll better appreciate whatever comfort you experience.

If you periodically embrace discomfort, you're more likely to be comfortable than someone who tries to avoid all discomfort. You'll have a much wider comfort zone than others and will therefore feel comfortable under circumstances that would cause others distress.

Sometimes abstain from harmless pleasures. Pass up an opportunity to drink wine - not because you fear becoming an alcoholic but so you can learn self-control.

Willpower is like muscle power: the more you exercise your will, the stronger it gets.

By practicing self-denial techniques over a long period, you can transform yourself into someone remarkable for your courage and self-control. You will be able to do things that others dread doing, and refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. You will be thoroughly in control of yourself. This self-control makes it far more likely that you will attain the goals of your philosophy of life, and this in turn dramatically increases your chances of living a good life.

Consciously abstaining from pleasure can itself be pleasant.
You will be pleased and will praise yourself.

Periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how you responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, you should have responded to them.

Shrug off all insults and slights. Also shrug off any praise.

To know how many are jealous of you, count your admirers.

Stop blaming, censuring, and praising others. Stop boasting about ourselves and how much we know. Blame yourself, not external circumstances, when your desires are thwarted.

Perform with resoluteness the duties we humans were created to perform. Nothing else should distract you. When you wake, rather than lying in bed, you must get up to do the proper work of man, the work you were created to perform.

If you do the things you were made for, you will enjoy man's true delight.

You cannot simply avoid dealing with annoying people, even though doing so would make your life easier. Nor can you capitulate to these annoying people to avoid discord. Instead, you should confront them and work for the common welfare. Show true love to the people with whom destiny has surrounded you.

Doing your social duty will give you the best chance at having a good life. This is the reward for doing one's duty: a good life.

Form a certain character and pattern for yourself when you are alone. Then, when you associate with other people, remain true to who you are.

Be selective about which social functions you attend.

You must associate with annoying, misguided, or malicious people in order to work for common interests. But be selective about whom you befriend. Avoid befriending people whose values have been corrupted, so their values won't contaminate yours. Instead seek people who share our values and in particular, people who are doing a better job than we are of living in accordance with good values. While enjoying the companionship of these individuals, work hard to learn what you can from them.

Spend time with an "unclean" person, and you will become unclean as well.

When irritated by someone's shortcomings, pause to reflect on your own shortcomings. Doing this will help you become more empathetic to this individual's faults and therefore become more tolerant of him.

Social fatalism: When dealing with others, assume they are fated to behave in a certain way. It is therefore pointless to wish they could be any other way.

The biggest risk in dealing with annoying people is that they will make you hate them, a hatred that is injurious to you. Therefore, you need to work to make sure men do not succeed in destroying your charitable feelings toward them.

The Stoics were big advocates of marriage. A wise man will marry, and having married, he and his wife will work hard to keep each other happy. In a good marriage, two people will join in a loving union and will try to outdo each other in the care they show for each other.

Consider the source of an insult. If you respect the source and value his opinions, then his critical remarks shouldn't upset you.

If you don't respect the source of an insult, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, you should feel relieved.

Take the insults of your fellow humans to be like the barking of a dog. When a dog barks, you might make a mental note that the dog appears to dislike you, but you would be a fool to become upset by this fact.

What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things.

Refusing to respond to an insult is one of the most effective responses.

Protecting disadvantaged individuals from insults will tend to make them hypersensitive to insults.

Grieving the death of his brother, Seneca writes, "Nature requires from us some sorrow, while more than this is the result of vanity."

Retrospective negative visualization: imagine never having had something that you have lost. By engaging in retrospective negative visualization, you can replace your feelings of regret at having lost something with feelings of thanks for once having had it.

Reason is our best weapon against grief, because unless reason puts an end to our tears, fortune will not do so.

Responding to the grief of friends by also grieving is as foolish as helping someone who has been poisoned by also taking poison.

We are bad men living among bad men, and only one thing can calm us: we must agree to go easy on one another.

People mistakenly pursue fame. Some want to be known around the world. Some seek regional fame or popularity within their social circle or recognition in their chosen profession. Almost everyone seeks the admiration of friends and neighbors.

The price of fame is so high that it far outweighs any benefits.

Don't seek social status, since if you make it your goal to please others, you will no longer be free to please yourself. You will have enslaved yourself.

Dealing with other people, be indifferent to what they think of us. Be consistent in your indifference. Be as dismissive of approval as you are of disapproval.

Cato consciously did things to trigger the disdain of other people simply so he could practice ignoring their disdain.

Not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself.

If you are exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, you might lose your ability to take delight in simple things.

Being exposed to luxurious living, people become hard to please. But rather than mourning the loss of their ability to enjoy simple things, they take pride in their newly gained inability to enjoy anything but "the best."

People who achieve luxurious lifestyles are rarely satisfied: Experiencing luxury only whets their appetite for even more luxury.

Dress to protect our bodies, not to impress other people. Likewise, our housing should be functional.

Imagine what it would be like to be old. The abilities you once took for granted will have departed. You used to run for miles; now you get winded walking down the hallway. You used to handle the finances of a corporation; now you can't even balance your checkbook.

The most delightful time of life is when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the abrupt decline.

In your youth, because you assumed that you would live forever, you take your days for granted and as a result wasted many of them. In old age, however, waking up each morning can be a cause for celebration.

Having a coherent philosophy of life can make you more accepting of death. With a coherent philosophy of life you'll know what in life is worth attaining, and because you spent time trying to attain the thing in life you believe to be worth attaining, you have probably attained it, to the extent that it was possible for you to do so. Consequently, when it comes time for you to die, you will not feel cheated.

Those who have lived without a coherent philosophy of life, though, will desperately want to delay death. Because their improvised philosophy of life has convinced them that what is worth having in life is more of everything, and they cannot get more of everything if they die.

Someone who thinks he will live forever is far more likely to waste his days than someone who fully understands that his days are numbered.

We would also be better off...
if, instead of working hard to become wealthy, we trained ourselves to be satisfied with what we have
if, instead of seeking fame, we overcame our craving for the admiration of others
if, instead of spending time scheming to harm someone we envy, we spent that time overcoming our feelings of envy
if, instead of knocking ourselves out trying to become popular, we worked to maintain and improve our relationships with those we knew to be true friends.

Learn how to enjoy things without feeling entitled to them and without clinging to them.

Thoreau was interested in developing a philosophy of life. Always the practical question: How best can I live my daily life?

When people experience personal catastrophes, it is perfectly natural to experience grief. After this bout of reflexive grief, though, a Stoic will try to dispel whatever grief remains in him by trying to reason it out of existence. He will invoke the kinds of arguments Seneca used in his consolations: "Is this what the person who died would want me to do? Of course not! She would want me to be happy! The best way to honor her memory is to leave off grieving and get on with life."

Because grief is a negative emotion, the Stoics opposed it. At the same time, they realized that because we are mere mortals, some grief is inevitable in the course of a lifetime, as are some fear, some anxiety, some anger, some hatred, some humiliation, and some envy. The goal of the Stoics was therefore not to eliminate grief but to minimize it.

The first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances.
The second step in transforming a society is to change people's external circumstances.

If we fail to transform ourselves, then no matter how much we transform the society in which we live, we are unlikely to have a good life.

If you had gone to Epictetus and said, "I want to live a good life. What should I do?" he would have had an answer for you: "Live in accordance with nature." He would then have told you, in great detail, how to do this.

If you went to a 20-century analytic philosopher and asked the same question, he probably would have responded not by answering the question you asked but by analyzing the question itself: "The answer to your question depends on what you mean by "a good life," which in turn depends on what you mean by "good" and "a life." He might then walk you through all the things you could conceivably mean in asking how to live a good life and explain why each of these meanings is logically muddled.

His conclusion: It makes no sense to ask how to live a good life. When this philosopher had finished speaking, you might be impressed with his flair for philosophical analysis, but you might also conclude, with good reason, that he himself lacked a coherent philosophy of life.

Philosophies of life have two components: They tell us what things in life are and aren't worth pursuing, and they tell us how to gain the things that are worth having.

If you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

We gained the ability to walk because our ancestors who had this ability were more likely to survive and reproduce than those who didn't, and yet some people use this ability to climb Mount Everest, an activity that distinctly reduces their chances of surviving.

Just as we can "misuse" our ability to hear or walk-use these abilities, that is, in a way that has nothing to do with the survival and reproduction of our species-we can misuse our ability to reason.
In particular, we can use it to circumvent the behavioral tendencies that have been programmed into us by evolution.

We can use our reasoning ability to conclude that many of the things that our evolutionary programming encourages us to seek, such as social status and more of anything we already have, may be valuable if our goal is simply to survive and reproduce, but aren't at all valuable if our goal is instead to experience tranquility while we are alive.

It's now possible to survive despite having low social status; even if others despise us, the law prevents them from taking our food from us or driving us from our home. Furthermore, low social status is no longer an impediment to reproduction; indeed, in many parts of the world, men and women with low social status have higher rates of reproduction than men and women with high social status. If our goal is not merely to survive and reproduce but to enjoy a tranquil existence, the pain associated with a loss of social status isn't just useless, it is counterproductive.

Consider our insatiability: As we have seen, our evolutionary ancestors benefited from wanting more of everything, which is why we today have this tendency. But our insatiability, if we do not take steps to bridle it, will disrupt our tranquility; instead of enjoying what we already have, we will spend our life working hard to gain things we don't have, in the sadly mistaken belief that once we have them, we will enjoy them and search no further. What we must do, again, is misuse our intellect. Instead of using it to devise clever strategies to get more of everything, we must use it to overcome our tendency toward insatiability.

Stoicism is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear, and various other negative emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence.

Engage in negative visualization each night at bedtime.

After mastering negative visualization, a novice Stoic should move on to become proficient in applying the trichotomy of control.

Do your best to accept the past, whatever it might have been, and to embrace the present, whatever it might be.

Refuse to spend time engaging in "if only" thoughts about the past and present.

Whenever you undertake an activity in which public failure is a possibility, you are likely to experience butterflies in your stomach. Since becoming a stoic, I have become a collector of insults. I have also become a collector of butterflies.

A calm life is actually disquieting because we are unaware of whether we would remain strong in the case of a tempest.

The biggest mistake, the one made by a huge number of people, is to have no philosophy of life at all. These people feel their way through life by following the promptings of their evolutionary programming, by assiduously seeking out what feels good and avoiding what feels bad. By doing this, they might have a comfortable life or even a life filled with pleasure. The question remains, however, whether they could have a better life by turning their back on their evolutionary programming and instead devoting time and energy to acquiring a philosophy of life.

Visit my author website ( for information on how to obtain a copy of Cynthia King's translation of Musonius's works.