A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine – Book Summary


We tend to live with no balance, focusing on the negatives instead. Stoicism empowers you to shift your thinking and way of life for the better.

Date Read: 10 September 2020
My Rating: 7/10

The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The most valuable thing in life is a grand goal in life, a coherent philosophy for life. Whatever it may be (Stoicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Cynicism, Epicureanism etc) but having one is a prerequisite in living a good life and preventing us from ‘misliving’.
  2. Modern philosophers tend to spend their days debating esoteric topics, the primary goal of most ancient philosophers was to help ordinary people live better lives.
  3. Many of us have been persuaded that happiness is something that someone else, a therapist or a politician, and must confer on us. Stoicism rejects this notion. It teaches us that we are very much responsible for our happiness as well as our unhappiness.

Overall Thoughts

This is a great book for beginners who want to learn more about Stoicism and also for the practitioners of Stoicism alike who may want a refresher. The book has a clear structure and breaks down the origin, rise, decline and consequent revival of Stoicism.

Although the subject of Stoicism in itself is fascinating and when the author quotes the Stoics and their lives, he has done a tremendous job however, when he draws his own conclusions and tries to adapt the philosophy to modern life – he fails the Stoics and their teaching. The subject and the original material reference in this book is absolutely amazing however the execution of this book, not so much.

One element that really appealed to me was the author making frequent comparisons between Zen Buddhism and Stoicism. If you are anything like me and have a keen interest in Buddhism you may find these comparisons very helpful as I was able to draw from my knowledge of Buddhism and draw parallels and conclusions in Stoicism.

Who is this book for?

This book is for anyone who wants to:

  • Improve their life through the use of a coherent philosophy
  • Learn about the various philosophies for life
  • Wanting to learn the benefits of self-control and self-discipline
  • Learn how to develop a grand goal and vision for life
  • Learn how to age well and live a meaningful life

This is a great book for anyone wanting to learn about Stoicism and learning about its origin, history, main contributors, rise and decline.

Also, for someone who is well versed in Stoicism, this book has great historical stories and a clear lineage and uptake of Stoicism in the ancient world. More importantly, the book has very important Stoic lessons and practices.

Main Points & Ideas

  1. The Stoics’ interest in logic is based on their belief that a man’s distinctive feature is his rationality. According to the Stoics, man is distinguishable from all other animals by his ability to reason – so it is his duty to be reasonable.
  2. The pursuit of tranquillity
    People have this misconception that the Stoics were these anti-joy zombies who experienced no emotions however that is not the case. The Stoics realised that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life, so they develop a philosophy of life that teaches how to limit these negative emotions and pursue tranquillity.
  3. Negative Visualisation
    As the name suggests, you visualise all the bad things you are afraid can plague your life. Why you ask? For so many good reasons.
    • Negative visualisation helps us learn the value of things we already have by contemplating losing them (our kids, ability to walk and see, money, homes, cars etc). By consciouslly thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalise our capacity for joy.
    • By contemplating the death of a loved one, we can learn to be more present with them, love them and appreciate them more. Make the most of our time with them.
    • By contemplating our own death we can live life more fully. Not by going wild and #YOLO’ing but by appreciating life more and not wasting our time and being grateful for all the opportunities.
    • Negative visualisation helps us contemplate the impermanence of the world (including our own self) and it helps us deal with change.
  4. Trichotomy of control
    In life there are three types of sitautions:
    • Situations where we have complete control
      These are the things we should be doing first and foremost, these should be our primary concerns as our efforts are directly responsible for the outcomes.
    • Situations where we have no control
      Don’t waste any time thinking about or worrying over such things. If you cannot control it in any way shape or form, then let it go.
    • Situations where we have some but not total control
      Most of life exists in the realm. However, the Stoics made an important distinction; we may not have control over outcomes but we control the goals we set for ourselves. We may not control our desires and impulses but we control how and if we act upon them. Therefore the goal should not be external (for example I must win this tennis match) but should always be internal (I will play to my best ability).
  5. Self Denial
    Similar to the practice of negative visualisation the Stoics periodically practised ‘poverty’ where they purposely went hungry, thirsty, dressed down for cold weather and slept on the floor among other things. They purposely created a contrast to the comforts of life to keep reminding themselves that if they lost everything, it wouldn’t be so bad. The practice also ensured that no vices take hold over their lives and makes them its slave. Much like fasting is prescribed by many of the major religions of the world to practice austerity and experience the plight of the poor, the Stoics took it further than just food and water. Although not to please Zeus or any other god but to ensure that they don’t cling to the things they enjoy. And then they would ask themselves; is this the fate you were so afraid of?

Impacts On My Life

  1. After reading about Epictetus’s advice on avoiding social gatherings where the discussion is food, celebrities and other people – I started avoiding most such gatherings as I realised for 90% of the people this is the purpose of a gathering, to discuss current affairs, sports, cars, money and other people. These things don’t add value to my life. If I don’t hang out with you, now you know why – Epictetus told me so 🙂
  2. After incorporating Negative Visualisation into my life, I noted an increased presence in my NOW. I was more conscious about my own mortality and that of the people around me. I became more cognisant about squandering my time and trying to make the most of my (remaining) time with my wife and daughter and making a valuable contribution to their lives and the world.
  3. After learning about the Stoics’ practice of self denial and practiced poverty, I started volunteering at a homeless men’s shelter in Canberra. It was my ‘feed two birds with one scone’ idea where I could help in providing these men a safe, warm place to spend the night in the Canberra winter and at the same time, sleeping the nights with the bare minimum – sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag. This practice not only made me realise that you can make a difference no matter how small you start, but talking to some of these men also made me realise that anyone’s situation could be worse and life can turn upside down without notice – so always plan for misfortune and be prepared for it.
  4. I started looking at material objects for the utility they provide as opposed to the status they provide (car, house, clothes, jewellery, jobs etc). Everything I purchase for myself is purely for its utilitarian purpose. Hence I often struggle spending money on myself where its not a need but a want, I simply cannot justify it to myself.

Key Takeaways for Me

  1. It is important to live life by a philosophy, not a religion but a philosophy. Religions serve a different purpose. A philosophy of life is unique to me and becomes my north star.
  2. If humans are still struggling with the same questions, predicaments and conditions after almost 2000 years then there is something fundamentally wrong with how we conduct our lives, organise our societies and the value we attach to the various concepts of life.
  3. You attain wealth and fame by the virtue of your character and not by pursuit (the Stoics advocated not pursuing fame and wealth, however almost all of them turned out famous and wealthy).
  4. Nothing is worth doing pointlessly. It should either be a means to an end, or an end in itself.
  5. Be fatalistic about the past and the present. The past is gone, its done – get over it and move on. The present is happening now and will soon turn into past. I can only impact the future, so I must focus my energy there.
  6. Choose friends carefully. People have the capacity to disrupt my tranquillity so it is important to know this and be ready to deal with this. Befriend people who are doing a greater job than me in their pursuit of tranquillity and living a life of meaning – learn from them and get challenged by them. But at the same time also remember – people do not choose to have the faults that they do.
  7. Punishment, if necessary, should not originate from retribution but for the good of the wrongdoer, to prevent them from doing it again.
  8. After originally reading this book, I wrote two article and made a video on the topic of the trichotomy of control. Check them out here, here and here.

My Favourite Quotes

  • Stoicism is not so much an ethic as it is a paradoxical recipe for happiness – Paul Veyne
  • Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune – Seneca
  • All things human are short-lived and perishable – Seneca
  • 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.
  • Our most important choice in life is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal – Epictetus
  • This mortal life endures but a moment – Marcus Aurelius
  • Another person will not do you harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed – Epictetus
  • Is it not madness and the wildest lunacy to desire so much when you can hold so little? – Seneca
  • In our youth, it takes effort to contemplate our own death; in our later years, it takes effort to avoid contemplating it.
  • I always seek to conquer myself rather than fortune, to change my desires rather than the established order, and generally to believe that nothing except our thoughts is wholly under our control, so that after we have done our best in external matters, what remains to be done is absolutely impossible, at least as far as we are concerned – Descartes
  • Our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us – Seneca