Alexandre Lim

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyBy Irvine William B.

This book resonates a lot with me. Stoicism is an intriguing philosophy of life to adopt. Particularly in our current fast pacing society driven by unhealthy consumerism. Is there a way to go through all this madness? Maybe Stoicism could help you. It's worth giving a try.


What, then, should those seeking a philosophy of life do? Perhaps their best option is to create for themselves a virtual school of philosophy by reading the works of the philosophers who ran the ancient schools.

I think the philosophy of life a person should choose depends on her personality and circumstances.

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.

To be virtuous is to live as we were designed to live; as Zeno put it, it is to live in accordance with nature. The Stoics would add that if we do this, we will have a good life.

The primary ethical goal of the Greek Stoics was the attainment of virtue. The Roman Stoics retained this goal, but we find them also repeatedly advancing a second goal: the attainment of tranquility.

Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.

“BEGIN EACH DAY by telling yourself: 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.” — Marcus Aurelius.

“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.” — Marcus Aurelius.

Humans are largely unhappy because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely 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.

One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.

The easiest way to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.

Spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value.

When the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out those activities. In particular, they don’t want us to stop thinking about or planning for tomorrow; instead, they want us to remember to appreciate today as we think about and plan for tomorrow.

The important thing to realize is that Stoicism is by no means a rich person’s philosophy.

One other thing to realize: Although they offer downtrodden people advice on how to make their existence more tolerable, the Stoics are by no means in favor of keeping these people in their state of subjugation. The Stoics would work to improve their external circumstances, but at the same time, they would suggest things they could do to alleviate their misery until those circumstances were improved.

Hedonic adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them. Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation, we can revitalize our capacity for joy.

To be able to be satisfied with little is not a failure; it is a blessing—if, at any rate, what you seek is satisfaction.

It is a mistake to think Stoics will spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes. Instead, they will do it periodically: A few times each day or a few times each week, a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him.

To practice negative visualization is to contemplate the impermanence of the world around us.

Negative visualization teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and extract every bit of delight from it. But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us. It teaches us to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.

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. This recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.

Your primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.

Whenever we desire something that is not up to us, our tranquility will likely be disturbed: If we don’t get what we want, we will be upset, and if we do get what we want, we will experience anxiety in the process of getting it.

“Some things aren’t up to us”: We should take it to mean that there are things over which we don’t completely control.

Stoics will concern themselves with things over which they have complete control and things over which they have some but not complete control. And when they concern themselves with things in this last category, they will be careful to set internal rather than external goals for themselves. They will thereby avoid a considerable amount of frustration and disappointment.

In their advocacy of fatalism, the Stoics were advising us to be fatalistic, not with respect to the future but with respect to the past and present.

Stoic philosophy, while teaching us to be satisfied with whatever we’ve got, also counsels us to seek certain things in life.

The Stoics welcomed a degree of discomfort in their life.

We must take care to prevent pains and pleasures from overwhelming our rational capacity.

Whereas the ordinary person embraces pleasure, the sage enchains it; whereas the ordinary person thinks pleasure is the highest good, the sage doesn’t think it is even a good; whereas the ordinary person does everything for the sake of pleasure, the sage does nothing.

Stoics discovered 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. By practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.

Epictetus thinks the admiration of other people is a negative barometer of our progress as Stoics: “If people think you amount to something, distrust yourself.”

Stoics differ in which aspect of the practice of Stoicism they find to be most challenging.

A good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so to serve the public interest.

“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about these things.” — Epictetus.

Do the things that happen to me help or harm me? It all depends, say the Stoics, on my values. They would go on to remind me that my values are things over which I have complete control. Therefore, if something external harms me, it is my fault: I should have adopted different values.

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

Refusing to respond to an insult is one of the most effective responses possible. For one thing, as Seneca points out, our nonresponse can be quite disconcerting to the insulter, who will wonder whether or not we understood his insult. Furthermore, we are robbing him of the pleasure of having upset us, and he is likely to be upset as a result.

According to Seneca, there are times when it is appropriate for us to respond vigorously to an insult.

The best way to deal with insults directed at the disadvantaged, Epictetus would argue, is not to punish those who insult them but to teach members of disadvantaged groups techniques of insult self-defense.

By engaging in retrospective negative visualization, Seneca thinks, we can replace our feelings of regret at having lost something with feelings of thanks for once having had it.

We need to remember that just because things don’t turn out the way we want them to, it doesn’t follow that someone has done us an injustice.

The claim is that because two opposite thoughts cannot exist in one mind simultaneously, the wholesome thought will drive out the unwholesome one.

Stoics value their freedom, they are reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them.

When, as a result of being exposed to luxurious living, people become hard to please, a curious thing happens. 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.”

“The man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum is the truly rich man.” — Seneca.

Lao Tzu observed that “he who knows contentment is rich.”

Stoicism does not require her to renounce wealth; it allows her to enjoy it and use it to benefit herself and those around her. It does, however, require her enjoyment to be thoughtful.

It is permissible to be a wealthy Buddhist, as long as you don’t cling to your wealth.

In his consolations, Seneca said, “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.”

They were convinced that what stands between most of us and happiness is not our government or the society in which we live but defects in our philosophy of life—or our failing to have a philosophy at all.

The Stoics would add that 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.

The Stoics are not alone in claiming that our best hope of gaining happiness is to live not a life of self-indulgence but a life of self-discipline and, to a degree, self-sacrifice.

Who, then, should give Stoicism a try? Someone who, to begin with, seeks tranquility.

What works for one person might not work for another with different personalities and circumstances. When it comes to philosophies of life, no one size fits all.

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

As a Stoic novice, you will want to practice internalizing your goals to become proficient in applying the trichotomy of control.

In your practice of Stoicism, you will also want, in conjunction with applying the trichotomy of control, to become a psychological fatalist about the past and the present—but not about the future.

But I have found that the more you think about and understand anger, the easier it is to control it.

Programs of voluntary discomfort are best left to “advanced Stoics.”

Why is self-discipline worth possessing? Because those who possess it can 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, and as a result, there is a very real danger that they will mislive.

Lifestyle simplification is a process best left to “advanced Stoics.”

Although I have not been practicing Stoicism for very long, I have discovered in myself a desire to have my Stoicism tested.

Although I may have tamed my negative emotions, I have not eradicated them, nor is it likely that I ever will. I am nevertheless delighted to have deprived these emotions of some of the power they used to have over me.

We live in a world in which, no matter what you do, you might be making a mistake.

I think one of the biggest mistakes many people make is having no philosophy of life at all.

Last Updated

July 20th, 2022