A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine
Written by Ashley Kelmore, Posted in Reviews
This book took me forever to get through. It is gift-book sized and has fewer than 300 pages, but it was a slog. Some of the information was interesting, for sure, but if Professor Irvine’s understanding of Stoicism is correct, there are definitely a few things that I definitely disagree with.
The book starts with a bit of a background on Stoicism, and how it is misunderstood. Since we commonly use the word stoic to mean unemotional and humorless, Prof. Irvine argues that this is not what the Stoics were all about. They can control their emotions, and try not to waste energy on things beyond their control, but at the same time they still experience joy.
The goal for the Stoics is tranquility, and it is achieved through a few different tactics. One is negative visualization, which is where you picture the things you love going away. The goal is to appreciate them while you have them, yet recognizing that at some point they will be gone. It might seem a little dark, but I kind of get it.
Another tactic is focusing our desires on things within our control. We should be able to identify what is totally outside of our control and never worry about that. We should instead focus on things that are wholly within our control (what we do) and somewhat within out control. So instead of creating a goal of being the best X in the world (which is outside of our control), we should focus on being the X we can be. Then if we aren’t the best X in the world we will know its because of things we couldn’t change anyway. That, too, seems useful.
There’s an air of fatalism in Stoicism. There’s also a weird sort of libertarian / Scientology component. At least, that’s the best way I could describe it. I spent on chapter just infuriated by this white guy talking about how most people are unhappy because they let themselves be unhappy, and they should just not let the external world get to them. He laments being politically correct which, if you’ve read some of my other book reviews or comments on Pajiba, you know is the quickest way to get me to stop taking you seriously. If you think being respectful of other people is somehow a bad thing, or that we shouldn’t ask people to be responsible for how their actions and words affect others, then we don’t really have much to say to each other.
There are some things in here that are helpful, and I might try to incorporate into my life philosophy, but I’m certainly not interested in his version of Stoicism.