Book Review: “A guide to the good life”

I forget where and when I first heard about this book. It might be through the “Tim Ferriss Show” or it could have been a recommendation from my brother. Whatever or whomever the source, all I can say is that this book is definitively worth reading.

“A guide to the good life” talks about everything surrounding Stoicism. It discusses its history; from its Greek origin to its Roman adoption. It goes over its major “influencers”; Musonius, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius amongst others. Mainly though, it’s a practical guide as to how best apply Stoicism in modern times…

“A guide to the good life” goes over various Stoic techniques to improve your “tranquility”. Examples include:

  • Negative visualization
  • Practiced poverty
  • Dealing with insults
  • Daily meditation
  • etc.

I’m always been wary of books on philosophy. I usually find them too “meta” for me. This one though is highly practical. Reading it will, in the worst case, educate you about a popular approach to view the world. In the best case though, it might change your life for the better.

The book is filled with tons of interesting ideas. I took many notes and will only reprint a portion of those here. Get the book, it’s worth it.

  • Many ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, for example, not only thought philosophies of life were worth contemplating but thought the raison d’être of philosophy was to develop them.
  • The Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling—who wishes, that is, to have a good life.
  • The Stoics realized that a life plagued with negative emotions—including anger, anxiety, fear, grief, and envy—will not be a good life.
  • 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.
  • We, humans, are unhappy in large part 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.
  • Negative visualization, in other words, teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can 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, in other words, to enjoy what we have without clinging to it.
  • A practicing Stoic will keep the trichotomy of control firmly in mind as he goes about his daily affairs. He will perform a kind of triage in which he sorts the elements of his life into three categories: those over which he has complete control, those over which he has no control at all, and those over which he has some but not complete control.
  • In particular, instead of merely thinking about what it would be like to lose our wealth, we should periodically “practice poverty”: We should, that is, content ourselves with “the scantiest and cheapest fare” and with “coarse and rough dress.”
  • TO HELP US ADVANCE our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.
  • Besides reflecting on the day’s events, we can devote part of our meditations to going through a kind of mental checklist. Are we practicing the psychological techniques recommended by the Stoics? Do we, for example, periodically engage in negative visualization? Do we take time to distinguish between those things over which we have complete control, those things over which we have no control at all, and those things over which we have some but not complete control? Are we careful to internalize our goals? Have we refrained from dwelling on the past and instead focused our attention on the future? Have we consciously practiced acts of self-denial? We can also use our Stoic meditations as an opportunity to ask whether, in our daily affairs, we are following the advice offered by the Stoics.
  • “fellowship is the purpose behind our creation.” Thus, a person who performs well the function of man will be both rational and social.
  • The Stoics, therefore, recommend that we avoid befriending people whose values have been corrupted, for fear that their values will contaminate ours. We should instead seek, as friends, people who share our (proper Stoic) values and in particular, people who are doing a better job than we are of living in accordance with these values.
  • He counsels us, for example, not to waste time speculating about what our neighbors are doing, saying, thinking, or scheming. Nor should we allow our mind to be filled with “sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other sentiments” about them that we would blush to admit.
  • He adds that if we detect anger and hatred within us and wish to seek revenge, one of the best forms of revenge on another person is to refuse to be like him.
  • keep in mind, when insulted, that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult.
  • something external harms me, it is my own fault: I should have adopted different values.
  • in retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never having had something that we have lost.
  • Reason is our best weapon against grief, he maintains, because “unless reason puts an end to our tears, fortune will not do so.”
  • Anger, says Seneca, is “brief insanity,” and the damage done by anger is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.”
  • We should, he says, fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and our tendency to jump to conclusions about their motivations.
  • we should also keep in mind that the things that anger us generally don’t do us any real harm;
  • humor can be used to prevent ourselves from becoming angry:
  • when we feel ourselves getting angry about something, we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Doing this might enable us to nip our anger in the bud.
  • Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them.
  • Epictetus, therefore, advises us not to seek social status, since if we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves.
  • If we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us.
  • Our goal should, therefore, be to become indifferent to other people’s opinions of us.
  • She must keep firmly in mind that her wealth can be snatched from her; indeed, she should spend time preparing herself for the loss of it—by, for example, periodically practicing poverty.
  • It is therefore unlikely that a Stoic will bask in any fame that comes her way. At the same time, she will not hesitate to use this fame as a tool in the performance of what she takes to be her social duty.
  • Thus, the proximity of death, rather than depressing us, can be turned to our advantage. In our youth, because we assumed that we would live forever, we took our days for granted and as a result wasted many of them. In our old age, however, waking up each morning can be a cause for celebration.
  • The most important reason for adopting a philosophy of life, though, is that if we lack one, there is a danger that we will mislive—that we will spend our lives pursuing goals that aren’t worth attaining or will pursue worthwhile goals in a foolish manner and will, therefore, fail to attain them.
  • 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.
  • Parents do lots of things for their children, but Stoic parents—and, I suspect, good parents in general—don’t think of parenting as a burdensome task requiring endless sacrifice; instead, they think about how wonderful it is that they have children and can make a positive difference in the lives of these children.
  • Stoicism, understood properly, 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. By practicing Stoic techniques, we can cure the disease and thereby gain tranquility. What I am suggesting is that although the ancient Stoics found a “cure” for negative emotions, they were mistaken about why the cure works.
  • The Stoics regarded the principles of Stoicism not as being chiseled into stone but as being molded into clay that could, within limits, be remolded into a form of Stoicism that people would find useful.
  • MY NEXT PIECE OF ADVICE for would-be Stoics is not to try to master all the Stoic techniques at once but to start with one technique and, having become proficient in it, go on to another. And a good technique to start with, I think, is negative visualization. At spare moments in the day, make it a point to contemplate the loss of whatever you value in life.
  • AFTER MASTERING negative visualization, a novice Stoic should move on to become proficient in applying the trichotomy of control, described in chapter 5. According to the Stoics, we should perform a kind of triage in which we distinguish between things we have no control over, things we have complete control over, and things we have some but not complete control over; and having made this distinction, we should focus our attention on the last two categories. In particular, we waste our time and cause ourselves needless anxiety if we concern ourselves with things over which we have no control.
  • “Nothing is worth doing pointlessly.”)

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