A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine

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My Rating: 6/10
Published or Updated On: 
November 15, 2022

Big Picture Thoughts

My first book on Stoicism, it introduced me to a philosophy that would radically improve my life. It's a good one to start with, but should be followed up with How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.

The Main Ideas

  1. Stoicism is a philosophical set of tools and perspectives designed to give you greater tranquility in life.
  2. Negative visualization is the most powerful Stoic tool.
  3. Practicing Stoicism can improve your relationships, emotional life, and resiliency.

Summary Notes

Stoicism is about building resiliency in life towards negative events while learning to discover joy in every day living. Stoicism is a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life. Stoicism helps prevent you finding at the end of your life that you have mis-lived because you lacked a philosophy of life by which to abide and instead pursued the same enlightened hedonism as many people today. Irvine believes that achieving Tranquility by way of reason while doing your duty to your fellow human is living virtuously and therefore a Good Life.

Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.

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.


Irvine these tools were ahead of their time, the same way Native Americans chewed bark for pain relief though they didn’t understand the chemical action.

Negative visualization

This exercise serves dual function: first and foremost, it defeats hedonic adaptation and creates appreciation for that which we already have. Secondly, it creates resilience by helping to reduce impact if bad things do actually happen.

Trichotomy of control

Things that are entirely within your control (your values, your actions) are easy to manage and work on: goals, values, character. There is no point worrying about things outside of your control. Things partly in your control you may set goals for, but set internal goals — not only to protect yourself from unforeseen circumstance, but also to actually give you the best chance of achieving those goals.

Voluntary discomfort

Can be thought of as a vaccine to create an immunity that could protect us from a debilitating illness some time in the future. Willpower is like a muscle, the more practiced, the more developed. Abstinence itself can create pleasure.


The idea here is to be a spectator to your own life and to provide advice to yourself. Look at your actions, motives, and values. Look at if you are being governed by reason or instinct.

Signs of progress


Love Humankind

Other people are the cause of most of the negative emotions we experience. They are also the source of some of the greatest delights life has to offer, such as love and friendship. And by working “with and for our fellow men”, as Marcus Aurelius said, we will enjoy a good life.

Put Up with Put-Downs

When insulted, pause to consider whether what the insulter said is true. If it is, there is little reason to be upset with what is self-evident. For example, it’s not an insult if someone mocks you for being bald, when in fact you are bald.

Remember that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies the insult.

“When a dog barks, we might make a mental note that the dog in question appears to dislike us, but we would be utter fools to allow ourselves to become upset by this fact, to go through the rest of the day thinking, ‘Oh, dear! That dog doesn’t like me!’”

“Remember,” says Epictetus, “that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting.” Counter with humor, questioning his competence as an insulter by highlighting your far greater faults. The best response is none at all.

On Luxurious Living

The real danger is that if we are exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, we might lose our ability to take delight in simple things. We become hard to please and celebrate our newly-found inability to enjoy “anything but the best”. In reality, of course, this simply impairs our ability to enjoy life.

A Good End to a Good Life

By contemplating their own death, Stoics fully understand that their days are numbered and seek the most out of life.

Those who have lived without a coherent philosophy in life, however, might want to delay death, so they can claim back the value they’ve wasted

Misc Quotes

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

“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.”

“Negative visualization 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.”

“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.”

“We should love all of our dear ones …, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.” —Seneca

“When dealing with an annoying person, it also helps to keep in mind that our annoyance at what he does will almost invariably be more detrimental to us than whatever it is he is doing.”

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

Irvine on social fatalism: “In our dealings with others, we should operate on the assumption that they are fated to behave in a certain way.”

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