Skip to main content

A Guide to a Good Life


Author: William B. Irvine, Book link: Amazon

Having a Philosophy of life #

A philosophy of life is the grand goal of living and ways to attain it.

Try answering the following two questions, can you notice a difference:

  1. What do you want in life?
  2. What do you want out of life?

Many people have no problem answering the first: a big house, a fancy car, a happy family, etc. Fewer people can answer the second question in equal confidence. Most people know their wants and needs by the minute, or even by the decades, and often mistake these fleeting desires as their life goals.

The absence of a coherent philosophy of life leaves us vulnerable to the many distractions in life that lead us to squander our life on things of minute importance instead of pursuing things of real value.

Having a philosophy of life, whichever we choose, is usually better than not having one at all. Stoicism or any other philosophy of life may not be for everyone. But whatever philosophy of life a person adopts, he or she will probably have a better life than most people who never do.

A default philosophy of life in the modern age is enlightened hedonism: a mixture of affluence, status and pleasure. We subconsciously try to play the games everyone is playing, trying to maximize how much money we make, climb as high as possible at our jobs we refer to as “careers”, and exchange the products of the former two for mostly physical and ephemeral pleasures. There is nothing inherently wrong with affluence, status and pleasure, but ask ourselves: are these we really value, are these the primary things we want out of life?

Living a good life #

A life plagued by negative emotions – anger, fear, envy, grief, anxiety – will not be a good life.

History of pre-Socrates philosophy #

Pre-Socrates philosophy focused on how nature works. Starting with Socrates, the focus of philosophy shifted towards understanding of the human condition.

History of pre-Socrates philosophy

The Early Stoics #

Founding of Stoicism #

Zeno of Citium (333 - 261 BC) founded the school of Stoicism in around 300 BC in Athens. Before founding the Stoic school, Zeno had been a pupil of:

  1. Crates the Cynic
  2. Stilpo of the Megarian School
  3. Polemo of the Academy

Stoicism abandoned the idea of asceticism from the Cynics. Stoic should enjoy good things that happen to them, but should also be prepared to give them up.

Components of Stoicism #

The study of classic stoicism consists of logic, physics, and ethics in increasingly important order.

Logic: #

  • Rationality is men’s distinguishing feature
  • Logic improves the power of persuasion

Physics: #

  • Stoic physics are like a crossover between natural science and religion
  • It attempts to explain nature, while also provides theological explanation

Ethics: #

  • Stoic ethics are not concerned with moral rights and wrong
  • It’s concerned with having a happy and good life, otherwise known as moral wisdom.

How to have a good life? #

A good life != A good living #

A good living is marked by affluent material possession. A person can have a good living, but a terrible life at the same time. Example: a good person with a good paying job that he hates.

According the Stoics: to attain a good life, one should be virtuous. The Stoic definition of virtue is different from modern dictionary. Virtue derives from achieving excellence as a human being, performing functions humans are designed for.

Stoicism after Zeno #

Zeno -> Cleanthes -> Chrysippus -> Panaetius of Rhodes

Panaetius brought Stoicism to Rome, founding the Roman Stoic school. Compared to their Greek counterparts, Roman Stoics are:

  1. Put less emphasis on the study of logic and physics
  2. Continue to advocate the importance to attain virtues
  3. Advocate the attainment of tranquility: absence of negative emotions, i.e grief, anger, anxiety, etc

Roman Stoicism #

Lucius Annaeus Seneca #

  • Most well known and best writer of the Roman stoics
  • Banished to Corsica by Claudius
  • Brought back as tutor and adviser to Nero
  • Ordered to death by Nero

Gaius Musonius Rufus #

  • Focused on pragmatism, i.e what to eat, wear as a stoic
  • Banished by Nero, brought back after Nero died, banished again later
  • Believes people should study philosophy as there is no other way to live well
  • Believes men and women should all study philosophy and actively participate in public affairs

Epictetus #

  • Born a slave, became a free man later on.
  • Focused on analysis: why Stoicism can bring tranquility
  • The primary concern of philosophy is the art of living. Life is the medium to practice the art of living
  • A good life is more than the pursue of pleasure, but using one’s reasoning ability to reflect on the human condition
  • A good life is a life lived as an excellent human being

Marcus Aurelius #

  • Last of the five good emperors
  • Meditation is written in a the form of a diary to himself only
  • Marks the high point of Stoicism and philosophy

Stoicism is in decline in modern society as most people rarely see the need to adopt a philosophy of life. They tend to believe if they spend their days working hard to buy enough stuff, they will have a life that’s meaningful and fulfilling. Social media, modern marketing, and to some extent the ‘American Dream’(or whichever country’s variant) also promotes this narrative:

We are told to study hard as kids so we can get a good job. We are told to work hard as adults so we can have a nice house and raise a family. We then pass on what was forced to us to our kids and expect them to follow the same path without quarrel. After we have successfully done that, it is considered we have a meaningful and fulfilling life, and therefore can peacefully wait to die. It is certainly a good living, but may not be a good life.

It is not to say that study hard, working hard, or raising a family are not important. They are. But we must gauge them against of our philosophy of life: how these acts come to serve us to get closer to what we truly value? If it is not, why should we keeping doing it?

Negative Visualization #

What’s the worst that can happen?

Think about the bad things that could happen to us leads us to appreciate the life we have, thus less likely to squander our days.

No matter how hard we try, some bad things will happen to us anyway.

Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune. – Seneca

Why we are unhappy? #

Hedonic adaptation

  • We human are unhappy largely because we are insatiable. We lose interest in objects we already have, and form new ever grander desires
  • Most of us are already living in the dream we once had (for me, a car, self sufficiency, etc). However, we take what we have for granted, no longer desiring them, thus keep wanting more

Negative visualization #

  • Amor Fati: Embrace whatever life we happen to be living and extract every bit of delight we can from it.
  • Momento Mori: Contemplating we lose things that are valuable to us, i.e. material possessions, reputation, life, etc
    • Contemplating mortality of both us and those we love: we can’t take for granted we or those we love will be here the next instant
    • Contemplation != worrying: it is an intellectual exercise so that we can enjoy what we have without clinging to it

What negative visualization is not: #

  • Being pessimistic and drowning in worry
  • Being complacent and losing motivation: it is not a call to accept the status quo

Dichotomy of control #

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us – Epictetus

To gain contentment, according to Epictetus:

Do: Changing ourselves: our desires, extinguish desires that cannot be fulfilled
Don’t: Trying to change external conditions, i.e: the world around us. We will be upset if we don’t get it; if we do get it, we will be anxious during the pursue of it

Trichotomy of control: #

Things that we have complete control #

These are goals we set for ourselves that is not necessarily visible to the external world.

Things that we have no control at all #

It’s a fool’s game to spend time and energy worrying about it at all.

Things that we have some but not all control #

We should internalize our goals so the internalized goal is something we have complete control over. Often times, this internalized goals will increase our chance to obtain the desired outcome anyway. i.e: instead of setting the goal to win a tennis match, internalize the goal to play at our best ability, or train as hard as we can for the game.

When facing with circumstances not entirely under our control: our goal is not to change the world, or even change that particular circumstance, but to do our best to bring about certain changes.

Fatalism #

We are merely actors in a play written by somebody else. – Epictetus

A good man welcomes every experience the loom of fate may weave for him – Marcus Aurelius

To preserve tranquility, the Stoics advocates taking a fatalistic attitude towards the past and the present. According to Epictetus,

Make our desires conform the events
Want events to conform our desires

One should note that the stoics are fatalistic about the past, but not about the future. They work to affect the outcome of the future instead.

Don’t dwell on the past != not thinking about the past

  • No “if only”: it is a useless thought that saps our energy, disrupts our tranquility while does nothing to alternate the past. It’s a waste of time and emotion
  • Learn lessons from the past, and apply it to shape the future
Stoics are not passive. They are fully engaged in civic life. They just refuse to allow themselves be bothered by events of the past. Instead they put that energy and emotion to work that will shape the future.

Re-iterating the Stoic philosophy of life #

Although the stoic sees nothing wrong enjoying the good circumstances we find ourselves. The only things that are of real values are: tranquility and virtue.

  • Tranquility: be satisfied with what we have got, absense of negative emotion
  • Virtue: strive to become better people, excel at what humans are designed to do

Although worldly successes seem to happen to them, Senaca became wealthy and influential, Marcus became the Emperor of Rome, etc, they never pursue it on purpose for these successes are of no real value to a Stoic:

  • Worldly successes don’t make them better men: virtue
  • Worldly successes don’t bring them tranquility: tranquility

Meditation #

Use of meditation as a technique to advance our Stoicism #

Seneca: periodically meditates on events of daily living #

  • Did it disrupt our tranquility?
  • Did we experience negative emotions?
  • Why did it disrupt our tranquility or make us experience negative emotions?
  • Is there anything we could have done to avoid the disruption of our tranquility and negative emotions?

Epictetus: be both participant and spectators of daily events #

  • What are the motives or our actions?
  • Are we governed by reasons or something else in our actions?
  • Observe other people’s actions and learn from their mistakes

Signs of our Stoic progress #

  • Our feelings are no longer hurt by things external to us
  • We stop blaming, censuring and praising others
  • Acta non verba: we act in accordance with our principle without feeling the need to comment
  • We find ourselves experiencing fewer negative emotions
  • Death is the final and ultimate judgement of our progress: did we live a good life?

Expect progress to be slow #

  • Don’t expect us to become perfect overnight or ever
  • It is adequate as long as we are making progress
  • Carry on despite facing abyss

Social Interactions: how to deal with people #

Prepare ourselves first #

Know who we are first before dealing with others, and remain true to that identity when dealing with others #

Avoid befriending corrupted people and whiny people #

  • Judge before commit to a friendship or partnership
  • Avoid people who finds pleasure in constant complains

Be selective about social functions of the interactions #

  • Avoid gatherings with ’non-philosophers’: people who have no philosophy of life
  • Be silent on frivolous topics

How to interact with annoying people #

Reflect on our own shortcomings #

  • Be empathetic towards them

Control our thoughts about them #

  • Stop fantasizing and speculating about them

Fatalism: some people are fated to be annoying #

  • Though it is possible to change, we should accept them being fated to be the way they are

Momento mori: death negates all #

  • In the cosmic context, it does not matter at all

Relationship with the opposite sex #

Sex is permissible only in limited circumstances #

  • Within marriage, and for the purpose of having children
  • Most people would be better off living with more sexual restraints than with less

Get married #

  • Try to outdo each other in showing care for one another
  • A loving spouse and devoted children are among the best thing a man/woman could ask for in living a good life

On seeking fame #

People are unhappy, in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. The spend time pursuing things that, rather than making them happy, make them anxious and miserable.

Fame #

The price of fame #

  1. We give people power over us when we seek social status. In pleasing others, we lose the freedom to please ourselves
  2. To win people’s admiration, we have to adopt their values

Give up intentional pursuit of fame: Indifference to others’ opinion #

  1. Be equally dismissive of others’ approval and disapproval
  2. Conceal the indifference. There is no need for others to know
  3. In difference to public opinion is a sign of self-confidence
  4. Forgo others’ admiration if their notion of success doesn’t align with ours
  5. Forgo others’ admiration if the pursuit doesn’t help us attain tranquility