Ancient strategies to help you live the good life

William Irvine’s A Guide to The Good Life is one of those rare books that I re-read from time to time. Sometimes, I will just go through my copious notes from the book, at other times, I will read it again, cover to cover.

While re-reading the introduction recently, I was struck anew by the question he poses:

Of the things in life you might pursue, which is the thing you believe to be most valuable?

This can be a difficult question to answer, because Irvine isn’t really asking you to consider your goals or acquisitions, he’s asking about the “grand vision” of your life.

Most of us are focused either on our immediate pleasures or on our yearly or perhaps longer term goals. Often, we set goals because we ‘should’ be focusing on something — like losing those last 10 pounds — or because we’ve been socially conditioned to pursue certain success markers. Very rarely do we carefully consider the deeper meaning or value we hope to achieve by pursuing a particular goal.

That’s perhaps the reason why New Year resolutions are so easily broken — they were never important enough, or we didn’t take the time to understand the value of achieving that goal, so we let it fall by the wayside in favor of pursuing instant gratification. I mean, it is more pleasurable to eat an ice cream on a hot summer day than it is to forego that icy creaminess to hit the gym instead!

The importance of having a philosophy of life

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

Our ambivalence about what we find most valuable isn’t really surprising: our culture doesn’t encourage us to think about such things. Rather, we have a template by which we are expected to live: study hard, focus on getting a higher education that will help you to get a good job; work hard and prove yourself; once you’ve settled into a job, get married; buy a house; have children; work harder so you can provide for their every comfort; enjoy life after you retire.

Many of us follow that template rather faithfully. Some make their peace with it, others wonder if this is all there is to life. Sadly for us, our culture doesn’t expose us to philosophical thought. Most of us do not have a philosophy of life to guide our decisions or on which to base our values.

The default cultural philosophy of these times is one of enlightened hedonism: we spend our lives seeking an interesting mix of affluence, social status, and pleasure. But this is not necessarily a coherent philosophy of life. These things do not necessarily give our lives any meaning.

As Irvine says, without a coherent philosophy — or a set of values or strategies to guide how you live —

there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life…. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you [may find that you] squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

Why you need a strategy for attaining your “grand goal in living”

Knowing what is meaningful to you is just one part of the process. Maybe you can identify your “grand goal in living”. Maybe you can even explain why this goal is worth achieving.

Even then, there is a danger that you will mislive. In particular, if you lack an effective strategy for attaining your goal, it is unlikely that you will attain it. Thus, the second component of a philosophy of life is a strategy for attaining your grand goal in living.

This strategy will specify what you must do, as you go about your daily activities, to maximize your chances of gaining the thing in life that you take to be ultimately valuable.”

So, what would this look like?

Well — if you were looking for financial advice, you would visit a financial advisor, who would tell you the best way to invest your money to maximize your returns.

Similarly, when you’re looking for advice on living the grand vision of your life, you would need a “philosopher of life” to guide you. This person would help you to think about your goals and determine which of them are actually worth pursuing. She would also remind you that goals can often come into conflict, and would help you to prioritize them. The goal that has the highest priority would be your “grand goal in living”. It is the goal that you would be unwilling to sacrifice to attain other goals. Once you have selected this goal, a philosopher of life would help you to devise a strategy for attaining it.

Finding a philosopher of life

Now, where would you find such a philosopher of life? The obvious place might be in the philosophy department of the university or the philosophy section in the library. But once there, which philosophy or philosophers would make for an excellent guide?

we will find philosophers specializing in metaphysics, logic, politics, science, religion, and ethics. We might also find philosophers specializing in the philosophy of sport, the philosophy of feminism, and even the philosophy of philosophy. But unless we are at an unusual university, we will find no philosophers of life in the sense I have in mind.

It hasn’t always been this way. 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. These philosophers typically had an interest in other areas of philosophy as well— in logic, for example—but only because they thought pursuing that interest would help them develop a philosophy of life.”

Irvine is, of course, referring to the Stoics.

But why the Stoics? What could men who lived in Ancient Rome and Greece have to teach us about living in the modern world today?

A lot, actually.

What the ancient Stoics can teach you about living a good life

Massimo Pigliucci-Stoa of Attalos
The restored Stoa of Attalos in Athens, with busts of historical philosophers.

The ancient Stoics were supremely interested in answering the question of how we could live a good life. More than just a philosophy, they laid out a way of life that is rooted, too, in psychology.

As Epicurus said:

Vain is the world of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind.

The Stoics were less interested in putting forth “academic philosophy”; they were more interested in how stoicism could help one lead a better life — in what I call practical philosophy. Then, as it is now, life was plagued with negative emotions like comparison, anger, anxiety, grief, fear, and envy. The Stoics were interested in understanding how to live with equanimity in the face of all of these turbulent emotions, and they devised many strategies to not just prevent negativity, but also to counter them when they did arise.

Far from being stoical — i.e. emotionally repressed individuals who are seemingly indifferent to, or unaffected by, joy, grief, pleasure, or pain, the Stoics were actually quite joyful. They did not seek to repress all emotions, but only to banish negative emotions. For the most part, the Stoics had a cheerfully optimistic outlook on life, based not on the naïve assumption that things would work out well if they think positive thoughts. Rather, their philosophy was based on practical, realistic optimism.

They took the time to understand what was within their control and sought to improve this things, and understood, and accepted with grace, what was out of their control. They also devised various techniques to attain tranquility, and emphasized the importance of becoming thoughtful observers of our own individual life. By doing so, they argued, we are better equipped to identify the things that cause us distress and to develop ways of avoiding that distress.

So, what are some of the things that you can do if you want to adopt Stoicism as your philosophy of life? I’ll let Irvine answer this one:

We will reconsider our goals in living. In particular, we will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. We will instead turn our attention to the pursuit of tranquility and what the Stoics called virtue. We will discover that Stoic virtue has very little in common with what people today mean by the word. We will also discover that the tranquility the Stoics sought 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.

We will study the various psychological techniques developed by the Stoics for attaining and maintaining tranquility, and we will employ these techniques in daily living. We will, for example, take care to distinguish between things we can control and things we can’t, so that we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control.

Finally, we will become a more thoughtful observer of our own life. We will watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and will later reflect on what we saw, trying to identify the sources of distress in our life and thinking about how to avoid that distress.

If you are interested in understanding Stoicism, William Irvine’s book is an excellent place to start. I will also be writing more regularly about Stoicism and practical philosophy, so if this is a subject that interests you, do follow my website or sign up for the Seeds of Wisdom newsletter.

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14 comments

  1. I’ll have to try Irvine’s book. I have The Daily Stoic and I was in a very toxic environment at the time. I just looked and the last passage I read was in Feb. It’s a meditation book. I even picked up Marcus Aurelius’s writings and just could not find anything to resonate. I picked it up tonight and NOW I can feel it better. When I was wrapped in midst of hell, I could not. Thank you for the reminder!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Daily Stoic is alright, though I find some of the explanations/write-ups don’t really make sense and there’s a of bro-vibe to it, if you know what I mean? I think Meditations requires slow reading; I can see why it didn’t resonate earlier. Irvine’s book is an excellent primer on stoicism. I hope you like it!

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  2. there is so much good stuff in here. i will definitely come back more than a few times to really digest and ponder your words. this hit me hard … “Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you [may find that you] squandered it …” i may have to check out the book, too. the right words and sources come to you at the right time; i fully believe that.

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  3. Ditch that unhelpful template already! But then again ditching isn’t as easy as we think. For some, that ditching process alone would take up their whole life. I have had some very distracting personal experiences in that matter recently. Shook up my whole belief system. Still recovering from the trauma. But yes, having a philosophy of life would help in reinstating our beliefs.
    You have talked about some serious and deep stuff in this post, Shinjini.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you, Vinitha! Ditching unhelpful templates is difficult — it’s also in many ways necessary work, sometimes. A shake-up of belief systems can be a very traumatic time and it takes time to put the pieces back together. Hope you’re doing better, and that you find yourself on firmer footing soon.

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  4. I honestly confess that my exposure to Stoicism is confined to a bit of reading to discover the background to Brutus’ philosophy to get a better understanding of his role in the assassination of Julius Caesar!
    This notion of having an overriding philosophy is so interesting, because I’m thinking that it would make decision making that much easier. It would bring so much more focus and clarity to one’s life.

    Again this “we will no longer worry about the things we can’t control and will instead focus our attention on the things we can control” brings to mind the simple idea that Stephen Covey spoke of – working proactively on things within our ‘circle of influence’.

    I hope I can make the time to read the book, Shinjini. In the meanwhile, I will enjoy reading these posts of yours that really make me think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Corinne, having an overriding philosophy can, quite often, made decision making easier. It’s also somewhat of a regular practice, especially when you find yourself caught up in non-essentials, to find your way back to what is important. Covey’s circle of influence is very similar to the stoic values and philosophies. So many of their teaching have been used by different people in different ways. I think that’s one of the reasons why it can be quite easy to understand and adopt stoicism and also to adapt it as needed.

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