Book Review: A Guide To The Good Life

Just finished reading this book, by philosopher and professor William B. Irvine, and feel the need to put a little review up.  The blog’s central motif is making a living via rideshare driving; however, A Guide To The Good Life (AGGL) has really provided a new mental framework.  And it’s principles echo much of the frugality, financial habits, relationships with money, etc. that having a good life require imho.

So let’s get into it.

Stoicism defined

The ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome were divided into several camps or “schools” of thought.  Indeed, Aristotle’s academy was perhaps the most prototypical of these schools, as depicted in famous pieces of art that have survived to this day.  Other options for the intellectually curious included Socrates’ lifestyle, or Cynic school; which rebuffed the philosophical theorizing typical of Aristotle’s camp.  And instead preached the notion that living a good life should be one’s main focus.

Famous artwork of Aristotle's academy.
Aristotle’s Academy

Back in the first and second centuries Current Era (CE), linguistic abilities were not only sought after, but highly prized.  Especially one’s ability to persuade and use logic to defend their argument.  Therefore, the various different schools often were in competition with one another for student bodies.  As the more prominent a lecturer (i.e., philosopher), the greater chance his school of thought had to attract understudies.

Along these lines, the rival schools differed in the subjects they taught.  The Cyrenaics, for example, felt that experiencing pleasure was the end-goal of living.  And advocated seeking out and experiencing pleasurable activities whenever possible.  The Cynics advocated an ascetic lifestyle:  if you want to live a good life, you must learn to live with next to nothing.  The Stoics fell somewhere in between; they thought people should enjoy the good things available to them, but not cling to them.  Furthermore, Stoics felt that we should periodically interrupt our enjoyment of what life has to offer, and spend time contemplating the loss of those things.

Negative Visualization

One of the primary tools in the Stoics repertoire is a technique called “negative visualization.”  As mentioned above, practicing Stoicism involves interrupting, or temporarily putting on hold, the things that give us pleasure.  Recently had an experience with this practice when I was temporarily deactivated from the Via platform.  And consequently, was incredibly relieved and even joyful when the five day wait-period was satisfied.  If it’s impossible to physical remove yourself from the things that you enjoy in life (or vice versa) (e.g., relationships we have with our pets, friends, family, etc.), we can still imagine what life would be like without these stimuli.  That’s where negative visualization comes into play.

For example, (and if this becomes too morbid or perhaps frightening for some it’s okay to politely decline the opportunity to continue learning about this practice.  check out this funny post on interesting pax )

during a quite moment of our day, take a moment to imagine what life would be like if your pet dog were fatally hit by a car.   Imagine life without your dog, that is, if she were tragically killed tomorrow.  Try to imagine how it would feel coming home from work without her.  You don’t have to go too deep, just some brief reflection and contemplation typically does the trick.  The Stoics argue, and I would too, that this practice allows us to appreciate the person, place, or things in our lives more.  Because we can use the power of our mind to create an imaginary world without the things we love, if only for an instant.  And the next time you encounter the preferable people and things that you’ve negatively visualized as having lost, you’ll be much more receptive and compassionate towards it/them as a result.

Finding Tranquility

This is the most important reason for undertaking the practice of Stoicism.   Tranquility is synonymous to happiness, contentment, and perhaps a moderate amount of joy.  We often lost tranquility in today’s world, which is why AGGL helps realign one’s philosophical stance.  Furthermore, tranquility can be found in the absence of anxiety, desire, compulsion, and irrationality.  AGGL goes pretty far in-depth about how to go about experiencing tranquility, with examples from the ancient philosophers.  Here’s a few things I picked up from reading the book:

  • Self-control – not letting our emotions flare up is healthier than venting (i.e., our anger).  Being the “bigger man” when someone insults you; or “going with the flow” often removes the sting from the insult.
    • When someone insults us, because it’s almost impossible to fire back with a clever comment on-the-spot. it’s perfectly acceptable (and recommended) to simply ignore the comment.
    • Irvine states at the end of the book how he’s become a “connoisseur of insults,” by absorbing verbal blows from colleagues.
  • Voluntary discomfort –  removing the luxurious stimuli from our environment (or removing ourselves from said environment).  This allows us to appreciate what we have, and combats against things like lifestyle inflation (i.e., keeping up with the Joneses).
    • Luxurious living –  when people become exposed to things of luxury, they often become more difficult to please.  And, curiously, instead of mourning the loss of their ability to enjoy simple stimuli, will often take pride in the inability to take part/enjoy anything “but the best.”
  • Internalizing goals – Cato, and the other Stoics, found a way to take part in the world around them without jeopardizing their tranquility:  by internalizing their goals.:  They strove not to change the world, but to do their best.  And performance was often assessed, in a particular task, by how well they personally did; compared to how well they potentially are able to perform.

These are just a few of the techniques described by Professor Irvine in AGGL.  And even though it’s difficult to capture an entire philosophy of life in a single blog-post, the author does well to distill Stoicism down to 326 pages.  Consider this quip regarding how Stoics should be complacent with their own mortality:

There will be -or already has been!- a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch.

Stoics, therefore, won’t necessarily feel negatively about incoming news about banishment to a desolate island, for example (which apparently was a somewhat common fate for philosophers) .  Because they’ll be mental prepared already for an unfortunate event, having previously visualized a similar outcome.  And voluntarily subjected themselves to similar living conditions.

Stoicism and Personal Finances

Reading AGGL took me ~3 work days to finish; and I truly enjoyed not only the smart philosophical structure, but the mini-history lesson(s) too.  There were several key ideas that stood-out in regards to managing one’s personal finances.  And really the practicing Stoic need not declare herself publicly of her pursuits.  So, #1 is shut-up about your money.  Like stacking bills is more effective when done stealthily; the art(?) of practicing Stoicism is similarly recommended to be done on the DL.

Secondly, be cognizant of “lifestyle creep” that might eat away at your income as you become more profitable.  Eschewing the things of luxury as described in AGGL will help to keep you honest.  And enjoying what you already have is the fundamental principle of obtaining, and maintaining, one’s tranquility.

Finally, although there are many parallels between Stoicism and Zen Buddhism drawn in AGGL, the two philosophies of life differ considerably in regards to practicing meditation.  Irvine cites the bottling up of anger, and other “negative emotions” when they rise up within us as a healthy practice.  When the yellow cab cuts me off, it’s no problem.  Because I know the reason he’s rushing so vigorously from fare to fare is likely because he’s living paycheck to paycheck.  Keeping emotions in check for the rideshare driver is essential to making our living.  And practicing voluntary discomfort will only help us be more comfortable behind the wheel during those long shifts.


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