Summary of A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a handbook of Stoic philosophy by professor William Irvine. He points out that Stoicism is very different than the stereotypes we have developed about unfeeling robots, and in fact it contains a lot of timeless advice for psychological well being. This is not an academic work of philosophy, it is written as a popular self-improvement book. Though he does discuss a bit of the philosophy and history behind Stoicism, the bulk of the book consists of practical and actionable advice to improve your life. My summary reorganizes the book chapters, with a brief intro in the beginning, followed by all the actionable advice and the author’s personal suggestions, and concluding with a discussion of Stoicism in the modern context and some brief notes on the history of Stoic philosophy.



Why have a philosophy of life?

  • without a philosophy, there is a danger that we will mislive, look back with regret on a bad life
  • most people never stop to consider the question of what we value
  • there is a ready stream of distraction available to avoid thinking about it
  • even if we know what our goals in life are, we need to have an effective strategy for attaining them
  • philosophy can give us guidance when our goals conflict with each other
  • modern philosophy does not offer us a philosophy of life, whereas ancient philosophy was primarily addressing that question
  • this book is practical, covering Stoic psychological techniques


Stoic Philosophy

Stoic doctrines

  • start with logic, to physics, and last ethics
  • man’s distinguishing feature is rationality, so they developed logic to a high degree
  • physics was more appropriately theology, the nature of the gods and their role, why the world exists, etc.
  • Stoics studied logic to improve their reason, and physics to understand the nature of humanity
  • they believed that Zeus created everything, and made us imperfect in order to strengthen us
  • ethics is not about what is right and wrong, but about how to live a good life

The Good Life

  • the Stoics believed we should live a virtuous life
  • virtue is performing the functions for which humans were designed to the best of our ability
  • we need to examine ourselves to discover these functions
  • we have instincts like hunger and lust, basic to all animals, but our distinguishing feature is our rationality
  • we are also social animals, we have duties to our friends, family, community, etc.
  • they had a hypothetical ideal human, called a “sage”, that they used as an example of model behavior

Roman Stoicism

  • like all schools of philosophy, Stoicism was competing for followers, and had an incentive to be flexible in their doctrines and make them more appealing
  • they adopted the Stoic philosophy to fit their needs, particularly logic and physics were abandoned
  • instead of focusing on virtue, they changed the focus to tranquility, reducing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions
  • virtue and tranquility were intimately connected: tranquility was the result of living virtuously
  • furthermore, attaining tranquility allows us to be virtuous more easily (emotion will not rule reason), resulting in a beneficial feedback loop
  • Romans didn’t believe reason alone could motivate people, merely knowing what is right does not cause people to do it (akrasia)
  • pursuing virtue in its own right didn’t seem obvious to Romans, but everyone wanted tranquility
  • the author believes that Roman Stoicism will be more appealing to modern readers as well, and bases most of the book off of this premise


Stoic Techniques

Negative Visualization

Why do we worry?

  • try to prevent bad things from happening
  • if bad things do happen, we are mentally prepared for them
  • we can use this to prevent hedonic adaptation

Combating hedonic adaptation

  • when one desire is satisfied another crops up in its place
  • when we detect unfulfilled desires, we become unhappy
  • we need to forestall adaptation, avoid taking things for granted
  • furthermore we can cultivate desire for the things we already have

Practicing negative visualization

  • imagine losing the things we already have
  • possibly the most powerful Stoic technique
  • one frame: consider everything we have to be “on loan” from fate, can be taken away without notice at any time
  • contemplate the deaths of our friends, family, and ourselves, the loss of our possessions, our abilities, our freedom
  • everything we are doing now could be the last time we ever do that thing, think of how special it would become
  • don’t contemplate doom all the time, just a few times/day or week
  • don’t worry about things, contemplation is an intellectual exercise
  • (note: I and other practicing Stoics disagree with the above, feeling the emotions involved seems important to the practice)

Benefits of negative visualization

  • we will appreciate the things that we have more, and make sure to take time to enjoy them today
  • less likely to squander our time if we feel how precious it is
  • no matter how bad things are, we can always imagine being in a worse situation, anyone can use this technique
  • the world is a wonderful place for those who have not lost their joy, see children who take nothing for granted
  • when things do get taken away, we won’t live with regret, but realized that we made the most of it all along
  • teaches us to enjoy things without clinging to them

Beneficial catastrophe

  • sometimes a disaster will strip things away from us
  • this counterintuitively can give us appreciation for the things we still have
  • it can truly transform a person, give them a new lease on life… but can also fade with time
  • (un)fortunately, we can’t count on bad things happening to us, and true catastrophe can be fatal
  • negative visualization gives us the benefits without drawbacks

Related techniques

  • pay attention to the bad things that happen to other people, and imagine them happening to us
  • historical research is a great source of misfortune
  • imagine things that happen to us happening to someone else
  • how we would feel seeing that and how we would counsel them to respond emotionally

On Control

Internal vs external

  • we can choose to care about internal things or external things
  • we can’t necessarily control external circumstances, but we can control certain internal things
  • it is easier to change ourselves and our reactions than it is to change the world around us
  • if we don’t get the external thing we want, we become unhappy
  • even if we happen to end up getting the external thing, by wanting it at all we suffer anxiety worrying we might not get it
  • we can give up the prospect of external rewards, in return for tranquility and virtue
  • our primary desire should be to extinguish desire

Trichotomy of control

  • ancient Stoics thought in terms of having total control (internal) or no control (external)
  • in reality, there are probably things we have some control over but not total control: if we try hard we are more likely to get things than if we don’t
  • if we have no control over something, worrying is senseless, since it cannot possibly affect the outcome

Total control

  • if we have total control over something, then we are guaranteed results by focusing on it
  • Epictetus thought we had complete control over opinions, impulses, desires, and aversions, the author disagrees (and so do I)
  • we have control over our goals (though not whether we accomplish them), and our values
  • having the right goals and values in life is extremely high leverage and clearly worth working on
  • Marcus Aurelius thinks we have control over our character, insofar as we can cultivate various qualities and curb others

Partial control

  • (note: the author came up with this part, it is not canonical Stoicism)
  • since we cannot fully determine the outcome, we should not set external benchmarks
  • instead, we can set internal goals, e.g. not winning a game but playing to the best of our ability
  • internal goals are causally connected to external performance, we’re more likely to get what we want
  • there is a big emotional upside to internalizing our goals, since we won’t get disappointed by something outside our control


Ancient fatalism

  • the ancients literally believed in fate, that things were predetermined
  • rebelling against fate is counterproductive, and will disturb our harmony
  • frame: we are actors in a play written by someone else, we must play to the best of our ability

Past vs future

  • if we’re fatalistic about the future, then spending time and energy worrying about or trying to change the outcome is futile
  • if we’re fatalistic about the past, we’ll realize that the past cannot be changed, and that it’s pointless to think about how things could have been different
  • considering the past to learn lessons and apply them to the future is still valuable
  • modern readers are unlikely to find fatalism about the future to be palatable

Present fatalism

  • in addition, it is possible to be fatalistic with respect to this very moment
  • while we can decide to take actions in this moment that will affect the future, we can’t literally affect the state of things in this moment
  • thus fatalism of the present is very similar to the past, we have no control over either and shouldn’t worry about it
  • we can either embrace the present moment and appreciate it, or we can spend our time futilely wishing for things to be different
  • refuse to think about how things could be better, never make comparisons like that

Acting in the world

  • given the above, it seems like Stoics might become complacent or withdrawn from affairs of the world
  • part of Stoic belief is that it is virtuous for us to act in accordance with nature, and humans are a social animal
  • humans have a social duty to play a role in society, and we should do the best possible job playing out that role
  • Stoics will strive to be good people and do the right things, and fame and fortune might accrue to them


Experience discomfort

  • instead of just imagining discomfort, we should sometimes actively impose it on ourselves
  • this isn’t done to an extreme degree or all the time
  • discomfort is welcomed, not inflicted

Combatting hedonic adaptation

  • by experiencing discomfort now, future discomfort will not seem as bad or traumatize us
  • we will realize we can bear smaller discomforts, and fear future discomforts less as a result
  • afterwards we will appreciate the comforts we do have much more
  • generally expand our comfort zone, so that many more states of the world will seem tolerable
  • practice poverty, be underdressed for the cold, wait until being hungry/thirsty to eat/drink

Abstaining from pleasure

  • the flip side of the coin is to forego opportunities to experience pleasure
  • some of the ancient Stoics had a very combative attitude towards pleasure, considering it the single most important battle
  • the more intense the pleasure, the more it will capture us and ramp up our desire
  • we should always abstain from pleasures that would capture us in a single exposure (e.g. smoking meth)
  • abstaining sometimes from minor pleasures will strengthen our self-control, and make future pleasures less distracting
  • by numbing ourselves to the effects of pleasure and pain, we will retain our rationality in more circumstances
  • enjoy the pleasure that comes our way, but ideally do nothing for the sake of pleasure alone

This is not easy

  • this is almost certainly the hardest technique to practice for most people
  • it may take a lot of willpower to do this at first, but then it will get easier
  • it will radically increase our self-control, which will make it easier to obtain all our other goals
  • frame: not using self-control takes effort too, consider all the effort we spend obtaining pleasure in convoluted ways
  • consciously abstaining from pleasure can become pleasant itself, albeit in a very different way: experience joy at our virtuousness
  • weigh these factors when deciding whether or not to engage in pleasure


Daily reflection

  • the Stoics advise reflecting on our conduct for the day before bed, how we responded to events and how we should have responded instead
  • one version: “What ailment have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?”
  • think of it as giving advice to ourselves
  • keep a checklist of Stoic techniques and habits and advice, see if we’re doing them, reflect on our progress as Stoics

Continuous reflection

  • simultaneously be the participant and the spectator
  • examine what we’re doing, the motives behind it, and what value it has
  • are we being governed by reason, or some young or primitive part?
  • observe other people at the same time, learn from their mistakes and successes both

Signs of progress

  • our relationships with other people will change as a result
  • using all of the above techniques will radically change our responses to everything
  • our dreams will even change, we will act virtuously while asleep
  • our philosophy will consist of actions, instead of words
  • our emotional life is different, fewer negative emotions, and occasional outbursts of joy

Stoicism is hard

  • our progress might be slower than we hoped or expected
  • doing a little better than the day before is good progress
  • if we fail, do not become despondent, and definitely don’t give up on Stoicism

Another technique: analyze something by breaking it into its component parts on the lowest level possible, to see something as it really is and thus properly assign value to it


Stoic Life Advice

Love Mankind

Social duty

  • other people are the source of life’s greatest delights, and challenges too
  • we want people to think well of us, and this generates anxiety
  • given that we are social animals, we have a duty to live among people and interact with them to the benefit of all
  • we should feel concern for all mankind
  • we should do our duty quietly and efficiently, do not pause to boast, and let nothing distract us
  • do not do it selectively, we must work with the people we have been given
  • do our best not just to tolerate others, but to love them as well
  • because we are social animals, we are intrinsically rewarded for doing our part, we will live better and more tranquil lives


Dealing with people

  • we have to interact with others, yet they are cause for great disturbance, so we must prepare
  • strive to become a person of character while alone, and then be true to ourselves in the face of others


  • though we cannot avoid dealing with unpleasant people, we can choose who to befriend
  • vices and virtues are contagious, be mindful of this effect when choosing friends
  • find friends who share our values, and do an even better job of living up to them, work hard to emulate them
  • generally avoid people who are melancholy, complain a lot, etc.
  • avoid social functions thrown by people without virtue
  • when we do socialize, be circumspect in conversation
  • say little or nothing about trivial affairs (e.g. sports, gossip), direct the talk to important things

Maintaining tranquility

  • there are probably other people who find us annoying too
  • when we become irritated, pause to reflect on our own faults, this will cause us to empathize with the other person and become more tolerant
  • disturbing our harmony to get upset at someone is almost certainly worse than whatever that person did
  • do not let others destroy our charitable feelings towards them
  • don’t spend much time thinking about what other people are doing, except instrumentally
  • people are the way they are, they do not choose their faults, and they cannot do otherwise in this moment
  • we should try to change others for the better when we can, just not get attached to such an outcome
  • try to put things into a much grander context, and their triviality will become apparent
  • one of the best forms of revenge is to refuse to be like that other person

Romantic relationships

  • the ancient Stoics were very much down on sex (in a way that personally makes me uncomfortable)
  • marriage and reproductive sex are important, sex for any other reason suggests a lack of self-control
  • when feeling lustful, consider the sex act in as low-level sensory detail as possible, or imagine the gross details of the other person (possibly even their body decomposing)
  • the author makes the claim that most people don’t regret not having enough sex, but do tend to regret having it (e.g. single motherhood, child support)
  • in a marriage, the partners should try to outdo each other to keep the other happy
  • a good marriage and children are one of the happiest parts of life


Insults defined

  • broadly defined: verbal abuse, snubbing someone, physical insults, status plays, etc.
  • we tend to be exquisitely sensitive to insults, they can cause us pain long after they occur
  • look at what things upset us in daily life, many or perhaps most of them are insults
  • insults can be subtle or indirect, like backhanded compliments, or just taking us for granted

Removing the sting

  • consider whether the insult is actually true – how is it insulting to be told a true fact?
  • consider how well-informed the insulting party is, if they’re wrong about something we can calmly set them straight
  • consider the source of the insult: if we respect someone then we should value their opinion
  • if it’s someone we don’t respect, then we probably don’t want to be doing things they approve of anyway!
  • consider the people insulting us as overgrown children
  • people insulting us may have deeply flawed characters, and deserve our pity
  • consider insults to be like the barking of a dog
  • what really upset us is not the insult itself, but our internal response to that insult, it is our choice to be harmed

Responding to insults

  • respond with humor, agree and amplify, by laughing it off we imply that we don’t take the insulter seriously
  • self-deprecating humor is especially powerful, since we’re removing their best ammunition
  • replying with humor can require wit and presence of mind, which may not always be available
  • the second-best way to respond is to give no response at all, this requires no thought, and implies that the insulter is entirely beneath our notice
  • there are times when we should respond vigorously to an insult, such as if a person considers silence to be acquiescence
  • in such a case we should indeed punish the person, not out of malice or revenge, but because we’re correcting their improper behavior

Don’t protect others

  • if we try to keep others from harm, they will just become hypersensitive to insults
  • it will cause them to internalize learned helplessness
  • instead, teach them techniques of mental self-defense


How much grief?

  • certain emotions are reflexive: it is natural to be stricken with grief if, say, a relative is killed
  • contrary to popular conceptions, Stoics did not advocate cutting off grief completely
  • instead they believed it was proper to grieve to some extent, but not to let the process continue for very long
  • it is not possible to eliminate grief, but by using the techniques above it can be minimized
  • there are lots of reasons to grieve in this world, we should be parsimonious with our tears

Overcoming grief

  • negative visualization allows us to see it coming
  • we will appreciate what we had and make the most of it, no regrets
  • think of how bad the world would be if we had never had what we lost, be thankful we had it at all
  • the Stoics believe grief will not naturally end, instead reason is needed (this doesn’t seem right to me)
  • rational persuasion, e.g. if a relative dies, they wouldn’t want us to be sad, and if they did we shouldn’t have liked them much anyway… furthermore that dead relative is no longer himself suffering
  • such appeals may alleviate grief, even if only for a time
  • if someone is in the throes of despair their emotions are ruling their reason, though at least we can help point out to them that this is the case
  • we can sympathize with someone else’s grief, even display outward signs of it, but be careful not to let it disturb our own internal harmony


What is anger?

  • the Stoics considered it anti-joy, a brief insanity
  • anger is the source of most destruction, personally and on a large scale
  • there is much to be angry about in the world, and we risk being perpetually angry
  • even if we sometimes benefit from anger, it does not follow we should let it into our lives
  • the Stoics worried that if we become angry it will be hard to turn it off, and any motivational gain in the short term is outweighed by longterm harms
  • anger can cause us to punish another, and this seems to have a social function
  • instead we should maintain inward calm, outwardly display anger if necessary, and punish the wrongdoers accordingly

Preventing anger

  • resist the urge to jump to conclusions and believe ill of people
  • even if things don’t turn out how we want the other person may not have done us an injustice
  • if we are generally sensitive we will be quick to anger, follow the self-denial strategy above
  • anger always harms us more than the actual slight, which is usually a trivial inconvenience
  • we are elevating a barely noticeable disruption of our day into something disturbing
  • humor is very good at preventing anger, turn the disturbance into something amusing
  • put the inconvenience into a grand perspective, e.g. will our grandchildren care about this slight?
  • remind ourselves that our own behavior angers others, and agree to go easy on each other
  • change our physical state: relax the face, soften our voice, walk slowly, our inner state will change to match the outer
  • if we do lash out in anger, apologize immediately: this will repair relations, calm our own state, and make us less likely to do this again


Price of fame

  • the price of seeking fame is larger than the benefits it could accrue to us
  • we pay the price no matter the outcome: we are anxious while trying to seek status, get upset when we are snubbed by others, and pay in time and attention to please others
  • there is no free lunch: we are foolish to assume we will get benefits of fame without attending to others
  • being indifferent to status is great: less time spent currying favor, and our emotional state is better
  • Stoics value freedom, and are reluctant to surrender it
  • while seeking fame we must please others instead of ourselves, and this gives them power over us

Retaining our freedom

  • be indifferent to what people think of us
  • this goes for approval as well as disapproval, laugh them off internally in both cases
  • it is especially foolish to seek the approval of people whose values we reject
  • we don’t have control over the responses of others, so that is a bad thing to worry about
  • hoping for fame after death is foolish too: we won’t be around to enjoy it, and it’s presumptive to think future people will praise us without having even known us
  • remember that in order to gain the admiration of others, we would have to be successful according to their values and notions of success
  • are the people we are trying to associate with getting out of life what we want to be getting out of life?
  • we can actively do things others disdain, e.g. doing deliberately unfashionable things
  • caring what others think also leads to fear of failure, which constrains us from doing many things
  • ironically, we will earn their respect by refusing to care what they think of us, this is a sign of self-confidence that others will want to emulate


Wealth considered harmful

  • people often value wealth in order to buy fame, as we saw above this is a bad idea
  • wealth will not allow us to live without negative emotions, and won’t console us in old age
  • wealth can provide luxury and pleasure, but not contentment
  • not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself!
  • wealth can be harmful, the luxurious lifestyle is vulnerable to hedonic adaptation
  • soon we will not be able to enjoy simple pleasures, and might even pride ourselves on this fact
  • we become slaves to our own desires
  • Stoics differentiated “natural” and “unnatural” desires
  • natural desires can be satisfied: when we are thirsty and we drink water we are not thirsty anymore
  • consider this when choosing to indulge in a desire

Specific advice

  • the Stoics advised eating nourishing food, not palatable ones, eating to live instead of living to eat
  • because food is something we must eat regularly, this is a particularly dangerous pleasure to indulge and the most difficult one to combat
  • dress for protection from the elements, not fashion
  • shelter should do little more than keep out temperature extremes, sun, wind, rain…
  • have simple furnishings
  • the basic necessities of life are actually cheap and easily obtainable
  • Stoics differ on how much wealth to have, from living at subsistence to being just above poverty
  • remember that self-respect, trustworthiness, and high-mindedness are more valuable than wealth, do not compromise our values

If we do obtain wealth…

  • we may acquire wealth regardless, being effective human beings who interact beneficially with others, combined with frugality
  • we need not renounce our wealth, but enjoy it thoughtfully and for the benefit of those around us as well
  • be especially mindful of practicing Stoic techniques to avoid adaptation and undermining our character
  • the above can apply to fame as well as wealth, though be even more careful with enjoying fame!
  • remember that fame and wealth are instrumental in achieving our benevolent social goals


On exile

  • ancient Stoics had a tendency to get exiled (this incidentally suggests that Stoics were influential people), they believed in doing their duty even if it upset the people in power
  • while we are unlikely to be exiled by our government, we can be exiled from social circles, and being sent to a nursing home is a form of modern exile
  • exile is just a change of place, and there are always people who live in such places out of their own free will
  • exile cannot deprive us of our virtue
  • tranquility depends more on our state of mind than our surroundings
  • our true friends will continue to associate with us no matter what
  • if we do not fear exile, we retain the freedom to speak our mind
  • exile can even improve us: give us more time for study, or cause us to cut back on luxurious living

Old Age

Growing older

  • young people are less likely to settle for tranquility when the world seems at their fingertips
  • often comes along with a sense of entitlement, the world will give them what they desire
  • soon we realize that life gives us obstacles that we must overcome, and in doing so get rewarded, causing us to redouble our efforts
  • the midlife crisis occurs when someone realizes they have material success, but are no closer to fulfillment: they wanted the wrong things out of life
  • either this or the inevitable march of aging will turn us back towards meaning of life questions

Being old

  • we have probably wondered what it would be like growing older
  • we are no longer able to fend for ourselves
  • going into a nursing home is a new and challenging social environment, with the same status games as anywhere else
  • people are literally dying around us, and we hear word of deaths of those we used to know too
  • the prognosis is grim, we’re likely only to become more infirm with time
  • suddenly tranquility looks pretty good

Benefits of old age

  • as we lose the ability to experience pleasures, we lose the desire to have them
  • old age causes the vices to decay, but doesn’t necessarily cause the mind to decay
  • we can enjoy the growing power of our rationality over our emotions and desires
  • living with imminent death can allow us to savor life, we take nothing for granted
  • Stoicism is especially good for later in life, which is likely to be our most challenging time
  • take up Stoicism while young, to give us time to prepare for old age
  • if all else fails, we can start the practice any time, even late in life


Fears around death

  • most people don’t fear frailty or sickness in old age as much as they do death
  • they might fear what happens after death, or they might fear they have misled
  • having a coherent philosophy of life makes it easier to face the prospect of death
  • contemplating death will allow us to appreciate our lives
  • death should not deter us from doing our social duty
  • some things really are worth dying for – is life valuable if we don’t have such a cause?

On suicide

  • many famous Stoics did commit suicide, mostly in old age (plus Cato for political reasons)
  • they believed we should choose the moment of our own death, to do it with dignity while we still were capable
  • none of the known Stoics ever committed suicide for bad reasons

Becoming a Stoic

Stoicism is hard, and also easy

  • negative visualization takes some effort, denial of pleasure much moreso
  • it also takes effort not to be a Stoic, energy lost in craving, seeking, etc.
  • having a philosophy can simplify living, we can always know what decision to make, it’s hard to choose if we don’t know what we want
  • our life has already begun, we must start immediately

Keep it on the down low

  • we are likely to be mocked for openly embracing Stoicism
  • we are demonstrating different life values, and thus they feel we are implicitly judging their choices, including not investigating what they value at all
  • keep a low philosophical profile when we start out

Remember what we have to gain:

  • becoming virtuous
  • achieving tranquility
  • experiencing joy in the merely real
  • appreciating what we have
  • reducing anxiety and other negative emotions
  • enjoying a wide range of experiences


Advice from the Author

Start with negative visualization

  • don’t tell anyone you’re practicing Stoicism
  • start with only one technique and get good at it: negative visualization
  • this requires minimal time and effort, and can significantly improve our lives
  • it’s easy to forget to do it, and it’s just as important to do it during good times as bad ones
  • you can fold negative visualization into your evening self-reflection, or occupy your idle time, e.g. commuting

Next master control

  • distinguish the three types of control you have, and respond accordingly
  • this line of reasoning can also help people who are struggling around you
  • practice internalizing your goals
  • in a very similar vein, get good at fatalism with respect to the past and present

Self-denial is an advanced technique

  • this requires the highest degree of self-discipline, leave it for advanced Stoics
  • he personally exposes himself to hot and cold, difficult physical exercise
  • he also exposes himself to fear, of physical harm, of failure, etc.
  • simplifying one’s lifestyle is in a similar vein

Personal experiences

  • insults used to sting quite a bit, now he’s a master at self-depricating humor
  • in contrast to Seneca, he finds expressing anger to be pleasurable, and this makes it more insidious
  • people clearly do respond to anger, but observing his behavior he expresses it even when the recipient isn’t around
  • he does frame life as a play, and treats it as absurd and funny
  • he frames himself as two people, the “other self” is on evolutionary autopilot, with all the negative attributes of the human experience
  • the frame is antagonistic, e.g. “an enemy lying in wait”, but also conceives of it as winning points against an opponent in a game
  • he no longer really wants most consumer goods, and can’t imagine going back to that
  • he sometimes wishes that bad things happen to him to test his Stoicism
  • his mother is partially crippled in a nursing home, and has learned a lot from watching her
  • he is not a sage, he is not perfectly tranquil, but he has come a long way, and experiences spontaneous outbursts of joy


  • he sometimes doubts his beliefs when he sees so many people doing things differently, but he says every thinker has come to these same conclusions
  • being a Stoic might be a mistake, but it’s not likely to be a worse mistake than having no philosophy of life at all
  • you can always try it for a while, and abandon it shortly thereafter, with no one ever the wiser
  • you have little to lose, but much to gain!

Stoic reading program


Stoicism in the Modern World

Stoicism and modern psychology

  • arguably psychology has become a proper scientific discipline
  • psychology would suggest eliciting related behaviors to work through the emotion
  • Stoicism doesn’t suggest bottling up emotions, merely prevent the bad ones as much as possible, and reduce their severity through reason
  • psychology also suggests that people need professional help to work through these things
  • empirically this is not actually clear, grief counseling didn’t use to exist and people seemed resilient
  • study on SIDS, the parents who were following grief therapy advice were significantly more upset at 18 months than the ones who didn’t, analogy to picking at a scab
  • apparently this holds up in studies of Holocaust survivors, abused women, partners of men who died of AIDs…
  • the idea of delayed grief dates back to “The Absence of Grief” by Helene Deutsch in 1937, with no empirical investigation, and has not been subsequently verified
  • suppression can be a healthy response, certain temperments benefit from avoiding introspection
  • note: One Nation Under Therapy is the source for most of these claims

Stoicism and modern politics

  • there exists a victim mentality, unhappiness is caused by someone else
  • there is only a loose connection between external circumstances and well being
  • we have a duty to fight against social injustice, but that doesn’t mean we should victimize the unfortunate
  • Stoics believe in personal transformation, we can help people take their well being into their own hands

Stoicism and modern life

  • Stoicism requires a lot of self-control
  • the ancient Stoics were a duty-bound group, and believed in something bigger than themselves
  • modern strategies for fulfillment revolve around trying to satisfy desires, but this keeps them on the hedonic treadmill
  • Stoicism is not about sacrifice, it’s about changing our desires and then genuinely wanting different things
  • we can then experience the true joy of being virtuous and doing our duty

Stoic justifications

  • they did not just give us a way to live, they also tried to justify why their suggestions were correct
  • to this end they postulated Zeus and various properties about him and why he made us the way he did, which we today clearly reject as false
  • the author wants to put Stoic philosophy on a better footing for atheists
  • even if you think they’re wrong about how and why we came to be, that doesn’t mean they didn’t settle on good values and good techniques!
  • Stoics were interested in science, they did the best they could with what they had, and would have embraced our improved answers to these questions

Evolutionary psychology

  • our ancestors who experienced these particular emotional responses were more likely to survive and reproduce
  • we experience fear, pleasure, lust, we seek status, all for evolutionary reasons
  • we also evolved the ability to reason in much the same way, it must have increased our genetic fitness
  • evolution accidentally gave us the ability to modify our evolutionary programming
  • our evolutionary programming was good at past reproductive fitness, the environment is very different now, and it certainly is not maximizing for tranquility!
  • much less to worry about: we live in a very safe environment, extremely unlikely to starve, being low status doesn’t actually preclude reproduction, etc.

Does science offer the solution?

  • we could just give everyone benzodiazepines, bariatric surgery, etc.
  • most doctors will first tell us to modify our lifestyles before giving us drugs or surgery
  • modifying our outlook and our behavior is still the first-best practice
  • modern scientific hacks can have serious side effects, while Stoic side effects are more likely beneficial in nature

Creating modern Stoicism

  • the author’s goal was to construct a version of Stoicism that would appeal to modern readers
  • Stoics disagreed with each other, and may have disagreed with his version of modern Stoicism, e.g. explicitly acting against our nature
  • there is a long history of tampering with philosophical doctrines
  • Stoicism is a tool set, and a particularly good and useful one

Can we do better than Stoicism?

  • there may be yet a better philosophy of life out there
  • the author thinks no philosophy is a fit for everyone, everywhere, no matter what
  • if you hold different values, if tranquility is not your goal, Stoicism would be a bad philosophy of life
  • other philosophies, like Buddhism, are sufficiently similar that you may find a better fit and achieve the same goal
  • once you decide to have a philosophy of life, you need to assess yourself and see what philosophy fits the best
  • Stoicism is particularly good for analytical types!
  • this doesn’t make the author a relativist, he is convinced his values are right and he will try to convince you too, if he approves of your values but disagrees with your strategy he will try to advise you


History of Philosophy

Origins of philosophy

  • people thinking about life and the world probably always existed
  • 6th century BC was a big shift, with Pythagoras, Confucius, Buddha, and several Greeks emerging
  • Italian branch went from Pythagoras to Epicurus, a big rival to Stoic ideas
  • Greek branch went from Anaximander to Socrates

Socrates and successors

  • he changed the nature of philosophy from explaining the world to focusing on the human condition
  • he actually lived his philosophy, ultimately resulting in his death
  • Plato was more interested in the scientific aspect, and this became the model for modern philosophy
  • Antisthenes was more interested in the lifestyle aspects, and founded the Cynic school

Popular philosophy

  • persuasive ability was critical in ancient Greek and Rome
  • parents actively wanted to teach their children how to win arguments by any means necessary
  • philosophers in particular taught how to appeal to reason
  • at the same time, they also taught a particular approach to life
  • all wealthy parents would send their kid to some philosophical school, and the wealthiest would hire personal tutors (e.g. Aristotle and Alexander)
  • often there was “continuing education” and parents studied alongside children
  • people really tried to live their beliefs

Competing schools

  • Stoics: interested in physics/logic, enjoy the things you have but don’t cling to them
  • Epicurians: interested in physics, enlightened hedonism
  • Cyrenaics: the goal of life is pleasure, experience as much as possible
  • Cynics: asceticism, learn how to want nothing out of life, tended to be homeless and actively engage people in arguments (even entering their homes uninvited), known for wit and wisdom
  • many others…

Modern philosophy

  • this aspect of how to live a good life has withered away from modern philosophy
  • most people don’t have any guidance, and default to (enlightened) hedonism
  • some religious sects do provide strict beliefs, but most mainstream religions don’t (I might disagree with this)
  • evidence of this is that most mainstream religious folks are indistinguishable outside their church, synagogue, etc.
  • to search for a guide to the good life, we should therefore look to ancient philosophy


History of Stoicism

Founding of Stoicism

  • Zeno of Citium lived 333-261 BC, father was a merchant and exposed him to philosophy books
  • became a Cynic early on, but was also interested in science
  • decided to follow in Socrates’ footsteps and blend science with how to live
  • set out on a quest to study all the philosophies: Megarians, the Academy, et al.
  • named Stoics after his preferred lecture hall, the Stoa Poikile
  • rejected Cynic asceticism, but combined its lifestyle advice with the Academy’s theorizing and Megarian logic and paradoxes
  • Cleanthes (331-232 BC) took over after Zeno’s death, Stoicism fell into decline
  • Chrysippus (282-206 BC) came next, and restored the school to prominence
  • Panaetius of Rhodes traveled to Rome, befriended important people, and founded the Roman branch of Stoicism

Seneca (the Younger)

  • born around 4-1 BC in Spain
  • excellent writer, with lots of letters preserved
  • very insightful into the human condition, discusses what makes people unhappy
  • active participant in politics and business, was a wealthy investor
  • Emperor Claudius confiscated his property and exiled him, then invited him back later
  • he became quite wealthy a second time, until Emperor Nero had him killed


  • least well known of the famous Roman Stoics
  • born around 30 AD to a good family, but eschewed it all to start a philosophy school
  • his existing work is in the form of notes taken by his students, from Socratic dialogues
  • he believed philosophical education should be universal (women included)
  • he was ultimately exiled by Nero to a barren island, though he discovered a spring there, and students flocked to learn from him
  • came back to Rome after Nero’s death, then got exiled yet again and died


  • most famous of Musonius’s students, born into slavery in 50-60 AD
  • acquired by a secretary to the emperor, and became a white-collar slave
  • he would go around questioning people until they threatened to have him beaten
  • gained his freedom after Nero’s death, started a school of philosophy, and was also exiled
  • moved to Nicopolis in western Greece, and decided to stay there after his exile was lifted, where students around the Empire flocked to learn from him
  • he insisted his students understand what a commitment it was, he didn’t want people who wouldn’t take steps to change their lives
  • he thought it was a good sign if his words caused discomfort in them

Marcus Aurelius

  • born in 121 AD, became the emperor of Rome
  • his daily journal of self-reflection has survived, giving us a view inside the mind of a practicing Stoic
  • he was known for being a great ruler, exercising restraint in using his power
  • he is perhaps one of the only examples of a philosopher king in history
  • he did live a hard life though, with health problems and political problems, and heartily pursued tranquility
  • this could have been a huge boon for Stoicism, but he did not preach his doctrine, and ever since Stoicism has been in decline

Why did Stoicism decline?

  • Roman society became more pleasure-seeking generally
  • after Epictetus there were no charismatic teachers
  • great teachers are embodiments of the doctrine, people could see and emulate them
  • the rise of Christianity introduced a philosophical competitor that promised an infinitely good afterlife
  • during the 20th century, ancient philosophy at all was barely discussed, and modern philosophers aren’t interested in how to live a good life
  • Stoicism had wrong connotations about being cold and unfeeling
  • people don’t see much need to explicitly have a philosophy of life

The Stoic underground

  • since the death of Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism has been occasionally mentioned, and sometimes convergent ideas have emerged
  • Descartes in the Discourse on Method discusses maxims to live well, including how we can only control our own mind
  • Schopenhauer had a distinctly Stoic tone to his Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims
  • Thoreau’s Walden is based on discovering the good life and he cites Stoicism explicitly in his Journal
  • Ben Landau-Taylor

    Thanks for writing this! “it is especially foolish to seek the approval of people whose values we reject” struck me particularly hard. (Although I think there’s an important corollary: the approval of people whose values we *accept* is a useful measuring tool.) I’ve added the book to my reading list.

    • WilliamEden

      I’m glad you found it useful! :)

      The Stoics definitely recognized what you were saying, one bullet under Relationships: “find friends who share our values, and do an even better job of living up to them, work hard to emulate them”

  • Just finished listening to this book. Awesome. And this summary really helped me to follow up with ideas. Nice one!