Friday, November 22, 2013

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

Ancient wisdom for modern times
Philosophy ain’t what it used to be. While today’s philosophers tend to be highly specialized in esoteric realms of thought that bear little relevance on our everyday activities, there was a time when the purpose of philosophy was simply to make people’s lives better. Philosophical schools provided their students with much needed guidance in making decisions, setting priorities, and achieving goals. One such school was the Stoics of ancient Greece and Rome, whose teachings survive today in the writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Musonius Rufus. In his 2009 book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, author William B. Irvine argues that citizens of the modern world need a philosophy of life now more than ever. Most of us wander through our lives aimlessly with screwed-up priorities, longing for a happiness that never comes. To continue wandering aimlessly is futile, and for those seeking direction, Irvine urges readers to let the Stoics be their guide.

Stoicism asserts that the key to living a good life is achieving tranquility, a state in which negative emotions like anger, grief, and worry are replaced by positive emotions of joy and contentment. This tranquility comes not from without but within. We can achieve it by modifying our perceptions, desires, and goals, and living in accordance with nature. Through diligent rational thought and self-examination we can teach ourselves not to worry about things that are out of our control and to appreciate what we have rather than pursuing one insatiable desire after another. Irvine provides practical and useful exercises for accomplishing this. I’m oversimplifying Stoicism for the purpose of this review, but rest assured that Irvine does not. He gives a thorough overview of Stoic thought, its history and its main precepts. He ingeniously explains how the wisdom of these ancient philosophers is still meaningful to us today. For example, the Stoics wrote much about the ancient punishment of exile. While few us are likely to face that sentence in the 21st century, Irvine insightfully relates it to the exile most of us will eventually face when banished to a nursing home. He also explains why Stoic teachings are still valid in a world where modern scientific discoveries like the theory of evolution have replaced the Stoic conception of God or Zeus.

Philosophical purists may quibble with Irvine’s take on Stoicism, emphasizing the ways in which his interpretation differs from the teachings of the classical masters. There is some truth to that—even Irvine admits it—but the fact is, if there is a resurgence of interest in Stoic thought among the general reading public, it will largely be due to this excellent book. Irvine’s writing is impeccably articulate throughout. He explains Stoicism in a way that’s easily accessible for novices, yet allows those familiar with the classical philosophers to see their work in a whole new light. In recent years, there seems to be a plethora of philosophy books aimed at the nonphilosopher. Most of them relate philosophy to popular culture, but a few, like Irvine’s, focus on the application of philosophy to life in the modern world. What sets Irvine apart from these other authors is that he states his case without a trace of “Aren’t I clever?” His prose is utterly devoid of egotism and condescension, as a true Stoic’s should be. When he’s required to talk about his own experiences with Stoicism, he’s almost apologetic about it. Irvine seems genuinely sincere in his desire to help people better their lives, and with this book he is quite successful toward that end. It provides an excellent road map for anyone interested in engaging in the practice of Stoicism. A Guide to the Good Life is easily one of my top five favorite nonfiction books of the last decade. I highly recommend it to anyone—theist or atheist alike—who’s seeking answers for a happier life.

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