A Guide to the Good Life

The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy


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  • ISBN: 978-0195374612
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My notes

Introduction: A Plan for Living

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

There is a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

If you lack an effective strategy for attaining your goal, it is unlikely that you will attain it.

Vain is the word 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 Stoic philosophy of life may be old, but it merits the attention of any modern individual who wishes to have a life that is both meaningful and fulfilling – who wishes to have a good life.

The Rise of Stoicism

Philosophy Takes an Interest in Life

The First Stoics

Roman Stoicism

The most important of the Roman Stoics were Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

The Stoics thought there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things life has to offer, as long as we are careful in the manner in which we enjoy them. In particular, we must be ready to give up the good things without regret if our circumstances should change.

Modern individuals rarely see the need to adopt a philosophy of life. They instead tend to spend their days working hard to be able to afford the latest consumer gadget, in the resolute belief that if only they buy enough stuff, they will have a life that is both meaningful and maximally fulfilling.

Stoic Psychological Techniques

Negative Visualization: What's the Worst That Can Happen?

Any thoughtful person will periodically contemplate the bad things that can happen to him. The obvious reason for doing this is to prevent those things from happening.

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

If we go around assuming that we will always be able to enjoy the things we value, we will likely find ourselves subject to considerable distress when the things we value are taken from us.

We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.

People find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill. They are unhappy when they detect an unfulfilled desire within them. They work hard to fulfill this desire in the belief that on fulfilling it, they will gain satisfaction. The problem, though, is that once they fulfill a desire for something, they adapt to its presence in their life and as a result stop desiring it – or at any rate, don't find it as desirable as they once did. They end up just as dissatisfied as they were before fulfilling the desire.

The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.

While enjoying the companionship of loved ones we should periodically stop to reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. If nothing else, our own death will end it.

When we say good-bye to a friend, we should silently remind ourselves that this might be our final parting. If we do this, we will be less likely to take our friends for granted, and as a result, we will probably derive far more pleasure from friendships than we otherwise would.

We should live as if this very moment were our last.

As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity.

Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don't have. We would be much better off to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours.

At the same time as the practice of negative visualization is helping us appreciate the world, it is preparing us for changes in that world.

By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent.

The Dichotomy of Control: On Becoming Invincible

It is better and easier to change yourself and what you want than it is to change the world around you.

If you refuse to enter contests that you are capable of losing, you will never lose a contest.

There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control.

We are behaving foolishly if we spend time worrying about things that are not up to us.

Fatalism: Letting Go of the Past... and the Present

When a person is fatalistic with respect to the past, she will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on the past. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about how the past might be different.

In saying that we shouldn't dwell on the past, the Stoics are not suggesting that we should never think about it. We sometimes should think about the past to learn lessons that can help us in our efforts to shape the future.

It is clear, that we cannot, through our actions, affect the present, if by the present we mean this very moment. It may be possible for me to act in a way that affects what happens in a decade, a day, a minute, or even a half-second from now; it is impossible, however, for me to act in a way that alters what is happening right now, since as soon as I act to affect what is happening right now, that moment in time will have slipped into the past and therefore cannot be affected.

One of the things we've got, is this very moment, and we have an important choice with respect to it: We can either spend this moment wishing it could be different, or we can embrace this moment.

Instead of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about how it could be better. In behaving fatalistically with respect to the past and present, we refuse to compare our situation with alternative, preferable situations in which we might have found or might now find ourselves. By doing this, we will make our current situation more tolerable.

Self-Denial: On Dealing with the Dark Side of Pleasure

By undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort, we harden ourselves against misfortunes that might befall us in the future. If all we know is comfort, we might be traumatized when we are forced to experience pain or discomfort, as we someday almost surely will.

A person who periodically experiences minor discomforts will grow confident that he can withstand major discomforts as well, so the prospect of experiencing such discomforts at some future time will not, at present, be a source of anxiety for him.

By purposely causing ourselves discomfort, we will better appreciate whatever comfort we experience.

Meditation: Watching Ourselves Practice Stoicism

When contemplating whether to criticize someone, we should consider not only whether the criticism is valid but also whether the person can stand to be criticized.

If you are going to publish, you must be willing to tolerate criticism.

Stoic Advice

Duty: On Loving Mankind

Social Relations: On Dealing with Other People

When we find ourselves irritated by someone's shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual's faults and therefore become more tolerant of him.

If we analyze something into the elements that compose it, we will see the thing for what it really is and thereby value it appropriately.

Insults: On Putting Up with Put-Downs

A humorous reply to an insult can be far more effective than a counterinsult would be.

By not responding to an insulter, we are showing him and anyone who is watching that we simply don't have time for the childish behavior of this person.

If a humorous response to an insult shows that we don't take the insulter seriously, a nonresponse to an insult makes it look as if we are indifferent to the existence of the insulter: Not only don't we take him seriously, but we don't take him at all!

Grief: On Vanquishing Tears with Reason

In normal, prospective negative visualization, we imagine losing something we currently possess; in retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never having had something that we have lost. By engaging in retrospective negative visualization, we can replace our feelings of regret at having lost something with feelings of thanks for once having had it.

Anger: On Overcoming Anti-Joy

By admitting our mistakes, we lessen the chance that we will make them again in the future.

Personal Values: On Seeking Fame

Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. But if we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor.

If we wish to retain our freedom, we must be careful, while dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us. Furthermore, we should be consistent in our indifference; we should, in other words, be as dismissive of their approval as we are of their disapproval.

Personal Values: On Luxurious Living

There is indeed a danger that if we are exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, we will lose our ability to take delight in simple things.

Exile: On Surviving a Change of Place

A person must keep in mind that his happiness depends more on his values than on where he resides.

Old Age: On Being Banished to a Nursing Home

Dying: On a Good End to a Good Life

Someone who thinks he will live forever is far more likely to waste his days than someone who fully understands that his days are numbered, and one way to gain this understanding is periodically to contemplate his own death.

On Becoming a Stoic: Start Now and Prepare to Be Mocked

It is hard to know what to choose when you aren't really sure what you want.

We need to learn how to enjoy things without feeling entitled to them and without clinging to them.

Stoicism for Modern Lives

The Decline of Stoicism

Others may have it in their power to affect how and even whether you live, but they do not have it in their power to ruin your life. Only you can ruin it, by failing to live in accordance with the correct values.

The first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The second step in transforming a society is to change people's external circumstances.

We are very much responsible for our happiness as well as our unhappiness.

Only when we assume responsibility for our happiness we will have a reasonable chance of gaining it.

Stoicism Reconsidered

Philosophies of life have two components: They tell us what things in life are and aren't worth pursuing, and they tell us how to gain the things that are worth having.

We should become self-aware: We should observe ourselves as we go about our daily business, and we should periodically reflect on how we responded to the day's events. How did we respond to an insult? To the loss of a possession? To a stressful situation?

We should, to the extent possible, avoid people whose values are corrupt, for fear that their values will contaminate ours.

Practicing Stoicism

By practicing Stoicism stealthily, you can gain its benefits while avoiding one significant cost: the teasing and outright mockery of your friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers.

By routinely internalizing your goals, you can reduce (but probably not eliminate) what would otherwise be a significant source of distress in your life: the feeling that you have failed to accomplish some goal.

Even though it may be unpleasant to endure something, we will, on successfully enduring it, be pleased with ourselves.