The Best Book for Deciding How To Live
By William Irvine
Best Line #1: What do you want out of life?
Best Line #2: Yoga has been a wonderful source of voluntary discomfort.
This marks the second book I’ve featured by the author and professor William Irvine. The first was On Desire: Why We Want What We Want. The book review is here. It’s the best book to help us understand our motivations. Meanwhile, this week’s book, The Guide To The Good Life, is the best to understand how to direct those motivations onto a better path.
I say this after reading a fair share of philosophy. There are many great works out there but I come back to Irvine the most often. Why? Because he really excels at providing pragmatic advice built on ancient wisdom. Largely by living the advice himself. Or trying to.
This creates an autobiographical flavor to his work. He regularly describes the journey he is taking to find The Best Operating System for Life. So we get a glimpse into his own discoveries. This helps us, the readers, understand what to expect for ourselves.
Here is a small example that helped me a great deal when I first began developing a Stoic mindset. After becoming more Stoic, he writes:
I have become dysfunctional as a consumer. When I go to a mall, I don’t buy things; instead, I look around me and am astonished by all that is for sale that I not only don’t need but can’t imagine wanting.
I later found myself feeling the same way. That little insight gave me such confidence. It’s usually very difficult to know if your doing this philosophy thing correctly. So his personal anecdotes become a great proof.
Mix in some good wit and plain language and you get a fresh, modern perspective on Stoicism that isn’t heavy-handed like some books or overrated like others. For this week, I’ve provided four articles that cover some important but easily-overlooked themes. Some of it is tangential; some of it is a direct distillation.
Monday: The Feel Of Misliving
Tuesday: Strengthening Our Free Will
Wednesday: How To Stop Feeling Numb
Thursday: Goal Cessation
I’ll feature a few more aspects and implore you to buy a copy of the book. For whatever virtue I’ve been able to cultivate as a person over the past seven years, a lot can be traced back to this beautiful tome.
A Lifetime of Choosing
There is a song by Jason Isbell that always gives me a surge of insecurity. It happens by design. When the song plays its chorus, the melody climbs up the scale and Isbell sings the following:
Are you living the life you chose?
Are you living the life that chose you?
It gets me every time. What a question. Are we living the life we chose?
These days, my answer is typically a little murky but directionally-correct. It’s not hard when you have the wisdom of all these great books to help. Piecing it together into a self-made operating system is vital for making sense of everything we confront on a daily basis. Those who don’t fare as well tend to lack this bounty of guidance. As Irvine points to below:
The Stoics were convinced that what stands between most of us and happiness is not our government or the society in which we live, but defects in our philosophy of life, or our failing to have a philosophy at all.
This is why all philosophy matters. When faced with tough decisions, every single one of us has to answer the same fundamental questions regardless of situation:
What should I do?
What do I want to do?
Which is the right thing?
The people who are consistently happier and healthier seem to have a consistent, effective philosophy for answering these questions. I emphasize the term consistent because many self-made philosophies aren’t consistent. As Irvine points out:
People are unhappy in large part because they are confused about what is valuable.
Why are they confused? Because their philosophy and values aren’t codified or time-tested or top-of-mind. Thus they get slippery. Consider the whole notion of people voting against their self-interest. How does that happen?
Because values are made for clashing. And without a clear sense of which value is more important, we get erratic behavior. People just go with whatever is easiest at that point.
Or most pleasurable. Which is why Irvine describes his original philosophy as follows:
My old philosophy of life was, at best, an enlightened form of hedonism.
I think this is true for all of us. Irvine describes this in more detail below:
The enlightened hedonist’s grand goal in living is to maximize the pleasure he experiences in the course of a lifetime. To practice this philosophy, he will spend time discovering, exploring, and ranking sources of pleasure and investigating any untoward side effects.
This doesn’t sound so bad, does it? The only trouble is the neverending treadmill effect that basically leaves you in a perpetual state of discontent. You’re never satisfied, never satiated, because you adapt rather quickly to every bit of pleasure and luxury and status that you find. It no longer feels as pleasurable once you’ve had it a while. As hedonists, that means it is no longer valued. Which leads you to search for something else.
We all suffer this pattern at some point and we know it makes for a serious, difficult challenge. Like fussy guests that you have to constantly entertain, this behavior ruins the party that is Life. This gets to another line that I think perfectly justifies the need to embrace a different path:
Practicing Stoicism will take effort. But that is true of all philosophies. Even “enlightened hedonism” takes effort.
In fact, I think enlightened hedonism takes more effort (and more money, time, and freedom) than any other philosophy. Life is genuinely easier, I think, when practicing Stoicism.
So how do we do it?
How To Be A Stoic
It’s easy. You adhere to the classic virtues handed down by the ancients. Look over every moral code that has stood the test of time and you’ll find the instruction. It’s quite obvious. The Stoics place a great deal of focus on these virtues and Irvine spells out a few specific components. But make no mistake: the linked Wikipedia article gives you all you need to know if you aren’t familiar with the broader corpus of virtues.
Where the Stoics really develop something unique is in the way they layer an additional focus on tranquility and self-guided states of mind. This seems unique amongst the ancient western philosophies and is more akin to Buddhist traditions. We specifically have the Romans to thank for this, as Irvine writes:
The primary ethical goal of the Greek Stoics was the attainment of virtue. The Roman Stoics retained this goal but we find them also repeatedly advancing a second goal: tranquility, a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions.
This emphasis on tranquility, which is a counterpunch to a stressful life, explains why some of the more renowned practitioners happen to have been busy merchants overseeing massive enterprises and actual emperors overseeing whole empires. For many Romans, Stoicism was (and remains) a powerful guardrail against the pitfalls of a busy, stressful life.
So to be a Stoic, you start with a firm grasp of morality and ethics. You then lead a virtuous life as we all know we should. And as difficulties arise, you seek solace through tranquility. Two excellent methods to find this tranquility are described by Irvine in the passage below:
Methods for adopting Stoicism: 1. apply negative visualization to reduce your desires, appreciate what you have; 2. apply a triage in which you distinguish between things we have no control over, things we have complete control over, and things we have some but not complete control over.
Irvine does a fantastic job of explaining these to great detail. To speak from personal experience, I continue to be amazed at how few people have embraced the notion of what they can and can’t control. When we act like children, it’s usually because we’ve forgotten this little distinction. Meanwhile, to understand that which we have “some but not complete control over” is to understand the ways we can contribute to society.
Most things we strive for are somewhat-but-not-completely within our control. To simply acknowledge that and remember it is to be more mindful than most. To then take the next step and recognize that your efforts in these arenas can fail, and then visualize their actual failure, is to inoculate yourself from the typical despair most people feel when setbacks occur.
It’s prophylactic pessimism. And it is the one instance where I think negative thinking might actually help us. It keeps us detached. Which keeps perspective and tranquility intact.
So keep to the virtues. Practice the golden rule. Commune with nature. Remain responsible, reasonable, and rational. Practice negative visualization. Remember what you do control, don’t control, and only partially control. And read Irvine’s book.
That’s kinda all you need to do.
But there are a couple more things I want to share to illustrate where this practice leads.
The Corruption of Comfort
There is a flaw in the standard philosophy of enlightened hedonism. The continual search for pleasure naturally leads one to value comfort and luxury. Both of which are quite lovely indeed. But anyone who has read this far understands that Stoicism carries some hostility towards such things. As Seneca, the most famous of the Stoics, writes:
God doesn’t make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him.
Seneca writes this as if testing and hardening people were a good thing. A hedonist would definitely disagree but the Stoics certainly carry this as a primary component of the philosophy. In fact, I think they write more about discomfort than most. They also deliberately sought it.
A lot of us do this. We call it “the grind” now. We work hard on stuff. We pull long hours. We delay gratification and avoid the chocolate and exercise rigorously. All while staying dedicated to something.
That probably feels like Stoicism. And that struggle makes us happier than the comforts typically do afterward. So again, it feels like Stoicism.
Why do we usually work hard, delay gratification, and exercise? So that we can later reward ourselves with some new treat. It’s more of that enlightened hedonism. Consider an extreme example: exercise bulimia. The deliberate discomfort in this case, via exercise, is only a means to a very different end. It’s still about comfort. And indulgence.
And that particular example is about much more so I don’t want to fixate on it too much.
The point is that we still largely struggle and court deliberate discomfort as a means of gaining greater comfort later. As long as comfort remains the end-goal, we aren’t exactly practicing Stoicism.
Comfort is welcome. Especially when tempered with discomfort beforehand. After all, we have to recover. But the end goal must include tranquility for us to truly embody a Stoic mindset. As Irvine writes,
… undertaking acts of voluntary discomfort is helps us appreciate what we already have.
It leads me to a final piece about Stoicism and the corruption of comfort:
Do you hustle and grind in order *to find gratitude* in your current state? If so, you are practicing Stoicism in its purest form. And I firmly think you will find tranquility for some period of time.
Do you hustle and grind because you want *to improve* your current state? If so, you probably aren’t practicing Stoicism. You might be but I highly doubt it. Because whatever drives you to improve your current state is a component of dissatisfaction that disrupts your ability to remain tranquil.
And remember: tranquility is the ultimate goal of a Stoic.
That said, I firmly believe you can be grateful for your current state and seek to improve it. This is what it means to be a wholesome citizen of the globe. We can love it and strive to improve it all at the same time. I just tend to find this is to be a complex, difficult attitude to hold consistently. We usually flagellate between total dissatisfaction and absolute contentment.
Stoicism is thus the fulcrum to establish balance on this see-saw.
Let’s not lose our gratitude even as we seek to improve things.
Let’s keep the balance and hold it tightly.
As you do so, remember that Irvine’s book is a big help. Here’s that link again on Amazon.