A Guide To The Good Life is a handbook, or primer on the ancient Greek and Roman practice of Stoicism. Its point is not to engage in some sort of scholarly debate about the theory or history of Stoicism; rather, Irvine offers his Guide, quite seriously, to “provide detailed guidelines for would-be Stoics.” (p.10) And why might someone have in interest in becoming a Stoic? The answer that Irvine suggests, and rather compellingly too, is that the Stoics developed some very powerful techniques for cultivating tranquility — a certain sort of tranquility, anyway.
Unabashedly proclaiming himself to be a practicing Stoic, Irvine addresses his discussion to ordinary people who are attracted to the idea of reducing the amount of “negative” emotion, (e.g. anger, frustration, and anxiety) they feel, while developing their capacities for appreciation of what life has to offer, whatever that may actually be. These are people who might have flirted with Buddhism, who are interested, perhaps, in “Mindfulness,” but who prefer to reason through principles rather than meditate on them. He writes in clear, almost jargon-free prose that is well suited to his target audience, and maintains a cheerful tone throughout the book (which could easily have been quite dry in parts) that perfectly expresses the sort of rationally grounded upbeat attitude that is one of the payoffs of becoming a practicing Stoic. Reading along, one cannot help but begin to suspect that there simply must be something to what he says. But leaving the infectious character of a sunny disposition to one side, it is relevant to remember that Irvine is first and foremost a philosopher. And Stoicism is first and foremost a philosophical practice. So it is crucial to the enterprise that it proceed through a fairly compelling and critically grounded account of what Stoicism actually holds and why we might think that it is beneficial to put its principles and methods into practice. This is a complex task and Irvine’s performance is excellent in many ways.
The book is divided into four parts: Part One sets the stage by laying out a brief history of the rise of Stoicism in Ancient Greece and introducing the reader to some of its major proponents (the most well known of whom are Seneca, Marcus Arelius and Cicero). In this part of the work, Irvine does a commendable job of explaining the sense in which philosophy was originally deeply concerned with the practical aspects of human well being, rather than being merely concerned with this idea as a topic of theoretical investigation. Parts Two and Three contain the discussion of Stoic methods for addressing specific emotional and practical issues; this material comprises both the nuts and bolts of the practice — what a person who is a practicing Stoic is actually doing — as well as the bulk of the book. Part Four rounds out the discussion by building a bridge from the ancient practice of Stoicism to its practice today. In these chapters, Irvine offers some thoughts about why Stoicism petered out after a stunning Roman career, considers some likely objections to the practice of Stoicism from the quarter of contemporary psychology, and gives the reader some useful advice about how to go about starting out as a practitioner of Stoicism. I understand why Irvine saved these elements of his Guide for the final sections, I would urge the reader not to omit them. Indeed, some of the most delightful, charming and affecting discussions in the book are to be found in the very last chapter, “Practicing Stoicism,” in which Irvine gives a frank account of some of his own experiences as a practitioner of Stoicism.
Parts Two and Three contain Irvine’s account of the actual stuff of Stoicism, as I’ve said, and it is to the proposals contained in these Parts that one should look, if one wants a sense of what would be involved in becoming a practicing Stoic. He divides the account into two: In Part Two, Irvine describes five techniques for training one’s mind to respond more calmly, more efficiently and more optimistically to the chances of life. These techniques include spending time thinking about worst case scenarios, engaging in strategic bouts of self denial and rethinking the character of one’s goals in such a way that one’s success is within one’s control. In Part Three, Irvine lays out Stoic advice about how to handle many of the enemies to tranquility in human life. Here the reader will find discussions of how to deal with being insulted without becoming angry or feeling hurt, whether fame and fortune are worthy goals for a Stoic, and how to think about old age and death.
I can firmly recommend Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life to anyone interested in exploring some of the ways philosophical work can be brought to bear on the ordinary problems of living. This is not to say that there aren’t some points at which I do not quite follow Irvine’s argument, or would have welcomed further clarification. It is to say that there is a great deal of useful thinking and excellent advice to be found in it, presented in a clear, straightforward and often charming manner.