Friday, June 15, 2012

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Oxford, 2009.

When the the term "philosophy" is mentioned, most people think of something abstract and complicated, in the realm of pure thought, not relevant to everyday life. In fact, philosophy can and should be applied to life. People who live an "examined life" and think about the way they think and behave can benefit from formulating and applying a consistent philosophy of life.

This book describes a philosophy of life close to the way I think and live, the Stoic philosophy. I have sometimes been called a Stoic, as a compliment. Since this is the way I live, I would obviously recommend both this book and the lifestyle it advocates to others. No background in philosophy is required, and the writing is clear and aimed at the general public. Readers approaching Stoicism with an open mind, without prejudice, will be able to improve their experience of life.

The author has studied the ancient Stoics and derived from their writings lessons that can be applied in any society. Some of these lessons may be familiar to modern readers. For example, Chapter Five, "The Dichotomy of Control: On Becoming Invincible", discusses the Stoic technique of not placing emotions on things beyond our control. This will remind readers of the famous AA  serenity prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference". This seems to be such a good guideline to life that I wish everyone would adopt it, though of course that is beyond my control...

Chapter Four, "Negative Visualization: What's the Worst That Can Happen?" is also something I have practised. I have learned to make my own adaptation to this, however, since pure negative visualization tends to feed my anxiety. Instead, I use this technique to nurture my gratitude for the things I have in my life, by imagining no longer having them. I also believe I am strong enough to handle loss and hardship better than others because I don't take anything for granted.

Readers of this book may find some of the advice to be obvious, part of how they already live, while other parts may touch a nerve, indicating areas of their life they still need to work on. One of the joys of life is the constant learning and development we can experience. All it takes is awareness, honesty, and a conscious, deliberate effort to improve. The benefits are well worth it.

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