Book Summaries Philosophy

A Guide To The Good Life Summary

A Guide to The Good Life is about the practice of Stoicism from a more academic lens. The author, Irvine, is a philosophy professor who was not exposed to Stoicism until much later in his academic career. That it is because academic philosophy at this university had many sub-specializations including the philosophy of mind, political philosophy, and even sports philosophy, but there were no philosophy departments that specialized in the philosophy of life.

A Forgotten Philosophy

Stoicism and similar philosophies were forgotten, and academic philosophy took a keen interest in linguistics. If you ask an academic philosopher what a good life is like, they will reply by asking you what you mean by “good” and what you mean by “life.”

If you are looking for a philosophy to guide your behavior, then you must look away from academia. According to Irvine, you must study the work of ancient philosophers and construct your own system of ethics. As Irvine concedes, even though he is a stoic, a life philosophy must be tailored to the individual.

But Stoicism can be beneficial for all, because through its teachings, we can learn to better appreciate the present and be more resilient in the face of hardship, and to think about what matters. 

To have no philosophy of life is much worse than having an imperfect philosophy of life. Without a life philosophy, you are guided by the default spirit of your times, which may be an attachment to entertainment, new clothes, and new gadgets.

Negative Visualization

For the Stoics, the point was not to avoid the good, but to not be controlled or attached to it. You should, as a practice, imagine losing everything you own. You should imagine losing your health, your loved ones, and failing in your profession. This is a practice that Irvine calls “negative visualization” and it is what all stoics, regardless of their differences in other matters, took seriously.

This practice makes you more appreciate of what you have because it teaches you to “want” what you have, instead of wanting something you lack. If you are only happy when you achieve things you lack, then no amount of achievement will be enough. This is a long way of saying that you should have gratitude, because not doing so will result in a life of constant dissatisfaction.

A Life Without Pleasure?

Earlier in Irvine’s career, the consensus among academic philosophers in his circle was that Stoicism was an impractical philosophy that encouraged people to live a miserable, pleasureless life. But this was a misconception. It was the Cynics that advocated for a life without pleasure.

It is hard to be Cynic compared to a Stoic. A Cynic lives an ascetic life, and abandons all things that produce pleasure, that are good. The Stoics argue against this way of living because abandoning what is “good” is an acknowledgement that these things are good, and therefore, desirable. Schopenhauer observed that the Stoics were Cynics but with theory. Their interest in theory allowed them to revise some of what the Cynics practiced.

The Stoics had an interesting take on pleasure. They thought that by controlling your sensual appetite, you would make displeasure pleasurable.

If you stopped yourself from indulging in delicious food every day, then you can teach yourself to appreciate even the most basic foods.

The Stoics emphasized the need to avoid displeasure but saw no harm in indulgence every now and then. In the same way that controlling your appetite brings strength, control, and pleasure, an attachment to luxury would bring weakness, softness, and displeasure. Placing too much value on what is extravagant, and complex made them dependent on something that could disappear at any moment.

In practice, the Stoics often to live up to their ideals, but the point was to never stop practicing Stoicism, even if you have failed. Unlike Buddhism and other religions, you do not need to set aside a block of time every day to practice Stoicism. You must only reflect on life, and follow certain principles, but this can be done in passing moments.

Irvine emphasizes the importance of adapting Stoicism to our needs and of adding to the philosophy, the way the ancient Stoics did. For example, the Stoics told us to live according to nature. But Irvine argues that this is a very loose definition. Nature can include reason and it can include our innate impulses. And since we reason (by accident), we can use it to control ourselves.

We can choose to abstain from pleasure to accomplish goals we set ourselves. In the same way that we have an ear that helped us survive by sensing incoming predators, we can now repurpose our ears to listen to music. Through reason, we can understand what we are wired to have sex and eat, but we can bypass this impulse whenever we need to. 

Focus on What You Can Control

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our actions.”


For Irvine, what the Stoics were trying to say, but not always successfully, was that there is not a dichotomy when it comes to control, there is a trichotomy.

In the quote above, Epictetus mentions that there are things we can control and things we cannot control. This resembles the Serenity Prayer in Christianity. But more in line with reality, there is also a third category, and those are things we can partially control. Opinions, desire, and aversion are not completely under control, for example, in contrast to what Epictetus tells us.

Some things are totally outside our control, and those are external outcomes that don’t depend on our actions. We cannot change our bodies, our family, the past, or the opinions of other people (this is why the stoics warned against the pursuit of fame). We can decide what our values are, how we will respond to what happens to us, and what kind of life we want to live. We should clearly avoid everything that is beyond our control, we should focus the most on things that are completely within our control, and we should direct our remaining attention on what we can partially control.


A thoughtful book about Stoicism. Irvine made clear the limitations of taking any ancient philosophy too seriously, and made reasonable updates to a way of thinking that can be useful some of the time, and for some people.

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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