Book Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A well-read dweeb gives us a play-by-play of his utilization of stoic thought as a means of coping with his fear of death and the inferiority complex that often accompanies being a dweeb. A surprising amount of the text is devoted to avoiding or surviving insults, and vigorous mental exercises one can undergo to prepare for being mocked.

I have to imagine few of the ancient stoics devoted as much mental energy to contemplating how they could be bullied as does our buddy Irvine.

As a philosophical exploration, it succeeds, but it only peripherally captures stoicism, and the bulk of the book is apologizing or overexplaining how the modern world gets it wrong; the stoics weren’t grumpy and emotionally deadened, they were super happy because they were Buddhists but not religious! It’s a translation error bro i swear passion meant something different in ancient greek bro its a different word bro please.

This is then contradicted by his woefully misinformed chapter about grief where he cherrypicks 80-year-old statistics on mental illness rates following WWII in areas without access to grief counseling to demonstrate “a stiff upper lip” is not only a stoic approach, but more effective than therapy.

I believe it was Marcus Aurelius who first said:
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with misinformation, pandering, callowness, misquoted statistics, and writers for the Huffington Post – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Still, not a total wash. I always like hearing from Musonius Rufus, and he was well represented. This was also the first book with the honesty to scrub off the antiquarian deification and treat philosophical schools as the jockeying popularity contest that they were in ancient Rome.

I might have been too hard on Irvine in this review, but I’d hate for him to have squandered all that preparation.

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