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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 August 2013
Academic life often leads people in unexpected directions. William Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. After receiving his PhD from UCLA in 1980, Irvine taught and practiced analytic philosophy for many years before gradually losing interest in it as overly technical and removed from life. Irvine looked for other philosophical and personal options and came close to adopting a Zen Buddhist practice. He ultimately rejected Zen because it did not fit the analytic quality of his mind. Irvine then began a serious study of the Greek and Roman stoics, philosophers he never had to read during his years of philosophical study. The result was his book "On Desire: Why We Want what we Want" (2006) followed by this book, "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" (2008) in which Irvine articulates a comtemporary stoic philosophy.

Irvine writes for the educated lay reader rather than for academic philosophers. He argues that an important task of philosophy is to help individuals form a "philosophy of life" that gives meaning and purpose. Without a philosophy of life, Irvine argues, "there is danger that you will mislive-- that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversion you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your lfie pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer."

Besides helping a person to discover his or her "grand goal in living", philosophy also has the task of pointing out a path or strategy for realzing the goal. As mentioned above, Irvine seriously explored Zen Buddhism but found ancient stoicism more suitable to his character in setting out a goal and a means for its attainment.

In his book, Irvine explains the need people to reflect and form a philosophy of life, the value of stoicism, and the means of practicing stoicism. He also takes stoicism out of its ancient theological and teleological (teleology means finding that nature acts purposefully) bases and restates it under assumptions of naturalism.

In the first part of the book, Irvine offers a rapid overview of ancient philosophy and ancient stoicism, culminating in four philosophers of the Roman Empire, Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.Irvine shows that the "grand goal" of these philosophers shifted gradually from the reason and "eudamoneia" (a difficult word meaning roughly "virtue") of the Greeks to a goal of emotional tranquility. This, rather than the Greek goal, is the goal Irvine adopts. The goal of tranquility does not advocate supressing emotions or becoming a zombie. Rather, Irvine defines "tranquility" as "a psychological state marked by the absences of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy."

After identifying the goal, Irvine offers steps towards its attainment. He recommends living modestly, being content with what one has, letting go of the past and of feelings of remorse and guilt, and meditation and reflection on one's goals. A stoic life is internalized, which means it depends of developing what is in one's control rather than seeking for happiness in things outside one's control. To give examples from my own life. I get frustrated when my teachers and others do not rate my piano playing as highly as I would like. I have to remember that the goal of playing the piano is not to have a concert career or to impress others but to bring out music for myself and for those who want to hear. Then again, closer to home, I get angry when I spend time on an Amazon review only to have it curtly negated. I have to remind myself that I write to read and to learn rather than to seek approval from negginators.

In the third part of the book, Irvine offers more broadly-based discussions of stoicism as a guide to life. He discusses the control rather than the repression of emotions such as grief, and strategies for living contentedly with others. He focuses on his own and on his reader's mortality by eloquently reminding of the inevitability of old age and death and of the stoic wisdom of loving life in its transience and letting go.

In the fourth part of the book Irvine, describes again the metaphysical bases of ancient stoicism, which Irvine rejects by rephrasing stoic insights against a backdrop of evolutionary naturalism. Many readers may not be convinced by this attempt to jettision stoicism out of its original context. I think Irvine's point could be better made not by substituting one metaphysical view for another but rather by eliminating the need for a metaphysical "underpinning" for a philosophy of life altogether. The latter stoics showed little interest in teleology or metaphysics. In other words, stoicism stands of falls on its own merits and results as a philosophy and does not require a metaphysical support. This conclusion is consistent with much modern "technical" philosophy, as I understand it, which Irvine claims he no longer wishes to pursue. In the final part of the book, Irvine turns autobiographical and offers insights on what a stoic practice has meant to his own life.

Throughout the book, Irvine approaches his subject with enthusiasm and with at times an almost missionary zeal. There are two parts to the story to be distinguished. The first is the value to a person of developing a philosophy of life. Convincing the reader of the value of a philosophy of life is Irvine's greater goal and, most of the time, it is the source of his enthusiasm and preaching to the reader. The second is the stoic philosophy that Irvine has adopted for himself. Here too, Irvine develops his stoic philosophy and tries to persuade his readers. But he recognizes that a single philosophy will not suit all temperaments, and that there are varied approaches to the good life. His approach has strong components of pragmatism as taught by William James.

This is an excellent work of philosophy for non-specialists. A growing number of philosophers work to make their thoughts accessible, and Irvine is, perhaps, too harsh on the academic study of philosophy. The book has received substantial attention on Amazon, with many thoughtful reviews and valuable criticisms.

Robin Friedman
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on 5 September 2017
This book will change your life if you let it.
I can't remember why I started reading the Stoics; I think it was after I'd read a bit about the Romans in Mary Beard's SPQR. I started with Marcus Aurelius and moved on to Seneca and Epictetus. I don't do them cover to cover, but I dip in and out alot.
Irvine's book is an excellent precis of the main elements of their message. I never was one for crying much, and I've tried to keep the stuff that really bothers me to myself. I'd describe myself as an "inner coward" - dreading the aging process and the deterioration that seems to be coming with it. I've looked into plenty of philosophies - religion, buddhism - to see if there was a fit for me and never quite found it.
And then I ran into these guys.
Want what you have; live a good life; prepare for the end, but don't waste the now; suck it up and remember there are those worse off than you.... the list just goes on. It may not suit you if you enjoy wearing your heart on your sleeve and burdening everyone around you with your problems, but for anyone who even remotely advocates a bit of a "stiff upper lip" this may just be for you.
It's apparent that having studied philosophy for most of his life, Irvine has only just had the revelation I've had. These ancients weren't just talking about it, they were practising a way of life that deals with most of life's ills; and they'd come up with solutions over 2000 years ago!
Irvine steps you through those solutions and guided this fifty year old agnostic coward into a new way of thinking. I just hope I haven't left it too late!
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on 21 June 2011
The problem with this book is that the author does not understand the Stoics. He makes no attempt to engage with Stoic logic or physics, and as a result manages to seriously misrepresent their ethics.
In Irvine's view, Stoics enjoy and appreciate the good things in life, such as wealth, fine food etc, but learn not to cling to them too hard. In terms of describing the everyday life of a Stoic, this is all very well, insofar as he or she will tend to seek the things that we are by nature fitted to seek out, and, as a human being, will experience sensations such as pleasure or pain. But for the writers whom he claims to represent,these "good" things were truly indifferent, and ought to be regarded as such. I might seek out a tasty meal, but failing to acquire one - or getting a fatal dose of food poisoning - is no more or less "good" than its successful acquisition. The good thing is making a reasoned, autonomous (and non passionate) decision to act according to our nature - making a decision to look for food, and accepting whatever outcome fate decrees with good grace. Irvine's "goods" are as unworthy of inspiring a response in us as so-called "bad" things like pain, disease or the death of a loved one.
In his discussion of Epictetus's argument that we should learn to value and seek only what is in our control, he fails to appreciate that what Epictetus is referring to is the capacity for choice (to assent to or withhold assent from impressions). This leads him to argue - against Epictetus - that some things are in our control, some are outside our control, and some are partly under our control. With this, the Stoics' detailed insights into cause, effect, fate and necessity are thrown out of the window and replaced with something completely vapid.
I'll confess that I stopped reading at this point and went back to my copy of Brennan's "The Stoic Life", and a good dose of Seneca. I'm sure the author's intentions were good, but he seems to have missed the point.
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on 17 September 2014
Irvine has put together a fine introduction and reference to Stoic ideas and practice with a modern spin that makes this timeless school of philosophical thought applicable by us today.

Having only really read some Seneca and bit of Aurelius' Meditations before, Stoic Joy tied together the central concepts of Stoicism for me and provided a jumping off point to the original sources, i.e. Seneca, Aurelius and Epictetus (with some Musonius Rufus thrown in for good measure).

There is also some nice contrasting of what the other Hellenistic schools such as the Cynics and Epicureans thought on matters relating to desire, control, luxury and power. The insights on anger, pleasure are all highly relevant today given the consumerism we're fed and buy into in modern society.

One criticism I have with Irvine's interpretation of Stoicism is his treatment of Epictetus' teachings that we ought focus our energies and attention on those things we can control while being indifferent to those we cannot. In diverging from what Epictetus taught, Irvine tends to muddy the waters by adding a third scenario: things that are partially under our control. The third category is unnecessary, because, to use Irvine's example, placing a tennis game in this newly created category of things we have some control over actually offers no insight to us. When you analyse the game of tennis itself it follows that there are aspects of a game we either can or cannot control. No need for a third category.

Despite that wrinkle, the book is a good primer and reference for Stoicism. Be aware, however, that "A Guide to the Good Life" is very much a starting point for further study, as some of Irvine's interpretations of Stoic philosophy diverge from what the ancients conceived and taught.
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on 26 May 2012
"More like wrestling than dancing"

This was how Marcus Aurelius, one of the most famous stoic philosophers described life, and it was Stoicism he relied upon to face his own existence.

I have read Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and found some of his stoic comments puzzling and sometimes downright strange.

Like a lot of people I thought I knew what Stoicism meant and would never have considered Stoicism and joy in the same sentence. So I borrowed this book through the library, not knowing what to expect. It totally exceeded my expectations: for me it was an ideal introductory guide to some of the big names in Stoic philosophy, together with the techniques to apply it to modern life (as explained by other reviewers). I particularly liked the way he explained how it could still be used by those who did not believe any deity, classical or Christian; this made it seem a practice that has relevance today.

Some reviewers argue that Irvine has misinterpreted some aspects of the philosophy. In his defence, Irvine is not saying that his interpretation is the only one and he accepts that certain aspects have been omitted by him. In my view, this book is not a history of Stoicism but rather one man's interpretation of it and recommendations of the ways it can still be used now. He does also provide a "Stoic Reading Program" and recommends that anyone interested should read the original texts of Seneca, Epictetus and Musonius Rufus.

This is one of the best books I have read for some time; I enjoyed it so much that I downloaded it to my Kindle so that I can re-read it.

Thank you Mr Irvine for a lovely thoughtful book.
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on 24 February 2017
Fascinating introduction to how to survive modern life by living an example of ancient life. The Stoics had a perspective on life which enabled them not only to survive, but thrive. They focus on the impermanence of things and this gives them a perspective which not only enables them to get through hard times, but to actually use obstacles as tools to perfect the good life. They do not seek fame or fortune, but to be of service to others. Basically, if you read Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If' then you'll get a good idea of Stoicism. And they weren't miserable. Stoics made a point of being cheerful - even in the face of disaster or overwhelming odds. The good life is about being able to manage what Irvine calls 'negative' emotions such as fear and anger. ('Unhelpful' might be a less loaded word). Irvine's book is a guide to Stoic practice, not a critique of Stoic philosophy. He has been putting Stoic lessons into effect, trying to lead a more Stoic (and therefore, better) life. As a philosophy professor he does struggle to embody the lessons of the Stoics at times but his account of becoming a Stoic is honest and not without humour.
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on 8 June 2012
Easy to read. Not a long book. It is has short chapters and sections that can be read easily..put down then pick it up. this is a good book for an intelligent and informed introductioin. Written by a philospher who is living the stoic life, and recognises the benefits and its limitations. comparisons made with religion and eastern philosphies. An enjoyable read. It is a good introduction for the ordinairy person or even an academic because of its emphasis on the pragmatic individual use.
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on 2 December 2009
I studied philosophy at university, and Irvine stands out amongst professional philosophers as a man who manages to get his message across with elegant simplicity. This book is not only easy to understand; he manages to make stoicism extremely relevant to modern concerns. It's hard to imagine someone who could not benefit from reading this book. No matter how awful life seems, stoicism has something to offer.

I find many things of value in buddhism, but balk at the religious worship associated with it. Stoicism has much to offer westerners drawn to buddhism. Friends who have read widely around stoicism after reading this book tell me that their appreciation for Irvine's book was even greater the more they read.
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VINE VOICEon 6 June 2015
William Irvine's "A guide to the good life" examines the applicability of a Stoic way of life in the 21st century, and in a well-written and readable discourse guides the reader through the Stoic principles of leading the "good life" and striving for virtue (in its original sense) and tranquillity. It should be stressed perhaps that to some extent this is the author's own interpretation of Stoicism and with modifications (for example he attempts to bring human evolution into the system as underpinning some aspects, to replace the ancients' Zeus/Jupiter as the source of human creation) and perhaps at times he talks a bit too much about himself and his own circumstances, but he avoids being preachy and concedes that Stoic practice may not work for all.

Anyone wanting to get into Stoicism really needs to be reading the ancient authors, Seneca, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and Marcus Aurelius, but unfortunately the further reading supplied is not particularly extensive.
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on 10 March 2014
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