The term “life hack” has only existed for a few years, but there are plenty of things we can learn from the world’s oldest philosophers. William Irvine’s A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art Of Stoic Joy adapts some of the ancient Stoics’ best tricks for happiness and brings them into a modern context.
This is part of Lifehacker’s new book review series. Not every life hack can be summed up in a blog post, so we’ve decided to review some of our favourite life-changing books for deeper dives into life’s most important topics.
Who This Book Is For
This book is really for everyone — whether you’re philosophically-minded or not. It’s all about being happier and having more control over how you react to life’s difficulties. And don’t we all have those, to some extent?
Even if the term “ancient philosophies” puts you to sleep, Irvine does a good job of making the topic accessible to just about anyone, at least once you get past the history portion of the book. Some of the tricks you may heard of, some you may not — and some may seem like common sense. But the Stoics (and Irvine) have a way of putting them into words that can really motivate you.
What You’ll Get
In Irvine’s opinion, everyone should have a cohesive “philosophy of life” to follow, and his goal is to present one with A Guide To The Good Life. But you don’t have to think of this book as a massive life change. Most of the tips can easily fit into any modern lifestyle, and are compatible with many major religions, whether you’re a Christian or a Zen Buddhist. So, while you can think of it as a philosophy of life, I prefer to think of it as a collection of “tips and tricks” from some very smart, very old people.
The book is broken up into three parts, each of which is broken up further by subject:
- Part one introduces the ancient Stoics, and gives some context to the philosophies that come later in the book.
- Part two contains the first half of the book’s “tricks”: the techniques ancient Stoics used for a happier life. These include practicing negative visualisation, learning to deal with things you can’t control, letting go of the past, avoiding complacency with your worldly possessions, and meditation.
- Part three continues part two’s practical advice, but dealing more with the general emotions that befall us: loving mankind, dealing with other people, making yourself impervious to insults, vanquishing grief, overcoming anger, cultivating personal values, dealing with old age, and more.
- Part four finishes up the book with advice on how to make use of these ancient techniques in modern life.
Parts two and three are where the real “meat” of the book is — the practical, useful advice that you can apply to your daily life. This is a very short summary of what the book contains, but should give you an idea of the topics it tackles.
One Trick You’ll Take Away
One of my favourite parts of the book was the chapter on dealing with insults. No matter how hard we try, we must all deal with the occasional idiot who lives to put other people down, and something as simple as a small jab can ruin our afternoon.
The Stoics had a lot of advice on dealing with insults. Consider the source, for example: if you don’t respect the person insulting you, why lend value to their opinion?
Even better, though, is Seneca’s advice of not returning insult, but brushing it (and the assailant) off with self-deprecating humour:
Even if we succeed in removing the sting of an insult, we are left with the question of how best to respond to it. Most people think that the best response is a counterinsult, preferably one that is clever. The Stoics, however, reject this advice. And how are we to respond to an insult, if not with a counterinsult? One wonderful way, say the Stoics, is with humour.
Thus, Seneca points approvingly to Cato’s use of humour to deflect a particularly grievous insult. Cato was pleading a case when an adversary named Lentulus spit in his face. Rather than getting angry or returning the insult, Cato calmly wiped off the spit and said, “I will swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth!”
. . .Epictetus also advocates the use of self-deprecating humour. Suppose, for example, you find out that someone has been saying bad things about you. Epictetus advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his competence as an insulter; for example, you can comment that if the insulter knew you well enough to criticise you competently, he wouldn’t have pointed to the particular failings that he did but would instead have mentioned other, much worse failings.
Self-deprecation can certainly have negative consequences, but in this case, I think it’s an interesting way to use an opponent’s insults against him, without sinking to the same level. Of course, if you aren’t blessed with impressive wit, the Stoics say, you’re best off just ignoring the insult altogether, instead of dignifying it with a response.
This is far from the only tip in the book, and some (including one we’ve featured before) are a bit more contemplative — but it provides a good mix of mind hacks to get through life’s daily troubles. And if you like the above tip, Irvine has also writtenan entire book on dealing with insults, though I haven’t read it myself.
I honestly believe anyone can benefit from this book, despite the fact that Irvine paints it as one of many different philosophies of life. No matter how you feel about the Stoics as a whole (or if you even care about philosophy that much), sections two and three of the book do a great job of presenting practical tips for approaching life in a way that will make you happier.
I will say that the first and last sections seem to drag on a bit, and despite the usefulness of sections two and three, the whole book feels like it could have been shorter. Irvine’s writing style can be tough to slog through at times. He often uses far more words than he needs to when getting a point across, and he repeats himself quite often. There is an advantage to this, of course — sometimes, the third rewording of an idea can be the one that really hits you. That’s why inspirational quotes are so popular, after all.
It’s not a long read, per se — and it’s still quite accessible — but I feel it could have benefited from some pretty serious editing. I don’t feel like I wasted my time, though, and a few months later, I’d already like to read the book again and mark off my favourite passages and sections. If you’re the kind of person that enjoys broader topics like how to stop overthinking everything or how to move past failure, you’ll probably love this book.
One final thing to note: A common criticism of Irvine’s book is that, in “adapting” Stoicism for a practical crowd in the modern world, he has warped it into something that, by historical standards, can’t really be called Stoicism. You can read these critiques in more detail if you’re curious, but the bottom line is: if you’re looking for a more academic and historically accurate description of the Stoic philosophy, this may not be the book for you. In the end, whether it can be called Stoicism or not, the book is useful — which is really what we’re looking for. This is, after all, Lifehacker.