A Guide to the Good Life

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Philosophical thinking took a giant leap forward in the sixth century BC:

  • Pythagoras (570-500 BC) in Italy
  • Thales (636-546 BC), Anaximander (641-547 BC), and Heracleitus (535-475 BC) in Greece
  • Confucius (551-479 BC) in China
  • Buddha (563-483 BC) in India

Featured Stoics:

  • Diogenes Laertius
  • Epictetus
  • Epicurus
  • Lucilius
  • Marcus Aurelius
  • Seneca
  • Zeno

Rules For Life

If you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.

Whatever philosophy of life you adopt, you will probably have a better life than if you tried to live without a coherent philosophy of life.

Pursue things genuinely valuable — otherwise when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living.

Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.

Periodically meditate on the events of daily living, how you responded to these events, and how, in accordance with Stoic principles, you should have responded to them.

Stop blaming, censuring, and praising others. Stop boasting about ourselves and how much we know. Blame yourself, not external circumstances, when your desires are thwarted.

Stoicism In A Nutshell

Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.

To be virtuous, then, is to live as we were designed to live; it is to live, as Zeno put it, in accordance with nature. The Stoics would add that if we do this, we will have a good life.

A Stoic sage, according to Diogenes Laertius, is “free from vanity; for he is indifferent to good or evil report.” He never feels grief, since he realizes that grief is an “irrational contraction of the soul.” His conduct is exemplary. He doesn’t let anything stop him from doing his duty. Although he drinks wine, he doesn’t do so in order to get drunk. The Stoic sage is, in short, “godlike.”

Thus, for the Roman Stoics, the pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of tranquility are components of a virtuous circle —indeed, a doubly virtuous circle: the pursuit of virtue results in a degree of tranquility, which in turn makes it easier for us to pursue virtue.

Logic And Rationale

Stoic logic showed an unprecedented degree of sophistication. The Stoics’ interest in logic is a natural consequence of their belief that man’s distinguishing feature is his rationality. Logic is, after all, the study of the proper use of reasoning.

By studying logic, they hoped to perform well one of the functions for which we were designed; namely, to behave in a rational manner. And by studying physics, they hoped to gain insight into the purpose for which we were designed.

Students who knew logic could detect the fallacies committed by others and thereby prevail over them in arguments.

We experience hunger; this is nature’s way of getting us to nourish ourselves. We also experience lust; this is nature’s way of getting us to reproduce. But we differ from other animals in one important respect: we have the ability to reason. From this we can conclude, Zeno would assert, that we were designed to be reasonable.

Simple Living And Happiness

“The gods had given to men the means of living easily, but this had been put out of sight, because we require honeyed cakes, unguents and the like.” Such is the madness of men, he said, that they choose to be miserable when they have it in their power to be content. The problem is that “bad men obey their lusts as servants obey their masters,” and because they cannot control their desires, they can never find contentment.

You are living in what to your ancestors would have been a dream world. You take for granted things that your ancestors had to live without.

He believed hunger to be the best appetizer, and because he waited until he was hungry or thirsty before he ate or drank, “he used to partake of a barley cake with greater pleasure than others did of the costliest of foods, and enjoyed a drink from a stream of running water more than others did their Thasian wine.”

Whereas Seneca wanted to appreciate what he had, Epicurus wanted to examine the things he thought he needed so he could determine which of them he could in fact live without. He realized that in many cases, we work hard to obtain something because we are convinced that we would be miserable without it. The problem is that we can live perfectly well without some of these things, but we won’t know which they are if we don’t try living without them.

Seneca, after advising us to enjoy life, cautions us not to develop “over-much love” for the things we enjoy. To the contrary, we must take care to be “the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune.”

The Stoics see nothing wrong, for example, with enjoying the pleasures to be derived from friendship, family life, a meal, or even wealth, but they counsel us to be circumspect in our enjoyment of these things. There is, after all, a fine line between enjoying a meal and lapsing into gluttony.

People are unhappy, the Stoics argue, in large part because they are confused about what is valuable. Because of their confusion, they spend their days pursuing things that, rather than making them happy, make them anxious and miserable.

When, as the result of being exposed to luxurious living, people become hard to please, a curious thing happens. Rather than mourning the loss of their ability to enjoy simple things, they take pride in their newly gained inability to enjoy anything but “the best.”

Likewise, we should keep in mind Seneca’s comment to Lucilius that “the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man.”

Find delight in your own resources, and desire no joys greater than your inner joys.

More generally, it is perfectly acceptable, says Seneca, for a Stoic to acquire wealth, as long as he does not harm others to obtain it. It is also acceptable for a Stoic to enjoy wealth, as long as he is careful not to cling to it. The idea is that it is possible to enjoy something and at the same time be indifferent to it.

The first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances. The second step in transforming a society is to change people’s external circumstances.

Negative Visualization

  • Appreciate the things we have.
  • Prepare for bad things to happen.

“He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.”

Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.”

Epictetus echoes this advice: we should keep in mind that “all things everywhere are perishable.” If we fail to recognize this and instead go around assuming that we will always be able to enjoy the things we value, we will likely find ourselves subject to considerable distress when the things we value are taken from us.

To them, living as if each day were our last is simply an extension of the negative visualization technique: as we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity.

And besides contemplating the loss of our life, say the Stoics, we should contemplate the loss of our possessions. Most of us spend our idle moments thinking about the things we want but don’t have. We would be much better off, Marcus says, to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours.

Instead of merely thinking about what it would be like to lose your wealth, periodically practice poverty: content yourself with cheap fare and rough dress.

Ensure you never get too comfortable. Periodically experience discomfort that you could have avoided. Underdress for cold weather or go shoeless. Become thirsty or hungry, even though water and food are at hand.

Do not inflict these discomforts to punish yourself; rather, do it to increase your enjoyment of life.

We need to keep firmly in mind that everything we value and the people we love will someday be lost to us. If nothing else, our own death will deprive us of them.

Hedonic Adaptation

You are unlikely to have a good and meaningful life unless you can overcome your insatiability.

We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.

One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: we need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get.

The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.

Not needing wealth is more valuable than wealth itself. If you are exposed to a luxurious lifestyle, you might lose your ability to take delight in simple things.

In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission — indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, “we should love all of our dear ones, but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever — no promise even that we may keep them for long.”


For the Stoics self-control will be an important trait to acquire. After all, if we lack self-control, we are likely to be distracted by the various pleasures life has to offer, and in this distracted state we are unlikely to attain the goals of our philosophy of life.

More generally, if we cannot resist pleasures, we will end up playing, Marcus says, the role of slave, “twitching puppet-wise at every pull of self-interest,” and we will spend our life” ever grumbling at today or lamenting over tomorrow.

What Stoics discover, though, is that willpower is like muscle power: the more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control.

By practicing self-denial techniques over a long period, you can transform yourself into someone remarkable for your courage and self-control. You will be able to do things that others dread doing, and refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. You will be thoroughly in control of yourself. This self-control makes it far more likely that you will attain the goals of your philosophy of life, and this in turn dramatically increases your chances of living a good life.


Perform with resoluteness the duties we humans were created to perform. Nothing else should distract you. When you wake, rather than lying in bed, you must get up to do the proper work of man, the work you were created to perform.

By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control.

Any time and energy spent on events you can’t control will have no effect on the outcome of events and will therefore be wasted time and energy.

Internalize your goals. Make a goal not to change the world, but to do your best to bring about certain changes. Even if your efforts prove to be ineffectual, you can rest easy knowing you accomplished your goal: you did what you could do.

Be fatalistic with respect to the past and present. Refuse to compare your situation with alternative, preferable situations in which you might have found or might now find yourself.

Don’t work out of fear. “If I don’t perform they will fire me.” The main driver for good work should be internal. You also should strive for recognition from your peers and community.

Love your work as a whole. Aim for the big picture. Every aspect of your work deserves care and attention if you think of it as a whole i.e. street artist that has to put up with city regulations. She maybe doesn’t enjoy the visits to the city council, but she keeps in mind the big picture, and it just becomes part of the mission.


Marcus suggests, lessen the negative impact other people have on our life by controlling our thoughts about them. He counsels us, for example, not to waste time speculating about what our neighbors are doing, saying, thinking, or scheming. Nor should we allow our mind to be filled with “sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other sentiments” about them that we would blush to admit. A good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest.

Avoid befriending people whose values have been corrupted, so their values won’t contaminate yours. Instead seek people who share our values and in particular, people who are doing a better job than we are of living in accordance with good values. While enjoying the companionship of these individuals, work hard to learn what you can from them.

Social fatalism: when dealing with others, assume they are fated to behave in a certain way. It is therefore pointless to wish they could be any other way.

First published on March 30, 2017