the item

A Guide to the Good Life
A Guide to the Good Life
2008

the questions

  1. How to hack stuff
  2. Great stories

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the consensus

An excellent book for those wanting to optimize their productivity and their life. It teaches how to handle both successes and failures better and achieve tranquility and joy while doing so.


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the review


Daniel Markham

Medieval Christian scholars were faced with a dilemma: their religious beliefs required them to believe that the soul was saved through a relationship with Jesus, yet going through the newly discovered Greek and Roman writings it was obvious to them that great men of virtue and honor were alive many centuries before Jesus lived. How could these people be of such high caliber yet believe such vastly different things?

In an interesting religious hack, they decided that such people were "naturally saved", that is, by observing and living in nature in a noble and perceptive way, they achieved the main goal (at least as far as Christians were concerned)

That's quite a cultural achievement - having somebody of a completely different philosophy and world-view endorse a new and strange way of living - and it has never been reproduced in the same way since. When the Greek and Roman writers were discovered (or perhaps "re-remembered"), it completely changed the face of western civilization. Everything you see around you is based on it; the modern city, our cosmopolitan way of living, the value of virtue and reasoning.

Reading about those Christians, it gave me a double problem: what was it about studying the ancients that had such a profound impact on people? It's not just the medieval Christians. Everywhere I read, famous people who studied the Greeks and Romans found that it profoundly changed their lives. What was it that made George Washington such a humble person, even though he was for all intents and purposes a new king? What values did Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson have that I lack? Cato was a famous example of this. He was known as a "true Roman", a Roman that upheld the empire's greatest spirit. Over the centuries lots of folks have come up with ideas about why Rome fell, but during the actual time, many Romans felt that the more Romans drifted away from Cato's values, the more the empire was doomed.

I'm a body and mind hacker. I've always believed in messing around with the way my body and mind functions in an effort to make my life better: more productive, more insightful, more joyous, more tranquil. To me, hacking your mind and body has a much more beneficial result than simply hacking together some technology. Technology changes, but you're stuck with your mind and body. In pursuit of that goal I've absrobed a lot of material. But as much as I've read, attended lectures, watched videos and read technical works, I've never been able to figure out exactly what it was about the way that the Greeks and Romans lived that had such personally transformative power on some of the people who studied them. Their ideas, sure, stupendously incredible, but personally life-changing? I just didn't get it.

Until now.

I'm also a bit of a book-junkie and lurker. I love listening to people recommend books to each other. So when I heard a couple commenters on HackerNews talking about "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy", about what a tremendous impact it was making in their life, I knew immediately I had to get the book and read it.

Until I told my friends.

"Oh sure," one wag said sarcastically, "nothing says 'joy' like stoicism, right?"

Ouch.

Another put it more bluntly.

"If the stoics had such great ideas, why are they all gone now?"

Both good points, and the author had better deliver on them if the book was to be worth the money I paid.

I got the book on a Wednesday, and poured through it in a couple of days. One of the first things I learned was that the word "stoic" has changed meaning over the centuries: what we think of as stocism has little to do with what the Romans thought of the word. We think of stoicism as bland, boring, unresponsive. The Romans had various schools of philosophy which thought of Stoicism as just another way to lead one's life.

Today if you ask a philosopher how to lead a good life, you're likely to get into a long boring discussion about linguistics and the meaning of language. Back then the Romans understood that philosophy was engaged with the big questions. If you ask me, somewhere philosophers have forgotten what their jobs are.

Several times while reading I was amazed at the insight the Stoics had. Many times I said to myself, "If I had only read this when I was a teenager! How much better my life would have been. How much better I would handled such-and-such a situation" Irvine managed not only to answer my questions, but to provide a glimpse into what the big deal was all about.

I won't go into too much detail -- I'm not an expert and I don't want to muddy the waters by what little I absorbed. I'm happy to say that I loved the author's description of Stoicism as "Zen Buddhism for analytical people" which describes the fact that Stocism is not a religion, just a set of tools to lead a better life. It also describes the purpose of Stoicism: to have a joyous, happy, fun-filled life by better learning the art of living.

I'm a firm believer that there are several subjects that are critical to functioning in a modern society that we are not teaching children: economics, calculus, statistics, creative writing, business, negotiation, and now I add to that list, stoicism.

Will the book have this huge impact on my life? I don't know. I have my doubts. At 45 it's probably a very difficult thing to do to change course. Over the years I've read a lot of upbeat books, and I've been excited about my fair share of them. As part of that experience, I've become a very cynical person, and I'm always on the lookout for fads. I think for such a major change so late it would require an instructor and a lot of time. But who knows? I'm eagerly looking forward to integrating Stoic practices that I am learning into my lifestyle. Like many things, the concepts seem easy enough, it's just actually doing them that might be tough. Ask me again in ten years. I might have a better answer.

But the best, most awesome part of this book, hands-down, was to read the excitement and insight that William Irvine brings to the table and to get a glimpse of what it was really like to be a "real" Roman. He really understands who Cato was, and he really understands what it meant to be a Stoic. I've gained a huge insight into what about the way those folks lived - not just their ideas - and how what they learned can be of immediate impact to me today, right now. I want to learn more.

Over the past decade, I've been hard at work on my belief stack. Existentialism, Fundamentalist Agnosticism, and now Stoicism. I find that Stoicism fits nicely in with the other two, giving both life that neither had on their own.

Great history, great ideas, great insights on the best way to live and an enjoyable read - what's there not to like?


Daniel is a life-long hacker and founder of HN-Books. He blogs at whattofix.com and his email is DanielBMarkham@hotmail.com

   

the buzz

Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along


One of the great fears many of us face is that despite all our effort and striving, we will discover at the end that we have wasted our life. In A Guide to the Good Life, William B. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives. In A Guide to the Good Life, Irvine offers a refreshing presentation of Stoicism, showing how this ancient philosophy can still direct us toward a better life. Using the psychological insights and the practical techniques of the Stoics, Irvine offers a roadmap for anyone seeking to avoid the feelings of chronic dissatisfaction that plague so many of us. Irvine looks at various Stoic techniques for attaining tranquility and shows how to put these techniques to work in our own life. As he does so, he describes his own experiences practicing Stoicism and offers valuable first-hand advice for anyone wishing to live better by following in the footsteps of these ancient philosophers. Readers learn how to minimize worry, how to let go of the past and focus our efforts on the things we can control, and how to deal with insults, grief, old age, and the distracting temptations of fame and fortune. We learn from Marcus Aurelius the importance of prizing only things of true value, and from Epictetus we learn how to be more content with what we have.

Finally, A Guide to the Good Life shows readers how to become thoughtful observers of their own life. If we watch ourselves as we go about our daily business and later reflect on what we saw, we can better identify the sources of distress and eventually avoid that pain in our life. By doing this, the Stoics thought, we can hope to attain a truly joyful life.

     


What is this?

A while back I wrote an article on my blog listing all the books that hackers recommended to each other from the site HackerNews. The purpose was to provide a place to list book recommendations so that people didn't have to type in the same list over and over again. (HN gets several requests for book recommendations a week. I also get at least a couple each month). It was very well received, and many posters and commenters either asked that I make a site or sent me an email asking me to do so.

How is this any different from the list on the blog?

This list has more books. This list is sortable both by what question you have and your skill level. In addition, once you sort the list, you can save the link with your sort and send it to somebody else. So, for instance, when somebody wants a book for noobs learning to program, you can make a link for that and then reuse it

How did you collect these books?

Initially the list came from Googling HackerNews.com "best book" and taking the books from the first few pages returned. Later, I added all the books that were mentioned "You left that out!" when Jacques posted the link. While adding those books, I came across a Stack Overflow link where programmers were asked to list their favorite tech books, so I included those too.

If I ask you to put a book on here, will you?

It depends.

These books were all gathered by finding places where hackers hang out and are suggesting books to other hackers and other hackers agree with them by voting up their suggestion. If I can find an example of this for your book, I'm happy to include it.

How are the books ranked?

I did the best I could with ranking. I am sure there are many things you do not agree with. It would be possible to add voting and personal ranking -- that would make the system much better. Heck, you could rank the books yourself and use it as a customized book list to show to people who want your advice. I'd like to do that, but if I've learned anything is to not let your featureset get ahead of the users. This first version will test the waters to see what kind of interest the community might have.