Guide to the Good Life : William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is a terrible letdown. Irvine has taken a subject that would be of interest to the person who is educated but not educated in Stoic philosophy, and shaped it into a little egomaniacal ball of his own earwax.

The book’s genuinely fascinating Stoic insights are engulfed by Irvine’s authorial voice. He spends far more energy talking about himself than actually being interesting. The book is littered with idiotic rhetorical flourishes like “Allow me to continue,” “allow me to recapitulate,” and so on, all of which were explicitly allowed when we picked up the book in the first place.

His is not the voice of a writer — it belongs to someone who loves the sound of his own voice. A Guide to the Good Life fails as a book for functional adults who care little about professorial conceits. The habitual self-aggrandizements that may substitute for authority to 20-year-old students are unsuccessful here. Knowing and teaching are one thing; writing is another thing altogether.

As an example of his droning self-absorption, here are the beginnings of the last seven paragraphs that open the last chapter of the book, “Practicing Stoicism”:

I will end this book by sharing some of the insights I have gained…

The first tip I would offer…

It is, I should add, quite easy to…

My next piece of advice for would-be Stoics is…

It is my experience that…

One thing I have discovered, though…

I tried making it my practice…

Emphatically, the important words are “I” and “my.” Granted, this chapter is about practicing Stoicism and therefore personal experience would be relevant. But an empty phrase like the above “I should add” is intrusive and adds nothing to the argument — while stylistically it subtracts quite a lot. Even chapters that should be free of any obvious personal reference point back to him over and over and over (from chapter 5): “As I shall explain in chapter 20…,” “In response to this complaint, I would point out…,” and — you get the idea.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, but at this point in my life I could actively use a little philosophy. I sought this book. It was frustrating to try to read beyond the author’s words to learn more about what was really interesting: the Stoics. Despite the quality of much of the content, it was hard not to throw the book across the room.

The book was good in that it may provoke me to pick up the primary sources, but with its publication a major opportunity was probably lost. It is doubtful there will be another mainstream book on Stoic philosophy for a long time, and that’s a shame. Irvine neglected the adult population that actually buys and reads books by forgetting to leave the pompous lecture back on campus with the kids.

Content: A. Text: D–.

Report card: C







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *