Wednesday, October 22, 2008

William B. Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life"

William B. Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of On Desire: Why We Want What We Want.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, and reported the following:
Regrettably, my book fails the "Page 99 Test"—or, as I prefer to put it, the Page 99 Test fails my book. This is because p. 99 of Guide to the Good Life contains a slightly technical discussion of negative visualization, hedonic adaptation, and internalization of goals, all of which concepts have been introduced and explained (with admirable clarity!) in previous pages. Without reading those pages, readers would be at a loss.

Although my book does not fare well under the Page 99 Test, it passes the "Page 84 Test" with flying colors. This last test was devised by 19th century author Anthony Trollope (or was it Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope? I can never remember). Although the Page 84 Test is not nearly as well known as its Page 99 cousin, studies have shown the two test to be equally reliable. I therefore submit, for your consideration, the results of the Page 84 Test:

Copyright © 2009 by William B. Irvine
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. More generally, we should keep in mind that any human activity that cannot be carried on indefinitely must have a final occurrence. There will be—or already has been!—a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch. There will be a last time you hear the sound of snow falling, watch the moon rise, smell popcorn, feel the warmth of a child falling asleep in your arms, or make love. You will someday eat your last meal, and soon thereafter you will take your last breath.

Sometimes the world gives us advance notice that we are about to do something for the last time. We might, for example, eat at a favorite restaurant the night before it is scheduled to close, or we might kiss a lover who is forced by circumstances to move to a distant part of the globe, presumably forever. Previously, when we thought we could repeat them at will, a meal at this restaurant or a kiss shared with our lover might have been unremarkable. But now that we know they cannot be repeated, they will likely become extraordinary events: The meal will be the best we ever had at the restaurant, and the parting kiss will be one of the most intensely bittersweet experiences life has to offer.

By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. Some people, I realize, will find it depressing or even morbid to contemplate impermanence. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.
Read an excerpt from A Guide to the Good Life, and learn more about the author and his work at William B. Irvine's website.

--Marshal Zeringue