Stoicism and the Art of Happiness - Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life
How much do I want to read more? 9/10
Lovely book. I want to read as much as I can about stoicism. I'm falling in love with this philosophy and way of life.
The Metaphor of the Tree
Why, then, do you wonder that good men are shaken in order that they may grow strong? No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even of good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.
-- Seneca, On Providence
Preface: Modern Stoicism
"O ye who’ve learnt the doctrines of the Stoa
And have committed to your books divine
The best of human learning, teaching men
That the mind’s virtue is the only good!
She only it is who keeps the lives of men
And cities safer than high gates and walls.
But those who place their happiness in pleasure
Are led by the least worthy of the Muses."
Epictetus is saying that the only real possession you’ll ever have is your character and your ‘scheme of life,’ he calls it.
Zeus has given every person a spark from his own divinity, and no one can take that away from you, not even Zeus, and from that spark comes your character. Everything else is temporary and worthless in the long run, your body included. You know what he calls your possessions? ‘Trifles.’ You know what he calls the human body? ‘A vessel of clay containing a quart of blood.’ If you understand that, you won’t moan and groan, you won’t complain, you won’t blame other people for your troubles, and you won’t go around flattering people
(Wolfe, A Man in Full)
What’s this book all about?
If you ask most modern philosophers ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ they’ll probably just shrug and say that’s an unanswerable question. However, the major schools of ancient philosophy each proposed competing answers to that question. In a nutshell, the Stoics said that the goal (telos, ‘end’ or ‘purpose’) of life is to live consistently in harmony and agreement with the Nature of the universe, and to excel with regard to our own essential nature as rational and social beings. This is also described as ‘living according to virtue’ or aretê, although as you’ll see it’s best to think of that word as meaning excellence in a broader sense than the word ‘virtue’ normally implies – something I’ll explain later. It's synonymous with living wisely.
Stoicism assumed that the goal of life was Happiness (eudaimonia). The Stoics believed this coincides both with rational self-love and an attitude of friendship and affection towards others, sometimes described as Stoic ‘philanthropy’, or love of mankind.
For instance, the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius, writing in his journal, repeatedly advises himself to ‘love humanity from the bottom of your heart’ while rejoicing in doing good to others for its own sake and treating virtue as its own reward (Meditations, 7.13).
We might say that a central paradox of Stoicism is therefore its assumption that, far from being heartless, the ideal wise man, called the ‘Sage’ (sophos), will both love others and yet be undisturbed by the inevitable losses and misfortunes that life inflicts on him. He has natural emotions and desires but is not overwhelmed by them, and remains guided by reason.
In fact, Stoicism provides a rich armamentarium of strategies and techniques for developing psychological resilience, by changing our feelings rationally and naturally rather than simply trying to block them by force. In a sense, ancient Stoicism was the granddaddy of all ‘self-help’. Its doctrines and practices have inspired many modern approaches to both personal development and psychological therapy.
the modern psychotherapy that most resembles ancient Stoic ‘remedies’ for emotional problems is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and its precursor Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).
the first chapter of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, where he shows how an aspiring Stoic may contemplate the virtues of his friends, family, colleagues, and perhaps even some of his enemies, to find traces of inspiration.
I’m interested in Stoicism, therefore, because I agree with what I consider to be its core doctrines, and because I believe its psychological exercises are of practical value in modern living. However, I also find much of the surviving Stoic literature to be both beautiful and profound.
Why focus on Stoic Ethics and psychotherapy?
the Stoics divided their philosophical curriculum into three topics, called ‘Ethics’, ‘Physics’ and ‘Logic’.
We’re mainly going to focus on Stoic Ethics.
- We know far more about Stoic Ethics than about their Physics or Logic. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – are mainly concerned with this topic, which may have been the central focus of late Roman Stoicism in general.
- There tends to be most interest in Stoic Ethics among modern readers because of its obvious relationship with contemporary self-help and psychological therapies, such as CBT, whereas the remnants of their (theologically-grounded) Physics may be perceived as less relevant today, and ancient Logic can be less accessible to the average reader.
- Some important, albeit unorthodox, Stoics focused solely on Ethics.
Musonius Rufus: "in order to protect ourselves we must live like doctors and be continually treating ourselves with reason."
we must allow philosophy to remain with us, continually guarding our judgements throughout life, forming part of our daily regimen, like eating a nutritious diet or taking physical exercise.
As we’ll see, the Stoic ‘therapy of the passions’ aimed at nothing less than the transformation of our character. Stoic ethics and therapy go hand in hand.
A taste of the Stoic paradoxes
Zeno proclaimed many famous ‘paradoxes’, which literally meant ideas that go against what the majority believe, flying in the face of popular opinion.
the Stoics were influenced by the Cynics, who we’re told would walk against the flow of the crowds leaving a theatre, or walk about backwards in public. This illustrated their desire, paradoxically, to swim against the current in life and go in the opposite direction from the majority of people.
Cicero defends six notoriously cryptic ‘Stoic Paradoxes’ in his short book of that title:
- Virtue, or moral excellence, is the only good (conventional ‘goods’ such as health, wealth and reputation fundamentally count as nothing with regard to living a good life).
- Virtue is completely sufficient for Happiness and fulfilment, a man who is virtuous lacks no requirement of the good life.
- All forms of virtue are equal as are all forms of vice (in terms of the benefit or harm they do to the individual himself).
- Everyone who lacks perfect wisdom is insane (which basically means everyone alive; we’re all essentially mad).
- Only the wise man is really free and everyone else is enslaved (even when the wise man is imprisoned by a tyrant, or sentenced to death like Socrates, he is still freer than everyone else, including his oppressors).
- Only the wise man is truly rich (even if, like Diogenes the Cynic, he owns nothing that he can’t carry in his knapsack).
Musonius Rufus apparently used to say that students were expected to be left in stunned silence following his lectures rather than applauding him. They felt that they’d heard something radical and powerful but they were often unsure what to make of it all at first. I’d say that this is true for modern readers as well. If we don’t feel at least slightly unsettled by what the Stoics are saying then we’re probably missing something important about their philosophy.
Case study: The University of Exeter’s research project on modern Stoicism
the assumption that by altering relevant beliefs we can overcome emotional distress.
Stoic Week has been running each year since. In 2018, 7,000 people participated in the project online, and data were collected from them.
the data each year have consistently shown a roughly 10 per cent increase across three different self-report measures of psychological wellbeing.
the three most useful:
- Stoic mindfulness (prosochê)
- The retrospective evening meditation
- The view from above
Stoicism today in the modern world
there is a growing community of people studying it around the world.
roughly 100,000 people are members of the various communities for Stoicism online.
Jules Evans also published a book recently called Philosophy for Life, which gives many concrete examples of people who apply ancient philosophy to modern living, particularly Stoicism and related Socratic schools of thought (Evans, 2012).
Stoicism has been especially popular with the modern military.
Many people, on the other hand, will have learned of Stoicism from Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed novel, A Man in Full (1998).
The bestselling popular introduction to Stoicism is probably William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Irvine, 2009).