Thoughts on Stoicism: On happiness

Rebeca Sarai · March 23, 2021

I recently found myself interested in dead greek personalities, I think it was after my reading of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which was pleasant and surprisingly easy to read. Weeks later I was reading Rhetoric by Aristotle and researching about Rome history and Greek tragedies. One thing that captured me was the philosophy, especially the life advice that dominated the ancients and that appears to be still useful today. It’s funny to notice that we, as humans, are equal to what we were centuries ago, we all have the same desires, impulses, concerns about the reaction of other people, lust, greed. Our gadgets change but we remain the same.

I also have a strong impression that our society is walking backward. We are in a decaying spiral of human enlightenment that is inversely proportional to the technological advances we create. As I see, the pinnacle of enlightenment of our race was already achieved and we are now degenerating into something else, that may be better but it probably will not. Of course, what enlightenment means? Based on what I am making these assumptions? Am I qualified to discuss this? Probably not, and is not my intent to do so. This feeling drove me to search what other humans were saying about life centuries ago, how they were dealing with the fundamental struggles of real life? Life is difficult today. Life was sure difficult in the past. What other ideas were being applied and are now forgotten by our society? In ancient Greek, I found a philosophy that developed itself in a school of thought adopted by one of the most powerful men that already lived in this world. The man was Marcus Aurelius, one of the Roman Emperors, the philosophy is Stoicism.

Stoicism states that the path to one’s happy life is to pursue tranquility and virtue, all other things, fame, success, and fortune are useless to the attainment of happiness. They developed psychological techniques for attaining and maintaining tranquility through the use of rationality, encouraging all to examine themselves. The pursue of the optimal way of living was a common concern for the ancient and diverse schools of thought were created proposing different ways to address this question. Stoicism is only one, out of the many schools that flourish at the time, despite that, it remains useful in today’s world serving as a guide from many powerful to helpless people in history. The sections below are a summary of what this philosophy says about life concerns and daily situations, alongside my perspective on them.

A good life for the Stoics had nothing to do with possessions or making a good living. Let me rephrase that: a good life had nothing to do with your status, with how much money you have, with how taken-cared you are in life. A good life is a life where one is constantly in a state of tranquility, a state marked by the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions. To put this in simple terms, happiness is to live in a state of unbroken tranquility, one is not disturbed by pains, sorrows, or even higher levels of excitement, resulting in a firm and unaltered state of joy.

Happiness is also tidily related to virtue, to the stoics only a virtuous person could have a good life and virtue depends on one’s excellence as a human being. They firmly believed that we were designed to live in accordance with nature. The explanation to this claim intertwines with the religious believes of ancient Greece, but the main outcome is that the human factor is our ability to reason, therefore one must use reason to find and fulfill the duties of a reasonable being.

From one side it looks similar to the modern career advice: “If you work on what you love, you will never have to work again”, except that it runs deeper. The calling for humans is to be reasonable, being reasonable implies duties and responsibilities (as we all know in pandemic times) which often can be hard to fulfill. Despite the difficulties, the search for virtue assures a good life.

In modern times this sounds almost like a scandal, first one needs to define virtue, and we lack a general definition of it. Second, we are actually incentivized to avoid general definitions because the “truth is relative”, life is different and we are different from each other, each one owns its truth. Even though I’m in general agreement with this view, I do believe in a set of fundamental virtues common to all decent human beings. I fleet from pointless discussions about the relativeness of things, or about what decency means etymologically, or about how virtue is a way of oppression. They are pointless, contributing with absolutely nothing to make any real change. For the stoics, one should pursue four virtues: courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance, the pursue would assure anyone a happy life.

Analyzing these claims rationally, stoicism defends that you hack your mind to want things that are in your control. It is in your power to decide to be fair, brave, and moderated. It is in your power to gather knowledge, to study, to base decisions on facts. The process to fulfill this challenge will bring you joy, adding a lifetime source of purpose since one can never reach perfection. Views on this philosophy relate to the teachings of religions such as Buddhism and Christianism. Jesus said in Luke 12: “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions… life is more than food, and the body more than clothes”, the full text of this chapter serves as a mirror to what stoics were saying about virtue and happiness (note that I quote the bible because I’m a Christian and don’t know much about Buddhism, however, feel free to suggest some reading material). The point to be made is that these pieces of advice are not new, they were not buried by the sands of time surviving in a variety of texts (some of them declared to be sacred), nevertheless, we remain focused on gadgets, other people’s opinions, conspiracy theories.

Summarizing stoic thoughts on happiness: possessions don’t matter, you need tranquility, to get tranquility you need to be virtuous and live life according to a purpose. Fulfill your purpose is mostly unpleasant, yet, you need to commit to it and this will give you happiness.

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