The ancient philosophy of the Stoics can help us live a happier and more fulfilling life today
Stoicism was a school of philosophy created in Ancient Greece more than 2000 years ago, but many of its precepts are still relevant today. Modern men and women can find solace, tranquillity, and happiness if they follow some of its teachings.
I am not a Stoic, and I will not pretend to be one, but I like many of the elements forming this philosophy, so I have incorporated them into my personal philosophy. I don’t believe in labels and categories or in calling yourself a Stoic, an Epicurean, or a Communist if that means having to subscribe to all the elements forming one of these -isms. We should be able to pick and choose whatever fancies us and build our own personal philosophy of life, mixing different ideas.
For a long time now, Philosophy, with a capital letter, has confined itself to the dusty offices of universities and academia, with no practical use in real life. Many of today’s philosophers spend their days discussing linguistic tricks with no real practical life utility, but it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be so.
When Zeno of Citium created Stoicism in the early 3rd century BC in Athens, it was to be a philosophy of life. Its purpose was to help its adherents to conduct a happy and fulfilling life. It was competing with other philosophy schools like the Cynics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics, or the Peripatetics.
Back then, philosophy dealt with the topic of what it meant to live a good life. This is one of the main questions of life, it’s the meaning of life itself, and I believe we haven’t been able to answer it correctly yet, more than two millennia later, because there is no single answer. Each of us must find meaning in our lives, and it’s not always easy. Stoicism can be helpful in that you can find in it some of the elements that could be part of your own personal meaning. They are definitely part of mine.
How to be happy, the Stoic way
Stoics were very successful in Ancient Greece, where philosophers like Zeno and Epictetus shone, but it was also notoriously popular in the Roman Empire. Some of its principles fit well with the values present in the Roman high classes. Thinkers like Seneca, who was a very wealthy individual, similar to a modern-day investment banker and had influence over a few Emperors, or Marcus Aurelius, who was a Roman Emperor himself, were some of the most prominent Roman Stoics.
One of the reasons for their success was their interest in having a good life and achieving happiness and fulfillment. Stoics promote the search for tranquillity above anything else, as the main source of joy. For them, happiness is not achieved by satisfying all your needs and having an exciting life, but by being calm and having a tranquil and serene life that allows you to think, reflect and enjoy what life has to offer.
The problem with needs
One of the main insights the Stoics had was to realise that human beings are insatiable. We are overwhelmed by constant needs: hunger, lust for sex, need to be loved, want of money and fame, etc. Every time we achieve something we wanted, we want more of it, or we want something new. It never ends, and it can become a constant source of dissatisfaction. Some philosophies of life focused on achieving all this, but this is a fool’s errand; it never ends.
Stoics focused instead on wanting less. Rather than change the outside world, their focus is on changing oneself. They focused on the inner world we all inhabit instead of the external one. They realised the easiest way for us to achieve happiness was to learn how to want things we already had. This is, of course, easier said than done.
One of the main techniques Stoics used was what the author William B. Irvine calls negative visualisation in his book A Guide To The Good Life (the Ancient art of Stoic Joy), which I highly recommend. This technique consists of imagining that we have lost things we love and cherish. We should contemplate the death of people we love and how sad we would feel, but also our own death and all the beautiful things in life we would miss. We should also contemplate the loss of possessions, wealth, and objects we like.
This technique sounds macabre and a tad masochist, but it can be very useful, as what it does is make you appreciate and value the people and objects in your life better. It increases gratitude and satisfaction for what you already have and stops you from always looking for what you don’t have yet. The neighbour’s grass is not always greener than ours, after all.
The problem with worries
The second source of unhappiness for Stoics is that we worry too much. We spend our lives worrying about things over which we have little or no control. We regret our past mistakes and get anxious about future situations that haven’t happened and will most likely never happen. We, human beings, are natural worriers. This has helped us evolve and survive in the past, but in our ultra-safe current environment, this trait is more of a limiting factor than a booster.
Epictetus started his Handbook with the words: “some things are up to us and some are not up to us.” This assertion is simple but powerful. Epictetus and other Stoics introduced the concept of the Dichotomy of Control, which Irvine converted really into a trichotomy, as there are three elements to consider:
- There are things over which we have complete control, like the goals we set for ourselves, our values, opinions, and even our character (at least for people like Marcus Aurelius, who thought we had the power to shape and build our character by reflecting about it and working on it).
- There are things over which we have no control at all, like the weather, the stock market, or the policies of the government. A Stoic would not waste any energy on any of this, as in Marcus Aurelius’s words, “nothing is worth doing pointlessly.” Worrying about or trying to influence things we cannot control at all is pointless indeed.
- There are things over which we have some, but not complete control, like for example, winning a tennis match (it depends on who you play against, but your skills and practice also count) or your partner’s mood (it is their mood, but you can influence it through your actions). We should be concerned about these things, but considering that it will also depend on others and regardless of all the efforts and worries we put into it, we may still not achieve our objectives. Stoics would recommend setting up internal rather than external goals (I’ll play tennis to the best of my ability as opposed to I will win the match), so they have control over the outcome.
The Stoic approach to…
Apart from living the good and happy life, Stoics delved into many other topics. Let’s analyse some of them here.
I have mentioned above that Stoics would contemplate their own and their loved ones’ death. Death is an essential part of life and is something we all will eventually encounter, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, famous and unknown. Death is inevitable, but we don’t like to think about it.
Stoics did think about it, and in a way that helped them live a better life. They accepted death, they didn’t try to escape it at all costs. Many Stoics preferred to kill themselves than to live lives that weren’t worth living anymore.
Seneca probably expresses best the Stoics’ views about death when he said he had been dead already (an idea I wrote about in a recent post):
“(I was dead) before I was born. Death is just not being. What that is like I know already. It will be the same after me as it was before me. (…) Death is all that was before us.”Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Fame and wealth
Stoics weren’t like Cynics, who renounced material goods and riches (the most famous Cynic, Diogenes, lived in a barrel, and his only possessions were a cloak, a walking stick and a leather poach). As explained above, Seneca was one of the wealthiest persons in the Roman Empire, and Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor. They were both rich and famous.
Stoics won’t renounce wealth and fame, but they won’t pursue them either. They looked for inner peace and tranquillity, and money and fame aren’t conducive to them. They usually disturb your tranquillity. If we are too attached to our possessions or too worried about our fame or what others think about us, we stop having control over our happiness and giving this control to external factors, which is something Stoics wanted to avoid.
If you have the means to have a comfortable life, you should not relinquish it, but you should always be ready to part from your possessions. Stoics were not ascetics after all, and they were known for enjoying the little pleasures of life. They didn’t want to fall slaves to them, though.
Seneca once again explained it best when talking about wealth:
“You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.”Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Essential and enough are relative concepts, of course, but regardless, I find those words wise. If only Seneca had followed his own advice in his personal life…
Purpose and meaning
The following is another quote from Seneca (the last one, I promise).
“It is his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit. For man is a rational animal. Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy -that he lives in accordance with his own nature.”Lucius Annaeus Seneca
This is one of my favourite quotes. The premise is again simple, but powerful. We should all live in accordance with our nature, to who we really are.
We can only be happy if we listen to our inner voice, follow our dreams and live the life we are meant to live, not less, not more. The problem is that we usually don’t know ourselves very well. That’s why the first step towards happiness and fulfillment must be self-discovery and self-awareness. Know thyself, and then live your life according to your nature, to who you really are, not to what society or others dictate.
An empowering philosophy of life
I like Stoicism because it is an empowering philosophy of life. Its basic premise is that we as human beings have all the necessary tools to live a fulfilling life. It all depends on us. There is nowhere to hide, nobody to blame. It is up to each of us. I find this liberating and empowering.
Stoicism doesn’t pretend to change the world, only the individuals populating it. We don’t need to change the world to be happy, only our mindset and outlook towards it. You can suffer and have considerable drawbacks, we all have them, but still be happy if you look at things the right way. Stoicism helps you do this.
For an ancient philosophy in vogue more than two thousand years ago, it is today more relevant than ever. It has the necessary elements to continue being relevant and helpful for centuries and millennia to come. It will continue being relevant and valuable as long as humans are around, as it touches upon some of our most basic human needs to achieve a fulfilling and happy life. Become a modern Stoic, and you will be happier and more content for it.