The Stoics, Virtue, and Happiness


The Stress of These Times

For anyone who has paid attention, this 2020 presidential election has been stressful. Now that we have a winner – and a loser – perhaps we can breathe. Yes, our current president is seeking salvation in the courts, but that’s not likely to happen. The threats of his followers may turn to violence, but the police and national guard are preparing themselves. The voting process was more peaceful than some of us feared. I suspect the transition in the White House will be as well.

Around the country, there are calls for healing. It’s a wonderful idea, and I hope our next president and his staff have the wisdom to guide us in the repair of our communities and our relationships. But just as healing is a long, slow process for traumatized humans, it has been and will continue to be for our country, as well. Our nation’s founding was filled with trauma, and we continue to react out of the trauma of those violent days.

Stoics would have us slow down and quiet our emotions. Before we can do that, however, we must notice them. What do you feel at this moment? If you are responding to our recent election, your emotions may depend on your political persuasion. Maybe you feel despair or exaltation, rage or relief, hope or fear, commiseration or buoyancy. If something else is affecting your life, if a loved one is sick or you just lost your job, you may be feeling something else entirely.

Slow Down and Notice

Our sensations often lead to emotions, especially when we believe the thoughts and judgments we tell about them. If we supported our current president, we may think the election was stolen. That will bring up anxiety, fear, anger. These in turn will feed our belief that the election was unfair, and that belief will increase our anger.

If, on the other hand, we thrilled that Biden won, we will celebrate. Our bodies might fill with sensations of relief, happiness, and maybe pleasure at having bested an enemy. We will feed those feelings with thoughts that confirm our rightness and our enemy’s wrongness.

Some of us won’t feel either of these things. We might be sad because the country is so divided. Depending on what we tell ourselves about this division, we can grow more frightened and more depressed, or we can get angry, or we can find contentment because we know we’ve been this divided many times in the past, and we will be again. Our country has been through a lot. We can get through this, as well.

What story is true? Which experience makes sense? Where is the reality and where is the fabrication? Slow down and pay attention. That is what the Stoics would have us do.

The Key to Happiness

But Stoicism isn’t just about calming our emotional response. It’s about happiness.

Religions and philosophies from around the world and back through the centuries teach us that happiness is not found in material goods. The Stoics labeled these material good “indifferents.” That includes things like our homes, food, clothes, jewelry, phones, photos, books and other objects. Indifferents includes non-material things, too, such as beauty, reputation, health, illness, or shame. Some might make us feel pleasure; some not so much. Indifferents aren’t good or bad in and of themselves, but how we use them matters. We can harm others with our power and prestige, or we can serve and comfort others. The former is a vice and leads to unhappiness; the latter is a virtue and leads to happiness. For Stoics, virtue is the only path to happiness.

What Is Stoic Virtue?

How do we know if we’re being virtuous? We are wise, courageous, just, and behave with moderation.

Those who are wise show good sense, resourcefulness, and discretion. According to Epictetus, a Greek slave who became a Stoic philosopher, the wise person seeks to distinguish between what is under his control and what is not. To do this, she looks within. As she develops wisdom, she ceases to judge those around her. She discovers goodness in her ability to act virtuously and vice in her badness. [1]

In other words, wisdom depends on our virtuous behavior. What then of the other virtues?

A wise person is courageous. Industrious and confident, he endures hardship without complaint. He is steadfast. The courageous person grows in compassion as he faces adversity. Having developed courage, we can seek justice. The just man is guided by piety and honesty, seeking to be fair in our dealings with others even when it is not to our advantage. Thus, justice is not for the faint of heart. Finally, there is moderation which is self-control, modesty, and discipline. [2]

Zeno, a Stoic Philosopher

Emotion Versus Feeling

We can’t just want to be virtuous, however. It takes discipline. One thing we must learn to discipline is our reactivity. We must manage our emotions. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should deny or shove down our feelings. Not even Stoics believed we should do that.

We need our emotions. Whether they developed because God gave them to us or because they have evolutionary value, we humans have been born with the capacity to experience emotions for a reason. It’s a common understanding, and the Stoics believed it as well. [3]. If nothing else, our emotions give us information. For instance, when we are in danger, we protect ourselves because our emotions drive us to do so.

Of course, the information we receive from our sensations and emotions are not always accurate. Just because we fear or hate something does not make it dangerous or loathsome.

In her book, Stoicism and Emotion, Margaret Graver distinguishes emotion from feeling. Our feelings are the sensations we experience in our bodies, the tension or fluttering or warmth. Emotion is a mix of these bodily experiences and our interpretation of them. In order to emote, we must have some thought about the sensation. Are we experiencing anxiety or excitement, anger or despair, friendship or longing? Only our minds can decide, and we make a decision based on our beliefs about our feelings and about our life.

Managing Our Emotions

Yet our minds don’t always have the chance to analyze what we’re feeling. If our fear is strong enough, or our rage virulent enough, our bodies react before our frontal cortex has processed the sensations. Traumatic memories can flood us without our conscious minds realizing what has happened. Often, we accept our feelings as accurate representations of reality, and we act based on that representation. We may run or fight, seduce or hide, give voice to our hatred and scorn, offer advice or judgment, or bring blankets to the homeless not because we have rationally considered our options and made a choice, but because our emotions entice us to.

The Stoics suggested, instead, that we logically consider our situation and our sensations. Notice our feelings, recognize the story we tell ourselves about events, and accept that our beliefs are often fallacious. Our life experiences, the messages we got from our parents or our teachers, our standing in the world, the gossip we listen to, the shame we feel, the opportunities we have, our natural gifts, our limitations, all contribute to how we see and respond to the world around us. We feel what we feel because of who we are and what we think. Those feelings then influence our thoughts. It’s a cycle, but one which we can, to a certain extent control. If we remember that our feelings, emotions, and thoughts shift and change, and that they influence each other, we might be able to hold them lightly. In this way, we can become virtuous.

Being Virtuous

But why would we want to do that?

Because we want to be happy. Remember, according to the Stoics, virtue brings us happiness. We might think a good job, a loving marriage, or a comfortable home will make us happy, but that’s not true. Give up that lust for power, that thirst for wealth, that longing for a beach house. Not even relationships bring us true happiness. These things might bring us moments of contentment, but the happy person needs nothing but her virtue, and without virtue, she is nothing.

Happiness that is found in our virtuous actions cannot be taken from us. Though we lose our homes, our loved ones, our health, we can still have wisdom, courage, a love of justice, and a moderate heart.

Perhaps these are not the values we might choose to live a happy life. Christianity promotes compassion; Islam, surrender; Judaism, obedience. Humanism invites us to serve one another, Buddhism teaches us to seek the truth within, and Paganism encourages us to do what feels good as long as we don’t hurt anyone else.

Yet none of these are antithetical to the Stoic worldview. The wise person is compassionate. She surrenders to what she cannot control. The just man obeys the dictates of his conscience and, if he is religious, of his god. Service brings about happiness because when we help others, we feel good about ourselves. What better way is there to become virtuous than to seek truth through inner exploration?

Not that Stoics have any complaint with our desire to seek pleasure. They recognize that some “indifferents” can be enjoyable. Appreciating the finer things in life isn’t so bad, as long as we don’t grasp and cling, and as long as we don’t hurt others in the process. Doing what we can to avoid the pain of indifferents we don’t like is okay, too, as long as we remember we can’t avoid all suffering.

Skewed Stoicism

Unfortunately, any philosophy can be used for harm. Donna Zuckerburg, in a Washington Post article, describes the ways white supremacist groups draw on ancient Stoic philosophy to support their hatred of people of color, Jews, and women.

White supremacists value Stoicism because they imagine these philosophers were strong, brave, and emotionless. In their mind, these Greek philosophers stood up for what they believed in. The fact that Stoics taught restraint and moderation appears to be lost on these alt-right writers. They believe Stoicism justifies the subjugation of women and the rejection of people of color, for aren’t Aryan men more rational than women and people of color who so easily get swept up by their emotions? The reality that North Africans lived as equals in Greece, and that at least two Stoics, Seneca and Musonius Rufus, considered women as capable of rational thought and virtue as men, does not distract these supremacists. Unlike a good Stoic, they cheerfully ignore facts. [4]

Stoicism’s Pitfalls and Strengths

But Stoicism does glorify rationality, and this has been a problem throughout history and in many lands. Stoics don’t denounce emotion. They recognize and even allow for some deep and compelling emotions. However, they discouraged an exuberant and impulsive response to life. They preferred a reasoned and methodical response to whatever fate brings us.

This emphasis on rational thought has led cultures throughout the world to attack women and the earth. Expressions of love and grief, earthiness and lustiness, and joy are discouraged, even threatening. Anger, too, is condemned, yet sometimes anger is called for. Courage might mean standing up to attack. Yet a philosophy that seems to promote the strong, emotionless male, can be used to oppress those who reject such coldness.

At the same time, Stoicism reminds us that our emotions are not always wise. They are influenced by our personal history and the history of our nation, some of which is dysfunctional. As Graver points out, we receive messages from our families as we grow up, and we absorb the values of the country in which we were born. Out of these messages and values, we develop our beliefs. Misogyny, for instance, is a deep-seated belief that women and their bodies are bad. If we don’t question these beliefs, we will act out of those beliefs in hurtful ways. We see this every day in homes, schools, churches, and the political arena. [5]

Healing and Happiness

Stoicism encourages us to look at our history, at our belief, and question them. It invites us to transform our view of the world, thus allowing us to behave differently. Our country needs healing right now. One way to heal, is to look inside, question our “deep-seated beliefs,” and embrace wisdom, compassion, justice, and modesty. If we do this, we might stop judging one another, stop reacting with anger and hatred, stop expecting the worst. Maybe we’ll start listening. If we’re lucky, we’ll begin to treat one another with kindness. As our hearts change, our relationships will change. We might we treat one another with wisdom, justice, and courage. We might become virtuous. Then, we might wake up one day to discover that we are happy.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Seddon, Keith H., “Epictetus,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/epictetu/, accessed 11/7/20.
  2. Stephens, William O., “Stoic Ethics,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/stoiceth/#:~:text=The%20Stoics%20elaborated%20a%20detailed,%2C%20equity%2C%20and%20fair%20dealing., accessed 11/7/20.
  3. Graver, Margaret, Stoicism and Emotion, University of Chicago Press, 2007, 37.
  4. Zuckerberg, Donna, “Guess Who’s Championing Homer? Radical Online Conservatives,” Washington Post, November 2, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/guess-whos-championing-homer-radical-online-conservatives/2018/11/02/af3a49f6-dd40-11e8-85df-7a6b4d25cfbb_story.html, accessed 11/7/20.
  5. Graver 6.

Zeno of Citium, ancient Greek Stoic philosopher. From Thomas Stanley, (1655)

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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