The Value of Stoicism: A Student's View

Continuing with the theme of Stoicism in schools, we come to Sam Moleman (17), a secondary school student at the Hermann Wesselink College in Amstelveen in The Netherlands, who took part in Stoic Week 2013. In this piece, he reflects on how the Stoic emphasis on focussing on responding to reality well has implications for human happiness…

What has Stoicism to offer us today?

I think that Stoicism has a lot to offer us to improve the figurative quantity of happiness and welfare of humankind.

According to the Stoic school of philosophy, freedom and happiness, or the development to happiness, is possible for humankind, if individuals are able to change their way of reacting to reality. Whatever is going to happen, the freedom and (maybe eventual) happiness isn’t determined by the already determined reality, it is determined by your own process of dealing with this reality. Seneca put it like this:

“Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; … in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer. … So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, – for the reward is … virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.”

— Seneca, Epistles, Ixxviii. 13-16 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheia)

For example, Stoics believed in something called apatheia. This is the state of mind wherein the individual is not affected by negative emotions/passions. While this ability may seem unattractive to most, I believe that this ability offers great flexibility and practical applications for daily life.

In my opinion, happiness is not a direct consequence of reality (events in reality, such as the things that happen to you, perceived as positive or negative, or something you achieve), but a consequence of the process of psychologically dealing with this reality. Because humans are able to affect their state of mind, they can have the ability to alter their process of dealing with reality. For example, someone can be happy with something he or she achieved in reality, but can be unhappy with this ‘event’ just by altering their process of dealing with this reality, ultimately because happiness is a psychological consequence of the process of dealing with reality. It is, however, not always as easy to alter this process of dealing with reality. For example, it is almost always nice to receive a promotion, or almost always a bad experience to be ill.

A better example of adapting the process of dealing with reality can be found with Diogenes. Diogenes of Sinope was a philosopher who belonged to the Cynic school of philosophy and was greatly admired by the Stoics. Through his lifestyle, he showed how he could be happy without clothes, tools, shelter or money. He reasoned, among other things, that if he didn’t have these things, he wouldn’t have anything to lose. While most of the people living at that time, around 400-300 BCE (and most of the people living today), would be unhappy or unable to obtain happiness with these circumstances, these events, this reality, he had the ability to gain happiness only by adapting his state of mind, his process of dealing with this reality. This example shows us that the adaptation of the process of dealing with reality offers us a chance at happiness, or at least acceptance of reality, how depressing the reality may seem to be, if this ability is mastered to some extent. I believe the flexibility that this ability offers would be of great use in daily life.

I do not consider ideals, virtues, goals or a possible course of life to be a direct cause of happiness/ability to gain happiness. I believe that it is the pure psychological ability to adapt the process of dealing with reality that offers us happiness/ability to gain happiness, because of the fact that happiness is purely psychological. Happiness is not a direct consequence of reality. Happiness is a mental consequence of the, also mental, process of dealing with reality. The ability of adaptation of this process offers us improvement of the figurative quantity of happiness and welfare of humankind.

This shows us that Stoicism has a lot to offer us in our daily lives, for example when dealing with problems with our health, relationships and career.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Value of Stoicism: A Student's View”

  1. Thanks Sam – just seeing your ‘response’ now!!! I haven’t been to Greece would you believe that? And me, a philosopher! So lucky you! I will let you know how I get on with the mixture of logotherapy and Stoicism I do and which I am hoping to bring to schools here. I think the 16-17 age group is perfect for it. I advised my 17 year old cousin to read ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Viktor Frankl and he loved it – I think you might find it interesting too (actually if you can trace it here in the archives I wrote a few pages on the Stoic influences on logotherapy which may interest you. If you can’t get them let me know and I will email them to you. Glad you wrote your blog. Hope you do more. I am writing up one on a Stoic Saturday I gave here in Dublin on Marcus Aurelius. My next workshop is planned for March 8th on Epictetus on the trichotomy of control (freedom versus fate, as Frankl puts it) – crucial clinically as well as philosophically. Anyway, hope you’re enjoying less inclement weather in the Netherlands than we in Ireland!! (I have also never been to the Netherlands! – I think I need to get out more!!).
    Stephen

  2. Hello dr. Costello,

    First of all, I’m very sorry for this late reply but it has been a very busy week here at school.
    Secondly, thank you for your reply dr Costello. I see now that responding would have been a better term, indeed. It covers the meaning of what I wanted to say exactly, as ‘reacting’ seems a bit to physical, while indeed, psychological flexibility and happiness is meant.

    Here in the Netherlands, Stoic week was not that big of an event throughout the school, mainly because of the relatively small number of philosophy students. Stoic week was apparent during the classes, however, in which extra focus was given to the Stoic way of life and their corresponding philosophy.

    Just before Stoic week, the graduating classes of philosophy and Greek went on a school trip to Athens in Greece. Here, we learnt a lot about Ancient Greek philosophy, like Socrates, Plato, Aristoteles and of course the Stoics. When we came back to the Netherlands, we had to write reports on this trip. Around this time, Stoic week 2013 was happening, which I was very interested in, and because of it, I was inspired to relate my report of the trip to that Stoic week.

    With the number of philosophy students in our school rising, I hope we can make Stoic week a recurring event here at the Hermann Wesselink College.

    Lastly, I would like to thank the writers of this blog for putting me on this site! Thank you so much.

    Kind regards,
    Sam

  3. Hi Sam,
    Really enjoyed your reflections and loved what you said about happiness – that it is psychological/mental and not dependant upon outer events or actions. I actually have argued that pleasure is bodily happiness, happiness is psychological and that joy is spiritual happiness (using Viktor Frankl’s work in logotherapy plus the Stoics in my book, The Ethics of Happiness). You say above ‘reacting to reality’… I would say ‘responding to reality’. Frankl distinguishes between the two: instincts react; reason responds. So when Epictetus mentions reacting I think he means responding. I wanted to ask you as well (because I have been asked to do a day of philosophy in a school in Ireland here) how did the stoicism week in your school go, as in what format it took and how you felt about it? It’s great to hear it happened in the Netherlands – we are a bit behind things here in Dublin! Look forward to hearing from you and many thanks for a very interesting article.