“Happiness – Is It a Birthright?” by Oliver Harper

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well.  And now, Oliver’s post!
Thomas Jefferson espoused in the Declaration of Independence that happiness is an unalienable right and indigenous endowment warranted to all citizens. This expectation is a striving for most of humanity.
Seneca the ancient Stoic states that there can be “no happiness without constancy and prudence.”  How as individuals do we navigate this natural right to be happy? According to Stoicism, it demands having Stoic dogmata, principles that supports the sorting of phantasiai, which are sense impressions that emanate from within and without.
Happiness, therefore within the philosophy of stoicism is a byproduct of virtuous choices but to harness it as a virtue requires an incorruptible and indestructible ability to discipline oneself through a regimen of practical knowledge and reasoning.  Not an easy task for the faint at heart or the impressionable mind. The cultivated inner fortress developed is a refuge for the stoic against the ubiquitous unsorted sense impressions that can torpedo the virtuous pursuit of happiness.
Can the common man be happy?  Is happiness a possibility for the practicing Stoic or must we advance to the level of a Sage to be happy?  Happiness in the worldview of Stoicism is deemed a pattern of life, a style of being, and an existential trajectory that betrays the universal implications of Thomas Jefferson’s constitutional decree. Marcus Aurelius sees it as a distinctive set of disciplines that transforms the stoic “into another life” where the individual inner discourse, insights, and patterns of being are unified.
Seneca in his wisdom maintains that human happiness is founded on wisdom and virtue; the former being:

that right understanding, a faculty of discerning good from evil, what is to be chosen and what to reject, right judgment and the latter, that perfect good which is a compliment of a happy life, the only immortal thing that belongs to immortality; the knowledge both of others and itself; an invincible greatness of mind, not to elevated nor dejected with good or fortune.

These attributes are not stumbled on but acquired through a resolute mind disciplined in thought and deed, deeds done not because of ostentation or public opinion but of conscience.  Happiness cannot be outsourced and when lived on one’s own terms may constitute the good life.
In the ancient text of Proverbs, it states that “wisdom is the principal thing” and we need to get it, which suggests that when we live consistent with our values and deliberate before deciding we can make choices that resonate with sound reason. In Stoicism, wisdom is the sine qua non for happiness because it is an internal operational paradigm that governs the faculties with constancy and prudence and manifested without passion but with reasoned deliberations and congruity of actions.
In the pursuit of our unalienable right to happiness, it seems that a philosophy of life is mandated, an operational lifestyle that depends less on external things while incorporating wisdom and virtue as foundational tenets to guide us to a fuller expression of ourselves as we navigate life’s obstacles and sense impressions. A philosophy of life is a serum against the infectious implications of life’s unintended consequences.
Personally, I share the view that virtue and wisdom can place you on a path towards happiness, and each day as I row gently down the stream of life I indulge in rituals at dawn and at dusks that comfort and guides me to affirm and accept life’s beauties and infirmities. I have come to learn that my happiness is my responsibility and to enjoy its momentary experiences will be contingent on my choices.
Happiness ultimately is probable for us all if we are willing to employ our faculties to navigate the minefield of self- imposed obstacles armed with a practical philosophy in Stoicism.
Oliver Harper is the Executive Director for National Foster Care Agency, and the author of Parenting Proverbs for Instructional Living and Time: A Traveler’s Companion: Strategies To A Meaningful Life.  His new publication Life’s Blind Side: A Selection of Antidotes from Stoic Philosophy, is appearing in 2019

One thought on “Happiness – Is It a Birthright?” by Oliver Harper

  1. RVanValkenburg says:

    Not to be pedantic but TJ did not espouse “in the Declaration of Independence that happiness is an unalienable right and indigenous endowment warranted to all citizens. ” Jefferson reiterated the Natural Law concept that every person inherently has the right to life (self-preservation, and the preservation of loved ones), liberty (freedom of individual speech, thought, and action) and the PURSUIT of happiness (agency in identifying and achieving personal goals), among other unnamed inalienable (inseparable from our humanity) rights .
    Looking at Natural Law concepts like “pursuit of happiness” through the lens of Stoicism is an interesting exercise. Plato gave us the idea that “good” (eupraxia) flowed from man being in harmony with nature. Stoics extended that idea to hold that reason is the means or avenue for living in harmony with nature. Thus, reason leads to happiness, and the pursuit of happiness, to a Stoic, would be the unfettered liberty to pursue pure reason, the Logos. This is similar to the emphasis on getting “wisdom” as the source of happiness from Proverbs.
    The “pursuit” aspect indicates desire of a particular outcome, but I think the Stoic reconciles this two ways. First, by recognizing that the outcome of “happiness” may not happen, and being comfortable with the pursuit even though the desired outcome may be unobtainable (focusing on the process rather than the outcome). Second, with aligning his concept of “happiness” with ends that are consistent with nature. If nature is eternal and just, the pursuit of things that reflect and complement the order and justice of nature is at the heart of “happiness” and the objective of Stocism.
    Lots of people disagree with the connections between Natural Law and Stocism though, and I can see the merit in some of their arguments…so I could be full of it.

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