There is an Australian podcast you can find online with the title ‘Philosophy Can Ruin Your Life’. The motivation behind the deliberately provocative title is, I assume, to challenge the way in which some people have tried to co-opt philosophy into what is sometimes called ‘the happiness industry’. There are all sorts of ways in philosophy might make people miserable. Ignorance, so the saying goes, is bliss; people regularly concoct fictitious narratives and explanations to make themselves feel better about their lives and their place within the world. By contrast, philosophical truths, to the extent we might find any at all, may turn out to be far from comforting.
Many people interested or involved in the popular revival of Stoicism will say that Stoicism can help us to lead better and happier lives. At first glance that might lead us to think that the current revival of interest in Stoicism is part of ‘the happiness industry’. For the dissatisfied, disillusioned, or depressed who have searched in vain for something to lift their spirits, perhaps Stoicism is the next thing to try that might help overcome their gloom and restore their joie du vivre. If we talk about Stoicism as a form of therapy or as having therapeutic elements within it this can certainly contribute to this impression: Stoicism offers therapy, but therapy for what? It seems natural to assume that the answer is therapy for unhappiness. Thus Stoicism looks like it has happiness as its main concern. Indeed, the ancient Stoics aimed at eudaimonia which is usually translated as ‘happiness’.
What I want to do is to challenge or at least to qualify that view. Stoicism will not make you happy – at least not in the sense that ‘happiness’ is often used in the culture of modern self-help. It is not about thinking in a certain way in order to have a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Let me say straight away that I do not mean to attack or to reject anything that anyone else is planning to say. Stoicism is a philosophy that is guided by the idea that people want to live well, to have what Zeno the founder called ‘a smooth flow of life’, and Stoicism thinks it can help people to reach that goal. And Stoicism is explicitly therapeutic, in both its early Athenian and later Roman versions. The point that I want to stress is that Stoicism is not merely a therapy aimed at making people feel better; it is also and indeed primarily a philosophy. As a philosophy it is committed to trying to understand the world and it makes a whole series of truth claims about the world. Whatever positive impact it might be able to have on the quality of someone’s life will be dependent upon those claims it makes about the world and our place in it.
In order to develop this further we might consider a popular critical image of Stoicism: a Stoic is someone who is powerless in the real world and so pretends that his or her happiness is something completely internal and within their own control. Got no money? Easy, just say that money is unnecessary for a good life and the problem is solved. According to a long line of modern critics of Stoicism from Hegel onwards, the Stoic is someone who lies themselves out of reality in order to feel happy in otherwise unpleasant circumstances. It is an example of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave morality’, ultimately grounded in powerlessness and an inability to face up to some hard truths about life.
I think that image of Stoicism is unfair to say the least. But not only do I think it is unfair, I think it is the polar opposite of what we actually find in Stoic authors such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Rather than try to lie their way out of facing up to reality, I think that a central theme in the work of both these Roman Stoics is to force us to confront some hard and often uncomfortable truths about the way the world works. Let me try to flesh this out with some examples.
There is a notorious passage in Epictetus in which he says that each night when we kiss our children or loved ones before going to sleep we should remind ourselves that they are merely mortal: ‘what harm is there in your saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, “Tomorrow you’ll die”?’ (Discourses 3.24.88; cf. Meditations 11.34). In another passage he compares the loss of a child to the breaking of a jug: ‘If you’re fond of a jug, say, “This is a jug that I’m fond of,” and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset’ (Handbook 3).
Critics of Stoicism have jumped on these passages as examples of how cold and unfeeling Stoicism is, and many admirers have found them uncomfortable and have tried to explain them away. Instead I think we ought to take these passages very seriously. What is Epictetus trying to do here? He is certainly not – as some critics have rightly pointed out – saying anything that looks like it might make us feel happy. So what is he doing? He is simply trying to get us to face up to some hard truths. We are all mortal. Our loved ones are all mortal. They will all die. Our children will die. Many of us in the developed West do not fear that our children might die in their sleep each time we put them to bed, but in antiquity and indeed in many other parts of the world today this was and is a far more real possibility. And of course this does still happen in the developed world, often without any obvious explanation, to families who have had the full benefits of modern medicine. All our children will die. If we are lucky they will die after we do, but either way they are going to die.
This is a hard truth – perhaps one of the hardest truths – about the way the world works and it is one that Epictetus wants us to confront. And he wants us to confront it now so that should such a terrible thing actually befall us we might be in some way prepared to cope with it. It is an example of an ancient practice used by the Stoics known as premeditation of future evils, which suggests that we reflect on unpleasant things that might happen in the future so that we can be better mentally prepared to cope with them if they do happen. It is perhaps the most extreme case of such premeditation because of course it goes without saying that there can be few things worse than having to bury one’s own child.
Why does Epictetus want us to confront head on this hardest of truths? If we are looking for happiness this seems like the very last thing we ought be thinking about. (Ancient hedonists explicitly rejected the practice of premeditation of future evils because they thought it would only increase our pain.) The answer is simple: Epictetus is not a happiness coach, he is a philosopher, and as a philosopher he wants to understand the world as it really is, and then work out how best to cope with and live in it. Rather than lie his way out of reality, as some critics of Stoicism have suggested, Epictetus wants to stare it in the face, and he is proposing that we need to do the same if we are to learn to live well within it.
But Epictetus is not quite as brutal as all this suggests. There is a consolatory element at work here too. Yes we are all mortal and so are our loved ones but that ought not to lead us into nihilist despair about the meaninglessness of human existence. Instead we ought to try to understand this fact within the wider context of Nature as a whole. We ought to try to understand our mortality as but one fact among many about what it means to be a living being, an animal, a biological entity that has a life cycle. And we ought to try to understand ourselves as biological organisms within the wider context of the processes of Nature as a whole. In short we ought to become physicists in the ancient sense of the word, meaning students of Nature.
By thinking about death – even the seemingly unbearable death of one’s own child – within the much wider context of a series of natural and inevitable processes of birth and decay that permeate all aspects of the cosmos, from microbes to galaxies, we might be able to gain some consolation that this is simply part of a much larger natural order of things. Epictetus’s point in his seemingly harsh remark is that just as it is in the nature of earthenware jugs to smash so it is in the nature of people to die.
Let me now turn to an example from Marcus Aurelius. Marcus has also attracted a good number of modern critics, some of whom have characterized his Meditations as pessimistic and melancholic, and one scholar went so far as to suggest that his strange visions of the world must have been the product of opium addiction. The sort of thing these critics have in mind runs throughout the Meditations and there are many examples. Let me focus on just one:
When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that a corpse of a bird or a pig; or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. (Meditations 6.13)
To some critics this sounds like someone deeply melancholic who can no longer enjoy the basic pleasures of life. The last comment about sex is, like Epictetus’s remarks on infant death, often put to one side as something probably best not to talk about. But Marcus is making an important point, and if it makes us feel a bit uncomfortable then that might be all the more reason to face it head on. The hard truth that Marcus wants to insist on is that all the things that we invest with so much value and significance are ultimately no more than lumps of base matter in motion. So again we are being invited to adopt a physicist’s perspective on the objects of everyday life. The passage I have just quoted continues:
Thoughts such as these reach through to the things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked, and see how cheap they are, and strip them of the pretences of which they are so vain. (ibid.)
Elsewhere Marcus suggests that there are two fundamental ideas that we ought to keep ready to hand: first, that mental disturbances are the product not of things themselves but of our judgements about things, and second, that nothing is stable and everything passes, subject to continual change. He then summarizes these two principles as concisely as possible, presumably in order to help him remember them: ho kosmos alloiôsis, ho bios hupolêpsis, which we might translate expansively as ‘the cosmos is in continual change; the concerns of human life are the product of opinion’ (Meditations 4.3.4).
Both Marcus and Epictetus think that seeing things through this physicists’ perspective can be therapeutically beneficial, but the reason why they think this is beneficial is because they think it is true. You don’t think about these things in order to feel happy – indeed how on earth could reflecting on the death of our loved ones make us feel happy; instead you think about these things because they express important but sometimes uncomfortable truths about the world. As philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus retain a deep commitment to truth no matter how focused they might sometimes seem to be on more practical concerns over theoretical questions.
What are the consequences of all this for people today who are interested in drawing on Stoicism in their daily lives? I think there are a couple that I would like to mention.
The first is that it is difficult to disentangle completely Stoic ethics from the physics. Both Epictetus and Marcus implicitly presuppose a whole range of claims about how the world is in their practical advice. In antiquity there were some who thought that questions about Nature were irrelevant to thinking about how best to live. Cicero expresses this view in his Republic, crediting it to Socrates, who was an important role model for the Stoics. Others such as the Epicurean Lucretius insisted on the study of Nature when thinking about how to live well, adding that the main reason to study Nature was for the therapeutic benefit it might offer. The Stoic view shares that Epicurean idea that the pursuit of a good life requires at least some understanding of Nature, although I suspect they would also be less instrumentalist than Lucretius and insist on the intrinsic value of studying Nature as well as its contribution to living a good life.
The second consequence is that if we are going to take seriously the idea of living a Stoic life then we might find ourselves having to commit to a number of ideas that might not be easily reconciled with our existing worldview. Of course one might still take bits and pieces of Stoic advice, as many people have over the centuries, but if we want to take Stoicism seriously as a philosophy that offers some sort of guidance for how to live it may challenge and sometime require relinquishing some of our existing beliefs. If we want to think about Stoic philosophy as a way of life then we need to get to grips with a lot more than just a few practical exercises; we also need to think about some of the bigger claims that the Stoics make about the nature of the world.
I am not suggesting we have to become true believers of the entirety of ancient Stoic physical theory; we don’t have to take as fact the claim that every 10,000 years or so the entire cosmos is consumed by flames and then reborn (although proponents of ‘big crunch’ theory might not have a problem with this). Indeed we ought not to become true believers of anything for, as I have been stressing, this is philosophy, not religion. Marcus Aurelius is an interesting case in point: in his version of Stoicism – and I think probably every ancient Stoic had their own subtly different version – he is happy to entertain the possibility that Epicurean physics of atoms and void might be true instead of the Stoic idea that all of Nature is a unified organism, but the one principle he insists on as fundamental is the one I mentioned earlier, namely that everything is ultimately matter in a process of continual change. That is not something to believe because it might make us feel better; it is something to believe because it is true. Part of learning to live well within the world involves understanding what it is and how it works.
John Sellars is Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and one of the founder members of Modern Stoicism. His books include Lessons in Stoicism / The Pocket Stoic.