Stoicism as An Invitation to the Good Life: An Autobiographical Sketch
Andrew M. Winters
In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, the character Phaedo recounts a conversation between Simias and Socrates, during which Socrates suggests that to do philosophy is to prepare for one’s own death; specifically “that true philosophers make dying their profession” (Phaedo 67e). Since philosophy is to engage in the activity of knowing one’s own self, it is an activity readily available to anyone willing to adopt rigorous methods of self-examination. The resulting questions from Socrates’ suggestion are how should one live and, more importantly, how should one live such that the life lived is one worth living.
To only think about living, however, prevents us from living a life that many of us would think is worth living. We also think about how to best care for others, be successful, and enjoy ourselves. Yet, because thinking about pursuing a life that is worth living establishes a foundation for morality, some answer should be given. This is in line with Socrates’ own recommendation that a person “has only one thing to consider in performing any action—that it is whether he is acting right or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one” (Apology 28b). The lesson being that some moral framework should be adopted while pursuing those other questions, thoughts, and activities that make life worth living.
This line of thought is something I have set out to adopt in my own attempts to cultivate a life worth living. My main line of thinking being if we are forced to live, we should learn to do it well. Yet, I am obviously not the first person to have such thoughts. Rather than starting from scratch, I felt it is best to “try on” different responses to the question of what it means to live well.
In large part, the previous responses to this question stem from the assumption that the actions we perform are determinants of how well our lives go. This can be allegedly accomplished by assessing the intentions preceding an action or the resulting outcomes. Prior to developing my current sympathies to Stoicism, I felt it best to adopt the view that the results of our actions are what are most significant.
After five years of attempting to perform frequent “calculations” of which actions would result in the best outcomes for those impacted by my actions, I began to realize that my life was not going as well as I had hoped. My calculations would become skewed, self-serving, and even justificatory of some actions that resulted in feelings of shame. Overall, I found that my life was not flourishing—I was not living a life I deemed worth living.
It was at this point that I revisited the question of what it means to live a good life.
In particular, I began examining the key components that were creating obstacles to my abilities to live well. In addition to the difficulty of identifying the appropriate guidelines for formulating my calculations, I realized that it was an individual person who was engaging in the activity of assessing outcomes. This realization allowed me to consider how using only the outcomes of my actions to determine if my life was going well no longer allowed the goodness of my life to be dependent upon me. Furthermore, by not being morally mature, the sort of calculations I was engaging in were those performed by someone possibly not fit for making such calculations.
From these two thoughts, I inferred that the adoption of a moral framework that only evaluated the moral status of actions in terms of their outcomes prevented me from living a flourishing life. I was only an accidental contributor to the extent to which my life went well and my lack of moral acuity further hindered myself from making the appropriate calculations. In many ways I was not adhering to my own sympathies with Socrates who suggests “the really important thing is not to live, but to live well…and that to live well means the same thing as to live honorably or rightly” (Crito 48b).
To fill this “lack” I began searching for a framework that not only allowed me to directly participate in the development of my life, but also aided me in the cultivation of attributes that would allow me to become morally mature. In other words, I was seeking a framework that empowered the individual and offered ways for the individual to develop the ability to make better decisions in the context of the community.
In many ways, what I was seeking was a way to develop those attributes that contributed to the flourishing of life while allowing me to develop skills for avoiding detrimental factors. I knew that much of what I was seeking was already developed in a virtue ethics of the kind set forward by Plato’s student, Aristotle—a method for developing virtues while learning to avoid vices.
Thinking back to my studies of Aristotle and his discussions of virtue (see Book II of Nicomachean Ethics), I began considering who were the virtuous role models that I could set for myself—those individuals who had lived a life that served as an example to how I could align my own life. Among these was George Washington, whose own “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” outlined such maxims as “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little celestial fire called conscience” (no. 110). From Eastern traditions, I looked to Thich Nhat Hanh and Dainin Katagiri who inspired my reflections on peace and humility. I even reflected on my days from being a Boy Scout and the main 12 points of the Scout Law that provide guidance to basic principles such as being trustworthy, loyal, and helpful.
While beginning my research on virtue ethics, I came across discussions of the Stoics who adopted much of Aristotle’s framework while looking to Socrates as the wise sage who, when confronting his own death, told his friends that “one should make one’s end in a tranquil frame of mind” (Phaedo 117e). In particular, it was this type of tranquility that Seneca used as a test for his own understanding of his character: “Without anxiety…I’m making ready for the day when the tricks and disguises will be put away and I shall come to a verdict on myself, determining whether the courageous attitudes I adopt are really felt or just so any words, and whether or not the defiant challenges I’ve hurled at fortune have been mere pretence and pantomime” (Letter 26). it is this very tranquility that serves as the basis of much of Stoic philosophy, which aims at maintaining inner calmness to better engage in civil responsibility. These two moral poles resonated with my own interests in developing an ethical framework at all: to live life well while allowing those who interact with me to be better off for having done so.
This was August of 2012 and I was only finding historical accounts of Stoicism. These academic expositions were certainly helpful in my own thoughts of how to develop a Stoic mindset in dealing with daily events. My general depression and anxiety were lessened, I was more involved and interested in those who I cared for, and I felt that more confident in my roles as a husband, brother, son, friend, colleague, and teacher.
Despite these positive developments, I felt that there must be a community of other like-minded individuals who were also actively concerned with issues of living well as not only historical and academic interests. The thoughts of the Stoics were simply too applicable to daily dealings with anxiety, maintaining equanimity, and developing a general life plan. It was then that I found the Stoicism Today Blog and, more importantly, their announcement of “Live Like A Stoic For A Week.” I could not imagine a better opportunity to develop an appreciation for Stoic methods of living.
Two years have now passed since I’ve started striving to live like a Stoic, waking each morning with the “view from above” meditation, each afternoon reflecting on the wisdom of the Sage, and closing each evening with remembering what went well, what went wrong, and what can be done differently. My journals have become filled with regular reflections on Stoicism and how I can continue to live better, knowing that to live well is to cultivate the appropriate habits, to use Aristotle’s own wording, “Virtue of character results from habit” (Nicomachean Ethics Bk. II 1.17-18).
Even though I believe I have continued to cultivate a life that is in line with the one that I have desired to live, there are still challenges to using the methods described during Stoic Week. First, not every week is a Stoic week. But at least some part of each day can be lived in a way that is conducive to Stoicism. Living reflectively during meals, keeping a journal of Stoic quotes and ideas to reread each week (this is in line with the methods employed by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius), and remembering that “Of things some are in our power, and others are not” (Epictetus The Encheiridion I). Among these things that I have come to realize that are in my power are my choices to further develop habits that exemplify the traits that I believe that make a good person, but that there is only so much thinking that can be done on this subject before one has one thought too many: “No more roundabout discussion of what makes a good man. Be one!” (Marcus Aurelius Meditations Book 10, 16).
The development of such habits may be trying and a challenge, but I have come to realize that this is at least one of the steps taken to allow me to become the person I want to be. Yet, many things worth pursuing in life are the most challenging; otherwise, they might not be worth pursuing. But even those things that may be the most challenging, with the appropriate mindset may become pleasant. At least this is something that Aristotle appears to have had in mind when he writes, “none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally…rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit” (Nicomachean Ethics Bk. II 2.19-3.26) and “Habit…belongs to the class of pleasant things, for there are many actions not naturally pleasant which men perform with pleasure, once they have become used to them” (Rhetoric Bk. I 10.16-19).
 The question of who Socrates was is certainly relevant to understanding if these dialogues are accurate portrayals of the historical Socrates, or are only mythical characterizations of Plato’s teacher. Regardless of the answer to the scholarly question, these passages still bear their inspirational quality for the purposes of the present discussion.