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. And now, Michael’s post!
“We have separated this perfect virtue into its several parts. The desires had to be reined in, fear to be suppressed, proper actions to be arranged, debts to be paid; we therefore included self-restraint, bravery, prudence, and justice – assigning to each quality its special function. How then have we formed the conception of virtue? Virtue has been manifested to us by this man’s order, propriety, steadfastness, absolute harmony of action, and a greatness of soul that rises superior to everything. Thence has been derived our conception of the happy life, which flows along with steady course, completely under its own control.” – Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius
I have learned over my lifetime that true happiness does not come from possessions or temporary conditions, but rather from the satisfaction that follows living a life aligned with my virtues. Virtues are the attributes that I seek to cultivate in myself through habit, both for the betterment of myself and the world I live in, and are the guideposts for my decisions.
Living a life of virtue can be a challenge, while live a life of vice is easy – that alone is a signal to me of what is proper behavior. When I find myself tempted to take the easy path, I need to examine both the path and my motivation to ensure that I am making a virtuous choice.
I seek to live the virtue of self-restraint by reminding myself that my desires will lead me astray if I let them, and by remembering the words of Seneca that vices can masquerade as virtues – especially pride, and to the extent that I do indulge my emotions, to always remember the maxim of “restraint in all things”.
I seek to live the virtue of bravery by acting when action is called for, and restraining myself when it Is not. It is not bravery to take foolish risks, act without thought, take risks for the purpose of reward or recognition, or to do my duty. Bravery comes from overcoming my fear of harm to my physical or emotional self, and to take the actions that I believe are correct regardless of whether anyone is ever aware of them. Also, I remember that what is called bravery today is in latin “fortitudo”, and that true bravery is endurance and fortitude against adversity without complaint.
I seek to live the virtue of prudence by thinking before I act, considering not only the immediate results of my actions but also their derivatives. I remember that wisdom comes from acknowledging that what I don’t know is even more important than what I think I do know, and that all knowledge is at best a poor language for describing reality – it is not reality itself.
I seek to live the virtue of justice by remembering that the core meaning of justice is fairness and the settlement of debts, not a blind adherence to rules or laws. Stoic justice at its heart about fairness and the golden rule, thus I look for just solutions in all my interactions with others.
In the end, I have come to find that my happiness flows from my attempts and successes at living a virtuous life – not from health, prosperity, fortune or any other external condition. Every moment of my life is an opportunity to decide what is right for me, aligned with the virtues I believe important. When I fail to live up to my ideals, I don’t berate myself but rather strive to learn from my mistakes and do better the next time.