The Road to Stoic Joy: Laying Down the Four Burdens by Chuck Chakrapani

We continue our series of posts, following our tradition of asking presenters at the main Stoicon conference and at the local Stoicon-X events to provide transcripts or summaries of their presentations. Each year, quite a few of those presenters do that, and we usually run those posts well into the following year. This post is by Chuck Chakrapani, who spoke on the topics below at the main 2020 Stoicon

A visitor was so impressed by the statue of David that he asked Michelangelo how he managed to turn a slab of marble into such a wonderful work of art. Michelangelo slowly turned around, looked at his masterpiece, and replied, “Oh that? Nothing to it. David was there in the marble already. All I did was to chisel away what was not David.”

We can say that Michelangelo’s reply was light-hearted. We can also look at it another way. Michelangelo had such a strong vision of David that he didn’t see the marble at all. All he saw was David’s image, and his job was to get rid of all non-David parts of the marble.

This strategy of elimination can be applied to Stoic joy as well. Instead of asking, “What should we do to be joyful?” we ask, “What should we eliminate from our life to be joyful?” But is this a viable strategy? The Stoics seemed to think so.

Once we have driven away all things that disturb or frighten us, there follows […] a joy that is unshaken and unchanging.

Seneca, On the Happy Life 3.4

All the happiness you are seeking by such long, roundabout ways, you can all have it right now[..] if you leave all the past behind.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.1

[W]e burden ourselves with so many things that they weigh us down.

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1

All these quotes imply that joy is our natural condition. It is not the joy of acquiring anything external. Externals cannot make us happy, anyway. It is the joy of young children – before they are taught that externals such as being slim, strong, rich, pretty, or famous will make them happy. It is the joy of simply being alive – what the French call joie de vivre. To experience unshaken and unchanging joy, Seneca advises us to drive away the things that disturb us and frighten us. To achieve happiness, Marcus Aurelius asks us to leave our past behind. Epictetus says that we are burdening ourselves with so many things that weigh us down. According to Epictetus, our only job is to judge the impressions presented to us and reject whatever is untrue.

But how do we do this? The burdens that Epictetus was talking about are not physical burdens but psychological ones. Psychological burdens are not readily visible, and most of the time, we don’t even know that we are carrying them. As always, the Stoics are very clear on what they are talking about. The burdens we carry are specific and identifiable. There are four of them: Foolishness, Excess, Fearfulness, and Injustice. They called them vices.

The First Burden: Foolishness

Foolishness is by far the heaviest burden we carry. In fact, the remaining three burdens are related to this burden and are subtle variations of it. Every minute of every day, we receive several stimuli from our environment through our five senses – people walking past us, someone saying something to us, the sensation arising out of the food we eat, the smell of flowers, and so on. We also receive many internal stimuli – hunger pangs, thirst, and the like. We constantly interpret these stimuli – ‘impressions’ if you will: A person walking by us is ignoring us, the food we are presented does not taste good, etc. We act based on our judgment. Our acts are foolish when we fail to act appropriately. Therefore:

Foolishness is not knowing what things must be done and what must not be done and what is neither.

 What decides what is appropriate action and what is not? How can we tell what we should or should not do? The answer to this question relates to the basic tenet of Stoicism: “Some things in the world are up to us, while others are not.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1)

What is up to us? Everything generated by our minds, such as our desires and aversions, our intention to act one way or another, our judgments, and the like. What is not up to us? Everything not generated by our minds, such as our body, our wealth, our reputation, and the like. When we fail to distinguish between mind-generated and external impressions, we act inappropriately, thus foolishly.

Suppose you lose your job unexpectedly. You may worry about it and fail to enjoy your dinner and the weekend that follows it. You may fail to act on what you could do following your job loss, such as updating your resume, calling employment agencies, letting future employers know about your availability, and so on. If we analyze our reactions, we see that we are not acting upon what is up to us (enjoying our dinner, relaxing over the weekend, take actions that will increase our chances of getting a job) but, rather, acting  on (in this case, worrying about) what is not under our control: losing our job. We misjudge the impressions, and this is Foolishness.

We fail to appreciate that either things are under our control or not under our control. This needs some further explanation because it should not be interpreted as an argument for passive resignation. Suppose you are preparing for a major sports event and you are superior to others. Still, no one can guarantee that you will win the competition. For example,

  • The day before the event, you may have food poisoning and fall ill.
  • During the competition, you may trip and hurt yourself.
  • The competition may itself be cancelled because of the prevailing pandemic.

So the outcome of an external event is never under our control. But to train for the event to the best we can so we have a better chance of success is under our control. Therefore, even in cases where the final outcome is not under our control, we recognize that some aspects that will increase the probability of the desired outcome are under our control. We act on this. This is the rationale of socially conscious Stoics. A Stoic may recognize that their actions may not bring about the desired social justice, but they act because their will to act is under their control. Similarly, an athlete may know full well that she may not win, but that will not stop her from trying because trying to win is under her control. Even when we know that the outcome is not under our control, we act because that is under our control.

When we carry this burden, we will be “frustrated, pained, and troubled, and you will find fault with gods and men. (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1)

What is the reward for laying down the burden of Foolishness and confining our actions to those that are up to us?

No one will ever put pressure on you, no one will impede you, you will not reproach anyone, you will not blame anyone, you will not do a single thing reluctantly, no one will harm you, you will have no enemy because nothing harmful will happen to you.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 1

And the penalty for continuing to carry the burden and refusing to lay it down? Again, according to Epictetus, there’s no penalty. But you will continue “to be just the way you are: Miserable when alone, and unhappy when with others.” (Epictetus, Discourses 1.12)

Foolishness is the heaviest load we carry. The remaining three burdens are connected to this one. Just by laying this burden down, we can get rid of most worries about the past and anxieties about the future. And yet, getting rid of anxieties and worries is not enough. After all, psychopaths and sociopaths may not worry about what they have done or be anxious about what they will do. That does not necessarily make them joyful. To be truly joyful, we also need to lay down three other burdens we carry.

The Second Burden: Excess

This burden has to with our inability to choose wisely. We want to hold to everything that comes our way and go after more. We don’t know when to stop.

Excess is not knowing what things must be selected and what must not selected and what is neither.

When we don’t know what to select, what to leave out, we tend to choose things that weigh us down. Excess is related to our wanting more, consuming more and striving after more. It arises out of our desires.

Not all our desires lead to Excess. In fact, Seneca (Seneca, Consolation to Helvia, following Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines) distinguished between two kinds of desires: natural wants (desires of needs) and desires of opinions (desires of wants). It is the desires of wants that lead to Excess.

All of us have some basic desires such as the desire for food when hungry, the desire for water when thirsty, and so on. These are desires of needs. When we are thirsty and drink water, thirst goes away; when we are hungry and eat, our hunger goes away. They don’t lead to Excess. They are common, natural, and easy to satisfy. Then there are desires of wants, what Seneca calls desires of opinion. They include the desire for wealth, fame, adulation, and luxury. The problem with the desire of wants is that these desires can be fulfilled only temporarily. There are several reasons for this:

Desires of wants are insatiable. Even when we get what we want, our desires are not satisfied. Instead, they are fuelled. When we have wealth, we want even more of it. When we have power, we want even more of it. The desires are moving targets. There is no natural limit to desire. As Seneca put it

Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple […] you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 16

However, much you pile up, it will not end desire but only advance it.

Seneca, Consolation to Helvia

Desires of wants are relative. We may be perfectly happy with what we have, but if we come across someone who has more, our desire is fuelled once again. Since we can always find someone who has more, desires of wants can never be fulfilled. To quote Seneca again: “No one who views the lot of others is content with their own.” (Seneca, On Anger 31).

Desires of wants lead us to slavery.  When we desire something deeply, anyone who controls the object of our desire becomes our master. As Epictetus says, we become slaves to those who have the power to grant or thwart our wish. We may become sycophantic and lose our moral compass. “When we desire something, the person who can grant us that becomes our master” (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1)

Again, there is no reason not to enjoy whatever comes our way. A desire becomes a burden only when we believe we need it to be happy.

Our burden gets heavier and heavier. As we saw, we cannot get rid of our desires by fulfilling them because the more we feed them, the more they grow.  A simpler way, as Epictetus points out, is to lay down the burden. “You cannot achieve freedom by fulfilling your desires, but only by eliminating them (Epictetus, Discourses 4.1)

Stoicism does not say “don’t enjoy your meal, drink or the wealth you may have”. It does not ask us not to make money or enjoy it. It does not ask us to ignore our bodies. Stoicism is not against health, wealth, or other good things in life. We can enjoy all the “good things” in life even if they are externals as long as they don’t compromise our virtues and as long as we don’t start believing that they are essential for our happiness. So let’s now lay down the burden of Excess.

The third burden: Fearfulness

Now we come to our third burden: Fearfulness. Fearfulness does not necessarily refer to a general trait but to not knowing

What is terrible and we should be afraid of, what is not terrible, and we should not be afraid of, and what is neither.

When we lack this knowledge, we fear what we should not fear and don’t fear what we should. This is the third burden.

What, then, is terrible? Is death terrible? Is poverty terrible? Is losing your reputation terrible? According to the Stoics, none of these is terrible. They are externals and beyond our control. External things that are beyond our control are nothing to us. They cannot affect us.  What is terrible is our misjudgments. Judging things correctly is under our control, and we should be concerned that our judgments – how we judge impressions – be in accordance with reason.

In reality, most of us do the opposite. We are afraid of things that we don’t control and therefore are nothing to us – such as illness, death, poverty, losing reputation, etc. We fail to be afraid of things like judging our impressions properly, which are under our control. We lose the fearlessness that comes from controlling what is under our control and become fearful of things that we cannot possibly control. This, then, becomes the burden of Fearfulness. As Epictetus says,

What do we fear? Externals.
What do we spend our energies on? Externals
Is it any wonder then that we are in fear and distress?

Epictetus, Discourses 2.16

The source of our third burden is our Fearfulness of externals. When we realize that there is no point in being fearful of what is not under our control, we will not be afraid of what the future may bring. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Don’t let the future worry you. You will meet it – if you have to – with reason, the same resource you use now (Meditations 8.8)

Seneca assures us that, even if things go against us, we will have the resources to cope with anything.

Others may say, perhaps the worst will not happen.
You yourself must say. Well, what if it does happen? Let us see who wins!

Seneca, Moral Letters 26

So, we confidently lay down the third burden of Foolishness. All our aversions are gone. We are not nervous or afraid. We are not anxious about tomorrow. We are not worried about what the future may bring. There is still one final burden – Injustice.

The Fourth Burden: Injustice

What is Injustice?

Injustice is not knowing how things are to be assigned or distributed.

It is not knowing how to give everyone their due. It is not knowing who should get what. The concept of Stoic justice is broad, and it includes our relationship to our family, friends, country, the world, and even the universe. It includes caring, friendship, compassion, duty to the country, and our place in the world and in the universe. Thus when we pollute the planet, we are being unjust because we do not assign to future generations what is their due. When we lack compassion, we are being unjust because we fail to appreciate that we are a part of a larger whole. We fail to see that what is good for others is also good for us.

Epicurus also considered justice as a virtue. However, he saw justice as a social contract. He saw no meaning in justice unless it is reciprocal: I won’t harm you so that you won’t harm me.

Justice is a social contract: We don’t harm others, so others don’t harm us. Justice is nothing in itself without such understanding.

Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 31-35 (Paraphrased)

But this is not Stoic reasoning. A Stoic would be just if the entire world is not. For a Stoic, justice is not a social contract. The stoic sense of justice is independent of the person or object towards which it is directed. Epictetus is quite explicit on this:

A student who is estranged from his brother asks Epictetus’s help with this question in Discourses 1.12: “How about my brother’s life?”

Epictetus says, “It is his art of living. But as far as you are concerned, it is as external to you as land, health, and reputation.”

Just in case we are left with any doubt on this, Epictetus adds this later in the same discourse: “You are released from all accountability to your parents, brothers, property, life, and death.”

In Stoicism, we do nothing specifically designed to make others happy. At first, this may sound paradoxical. But not so. Stoicism is very clear on this: No one has the power to hurt us. Only we can hurt ourselves. By the same logic, others cannot be hurt by us. Others hurt themselves. That is what Epictetus was saying.

So the question arises – if our Injustice does not harm others, why is Injustice a burden? Injustice is a burden because it hurts us. When we deny what is due to others, we believe that an external will benefit us. But believing an external will benefit us is Foolishness. A Stoic is just because the virtue of justice is an attribute of the Stoic. All virtues in Stoicism have this purpose: to live life skillfully. (In fact, Chris Gill describes Stoic virtues as “special skills” in his introduction to The Discourses) This is the reason why Injustice is a burden. This is the reason why we need to lay it down.

So we lay down the final burden of Injustice.

Like Michelangelo, who chiselled away from a marble slab all that was not David, we have chiselled away from our life all that was weighing us down.

  • The burden of Foolishness is gone.
  • The burden of Fearfulness is gone.
  • The burden of Excess is gone.
  • The burden of Injustice is gone.

We replace these burdens with four aspects of wisdom: practical wisdom, courage, moderation and justice. When we thus set down our burdens and replace them with virtues, all we are left with is joy that is unshaken and unchanging, as Seneca promised. This is the road to Stoic joy.

Chuck Chakrapani is President of Leger Analytics and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University. Chuck is the author of Unshakable Freedom: Ancient Stoic Secrets Applied to Modern Life, How to be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How and a number of other books on Stoicism.  He is also the founder of the TheStoicGym.com and the editor of THE STOIC magazine.

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