What the Stoics Can Teach You About Happiness

C. S. Lewis often warned people of what he called “chronological snobbery,” by which he meant dismissing the wisdom of the past as irrelevant. Since ancient philosophers knew nothing of computers and DNA, people assume they have little to say to us. But Lewis is surely right to argue that this is a mistake. After all, some things never change, and even the very first philosopher still had to face loneliness, fear, and death.


Before looking at what Stoicism has to teach, it may be helpful to sketch in the history and the names involved. Stoicism was founded by a philosopher named Zeno, who was born in Cyprus in around 334 B.C. Zeno was in fact a Phoenician and later travelled to Athens, where he met various thinkers and writers and developed his ideas. Stoicism is not a single philosophy, however, but one that evolved through the centuries, and Zeno was succeeded by others, such as Cleanthese and Chrysippus. But the two biggest names associated with this school are unquestionably the Roman philosopher Seneca and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by Richard Harris in the film Gladiator).

Seneca was born around 3 B.C. and died in A.D. 65. He began his career in politics, though this led to banishment in A.D. 41, after which he was recalled to Rome and became private tutor to the 11-year-old Nero. Later, he was accused of involvement in a plot to kill Nero and was ordered to commit suicide, which he did, bravely and in accordance with Stoic teachings. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor from 161 to 180, during which time he jotted down his thoughts and ideas, based on Stoic theory, known today as The Meditations.

Finally, it is worth adding that Stoicism did influence later generations. During the 19th century, for example, children born into Europe’s “gentlemanly class” were taught Latin and Greek at school. Since Stoicism was the dominant philosophy of Ancient Rome, the ideas seeped into the great private schools of Early Modern Europe. The ideal of the English gentleman, for example, who keeps dignified control of his emotions and displays a “stiff upper lip” in times of crisis, or the Prussian aristocrat with his rigid self-discipline, owe a great deal to this classical education.

Man and Nature

In his 1925 essay What I Believe, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell writes, “Man is a part of nature, not something contrasted with nature,” a sentence with which most Stoics would have agreed. For the Stoics, nature is everything; no higher, or separate, reality exists. And this natural order is governed by laws we can understand. Since there is nothing outside of, or beyond, nature, we don’t “go” anywhere when we die. Instead, the dead sink back into the natural order that produced them.

Today’s secular scientists would largely agree with such views. And this is what makes the study of ancient philosophy so interesting. The Ancient Greeks were the first to try and make sense of the world through reason alone. Of course, there was plenty of superstition, ritual, sacrifice and so on, but alongside this the Greeks, and later the Romans, developed independent, rational thought, and often anticipated modern, scientific theories and discoveries.

Reason, Emotion, and Virtue

For the Stoics, every individual is torn between reason and emotion. ‘God’ is the rationality that imbues both the universe and the individual. And, since nothing exists outside of the material world, “God” is a metaphor for this rational order. When human beings exercise reason and are at one with the flow of events, they are therefore “at peace with God.” When their emotions revolt against events, however, they are out of harmony and suffer.

Trying to moderate or control emotion is futile. Emotions are by their nature anarchic and, for Seneca, fundamentally irrational. Instead, you should accept that they are crazy and unreliable and learn to detach yourself – even from the positive ones. In this respect, Stoicism resembles mindfulness, in which you learn to observe thought and emotion instead of being swept away by them. A Stoic cultivates reason, responding to both a compliment and an insult with the same cool scepticism.

Though you cannot control external events, you can control your response to those events. Put another way, the only power you really have is over your mind. Take anger, for example. Most people assume that anger is not a choice. On the contrary, they believe it is something you cannot control: the “red mist” descends and, before you know it, you are screaming at the driver who just cut you up or the person who pushed ahead of the queue. Seneca disagreed. He even wrote a work on the subject, titled De Ira (On Anger), in which he argued that anger is not like shivering from the cold or recoiling from fire; it isn’t an instinctive response but something we choose not to control.

Stoics believed in virtue, but they did not define it quite as we would today. Ask the average inhabitant of a modern city like London or New York to define virtue and they would probably think of passionate feelings: of deep love and empathy, of the desperate longing to relieve another’s pain. But for the Stoics, virtue is more to do with control. Once someone has their emotions under control, they can live in accord with the universe (a Taoist might describe this as being at one with the Tao, or flow of events).

Cheerful Pessimism

In his book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine argues that by dwelling on the dark side of life we discover a renewed pleasure in the good. Irvine describes this as “negative visualization,” meaning visualizing just how bad life could be and how quickly and cruelly it could be snatched away. So long as this is not taken to an extreme, you may find a new joy in the trivial pleasures and in the beauty of the living world.

Pessimism is generally considered a negative trait. This is especially true of American (and Americanized) culture, which even has “the pursuit of happiness” in its Declaration of Independence. Immigrants come to the USA for a better life, not a worse one! And pessimism would be a handicap in a modern, free market economy, where everyone competes for jobs and promotion. Instead, the young are encouraged to dream big and aim high. Of course, as has often been argued, this brings problems. Many then develop unrealistic, even absurd, expectations and are left feeling not only disappointed but bitter and cheated.

The Stoics viewed pessimism differently. Marcus Aurelius even wrote, “begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, disloyalty, ill-will and selfishness.” Expecting, or at least preparing for, such things will leave you constantly surprised by the good that happens.

Of course, pessimism can be taken too far. Some grow so pessimistic that they not only expect the worst but will it to happen. This often occurs quite unconsciously and is known to therapists as “self-sabotage.” Another danger is that pessimism will lead to bitterness, misanthropy, and depression. Once that happens, people dismiss the good as irrelevant, or fail to notice it in the first place. So make your pessimism moderate and cheerful!

Gratitude and Acceptance

An obvious benefit to such low expectations is the constant sense of gratitude you will feel. Seneca even encouraged what he called “the practise of poverty,” advising people to set aside a few days in which to live as though financially ruined. More generally, if you practise denial, you will avoid that numb, jaded state so often experienced by rich, bored Westerners.

Perhaps most fundamental of all, try to accept what comes your way. You do not have to pretend to be happy, but it is wise to resign yourself to your fate (assuming nothing more can be done of course). Stoics used the analogy of a dog tied to a cart. The dog can do nothing about this. He will go the way the cart goes, just as we have to accept the way events unfold. The more you resist, the more you suffer.

When approaching a philosophical system like Stoicism, it is important to be both sceptical and open-minded. Critics are often appalled at the way Post-Modern Westerners cherry pick from different traditions. And yet that is surely better than fanatical devotion to one system, or the irrational belief than any one thinker, book or culture has all the answers. Bertrand Russell writes of “a certain coldness” in the Stoic approach. And this is a fair criticism. The key is to use what helps you and put the rest aside.

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