The Nature of Love and Happiness, Part I: Insights from Ancient Stoicism
Updated: Oct 23, 2021
From about the 6th century BC to the 3rd century AD, with no equivalent to psychology as we know it today, people turned to philosophy to understand the world and how we relate to it. In the West, ancient philosophers were "physicians of the soul", using reason to answer fundamental questions about reality, life, and mortality, from early (pre-Socratic) Greek philosophy, which focused on cosmology, through to Greco-Roman philosophy, which focused on objective inquiry.
Founded in the early 3rd century BC, ancient stoics offered a pragmatic approach to life, built on three core concepts:
Living in accord with nature;
Dichotomy of control; and
Four cardinal virtues.
The popularity of ancient stoicism more than 2000 years later speaks to the relevance of its teachings. Before describing these teachings, I should explain what ancient stoicism is.
What is ancient stoicism?
Ancient stoicism is a school of philosophy that teaches the pursuit of ‘ethics’ in our development of character, informed by a system of logic and ideas about the natural world.
There is a common misconception that to be stoic is to be emotionless, valuing only rationality. This implies that to be emotional and to be rational are opposite ends of the same spectrum. But this isn’t what stoicism is really about. Ancient stoics taught that we achieve happiness and flourish by voluntarily progressing towards our human nature as rational and social beings, acting based on reasoned empathy and care for others.
The aim is to express the best version of yourself in every present moment. We do this by practising the four cardinal virtues and focussing only on what we can control: our own intrinsic values (opinions, goals, desires, etc.) and related actions in pursuit of personal, social, professional, and civic responsibilities.
What is happiness, according to ancient stoics?
For ancient stoics, to be good (virtuous) and to be wise were essentially synonymous. ‘Practical wisdom’ was the ‘supreme virtue’ and the key to happiness.
Translated from the Greek, arête, ‘virtue’ meant to fulfil your 'natural function' or 'essential character’. With this definition, beyond the more constrained English understanding of the word, a strong and fast horse would also have ‘virtue’.
So, by ‘happiness’, stoics didn’t simply mean joy and tranquillity. Rather, ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) was akin to ‘wellbeing’ and ‘flourishing’ in accord with our essential nature as human beings. Tranquillity, comfort, adoration, money, etc., may be positive side-effects, but not the end goal. As Donald Robertson writes:
“If tranquillity really is your supreme goal in life, then you can just take tranquillizers.”
Counter-intuitively, health and pleasure (bodily goods), and wealth and reputation (external or ‘accidental’ goods), are ‘indifferent’ to the ancient stoic conception of happiness. Of course, health is preferable to sickness, and wealth is preferable to poverty. But, being vehicles for causing help and harm, they are neither inherently good nor bad, and don't guarantee either happiness or unhappiness.
How do we achieve happiness?
According to the stoic system of logic, happiness is achieved only through virtue, which is an entirely internal 'good'.
Bodily and external things may be used as “material for virtue to act upon”, but virtue itself comes only from within. Bodily and external things don’t alter your true nature, in the same way, the analogy goes, that adornments on an ill-tempered horse won’t make that horse good-tempered.
The Greek stoic, Epictetus, in a handbook of stoic advice compiled by his follower, Arrian, reminds us that happiness and discontent depend less on what happens and more on how we perceive what happens:
"Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions they form concerning things"
Hedonistic, materialistic, and egotistic goals result in erroneous judgements of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ – what will 'make' us happy. These judgements lead us away from virtue (‘practical wisdom’) and thus away from happiness as we follow ‘unhealthy passions’ (greed, resentment, elation, anger, longing, vanity, etc.) as we seek to fufill self-defeating values.
In desiring (and, inversely, fearing) external and bodily factors, we fall into patterns of frustration and suffering because we cannot always control them. Happiness thus starts by focussing only on things within your control.
What is under our control?
The stoic dichotomy of control is the idea that we can only control how we judge and respond to things, and nothing else. With this, ancient stoics focussed on acting in line with four cardinal virtues, each of which revolved around a person's individual control of them:
Prudence (or wisdom). Learning to distinguish between the ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘indifferent’, and then choosing wisely between them. This requires good sense, good calculation, discretion, and resourcefulness.
Justice (or integrity). Avoiding causing harm to others, opposing wrongdoing, seeking impartiality and fairness (equity), being honest, and being kind.
Courage (or fortitude). Mastering your fears, resisting the status quo, enduring hardship, and persisting through adversity. This virtue also includes cheerfulness, industriousness, and confidence.
Temperance (or self-discipline). Mastering your desires in order to live in moderation and with grace, unspoiled by luxury. By controlling our desires, we learn to live contently, somewhere in between deficiency and excess. (The key to happiness really is low expectations.)
Prudence and justice are the primary two virtues because they improve our reasoning and relationships. They also work closely with each other. After all, knowing the difference between good, bad, and indifferent is of no use if we don't use this knowledge with integrity. Similarly, justice is of no use if we don't know how to implement it. We additionally require courage and temperance to overcome the irrational fears and desires of/for bodily and external things that otherwise interfere with living wisely and justly.
In this way, the four virtues work in unity towards the highest good: 'practical wisdom' (or 'moral wisdom'). You cannot have one without the others. As an example, courage in pursuit of self-interest and excess (without justice or temperance), or in the misguided pursuit of the wrong things (without prudence) cannot progress a person towards ‘practical wisdom’.
A wise person recognises that things like wealth and status ('indifferent' things) count for nothing against virtue (goods of the mind). This lesson is illustrated in The Choice of Hercules. In deciding on which of two paths to take, Hercules chose pain and hardship over luxury and pleasure. In so doing, he recognised opportunity in facing danger, loss, and suffering over allowing his soul to deteriorate with easy living.
That being said, stoicism isn’t about ‘making do’ or ‘putting up' with things. Stoics are active and vigilant, never passive, whilst also never dependent on the result. They are not resigned to fate, though they recognise its role. As Epictetus advises:
“With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it”
To achieve happiness, we must adjust to the world rather than expect the world to adjust to us. We may experience reflexive reactions, like momentary anger at a careless driver. But, these are physiological responses that we can follow with rationality.
In the current pandemic, acting with virtue and rationality by focussing on things within your control could mean learning the impact and infection rate of COVID19, and acting based on prudence (what is ‘preferred’, in this case, good health) and justice (with care for yourself and others). At the same time, it is of no use being frustrated at things we cannot change – to prefer, for example, not to have caught the coronavirus once you have it.
Easier said than done, right?
For stoics, it’s the taking part that counts. All adversities in life are training – opportunities to learn and grow. The aim is to be a good player whilst recognising that you won’t win the game. More important than the endpoint is the journey.
The challenge is in seeing indifferent things as indifferent (to your happiness). Despite what the word ‘stoic’ has come to mean, this doesn’t mean you should aim to feel nothing. Virtue doesn’t occur in the absence of bodily pain and pleasure. After all, where is the virtue in overcoming things that you don’t feel?
Are stoics allowed to love?
Yes. Stoics aren't Jedi. It's not the stoic’s aim to be apathetic, cold, or insensitive. In fact, love plays a central role in stoic philosophy.
However, according to stoics, a person can only truly understand and appreciate love if they also seek wisdom. We are thus encouraged to focus on what we can control, even in love. This starts with accepting love’s impermanence, whether lost in death, betrayal, or diminishing over time. The strength of our love won’t prevent loved ones leaving in one way or another. Our loved ones are on loan, to enjoy only so long as they are here.
Individualised love, though pleasant, is neither the extent nor the essence of it. To be a stoic is to have ‘natural affection’ for ourselves and others, even would-be ‘enemies’ and people of opposing philosophies. They call this ‘rational love’ because to love others is to recognise and appreciate our membership in the broader community of rational beings. Thus, ancient stoics prioritise giving love over receiving it. The more we expand love to humanity as a whole, the more rational and healthy love becomes.
So, what is the nature of happiness and love, according to ancient stoics?
Far from being joyless and heartless, stoics allow themselves a range of emotional responses. The caveat is that we should moderate these emotions. Happiness should be calm because we are in command of our impulses in pursuit of rationality and virtue.
In grief, for example, stoics seek balance between retaining the memory of lost love whilst not giving into excess or distraction. In so doing, we avoid falling victim to 'excessive impulses’ (such as jealousy) that emerge from erroneous judgements of the value of external and bodily things and drive irrational behaviours. To progress us towards virtue (our 'essential character'), and thus towards happiness, stoics instead engage in 'healthy passions', which include goodwill towards oneself and others.
This is an active state of being rather than a final destination. We continuously progress towards wisdom on a path of (not to) happiness by focussing on the internal values we can control and learning to appreciate the external things, including the people we love, in the present moment, without feeling entitled to them.
Love, as with happiness, is a verb (a present activity) rather than a limited resource. If love isn't something you can possess, neither is it something you can lose. It cannot be taken from you by external sources and it doesn’t deplete the more you share it. In fact, the more you love, the better, both for common welfare and for yourself in accord with your nature as a rational and social being.
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