The Nature of Love and Happiness, Part III: Self Love in the Pursuit of Stoic Happiness
Updated: Jan 30
< Part II: Shared Cultural Messages with Ancient Stoicism
Emerging at the beginning of the 3rd century BC in Hellenistic Greece, ancient stoicism was the therapy of its day. It taught that negative emotions ('passions') were value judgements that could be actively and positively overcome by restructuring how we think.
Modern behaviour therapies, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), take a similar cognitive approach. These therapies help patients to adopt an internal locus-of-control, and to identify and change unhealthy thoughts and behaviours.
At the heart of both stoicism and modern behaviour therapies is the idea that we can manage emotional distress by targeting the faulty beliefs that underpin them. However, the black-and-white nature of ancient stoic teachings can be problematic next to what we now understand about the nuances of the human brain.
Ancient stoicism versus modern life
To recap, ancient stoics considered improving one's ‘essential character’ or ‘soul' (through virtuous living) both necessary and sufficient for happiness. They defined happiness (eudaimonia) as 'wellbeing' or 'flourishing' – how well a person fulfilled their 'natural function' as a human being. As a citizen of the world, this involved making moral choices based on rationality and justice, which was an entirely internal endeavour.
Socrates (the inspiration for stoicism) went so far as to say that we should always choose to suffer harm rather than inflict it, since only the latter has a negative impact on your soul.
Under this system of logic, a person can do wrong only to their own character. They do so based on ignorance (the ultimate 'vice'). Beyond harming themselves, the only harm others can do is to what you possess (health, wealth, and reputation). No harm can come to you (your virtue or "essential character"), and so there's no grudge to be held following the actions of others or the unfairness of life.
These are thought-provoking ideas. However, philosophy is only useful insofar as we can apply its principles to the real world, and ancient stoicism is removed from the reality of modern life by more than 2000 years.
Notable ancient stoics such as Epictetus taught not to negatively judge or lecture others, but to sympathise with their distress over external things. However, this seems a little contradictory. Why extend our sympathies to the ‘irrational’ responses of others while denying the same compassion for ourselves?
It's hard to see what place ancient stoicism has in the self-help section of our minds or the therapeutic techniques of clinical psychologists if it doesn’t teach you how to set boundaries and avoid forms of harm that extend beyond your "essential character". This is where a closer look at the four cardinal virtues comes in.
How to apply the four cardinal virtues to modern life
Ancient stoicism calls for the wisdom to make good choices between external/bodily things, in line with the primary cardinal virtue, prudence. There's no point sacrificing your own health, wealth, or reputation – these being ‘indifferent’, not ‘bad’ according to ancient stoics – to pave the way for the vices of others. There's also additional potential value in external and bodily things, as long as they don't distract from the intrinsic values that contribute to your (virtuous) direction in life.
Physical strength, for example, has value as a ‘preferred indifferent' towards self-preservation. Since it also requires self-control, it falls in line with the virtue of temperance. Its value increases if used with other virtues, for example, the courage to resist the comfort of the status-quo in a fight for justice.
Justice, the second cardinal virtue, encourages kindness, fairness, and respect for humanity, to which all of us belong. In the sea of ‘us’, the idea of ‘self’ is fluid. Thus (according to my own logic) injustice is still injustice when committed against you and self-love is as virtuous as love for others. To use another analogy, taking care of yourself is akin to taking care of your hand or foot for the benefit of the body as a whole.
The challenge is in distinguishing between selfish acts committed at the expense of others from acts that help maintain your wellbeing as part of the whole, in pursuit of 'rational love'.
How do we develop 'rational love'?
This is another source of friction between ancient stoic reasoning and modernity.
Ancient stoics believed that all humans are born equal and, like animals, self-preserving, seeking health and survival. We're therefore naturally inclined towards caring about external and bodily things. While it isn't immoral to have a natural interest in self-preservation, virtue is found in extending our concern and affection to all human-kind. This develops through a process that ancient stoics called ‘oikeiosis’, which describes how a person transitions from an immature love for their own body, to a mature love for all rational beings.
Self-preservation of the body is our first ‘preferred indifferent’ based on an immediate recognition of the body 'belonging' to itself. As we develop a capacity for reason, we shift our sense of self from our body to our mind. This love for our mind gradually extends to include love for others; a child starts seeing their immediate family as ‘belonging’ to themselves. As we mature into adulthood, it's possible to extend this to all humanity, which stoics called, 'rational love'.
This is a nice theory that accounts for sociability and altruism, but modern psychology has something different to say.
First, we're not rational beings. While our capacity for reasoning surpasses that of other animals, we're also cognitively constrained and 'lazy' –– biased when it comes to processing and weighing up information. Yet, we still make reasonable decisions because, rather than reacting to accurate perceptions of the world, our brains evolved to predict it, allowing us to navigate through it efficiently.
Second, the distinction between mind and body is illusory. Our bodies are central to every emotion and thought we have, affecting both our mental wellbeing and sense of self. Mental health issues such as depression can arise as a result of the brain struggling to process sensory input. This means that thoughts and feelings can and do have a physical basis.
No such thing as "mind over matter"
Rather than the brain commanding the body, the brain is in service of the body and a biological part of it. You cannot choose one over the other. If we could copy-and-paste a person’s mind (or ‘essential character’ or ‘soul’) into a computer, free of bodily concerns, that person’s experiences would be critically different.
With no sleep, no physical touch, and no body with which to associate a sense of self, our learning and attachments with others would be severely impacted.
Bodily experiences are essential to our psychosocial development and wellbeing. For example, while not needed for immediate survival, cuddling releases Oxytocin and calms a distressed baby. Babies need this contact to learn how to self-soothe and develop healthy attachments that give them the confidence to explore the world as they mature.
Our sense of self is also intimately tied to our bodily experiences. We relate to each other as embodied beings and form boundaries between ourselves and others based on this bodily experience. 6-month-old infants use sensory input from their bodies to help control movement and examine the external world, but this isn't the same as recognising the body as belonging to oneself. An (embodied) sense of self doesn’t begin to develop until around 18-months-old. Social awareness appears way before this, in direct contrast with the theory of oikeiosis, starting with the ‘social smile’ at around 2-months-old.
So, far from being irrelevant to our wellbeing, physical and external experiences are central to it, and continue to be so throughout our lives.
The need for context
Perhaps the problem lies in the strict stoic definition of "wellbeing" or "happiness".
What ancient stoics called 'preferred indifferents', modern psychologists might call basic human needs: a baseline level of health, material required to survive, and social interaction and acceptance. We can claim that bodily or external harm is neither good nor bad, but this doesn’t take away things like the distress of your house burning down, the trauma of sexual assault, or the grief that follows the loss of a loved one.
Given the society from which stoicism emerged, it seems convenient to assert that only a person’s thoughts, not their external or bodily circumstances, impact their happiness. In claiming that real freedom was in our minds, ancient stoics could dismiss the reality for slaves. Stoics did suggest treating slaves as though they were equal, but they weren't. This logic likely did more to alleviate their own cognitive dissonance than make a practical difference to the happiness of their slaves.
Meanwhile, most ancient stoics were able to study philosophy because they tended to occupy the more privileged end of society, with Epictetus being the exception that proved the rule. Zeno, the founder of stoicism, was a wealthy merchant. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor. Seneca amassed significant wealth in politics. And, Cato was an aristocrat who defended Rome's ancient constitution.
Perhaps ancient stoicism is a little too reductive to fully apply to a world in which people aren't born equal, with a matching capacity for rationality. We're all bound by the human condition. People will act against each other based on various competing values, not all of which will be in pursuit of stoic moral wisdom.
So this is my take: Convenient, biased, contradictory, dismissive, reductive, or not, ancient stoic teachings do still provide a framework for finding contentment and managing suffering. The philosophy encourages us to evaluate things differently, perhaps more accurately, and to respond as reasonable and caring individuals. In particular, rather than passively worrying about or resigning oneself to fate or the will of others, ancient stoicism empowers you to focus on the things you control and accepting (or better, appreciating) the things you can't.
Ancient stoicism as a framework, not an absolute truth
For most of my adult life, it's become increasingly clear that the key to all good things is self-awareness and trying to make good choices. This approach is informed (rather than dictated) by ancient stoicism. In carefully evaluating yourself and the situation, you learn to pay attention. Behaviours that work for you follow.
That means asking what events cause what responses, and whether those responses are reasonable or useful. Sometimes, this simply involves acknowledging and accepting that something is what it is: “I lost my job/partner/house (whatever) and it's expected that I feel sad". Without this evaluation, I might conclude there's something inherently wrong with me. With this evaluation, I can put the sadness in its place and give myself the empathy I cannot always expect to get from others.
It also means consciously assessing what I value and why, and whether I am doing my best to act in line with these values. Stoicism is all about that. As Marcus Aurelius summarises:
"[A] man’s true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examination, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right, without troubling himself […] about what others may think or say, or whether they do or do not do that which he thinks and says and does.”
I ask myself simple questions like: is this a good choice for my overall wellbeing? Am I behaving in a way that will help me be the best version of myself?
Keep in mind that “being your best” isn’t the same as running yourself into the ground. It's about using your time wisely. This is also something ancient stoics agreed on: the value of time.
Now's the time to be kind to yourself
Seneca defined 'living' as being in control of yourself. This permits you to enjoy yourself meaningfully, whilst also working towards intrinsic values, before it's too late. So, as well as warning against a life of luxury and laziness (one of mere existence rather than meaning), Seneca warns against a life overwhelmed by responsibilities and free of leisure.
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in fortune and abandoning what lies in yours […] The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
In preserving the unknown time we have, we learn when and how to say “no” to others so that we can pursue our own goals. As Anna Taylor counsels:
“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”
Perhaps there's no harm in fulfilling the requests of others. But, their misguided desires and fears shouldn’t require you to go to extremes to satisfy them or to sacrifice your own wellbeing. This would violate the primary stoic virtue of prudence, which asks that you act based on the correct assessment of the value of 'indifferent' things relative to virtue. It also violates the virtues of temperance (by meeting extreme expectations) and justice (by acting against your own interests), and perhaps also courage (to stand up for yourself).
You can't control the outcome, but you can control your part in the process. The person with whom you set boundaries may feel as though you’re punishing them, but that’s their perception. What you’re actually doing is showing, by example, what you value, which includes your own time and wellbeing.
If, instead, you prioritise the will of others, you communicate that they come first, thus, you come second. This contradicts the stoic concept of ‘rational love’ for human kind as a whole, of which you are a member.
Perhaps, then, we should treat ourselves with the same kindness that stoicism urges us to extend to others. Besides, you cannot care for others if you don’t also care for yourself.
The take-home message
This post is the longest but also perhaps the most confusing of the three, since I appear to go back-and-forth in praising versus criticising ancient stoicism. So, allow me to highlight my take away message:
Ancient stoic philosophy is one of many potential tools for self-improvement, one that I find particularly useful. We can adopt broad ancient stoic philosophy to help cope with life's difficulties without replacing what we know about human psychology and mental wellbeing.
It's likely I'm biased since stoicism already fits in with my existing way of thinking. But that's all ancient stoic philosophy really is: a way of thinking about things, not an ultimate truth.
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