The nature of love and happiness, Part III: What about self-love in the pursuit of stoic happiness?
Updated: 3 days ago
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 take a similar cognitive approach to managing emotion. Popular examples include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). These therapies help patients adopt an internal locus-of-control, and to identify and change unhealthy thoughts and behaviours.
At the heart of both stoicism and behaviour therapy is the idea that we can manage emotional distress by targeting the faulty beliefs that underpin them.
Merging ancient philosophy with modern psychology, however, can get messy. Ancient philosophies are removed from the reality of modern life by more than 2000 years. The black-and-white nature of ancient stoic teachings can be especially problematic next to what we now understand about the nuances of the human brain.
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.
Under this system of logic, the 'only' harm others can do is to what you possess (health, wealth, and reputation). Wrongdoers do wrong only to their own character. They do so based on ignorance (the ultimate 'vice'). Meanwhile, your virtue remains unharmed, and so there is no grudge to be held. This isn’t to withdraw blame from the ‘wrongdoer’, but to understand that humanity is flawed.
Absent in this reasoning is the value of protecting your own interests (beyond your 'essential character') from the actions of others.
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. Meanwhile, notable ancient stoics such as Epictetus taught not to negatively judge or lecture others, but to sympathise with their distress over external things.
But, why? What harm can we do to a person – to their character – if we don’t sympathise with their house burning down or their property being stolen? Why extend our sympathies to their ‘irrational’ responses while denying the same compassion for ourselves?
Philosophy is only useful insofar as we can apply its principles to the real world. It is 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 us how to love ourselves enough to set boundaries and avoid these types of harm.
Ancient stoicism teaches that if your soul remains unharmed, all is good, at least for your ultimate wellbeing. But, it also calls for the wisdom to make good choices between external and bodily things, in line with the primary cardinal virtue, prudence. There is 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 is 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. This might include, 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. Thus, injustice is still injustice when committed against you. In the sea of ‘us’, the idea of ‘self’ is fluid. This means (according to my own logic) that 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.
From the ancient stoic perspective, a person should do what is best for the largest relevant social unit (family, community, country, humanity). This may still call for what is best for you, even in competition with other individuals, depending on the purpose. As Chrysippus (quoted in Cicero's On Duties) states:
"He who is running a race ought to endeavour and strive to the utmost of his ability to come off victor, but it is utterly wrong for him to trip up his competitor, or to push him aside. So in life it is not unfair for one to seek for himself what may accrue to his benefit, but it is not right to take it from another."
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. This requires continuous evaluation of the true value of 'indifferent' things relative to each other, and never to the detriment of virtue. To this end, we must guard against ‘excessive impulses’ (such as greed or vanity) that emerge from erroneous judgements of the value of external and bodily things.
Ancient stoics believed that all humans are born equal and, like animals, self-preserving, seeking health and survival. We are therefore naturally inclined towards caring about external and bodily things. While it is not 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 bodies, 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 is possible to extend this to all humanity ('rational love').
This is a nice theory that accounts for sociability and altruism, but modern psychology has something different to say.
First, we are not rational beings. While our capacity for reasoning far surpasses that of other animals, especially when it comes to argumentation, we are also constrained by limited cognitive capacity, causing us to be 'lazy' and biased when it comes to processing and weighing up information. Yet, we still make reasonable decisions; rather than reacting to accurate perceptions of the world, our brains evolved to predict it, allowing us to navigate through it efficiently.
To this end, the primary task of the brain is to regulate bodily systems by interpreting and predicting their needs (through interoception). 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. Say 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. The distinction between mind and body is illusory.
This brings us to the second point: our bodies are central to every emotion and thought we have, affecting both mental wellbeing and sense of self. Mental health issues such as depression can arise as a result of the brain struggling in its ability to process sensory input. This means that negative thoughts and feelings can and do have a physical basis. Our sense of self is also intimately related to our bodies. We relate to each other as embodied beings and form boundaries between ourselves and others based on this bodily experience.
An (embodied) sense of self doesn’t begin to develop until around 18-months-old. 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. Social awareness appears way before this, in direct contrast with the theory of oikeiosis, starting with the ‘social smile’ at around 2-months-old. While not needed for immediate survival, cuddling releases Oxytocin, which calms a distressed baby. Babies need this contact to learn how to self-soothe and to develop a healthy attachment style that gives them the confidence to explore the world as they mature. Thus, bodily experiences are essential to our psychosocial development and wellbeing.
Perhaps, then, the problem lies in the strict stoic definition of "wellbeing" or "happiness".
Far from being irrelevant to our wellbeing, physical and external experiences (including social experiences) are central to it, and continue to be so throughout our lives. With no sleep, no physical touch, and no body with which to associate a sense of self, our learning and bonds with others would be severely impacted.
We can claim that bodily or external harm is a ‘dispreferred indifferent’, neither good nor bad, but this doesn’t take away the trauma of rape or the grief that follows the death of a loved one. These are real psychologically-painful experiences that we cannot reason away. 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.
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. After all, ancient stoics didn’t exactly forcefully or widely renounce slavery. This wasn’t good for the economy. Stoics did suggest treating slaves as though they were equal, but they weren't. In claiming that real freedom was in our minds, they dismissed the reality for slaves. Their logic likely did more to alleviate cognitive dissonance than it made a practical difference to the happiness of slaves.
Meanwhile, most ancient stoics were able to study philosophy because they tended to occupy the more privileged end of society, with Epictetus being an exception (starting as a slave to a wealthy owner who permitted his studies). Zeno, the founder of stoicism, was a wealthy merchant. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor. Seneca amassed significant wealth in politics. Cato was an aristocrat who defended Rome's ancient constitution.
It’s likely I’m missing something in my self-appointed role as armchair philosopher, but perhaps ancient stoicism is a little too reductive to be fully applied to a world in which people aren't born equal, with a matching capacity for rationality. We are all bound by the human condition. We have lives to live. Unless everything is held in common and hierarchy is abolished, people will act against each other based on various competing values, not all of which will be in pursuit of stoic moral wisdom.
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 (even appreciating) the things you can't.
This is my take: the only relationship you have real control over is the one you have with yourself. If this relationship is the template on which we base other relationships, 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.
Sometimes, this simply involves acknowledging and accepting that something is what it is and it sucks: “I lost my job/partner/house (whatever) and it is expected to feel sad". Without this evaluation, I might conclude there is 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.
For most of my adult life, it has 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. 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.”
Based on this, 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.
If there’s one thing ancient stoics agreed on, it was the value of their time.
Seneca defined 'living' as being in control of yourself. This permits you to enjoy yourself meaningfully, whilst also working towards intrinsic values, before it is 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 must learn when and how to say “no” to others so that we can pursue our own (ideally, 'worthy') goals. This is not to be dramatic, but to set a standard for yourself and how you wish to be treated, in line with your own values. 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 is no harm in fulfilling the requests of another person. But, the misguided desires and fears of others shouldn’t require you to go to extremes to satisfy them or to sacrifice your own intrinsic values. If following ancient stoicism, this would violate the primary virtue of prudence, which asks that you act based on the correct assessment of the value of 'indifferents' relative to virtue. It also violates the virtues of temperance (by meeting these extreme expectations) and justice (by acting against your own interests), and perhaps also courage (to stand up for yourself).
You cannot control the outcome of your response to others, 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 over your own intrinsic values, 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.
This blog post is the longest but also perhaps the most confusing of the three, since I appear to be going back-and-forth in praising versus criticising ancient stoicism. So, allow me to highlight my take away message: 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. Ancient stoic philosophy is one of many potential tools for self-improvement, one that I find particularly useful.
It is 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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