The Nature of Love and Happiness, Part II: Shared Cultural Messages with Ancient Stoicism
Updated: Jun 28
I recently went down a rabbit hole that started with finding this excerpt from a 13th Century poem by Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
My understanding of these lines upon first reading them was romantic. It struck me as the sort of thing you might say to a lover with whom you cannot pursue a relationship due to conflicting societal or familial rules and expectations – a ‘maybe in the next life’ sentiment, and not one that sat well with my previously broken heart.
The thought expressed might also be that falling in love requires an appreciation of the true essence that is internal to another person, which transcends culturally-dictated values. This interpretation sat more comfortably with me.
To investigate the actual meaning, I found the full translated poem, A Great Wagon, and started reading about the religious context in which it was written. This blog post, along with a tattoo, is the result of the rabbit hole I found myself in.
In falling further down this rabbit hole, I kept noticing familiar themes between this verse in Rumi's poem and ancient stoicism, which I introduce in the first blog post of this series so as not to overwhelm the reader. This blog post, the second in the series, explores the parallels between Rumi's ideas and ancient stoic philosophy. Why? Because I couldn't help but write it down – writing is how I make sense of things.
Rumi, Sufism, and Ancient Stoicism
Rumi practised Sufism, a style of worship within Islam that: rejects materialism; focusses on an inward search for God; and emphasises love, peace, and tolerance. This is not unlike sub-groups of other religions and philosophies, including ancient stoicism, which I have a special affinity for.
The rejection of materialism can be likened to the stoic virtue of temperance; the inward search for God can be likened to the focus on internal values; and the emphasis on love, peace, and tolerance can be likened to the stoic concept of "rational love", where to extend our empathy and care for others, even to those quite different from ourselves, progresses us towards our natural function as rational and social beings, and thus happiness.
Despite the poem's religious undertones, Coleman Barks’ English translation of the poem appears to be biased towards secularism, translated in such a way as to avoid reference to Islam. Rather than “right-doing” and “wrong-doing”, the direct translation of the Persian words in the original verse are “religion” and “infidelity”, respectively.
However, according to Barks, religion is secondary to the underlying message of Rumi's poem. Rumi used religious text and imagery to explore different interpretations of religious ideas, often challenging the status quo. More generally, there is a lot of symbolism in Sufi prose and poetry. So, rather than taking it at face value, a reader can interpret multiple meanings in Rumi’s words, religious and non-religious.
It’s clear that to critique the complete poem I’d need a better understanding of how it was translated and its cultural context. I’m no philosopher, theist, or literature student, so, to limit the extent to which I'm at risk of giving an entirely incorrect interpretation of the poem as a whole, I’ll stick to my musings of the verse that the above excerpt comes from and how I see it relating to ancient stoicism.
The "good" and the "bad"
Rumi writes of the field as a place where: “ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense”. In some translations, the “field” is a “garden” or “meadow” and, in others, a “desert”. Whichever translation you prefer, it doesn’t reference a physical location, but a conceptual space where an underlying truth and connection with others is found. By removing earthly barriers to understanding one another – man-made beliefs and prejudices – we rise above everything that might come between us. In so doing, we are able achieve a ‘oneness’.
Taken together, the underlying message of the verse for me, with or without religious connotations, remains: there is an unrestricted space characterised by compassion and love that transcends ideas of what is good (in Rumi’s world, Islam) and what is bad (in Rumi’s world, misdoings caused by unbelief).
Rumi goes on to advise that whomever finds the field should not go “back to sleep”, but embrace all it has to offer in learning (its "secrets") and happiness (“what you really want"). Rumi thus implies that it is a sign of wisdom to liberate oneself from value judgements. This allows us to connect with others and find happiness.
Similarly, in ancient stoicism, wisdom releases you from irrational ideas of what is good and bad – value judgements of external factors (health, pleasure, wealth, and reputation) that lead to unhealthy passions (fears, desires, and other destructive emotions). These aren't the things that bring you happiness.
If, for example, money bought happiness, happiness would only exist for those with more money. This isn’t what we see. While there is a link between money and happiness (up to $75,000 according to this study), the link exists only in so much as it is hard to pursue happiness if you cannot first maintain a baseline standard of living. Meanwhile, for those with extreme wealth, excessive materialism has a number of negative consequences, morally and psychologically.
Once basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing are covered, the number of problems that can be solved by throwing money at them is greatly reduced. As, Socrates cautions:
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have."
Socrates and ancient stoics that followed taught that happiness depends not on external things, but on how these things are used – towards or away from virtue. Towards virtue, ancient stoics focussed on fulfilling intrinsic values, namely to: think rationally, act ethically, and fulfil our obligations as citizens of the world. By acknowledging our shared humanity, we are better able to engage in benevolent love and affection for others. Ancient stoics called this "rational love".
For ancient stoics, another person is just another self (bringing more meaning to the phrase "if you want to be loved, then love”). With this way of thinking, there is no distinction between what is good for the self and what is good for others, and perceived differences don't hold any defining value.
Similarly, in Rumi’s field, where we transcend human-defined judgements of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the concept of “each other” stops making sense and we are able to unite. Whether a field, meadow, garden, or desert plain, Rumi refers to a space unrestricted by the dualistic thoughts, emotions, and events that cause conflict and pain. It is a realm in which compassion and love reigns.
As in Rumi's conceptual field (or meadow, or garden, or desert), there is nothing in ancient stoicism that empowers us to judge other people negatively. We are encouraged only to love others whilst we focus on bettering ourselves. This reminded me of another quote stored somewhere in the back of my mind, only to find it was also one of Rumi’s:
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world; today I am wise and so I am changing myself.”
What I take from these messages
The message I take from my limited understanding of Sufi poetry and ancient stoicism is that love transcends the changing nature of externally-dictated knowledge, including the value judgements we make about things. I find these similarities, despite the vastly different cultures and time periods the ideas came from, fascinating. [For insight into commonalities between various philosophies and religions, you may be interested in The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley.]
By removing the duality of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the multiplicity of ‘me’ and ‘others’, we gain empathy, resolve conflict, and reduce suffering. I imagine that when two souls meet in Rumi's field, earthly concerns are left behind; priorities change and happiness is achievable.
Meanwhile, in a world dominated by materialism, obsessed with outer beauty, and overwhelmed by competing egos, I rarely find myself 'happy' in the modern sense of the word. But, I am mostly free from resentment, bitterness, and longing for things that I don’t have. That meets at least some of the stoic criteria for happiness.
This way of thinking also boosts my confidence in the belief that love (and emotionality) are not found at the negative end of the spectrum for rationality. You can be both rational and loving, and achieve happiness insofar as happiness is about the journey rather than the destination. More than that, to love properly is to love rationally, and to be rational allows you to love others more completely.
This ties in nicely with what most modern-day clinical psychologists will also tell you: that you can love yourself and others better when you recognise that responsibility for your happiness lies within yourself. This got me to thinking – how far can ancient stoic philosophy go in modern day application?
Select Sources and Resources
Ali, R. (2017). The erasure of Islam from the poetry of Rumi. The New Yorker
Author Unknown (2009). Jalaluddin Rumi: The Life of Rumi. BBC Website [archived]
Huxley, A. (1945). The Perennial Philosophy.
Kahneman, D. & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (38), 16,489-16,493
Markman, A. (2018). Money, happiness, and socioeconomic status. Psychology Today [website]
Robertson, D. (2013). Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Life. London: Hodder & Stoughton
Stephens, W.O., (2020). Stoic ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource [online resource]
[I also extend thanks to a friend who helped me translate the original text from Persian and explained some of the religious context to me.i