When was the last time you stopped what you were doing and contemplated “Am I living the good life?”. In the hustle and bustle of modern day life, there are probably a lot us who don’t regularly ask ourselves this question. And if we have thought about it, our answers may come from looking at celebrities or the rich which ultimately make us feel envious. We think they live the good life because they have lots of money or are able to do what they want or we wish that we were as successful as they were in what we do. But this is misguided, people can have a lousy life despite making a very good living.
For some people, the good life may be as simple as raising their children to become happy and prosperous adults. Similar to making a good living, you can have a lousy life despite having successful children. Also, many people choose not to have children or raise a family which this would not apply to.
Many look for the answers to the good life from teachings from their church, mosque, or synagogue. But many religions teach others what to do to have a good “afterlife,” not focusing on what you can do to live the good life now.
What many of us don’t do is go searching for these answers by visiting the local university’s philosophy department. In the hallways of a stuffy bunch of academics may be a few professors who can tell you about a branch of philosophy that has taught the ways for the “good life” for a couple thousand years. That branch of philosophy is called stoic philosophy.
Stoic philosophy is a part of a school of thought called eudaimonism meaning that its central concern is about what we should do or be to live well and flourish. This philosophy was immensely popular in both classical Greek and Roman empire culture. It was influential to one of the greatest emperors of the Roman empire, Marcus Aurelius. Upon his death, his writings, called the Meditations, were discovered revealing his remarkable stoic philosophy.
According to the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, stoics had many admirable traits. They were courageous, temperate, reasonable, and had self-discipline.
In essence, stoics reasoned what the good life is about is to live with virtue in accordance with nature, with self-control and tolerance by serving your fellow man, and by bringing inner tranquility to your life.
Stoic philosophers taught their students that by overcoming our “insatiabilities” we would be on a path to the good and meaningful life. How? Instead of always wanting more we should persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.
Seneca said “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”
Most notably, stoics taught that many things we desire- especially fame and fortune- are not worth pursuing. As mentioned, someone can have a lousy life despite making a very good living. They cautioned that fame and fortune are fleeting and empty. Marcus Aurelius said this of fame, “Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name? How many will soon have forgotten it? How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt. That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame.”
So what did Stoics mean by “virtue”? To stoics, a virtuous person is one who performs well the function they were designed to do in line with nature. In essence, the pursuit of excellence is the road for mankind to living the good life. The physician who does an excellent job of caring for her patients. The carpenter who builds high-quality work. The teacher who is great at teaching her students. These are all examples of virtue.
I am giving professions or careers as examples, but that is not necessarily all we were designed to do. So what functions were people designed to do? To answer this, the Stoics thought each person needs to explain that question to themselves. And stoics believed by using our human reasoning ability and by serving our fellow man, the answer would come to us.
One reason why stoic philosophy in modern times is not so popular is that it probably has gotten a bad wrap. Many people think stoics were dull people void of emotion and lead passive and dispassionate lives. What this turns out was not the case. Stoics were, in fact, full of life and passion, and encouraged their students to find positive emotions and inner joy in their life. At the same time, they encouraged us to become a state that is void of negative emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, and fear. By bringing inner tranquility in your life, then you will genuinely have joy which will maximize positive emotions and reduce negative emotions.
In summary, stoics reasoned the good life is living with virtue, with self-control and tolerance by serving your fellow man and woman, and to bring inner tranquility into your life. How the Stoics taught their students to achieve this is fascinating, and many of you may find surprising. So for my next post, I will get into the details on how someone can apply the stoic practices into daily life to achieve virtue and joy so that you can live the good life.