This blog post is for the secret (or maybe not so secret) connoisseur of meta-questions. I do not know how it is for you, but I have spent many, many hours contemplating meta-questions. Do you want me to share some of my favourites? Well, o.k., here they are:
- Can there be a destiny for humankind in a universe absent of gods?
- Is the cause of and the solution for global climate change just about technology?
- What are the implications of humans actually not being that rational after all?
- Last but not least: what should I live my life for and what implications does the answer to this question have for how to live my life?
As you can tell from the title of the piece, I am going to talk about the last question. More precisely, I will discuss what insights Stoicism provides about the question of what to live for and how the Stoic answer to this question informs the contingent question of how to live one’s life. Note well, that I am not claiming that Stoicism provides the answer to these questions, but I think Stoicism makes very interesting and expedient contributions to these fundamental questions. Also, the expert reader will point out that Stoicism is grounded in theism, so how do I square Stoicism with my first question, i.e. whether there is a destiny for humankind in a universe absent of gods? The answer is that Stoicism does not need to be grounded in a theistic belief to work. See, for instance, Corey Anton’s Sources of Significance.
That said, I do think that Stoicism falls short of a complete answer to these questions, and the main reason for this shortcoming is the incomplete understanding of human psychology. More on this in a forthcoming blog post.
So what is Stoicism and how does it answer these questions, viz. what to live your life for and how to live it to meet the former goal? In order to answer this let us take a detour down memory lane.
Where and when it all began: ancient Greece
Yes, I know, I also loath the phrase “already the ancient Greeks blah, blah, blah,” but this time it is actually really true. I promise!
Back in ancient Greece, philosophers were just about getting started with philosophising, and in contrast to how philosophy is organised today, philosophy was very much praxis-oriented. Don’t forget that questions we classify as scientific questions today were part of philosophy back then (natural philosophy!). Besides trying to understand the natural world, Greek philosophy grappled with many other topics, for instance aesthetics. However, the question that engaged even more people was the very question behind this blog post: what to live for? The good old Greeks had already an answer for this question: eudaimonia, which can loosely be translated into contemporary English as happiness.
That’s it, that’s the answer to what to live your life for? Yes, according to Aristotle that is actually the answer. However (big HOWEVER): do not construe happiness as “don’t worry be happy.” Rather, eudaimonia covers many other aspects. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was tightly coupled to virtue, excellence, and ethical wisdom. In other words: eudaimonia is definitely not only about partying, or mostly not so. The one major exception to Aristotle’s stance, i.e. that eudaimonia is more than just a life as a party is hedonism, which promotes pleasure as a gateway to eudaimonia. I mention this different approach since it helps us to better understand what Stoicism is all about. Another school that helps us with that is Cynicism, which posits that eudaimonia is the same as virtue, and virtue can be gained by “rejecting all conventional desires for wealth, power, sex, and fame. Instead, [Cynics are] to lead a simple life free from all possessions.” In other words, Cynicism is the polar opposite of hedonism.
In my eyes, and those of the Stoics, neither hedonism nor Cynicism hold the answer to what eudaimonia is and how to best achieve it. Why is hedonism wrong? The short answer is: hedonic adaptation, a.k.a. the hedonic treadmill. Ever wondered why something you had longed for with all your heart was not that great any more already the day after you had achieved it? Well, that is exactly what hedonic adaptation is about, our somewhat uncanny ability to equalise large changes in happiness (and actually also sadness and disappointment). That is pretty much why we do not drink Champaign and eat truffle all the time (besides the financial aspect of course): the experience turns rather bland rather quickly.
If life as a party does not work and does thus not answer the questions of what eudaimonia is and how to achieve it, what is the answer? As we already saw above, the answer could be the polar opposite, an austere life style. According to the Cynics, saying no to hedonic pleasure, riches, etc. was the right way to happiness. On the face of it, the Cynics’ answer to the question of what eudaimonia is seems rather extreme, but what if it actually is the right answer, what if their approach works?
Finally: enter Stoicism
Well, Stoics begged to differ. They agreed with the Cynics in that a hedonistic approach is fundamentally empty, but they did not agree with the Cynics that all pleasure we can derive from this world is diverting us from eudaimonia. Rather, they argued that the question of how to achieve sensual pleasure is pivotal in question of whether sensual pleasure furthers eudaimonia. In other words, Stoicism promotes something like a “reformed hedonism.” It postulates that hedonism becomes richer and deeper when combining it with a rather austere life style. How does this work? In order to answer this question I need to delve deeper into Stoicism. If my dive is not deep enough, I recommend William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life [Irvine 2009], which I found very accessible, perspicuous, and illuminating. I base most of my discussion on his book and the references he uses.
Eudaimonia according to Stoicism
According to the Stoics, the answer to what eudaimonia is has its foundations in an overarching principle, namely that virtue is predicated upon one’s excellence as a human being, i.e. on “how well [one] performs the function for which humans were designed” [Irvine 2009, pp. 35-36]. If we live our lives according to this principle we will automatically achieve eudaimonia. In other words, eudaimonia is an epiphenomenon originating from fulfilling what we are designed for. There is no exact contemporary synonym for Stoic eudaimonia, but tranquillity is a fair approximation. Equanimity is a another close-enough synonym.
Fair enough, but what did the Stoics think we were designed for? In order to answer this question, Stoics looked at what differentiates us from other beings, and the answer they came up with is rationality. According to them, we are the only rationally thinking animal, so being rational is what we are designed for. But the Stoics did not stop there. They also noticed that we have other traits, that while not being unique to us are still pronounced enough to qualify as partial answers of what we are designed for. The most important of such later traits is that we are social beings and thus have duties to our fellow beings.
Let me summarise what we have learned so far: to live a good life a Stoic has to
- Be rational and
- Care for her fellow beings.
But how does a Stoic know that she has achieved her goals and has entered the state of tranquillity? Well, according to the Stoics, tranquillity is “a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy” [Irvine 2009, p. 39].
The how to of Stoicism
Stoicism does not only explain what eudaimonia is, but it also provides an etiological justification for the Stoic interpretation of eudaimonia. But if that was all, Stoicism would not be much more than a mere assertion. This brings us to the “how-to” of Stoicism. Stoics early on identified “vices” to avoid and things to do to achieve eudaimonia. Their main recommendations are (distilled from [Irvine 2009, pp. 227-229]):
- Become self-aware.
- Form and maintain social relations.
- Overcome emotions through reason.
- Overcome through application of rational thought:
- The hedonic treadmill.
- Our tendency to worry.
- Our lamenting about past errors.
- Insult and injury from others.
- Overcome through application of rational thought:
- A Stoic shall thus control here attachment to “the world”.
The first point in the above list is something of a no-brainer. By this I do not mean that it is a no-brainer to become self-aware, rather that one hardly can subscribe to the programme of eudaimonia without becoming aware of how eudaimonia feels. How would one otherwise know that one is in the state of eudaimonia? Also, one needs to be aware about what one has to change in oneself to achieve eudaimonia. Neither of that can be done without self-awareness.
I already addressed the next two points in the above list in the previous section, so let me focus hereafter on the use of rationality for achieving Stoic tranquillity.
Escaping from the hedonic treadmill through negative visualisation
Although the concept hedonic adaptation is a child of the 20th century, the Stoics had already an intuitive grasp of the problem it poses for pursuing the good life. But what to do about it? The Cynics tried to solve this problem by abandoning hedonic pleasure altogether, but the Stoics came up with a much more elegant solution to this problem. Instead of abandoning hedonistic pleasure altogether they proposed a way how to reset the hedonic set point. The hedonistic set point is, simply put, what appears normal to you. For instance, if having the best coffee in the morning every morning for breakfast, then that becomes your new “normal” and any other coffee in the world will not impress you. So how to reset this set point? What the Stoics came up with is the method of negative visualisation. It advises you to regularly imagine ways in how what you call “normal” could not be there at all. Do you live in a nice house? Think of fires destroying it, hurricanes blowing it away, or simply loosing it to a bank because you default on your mortgage repayments. Do you own a nice car? Imagine it getting totalled in an accident. The Stoics even advised to extend this exercise to your loved ones. For instance, imagine your partner dying in cancer or your kids drowning. I know this sound like a masochistic exercise par excellence, and it certainly would be if it did not deliver the goods, namely if it did not reset the hedonic set point. Practising Stoics throughout the centuries saw it working, and there even seems to be some scientific evidence for it. Also, one has to admit that the method does make a lot of sense: simply imagine that what you have is taken from you and doing this makes you cognisant of the fact that what you have is actually very valuable. Notice that this thinking does not rely on the presumption that we cannot influence anything, that we are mere victims of destiny. Rather, one only needs to appreciate that there are some things in life that we cannot prevent from occurring (the death of loved ones, etc.). More about this in the next section.
Don’t worry about things you cannot change
The next Stoic exercise concerns our constant worrying about things we cannot change. What do the Stoics by things we cannot change? Well, things that are clearly beyond your influence, for instance your social reputation or whether you win in a badminton game. “Wait a minute,” you might think, “I of course can influence my social reputation and whether I win in badminton!” The Stoics would answer: that is an illusion, and exactly this delusion has to go in order for you to become tranquil.
Let me explain the Stoic stance with the badminton example. In order to win a badminton game, you can, of course, put in a lot of exercise hours, get a good night’s sleep before the game, eat healthy, etc. But these steps are only necessary conditions for winning the game, not sufficient ones. They only address how you can become better, but they do not change, for instance, how your opponent will play. Also, what if you happen to catch a flu just the day before the game? While you can contribute to winning the game, you can ultimately not change its outcome. Therefore, focus on what you can change (exercising, eating healthy …), and do not waste time worrying about things you cannot change (winning the game).
The first example I mentioned, achieving a good social reputation, can be explained along the same line. Yes, you can avoid to rob stores and you can also avoid yelling at your neighbour, running around naked, etc. But those are only necessary conditions for a good social reputation. What if your neighbours turn out to be prejudiced and what if they learn something about you that you cannot change? For instance, that you are two times divorced or that you killed somebody by accident in your past life? Again, in order to achieve a good reputation you should worry about what you can do (be a kind person, help your neighbours), while not worrying about what you cannot change: how your neighbours perceive you.
The best summary of this approach was actually formulated by a Christian, i.e. Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
If you want to try this approach in a simple situation try check-out cues, delayed trains, traffic jams, etc. Can you influence them by being enraged about them? No. So tell yourself to calm down and to focus on things you can influence (call your partner and let her know that you are running late; buy a good newspaper so that you can take advantage of the waiting time; use this extra time for negative visualisation, etc.).
Things you cannot change: past and current errors
Stoicism also promotes fatalism. By this they do not mean future fatalism, which would of course lay the entire Stoic programme to ashes, but fatalism toward past and current errors. They propose to use the same principle as before: only worry about things over which you have control. Unless you have a time machine, the past cannot be changed, so do not agonise about past errors. The same applies to the current moment. Unless you have the ability to change things while they are happening (which you do not), do not agonise about errors you commit right now. Instead focus on what you can change: your future behaviour.
Dealing with insults and injury
I already talked about social peers and that you cannot influence them. Not only can you not force them into liking you, many will actually insult you throughout your life. Even worse: even complete strangers will probably insult you at some point in your life. What to do about that? Again, this is a question of what you can control and what not. Can you influence whether grumpy people will insult you: maybe to a little degree when it comes to your social peers, but definitely not when it comes to complete strangers. A good example for this is random road rage. But even if you can influence insult, you can only influence its necessary conditions. For instance, if you are grumpy yourself, you will harvest a lot of grumpy remarks in return. THAT you can influence.
Also, you can use other rational approaches to insults. Contemplate whether the essence of an insult is right (while the tone admittedly is not). Maybe you took another driver’s right of way and she is justified in pointing this out to you (while not being justified in impressing you with her command of invectives). In that case you should reconsider whether this insult really should hurt you. Another approach is to question yourself whether you have ever insulted someone in a similar situation. If yes, then the other driver’s reaction is at least quite natural. You could even contemplate including insults in your negative-visualisation exercise. That exercise will make you appreciate the actually quite extended periods during which you are not insulted by others.
Last but not least, since you cannot expect insult to disappear from the world in the foreseeable future expect to be insulted.
Control your attachment to the world
Many of the above strategies can be folded under one overarching principle: do not get too attached to the world around you. The world you live in is fleeting, and so are you. The (modest) riches you have can be gone tomorrow. Catastrophic, unexpected events are rather the rule than the exception. And, most importantly, we all are mortal, and so are your loved ones. Only if you are aware of this very fact you will not become a passive victim to the negative experiences that certainly lie ahead of you, and it will also make your mind free to appreciate all the good that is actually happening to you.
As you might have guessed from this rather lengthy blog post, I do think that Stoicism is spot on with addressing the question of eudaimonia, and I actually do think that the advice it offers on how to achieve a state of tranquillity is worth listening to. That is why I decided to dedicate an entire blog post to the basics of Stoicism. But, as I pointed out earlier, I do think that Stoicism falls short of it goals. The reason for this shortcoming is that while Stoics had some insights into our psychological peculiarities (e.g., hedonic adaptation), they got a lot of the facts about how and why we do certain things quite -if not completely- wrong. One of the major pitfalls I see is their assertion of rationality as the dominant quality of human beings and the negativity (and even destructiveness) of emotions. This is not a question of throwing Stoicism out of the window all together, rather I think that Stoicism can be improved, and the resulting Stoicism 2.0 could be quite awesome. More on this in my next blog post.
This blog post was updated on 2013-01-05 (removal of syntactical errors and clarifications), based on thoughtful comments provided by Sabrina Greensea. Thanks, Sabrina!
If you like this blog post please click the “like” button. If you would like to receive more letters from my island, go ahead and subscribe through WordPress’s “follow”. For readers without a WordPress account please check the subscription options in the panel on the right. Thank you!