The first question of philosophy is, How should I live my life? For the Ancient Greeks, the answer was to live a good life. A trivial answer to be sure until we ask further, What is a good life? Or to rephrase it, what makes a good life good? Answers varied from school to school but for just about all of them a good life consists primarily in developing the virtues—both moral and intellectual.
From our modern perspective it’s perhaps odd to conceive of a good life primarily in terms of moral and intellectual development. For many people ‘living well’ and moral development aren’t necessarily connected. For the Greeks, however, they were intimately connected: You simply cannot have a good life without developing the virtues.
One prominent school, the Stoics, place the virtues at the absolute center of their philosophy of the good life. They believed that a life dedicated to developing the virtues was not only necessary for a good life but also sufficient. That is, a good life isn’t possible with out the virtues and a good life requires no other thing. In this post I’m going to discuss their philosophy of living well along with an apparent puzzle that arises out of their view.
I’m choosing Stoicism because over the last 8 months, as an experiment, I’ve been trying to live according to Stoic principles. For a variety of reasons, I’ve decided to follow Stoic teachings to see how the quality of my life changes. Since at least my early twenties I’ve “tried on” various philosophies in search of a life well-lived. I doubt I’m the only one conducting these sorts of experiment.
Despite the personal angle, I hope to avoid navel-gazing and stick to the philosophy. However, I do want to briefly mention that by living according to Stoic teachings, the quality of my life has changed dramatically—in the “good” direction. I’m still puzzling through parts of it and I’m not on board with many of their metaphysical beliefs but if you’re looking for a time-tested way to improve the quality of your life, I strongly recommend giving Stoicism a try.
I’m not grounding this recommendation in a single data point but in a history of great names who studied and incorporated Stoic principles into their lives: Marcus Aurelius, Nelson Mandela, Seneca, James Bond Stockdale, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Bill Clinton, Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Sullivan (Mayor of Vancouver!), Arnold Swartzenegger, Beatrice Webb, Bill Belichick, T-Pain, Brie Larson, John Steinbeck, JK Rowling, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Tim Ferriss to name only a few.
If we want to live a good life we need to figure out exactly makes a life good in the first place. For the Stoics, a good life is one that is virtuous, mentally tranquil, self-determined, and lived according to reason. An interesting feature of the Stoic system is that it is logically closed. By this I mean I can begin with any premise within the system and get to any other. This leads to a kind of logical equivalence between the various Stoic constituents for a good life: living according to reason, mental tranquility, and virtuous living all amount to the same thing. If I live according to reason, I will practice the virtues, and if I practice and develop the virtues I gain mental tranquility. I can start with virtue or self-determination and make the same connections: If I am virtuous, my actions will conform with reason, and when my actions conform with reason, my mind is tranquil.
From the point of view of teaching Stoicism, this internal logical structure makes introducing it a bit of a puzzle because it isn’t clear where best to begin. In this post, I’ve decided to begin with the aspirational goal of Stoic living as described by Epictetus: The aim of Stoic practice is to joyfully accept the world as it is.
When I first read this, I thought this was some D-pak Chopra-level bullshit. I’m supposed to joyfully accept when shit goes wrong? What kind of pollyannaish new-age nonsense is this?
Aside: You may have noticed that the idea of joyfully accepting the world as it is doesn’t conform with the popular understanding of the Spock-like Stoic. I’ll talk more about the Stoics and emotion in another post but a constant theme throughout Stoic writing is that one should cultivate a cheerful disposition.
Alright, back to philosophy. The obvious question that falls out of the above aspiration is, How the heck are we supposed to maintain a cheerful disposition when so often our desires and goals are obstructed and frustrated? (Not to mention the general shit-show that the world can be).
The answer requires we understand clearly what has value and what doesn’t (through exercise of reason!) and to pursue only that which has objective value; i.e., that which is valuable no matter who you are or what you believe.
For most modern people, the idea that there are things with objective value is foreign: What do you mean there are things everyone should pursue? We are all special individual snowflakes, each with our unique set of things we should pursue to make life go well. Everything’s—like—subjective, maaaaaaaan! Amiright?
Stoics argue that people get frustrated and anxious—and hence have their tranquility disrupted—because they pursue the wrong sorts of things. They pursue things they mistakenly think have objective value with respect to making their lives go well.
The Stoics divide objects of pursuit into two main categories: Internals and Externals. Externals, such as money, fame, material objects, relationships, career, sex, reputation, power, and even health have no objective value in so far as being able to make your life good or not. The only things that can objectively make your life meaningfully better are internals; i.e., the virtues.
Note: There is more nuance to the Stoic view regarding the value of externals but I’m going to set that aside for now. It is enough to say here that, for the Stoics, externals have no ultimate value when it comes to determining the goodness of your life.
We can track the distinction between internals and externals as a division between things over which our will does or does not have ultimate control. For example, there are lots of things I can do to try to get recognition or affection but ultimately, receiving either depends on whether others want to give it (and continue to give it) to me. Because achieving these aims depends on something outside my own will (i.e., the wills of others) I set myself up for frustration and resentment when I don’t get what I want. And even if I do momentarily gain reputation or affection, I am anxious because its maintenance depends ultimately on elements outside my will.
The same goes for something like money. I can work really hard, get the right education, and so on but ultimately the amount of money I get is outside my will: I can get robbed, my company can go bankrupt, my bank can go bankrupt, my business partner can make a bad deal, the stock market can crash, the job market can change rendering me obsolete, etc…
It’s not that I have no control over acquiring externals, it’s that ultimately, at the end of the day, whether I obtain them and maintain them depends on forces outside my will. This explains why pursuing externals can never lead to a sustained good life. When attaining them is difficult or obstructed—which it inevitably will be—we feel frustrated and resentful. And even if we do attain some external, its maintenance is precarious. It depends not on our will but on the will of others and on the world conforming to our desires, all of which contribute to a perpetual state of background anxiety.
Marcus Aurelius put it this way:
If you insist on pursuing externals “of necessity you must be envious, jealous, and suspicious of those who can take away those things and plot against those who have that which is valued by you. Of necessity a man must be altogether in a state of perturbation who wants any of these; and besides, he must find fault with the gods” (Meditations, Bk VI, 16).
I’ll make one more remark on Stoic attitudes toward externals. The Stoics were not naive. They recognized that a human life does go better when, for example, a person has some wealth rather than none. But the good that comes from externals is conditional. That is, it is conditional on the circumstances the individual finds himself in. For example, if someone with a bad opioid addiction came into a bunch of money, this would not be a good thing. The goodness of money, unlike the virtues, is conditional–not objective–with respect to making our lives go well. Similar cases can be constructed for any external: the world is full of unhappy people with good careers, fame, reputation, money, material wealth, and so on.
When we observe that our life circumstances and desires will inevitably change over time, there is no guarantee that the externals we pursue and possess will preserve their goodness in those new circumstances. In short, externals on their own don’t reliably cause us to have a good life; in fact, sometimes they can make it go worse. The virtues, on the other hand, reliably cause us to have a good life: There is no situation or identity where courage, wisdom, self-control, and justice don’t cause one’s life go better.
Also, acquiring internals, unlike externals, depends entirely on my own will. The quality of the judgments and decisions I make (i.e., intellectual virtue), the character of the actions I choose and the way I react to situations (i.e., the moral virtues) are all ultimately under the control of my will.
No one can force me to assent to a false proposition or make a bad decision, and no one can force me to act foolishly or viciously. Whether I develop wisdom, courage, self-control, patience, compassion, persistence, humility, generosity, and so on, depend entirely on my will. And the same goes for their maintenance. Since I can never be prevented by some outside force from developing and maintaining the virtues, I avoid frustration, resentment, and anxiety towards myself and others.
Early into my experiment with Stoicism, the following sorts of thoughts started to creep into my head:
If no thing external to my will has value, what the heck do I do with my life? Get a job? Meh, what’s the point? Money and a career can’t make me happy. Besides, they could be taken away at any point.
Deadline for my dissertation coming up? Meh. Dissertations ultimately have no value, so no real point in doing that.
I should probably start preparing the lecture for tomorrow. Meh. The lecture has no objective value with respect to how my life goes.
Well, since I’m not going to work on my dissertation or tomorrow’s lecture, I might as well go to the gym to stay healthy. Meh. No point. I could just get sick and lose my gainz despite all my hard work. Worse yet, my time of death is out of my control which means I could die in an hour. Why workout if I might die soon?
Here’s the funny thing. At this point, I’d been following Stoicism for about 5-6 months. Despite not caring about anything, I was actually noticeably happier than I had been in quite a while. Things that previously would have made me angry or upset rolled off me like water. Nothing bothered me cuz nothing really mattered. In a way, I’d internalized the most difficult lesson of Stoicism, to joyfully accept the world exactly as it is.
But this way of living, this grinning apathy, can’t be right. And it isn’t what the Stoics intended either.
What had I gotten wrong?
Solving the Puzzle
Solving the puzzle requires we hold in our heads what appear to be two inconsistent beliefs: That externals don’t matter but that how we use them does matter. Somehow, Stoicism requires that I act as though externals matter while also believing that they don’t. Epictetus recognizes the apparent paradox:
It isn’t easy to combine and reconcile the two—the carefulness of a person devoted to externals and the dignity of one who’s detached—but it’s not impossible (Discourse II, vi, 9).
We can reconcile the positions by way of analogy. Think of a great sportball player. A great sportball player pursues the ball with courage, persistence, and skill—that is what makes her a great sport ballplayer. But does the great sportball player believe the ball itself has objective value? No. The ball, within the context of the game, is a means of developing and demonstrating the virtues of a great sport ballplayer. But no sportball player, no matter how good, thinks that the ball itself has objective value. What has value—what is objectively good or bad—is how sportball players pursue the ball.
As Epictetus puts it, we need
the star athlete’s concentration, together with his coolness, as if it were just another ball we were playing with too. To be sure, external things of whatever kind require skill in their use, but we must not grow attached to them; whatever they are, they should only serve for us to show how skilled we are in our handling of them (Discourse II, v, 21).
Or as he puts it another way:
Life is indifferent, but the use we make of it is not indifferent. So when you hear that even life and the like are indifferent, don’t become apathetic; and by the same token, when you’re advised to care about them, don’t become superficial and conceive a passion for externals (Discourse II, vi, 1-2).
To summarize, Stoicism done right requires we inhabit a delicate doxastic state: We must believe that externals have no value yet we must act as though they do in order that we may develop the virtues. In a way, externals are a tool to develop the things that actually matter: the virtues.
My mistake was was to focus solely on the idea that externals have no value. As a result I became apathetic. I failed to realize that apathy cannot breed virtue—the genuine aim of Stoicism and source of a good life. So, while it’s (sadly) true that my dissertation has no objective value with respect to the goodness of my life, how I go about writing it does. My lecture has no objective value but how I go about preparing it and delivering it does. My health has no objective value but how I go about sustaining it does. My career has no objective bearing on the goodness of my life, but how I go about pursuing it does.
How To (Genuinely) Joyfully Accept the World as It Is
In retrospect, I wasn’t genuinely joyfully accepting the world as it was. Because of my new-found non-attachment I think I was merely joyful to be free of the sorts of situations that previously would have sent me into a fit of rage, frustrated, or saddened me. Indifference was just a step up from all the negative emotions that come from attachment to and pursuit of externals.
But when we adopt the complete Stoic view, that developing the virtues is what makes your life go well, then—through consistent practice—we can approach a joyful state of acceptance. How? Because at every turn, you will find an opportunity to develop at least one of the virtues.
Stuck in traffic? Here’s a chance to develop patience. Working on a dissertation? Here’s an opportunity to develop persistence. Facing a difficult choice? Here’s an opportunity to develop courage. And just about every judgment, decision, and action affords us a chance to develop our wisdom.
If it’s the virtues that matter for living a good life then we should be grateful every time we are presented with an opportunity to develop them. These situations should be received joyfully because they are opportunities to acquire something of genuine objective value to the goodness of your life—unlike the externals which have no objective value. Although, in order to develop the virtues we have to act as though externals have value, all the while understanding their objective indifference to the goodness of our life.
And so, as with so much so Stoic thought, we come full circle. If we internalize the idea that it’s the virtues that are the end goal and that have objective value, not externals, we see how we can joyfully accept the world as it is.