Stoicism vs Existentialism on the Meaning of Life

Here’s a short essay I wrote for a one-page essay competition on the meaning of life. I was a dumbass and didn’t read the rules properly. The rules were one page double-spaced. Mine was one page single spaced which I figured out only after I’d submitted it. Anyway, I’ve posted it here so it doesn’t die a sad death somewhere on my hard-drive.

Existentialism vs Stoicism on the Meaning of Life

Both the existentials and the Stoics purport to provide answers to the meaning of life. Whatever that answer is, both agree that wealth, fame, career, power, graduate degrees, and other ‘externals’ have no value. They disagree, however, with respect to the reasons for externals’ non-value. And the reasons for non-value differ because the existentials and the Stoics fundamentally interpret questions about the meaning of life differently.

For existentialists the question principally concerns life’s significance. What makes life significant? Creating value and meaning. Life and the world we are thrust into are normatively barren; they contain no ready-made meanings or values. As luck would have it, human beings have the capacity to create both meaning and value through deliberate choice and action. The meaning of life and everything in it is the meaning you construct for it—the meaning you choose for it. And so, the answer to the meaning of life is for each individual to introspect and to create their own meaning and values through choice and action. Importantly, meaning and value are inherently subjective since they unfold from the private consciousness of each. Hence, externals have no value unless we choose to impart it upon them in how we structure them into our life projects.

The Stoics understand the question as asking how we can live well. The Stoic answer: By joyfully accepting of the world as it is. Contemplating the meaning of life is understood as assessing what sorts of things reliably achieve this Stoic aim. Unlike with existentialism, both the goal and path—virtuous living—are objective: they apply to everyone.

The Stoics observed that the world is full of unhappy people with wealth, successful careers, fame, and graduate degrees, etc…Externals have no value because of their merely contingent causal relation to cheerful acceptance. Worse still, since the causes of externals’ presence or absence ultimately lie outside of the causal power of our will, incorporating them into our life projects risks not only failure but necessarily undermines joyful living: 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.” Externals have no value because they reliably undermine the meaning of life; i.e., joyfully accepting the world as it is.

So we know what not to pursue, now what? If we seek a life of significance, our projects must in some way conform with our internal reflections on our current and idealized selves. Meaning requires that what we do connects to our considered values and interests. Subjectivity matters for significance. Point existentialists. However, the Stoic arguments support objective constraints on what sorts of ends we ought and ought not to pursue if we want to also live well. Finally, the probability of realizing and sustaining a meaningful project falls without developing the objective virtues of courage, wisdom, self-control, and—more controversially—justice. Point Stoics.

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