Stoicism — A Guide to Living Well
A guide to finding true happiness, according to Stoic philosophy.
Part 1 — Two Common Problems
Imagine you are in an open field which stretches in every direction, further than your eyes can see.
Since there is nothing of interest in your immediate surroundings, you set your sights on the horizon. You begin to walk with purpose; long strides eventually break into a run until you are sprinting as fast as you can.
After a while, you begin to slow down. Not just because of a lack of breath, but because something doesn’t quite feel right.
Your steps relax to a strolling pace as you turn back to glance at where you started — but it isn’t clear how far you’ve come. You continue walking; at first for hours, then days, and then weeks. Eventually, although the anxiety set in days ago, you come to a stop.
No matter how many steps you had taken, the horizon never came any closer. The goal was never realised, regardless of your efforts.
This short passage might tell you something about your own life, or at least a way of thinking which has occupied your mind at one time or another.
The horizon in the story is an analogy for instrumental goods.
Instrumental goods are those things in life that you want because you believe them to be necessary for your well-being or happiness. A new job or a trip that you’ve always wanted to take, for example.
We think that once we meet these goals, we will somehow achieve happiness as if it was some state which could be reached and maintained forever.
But these ideas are sorely misguided. We cannot find and maintain happiness by seeking it in instrumental goods.
You see, permanent, unchanging happiness is like the horizon in the story. No matter how hard you work for it, no matter how many promotions you achieve, how many new trips you take, you simply cannot find happiness in this way.
No amount of travel will bring the horizon to you, just as no amount of instrumental goods will bring you deep and longlasting happiness.
Equally, failing to accomplish things cannot guarantee your life will be unfulfilling.
This is because from the moment you are born you are always part of a process. You are not an object but rather a subject — you are a subject of the world around you, growing and changing each and every second.
If life is to be experienced as a process rather than a journey towards permanent accomplishment, how can you find true happiness? What’s the alternative to instrumental goods?
Before we tackle that question, let’s consider another example.
Lost in the finite
Imagine this time; someone has just woken up in the morning from their night’s sleep.
They reach for their phone and begin to scroll through social media for thirty minutes. They then slowly move their way out of bed and make themselves a hot mug of coffee.
Leaving themselves little time to prepare for the day ahead, they hurry into the shower and then rush off to work. When driving to work, they get stuck in traffic and, with each passing minute, become more and more frustrated.
They reach their workplace just in time and frantically pour themselves another coffee.
They sit at their desk, open their emails and find themselves inundated with requests which need to be attended to. A colleague approaches and asks for help with an important task. Their colleague has helped them on previous occasions, but after a rushed morning, time isn’t available, and so they are told it’s something they’ll have to deal with themselves.
The morning quickly passes into the afternoon, and almost all of the requests have been completed. They haven’t had time to take a break, and with each passing task, resentment starts to sink in and a familiar feeling descends. They can’t stand their job.
The same colleague from earlier notices something might be bothering them and brings over some chocolate. The offer is accepted but with little thanks, and the co-worker is bluntly urged to leave because there is still work to do.
The working day finally ends, and they drive back home as quickly as possible.
Exhausted, they take a beer from the fridge and heat a ready-meal in the microwave. The TV glares, and soon they’re back to scrolling through the internet.
After a few more drinks, they look at the clock, sigh and head to the bedroom. The phone lights up the dark room with blue light for another hour before it finally gets placed on the table, ready to be picked up in the morning for the same events to unfold the next day.
This example highlights an issue previously mentioned; i.e. being an object instead of being a process. Or, in other words, living life in the passenger seat.
The person in the account lives life from one moment to the next in a type of haze, either in front of a screen or fuelled by some sort of drug. (Coffee, alcohol and social media.)
They lack patience, gratitude, and are, most likely, heavily dissatisfied with their day-to-day life.
The 19th Century Danish poet Soren Kierkegaard referred to what has happened here as being “lost in the finite.”
To be lost in the finite is means to lose yourself. You make no real choices and therefore float through life doing whatever best meets the needs of your emotions or the dictates of your culture.
Scrolling through social media, drinking copious amounts of coffee, leaving no time to prepare for work — all of these actions are dictated by transient emotion and fleeting desires for instrumental goods.
After presenting our two short stories, we see two common and significant issues:
- Seeking instrumental goods in the hope that they will make us “happy.”
- Passively existing day-to-day while being impacted continuously by what’s outside us and rarely by choices that benefit our long-term happiness.
In the next part, we are going to explore Stoicism as a practical philosophy and how it might help us to address these issues.
Part 2 — Stoicism and how it can help you
When many hear the word “philosophy” they think of armchair pondering which, while perhaps interesting, has little impact on the real world.
For the Ancient Greeks and the Romans, philosophy was all about the impact it makes on the world, different “schools” of philosophy providing valued theories on how best to live your life.
Stoicism is one of these schools and was conceived in Ancient Greece by a man named Zeno.
The basic principles of Stoicism presented by Zeno and those who came after him will sound very familiar; perhaps even obvious. Yet there are many valuable lessons which can be learned or re-learned by them. Some of the most useful aspects of Stoicism are:
- The use of Reason to help guide our choices
- Understanding our limitations and the limitations of others
- Emphasising our ability to control our responses to outside circumstances
- Recognising what is out of our control and knowing when to ignore our frustrations with those things
- Training in virtues which will help us fulfil ourselves rather than following our bad habits and chasing instrumental goods
- Continuously reminding ourselves of our demands and self-respect.
The work of Marcus Aurelius, once great Emperor of Rome and renowned Stoic philosopher, can help us to apply these principles.
Marcus Aurelius on problem number one — Seeking instrumental goods in the hope that they will make us “happy.”
“Receive without conceit; release without struggle.” — Marcus Aurelius.
This short passage involves Marcus reminding himself of how best to deal with his possessions and rewards.
- To receive without conceit means to avoid any proud or arrogant feelings you might have when getting what you want. It might also caution us not to think of ourselves as somehow better than others purely by virtue of our current possessions or successes.
- To release without struggle is Marcus’ stance on how to approach the inevitable loss which comes with certain things we have or care about. While it is a difficult thing to do, sometimes acceptance of loss or non-attainment is the healthiest way to approach instrumental goods.
We should be mindful that our new job will have negative aspects and that it, too, could soon become our old job. We should be aware that our new phone will someday become another piece of outdated tech. Even our most intimate relationships can change or end over time.
And, if that should be the case, we should not latch onto these things as though they are our only source of happiness, but release without struggle.
“Why aren’t you praying that they [the gods] give you the power not to fear, crave, or be troubled by a thing, rather than praying to have that thing or not have it?… Isn’t it a better thing freely to make use of the gifts you have, instead of slavishly worrying about what is not in your control.”
Here, Marcus is confused by why so many of us pray or desire for things that we don’t have, rather than asking for the strength of mind to be at peace with how things currently are.
This one is challenging since many of us are not content with certain parts of our lives and assume that change is the only possible fix.
At times this may well be the case. But you must be mindful of situations that may not be as bad as they initially appear.
By changing your perspective instead of the outside circumstances, you might find that soon enough what seemed catastrophic was, in fact, entirely manageable and actually led to further growth.
Marcus Aurelius on problem number two — Passively existing day-to-day while being impacted continuously by what’s outside us instead of being shaped by the choices within us.
“Do not live as if you still have ten thousand years left. Your fate hangs over you. While you are still living, while you still exist of this Earth, strive to become a genuinely good man.”
Life isn’t a dress-rehearsal. Many of the actions detailed in the story above seem grounded upon the assumption that we do have ‘ten thousand years left’, like endless social media scrolling, passing time by indulging in immediate pleasures such as alcohol, and so on.
Our lives are transient, and that fact can be used positively. By striving to become a genuinely good man, we acknowledge that life is finite and use our time to do great things — not striving to obtain instrumental goods.
From a Stoic point of view, a short life is the same as a long life if you are always existing in the present.
Your every moment is what shapes you. If you want to live a meaningful life, your choices and own self-respect matter today in the same way that they will on your last day.
Is life simply a journey to be wasted, to idly exist as a part of and wait until its end, or is it an opportunity to act, achieve and accomplish?
I’m sure we all know the answer to that question.
These quotations are only a short glance at the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius, and I highly encourage you to read more of his work as well as the writings of other Stoics such as Epictetus.
The critical thing to note with what you have learned here is that your life is a process and, while you are not entirely responsible for how you currently are, you are the only one who can be responsible for how you choose to deal with the rest of your life.
Reading the words of the Stoics is a starting point. But you will not suddenly become a better person after one day of thinking about these ideas.
Instead, you need to remind yourself of the ideals of Stoicism regularly.
You could perhaps practice the method of Marcus Aurelius and write down your own thoughts and struggles in a journal.
Most fundamentally, however, you have to repeat the behaviours of the Stoics until they become a habit.
This training might require months of dedication and planning, but ultimately, if you related to the examples made earlier, what have you got to lose?
It’s hard to pinpoint what the meaning of life is, but to live a life without self-control or direction is purposeless and a recipe for misery.
If you currently feel as if you’ve been neglecting yourself or your duties to others, I will leave you with this one final quotation from Marcus Aurelius:
“Stop philosophising about what a good man is and be one.”
For more content like this, follow Mind Cafe on Medium.