Ancient Remedies for Modern Problems
In 2016, the Self-Improvement market ballooned to become a $10-Billion-a-year industry in the United States alone, in what can be deduced to be an epoch of the consumerization of “Happiness”. But there is a reason for this, and it’s ingenious really, because the one single thing, no matter who you are, that all 7-billion-people on this planet have in common, is that “they all want to be happy”. It is a natural part of the human condition, one that which we all, without exception, experience. And yet, it is no easy thing to achieve.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States, or 6.7% of American adults, have had at least one major depressive episode in any given year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms these numbers, stating that more than 1 out of 20 Americans 12 years of age and older report suffering from depression. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, more than 4 out of 10 Americans (48% of the population) reported a visit to a mental health professional by someone in their household this year. While the Journal of the American Medical Association denotes that the percentage of people being treated for depression has tripled since the early 1990s.
And recently, a massive study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that 1 in 8 Americans consumes alcohol at the rate of what is considered to be that of an Alcoholic. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that 24.6-million Americans (9.4% of the population) aged 12 or older are current illicit drug users.
And so, “happiness” has not only proven elusive and difficult to maintain for many people today but so has simply ‘coping’ with the very state of being alive.
“All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” -Blaise Pascal
THE ANCIENT REMEDY
Humanity has been contemplating the phenomenon (or dilemma) of conscious existence, offering insight and wisdom, since the dawn of civilization- in the discipline of Philosophy.
Ancient Philosophers didn’t only believe Philosophy could cure us of emotional suffering because our beliefs caused that suffering, but they saw that as the very purpose of its practice.
“Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no man suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out sickness of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.” -Epicurus
No other ancient school of philosophy overlaps with modern-day Psychology more than that of Stoicism. Stoicism is a key influence behind prominent types of established therapies, such as Logotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.
An individual who practiced within the School of Stoicism in Ancient Greece was called a Stoic. Today, the word ‘Stoic’ is used to refer to the ability of a person who can endure pain and hardship without apparently or openly showing signs of suffering or someone who can act calmly and collectively under pressure; in a more modern descriptive phrase, it can be equated to having ‘Grace Under Fire’.
This was the most important tenet and explicit goal of Ancient Stoicism.
The etymology of the ancient Greek word, “Apatheia”, translates roughly to ‘freedom from suffering’ or ‘passion’. It describes a state of being free from the disturbance of emotions. It can be compared to that of teachings in Buddhism, where emotions are viewed as aspects of our personality that interfere with our spiritual existence, and therefore are undesirable and to be avoided or separated from, as they are the cause of agitation and imbalance.
Only in the Stoic approach, expressing freedom from our emotions is not done with a spiritual aim, but rather a logical aim, as our emotions tend to cloud our means of reason and rationality.
“We suffer not from the events in our lives but from our judgments about them”. -Epictetus
To the Stoic, emotions are a product (or natural reaction) from stimuli in our experience with the outside world, but they explicitly exist within us, and therefore, we can learn to enact some control over our emotions and/or reactions to them.
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” -Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism encourages and promotes not ignorance or numbness toward our emotions and feelings, but an introspection and logical analysis of them. By way of conducting an in-depth investigation of mental events, such as emotions or feelings, one can distinguish useful nuances.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. -Aristotle
Such as in Anger, often seen as malevolent or destructive, but can also be rightful indignation; and thus, if considered calmly and carefully, Anger can contain useful aspects of clarity, focus and effectiveness in addressing the feelings themselves.
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.” -Epictetus
Apatheia is a habitual practice of temperance and self-restraint from overreacting or being overwhelmed by passion and emotion, in order to distinguish the correct and most productive course of action.
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” -Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics are certain about one thing, as the Slave Philosopher, Epictetus, put it in his work, the Enchiridion, human experience is divided into two domains: things we control and things we don’t. And in life, a good deal of worrying and suffering is caused by external things outside our control, and therefore:
“We should always be asking ourselves: Is this something that is, or is not, in my control? …make the best of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” -Epictetus
Stoicism teaches us that the only thing that we can express absolute control over is ourselves, in that, we can surmise and accept, that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can always control how we react to it. Fostering and reinforcing a sense of accountability, emotional balance and level-headedness, even in the face of a seemingly unfair and unjust world.
“You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships everyday. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” -Epicurus
‘Eudaimonia’, is an ancient Greek word, and an important, yet obscure and contentious philosophical concept; its etymology indicates it is a compound of two nouns: ‘good’ and ‘spirit’.
In modern times it is often associated with happiness or welfare, or even an ideal being comparable to that of ‘Self-Actualization’ from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in the sense of ‘flourishing’, or reaching one’s potential.
‘Eudaimonia’ was a direct contradiction to ‘Hedonia’, which is ‘happiness’ in the sense of “pleasure” in desire or indulgence. Generally speaking, when we say we are ‘happy’ we mean we feel ‘content’ with the way things are going for us in life, but ‘Eudaimonia’ is more encompassing. It is tied to a sense of Self-Discovery, Purpose, Moral Virtue, and of course, like all things in Philosophy, Wisdom- in the ability (and knowledge) to continue to make the right decisions in order to maintain ‘Eudaimonia’ or the capability of ‘living well’.
Among most ancient philosophers, ‘Eudaimonia’, is affected by external factors such as health, wealth, relationships and success- but not according to the Stoics, who believed it to be more expressly, a “disposition of our own will”, without dependence upon anything external; a happiness completely from within.
“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… 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.” -Seneca the younger
For a happiness dependent upon nothing but ourselves is “true”, because it, therefore, cannot be disturbed by anything but ourselves. It positions our happiness or ‘Eudaimonia’ as our own responsibility, something always attainable, like possessing “good spirits” in trying or difficult circumstance.
Stoicism isn’t just a feel-good therapy; it is ethics to be practiced, with a specific definition of the good life: the aim of life for Stoics was living in accordance with Moral Virtue. And for them, this was the key to achieving a state of ‘Eudaimonia’.
In that our happiness is directly tied to making the right and virtuous decisions, and in accordance with ‘Apatheia’ (control of ourselves), no matter our circumstances doing the right thing is always within our power.
“Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.” -Epictetus
And if we continue to act and carry ourselves with this essential integrity we will achieve and/or sustain a state of ‘Eudaimonia’ (or happiness); a “do good, feel good” reasoning.
“You need not look about for the reward of a just deed; a just deed in itself offers a still greater return.” -Seneca the younger
Stoics didn’t only believe in living in accordance with moral virtue; they were also intentional about the importance of living in accordance with Nature. Ancient Stoics were not oblivious to the necessity of meaning and purpose for the contentedness and happiness of the human psyche, in both the individual perspective and the collective sense. For them, this was a principle called ‘Logos’.
“Logos” was a collective world-view, carrying with it a broad sentiment. For it is the belief (or faith) that a web of logic and reason permeates and governs the universe and existence, and everything within it, in accordance with cause and effect; it is an expression of meaning and purpose, or order, existing within an apparently chaotic and random world- existing whether we are aware, or have the capacity for such awareness, or not.
“Everything has a natural explanation”. -Anaxagoras
It is as close to spirituality or religion that the Stoics, in their aversion to conviction, could possibly get; but unlike most religious or spiritual inquiry, rather than contemplating the existence of a God or Deity, Stoicism focuses on the existence of a Purpose or Reason for the universe and everything within it.
Perhaps the best way to explain ‘Logos’ is with the story of a Bumblebee: a Bumblebee’s purpose, as designated by nature, is to carry out the act of pollination. This is its use or worth in relation to benefiting its environment or surroundings, its contribution to the whole, its purpose for existing. However, the Bumblebee is not conscious or aware of this, for it lacks the awareness or capacity, yet this profound and intrinsic purpose pervades their existence none the less.
This true-story-allegory preaches a trust-the-process-mantra (of the all-encompassing logic and reason) that has afforded and allowed you the privilege of existence. All things serve some means or end in the grander harmony of nature. And so, Humans are no different than the Bumblebee. Buzzing along in existence not truly aware of their collective meaning and/or natural purpose, yet that meaning or purpose certainly exists.
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love… pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.” -Marcus Aurelius