A few times in life we are asked to consider what our goals are, although that inquiry usually arises in a certain situation rather than in the larger context of life. So, we enter college considering what our goals for a degree or an eventual job are; we marry with the goal of having a companion for life and children; for a new year we might have a goal to spend less money. Overall, in how we want to live life on a consistent daily basis we frequently have no goal. Stoicism proposes a goal: live a good life—but what is “good”? First it is not concerned with morality, per se; the Stoic good life does not prescribe conduct toward others or a certain lifestyle as conducive to a good life, although once we lead the good life, we will necessarily act in a reasonable way towards others that replicates behavior common to notions of “moral” conduct. Stoicism is self-centered, which serves it well because we are all ultimately selfish. Stoicism suggests that the good life is one of personal tranquility. Tranquility captures the idea of the golden mean, nothing in excess; why is that conducive to tranquility and the good life? If we are tranquil we are obviously not in the throes of agony whether resulting from passion, sadness, anger, or frustration, in short wracked by emotion–that is, victim of excess emotion. What is wrong with excess emotion? Simply stated it makes us unhappy. What about “good” emotions one might ask, great love or buoyant optimism? Starting with the latter, I have noted in my life that a number of my greatest woes have followed moments of optimism, not even wild and baseless optimism, but well-placed optimism given the circumstances. Feeling raised up to the point of exuberance was in itself uncomfortable in a tense unsettling kind of way, and when the resolution of the circumstances came about, in what I regarded as a negative way, I felt thrown into an abyss. As for love, which we are told relentlessly is the highest good, there is nothing happy about the suspense of pending rejection, the coming undone of the knot of a relationship, or the inevitable onset of reality trampling imagined attributes of the object of our desire. High-pitched optimism and love are just two examples of the harmful effects of excess purportedly “good” emotion, and it is easier to comprehend the negative nature of other emotions, even if not felt in excess, such as anger, frustration, envy, and jealousy. The tranquil mind can enjoy the ostensibly positive emotions, yet keep them within the middle range, and can reason itself out of the negative ones with the result that life will not be fraught with anxiety, disappointment, frustration, anger and sadness. I wish to not go through life beset by such emotions, thus I have the goal of leading a tranquil life.
In the penultimate sentence of the above paragraph I was forced to use the word “reason” and that is the key word in starting toward our goal of tranquility. It is the way and the light and the path and whatever other metaphor one pleases. Tomorrow I will discuss why reason merits such a central role in my living philosophy.