Stoicism — it’s personal


In the course of writing a paper on Stoicism recently, I have been forced to consider whether Stoicism actually offers a viable way to achieve happiness  (or as Stoics term it, “tranquility”) or whether there are insurmountable impediments. Further, even if Stoic practices are accessible and practicable, what does such a “solution” look like? Starting with the last part of the question first, what is the goal of Stoicism? Or differently phrased, what will a Stoic life look like?   That answer is personal and relative, but in general, a reasonable goal is a state of mind better than a non-Stoic one.  A practicing Stoic is like the chubby guy at the gym.  He is not in great shape, but how much worse would he be if he stopped going. Assuming one is sufficiently versed in Stoic ideas, one will know if the goal, moderate as it may be, has been reached.  Does one feel on the whole a greater sense of tranquility – less of a nuisance to one’s self and others — from doing the following: applying reason in various ways to address situations from the extremely grave to the trivial, adapting when things are beyond control, recognizing the insidiousness of emotion and quelling it, keeping hopes in check, and exercising a strong self-sufficiency to escape externalities such as the opinions of others and outward success. If the answer is yes, then the Stoic picture is of a good and even life that is notably, though perhaps moderately, less embroiled, bitter, painful, confusing, antagonizing, and scattered.

As for impediments to becoming a Stoic, they exist; however, on the one hand they are clearly surmountable. Stoicism is extant if not current. I (and many others) have come across Stoic ideas, read about them, found value in them and made modifications to fashion my own guide to living.  So clearly it is doable.  Also, Stoic ideas are everywhere, if in different guises. We recognize hedonistic adaptation, we get the value of looking on the bright side, and some people even understand the virtue of not complaining. We have all heard the imprecation to have the wisdom to see the difference between things we can control and things we cannot. Without knowing it, people stumble upon the importance of keeping death in mind and eschewing externalities and public opinion. All of the foregoing are soundly Stoic notions. On the other hand, to counter any chance of vast success, the media bombards us with anti-Stoic ideas.  I hypothesize that the problems of youth are fostered by the media and would be greatly remedied by Stoicism. I name the young particularly although not at all exclusively as victims because they are more susceptible to the media. From hocus pocus hoping, to the exaltation of destructive emotion, to endorsements of complaining, to a maniacal focus on external events — the media seems like a confluence of weak and unphilosophical brains fueled by a lack of all reasonable thought.  I might last suggest that a lack in education, or of a certain kind of education, undermines the chances of Stoicism for any given individual; if one does not use one’s mind to think critically, Stoicism is out of the question.  It is, after all, about using reason — thinking rather than giving into emotion.

At the conclusion of my above-mentioned paper, which brought me close to core Stoic ideas that I know well but can always rehearse, I concluded that Stoicism does give the best chance for the calm happiness of tranquility and for a salubrious sense of mental independence for any given person.  It is inherently an individual fix; few are enough, one is enough. Is there the chance for wider application to correct wholesale the flaws of “human nature”?  To borrow from the faint white writing on the eight ball, “outlook not so good.”

Hedonistic Adaptation

Hedonistic adaptation poses the greatest impediment to tranquility. Modern psychology has coined that term to express how we become accustomed to the pleasurable and good things in life to the point of no longer being able to derive joy from them. The term is rather new and the notion is very old.  Seneca, our non-resident voice of Roman Stoicism, pointed out that an insurmountable glitch with making pleasure your goal was that it wears out quickly and leaves a person wanting more of the unfulfilling stuff.  As Keats said in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” better to have non-realized pleasure because “All human breathing passion” leaves “a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.” Understanding the sordid underside of great pleasure and not making that the goal is not the hard part.  The process of hedonistic adaptation curses us most when it gnaws away at our even moderate satisfaction with ordinary life, which might be a far better existence than any we had before. It might even be the apotheosis of our dreams, but we so adapt to it as to render it unsatisfactory.  For example, consider a person who has just stepped out of jail; how beautiful the sky, how thrilling just to go out at will and walk to get a cup of coffee.  The contrast form confinement to freedom does not last; we are adaptable.  Roaming around at large becomes normal and no longer serves as a great joy or satisfactory to compensate for other vicissitudes of life. This insidious process undermines what would otherwise be endless tranquility for us. We can move to a better home, take a desired job, and acquire wealth and still wind up dissatisfied.  On the flip side of adaptation, without it we could hardly function when grief and loss are involved.  As Seneca says in praise of adaptation, “Nature has done better by us here than in any other department; knowing that man was born to sorrow she invented habit as an anodyne to calamity, thus reducing extreme hardship to the level of the ordinary.  If adversity kept the force of its first shock permanently, no one could bear it.”

What does Stoicism or others (who will he nil he must espouse the Stoic line in addressing this topic) to combat the ill effects of hedonistic adaptation?  In answering, one might veer dangerously close to the cliché, “count your blessings.” Stated Stoically, use reason to confront emotion. It is easy to feel miserable and dissatisfied, but we can think.  So, evaluate the options; consider how much vain hoping and expecting have undermined your tranquility; query whether opportunities to complain have fueled the perception that circumstances are lacking; think about what went before and what  is possible or likely to happen remembering that death is always lurking and that what has happened to others to can happen to you; consider what is within your control and what is not. Under that last line of consideration, if there are things to fix within your control do so —  otherwise use the devious process for your own purposes and adapt your emotions to what your reason prescribes.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Sonnet 30, William Shakepeare

Is there a distinction between seeking happiness and working to avoid or allay unhappiness?  I have the impression from newspaper articles and radio programs on psychological studies and self-help books that the goal is to achieve happiness—to figure out how happy people got that way and emulate them or undertake some practical exercises to achieve a state of happiness.

In reading Seneca’s letters and essays (my primary source for Stoic thought), it appears that Seneca addressed ways to counter unhappiness more than ways to find happiness, which he calls tranquility, as distinguished from an excited state of joy or immersion in pleasure that some might equate with happiness.  Although he does not categorize the kinds of unhappiness, per se, I have gleaned them from Seneca’s writings and added  my own observations, which would meet with Seneca’s approval, as he strongly advocated each thinking person to extrapolate, appropriate, and create his/her own philosophy. By the way, I think that view is one of Seneca’s most distinctive and valuable.

To each of the following categories of unhappiness there is a multifaceted use of reason applicable, which may be equally useful to the other categories, just as there is some overlapping among the types of unhappiness: a current tough situation; remorse; defeated hopes; anger, general ennui, and grief.  In the following discussion, when I speak of “you” I am simply addressing myself, since making use of a philosophy for living takes repetition and work.

A Current Tough Situation

This is one of the few instances where matters might still be somewhat within your control. Stoicism does not advocate apathy, so do all you can.  In fact, while we can do something we are usually not emotionally overcome and unhappy.  If control is waning and we are stuck in a situation beyond our control, then think:

1. Things can always get worse. All the alternatives to your current situation are not knowable and any number of them might have occurred and have been worse than the present situation. If one knew of them, then what a relief this predicament really is. Anything that can happen to others can happen to you.

2.  Is it really so bad?  With effort, a dispassionate mind will find some consolation in it. If the situaion includes any of the other “bad situations” set forth below, apply the respective remedies set forth for them. In the scheme of things for humanity, how bad is it?  Are you enslaved, about to be thrown to the lions, sent into exile, writhing in pain from an incurable disease? The poor wretch who has nothing but a loin cloth can still be glad he has the loin cloth.

3.  Time to take inventory.  If you think you are bereft, think realistically about what you have.  Probably many things you have as consolation you are taking for granted. What you have is as good as what you no longer have or think you want.

4.  Study death and never lose sight of it.  Those things that you take for granted might fall into the hands of death at any moment; have you lived this day as if it were your last in your endeavors and your relationships?  If not them you have deluded yourself about mortality.


This is the category of things past: that vast realm of regret, nostalgia, sentimentality and yearning so perfectly described in Shakespeare’s sonnet.  Any events that are passed are things over which you have absolutely no control. I wonder how many times in a day I have to tackle this brand of emotion. Reason tells us that thinking about such things to our detriment serves no purpose; it is unreasonable because there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking.  Does it get anyone from point A to point B? I think sometimes we almost feel obliged to engage in such pointless thinking, as if we owe it to someone or to ourselves; but again that is in our own minds and achieves nothing purposeful.  If you feel so obligated, give yourself permission to stop thinking about such things.  The exercise of thinking about what you have control over and don’t is fundamental; reason will discern one from the other and guide you to drop the pointless. One other minor thought—regret about a past action taken or omitted is particularly vacuous because given the situation, who you are, and that you acted at the time with reason, then, you would do it again.

Disappointed Hopes

Think about hoping and understand what it is.  It is not preparation, it is not fate dealing you a blow—it is all in your perception of things in the uncontrollable future or views of others.  Nothing has really occurred except in your own mind; the mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Living in hope of something is a life lived in anticipation and derelict of the living moment. It is akin to living in fear. Seneca described it as follows: “Fear keeps pace with hope.  Nor do I find it surprising that they keep company, for each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring.  The cause in both cases is failure to adjust ourselves to the present and a tendency to project our mental processes into the future.  Foresight . . . is turned to mankind’s disadvantage.  No one confines his misery to the present.”

Anger and Various Forms of Dissatisfaction with Others

Dwelling on an incident caused by another that makes you angry is in the category of things that are past and beyond your control so that continuing to think about them is pointless (unless you can take some purposeful action to vindicate yourself and if you can you will be less troubled by the insult or injury caused). Even if you would describe the situation as-ongoing, do you really have control over another person in this instance?  Probably not. These negative feelings are an example of attaching importance to the outside world and its opinion.  Self-sufficiency and your own inner resources should be your bolster, not the external world which will always change.  Anyone who is raised up or cast down by the external events handed by fate is bound to spend much time cast down. You have also handed over to another person the power to make you feel uncomfortable; that person is not thinking about you, why should you devote any thoughts to him?

General Ennui

A general lack of enthusiasm and restlessness is, I suspect, what a lot of people feel when they say that they want to find happiness. A blasé or jaded attitude or even a melancholic one has enjoyed a certain cache at times and in certain circles.  If you engage in the thinking outlined in the first category of unhappiness, you should come out of it.  If not, Seneca says that nature has given us all a way out, should we want to get the jump of death.  Above all, don’t complain—comfort thyself; why should anyone else have that responsibility?


Here we come to that strange, behemoth, and pointless emotion, grief.  It has no evolutionary value to us as a species or to any of the animal species that suffesr from it.  A case can be made for anger or fear having some value—grief is valueless. Seneca admitted that sorrow is stubborn and that reason must capitulate for a time.  That is not to say that thinking does no good at all—it is a critical as ever.  Thoughts I have found that help (particularly in poetry) make clear the naturalness of death and the shared experience of all humanity.  As John Keats wrote in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law when the death of Tom, his younger brother, was imminent: “ I have Fanny (his sister) and I have you—three people whose Happiness to me is sacred—and it does annul that selfish sorrow which I should otherwise fall into, living as I do with poor Tom who looks upon me as his only comfort—the tears will come into your eyes—let them—and embrace each other –thank heaven for what happiness you have, and after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all Mankind, hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness.”  Amen. When Tom died, the letter bearing that news was notably brief for a wordsmith like Keats—he declined comment. He hardly ever mentioned the experience of his brother’s death again in his letters, even though his brother died in his arms after he had cared for him through his illness. Only in his last letter did he make a reference to him, when he wrote that his sister reminded him of Tom.  I think that exemplifies the truth that some things can be beyond words.

Concluding Observations

The direct prescription for happiness that Seneca does offer, and which I came across as a predominate notion in David Hume’s essay on Stoicism, is devotion to intellectual pursuits. A mind engaged in the higher order of thinking that only the human brain is capable of induces happiness.  Amen.

How much does any of this work?  There is nothing I am more skeptical of than the testimonial, so I hate to invoke “my own experience.”  Skirting the personal, I will point out that I, or anyone, certainly have the ability through thought of becoming miserable and therefore ought to have the power through thought of feeling better.  If I give myself over to thoughts of the past, mistakes, shortcomings, failures, losses, I have gone down the path of the sonnet by Shakespeare; the sighing and weeping and moaning and ruminating, will ensue for me, just as for the speaker of that poem–all pointless.  In the poem by the way, the consolationat the end is thinking  of what is present and worthy; in the sonnet it is a particular individual.  Stoics would continue to point out that placing all your happiness on one person is fraught with problems, but that is another trail to follow.  Right now, I want to establish that using reason–thinking and not thinking pointlessly– is not an empty exercise.  Feelings are rarely helpful, often painful, and no negative or excessive emotion should run riot in our lives. Freedom from being roiled by emotion, attended by the prescribed use of intellect, sets the best course for tranquility that I have ever come across and is the truth lying under so many current psychological approaches and their layers of anecdotes, data, studies, and chapters.






Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?

Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?


On the front page of a section of The New York Times this weekend was an article about a psychologist who has studied happiness and gives advice on how to achieve it. The piece revealed very little of her secrets to happiness (I guess they might be called), but one observation of hers is that renters are happier than homeowners. Maybe that is indicative of other conclusions she might propose, like married people are happier or people in a certain region are happier. Maybe people find that kind of thing interesting, like knowing somebody’s astrological sign. However, in terms of providing the basis for a way to live life, how could such conclusions have any validity or worth? Were the renters and homeowners in question alike in all respects (even most) with regard to happiness except for their status as renters or homeowners, such that the difference in this one aspect could be the cause in a cause and effect relationship? The article also made note of “hedonistic adaptation,” which Stoics routinely recognize as a reason not to pursue pleasure per se as a route to happiness because it invariably cloys or simply wears out. Probably the article was short on details about happiness so as not to preempt the book, which should lure readers searching for happiness in their lives. They might find a couple of mildly interesting observations, and then forget all about them when confronting failure or hardship, those things that life generally has in store that tend to undermine happiness.

What is happiness? Maybe the psychologist-author defines it front and center in her guide to happiness. For Stoics, it is tranquility, which is freedom from negative and excessive emotion– or rendered poetically by John Keats in Hyperion: “To bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!” If one exalts in and strives for giddy highs and devastating lows and thinks that such a pendulum existence is desirable, then Stoicism is not the answer. The longer I live, and it has been quite a while now, the more I value emotional calm: I value it in others, I like the way it feels, and I work at obtaining it, although it does not come naturally to me. Tranquility does not depend on renting or home owning, but does come (or comes in some degree greater than it would otherwise) through keeping the following ideas in mind, all of which are discussed and, at times, reduced to handy aphorisms, in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, Essay and Letters, translated by Moses Hadas. I set them out to remind myself.

Strive for mental self-sufficiency.
You have to be able to abide yourself, to comfort yourself, and to use your own powers of rational thought. The inner world is as valid as the external world. Read, study, exploit your talents and realize that when it comes to accolades, few are enough, one is enough, none is enough. There is no absolute good goal; many things are valid and complete ends in themselves. One quick glance at life and it is easily apparent that anyone who looks for happiness from external events is destined to be unhappy much of the time. Such a life is a version of lottery game.

Apply Reason to Emotion
Reason is the one attribute that sets humans apart from the other animals; they have their special talents, and we have ours, reason. First, use reason over emotion and understand that your feelings are not all-important, worth indulging, or determinative for yourself or others. Second, use reason to prevent yourself from thinking pointlessly, which is thinking about situations over which you have no control—those include all of the past, a lot of the present, and much of the future. If you think you can act with effect, then do so, and when you know that you can’t, stop occupying your mind with it; there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking.
Also, reason, formed from experience and logic, establishes that things can always be worse, what can happen to anybody can happen to you, and that death is life’s neighbor; thus, realizing those things, you are at once prepared and appreciative for each peaceful moment or in finding the consolation in a difficult time. In the category of things that we cannot control and should not waste our energies thinking about to the detriment of our tranquility includes the suffering of others—it achieves nothing for the others or for ourselves, as we must all ultimately comfort ourselves. As Arthur tells Bedevere at Camelot’s demise in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: “Comfort thyself, what comfort is in me, the old order changes and gives way to new and fortune fulfills itself in many ways” (my paraphrase).

Understand what we are dealing with
Adversity besets us all and creates us in large part, for better or worse. I don’t have a lot of respect for or usually like much people who have not known adversity; how would anyone know what they are capable of, what they are truly like, when everything is nice and easy. We are at the mercy of fortune and all we have is on loan from fortune; our best efforts are worth doing, but will only take us so far. Reason will remind us that such is the lot of humanity and we share in common pain and suffering. If the moment at hand brings an opportunity for tranquility, take it; if not try to find the consolation in it. As Seneca said, “All life is bondage. Man must therefore, habituate himself to his condition, complain of it as little as possible, and grasp whatever of value is within his reach. No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation it.”