“Life,” the American journalist and author Elbert Hubbard once quipped, “is just one damned thing after another.” Like many of…
People think that philosophy is about pondering, and ideally answering, questions like the following ones: Does life have meaning? What is a life worth living? How can we best deal with the negative moments in life? But if you walk into a typical modern philosophy university department, seeking a professor to help you out with those queries, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, you will be offered training in formal logic (which doesn’t hurt, for sure), a bit of history of philosophy (mostly dead white men, but increasingly less so of late), and a lot of thought experiments based on absurdly unlikely situations – such as a trolley bearing down a track and about to kill five people, unless you push a fat man (sorry, a corpulent individual) off a bridge, thus trading one innocent life for five others.
That’s too bad, as philosophy used to be eminently practical. Indeed, in ancient Athens and Rome the questions above were precisely the ones you would ask Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, Diogenes of Sinope, Cicero, Epictetus, or countless others who spent their lives trying to help people figure out the best way to navigate existence. So, despite being myself an academic philosopher (specialty: philosophy of science), I will endeavour to answer those three questions from a particular perspective, that of the Hellenistic philosophy known as Stoicism, of which I try to be a decent practitioner.
Let’s start with the first one on the list: Does life have meaning? The Stoics were materialists, believers in universal cause and effect. They were also very much into science (as we would call it today), and understood that human beings are a particular kind of animal, with two distinctive characteristics: we are highly social, and we are capable of reason. It follows that we should, as they put it, live life “according to nature”, meaning human nature. And this translates to the notion that our purpose in life is to use our intellect to help others, to make society a better place for everyone to live in. As Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher, wrote: “As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.”
Well that was easy, wasn’t it? OK, on to the second question: What is a life worth living? Here the Stoics had an immediate and unflinching answer: a life of virtue, specifically one in which we practise the four cardinal virtues: practical wisdom (the ability to navigate morally complex situations in the best possible way); courage (to stand up and do the right thing); justice (knowing what is the right thing to do); and temperance (acting in right measure – not too much, not too little).
The reason for this emphasis on virtue, and therefore on the development of one’s character, is eminently Socratic. Socrates argued in the Euthydemus that wisdom (of which the four virtues are different aspects) is the only thing that is always good, because it can never be used to do bad. Everything else, including wealth, health, education, and all the other externals, are morally neutral: they can be deployed for a good or a bad use, depending on the character of the individual. The life worth living, then, is one by the end of which you can look back and think, yes, that was a good thing. As Epictetus tells his students, that judgement isn’t going to depend on whether you’ll be rich, or famous, or whatever, but only on who you are as a person, and hence on your relationships with others:
The following are non sequiturs: ‘I am richer, therefore superior to you’; or ‘I am a better speaker, therefore a better person, than you.’
The last question that remains to be addressed is: How can we best deal with the negative moments in life? The temptation is to play on the common stereotype of Stoics as people who go through life with a stiff upper lip and respond, “well, life is tough, deal with it”. But the actual Stoic take is more sophisticated. It is centred on what is known as the dichotomy of control, which Epictetus famously summarises at the beginning of the Enchiridion:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.
If this sounds familiar it is because the same sentiment is found in 8th century Buddhism, 11th century Judaism, and – of course – in the 20th century Christian Serenity Prayer adopted by 12-step organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous. The idea is to make a sharp distinction between what is completely under our control, what actually defines us, and everything else, whether it is entirely outside of our control (like, say, the weather) or if we can influence it but ultimately do not control it. That is why Epictetus puts in the second class things like our body, reputation, and career. Sure, I can influence my body by going to the gym regularly and sticking to a healthy diet, but disease could strike at any moment, through no doing of my own. Yes, I can influence my reputation, or make career choices, but the outcomes are not entirely in my hands.
This implies, according to the Stoics, that we should aim at internalising our goals, while at the same time developing an attitude of equanimity towards whatever the universe throws our way. This is most definitely not a counsel for passive acceptance: we ought to do our best in whatever it is to which we apply our mind. But we also need to enjoy (without glee or arrogance) when things go our way, and accept (without resentment or self pity) when they do not. Why? Because that is the way the world works, and a sure recipe for unhappiness is to constantly assume that the world isn’t the way it actually is.
If we succeed in internalising the dichotomy of control, Epictetus promises us that we “will never be subject to force or hindrance, [we] will never blame or criticise anyone, and everything [we] do will be done willingly.” Now that’s a recipe for a life worth living!