Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, like other stoic thinkers believed that eudaimonia or happiness is a desirable thing in life (Sellars, 2006) thereby, touching upon one of philosophy’s most intriguing question, how to live a happy life?
Precarious lives, oppression and discrimination have defined human existence since the ancient ages owing to recurrent wars and social prejudices. The modern life offers no exception. There is an ensuing war in Ukraine which does not seem to be reaching an end anytime soon, inequality in material terms is rising, the youth is aspirational but non-functional owing to the scarcity of jobs and the craze for competition, is making us hollow. Life in general, seems to be somewhat of an arduous enterprise. All of us are constantly wondering about the life that we are living and whether this is the life that we ought to live and are destined to live. This is the point where the philosophy of Stoicism makes its intervention. Stoicism as a philosophy believes that the universe is an astonishingly complex place and there are myriad of factors that are not in our hands or are not controlled by us. For Epictetus, a stoic philosopher, things could be divided into two categories: things that are “up to us” and things that are “not up to us”. His advise was that we should not be concerned about things that fall into the latter category. A lot that disturbs us, that haunts us, that depresses us is not in our control. In our contemporary society there is much celebration of the ‘hustle culture’ with implications of ‘you can make it if you try hard enough’ which also translates into a false realization that those who don’t make it probably didn’t work hard enough and thus, don’t deserve to make it. The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has alluded to this in a slightly different context in his much appreciated book- The Tyranny of Merit.
The philosophy of Stoicism is an armor against emotional overreach (overwhelming emotional response to an event) which can be disastrous. Marcus Aurelius, claimed to be the last of the notable stoic philosopher and an admirable administrator, had remarked “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” The Stoics claimed that emotions can be completely within our control and even advised that emotions should be controlled. Our overwhelming response to an event or an occurrence which evokes emotions (no matter if it is a positive emotion or a negative emotion) can cause immense harm. Thus, Stoics proposed an ethical ideal of apatheia, i.e., freedom from all emotions. This can indeed be a liberating experience.
There is peace in the realization that we cannot control certain things which may cause some suffering. A stoic response would be to take everything that comes ones way, to be hospitable to both “terror and beauty”, to embrace casualties as well as ceremonies. Another Stoic thinker Seneca said “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” The events that happen in our lives are mostly caused by factors we have no control over, but the reaction we accrue to these events is in our control and thus, we should “control the controllables” (to use an often-used cricketing phrase). This control over our reactions to events which have their genesis outside of our ‘domain of causality’ has a therapeutic effect in the sense that we are not burdened to feel totally and completely responsible for all that happens in our lives. There is a benign sense of freedom in not being perturbed at everything that occurs in our lives and follow Socrates’ famous dictum- it is not merely living, but living well that matters.
There is another important aspect that the doctrine of Stoicism categorically believes in, the aspect of cosmopolitanism. In fact, they are credited to have coined the word “cosmopolitan”. Stoics promote a broader-level thinking on our part by motivating us to think beyond the narrow boundaries and imaginations that can inhibit us and limit us. They advocate for the conception of ‘Universal humanity’. Stoicism urges us to build universal bonding and solidarity surpassing narrow and restrictive ‘artificial’ boundaries, through unqualified compassion and love for all humans. The cosmopolitanism preached by Stoicism again establishes the point of the philosophy having a therapeutic effect to it as it does not suggest that existential problems can be resolved by individual initiatives, rather only collective effort can fuel our existence and enable us to live the “good life”.
Sellars, John. 2006. Stoicism, Acumen publishing limited.
Survesh Pratap Singh is a Doctoral student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.
Find him on Twitter- @Pratap_Survesh