For my first post I want to observe the concept of happiness from the perspective of the Stoic philosophers. Stoicism was founded in Greece during the 3rd century BCE by Zeno of Citium. Among the most famous stoics I would include: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. Epictetus was born a slave who would eventually go on to become a wealthy, and well respected free man. Seneca was born wealthy but would face many hardships during his life including exile from Rome, and eventually being sentenced to death by suicide for his alleged role in a plot to overthrow the emperor Nero. And lastly, Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of rome, arguably the most powerful man in the world. Though their experiences and the trajectories of their lives differed greatly, these three men all belonged to the same school of thought and as such shared similar views on how to live a good life and how to be happy, reinforcing the stoic thought that no matter who you are, the path to happiness remains the same.
With this being my first post about the stoics, and my first post period for that matter, I want to try and sum up the stoic concept of happiness as simply as I possibly can, with the full intent of visiting the stoic notion of happiness many times over, during the duration of this blog. The core Stoic belief on Happiness would be: the ability able to determine the difference between that which is in your control and that which is not, and to only concern yourself with that which you can (which is ultimately very little) and to not stress that which you cannot.
My personal favorite quote, perhaps in all of stoicism, which encapsulates this core principle is from Marcus Aurelius who said : “According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations) I love this quote because to me it perfectly articulates the futility of struggling against that which we cannot control. The wagon in this metaphor is an unstoppable force, like fate. The dog represents us. The wagon will not stop no matter what the dog does. The dog can put up a futile resistance, or he can trot along happily and do his best to enjoy the journey, making the most of whatever comes his way.
In life, the vast majority of things that are going to happen are out of our control, and no amount of preparation, or resistance can change the eventual outcome, and no amount of rage, resentment, remorse, or sorrow can change the past. As depressing as that may sound I think there is actually comfort within it, and the acceptance of this state can unlock happiness. We may be aware of the wagon, and the direction it is going, but nothing we can do will stop it. If we are to become happy we must embrace the journey with acceptance, and make the most of the trip.
Imagine the amount of stress we put on things that are out of our control: other people’s opinions of us, our height, physical appearance (to a great extent), the state of world affairs. How much happier would we be were these stresses to disappear. We cannot control them. We can as soon assert our will over these types of concepts as the dog can stop the rolling wagon. Instead, be happy and rejoice in what you can control: your own thoughts, and emotions being chiefly among those. If you focus here, I believe you will be able to truly find happiness or at least take a giant step in the right direction.
While the above does not completely and 100 percent capture the essence of stoic philosophy nor even their thoughts on happiness, I do believe that it is perhaps the simplest summation and most important lesson that the stoics teach. I look forward to revisiting the stoics in general and focusing attention on individual stoic thinkers in future posts. One of the things we will come to see is the similarities between the teachings of the stoics with dozens of other groups of thinkers that transcend the barriers of time and geography.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I can’t wait to share some more thoughts, but for now, please take the time to pause your life and contemplate those things that are out of your control, and to shift your attention, your thoughts, and your actions towards that which you do control, and I hope that you find happiness in so doing.
PS: one of the things I want to do throughout my blogging is to point my readers in the direction of the sources where I draw my inspiration, as well as give credit to those whose work I rely on.
As it pertains to this post, I encourage you to check out the Daily Stoic by Ryan Halladay and Stephen Hanselm. Their work is brilliantly broken down into 366 chapters, one for each day of the year, and focuses on a specific quote from a stoic thought leaders with added commentary by the authors. Is was not my original exposure to stoicism but it was probably one of my most meaningful exposures. In fact, it is perhaps one of the single most influential books I have ever read. I am currently reading it for the 3rd time, and I have never stopped reading it since I first began about 2 or 3 years ago.