Stoic Happiness

Justice, fortune, and a Stoic poem

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

Stoicism is a philosophy of happiness. This is not the fleeting sense of feeling good, but rather a state of deep flourishing.

Essentially, Stoicism holds that virtue is enough for happiness. The good life is the life of excellent character. It doesn’t depend on chance or circumstance.

Life isn’t about pursuing pleasure, wealth, fame, or status. Nor is it about avoiding pain, poverty, or disgrace. What ultimately matters is how we use these things, not whether we successfully achieve or avoid them.

This means that our happiness is determined, not by what happens to us, but by our character. It’s a radical philosophy, but starts from simple observations.

With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved, remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond.

Epictetus, Handbook, 3

Should the fact that a cup was broken ruin a day? No. Does obnoxious traffic ruin a life? No. It may be annoying, but we can control how we respond to it. It's clear that we can live well, even when facing daily challenges like traffic.

It’s this central point that is essential. If we imagine a good life we must imagine difficulties and adversity. Our role models – fictional and real – must face obstacles, misfortune, and tragedy. Nonetheless, they can live well.

This is easy to see with “small” obstacles. A broken jar does not ruin your chances at happiness. What Stoicism challenges us to do is to take the same attitude towards the “medium” and “large” trials that make up every life. We should neither diminish nor suppress these challenges. We should see them as they are: setbacks and tragedies. Stoicism isn’t about convincing ourselves that the world is better than it is. Life is difficult.

Yet, happiness is always possible. Adversity is no obstacle to happiness.

🎯 Action

Start small. As obstacles arise today, ask yourself whether they are obstacles to a happy life. And then turn to happiness.

🔗 Links

📔 In response to this argument, some philosophers argue that there are some ultimate goods in life that are subject to circumstance and chance – such as one’s wealth, health, and reputation. For example, Aristotle thought that one couldn’t be happy unless one had sufficient wealth, health, and reputation. But by doing so they need to explain what’s so special about these things that make them necessary. Haven’t many lived well in poverty, illness, and obscurity?

📓 Another note on this, to avoid confusion: it’s important not to confuse what’s necessary for happiness and what is required by justice. You may have everything you need to be happy – even if you’re treated unjustly. It’s important to respond to injustice, whether or not it’s an obstacle to happiness.

🏆️ Just as misfortune doesn’t necessitate unhappiness, so fortune does not necessarily bring it either.

🖋️ Will by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, 

    Can circumvent or hinder or control 

    The firm resolve of a determined soul. 

Gifts count for nothing; will alone is great; 

All things give way before it, soon or late. 

    What obstacle can stay the mighty force 

    Of the sea-seeking river in its course, 

Or cause the ascending orb of day to wait? 

Each well-born soul must win what it deserves. 

Let the fool prate of luck. The fortunate 

    Is he whose earnest purpose never swerves, 

    Whose slightest action or inaction serves 

The one great aim. Why, even Death stands still, 

And waits an hour sometimes for such a will.

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