VIII. What You Really Want

Why we aren't happy all the time and the revolutionary ideas of René Girard

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

Every week we share three 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.

This week’s theme: living with others.

Have an excellent week.
– Caleb

🏛️ Theory

Why aren’t we happy all the time?

Every philosophy of the good life needs to answer the question, “why do so many fail to live well?”

One response is that the good life is hard.

This is true but doesn’t answer the question. It just pushes it back. Why is living well so difficult?

Another answer is that humans are fallen beings. Something in our nature is deeply imperfect, tragic, or sinful. One can tell religious or secular versions of this story. Whether it’s Adam, God, or evolution that causes our imperfections, we’re fundamentally built to be selfish, ignorant, and unhappy.

The ancient Stoics rejected these explanations. They believed that only our decisions, circumstances, and culture shape us. Humans are not fallen by nature but come into the world pure.

The philosopher Aetius described the Stoic view as follows:

When a man is born, the Stoics say, he has the commanding part of his soul like a sheet of paper ready for writing upon.

And the modern philosopher John Sellars writes:

Our all too common deviations from virtue are the product either of external influences leading us astray or of faulty reasoning.

John Sellars, Stoicism

So, the Stoic answer to the question: “why isn’t everyone happy” – is that we’re corrupted by society.

The work of the philosopher and social theorist René Girard is essential for explaining how this happens.

Girard hypothesized that our disposition to imitate others is the source of our misery. We don't just copy others' actions, we copy their desires. In this picture, desire is not a two-part relation between you and the object of desire, it’s a three-part one. The fundamental ingredients of desire are you, the object of desire, and the role model. The role model teaches you what to want. You don’t own your desires, instead, you want through others.

As a historical example, consider the Roman emperor Nero.

He wanted Romans to worship him as an artistic God. But he wasn't that talented of an artist, let alone a God!

Mimetic theory suggests that Nero’s desires were not his own. He learned what to desire through emulating his mother, the court, and Roman society. Remember that paranoid and murderous emperors preceded him. Before the Julio-Claudians took over, Romans engaged in a hundred years of civil war and power conflict.

Nero wanted worship because the ancient Romans surrounding him craved the same thing. These desires caused pain to him and those around him.

In the end, Nero put to death the obstacles (or perceived obstacles) to his authority until the next regime saw fit to extinguish him. The cycle of violence continued.

In our own lives, the mimetic conflicts are not as drastic. Rivalry enters our lives in more subtle ways. To catch it you must pause, take inventory of your desires, and reflect on whether those wants are good.

Be careful about your role models. Choose carefully. Girard proposed we find models who desire “nothing in a greedy and competitive way.” Who you are emulating is a delicate matter. You may be imitating people without realizing it.

The Stoics knew this. That’s why they advised regularly contemplating the virtuous. In the end, all the contests and confrontations are silly. As Seneca wrote:

Why do we concern ourselves with conflict and plotting? That man you are angry with — can you wish for him anything worse than death? He is going to die without your doing a thing.

Seneca, On Anger

🎯 Action

Take some time to contemplate who is serving as a role model for you. Do this in an objective way, like a scientist observing your life. Who is shaping what you want?

🔗 Links

📖 Luke Burgis’s book Wanting is an excellent primer on mimetic theory. Girard's ideas can be esoteric, but Luke focuses on the theory that matters while offering practices you can apply to your life now.

One of Luke’s key ideas is the distinction between thick and thin ideas. Many of our desires are thin. They are fleeting and ephemeral. They may be acquired from others. Look for thick desires. These are enduring and persistent.

🎧️ I spoke with Luke for the most recent Stoa Conversations. Listen to it here. We cover the basics of mimetic theory and touch on his thoughts on Stoicism towards the end.

💬 On the subject of role models, I’ve always found Seneca’s advice useful:

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Seneca, Moral letters 11

Cato the Younger was a Roman statesman, mortal enemy of Caesar, and Stoic role model. He can serve as an excellent role model and, in some ways, anti-model for us today. We’ll write about him (and share an exciting announcement) next week.

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