A New Stoicism – part VI: happiness



I have been devoting a significant number of posts to Larry Becker’s A New Stoicism (here are parts I, II, III, IV and V), since — whether one agrees with his positions or not — it is the pre-eminent scholarly attempt at modernizing Stoicism. Indeed, I plan on soon commenting on a solo paper he wrote about Stoic emotion, and then plunge into a multi-part commentary (with audio) of my recent interview with him, so stay tuned for (much) more. Here, however, I tackle chapter 7 of his book, focused on happiness.

Very early on in the chapter Becker states: “Happiness in [the] broad sense — eudaimonia, a good life — is the polestar of our ethical theory. It is a reference point for navigation rather than an announced destination.”

As such, he says, happiness is not a fleeting emotional stage, but rather a property of whole lives, which therefore requires maturity even to be pursued (therefore phrases like “a happy child” have a very different meaning from the one under consideration here, and indeed make no sense within the current framework). And, since we are talking about Stoicism, virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia.

Becker argues (and I doubt even Aristotle would disagree) that eudaimonia is a whole-life property because it is different from specific goals we may pursue at one time or another. As he puts it: “We learn very early that things look different in retrospect … We reach some much anticipated goal and find ourselves disappointed by how transient the pleasure of it is, and how trivial the achievement.”

He further, and perhaps a bit more controversially, argues that a Stoic would want to complete his or her projects, if possible, and therefore not die prematurely. But s/he will also not want to just linger for the heck of it, since life itself is, after all, a (preferred) indifferent. As Epictetus often puts it: the door is open

Speaking of the oft-mentioned difference between happiness in common parlance and eudaimonia, can Stoics “have a good time,” so to speak? Yes, says Becker, and he puts it in a most interesting fashion:

“Stoics have occasionally claimed that, for the sage, eudaimonia somehow replaces ordinary happiness. This has been the source of much confusion, both among stoics and their critics, and is partly responsible for the false notion that the stoic ideal is a life devoid of the ordinary pleasures of sex, food, drink, music, wealth, fame, friends, and so on … stoic happiness does not necessarily include non [virtue] pleasures — all the other possibilities for what we ordinarily call having a good time. But it is highly misleading to go on to say that such pleasures are superfluous, or that they “add” nothing to virtue.”

He explains that it ought to be obvious that Stoics can have both virtue and non-virtue related “pleasures” (the term here most definitely does not mean what the Epicureans meant, it is more akin to the satisfaction a Sage gets by exercising virtue). As long as indifferents are not traded against virtue, a life that encompasses virtue plus preferred indifferents is to be, well, preferred!, to one that has only virtue. In other words, to say that virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia does not exclude that a eudaimonic life can be made of a combination of virtue and other things.

I also like this bit about the (in)famous idea of Stoic self-control: “Stoic norms about a controlled life are all conditional. What we endorse is the ability to exercise control whenever practical intelligence calls for it … There is nothing in stoic doctrine that means a sage is limited to faint smiles and frowns.”

Becker than goes on to acknowledge some limitations of Stoic doctrine, which is very welcome. Sometimes one gets the feeling that people embrace Stoicism because they want to be made invulnerable, treating it as a magic bullet to solve all their problems. Contrariwise, among critics of Stoicism we readily find those who claim that it is a fatally flawed idea because of course one needs other things besides virtue, as Aristotle taught.

But, Becker says: “It is also plausible to conclude … that there is an identifiable kernel of bodily and psychological health that is a necessary condition of all further development. If this kernel is damaged, so is the capacity to develop [virtue]. Brain damage of various sorts will certainly do this on the bodily side, and autism will do it on the psychological side.”

Let me clarify what I think he is saying, and how it differs from Aristotle. Becker is not arguing, I suspect, that even people with certain brain or psychological conditions (including a range of autistic conditions) cannot practice and benefit from Stoicism. He is arguing, however, that certain minimal physical (specifically, brain related) and psychological traits have to be in place, or not only Stoicism, but any sort of normal human life is not possible.

This should be rather uncontroversial. Just imagine taking physical and psychological health away little by little, and eventually you will get a human being who is simply not in a position to do the sort of things that physically and psychologically healthy human beings are capable of doing (think of advanced Alzheimer’s, for instance) — wherever that fuzzy demarcation line may reside in practice.

What, then, is the difference between Becker’s Stoicism and Aristotelianism, since Aristotle made the superficially similar point that in order to pursue eudaimonia one needs some degree of health, wealth, education, and even good looks? The difference, seems to me, is that Becker’s Stoicism — while not a magic armor that can be donned by anyone no matter what — is accessible to most human beings, specifically all those whose mental capacities allow for sufficient functionality. Aristotle, conversely, was excluding a huge chunk of humanity from the eudaimonic arena: pretty much everyone who was not an aristocrat, having not just a sound mind, but a fit and even attractive body, some money and property, and was capable of reading and discoursing. Aristotelianism is inherently elitist, Stoicism is not.

Becker also addresses the age old question: can a Sage really be happy even on the rack?

“It is not amusing to be asked for a serious response to a less-than-serious question, no matter how vividly put. But we concede that our ancient brethren have done a good deal to invite the sarcasm implicit in the question, and so it must be answered. First, we merely note that nothing in stoic ethics has ever suggested that we think humans are immortal, or invulnerable to having their agency damaged or destroyed by disease or injury. Even the exercise of [virtue] can be stopped in its tracks by excruciating pain, and there is no stoic anesthetic for that, only the prospect of recovery if and when the pain subsides enough to permit sustained thought.”

He continues:

“Sages suffer on the rack. They differ from the rest of us only in having virtuosic human abilities to resist the defeat of their [virtue], and to act with practical intelligence under conditions that would defeat the merely fit. When they succeed in that, they suffer less than ordinary agents, both in hospitals and under torture. But virtuosic abilities are not inhuman ones. Pushed beyond human endurance, sages break down. Their lives are nonetheless virtuous for that, even in defeat. For if a sage’s life can end in death without compromising virtue (that is, end in a way that preserves happiness in the grand sense), then it can end happily (or be interrupted without consequence to happiness) even when the sage’s agency is destroyed by suffering. When that happens, the joke, such as it may be, is on the torturer.”

But let’s not end on the rack. Instead, here is one final quote, about the concept of Stoic joy:

“In fortunate circumstances, when life is a costless feast, a sage has as much fun as anyone else — more, perhaps, because she is better at exploiting the whole range of available delights. Her palette does not get dull. Socrates, we should remember, could make himself at home at a rowdy banquet, and not by declining the wine. But he did not suppose that such transient joys amounted to anything much in the long run. Filling his life with them was not his aim, though he surely would have thought it foolish to spurn them for that reason. … Without the vessel of purpose, pleasures drain away without residue.” Indeed.


Note: in several quotes above the original text uses the phrase “ideal agency” for what most Stoics understand as “virtue.” Since the first term is rather controversial, and I wanted people to focus on the substance, not the controversy, I have substituted virtue instead. This, however, is entirely my editorial decision, and the interested reader should make sure to check Becker’s original text.

4 thoughts on “A New Stoicism – part VI: happiness

  1. Seneca (@Roman_Statesman)

    The bit about the importance of bodily and psychological health also smacks of Epicurus, which is a good thing to my mind, because a modern version of Stoicism might do well to integrate the most valuable contributions of other ancient schools. On a related note, Stoicism might still help someone in a degraded physical or mental state lead a more rewarding life than they would otherwise.

    And as for the rack, might the POW ordeals of James Stockdale provide some helpful focus and perspective?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. jbonnicerenoreg

    “virtue is necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia”. Why would anyone who knows this be worried about adding other experiences? Infinity+1 is still infinity. Virtue might be peculiar in the same way.Virtue+pleasure is still virtue.


  3. Massimo Post author


    “Why would anyone who knows this be worried about adding other experiences? Infinity+1 is still infinity”

    I don’t think that’s a productive way of making sense of what the Stoics were saying.

    Rather, virtue and the indifferents are incommensurable with each other. Virtue is to be preferred to any indifferent. But one can pursue indifferents as long as they don’t get in the way of virtue.

    Think of it as two different sets, not as one infinite set to which one may or may not be adding something.


  4. Patrice Ayme

    Human beings are, potentially, and, sometimes, effectively, many psychologies in one. To some extent, this is what happens when we switch passions and mine, going from concentration, study, to anger, sadness, depression, elation, or the sort of attentiveness running through the mountains and other speed sports lead to.

    So human beings can be many things. Or, more exactly, many beasts. Sometimes, monkey, sometimes bonobo, sometimes fleeting as a deer, or observant as an eagle, sometimes ruminating in contemplation as a cow. And sometimes drunk as an elephant who are too many ripe fruits (yes, it happens!). And sometimes, as a lion. As the superiority of the species rests on super predation, hence a main driver of evolution, for millions of years, we want to meditate the last one.

    Recently, a lion in zoo, still noble and superior, was observed to eat less and less. Upon inspection, it was found it had a gigantic abscess in its upper jaw. Extensive surgery was made, and he fully recovered. The zoologists were amazed by how much pain it endured, without showing apparent distress. They said any other animal would have shown the pain.

    Lions are all about pain. Mastering it, stoically, so they can inflict it.

    If we human beings can out-lion, the lions themselves, a question naturally arises:

    What is the good life, eudaimonia, for a lion?

    Answering that one, will tell us what the good life is, for many a human being. You know, those human beings who matter the most, because they decide what history will be.

    In particular, Alexander the Great, Antipater and Craterus, all among the greatest generals in the history of humanity, and all very close friends to Aristotle, were like lions. Their sense of the good life, was that of a lion.

    There is actually a famous ceramic, more than two thousands years old, representing Antipater and Craterus, naked, fighting a… lion, with flimsy weapons.

    This is not just a fancy aside in history: Antipater, as the successor of Alexander, but worse, imposed plutocracy onto Athens, outlawing democracy in Greece for more than 22 centuries. (Literally! Only the richest could vote!)


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