D. writes: In one interview you said that in your opinion the key to happiness is finding something we enjoy doing, finding a sense of meaning in what we are doing in terms of the occupation we may select. But would not the Stoic say that by chance, lottery, or destiny we find ourselves in a given situation and that we should just do our best there, independently of our occupation, and that really a happy life would consist in developing our moral character as the main goal and key to happiness? If you are for instance growing up somewhere where you are unfortunately not having the means of getting a decent education, so that some personal goals may be out of reach, would it not be — under the Stoic perspective — right anyway to solely work on your moral character in order to be good, kind, fair, courageous, etc.? So would not the Stoics in general downplay our profession (outside of our control) and see it more as a means to survive? Would not they recognise our profession as a preferred indifferent?
I am very glad you asked this question, because it gives me an opportunity to clear some common misconceptions in what I think the ancient Stoics were saying, and certainly in the way a modern Stoic should interpret the philosophy. One key to the answer is to draw a distinction between happiness and eudaimonia. The Greco-Roman word did not translate to the modern English happiness, certainly not in the context of discussions about the life worth living, as Socrates would put it.
Indeed, the term eudaimonia is so unwieldy for modern translations that even some psychologists have given up and use the Greek word instead. Still, the usual approximate translation of eudaimonia is flourishing, which is what I meant when I used the word happiness in that interview. In order to flourish, I would agree with the Aristotelians, one needs some external conditions to be met, including the sort of opportunities for education, wealth, health and so forth that you allude to.
But as I have pointed out before, the various Greco-Roman philosophical schools differentiated themselves precisely on the basis of what they meant by eudaimonia. In particular, the Aristotelians, the Stoics and the Cynics differed in interesting ways, along a continuum that locates Stoicism in the middle of a conceptual space occupied by the other two schools (see this post as well, particularly the first slide).
At one extreme of the continuum we find the Aristotelians, with their above mentioned contention that eudaimonia is flourishing, and hence requires a significant component of externals. That sort of position means — as you correctly point out — that one needs a bit of luck to be eudaimon. At the opposite extreme are the Cynics, for whom the life worth living (please notice the different wording now, not “flourishing,” but “worth living”) is one of virtue. Indeed, everything else, for the Cynics, positively gets in the way, which is why they famously did not marry (except for Crates, Zeno’s teacher, who was, however, married to another Cynic, Hipparchia of Maroneia), did not own property, and lived in the streets (hence their name: “cynic,” in ancient Greek, means dog-like).
What about the Stoics? They carved themselves a conceptual niche, so to speak, in between the above mentioned schools, by way of articulating the difference between virtue (which is central) and externals (which are preferred, but indifferent to virtue). So the scenario you envisage near the end of your letter is a situation in which the Stoics would still say that one’s life is worth living (because we have opportunities to practice virtue), but not one conducive to flourishing (or “happiness” in the broad sense of the term), because lacking in externals.
Another way to look at it is from the point of view of Epictetus’ role ethics, as described by Brian Johnson in his book, The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life (which I have commented on here). Epictetus makes distinctions among different roles we play in society. The most fundamental role, and the one which takes precedence over all others, is that of a human being. After that, we have a variety of additional roles, some that we choose (being a parent, our profession, etc.), and some that are “given” to us by the universe (being someone’s child, being born in a particular place and society, etc.). Playing the basic role of a human being is the same as practicing virtue, under all circumstances. The other roles leave space for pursuing our particular projects, but obviously within the constraints of whatever cards Fate hands us. So, for a Stoic, life is almost always worth living (there are special circumstances when suicide is admissible), but it isn’t always a happy one.
Categories: Stoic Q&A