Stoic Q&A: what is the (Stoic) key to happiness?

eudaimoniaD. 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

19 replies

  1. I feel like the question author might have had one additional misconception, when they say “would not the Stoics in general downplay our profession (outside of our control) and see it more as a means to survive?”

    Something about that wording strikes me as backwards, or maybe more Cynic than Stoic. External things (including professional opportunity) may not be necessary for ‘Happiness’ (in the Stoic sense), but ‘Happiness’ (i.e. virtue) still seeks out certain external things (and opportunities) as a means to exercise itself in pursuit of things that are natural for human beings. Choosing things like excellent work, determination, and affection for others wherever possible is within our control, and forms a fundamental part of Stoic ‘Happiness.’

    This is why Seneca, for example, can write so glowingly of social and professional engagement (On Leisure, 1.4):

    “Surely your Stoics say: ‘We shall remain in active service right up to the very end of life, without ceasing to apply ourselves to the common good, to help the individual, and to give assistance with an aged hand even to our enemies. We Stoics are the ones who grant no exemptions from service at any age, and as that most eloquent poet puts it [Virgil],

    ‘We clamp down the war-helmet on our gray hair.’

    ‘We are the ones who hold so strongly that there is no inactive moment before death that, if circumstances allow, death itself is not inactive.'”

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  2. “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.”

    This seems to me quite the opposite of what most ancient Stoics said. Are you arguing that as modern Stoics we should lean more Aristotelian, or are you claiming that the ancient Stoics argued that a life lacking in externals cannot be a flourishing one? If the latter, that seems quite at odds with the ancient literature, e.g.:

    “it is in virtue that happiness (eudaimonia) consists; for virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious” – Diogenes Laertius 7.89


  3. cmp,

    maybe I did not express myself clearly, but I think that’s what the Stoics would say: if a life like externals, then a human being isn’t going to flourish (meaning, he is not going to be able to pursue his projects, say because he is a slave, or a prisoner). But so long as the person practices virtue, regadless of external condition, his life is worth living. That’s entirely consistent with the quote from Diogenes Laertius. I am simply distinguishing different meanings of eudaimonia, because if one mixes “happiness,” flourishing, and virtue, then one cannot distinguish the Aristotelians from the Stoics and the latter fom the Cynics.

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  4. Hi Massimo,

    Thank you for the post! It’s another very interesting read for me personally, as I often misinterprete western philosophies due to the lack of understanding in languages.

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  5. Good article. Happiness surveys/rankings (countries, states, etc.) and article on how to be happy are popular these days. While discussing these with others, I opine that while these surveys and article may or may not be useful, they unfortunately imply that hapiness is the ultimate goal in life, not leading a meaningful life (whether or not libing a meaningful life that is the same as a worthwhile life is for another discussion). Happiness is just preferred indifferent to living a meaningful life.

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  6. Hi Massimo

    I cannot understand this. My understanding is Stoicism like Epicureanism aims at eudaimonia and that the closest approximation to that is “flourishing”. This state is brought about through virtue which is both necessary and sufficient. If you are now saying that one cannot be flourishing in difficult circumstances how then are you not supporting the Aristotelian view that virtue is necessary but not sufficient?

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  7. peter,

    as I said before, “flourishing” is just one modern translation of eudaimonia, it should not be taken as being the translation. For the Stoics life is worth living so long as one can exercise virtue, which can be done even under circumstances that most people would not think of describing as “flourishing,” such as being a slave. So, to repeat: worth living under difficult circumstances is not the same as flourishing, and that neatly spearates the Stoics from the Aristotelians.

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  8. There maybe a general conception here that if a life isn’t flourishing then it’s not worth living. I feel that Massimo is saying that “a life isn’t flourishing is still worth living as long as it follows virtue”. Please correct me if I misinterpreted. 😄 this post also reminds a lot of Viktor Frankl’s “men searching for meanings in life “


  9. chuchu,

    precisely. Frankl’s experience in the Nazi concentration camps cannot possibly be described as an instance of florishing. But it certainly falls under the Stoic conception of a life worth living, in this case by way of exercising virtue to help others.

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  10. Hi Massimo,

    Your explanation of eudaimonia is particularly important here, since it’s also commonly misunderstood that a flourishing life = a happy life, and the opposite, an unhappy life, is not worth living.

    Sometimes people do seek comfort in philosophy or religions (I’m not saying philosophy = religion) because of the lack of externals, e.g. been born into poverty, unable to get an education, or being stuck in a country with constant civil wars etc. People would like to understand the meanings of their lives under those circumstances, therefore they’d like to know that a happy life is still achievable despite externals.

    You’ve mentioned in the post that a meaningful life is certainly achievable despite external circumstances. In a Stoic way, this equates to a life of virtues, like Frankl in the concentration camps. A flourishing life, in my opinion, is also achievable without external help, but I’m sorry here, an individual would have a much better chance to flourish with good externals. For instance, Bill Gates had a superb understanding in computers by the time he went to university, because he went to a high school that had a lot of computing facilities freely available, which was rare in the 60s.

    The question here is: does a flourishing life lead to happiness or does a meaningful life lead to happiness? Many people would agree that a meaningful life would more likely to lead to happiness. I personally would say it depends on the individual. Sometimes happiness is as simple as washing a rice bowl but noticing the perfect curvature water droplets make when leaving the bowl. One thing certain is that a flourishing life isn’t necessarily a happy life.

    I often wondered if the ancient Stoic role models were happy. Was Cato happy knowing that his opposition to Caesar could (and did) lead to the lost of many Romans’ lives, including his own? Was Seneca happy when he was exiled, and brought back to tutor the tyrant Nero? Was Epictetus happy living with a broken leg? I’m not sure if happiness in the conventional way was what they had, but I do believe they were happy about their choice to best live their lives in accordance with their philosophy. After all, that choice of living was within their control.


  11. After spending hours listening to the life of Cato from multiple sources recently, I honestly think he’d score very low if he had taken one those happiness surveys. That goes for many of the ancient Stoics. However, I do believe they were happy with their Stoic choices throughout their lives, because the choices had the roots in virtue and were within the Stoics’ control.

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  12. This dichotomy of control concept… not giving emotions to things outside our control I find troublesome perhaps due to misunderstanding. I am involved in environmental issues. Failing to stop a bitumen pipeline into BC coastal waters will be catastrophic if this goes ahead. I find this hard to be flourishing or worth living in my mind if we fail.


  13. Further to my comment. I understand there are limits to what is in my control but not things outside my control (your vector graphic) explains very well. However, that does not comment on the great dejection to be emotionally dealt with if we do not stop this thing.

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  14. chuchu,

    as you say, happiness is not the same as flourishing, and the latter not the same as a meaningful life. My bet (and the Stoic one) is that people want first and foremost meaning, even if there is no flourishing. If possible, flourishing is preferred. “Happiness” is too loose a word to even talk about it philosophically, really, but it has to do with one’s sense that one’s life is going well — which again is related to both meaning and flourishing.

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  15. seascene,

    yes, you do appear to misunderstand the dicothomy of control. In your example, it would apply this way: I recognize that the pipeline is bad for the environment and for people, so I will do anything that is in my power to stop it. But I approach the task with the firm reminder in my mind that I do not control the final outcome, only my own judgments and actions. It basically means to internalize one’s goals, and to accept a negative outcome with equanimity. Sometimes things just don’t go our way.

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  16. SeaScene: “that does not comment on the great dejection to be emotionally dealt with if we do not stop this thing”

    You might resonate with Martha Nussbaum’s criticism of Stoicism: she believes that, while it’s all fine and well to focus on virtue and forward-looking action to prevent atrocities, we should still feel (and choose to feel) deep, heart-felt grief, distress, and horror when atrocities nonetheless happen.

    The Stoic view, meanwhile, makes plenty of room for “proto-grief” and “proto-horror,” so to speak, as natural physiological reactions, but it asks us to use cognitive techniques to focus on the idea that moral worth and action, rather than the outcome and external security, is what makes “life worth living” (as Massimo puts it). The result will usually be a less intense emotional reaction.

    Whichever model appeals more to your sense of humanity, it’s worth noting that quite a few modern Stoics are active in the environmental arena. You might be interested in this recent paper by Kai Whiting et al., for instance:

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  17. I would add to what E.O. said that there is a reason the Stoics thought we should temper our proto-emotions: deep grief, anger, and so on, have a tendency to run away from us and lead us to do things that we don’t, or shouldn’t, want to do. That’s why, for instance, Seneca says that anger is temporary madness.

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  18. I’m starting to wonder if eudaimonia exists. Using myself as an example: my family is healthy, I love my wife and kids, my business is successful ( by my standards) as a family we travel often and spend fair amount of time together, I get to do my hobby often, I live a life that my wife and I designed for us. I’m not saving lives, but I live a satisfied life. I would classify this as a happy life, for me. I often think it can’t get any better, is this eudaimonia?


  19. mjv,

    since eudiamonia is a human concept, it exists insofar human beings talk abuot it. Whether it is realized in any specific life it depends. In your case, sounds like your life certainly satisfies the Aristotelian criterion of flourishing, so yes, you are eudaimon in that sense. Are you also a moral person who constantly strives to improve himself and do good for others? That’s the (in my mind, more stringent) Stoic criterion for eudiamonia, understood as a life worth living, whether one is flourising materally or not.

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