It’s clear that people living in terrible conditions aren’t happy and need help. But, isn’t it awkward that those whose standard of living is very high aren’t so often much happier? Those earning thousands of dollars not always feel much better than those earning much less. And, do you think their lives are always more creative and much fuller of sense and meaning? Well, not always. Instead, many of them feel frustrated and disorganized. What’s wrong here? Doesn’t ‘having access to the material goods’ mean also ‘access to the models of the good life’ and ‘instructions to make life better’? Very many people living in the West have enough material conditions to enjoy happy and meaningful lives. They are much richer than people from undeveloped countries. Also, shouldn’t they be much grateful for what they have? They have much wider access to education. I understand education in a broader way. A life time project, not just a professional skill. Education is one of the most important sources of knowledge about how to live a good life. Do the wealthy use these sources to the full extent? Well, I’m not sure. All this is what makes me think of happiness and the good life for some time.
I come from a country that was very poor thirty years ago. People needed help and were unhappy. Since then the progress has been spectacular. All areas of economic and social life developed. Most of the people got richer. Much richer than before. It has been a surprise for me to learn that this doesn’t translate into happiness and self-fulfilment. Many people forgot the misery their parents experienced in a painful way. Frustration and anger is common; a self-disciplined effort to use opportunities around is not so common. That the rich life and the good life mean two separate things is the main lesson I learnt from the post-totalitarian experience of my country.
One of my conclusions is this. Having enough money doesn’t mean stopping working and taking care. It only means that access to goods should make access to knowledge about how to make life better easy. Twenty five centuries of philosophical reflection on the good life can be one of such sources. Recent twenty five years of the digital revolution gives us direct access to practical philosophy and its wisdom. It also gives us access to the modern coaching and counseling practices. These practices take a lot from practical philosophy. Everybody can use a mobile or a laptop to get to the digital materials anytime. Such digital materials as textual, oral, visual, audio, and cinematic say something important. Even better; we can use them to say something important to make our lives better.
I spent more than twenty five years writing and teaching as a professional philosopher. In my view, practical philosophy is a body of thoughts and inspirations about the good life. It’s accessible to everybody and can serve many people at various stages of their lives. Three philosophical traditions are the main sources of inspiration for me here: the Stoic, the hedonist, and the pragmatist.
The real world and the cyberspace offer us two basic approaches toward life. To enhance good things and to limit burdens. Both are essential for having a good life. Limiting unnecessary burdens is the main point of the Stoic tradition. In the chapter below, I present some reflections about it.
What to do in the face of adverse circumstances? How to behave to cope with misfortunes? How to react? To give up and think that what will be will be? Or be active? Is there any strategy that is helpful? I do not mean a particular way of solving a given problem here. Not a technical solution to a specific problem. I mean a universal stance applicable to various situations and different contexts. Your general strategy. An attitude that many people can have when dealing with obstacles. The stance that various women can assume to face problems that most of us have to cope with. And it’s not so important that people live in various cultural contexts. I’m looking for the attitude that may work in various cultures. In many cultures and epochs people fear. In various circumstances, people hope. Wherever they live they must take serious decisions. Women aren’t sure about the future of their kids. The elderly think of what will occur after life. Youngsters look for some meaning of life. Existential issues in so many forms. Every woman thinks about it at various stages of life.
Many experts discuss such personal attitudes and strategies that ordinary people could take. No matter what culture, tradition, and religion. Doctors have much to say about it. Also psychologists, pedagogues, teachers, therapists, and coaches. Many philosophers discussed it throughout centuries too. Several philosophical schools specialized in giving specific types of recommendations and advice. I want to comment on the Stoic philosophers and their views.
THE PRACTICAL PHILOSOPHY OF THE ROMAN STOICS
The word ‘Stoic’ doesn’t mean anything old-fashioned and unpractical. The Stoic philosophers I refer to (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and their followers) lived two thousand years ago in the Roman Empire. It’s amazing that their ideas serve us today in so many ways. Many contemporary mental-health guides and coach practices refer to them. There are best-selling business books that recommend the Stoic way of thinking. Yes, they recommend the contemporary business people what to do to be more successful. And they recommend some Stoic ideas to follow. So, what’s so attractive about the Stoics today? Well, ask a prosperous businessman about the reason for his or her accomplishments. The perseverance and patience will be the top factors. Ask an experienced psychologist about having the good life. She will talk about your work on keeping a well-balanced mind. Ask a sports coach what you need to reach the aim in any discipline. You will hear that toughness is a good start. Exactly these things the Stoics had in mind. It’s not so important that they lived in a different historical and cultural context. Like us, they wanted to live a good and happy life.
What is the basic difference between them and us? I don’t want to talk about the huge difference between their civilization and ours. My question deals with the difference in the approach to life. To find out a good method for this, they focused on the practical aspects of philosophy. They treated philosophy in a super practical way. That’s different from what we do today. For many contemporary readers, philosophy is crazy, abstract, unnecessary, and sectarian or elitist. For them it meant wisdom. For us, it’s about theoretical issues, for them it was about the good life. For us, philosophical books aren’t readable, for them, such books were the sources of knowledge about life. For us, it’s intellectual, for them it was practical and daily. Of course, they had their metaphysics and complex theories. They continued studies initiated by the Greek Stoics much earlier. They were thinkers, so they converted their experience and their wisdom into a coherent system of thought. But it served them to understand the mechanisms of the good life. To learn the anatomy of the good and happy life to make it better in practice. For them and for everybody around. And their aim was the practical implementation of philosophy into the real life, not theoretical or imaginary.
STOIC INDIFFERENCE TO THE EXTERNAL PROBLEMS
The Stoics had a special method to propose. Its main point is clear to see for everybody. Even today it looks smart. At least for some. What does this method say? We have to protect ourselves against the external misfortunes. And work hard to become insensitive to them. External misfortunes or problems come to us from the world that surrounds us. Both the physical world and the social one. The main Stoical thesis about unhappiness says that our preoccupations with the externals makes us unhappy. It isn’t necessary to deal with the externals. And you get more unhappiness than happiness from them. We don’t have much control over things around us, and this is the reason we shouldn’t care. But it’s not the only reason. We shouldn’t care because these externals don’t matter to us. Well, at least they shouldn’t. Much more significant is what we have and cultivate inside. If we protect ourselves against them, they will not harm us and we lose nothing important. What are the examples of the externals? Bad weather, a political turmoil, historical legacy, illness, the financial condition, the public opinion, conventional morality, consumption, social prestige, and many more. These external things are responsible for most of our troubles. Or, to be more precise. It is our mistreatment of the external things that make us unhappy. We are too serious about them. And we shouldn’t. This is exactly what Epictetus taught: “It’s not the accident that distresses this person, because it doesn’t distress another person; it is the judgment which he makes about it” (Enchiridion, 16). We, one by one, should be responsible for shaping the character of the events. And of the objects, phenomena and situations around us. How to do it? It’s us that give meaning to them. We able to ascribe to these externals positive or negative meaning. Things themselves don’t have such character. We often think that the external things have such definite meanings. That they have a fixed status. They don’t. And it’s not good for our mental health when we surround to them. When we are uncritical to them. We allow the external things impose the meaning on us.
Any examples taken from the contemporary perspective? Weather is a trivial example, but a good one. I don’t mean catastrophic disasters, more and more frequent in the time of climate change. I mean our daily dealing with weather. Weather conditions are external to you, right? Whatever they are, don’t complain about it. If you are smart, you can convert a severe weather (snow) into a great fun (skiing). Exactly this. Instead of fearing or complaining, convert given weather conditions into your advantage. It’s wise and healthy. Public opinion can be another example. People say bad things about you? Instead of feeling depression, try to think that it can be very informative. For example, a bad opinion, like a mirror, can inform you about how you look in the eyes of others. You can use it for some aims: stop repeating some mistakes. Or treat it as a stimulation for a harder work. But, you have to assess if this opinion is justified or not. Many other possibilities at hand. The most important thing here is that these externals aren’t so significant as you think. The can be informative, but not important. Your effort to have an influence on the public opinion will be more risky than your effort to ignore the public opinion. And more uncertain. You’ll never control it, but you can learn how to ignore it. Your indifference to the public opinion will be safer for you than your engagement. So, the best protection would be insensitive to it. Especially, when we know that we don’t do anything wrong. I repeat: if people around us say bad things about us, we must not let it destroy our sense of the good and happy life. Even more: we can learn a lot out of this criticism.
Losing job can be another example taken from our time. In very many examples losing job has a more psychological effect: hurt, loss, disappointment, and anger. Like the Stoics ages ago, many contemporary psychologists claim the following two things. We tend to overrate the negative impact on our lives. And, we don’t think too much about having new opportunities. It’s true that many workers, for some reason, don’t think of a plan B situation while having the job. But it’s also true that they aren’t very eager to think how to use their experience and skills in new contexts. I was surprised to learn that many people found new and better job after they had had to quit during the financial crisis in 2007-2008.
THE FIRST REASON WHY THE EXTERNAL THINGS SHOULD NOT MATTER: POWER
The Stoic words ‘indifference’ and ‘insensitivity’ to external things refer to the circumstances that we are unable to control. If we don’t control the external things, the external things control us. It is painful when the externals appear in the form of misfortune, trouble, obstacles, obstructions and so on. This division (internal-external) is crucial here. Practicing insensitivity to external problems is a special method to cope with externals. To reduce the possible domination of those things over us. The Stoics used the word we know very well in contemporary languages, which is ‘apathy’ (in Greek: apatheia). But it’s not the apathy that we understand today. It’s very different. Today, ‘apathy’ is the lack of energy. You don’t want to do anything. You have problem with motivation and regularity of your activities. With discipline, I mean. Anyway, it’s very unhealthy. And no positive emotions. This meaning of the word is very different from what the Stoics had in mind. For them apathy is the result of the hard work to be indifferent to the external affairs. It requires a lot of positive energy and creative thinking. As the result, they gained independence from the external troubles. They gained their autonomy (autarkia). Autonomy is the main condition for your indifference to the external things. A sort of a paradox: apathy, for the Stoics, would be a very good thing to practice.
THE SECOND REASON WHY THE EXTERNAL THINGS SHOULD NOT MATTER: VALUES
The external things that produce obstacles aren’t very worthy. They are accidental to our happiness and our self-fulfilment. And it’s despite the domination they may have on us. They can defeat you, but they can’t break you. It’s like a bad weather. A storm or a tornado can dominate your behaviour. In some sense, you have to be attentive to them. When severe, you’d better escape. If medium, as when snowing or raining, you’d better put on a thick coat. It’s reasonable to take a coat if you think it’s going to snow. But the snow itself shouldn’t destroy your good mood and your sense of a good life. Perhaps, you should be angry with yourself having forgotten a warm coat for the first time. Try to remember it next time and you’ll be angry with nobody and with nothing. The heavy snow can defeat your body, but it can’t break you as a person. So, the Stoics would say, it’s not wise to be angry with rain or snow. As it’s not rational to be angry with the public opinion that is accidental, superficial, and temporary. And despair doesn’t make much sense when you’ve just lost your job. You can’t control such things. Don’t let such things control you. Don’t be angry with them. Don’t be angry with yourself and don’t lose your peace of mind (‘tranquillity’ as the Stoics would say). Instead, try to be more careful. Be more rational and profound.
What to do to be indifferent in the longer perspective? Not only to the public opinion. Job, travel, relations, prestige, and other things. Not only paying little attention to some possible obstacles. Others will appear pretty soon. What’s a more universal way to do it? The Stoic had a suggestion. Fortitude or the strength of your character. Thanks to your fortitude, your indifference to the possible problems will have a more solid background. When trouble comes, fortitude is most helpful.
STOIC FORTITUDE AS INDIFFERENCE TO TOIL AND PAIN
The word ‘fortitude’ has many meanings. In most cases, it means the endurance in the face of adverse circumstances. It involves two sides. The internal side, which is your determination and strength. Your ‘strong character’ as we would call it today. And the external side, which means the affairs that you deal with. You don’t have much influence on these affairs. In short, you need a strong internal character to cope with the external problems. What exactly we are talking about?
There have been many definitions of fortitude. I like the definition that Cicero proposed long time ago. Cicero admired the Stoic philosophers. Although he was not a Stoic in the strict sense, he articulated many Stoical ideas in a clear way. For him, fortitude is: “the indifference to toil and pain” (De Officiis, book 3, #117). This definition shows what the proper Stoics had in mind. Both avoiding the externals or going through them needs a strong attitude. You must have the internal power not to give up the realization of your aims when you meet challenges. Even if you meet restriction and hardship. But it’s not only this. Not only problems can be misleading. Temporary successes can be traps. Temping excitements may lead you to big troubles later on. So, fortitude isn’t only a trait of tough guys. Those who face cozy life aren’t in much better situation. Sooner or later, everybody will face good (tempting) and bad obstacles. And everybody can try to cope with them. A piece of a practical and universal thinking in the Stoics.
How may fortitude work in practice of our daily life? Let’s interpret it from contemporary Western perspective. At its basic level, it means perseverance and patience. Despite the circumstances, you don’t give up. You are going forward against all odds. You know that what you do is good (this is the starting point!), and you have the right to stick to your way. It can be painful, but the pain shouldn’t bother you too much. Its cause is external, so why worry? Especially when you train yourself in discipline and resistance. And imagination. Imagination is important. We suffer much more when we imagine that something terrible has happened to us. For example, we fear that somebody will think bad things about us. I’m not saying, somebody is telling us bad things; I’m saying that we suppose she or he thinks bad things. And only this causes much pain. Some people tremble when thinking what other people will say. Isn’t it imagination? Here, you don’t need the fortitude to cope with this. What you need is to convert your negative thinking about what might happen. How do you know what people may think of you? You project your fears on them. It would be better to project your hopes instead. You can think: wow, people will think good of me. Or, don’t think about it at all. Fortitude starts when you have to go through obstacles. The obstacles that block you in your activities. Your imagination that stops your activity because of your fears – it’s a classic example.
RATIONALITY HELPS CONVERT THE OBSTACLE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
We can ignore the obstacles. This is the easiest way to deal with them. There is also a more advanced, rational and effective way. Instead of ignoring an obstacle, we should adapt it to our advantage. Let’s take this quote from Marcus Aurelius. He is one of the most famous Stoics. In his Reflections (V, 20) we can read: The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” My interpretation is this. In a skilful way, we can accommodate to the conditions that a given situation imposes on us. An illness can be an example. Sometimes, it’s impossible to ignore illness. It isn’t wise to be tough and neglect the treatment in some cases. If you suffer from diabetes or myopia you’d better go to the doctor. Avoiding treatment means getting into a bigger trouble. No sense doing it. No rational thinking at all. Only stubbornness. And stubbornness doesn’t mean fortitude at all. So, we can accommodate to the circumstances. Here, the fortitude means a patient and persevere bearing the lot. It doesn’t mean surrender though. You can go on bearing your lot. You can realize your aims while coping with the burden (for example, illness). Bearing the burden needs the fortitude. Transition is another example. If you’re afraid of aging, you’d better realize that it can be a source of good things for you. Aging almost always means more experience. There are many people around that would like to hear what you say about a given thing. Your stories and your recommendations. Your wisdom and words of consolation. And a skilful using of experience make life better, not worse.
In my thirties I thought that the quality of my life would be lower in twenty years ahead. For example, I’d been practicing karate and was quite sure that my physical possibilities would be only more constrained. Something similar with my private life: it would be only more boring, standard and unexceptional. Now, in my fifties, I can’t believe how wrong I was. Getting back to my karate training sessions: I use the experience to train more effectively and avoiding injuries, which is a huge advantage over younger practitioners. I also realize that the only person I need to beat is myself. Something similar with my relation, and the professional life. I can see much better now the opportunities I have around. I try to use it. And enjoy them.
So, aging. Well, instead of fighting against, you’d better make it your advantage. This is how I understand the meaning of Marcus Aurelius’ quote.
The combination of the fortitude and rationality is a strong tool. It makes it possible for you to cope with troubles. Don’t panic if you can’t avoid some obstructions. Use the potential that these obstructions can give you. What potential? Can a trouble have any potential? What potential can an illness have? I suggested the positive answer to this question a second ago. And this is one of the lessons we can learn from the Stoics. It’s possible to convert the discomfort into positive virtues. Self-discipline is a good illustration. Self-discipline as a well-organized way of coping with issues. Everyday dealing with diabetes needs self-discipline. You can’t forget the time for injection. Other illnesses need systematic activities in other forms. Why not convert this self-discipline into the daily routine? Why not use it in other areas? Especially the areas where self-discipline matters? Exactly according to that Stoic quote presented above. If your illness stands in the way, let it become the way. Look at a paradox here. The experience of a heavy disease doesn’t have to stop striving for a healthy lifestyle. A terrible illness may, I say: may, change your life in a good direction. Think of Paralympic athletes for example. They can teach us, every day, how to enjoy life and give more sense and meaning to it.
If an obstruction you meet is the impediment in action, make it instrumental in the action. Why I talk about illnesses so much here. The first reason is that the Stoic fortitude is very helpful in coping with illness. The second reason is Epictetus. He taught how to be happy and how fortitude helps to be happy. At the same time, he was disabled. We don’t know for sure if he was lame from his childhood or his broken leg wasn’t cured well. Anyway, his lifelong disability didn’t prevent him from being happy and teaching how to be so. Later on, when he became a free man (yes: he was a slave before!), he earned a lot of money teaching other Romans how to live a good and happy life. I don’t suppose he lamented about his lot.