“Stoicism and the Art of Happiness” by Donald Robertson (Book Summary)
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson is a book about Stoicism and how to apply it in the modern world.
The book shows you ways in which Stoicism can contribute towards a philosophy of life – an art of living with Happiness that aspires to be both rational and social. “In a nutshell, the Stoics said that the goal of life is consistently to live in harmony and agreement with the nature of the universe, and to do this by excelling with regard to our own essential nature as rational and social beings.”
Robertson says that “ancient Stoicism was the granddaddy of all ‘self-help’ and its ideas and techniques have inspired many modern approaches to both personal development and psychological therapy.”
Stoicism will help you develop calmness in adversity and help you deal with life’s challenges more effectively. If this sounds like something you could use in your daily life, then read on.
Who is Stoicism and the Art of Happiness for?
- Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Stoicism
- Anyone interested in a philosophical way to live a happy life
- Anyone who wants to become more emotionally resilient
1. The Stoic Goal of Life
The best-known definition of the Stoic goal of life, which is attributed either to Zeno or to Chrysippus, was simple ‘living in agreement with nature.’
We can think of ‘living in agreement with Nature’ as living harmoniously across three important dimensions of life:
- Self: Harmony with our own essential nature, with ourselves as rational beings, which requires perfecting reason and virtue and fulfilling nature.
- World: Harmony with Nature as a whole, which means accepting our fate, insofar as it’s beyond our control, as if we’d willed it to happen, rather than complaining and struggling futilely against events.
- Mankind: Social harmony or ‘concord’ with other people, viewing all rational beings as our kin, and extending our natural affection for others into a heartfelt ‘philanthropic’ attitude towards the rest of mankind.
For the Stoics, a perfect human being would be someone whose life is both honorable and benefits themselves and others. We can live in agreement with nature if we use reason in our actions, if we accept what we can’t change, and if we show natural affection towards others.
2. True Beauty Resides in Our Character
The essence of Stoic Ethics is the claim that practical wisdom, or ‘virtue’, by which they basically mean the same thing, is the only true good, and what is not ‘up to us’ is ultimately indifferent.
The Stoics were unique in arguing that being a good person is completely sufficient to live the good life.
Only the good and honourable person is truly beautiful because true beauty resides in our character. The good is also what is genuinely ‘praiseworthy,’ what we admire in ourselves and others.
Health, wealth and reputation, by themselves, cannot help a foolish and unjust man attain the good life. Nor can sickness, poverty or persecution harm the virtuous man’s wellbeing… As Seneca puts it, Stoics come to see that ‘Life is neither good nor bad; it is the space for both good and bad’, meaning that life can be used wisely or foolishly, virtuously or viciously.
For the Stoics, the chief good can only be found in our actions, not in uncontrollable external circumstances. It is who you are as a person that matters for the good life.
As Donald Robertson puts it, “external ‘goods’ do not relate to our essential nature as rational and social beings and merely confuse foolish people over the true worth of a man’s character.”
3. Passions Are the Root Cause of Human Suffering
One of the most important arguments of the Stoics was that it is impossible to imagine someone who is on the one hand a wise and good man, having attained perfect eudaimonia, and, on the other hand, still plagued by emotional disturbance or pathological desires. The Stoics famously refer to these as the ‘passions’ (pathé); they believed them to be the root cause of all human suffering, and essentially toxic to eudaimonia.
‘Life is warfare’, and the Stoic achieves serenity by arming himself to face whatever may be inflicted on him by the vicissitudes of events, the turning ‘Wheel of Fortune’. The promise of philosophy was therefore the promise of both Happiness and the emotional resilience to retain it in the face of setbacks.
The ability to overcome unhealthy fears and desires is termed apatheia, being ‘passionless’ or rather without passions of the problematic sort.
Strong negative emotions are what often get in the way to lead the good life. Which is why a Stoic must train herself to not get overwhelmed by such emotions. So that we can remain calm even in the face of adversity.
According to Robertson, this goal to overcome the ‘passions’ has caused confusion and “led to the widespread misconception that the Stoics are somehow ‘unemotional’ or seek to repress their feelings.” Which is not the case as you’ll find out in the next point.
4. Stoics Feel Emotions but Don’t Get Overwhelmed by Them
Zeno meant that the wise man was not enslaved by his feelings of fear or desire, but we’re explicitly told here that’s not the same as being ‘ hard-hearted’ and ‘insensitive’, which is the false impression many people today have of Stoicism.
A brave man isn’t someone who doesn’t experience any trace of fear whatsoever but someone who acts courageously despite feeling anxiety. A man who has great self-discipline or restraint isn’t someone who feels no inkling of desire but someone who overcomes his cravings, by abstaining from acting upon them.
The Sage conquers his passions by becoming stronger than them not by eliminating all traces of emotion from his life.
Basically, Stoics feel the negative emotions but they manage to act right despite of those strong emotions. They say having those emotions is natural, but we can become stronger so that we don’t get overwhelmed or enslaved by them.
This is not the same thing as being unemotional or hard-hearted.
The Stoics used the Story of Hercules as a metaphor for the good life: “that it’s better to face hardships, rise above them, and thereby excel, than to embrace easy living and idleness, and allow your soul to shrink and deteriorate as a result.”
5. Accept What Happens with Equanimity
This philosophical attitude (acceptance) towards events is encapsulated in one of the Stoic Handbook’s most striking and important maxims: “Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.”
Hadot likewise describes the discipline of desire as consisting in a refusal to desire anything other than what is willed by the Nature of the universe, our fate.
Marcus speaks of the need to ‘find satisfaction’ in the external events that befall us, that we should ‘greet them joyfully’, ‘accept them with pleasure’, ‘love’ them and ‘will’ them to happen as determined by our fate.
Whether we realize it or not, we are all living out the lives fated for us, either willingly or reluctantly. Zeno illustrated this with a striking metaphor: the wise man is like a dog tethered to a cart, running alongside and smoothly keeping pace with it, whereas a foolish man is like a dog that struggles against the leash but finds himself dragged alongside the cart anyway.
The Stoics tried to accept whatever happened to them, because they realized they couldn’t change these things. Therefore it’s futile to fight against what’s too late to change. Like the dog who gets dragged alongside the cart despite him pulling in the other direction.
This discipline often gets called amor fati, meaning loving acceptance of your fate.
6. Acceptance Is Not the Same as Resignation
[The majority of people confuse acceptance with resignation] and respond to the Stoic therapy of determinism – the idea that absolutely everything in life necessarily happens as it does – by saying ‘What’s the point doing anything then, if everything is determined?’ Chrysippus dismissed this as a crude logical fallacy called ‘The Lazy Argument’ (argos logos) because it both justifies being lazy and, arguably, involves lazy thinking itself.
Events are not determined to happen in a particular way, regardless of what you do, but rather along with what you do. Your own thoughts and actions are necessitated as part of the whole ‘string of causes’ that forms the universe. The outcome of events still often depends on your actions, though.
The Stoics are committed to taking ‘appropriate action’ in the world.
Just because we should accept the things that happen in our lives does not mean that we should resign. Our actions will still co-direct the outcome of events.
7. The Three Rules of Action
[Marcus] adds a very specific formula regarding the discipline of action… We should guard our ‘impulses’ to action attentively, being mindful that all our intentions are as follows:
- I intend to do such-and-such ‘with a reserve clause’, meaning that I add the caveat ‘as long as nothing prevents me’ or ‘fate permitting’, and undertake action with a ‘philosophical attitude’ towards the outcome, calmly accepting from the outset that things may not turn out as I planned.
- I intend to do this ‘for the common welfare’ of mankind, meaning that all of my actions, throughout life, are dedicated to a single external target, serving a common purpose or at least not conflicting with it, which was ultimately harmony and friendship among the community of mankind and their collective flourishing and Happiness.
- I intend to do it ‘in accord with value’, meaning with practical wisdom and justice, dealing fairly with others by selecting those ‘preferred’ external things that are reasonably judged to be most appropriate under these specific circumstances.
We should undertake our actions with enough detachment from the outcome to maintain our peace of mind (see the Stoic Archer). We should value the common good more than our own. And we should undertake our actions with good and just intentions.
8. In Times of Peace, Prepare for War
The Stoics trained themselves to maintain equanimity and freedom from emotional suffering in the face of seeming ‘misfortunes’ by regularly visualizing and preparing to cope with them long in advance.
A well-known fable of Aesop expresses a similar notion very nicely: A wild boar was sharpening his tusks against a tree when a fox came by and asked him why he was doing this. ‘I don’t see the reason,’ remarked the fox, ‘there are neither hunters nor hounds in sight; in fact right now I can’t see any threat at all.’ The boar replied, ‘True, but when danger does arise, I’ll have other things on my mind than sharpening my weapons.’ In times of peace, prepare for war. For the Stoics, this preparation was lifelong, and both physical and mental:
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself with difficult times… If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes, you must give him some training before it comes (Seneca).
The Stoics prepared for adversity long in advance as they wanted to remain calm in the face of adversity.
They used the psychological technique William Irvine coined negative visualization, although the so-called misfortunes were not actually “negative” at all, but completely indifferent to the Stoics.
Marcus Aurelius prepared for a challenging day first thing in the morning in his Stoic morning routine.
9. Test Your Impressions Before You React
In a nutshell: ‘The discipline of assent consists essentially in refusing to accept within oneself all representations which are other than objective or adequate’ (Hadot).
We can only evaluate our automatic thoughts or change our response to them once we’ve ‘caught’ them and taken a step back from them, a process technically referred to as gaining ‘cognitive distance’. This doesn’t mean distancing ourselves from events emotionally, by suppressing our feelings or distracting ourselves from things, but rather something more subtle and fundamental: distancing our thoughts from reality by viewing them as merely mental representations.
When you spot an irrational fear or excessive desire arising… pause and do not allow yourself to be swept along by the impression it contains.
Epictetus repeatedly advises his students to avoid being ‘carried away’ by their initial impressions… They were to remind themselves that it’s their own value judgments upsetting them rather than external events.
When something happens to us, something inside us will quickly judge it as good or bad or annoying and our reaction will follow automatically. The Stoics say we must pause and reflect to test our impression of the event.
Once we spot the impression, we can decide for ourselves whether we want to go along or not. Epictetus tells us that we can always turn ‘bad’ fortune into good fortune by responding with virtue.
10. Seek Wisdom in the Festival of Life
Diogenes the Cynic also reputedly said that a good man considers every day to be a festival and Epictetus subsequently taught his students to contemplate life in this way. The Stoics used this metaphor to convey a sense of gratitude for the opportunity of life, while accepting that it is temporary and will soon come to an end.
Natural philosophers are drawn to the pursuit of knowledge, which becomes their chief goal in life – ‘to study the festival before they leave it’.
Epictetus says we should approach the ‘festival’ of life with this attitude, remembering that our life is ‘on loan’ from Nature and grateful for being allowed to participate in existence, albeit temporarily.
We shouldn’t seek material gain in the festival of life, but rather enjoy the spectacle as philosophers or ‘lovers of wisdom’, who prize truth and knowledge, seeking to understand life in its entirety.
Epictetus says we should regard the turmoil of life in a detached manner as if it were merely the unavoidable hustle and bustle of a busy festival.
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