Those (Quietly) Joyful Stoics


The Stoics—those ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who are so closely associated with logic and rationality—have gotten a bad rap in modern times. To the extent anybody these days has heard of the Stoics, the usual descriptions that come to mind are “emotionless”, “cold”, “logical”, or “joyless.” Many people seem to associate the Stoics with that venerable Vulcan, Mr. Spock, from Star Trek—but this is a fairly superficial comparison. The Vulcans seemed more interested in “controlling” or suppressing their strong, negative emotion–like anger–which often lurked just below the surface. In contrast, the Stoics focused on seeing the world in the light of reason, and living in harmony with Nature—thereby avoiding strong negative emotions in the first place.

The Stoics did not believe that life ought to be drained of all emotion—only that we need to examine our negative emotions, such as rage and envy,and change the irrational attitudes that usually underlie them. In fact, the Stoics were all in favor of living life happily and joyfully, within certain reasonable limits.

How to do this? William Irvine, in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, points to the Stoic’s ability to find satisfaction in the hundreds of small blessings that we all enjoy every day, but which we habitually take for granted. Not only does the Stoic delight in the proverbial glass being “half full,” he or she also contemplates the fact that the glass easily could have been broken or stolen! Indeed, carrying this line of reasoning further, the Stoic might also think, “I’m lucky just to be here, alive and well,  enjoying this drink.” Having just come through Hurricane Sandy with no significantharm done to me or my family, I am keenly aware of such gratitude.

In this regard, a Jewish proverb comes to mind that says much the same thing:

“When a Jew breaks his leg, he thanks God he did not break both legs. If he breaks both legs, he thanks God he did not break his neck!”

And, just as the Stoics did not see misery as arising from external events, so, too, they see joy as arising from within. Marcus Aurelius tells us,

for example, that

“[People] seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea shores, and mountains…But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of [person]; for it is in your power whenever you shall choose to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does [one] retire than into [one’s] own soul…tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.” (Meditations, Book IV).
So the next time you are dreaming of that too-costly winter vacation in the Caribbean, consider the option of retiring into your own well-ordered mind!

[modified and excerpted from Dr. Pies’s book-in-progress, The Three-Petalled Rose]



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