Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: A Teach Yourself Guide
O ye who’ve learnt the doctrines of the Stoa And have committed to your books divine The best of human learning, teaching men That the mind’s virtue is the only good! She only it is who keeps the lives of men And cities safer than high gates and walls. But those who place their happiness in pleasure Are led by the least worthy of the Muses. (Athenaeus the Epigrammatist, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers) Well – I’m not the final word on this, Mr. Croker, but what [the ancient Stoic teacher Epictetus is] saying, it seems to me, he’s saying that the only real possession you’ll ever have is your character and your ‘scheme of life,’ he calls it. Zeus has given every person a spark from his own divinity, and no one can take that away from you, not even Zeus, and from that spark comes your character. Everything else is temporary and worthless in the long run, your body included. You know what he calls your possessions? ‘Trifles.’ You know what he calls the human body? ‘A vessel of clay containing a quart of blood.’ If you understand that, you won’t moan and groan, you won’t complain, you won’t blame other people for your troubles, and you won’t go around flattering people. I think that’s what he’s saying, Mr. Croker. (Wolfe, 1998, p. 683)
What’s this book all about?
This book is about Stoicism, a philosophical tradition founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium around 301 BC, which endured as an active philosophical movement for almost 500 years, and still fascinates people today. However, it’s also a ‘how to’ guide that will hopefully show you ways in which Stoicism might provide, or at least contribute towards, a ‘philosophy of life’ for the modern world – an art of living with Happiness that aspires to be both rational and healthy. If you ask most modern philosophers ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ they’ll probably just shrug and say that’s an unanswerable question. However, the major schools of ancient philosophy basically each proposed a different answer to that question. In a nutshell, the Stoics said that the goal (telos, ‘end’ or ‘purpose’) 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. This is also described as ‘living according to virtue’ or aretê, although as you’ll see it’s best to think of this as meaning excellence in a broader sense than the word ‘virtue’ normally implies – something I’ll explain later.
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