Live your whole life through free from all constraint and with utmost joy in your heart…
— Meditations, 7.68
Many people assume that ancient Stoic philosophers such as the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius were a grave and joyless lot. However, that’s a misconception. In fact, the Historia Augusta tells us that, despite his “serious and dignified” bearing as emperor, Marcus was “without gloom” and known for his pleasant and genial nature.
We can actually see direct evidence of the warmth of Marcus’ affection for his friends. It truly shines forth in the private letters which survive between Marcus and his rhetoric tutor, and family friend, Fronto — such, for example, the charming letter Marcus sent Fronto on his birthday. According to the ancient historians, Marcus had a circle of long-standing friends who loved him very dearly, and based on his surviving correspondence that seems easy to imagine. He was a serious man, but also cheerful and very affectionate.
Marcus himself likewise refers to joy, cheerfulness, love, friendship, and other positive emotions throughout The Meditations, his notebook of personal philosophical reflections. He says, among other things, that he learned how to remain “cheerful when ill, or in the face of any other predicament”, from one of his Stoic mentors (1.5). Applying Stoicism to his own life, he tells himself to be unafraid of death and to meet his fate, not complaining, but “with a truly cheerful mind and grateful to the gods with all your heart” (2.3).
Marcus was perceived as serious but never downcast by others, exhibited warmth and affection to his friends, and, in his private life, valued the cultivation of a cheerful philosophy of life.
Elsewhere, he says that a good person is one who “loves and welcomes all that happens to him” and preserves the guardian spirit within him throughout life “in cheerful serenity, and following God” (3.16). Moreover, he does so by “living a simple, modest, and cheerful life”, free from anger, and accepting of his fate (3.16). Indeed, once he has grasped the right course of action in life he is to “follow it with a cheerful heart and never a backward glance” (10.12). So based on the evidence, Marcus was perceived as serious but never downcast by others, exhibited warmth and affection to his friends, and, in his private life, valued the cultivation of a cheerful philosophy of life.
The Philosophy of Joy
So what would a cheerful philosophy of life look like according to the Stoics? In general, they sought to replace unhealthy emotions with healthy ones, such as rational and proportionate feelings of joy and good cheer, even in the face of adversity. Marcus actually lists three main sources of such joy in Stoicism. These follow a threefold system of classification that runs through The Meditations, dividing our attitudes into those concerning (i) our own self, (ii) other people , and (iii) the events which befall us, throughout life.
Different people find their joy in different things; and it is my joy to keep [i] my ruling centre unimpaired, and [ii] not turn my back on any human being or [iii] on anything that befalls the human race, but to look on all things with a kindly eye, and welcome and make use of each according to its worth. (8.43)
As the French scholar Pierre Hadot pointed out in his seminal work The Inner Citadel, these three categories may also correspond with the cardinal virtues of Stoicism.
- Wisdom is linked with our relationship to our own true self, which for Stoics is synonymous with our “ruling faculty” (hegemonikon), or reason.
- Justice, has to do with how we relate to other individuals, and the rest of humankind in general.
- Courage and Moderation, have to do with mastering our fears and desires, and our ability to cope rationally with the events that befall us in our daily lives.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
1. Joy in Ourselves
Marcus says in the quote above that “it is my joy to keep my ruling centre unimpaired”. He means that, first and foremost, Stoics take joy in the freedom of their own minds, specifically their faculty of reason. Freedom from what? Well, from fear and desire, or excessive attachment to external things. This basically means that Stoics cherish and take delight in their own ability to live consistently in accord with reason, not without passion, but unimpeded by passion.
Elsewhere, Marcus similarly says that our rational nature finds peace of mind in contemplating its own virtuous actions (7.28). This is the most important of the three sources of Stoic joy, and the other two depend upon it. It refers to the inner sense satisfaction that comes from the awareness that you’re living in accord with your core values or, in this case, the Stoic virtues.
Marcus comes back to this theme time and time again in The Meditations. The only true good, for Stoics, is our own virtue, and the only true evil is our own vice. The wise man therefore orients himself to his own self-improvement, and monitors his inner progress toward wisdom and virtue. The Stoics don’t want us to prize anything more highly than wisdom and virtue — our greatest good, in other words, must become our greatest joy.
2. Joy in Others
The next best thing to achieving virtue ourselves is contemplating it, or at least its seeds or potential, in others. That’s largely how we learn philosophy in the first place, after all. Marcus’ second source of joy is therefore “not to turn my back on any human being” but rather to look on all of humanity with a kindly eye, and make use of each and every man according to his worth.
In the first book or chapter of The Meditations, Marcus lists the qualities he most admires in certain of his tutors and family members. He conveniently explains the rationale for this later in the same text:
When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you. For instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Hence we must keep them before us. — Meditations, 7.28
He makes a conscious effort not only to focus on the character strengths of those he greatly admires, such as his adoptive father the emperor Antoninus Pius, but also to identify positive qualities in those about whom he has mixed feelings, such as his adoptive brother, the emperor Lucius Verus.
Marcus not only thinks about these qualities, though, but takes time to write them down. I think it’s clear that he’d done this exercise repeatedly, e.g., because later in The Meditations we find him listing other qualities of Antoninus Pius in the same way. The Stoics knew that by studying the virtues of others we would encourage ourselves not only to take inspiration from them but to model what’s best in them, emulating their virtues in our own lives. As we’ve seen, though, Marcus also considers the contemplation of other people’s virtues to be one of the most important sources of healthy joyful feelings in life.
3. Joy in External Events
Finally, we are not to turn our back either “on anything that befalls the human race”, but to look on even those things with a kindly eye, and welcome and make use of each event rationally, according to its true value. This is what people today tend to call Stoic amor fati, or love of one’s fate. Elsewhere in The Meditations, Marcus provides a surprisingly nuanced psychological explanation of how Stoics take joy in external events:
Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the [the best] from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. — Meditations, 7.27
This is a psychological strategy for the deliberate cultivation of gratitude. The Greek words for gratitude (charis) and joy (chara) are closely-related. To be grateful for our health, for instance, is to take a kind of joy or happiness in the fact that we’re experiencing it, while accepting that it’s not entirely under our control. The Stoics want us to view all such external goods as on loan temporarily from Nature. In doing so, we experience both the presence of something and its absence at the same time — we’re anticipating that one day it will be gone. We are to enjoy external things, that is, without attachment to them.
That’s the key to understanding the value of what the Stoics called “preferred indifferents” — health, wealth, reputation, and indeed any external goods. We are to enjoy what is actually present while remembering that it will potentially (indeed inevitably) change or go away. Nothing lasts forever. That’s intended to be a more rational and realistic way of grasping events. However, viewing things in that way tends to lessen emotional dependence upon the objects of our desire. It can therefore also help to moderate the feelings of emotional pain caused when we experience loss or deprivation.
As it happens, Socrates was by far and away the Stoics’ favorite role-model. I discussed his influence on Stoicism in more detail in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. Socrates was actually a very good humored and likeable character — not at all a cold fish. Nobody ever accuses him of being unemotional, like a robot, or having a heart of stone. Sometimes it’s helpful to point to the influence of Socrates upon Stoicism, therefore, in order to dispel the myth that Stoicism is about being cold-hearted or poker faced.
We’re told (by Diogenes Laertius) that it was from Socrates that Antisthenes first learned the apatheia which later became synonymous with the Cynic and Stoic way of life — meaning not “apathy” but rather freedom from unhealthy passions, by means of self-mastery. Socrates believed that self-control leads to greater joy and happiness in life. Likewise, for Marcus, who stood in the same tradition, Stoicism was a self-disciplined but cheerful philosophy of life.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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