A Stoic Course: What is ‘Good’?

[This is part of my notes/reflections on a free class on stoicism I’m currently taking. One of the objectives is to teach/explain some of the principles we’re learning to someone not taking the course, so I decided I was most comfortable writing about it in blog form. I’ll post the link to the class when I’m done with the class for anyone who is interested.]

The topic of the first lesson is answering the question “How do we live well and have a good life?”  To help understand the question and possible answers the first assigned reading was segments of Euthydemus, by Plato (the Jowett translation). In the segments the narrator (Socrates) is conversing with Clinias, son of Axiochus on the nature of happiness,

…for what human being is there who does not desire happiness?…since we all of us desire happiness, how can we be happy?

The dialogue was less stuffy and confusing than I was originally expecting. The narrator lists several “goods” like health, wealth, beauty, natural talents, high birth, power, and honors, then listed the four virtues of courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance. The assignment was to divide the goods into two categories. I decided on using the categories “worldly goods” and “inner goods”.

The reading continued as the narrator explains that merely having these “goods” doesn’t equal happiness.

“…And should we be happy by reason of the presence of good things if they benefited us not?…For example, if we had a great deal of food and did not eat, or a great deal of drink and did not drink, should we be profited? …Or would an artisan, who had all the implements necessary for his work, and did not use them, be any better for the possession of all that he ought to possess? Fore example, would a carpenter be any better for having all his tools and plenty of wood, if he never worked?”

The narrator goes on to explain that while doing nothing with “goods” is neither good nor evil, to misuse one’s “goods” is even worse than not doing anything at all. The narrator seems to be saying is if you have something, absolutely use it and use it correctly under the guidance of wisdom and virtue. If you have wealth, by all means use it. Just letting it sit does nothing for you, but neither does using it poorly.

The second part of the lesson was to read a segment of Maurcus Arelius’s Meditations. Maurcus Arelius was a Roman emperor and his book of meditations was his personal diary and was never meant for publication so it’s made run-on sentences for days. I had difficulty reading it because every sentence feels like it goes off on at least three tangents:

Say to yourself at day break: I shall come across the busy-body, the thankless, the bully, the treacherous, the envious, the neighborly. All this has befallen them because they know not good from evil. But I, in that I have comprehended the nature of the Good that it is beautiful, and the nature of Evil that it is ugly, an the nature of the wrong-doer himself that it is akin to me, not a partaker of the same blood and seed but of intelligence and a morsel of the Divine, can neither be injured by any of them for no one can involve me in what is debasing nor can I be wroth with my kinsmen and hate him. Fore we have come into being for co-operation, as have the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the rows of upper and lower teeth. Therefore to thwart one another is against Nature; and we do thwart one another by showing resentment and aversion.

It’s a useful thought, but I had to sit down and unpack it for ten minutes. I don’t envy the translators who originally had to untangle that.

The written assignment for the lesson was to, now that we had an understanding of the different kinds of good, speculate which goods the people around us were acting on. The example I wanted to use was a pair of coworkers I was having difficulty with. They very much fall in the “busy-body” category. They take their jobs very seriously, which is a merit, but it’s to the point that they make the work more difficult for everyone else.

It’s proving to be a more difficult mental exercise than I had originally anticipated. I’m having trouble speculating what “good” my difficult coworkers are working from. I suppose if I could easily see things from their perspective I wouldn’t find them so difficult to work with anyway. I see the merit of the exercise, though, so I’ll keep trying.

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