Stoic Week: Day 1 Happiness

This week I’m participating in Stoic Week a week long course hosted by the group Modern Stoicism whose mission/goal was to make Stoic Philosophy accessible and accurate to the general public. I’ve mentioned Stoicism in previous posts and these posts will just summarize my thoughts and impressions about week-long course.

1)  Morning meditation:

The wise person does nothing that he could regret, nothing against his will, but does everything honourably, consistently, seriously, and rightly; he anticipates nothing as if it is bound to happen, but is shocked by nothing when it does happen …. and refers everything to his own judgement, and stands by his own decisions. I can conceive of nothing which is happier that this. – Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.81

Actually my “morning meditation” was at 1pm (but in my defense I work evenings so my day usually starts later anyway). The really nice thing about this quote (aside for it being properly cited unlike every Instagram quote ever) is that the last part “I can conceive of nothing which is happier than this.” means that Cicero is sharing with us an ideal. In real life are we going to do things we regret? Definitely. I regret getting the “bold” flavored coffee from the cafeteria today because it gave me the jitters like it was nobody’s business. Are we going to do things against our will? The possibility exists. Are we going to do everything honorably, consistently, seriously and rightly? Yeah, no. Is shit going to happen? Definitely. But we can still do our best besides all that. And if we did our honest best to be and do all those good things, should we really have any regrets?

2) Afternoon Reflection:

So, to get some verbage out of the way, the English word “Happy” comes from a Germanic root word meaning “lucky” or “blessed”. The opposite of Happiness is “Hapless” meaning “unfortunate” (which is the Latin/French fancy word that we prefer to use because of the Norman conquest of England). The Greek Philosophical idea of Happiness is called eudaimonia which (like a lot of Greek) is really hard to translate into English. It’s very similar to the Buddhist concept of Enlightenment. It involves ideas like mental clarity, true wisdom, freedom from folly. It’s not about being happy or joyful.

A HUGE part of the Greek Philosophic idea of happiness is agency. Apparently if you have all the luck in the world (fame, money, health, power), but are without agency you’re not really “happy” (and my brain automatically goes to dystopian fiction there). In contrast a person with no luck at all, but has true agency and wisdom is the one who has true happiness.

3) Donald Robertson’s Webinar

I was in class so I had to watch the recording afterwards, but the guy hosting the class gave an hour long intro for the class explaining the concepts, overview, who was working behind the scenes and what to expect. I actually really do like his videos because he’ll usually throw in a story and for some reason they always stick in my mind. My personal favorite was he was doing a book review and somehow squeezed in the story about Zeno and Crates of Thebes where Zeno became a student of Crates and they were walking in a busy market each with a beggar’s bowl of soup in their hands. Well, apparently Zeno sneezed or something because he drops the bowl of soup and I have this mental image of a bewildered Zeno in modest cynic garb in the the middle of this busy street with soup all over him now and he’s so embarrassed he makes a break for it, but Crates calls after him “Where are you going? No harm’s be done to you.” Which is a nice little story about how nobody ever really died of embarrassment and I always think of that story whenever I feel embarrassed.

Anywho, in the webinar Dr. Robertson was talking about friendship and how friendship comes really, really close to being a Stoic idea of good, but since you can’t control it (we’re stressing agency again) it doesn’t really count as a virtue, but even if it’s not reciprocated you can still be act like a good friend to other people. For this topic the story was about Socrates. The young son of Socrates’s best friend came to him and asked Socrates if he would be willing to help him make friends since Socrates knew a lot of people. Socrates agreed and asked the young man what traits he was looking for in a friend and, of course, the young man lists of several noble and ideal traits. Socrates nods and agrees that those all all good traits, but being Socrates he flips the conversation around and asks the young man, “And how many of those traits do you hold yourself?”

As someone who has trouble making friends I really appreciated this part actually. I’ve fallen out with all of my friends from high school. I never really had a “best friend” which I’m totally okay with now because considering my friend group in high school… well, I do believe environmental pressures played a major role in who I hung out with. I basically need to go out, like waaaaaaay out and make some friends that didn’t go to my high school and don’t live in the same ten mile radius as I do.

Socrates: So, what are you looking for in a friend?
Me: Well, so far they need to be cool with transgender individuals in the military and can go five minutes without mentioning the Second Amendment.
Socrates: ………….
Me: Too much? It’s too much isn’t it?? *sobs* But I just want to meet some nice people who share a few of my values or at the very least don’t cause me anxiety!!
Socrates (Ancient Athenian): ….Noooo, I don’t understand what you mean by “transgender” and “second amendment”. 

4) Nightly Meditation:

Will there come a day, my soul, when you are good and simple and unified […] some day will you have a taste of a loving and affectionate disposition? Some day will you be satisfied and want for nothing […] Or will you be contented instead with your present circumstances and delighted with everything around you and convince yourself that all you have comes from the gods, and that all that is pleasing for them is well for you? Will there come a day when you are so much a member of the community of gods and humans as neither to bring any complaint against them nor to incur their indignation? – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.1

I would like to point out that the Meditations is Marcus Aurelius’s PERSONAL DIARY that he asked to be burned after his death. It was not and a crap ton of people still read translations of it even thousands of years later. It’s not my favorite because it’s run on sentences for days and hard for me to read/understand. That’s usually how I spot fake quotes on Instagram. Did I read and understand it on the first try? Well, then Marcus didn’t write it. Seriously, if any Stoic quote fits in a Instagram box I automatically question its validity and they never. freaking. cite. them.

Phew~ okay. I think I (sorta) get what he’s saying (maybe). The first part sounds like it’s about external happiness “…a taste of a loving and affectionate disposition…” sounds like affection from others which is nice if you got it, but it’s not within your control. I think the meat of the quote is “…Or will you be contented instead with your present circumstances and delighted with everything around you and convince yourself that all you have comes from the gods, and that all that is pleasing for them is well for you?” That sounds very similar to the Zen Buddhist concept of “living the life that is given to you” which makes sense from a practical stand point because you only have your life to live and only creepy literary tropes about body snatching in a crappy filler episode can beg to differ. I got it, Marcus. Don’t be a creepy trope body snatcher.

Yeah, that’s totally not what he meant. *sigh* But to answer your last rhetorical question, Marcus, “No.”



Whoo! Day one done! Tomorrow’s topic is “Virtue”, which like the Greek Philosophical idea of “happiness”, doesn’t translate well into English. Stay tuned!



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