Monday, July 14, 2014

Stoicism and Epicureanism: The End Goal

Note: I started writing this post a long while ago, back when there were was a little kerfuffle on Facebook. This will be, hopefully, a series of posts that explores the similarities and differences on these two rival schools.

After noticing some headbutting between Stoics and Epicurens, I thought it was high time someone sat down and did their best to figure out if all this denouncing of one another is necessary or not. While I do consider myself a Stoic, I call myself a philosopher first and foremost. So, in the interest of discovering just how much is different -- or the same -- with these two philosophies, I decided to start with the end: what kind of life are we hoping to lead?

Stoics hold that the whole point of being Stoic is so that we can live a virtuous life. This in turn leads to happiness which, finally, ends with us having a good life. Of course, what, exactly, counts as virtue can be debated, and often is. Are the seven heavenly virtues a good place? But, wait, courage isn't on that list. Is courage a virtue? Can pride be a virtue, if done right? There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to virtue, so it can be hard to tell if we are, indeed, living a virtuous life.

This doesn't not, however, mean Stoicism is necessarily invalid. Often, people tend to want to led a virtuous life, at least those who make an effort for it. In my own quest, I ask what qualities I have that are virtuous and ask if they are or aren’t. In fact, we seem to have two different kind of people in our world: those who are sure of their virtues and those who constantly seek what they mean. Both seem to be heroes in our world.

Epicureans have a different aim. To them, their aim was to live a pleasurable life. How do we live a pleasurable life? Well, according to the Principal Doctrines:

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.”

Wisdom, honor, and justice. Three things people would consider virtues. So it seems we’re at a bit of a standstill. Stoics say we need virtues to live a virtuous life because that means we’ll become happy and therefore live a good life. Epicureans say virtue leads to pleasure, which leads to a good life. The end goals are different, but the method -- living a virtuous life -- is the same. What’s the big difference?

For the Stoics, happiness didn’t mean pleasure. Pleasure was more of a side effect of happiness: if we got any, it wasn’t because we sought it out, it just came with whatever it was we were doing. For the Epicureans, pleasure is the goal. But there is still an even bigger divide here than just happiness or just pleasure.

Pleasure, according to the Epicureans, was the absence of pain. If we are in pain, we could reflect on past pleasure or try to outdo our pain with pleasure. However, according to the Principal Doctrines:

“The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.”

In short, the highest amount of pleasure could only be reached if we aren’t in any pain, a bit of a damper if you have chronic pain. The Stoics, however, thought we could be happy even in pain. Of course, this does strike a blow to the Stoic position of suicide: if we can be happy in even the worst of the events, why should we ever kill ourselves?

Each philosophy has something about it that doesn’t really work in our day and age. Both have sites that praise each for applying to our lives. But perhaps the most striking thing is the reality of it all: neither promises perfect. Stoics teach that we’ll always experience negative emotions, it’s just we’ll get a better handle of them. The Epicureans, though they say perfect pleasure is in the total absence of pain, never say we’ll hit a point of total painlessness. To me, the ultimate end goal of each philosophy was never all that important. Remember, both aimed to add virtue to life. And I think that's what's most important in life.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Simply Stoic: Chapter One of On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

People complain because life is too short and that short span goes quickly. Everyone, rich and poor, famous and common, bemoan this fate. Hippocrates said "life is short, art is long." Aristotle, contemplating the subject, said Nature must favor animals as it gave some lifespans far longer than ours, forgetting that at least we are capable of greatness. It isn't that life is short but that we waste it. Life is long enough, provided we spend the time wisely. Used carelessly and you won't even notice that life has passed until it has. So, it is not that life short, but is made so by our foolishness. As good money can be used poorly by wasteful people, so too can a good life be used poorly. Just as poorness can become greatness in the hands of wise, a poor life can become greatness when lived with wisdom.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Moving Back

Funny how the mind works, isn't it?

On the one hand, Stoicism is, well, a bore. Let's face it, you aren't scoring points on the popularity meter. Sometimes, I push aside what would be the better Stoic response in a conversation (that is, in most odds, ignoring things) in favor of a pithy comment or some wiseass remark. A little rebellion here and there, blah blah blah, and I'm back to where I was before, well, Stoicism.

But, of course, I should have remembered what it was like before Stoicism. The sleepless nights as I stay up worrying about death. The guilt of not controlling anger. Doing stupid video game shit over actually living my life -- which, by the way, isn't by itself bad, but is when it's all you do.

I guess the problem before was I wasn't having fun blogging. I was worried about what people thought of me (odd for a guy writing about Stoicism, right?), so I either spent more time making what I was writing "reader friendly" or whatever you want to call it or just not writing at all because that was easier.

Then I got to reading some of the old posts (...again) and some of the letters and other shit. And I was all, "Hey, it makes sense. Again."

And so here we are.

Brain, make up your damn mind.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Moving On

I guess I have to fess up. I'm leaving behind Stoicism.

Now, don't take as me saying Stoicism doesn't work and everyone should jump ship. Far from it. It helped me in many ways, but truth told, it was hurting me, too, and it was only until last night did I see it.

Perhaps it's my nature, but I took things to the extreme. If things outside of me aren't in my control and don't matter, why did what was inside matter more? By all reasoning, the world shaped everything that I am, so I can't lay claim to who I am as only mine. So, none of what I felt or thought mattered, either. And let me tell you, when that happens, nothing works.

Again, Stoicism didn't fail me -- more like the other way around. I couldn't help but reason the above and so, instead of tranquility, I just felt like nothing mattered. A good Stoic would tell you apathy isn't what Stoicism is, but a good Stoic wouldn't let themselves fall into such a state, either.

So, I'm stepping back a bit, taking in a new view. Maybe what I'm becoming is a Skeptic. Or maybe just some armchair philosopher that likes thought experiments and heavy thinking as a hobby. But I came to realize I was no longer a thinker. I was just some dogmatic asshole who, instead of trying to see the world for what it was, was seeing the world as a Stoic trying to be right,

And that's no fun.

I don't want to drive away any Stoics, mind you. I'd be lying if I said I don't think most of what Stoicism says seems right (which I get more into in a different post). But for now, I just wanted to let everyone know, finally, what the real truth of the matter was.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Happiness, Contentment, and Why We Need Philosophies of Life

Contentment. This word, to many people, is pretty negative. Who just wants to be content with life, after all? Wouldn't we want a happy life?

Well, of course we do. But here's the thing: how does one define a happy life? For that matter, how do we define happy? What's so great about happiness and what, exactly, makes it so different from contentment?

Though I consider myself a philosopher, I admit that I have a tough time even starting a line of reasoning on this. But I never took the time to write it down, either. So, here's my attempt to figure out which is better, or perhaps even the same: happiness or contentment.

Let's take the perhaps too obvious of a route and look at what these words mean. I'm using the New Oxford American Dictionary, located on my Kindle.

First, happiness, which takes me to happy: feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.

Well, that seems to about settle it, wouldn't it? Happiness is a condition of contentment, not outside of it! Oh, but that seems a little too easy, doesn't it?

Contentment: a state of happiness and satisfaction.

Huh? So, both words use each other in their meaning. Oh, and so we don't get any detractors on the subject, I was able to look up happiness itself and got "the state of being happy."

Content: in a state of peaceful happiness.

Holy crow, are these two words so close that they define each other? Well, okay, they don't define each other. The dictionary is clear: happiness is a condition of contentment, in other words, you can't be content if you aren't happy.

We *could* stop here. But I know that some people wouldn't be happy (see what I did there?) if we said the dictionary was the only place to get a word's meaning. After all, what about *connotative* meaning, how words make people feel? I haven't asked many people but contentment is the same as settling, a kind of resignation. Happiness is embracing of life, enjoying it to the fullest. But let's think about this: what makes people happy? According to the documentary Happy, it isn't what most people think.

According to research presented in this film, half of our happiness comes from genetics! Well, okay, baseline happiness comes from genetics. So, yes, it's true. Some people are naturally happier than others. Anyway, baseline happiness is our default. Elation or depression, this is where our happiness levels will go over time and will naturally stay.

Now, 10% of our happiness is what most people are told will make them a lot happier: money, status, things of that nature. Think about that. We're often told that these things are what will make us the happiest, yet it only makes up 10% of our happiness. That means whatever has most of us in the dumps, odds are, it isn't this stuff. So where's the rest of our happiness come from?

An astounding 40% of our happiness comes from  "intentional actions". Simply put, what we do in life makes up nearly the other half of our happiness. And I think this is important. It is our intentional actions where the second half of the equation comes in: satisfaction with life.

Here's how I see it. A person ignoring doing anything other than making money unhappier than the person not making as much but loves what they do. It is by doing what we love that makes us not only pleased with life, but satisfied with life, that is, leads to a contented life. Our feelings of a contented life seem misplaced. When people say they want a happy life, what they  mean is they want a contented one. After all, how many people do you know who're happy but unsatisfied, wanting more? Yet can a person satisfied with life but be unhappy with it? Doubtful.

This might seem like sloppy science to some, perhaps even verboten. Given that humanity has been asking what makes us happy since the beginning, it seems odd to have an answer. Or maybe you'll be like me and think, Hell, do what you want to do to live a happy life? I already knew that! How can we get there?

Well, we can get there pretty easy. And that's what we need philosophies of life.

I'll grant you, many of the old schools of philosophy taught us not to focus on material things. It's that 40% everyone divides on. Cynics say we should pursue a life that avoids the material, perhaps become beggars. Epicureans would say that we should aim for pleasure, rooted in modesty and avoid pain. Stoics, well, you have to go get virtue into your life.

Now, sometimes you can get some exact details on how we should live our lives. Rufus, for example, said we should marry and have children. But for the most part, by following a philosophy of life, we can establish what kind of actions we should take in our lives. While there seems to be a lot of wiggle room in this, that's sort of the point. We have to think about what we do. While it could be easier to be told what to do, there is more happiness and satisfaction when we come to these conclusions ourselves.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Changing Things Up

So, I know I haven't posted here in awhile. Believe it or not, I was spending a lot of time trying to figure out how I was going to say what I was going to say instead of just being honest.

I'm going to be frank: Stoicism bored me. I couldn't read another word of it without completely giving up.

It felt weird. It wasn't that Stoicism wasn't working for me, but something felt missing. I guess that isn't the right word, either, but that's what I got right now.

Long story short, I felt too uptight about things in life. I was not Stoic about being Stoic and let's be frank, that isn't cool. Or helpful, really.

But what, oh what was missing?

First, my voice. As informative as I thought they were, I was talking like some stuffy professor type (to my ears, anyway). It was boring me, just didn't sound like me.

Second, reading all those old Stoic letters and texts, over and over, without nothing new kind of gets to you.

I'm going to post this for now, because at the rate I'm going, I'm never going to get it done. All I'm going to say is that I'm trying a new style. I still won't be posting here too often right now as I'm in the middle of other projects, but I hope you guys will enjoy the new way writing.

On (Short and Most Likely Wrong) Thoughts About the Modern Stoic Schools

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