Is being a good person all you need to be happy?

Stoics say the goal of being a good person will help you achieve your other goals.

Near Globe, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

What would Stoicism be like today if it had continued without interruption as an applied philosophy? It’s a challenge modern Stoics are addressing.

I haven’t read Lawrence Becker’s A New StoicismIt’s a technical and abstruse work of formal rather than popular philosophy, so I rely on Massimo Pigliucci’s unpacking of Becker’s arguments.

Two (of many) questions modern Stoics face are:

On what basis do you claim that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for eudaimonia (i.e. human flourishing, or happiness)? Personally, I find this difficult in practice because I feel I also need certain basics—food, shelter, and safety—to flourish.

And if, as Stoics claim, you’re either virtuous or you’re not (hint: you’re not) then how does it make sense to say we can make progress toward virtue?

Pigliucci addresses the latter question by stating that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent. It offers us a continual challenge. He compares virtue to a perfect circle. Almost no one can draw a perfect circle by hand, but with practice our circles can improve even if there’s always more room for improvement.

But the first question about why virtue is sufficient, not just necessary for human flourishing, is more difficult.

Again, an almost impossible ideal helps us avoid complacency and the arrogance of thinking we’re somehow more virtuous than the average person. Becker developed a more elaborate explanation, however—one intended to make Stoicism a serious philosophy by twenty-first century standards.

My interpretation of Pigliucci’s interpretation of Becker should be looked at critically. It’s likely that on some points I’ve misunderstood them both.

Becker asserts that virtue is the perfection of agency—that is, acting consciously and deliberately. But he points out that this assumes that being a good person is of primary importance to you.

Who among us doesn’t care about injustice? Well, psychopaths don’t. So Becker’s argument doesn’t apply to psychos. Who among us thinks pleasure is the greatest good, even to the point of sidestepping courage and justice to avoid pain? Epicureans are unlikely to agree with the Stoic perspective.

Becker breaks his argument down step by step:

Goals require certain steps for completion. We all have multiple goals, and sometimes the steps in different goals conflict with each other. I might want to go hiking and attend a blues festival. But if they’re scheduled at the same time then I can’t do both.

Becker says we must look at the big picture. I can optimize my goals by going hiking later. That’s thinking globally (all my goals considered together) rather than locally (looking only at one goal without considering the rest).

Beck then claims that the goal of agency perfection—being the best person I can be—will optimize all other goals. Again, this only applies to people who value ethics above all. Ted Bundy just wanted to kill—ethics wasn’t a consideration. Or valuing pleasure above all puts ethics in a secondary position.

Being the best we can be includes positive values. Stoics prize wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Further, because these virtues are necessary for being the best we can be, virtue should be a Stoic’s number goal.

Virtue, therefore, optimizes all of our other goals because these goals are secondary to virtue.

If something neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue then it’s indifferent (though we may prefer or disprefer certain things). For example, money is indifferent because it’s neither inherently good nor bad. What you do with it makes the difference.

Becker makes a solid argument. But I still can’t say that virtue is all I need to flourish. And I certainly can’t say I’m a living example of virtue. But even if practicing Stoicism doesn’t help me become a Sage—and it won’t—at the very least it might prevent me from becoming a scoundrel.




Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”

David Hume on Stoicism

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona

Interest in Stoicism didn’t end in ancient times only to be revived today. David Hume was an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher who had a lot to say about a lot of things. And one of them was Stoicism.

Instead of focusing on Hume’s essay “The Stoic” (which Massimo Pigliucci has addressed), I’m going to look at a few passages from Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

The characters in Dialogues are loosely based on certain Greek philosophers. Ancient Sceptics (unlike modern scientific skeptics) claimed that we can’t really know anything. But Hume notes that it’s “impossible to persevere in this total scepticism… External objects press in upon him; passions solicit him…”

But he finds Stoics making the same mistake of thinking that because they can pull it off in some situations they can pull it off in every situation. Hume describes the Stoic ideal by saying that,

When the mind, by Stoical reflections, is elevated into a sublime enthusiasm of virtue, and strongly smit with any species of honour or public good, the utmost bodily pain and sufferance will not prevail over such a high sense of duty; and ’tis possible, perhaps, by its means, even to smile and exult in the midst of tortures.

Inevitably, however, “the bent of his mind relaxes [and]…misfortunes attack him unawares.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in Stoicism. Hume goes on to say,

that though the mind cannot, in Stoicism, support the highest flights of philosophy, yet even when it sinks lower, it still retains somewhat of its former disposition; and the effects of the Stoic’s reasoning will appear in his conduct in common life, and through the whole tenor of his actions.

In other words, progress is possible even if perfection is not—a point Stoics like Seneca made thousands of years ago. Besides, even Epictetus didn’t claim to be a Sage.

But Cicero portrays Cato’s uncompromising Stoic ideal in stark terms:

Just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water…than if he were actually at the bottom already, …similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is nonetheless in misery than he that has made no progress at all.

If the Sage is an impossible standard then is Stoicism pointless? Buddhists probably have the same question about enlightenment.

It’s Stoic practice to offer a continual challenge. Pigliucci interprets Cato as saying that a perfect ideal keeps us from becoming complacent: “I take this to be a humility check on ourselves: …there is no sense in feeling smug about those people who are not making progress.”