How should we live?

Most philosophy can be reduced to a few fundamental questions. What is reality? why is there something instead of nothing? how do we know what we know? what is the meaning of existence? does existence have to have a meaning?

Modern science seems to be overtaking  philosophy in answering those questions. Physics is giving us ever more accurate models of the Universe, neuroscience is providing us with better explanations about how the mind works. Linguistics, the social sciences, anthropology, aesthetics, are all offshoots of philosophy, but philosophy’s children have grown bigger and more specialized than their parent. That specialization is both the strong and the weak side of those disciplines. Over-specialization is a problem that can narrow our understanding of humanity and the cosmos. Science and technology are developing at such a rate that it is no longer possible for one person to maintain an integrated and coherent worldview. Philosophy can be a potential bridge-builder to those narrow worlds, and provide a wider perspective.

But modern science is not giving us something fundamental to our lives. It is giving us a more accurate map of the territory, tools for navigation, but to find out why to navigate, or where to go, and if an action is right or wrong, are still a philosophical questions. That is why in the field of Ethics philosophy is still a stubborn contender. Ethics was the most important field of Stoic philosophy, the goal of studying Physics and Logic.

The whole Stoic project could be reduced to a single question; How should we live?

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Or better, how to live a good life? Here we are assuming two premises, that we want to live, and that we want to live a good life. But what does a “good” life even mean? Different things for different people, and not even that, since people want different thinks in different moments of their lives. What would a Stoic answer to that? If our life was perfect, he may say, simple and happy, philosophy would be only an intellectual entertainment. But, in the real world, experience tells us that events change quickly, life can be transformed from sweet to harsh in a few seconds.

The problem of suffering

An undeniable fact of life is that there is suffering. Even if you do not care about other people’s suffering, if you live in an affluent society, you are healthy and things look good around you, the problem of suffering is one that you will have face sooner or later. Anxiety and depression are becoming ever more prevalent in advanced societies. We are ever more connected to technology and less connected to each other.

Why not  pleasure and comfort

Many philosophers have answered that in a universe devoid of meaning, any direction can be right, and the pursuit of pleasure is the ultimate good. Afer all, we are pleasure-seeking creatures, we avoid pain whenever we can and we tend to take the minimum effort if we can. Humans, like all mammals, want to avoid pain and feel pleasure, and that is their goal in life. Hence; consumerism is the answer.

The promise of modernity was that with technology. material wealth and unlimited progress, we will maximize the pleasure and reduce pain. And in many ways that view has achieved to drastically reduce the number of people dying from infectious disease and hunger, an unprecedented colossal achievement in the history of humanity.

Most people living today have better access to healthcare, information and technology than a Roman emperor ever dreamed of. Yet, modern man seems to live radically dissatisfied, sometimes in a permanent state of anxiety. For thousands of years our ancestors survived to all kinds of extreme situations, life or death challenges that made their minds and bodies sharper and resilient. But with the emergence of technology and other advancements, we are becoming soft-minded and weak.

•  Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being, nor is it the way to happiness or even to maximum pleasure.

• Consumerism is creating ecological desasters and endangering the future of life on earth.

• Diabetes and coronary disease are the principal cause of death in the world. Our consumerism making us is unhealthily and weaker.

•  According to The World Health Organization by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.

Even the ancient philosopher Epicurus for whom “pure” pleasure is the highest goal, rejected the unrestrained search for pleasure, and thought pleasure meant “absence of pain” (aponia) and stillness of the soul (ataraxia). According to Epicurus, pleasure as satisfaction of a desire cannot be the aim of life, because such pleasure is necessarily followed by unpleasure and thus keeps humanity away from its real goal of absence of pain

 We have created a civilization based on consumerism, entertainment and the worship of new gadgets and celebrities. Paradoxically, many of the so-called luxuries and modern comforts are not only not indispensable, but impediments to a god life. Advertizing is designed to create new “necessities”, to make us feel incomplete, ever dissatisfied, to make the worst appear to be the best.

If we have more opportunities for fulfillment than ever before but we are more disquiet and unhappy, could it be our problem is not of lack of choices but a lack of values? A wrong understanding of what a good life means?

Eudaimonía. A flourishing life

What could the ancient teach us? We live in a very different world from that of the ancients Greeks and Romans, our problems and challenges differ radically from theirs. But if one learns anything after reading Seneca, Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius is that human nature has changed very little in the last two millennia.

Stoicism is  about developing strategies and habits of training and self-discipline, for times of excess as well as for times of hardship. It is not about being detached from the world, but about approaching it in a radically different way.

We suffer and waste a great deal of energy for things that are not in our control.

We do not get to choose most of the things that happen to us in life. We do not choose the circumstances of our birth, our body, family and culture. Most of our decisions are unconscious, and life is full of accidents and unexpected turns of fortune. If we have so little control over our lives, what is then up to us? We can choose the way we face those circumstances. We can use those very misfortunes to train our character, learning from our mistakes and drawbacks, or we can just keep making the same mistakes over and over.

Living according to Nature

The goal of life, according to most Hellenistic philosophies was to achieve Eudaimonia, meaning a good spirita flourishing life, or well-being. Zeno, the founder of the Stoa, defined it as a good flow of life, a life lived in according with Nature.

They believed that an act is good or bad depending on whether it contributes to or deters us from our proper human end—the telos or final goal at which all human actions aim. That telos is eudaimonia, or happiness, where “happiness” is understood in terms of completion, perfection, or well-being.

Pleasure and happiness were not to be pursued directly, they were regarded as by-products of living wisely. Instead our actions should aim for Areté (virtue or moral excellence); the act and habit of living wisely.  A good life, then, should be oriented toward worthy ends, having a Telos (end, purpose, direction) and guided by the Logos (reason, meaning, account).

Engaging with others

Expanding our circle of concern When we help others we help ourselves.  By leaving our self center concerns and focusing on others we find meaning in our lives.

Stoics saw the world as a single community, in which all humans are relatives, and are here to work together (sunergia)We find more meaning in our lives when we overcome our small self, and let our actions be guided towards something higher, like the common good. The journey of human existence should be like that of an initiation. From the dependence of infancy and the alienation of adolescence, to the ethical self- transformation, wisdom and human flourishing of maturity.

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Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I am enjoying almost every line of Edward Gibbon’s monumental book on the fall of the Roman Empire. Widely considered the greatest work of history ever written, I was surprised to find many thoughts on Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, both in praise and criticism. Gibbon cannot hide his admiration for the Roman virtues (so parallel to Stoic virtues) and his disdain for the vices that made that great civilization fall. He shows some bias towards Christians and Huns, but it must be hard not to, when you are writing a 6 volume and 3589 pages work on the decline of your favorite ancient civilization. 

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On Marcus Aurelius’ virtues:

“The virtue of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was of a severer and more laborious kind. It was the well-earned harvest of many a learned conference, of many a patient lecture, and many a midnight lucubration. At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent. His meditations, composed in the tumult of a camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give lessons of philosophy in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of a sage, or the dignity of an emperor. But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind. He regretted that Avidius Cassius, who excited a rebellion in Syria, had disappointed him, by a voluntary death, of the pleasure of converting an enemy into a friend; and he justified the sincerity of that sentiment, by moderating the zeal of the senate against the adherents of the traitor. War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his person to eight winter campaigns on the frozen banks of the Danube, the severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution. His memory was revered by a grateful posterity, and above a century after his death, many persons preserved the image of Marcus Antoninus, among those of their household gods.”

The Germans unite against Rome for the first time during Marcus Aurelius reign:

“The general conspiracy which terrified the Romans under the reign of Marcus Antoninus, comprehended almost all the nations of Germany, and even Sarmatia, from the mouth of the Rhine to that of the Danube. It is impossible for us to determine whether this hasty confederation was formed by necessity, by reason, or by passion; but we may rest assured, that the barbarians were neither allured by the indolence, nor provoked by the ambition, of the Roman monarch. This dangerous invasion required all the firmness and vigilance of Marcus. He fixed generals of ability in the several stations of attack, and assumed in person the conduct of the most important province on the Upper Danube. After a long and doubtful conflict, the spirit of the barbarians was subdued.”

On the Antonines 
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” Chapter 3

On Roman Virtues

“The education of Helvidius and Thrasea, of Tacitus and Pliny, was the same as that of Cato and Cicero. From Grecian philosophy they had imbibed the justest and most liberal notions of the dignity of human nature, and the origin of civil society. The history of their own country had taught them to revere a free, a virtuous, and a victorious commonwealth”

“We stand in need of such reflections to comfort us for the loss of some illustrious characters, which in our eyes might have seemed the most worthy of the heavenly present. The names of Seneca, of the elder and the younger Pliny, of Tacitus, of Plutarch, of Galen, of the slave Epictetus, and of the emperor Marcus Antoninus, adorn the age in which they flourished, and exalt the dignity of human natures. They filled with glory their respective stations, either in active or contemplative live; their excellent understandings were improved by study; philosophy had purified their minds from the prejudices of the popular superstition; and their days were spent in the pursuit of truth and the practice of virtue. Yet all these sages (it is no less an object of surprise than of concern) overlooked or rejected the perfection of the Christian system.” Chapter 15

Criticism of Marcus Aurelius

Indulgence of Marcus
“THE mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable, and the only defective, part of his character. His excellent understanding was often deceived by the unsuspecting goodness of his heart. Artful men, who study the passions of princes, and conceal their own, approached his person in the disguise of philosophic sanctity, and acquired riches and honours by affecting to despise them. His excessive indulgence to his brother, his wife, and his son, exceeded the bounds of private virtue, and became a public injury, by the example and consequences of their vices.”

To his wife (I must say in defense of Faustina that it must be difficult to be the wife of a philosopher-emperor who is all too busy fighting barbarian invasions and writes on his Meditaions that sex is “no more than the friction of a membrane and a spurt”)


“Faustina, the daughter of Pius and the wife of Marcus, has been as much celebrated for her gallantries as for her beauty. The grave simplicity of the philosopher was ill-calculated to engage her wanton levity, or to fix that unbounded passion for variety, which often discovered personal merit in the meanest of mankind. The Cupid of the ancients was, in general, a very sensual deity; and the amour’s of an empress, as they exact on her side the plainest advances, are seldom susceptible of much sentimental delicacy. Marcus was the only man in the empire who seemed ignorant or insensible of the irregularities of Faustina; which, according to the prejudices of every age, reflected some disgrace on the injured husband. He promoted several of her lovers to posts of honour and profit, and during a connection of thirty years, invariably gave her proofs of the most tender confidence, and of a respect which ended not with her life. In his Meditations, he thanks the gods, who had bestowed on him a wife, so faithful, so gentle, and of such a wonderful simplicity of manners.The obsequious senate, at his earnest request, declared her a goddess. She was represented in her temples, with the attributes of Juno, Venus, and Ceres; and it was decreed, that on the day of their nuptials, the youth of either sex should pay their vows before the altar of their chaste patroness.”

To his son Commodus
“The monstrous vices of the son have cast a shade on the purity of the father’s virtues. It has been objected to Marcus, that he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, and that he chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic. Nothing, however, was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of virtue and learning whom he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus, to correct his growing vices, and to render him worthy of the throne, for which he was designed. But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. The distasteful lesson of a grave philosopher was in a moment obliterated by the whispers of a profligate favourite, and Marcus himself blasted the fruits of this laboured education, by admitting his son, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, to a full participation of the Imperial power. He lived but four years afterwards; but he lived long enough to repent a rash measure, which raised the impetuous youth above the restraint of reason and authority.”