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?
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 spirit, a 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.