From Vol. 3, Issue 4, April 2021
How to Live Purposefully
Living on purpose
We aren’t Stoics unless we grasp our own sense of purpose in life (which might be highly individual). More than that, we need to translate it into all the timescales of our plans and actions. We need to be purposeful not only in general, not once in a blue moon, but in all of our endeavours and pursuits. Purposefulness needs to permeate all of our life projects. The meaning of all our particular endeavors is, in a way, the projection of our general purpose against the details of specific actions.
What’s the stoic idea of ‘purpose’?
Many books - entire libraries! - have been written about how actions and projects should be planned and how these plans need to be executed. This is a branch of knowledge in its own and I won’t attempt to sum it up in here (I will dig into it in some of my later pieces here, though). The core question for today is different and it’s this: what’s specifically stoic in the idea of living purposefully?
It’s convenient to start with turning this question around. We need to live and act with a sense of purpose, as contrasted to... what exactly? “Live purposefully” - sounds great, but what is it opposed to?
One possibility for answering is that, as Stoics, we need to eschew an irrational life, i.e., life which is not governed and planned by reason. It’s a swift explanation, but what, then, does “reason” mean in this context? There are a great many ways and walks of life that reason can lead us to. There are various projects, commitments and endeavours that can be defined and defended in a rational way. How can we choose between them? Choosing a career of a doctor may be just as rational as that of a lawyer. More than that, on some level becoming a creative artist may be just as rational as becoming a lawyer. One may argue that, paradoxically, making a rational choice between them requires some degree of irrationality (because purely rational choice is otherwise impossible - this too will be explored in my further pieces).
For this reason (pun intended), it’s useful for us to understand stoic rationality (and purposefulness in organizing one’s life) not through some abstract rules of “reason” but rather through “coherence”. In whichever direction we want to go, whatever we define as dear to us, however we set up the particulars of our life - we need to be coherent in it. A stoic life is not haphazard, unplanned, or random.
The last three adjectives are not random themselves, though. They basically describe the universe as the Epicurean school saw it. In antiquity there was the famous juxtaposition of the metaphysical views of the Stoics (the universe is well-planned and organized) and the Epicureans (atoms and void, chaos only). I hold that it is dubious whether or not these notions can still be meaningfully applied to the universe as we understand it scientifically in the 21st century.
Keeping the inner citadel in order
Yet, they can and should be applied to our own life. Whatever the nature of the outside universe is, we ourselves need to hold the purpose and rational organization in our own soul, life, and plans. We must keep our inner citadel in order. The world envisioned by Epicurus - a chaos of twirling atoms and random occurrences - is the perfect embodiment of what we want to avoid in our soul as Stoics.
Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., has authored Manual of Reformed Stoicism and other books. He can be reached at email@example.com