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From Vol. 4, Issue 8, August 2022

Stoic joy: The premise and the promise


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“The goal of Stoicism is to live a flourishing, satisfying, and joyful life.”

Depression, sadness, and joy

In my previous article (THE STOIC, July 2022), I considered the problem of depression and how it should be dealt with from the Stoic perspective. Today let’s talk about joy. What does it look like from the Stoic viewpoint?

Some clarification to begin with. Depression and joy are not opposites since the former is a condition while the latter is an emotion. They don’t belong to one and the same spectrum just as weather doesn’t equal climate (the two are often confused too). The opposite of joy is sadness and vice versa. Of course, it’s not a simple polar scheme. Despair is even more “negative” than sadness is, while bliss is more positive than joy. There is a whole multidimensional gamut of emotions.

Yet, the fact that they all rank as emotions brings many to a common – and misguided – conclusion that they are all to be avoided by a Stoic. This is actually one of the most widespread misinterpretations of Stoicism. A Stoic is often figured as a cold-blooded, withdrawn person who not only shows no emotion but actually experiences none. Is that really the Stoic ideal though?

As I shall argue, it is not. The key problem here consists in joy. If a Stoic is to eschew all emotions then it follows that she needs to avoid joy and happiness too. This of course raises eyebrows and questions: if a Stoic is forbidden from it then... isn’t it a bit high price to pay?

All of this hinges on an fundamental question, i.e., what is the ultimate purpose of the entire Stoic endeavor? What’s the goal of all of it? What do we learn through Stoic philosophy, why do we intend to become Stoics?

Stoic goal: A joyful life

The answer I believe in deeply is that the goal of Stoicism is to live a flourishing, satisfying, and joyful life. I believe this conveys the best what the ancient Stoics had in mind and also that this is the best modern framing of the original term eudaimonia. This interpretation obviously contradicts the mentioned stereotype. The Stoics do not avoid joy. The Stoics embrace it.

Denying emotions is not useful

A Stoic is not obliged to refrain from emotions. That would be both unnecessary and utterly impossible. The entire riddle stems from the shift in meaning in the term “emotion” between the ancient world and the world today. Taken in the ancient meaning emotions were much more “avoidable” than they are today. What Marcus Aurelius and Seneca instructed us to avoid were more of “unhinged and unreasonable reactions” rather than what we imagine today as “raw emotions”.

Psychology today teaches us that constraining or denying emotions is hardly doable and seldom helpful. Emotion – again, in the present day understanding of the concept – is something that almost by definition can’t be controlled. It’s something that “happens” to us, that “comes up” independently of the realm of reason. The only thing we can and should control is our reaction to it. Which is basically an intrinsically Stoic approach.

In other words: if we take “emotions” in the present-day meaning of the term, then we can’t avoid or “unhave” them. The sole thing we can do is react to them. And here a plethora of questions and possibilities opens up: what should these reactions should be? The principle a modern Stoic should follow is that we should treat “bad” emotions just as we treat all mishaps of outside fortune. What’s independent from us we need to treat indifferently. We shouldn’t embrace it, we shouldn’t focus on it, we need to carry on and simply hope it fades out.

We should embrace positive emotions

Quite the contrary on the positive emotions: we should embrace them and we should cherish them. We need to hold on to them for as long as possible, more than that, we should “incorporate” them in us, we should make them a part of our spirit, we should allow and use them to make us stronger and more resilient. If we agree on the modern day understanding of emotions then we need to agree that the Stoic goal is not to avoid all emotions but avoiding bad emotions. The good ones are the ones we need to keep and strive for. Needless to say, joy is the first and foremost among them.

Dr. Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D., is a writer, philosopher, & promoter of reformed Stoicism. He wrote Manual of Reformed Stoicism, & Does Happiness Write Blank Pages?