In this week’s podcast I talk to Massimo Pigliucci, who is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living. He unpacks the main principles of Stoicism in a beautifully simple way for us. Not one to miss if you are looking for a positive and practical philosophy for living better in everyday life.
Eudaimonic Happiness (the antidote to hedonism)
The world is full of hedonic philosophical approaches to everyday life. We are told that we find happiness in the individualistic pursuit of pleasure, self-indulgence, and treating yourself to more stuff. Just watch five minutes of TV and you will see this message in a show (most definitely in the adverts!) It’s not good for us as individuals. Not good for us as a species. And most definitely not good for our planet.
The 4 Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism
There are so many aspects of Stoic philosophy which resonate with aspects of my sensitivity. This is what drives my interest in how stoicism can help HSPs navigate and interact with the world in better ways that works better for them.
The 4 Cardinal Virtues are an example of this:
Practical Wisdom: the knowledge of what is truly good for you and what is truly bad for you
Courage: not physical courage but moral courage – the courage to do the right thing
Justice: tells you what the right thing to do is with respect to others
Temperance: how to do everything in the right measure (not too little, and not too much)
If you use these virtues as your compass to navigate life you will have a eudaimonic life (a life that is actually worth living). This is considered to be the alternative perspective to a hedonistic life, which is a life based on attaining pleasure and avoiding pain.
Value Judgements on Things Outside Your Control
When it comes to our views on what is good or bad for us, we are often driven by things outside of our control.
Commonly people might generally consider:
Good For You: Being Wealthy, Being Healthy, Being Educated, Being in a Good Relationship
Bad For You: Being Poor, Being Sick, Being Uneducated, Being Single
They can be influenced, but ultimately they are all outside of your control. If you tie your sense of happiness or sadness to any of them, then it removes a huge degree of autonomy and potential for genuine virtue.
You can eat right, exercise, and get the perfect amount of rest, but ultimately a virus could cut you down, an accident could cause injury, or you might stop responding to antibiotics etc.
The issue comes when we think of things that are ultimately outside of our control in such binary terms (good or bad). This is no foundation for happiness or tranquility, because it leaves you relying on idealised states of being, which you cannot ultimately choose.
The Stoics suggested instead that if you want to be happy then you need to focus on what IS under your control. That means that happiness is determined within, and is ultimately up to you.
Under Your Control
- Your Judgements
- Your Opinions
- Your Chosen Values
The list is pretty short! It is truly good for you to have good judgements, opinions, and values. It is bad for you is to have bad judgements, opinions, and values. These are three areas you can train yourself to shift, and by moving them from bad to good (outside to inside), the happier you will become.
Stoicism Isn’t About Avoiding Pain
An argument that comes up against Stoicism suggests that a Stoic is disengaged from the struggles of political discussion and debate. However, social and political engagement is at the heart of Stoicism. It just rejects many of the unhealthy (increasingly polarising and counterintuitive) approaches we commonly take. It encourages the move towards good judgements, opinions, and values. And to train oneself in not getting angry or influenced by judgements, opinions, and values that other profess which sit counter to our own.
This is why ‘training’ is the right word. It doesn’t come naturally to anyone. But is the right thing to do, and the best thing for us. To fully engage but to do so in ways that keep us plugged into what is truly good for us.
Positive and Negative Emotional Drivers
When engaging with the world, we can begin to shift our reactions away from unhealthy, destructive emotions (pathe). And instead move towards healthy, constructive emotions (hai eupatheiai).
These are driven by fear, pleasure, and appetite (anger, lust, envy, greed).
When we are moved by a negative emotion we are likely to do something stupid and ineffective. In the context of political and social engagement, these emotions can make us predictable (i.e. playing into the hands of the ‘other side’ when displaying anger at another driver or political provocateur). In other words, something we may well regret.
The three main positive emotions are Joy, Wish, and Caution. Wish is the opposite of appetite. This is the hedonic sense that things around us contain happiness within them so we must acquire them in order to be happy.
Wish is the discernment to acknowledge that it would be nice to have something, but that happiness IS NOT found in the thing itself. The thing therefore is something that may bring value to life in what it might make possible, not in how you believe it will make you feel. This breeds a life of attaining only what serves a broader purpose (what you create with it). As opposed to believing your endless pursuit of more (the new device, ultimate experience, pair of shoes etc) will eventually lead you to the one that brings you happiness.
In Conversation With Massimo Pigliucci: Philosophy for Everyday Life
Stoicism is not an abstract set of ideas and theories. Rather it is based in simple and practical (though certainly not easy), principles, which when practiced will turn us into resilient and receptive humans. Not shrinking back from the world, but engaging with it in a much more constructive and positive way. And to do so without getting derailed by the judgements, opinions, and values of others.
Massimo Pigliucci gives us an amazing introduction to these concepts in this week’s episode.
Mentioned in the Episode:
Over to You
What does your general philosophy of life look like? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below.