Written by: Michael Lucana
The Stoics were very much concerned with being the best version of themselves that they could be. And for them, this meant being rational, but they were not robots. That much is very clear when you read their writings. Epictetus, a former slave, could never be mistaken for Seneca, an advisor to the Roman Emperor. One had a very direct and abrasive teaching style akin to a sports coach, while the other one primarily traded in heavily polished orations, which on my most judgmental days I would describe as “fancy schmancy.” They came from diverse backgrounds and had unique and personal ways in which they developed their practices. Yet they all focused on the same thing, being rational. But what was the point of being rational? For the Stoics, being rational equated to leading a happy life.
The happy life (Greek: Eudaimonia) was, for the Stoics, a life in which one flourished, but this was a very specific kind of flourishing. We tend to think of flourishing as I kind of success or prosperity that one achieves, like when one’s business takes off and flourishes, or when a garden flourishes and grows many beautiful plants. This kind of flourishing was not the immediate concern of the Stoics, what was of concern to them was the kind of flourishing that was essential to the human being, the kind of flourishing that only a human being could be capable of. But what was the essential nature of being a human being to begin with?
The Stoics settled on Reason (Greek: Logos), or rationality, as the essential nature of what it was to be a human being. The power to think, to speak, to act according to reason was what made a human being, it was human nature. Given this, for a human being to flourish, to really succeed and prosper as a human being, they would need to develop themselves as rational creatures.
If the Stoics were to be rational then, if they were to try to live their lives according to Reason, then this meant that they would need to find a way to manage their Passions (Greek: Pathos). The word Pathos is typically thought of as designating emotions in general. But for the Stoics, the Passions were specifically unhealthy sorts of emotions, the kinds that were destructive and fundamentally roadblocks towards leading a happy life. Fear could easily override one’s decision making process during a scary situation and one could end up doing something that they regretted afterward. Why? Because in that moment, they hadn’t been operating under Reason but under the influence of a Passion. In a way, one was being led by emotion, and by doing so, was no longer being true to human nature.
So we can think of emotions as being destructive if they led a person away from Reason, from their true selves. To combat destructive emotions, the Stoics developed different techniques and practices. If you are so inclined, I have written about many of these practices here. Fundamentally, these practices were meant to bring a person closer to their true Rational self, to be the best version of themselves that they could be. In other words, these practices led to Virtue (Greek: Arete). I’ve written about Virtue as well before, and a more detailed explanation of it can be found here.
But what was the benefit of being Virtuous and Rational? I could be the most upstanding, virtuous, rational person you could meet in ancient Rome, but at the end of the day, it wouldn’t save me if someone in political power decided they didn’t like me. And these sorts of things did happen. For example, Seneca was condemned to die by the very Emperor he used to tutor. If being a Stoic couldn’t guarantee me any physical benefits what could it offer me?
As I’ve said, in developing their Reason, the Stoics worked to inhibit the overpowering influence of negative emotions in their daily lives. Because much suffering could occur when negative emotions ran rampant, Stoics who were successful in their practice were able to achieve a state of equanimity in regards to those negative emotions. In Greek, this mental state was called Apatheia, which literally means “Without-Passions.” Since the Passions were, for the Stoics, unhealthy emotions like Anger or Fear, this left room for positive emotions (Greek: Eupatheia), emotions that didn’t call the shots, but that were a product of the Stoic pursuit of being rational. A constant fear of pain and death when traveling in a strange placed turned into reasonable caution. Self-directed anger towards oneself for failing at something turned into determination to learn from mistakes. These are some examples, to name a few.
The Stoic who was without Passions was not free from all emotions then, rather, those that were disruptive to mental well-being were no longer what ruled them. What this meant ultimately was that the successful Stoic had achieved Tranquility of Mind (Greek: Ataraxia), a mental state in which they were the true owners of themselves. And this happiness could only have been achieved, according to the Stoics, by being true to themselves, by being rational.