I’m not sure if it’s due to the natural progression within the Stoic Serenity book, or if it’s been events from my own life, but lately I’ve been pondering the age-old question: what is the purpose of life? After spending all this time studying about strengthening my mind and character, I think it’s natural to ask this question. Even if I have a strong mind, what good is it if I only live inside myself? It would seem like life is simply something I must endure. But I feel like life is more than something we should just endure. I’ve been trying to search Stoic resources for an answer, but I don’t think the Stoics have what I would consider a “strong answer” for this question.
We know that we are human beings and we’re currently alive, and by seeking out philosophy, we recognized that we seek direction in our lives. But what’s the purpose? Eudaimonia? My purpose in life is to be happy? Hardly seems like a solid answer if you’re like me and consider that if I were to choose another route, the absence of life, I wouldn’t be aware that I was lacking eudaimonia. Is the purpose of life to live according to nature? Maybe. This seems to be a more valid answer, as I remember this quote from Marcus’ Meditations:
The perfection of the whole suffers an injury if you cut off even the smallest piece from the coherence and continuity of its causes. And you are guilty of this whenever you are discontented; and in a certain sense, you destroy it.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.8)
I realize that this question of the “meaning of life” is a huge topic, and the answers could go many different ways. But as of right now, this is the closest I can see as being a Stoic “purpose in life.” As a “fragment of God,” my purpose is to contribute to the whole as perfectly as possible. God/the Universe/Fate prescribed life as a human being for me, and thus I should contribute further in this condition in which I’ve been placed.
Philosophy is for Humanity
So what is this Nature that I’m contributing to? Previously in our discussion of human nature, we observed how humans are rational beings. The second part of human nature, according to the Stoics, is that humans being must interact with other human beings. We live in societies, we have families, we have governments, we have coworkers and supervisors, we buy food from the grocer, we have fellow Stoics. All of our actions and daily activities are somehow related to the fact that we live in a human society. However, the results of our actions and daily activities are actually dependent on other humans. Don’t believe me? Think back to Epictetus’ dichotomy of control: the only things which are absolutely within my power are my own opinion, intention, desire, aversion—basically whatever goes on inside my own mind. Things not in my power are body, possession, reputation, status. These are part of the group of “indifferents” or “externals,” and I never have 100% control over them because at least one percentage point is in the hands of God/Fate and/or other human beings.
The idea that we’re actually dependent on other human beings might make some people uncomfortable. We like to think that we’re in charge of ourselves—that we’re independent from the actions of others. But Stoicism has been teaching us all along that we are in charge of ourselves, but only as far as our minds.
Disclaimer: This monk isn’t actually “pole-sitting” as they refer to the practice (he’s actually just meditating for the moment). But imagine that he’s the monk described in Heyerdahl’s book—committing himself to a “life of service” by just sitting there.—To what is he actually contributing?
The Stoics were big believers that humans are social creatures. I read yesterday in Thor Heyerdahl‘s book The Ra Expeditions of a monk in Ethiopia who sat atop an archway for years, committing himself to a “life of service” by just sitting there (something similar to Saint Simeon). Fellow monks considered him a living saint and brought him food to eat. I’m not bashing other religions or cultures, but while reading about this monk who was so highly regarded, I couldn’t help but wonder, who is he actually helping? How is he “serving”? To what is he contributing? If I sit on top of an arch for several decades, would my life have any more impact than if I had never lived at all?
I’m pretty sure the Stoics would completely disagree with this practice of pole-sitting. The Stoics said: you are a human being! You are part of a human society! Get out there and contribute to it!
Author Keith Seddon says that if we think we’re independent from other humans, then at best, we’re ignorant; at worst, it reveals a lack of humanity within ourselves.
Seddon says that if this support network that binds people in human communities were ever to weaken to a significant extent, human culture would end.
Stoic arguments seek the health of the individual human being, to be sure. But as they do so, they never let the [student] forget that pursuing this end is inseparable from seeking the good of other human beings. For philosophy’s mission…is not to one person or two, not to the rich or the well-educated or the prominent, but to the human race as such. And all human beings, following philosophy, should understand themselves to be linked to all other human beings, in such a way that the ends of individuals are intertwined, and one cannot pursue one’s fullest good without at the same time caring for and fostering the good of others.
(Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics 341-2)
Philosophy’s mission is to benefit humanity.
Philosophy at it’s very core is intended to benefit humanity. If we think that philosophy is meant to benefit only our individual selves and “screw everyone else,” then we don’t even understand what philosophy is all about.
Ok, so I’m a human being and I live amongst other humans. I’m supposed to be benefiting humanity somehow, so how should I go about living in human society?
Good ol’ Seneca gives a bit of an answer on behalf of the Stoics:
No school has more goodness and gentleness; no school has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular.
(Seneca, On Clemency 3.3)
Wait a second. Up until now, Stoicism has been all about being master of my own mind. Now I’m being told that I have obligations to society?
Yup. As a severe introvert (with social anxiety) who has a bachelor’s degree in social work, this is what I found so intriguing about Stoicism. Yes, Kirsten, you need to become master of your own mind. But you can’t ignore society. You have obligations to it as being a fellow human being.
In addition to all the psychological tools that Stoicism teaches us about dealing with setbacks, at the core of Stoicism is a notion that we can’t ignore the outside world. I think this is why Stoicism has been beneficial to some in battling social anxiety. In times when individuals might be tempted to isolate themselves and live an “easy” life, Stoicism says, “Nope. That’s cheating. Get back out there and fulfill your duty.”
How do I deal with difficult people?
Say to yourself each morning, “Today I will encounter meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, jealous, and unsociable people. They are affected by these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad. But I, who have observed the nature of the Good, and seen that it is right; and who have observed the nature of the bad, and seen that it is wrong; and who have observed the wrongdoer himself, and seen that his nature is similar to my own—not because he is of the same blood and ancestry, but because he shares the same mind as I, and thus we share a portion of the divine—I, then, cannot be harmed by these people, nor become angry with someone who is like me, nor can I hate him. For we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelids, or the teeth of the upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is to work against Nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away from him is surely to work against him.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1)
How do we maintain our tranquility of mind when others are trying to make our lives miserable?
In this entry, Marcus acknowledges that he will encounter frustrations in the upcoming day. We don’t spend much time thinking about how we plan to deal with difficult people, yet difficult people and situations are a part of life, and the Stoics strongly advocated that we prepare for when we encounter these situations. If we continue to respond to difficult people with anger or complaints, or whatever comes to us in the moment, we are not likely to improve upon the situation, and this type of reaction certainly won’t help improve our own tranquility.
The Stoics claim that it’s entirely possible to live amongst difficult humans while completely maintaining our own equanimity, or peace of mind. There is nothing that says we must become disturbed by their actions. After all, we have control over our own minds, don’t we? It’s part of our duty as humans to accept our Fates and use the current reality to benefit humanity as best we can.
Take a look back at Marcus’ Meditation 2.1. Marcus says that there are seven things to keep in mind that will help him deal with difficult people and maintain his “Stoic serenity.”
- “they have no knowledge of good and bad”
The Stoics provided this as the obvious explanation of why people behaved badly. Difficult people don’t know what is intrinsically good like the Stoic does. Difficult people value indifferent things, and when they see indifferent things threatened, they feel that they themselves are threatened.
But Marcus is fortunate enough to know what is intrinsically Good: the Virtues. And he knows that the nature of the Virtues is that they can never be harmed by anyone else. Difficult people harm only themselves, and they harm themselves because they don’t know that actually is Good.
- “his nature is similar to my own—not because he is of the same blood and ancestry, but because he shares the same mind as I, and thus we share a portion of the divine.”
Regardless, although difficult people don’t know what’s truly Good, we still share rational faculties. The difference is that for difficult people, “their rationality has not been tutored.”
- “I, then, cannot be harmed by these people,”
Because we already know the “secret” that the Virtues are the only thing that are intrinsically Good, and we know these cannot be harmed by other people. So what if they harm something else? Who cares?
Humans need to work together like the top and bottom rows of teeth. Even if one person acts out, we must continue to work together. Working against each other would be to work against our very nature.
- “nor become angry with someone who is like me,”
- “nor can I hate him.”
- “we have come into being to work together,”
Remember from our studies of Stoic “physics” that all humans share a common nature? We are all “fragments of God,” or fragments of “the one reason, one intelligence” of the Universe. Like Marcus’ examples of the hand, eyelid, or a single row of teeth in the mouth, we cannot function properly unless we function in accordance with our “partner.”
- “To work against one another is to work against Nature;”
If we fight against one another, or seek to harm another person, we are acting against our true Nature. Human beings are perceptive, self-conscious creatures with reasoning capabilities. To act against another creature with all these same qualities would simply be irrational.
Miserable Little Idiôtês
To apply this teaching and make it come to life, each time that you encounter someone who’s being difficult, or who seems hell-bent on making your life more difficult, remind yourself that they act this way because they haven’t been “enlightened” like you have—they don’t know what’s truly Good. They’re miserable little idiôtês chasing after indifferents. Now do you still feel so angry with them? Or are you starting to detect a bit of pity?