"To be concerned with happiness as an end, the Stoics argue, is
to be concerned with virtue in the sense of what a person can
bring about through his own powers and rational agency. Accordingly,
they will argue, happiness is not a virtuous action...Rather, happiness
is virtuous activity in the leaner sense of skill and effort...whether or
not one successfully achieves the objectives."
[Nancy Sherman, STOIC WARRIORS: THE ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY
BEHIND THE MILITARY MIND, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.33.]
Comment: This is an interesting statement, because it addresses
the subject of happiness. Probably one of the most misconceived
considerations about Stoicism circulates around this issue of
happiness. Lots of people imagine stoics wearing a "sour and dour"
countenance. This misunderstanding stands right up there with the
perceived "stiff upper lip" of stoics.
Now I cannot attest that each and every stoic, whether ancient or
modern, goes around wearing a "happy button," but probably most
were/are not adverse to happiness. If we can truly attain it, we might
discover happiness to be a natural human expression. The smile
has long been with us down through the ages.
But what Sherman is discussing in the quoted paragraph, I believe,
is significant for all of us. Yes, sometimes happiness just lights upon
our shoulders; but, more than often, happiness is a result of right
behavior. And even before behavior, there need be an under-
standing of this virtuous activity.
Just guessing, but I'm willing to bet that many of us *wait* for
happiness to drop in. And while we are waiting, there's this pall
of waiting. And within this pall there's "want." We wait for that
special person in our life. We want a great job. We want our life
to somehow be significant. This waiting and wanting is intimately
connected with a hoped-for happiness.
Somehow, when I think about the subject of happiness, Epictetus'
prayer comes to mind--that we need come to understand what
we can or cannot control in our life. As Sherman attests, happiness
is linked with what we "can bring about through his own powers"
and reason. This doesn't mean that we have to sell ourself short;
rather, it is about maturity.
So often I hear some poor soul hoping to win the Lottery, because
that situation will bring the idealized happiness they seek. It's
usually about money. Of course money isn't everything, but it does
loom *big* when it comes to living a happy existence. It's just that
there need be a practical approach, if you will. Waiting for the
Lottery just might not cut it. Making good money usually depends
on "skill and effort." The better qualified, the better job = usually
equals more money, and perhaps happiness.
Of course what we are discussing here is what I might call
"surface happiness." That's okay, it's a start. On the other hand,
some persons--as they grow older--start feeling a strange sense
of emptiness. They have begun to realize that money can't buy
everything, I guess.
So what might this portend, this strange emptiness? Usually it is
an ontological condition. In both philosophy and theology
Ontology is about the nature of being. Who are we, how do we
fit in our world, what are we supposed to become? According to
human development theorists, this ontological condition is
something that clicks on at mid-life.
Now I know people who were gripped by this ontological condition.
Sometimes it becomes an "angst" and really can cause problems.
Other of us might grasp at straws, imagining great callings, being
tapped on the shoulder to do this or that. And there's no denying
that occasionally we can "run" with our fantasies, perhaps even
making something concrete out of them.
However, finally, at the cusp of elderhood some of us finally realize
that we can "manage" happiness up-to-a-point. And that's when
a more stoic approach might become a better compass. Happiness
might end simply being a daily routine, a more composed
acceptance of Life, a deeper appreciation for our surroundings.
And, above all, maybe in the end happiness might not need be
chained to an objective.