Hermes, you seem to be making a big and unsubstantiated assumption about other people’s ego.

I said “in my experience”. I was thinking about one of my Zen teachers and several other “gurus” I followed in my life and ended up disappointing me. I know better now than to believe anybody who makes claims about how virtuous or enlightened they are. Of course, I am not talking about you. This is mostly a self-reflection because I see the “trap of the ego” as a problem in my own life.

That said, your position seems to be essentially Aristotle’s. The problem is that externals are not up to us, they depend on chance. And so does your happiness.

Focusing on internals, like both Stoicism and Buddhism counsel, by contrast, puts eudaimonia (what you really seem to be referring to, not happiness as normally construed) in your own hands.

The problem is that in practice it is incredibly hard to differentiate between externals and internals. Most problems we encounter in life are up to us to solve, to a limited extent. In my experience, I often underestimate the power that I have. We have to be careful when deciding that something is not up to us, or that something just happened to us and we could not have done anything about it. This is very real for me at this point in my life. Did I not get that NIH grant because I didn’t try hard enough, or was that something out of my control? How can I know?

The Stoics make an argument for why virtue is the crucial thing to focus on. They define virtue as prosocial behavior guided by reason. And given that the distinguishing characteristic of human beings is precisely that we are highly social and capable of reason, it follows that a good human life consists in the realization of our most crucial qualities.

I agree with that view of human nature, but it is overly simplistic. There is much more to human life that sociality and reason. A good example is sex. I side with modern sex-positive culture, but that seems difficult to reconcile with the anti-pleasure stances of Buddhism or Stoicism. The quotes that you give of Stoic philosophers seem to lead to the same sexual repression that Christianity enforced in Western culture for ages. Or to the old Anglo-Saxon puritanism.

Contra what you seem to be implying, however, a focus on virtue, or on reduction of suffering, does not mean that one is also not free to experience pleasure, pursue one’s goals, etc. It means that the latter shouldn’t be the all-consuming goal in life.

I agree, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be what the ancient Stoic philosophers that you cite meant. They sound definitely anti-pleasure. There is also a confusion between pleasure and happiness that sounds to me like a strawman to attack Epicureanism. Please, correct me if I am wrong, but there does not seem to be a clear concept of what happiness is in Stoicism.

UCLA professor. Neuroscientist doing research on pain. Writes about science, philosophy, politics and kinky sex.

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