What Marcus Aurelius said about healthy emotions in Stoic philosophy
Hello everyone, and welcome to my new Substack newsletter. I just wrote a short article on the Stoicism Subreddit about the three forms of healthy emotion that Marcus Aurelius said should be cultivated. I’ve also written a longer and more detailed Medium article about this topic. I think it’s very important for an understanding of how Stoicism can be incorporated into modern self-help.
Live your whole life through free from all constraint and with utmost joy in your heart… — Meditations, 7.68
I want to write something a little more informal here, from a personal perspective, about how I understand the role of healthy emotions in Stoicism.
1. Happiness with Yourself
Marcus seems to be clear that the most important source of happiness and contentment for Stoics is the contemplation of their own moral progress and he refers to this often. It stands to reason that possessing what you believe to be the highest good in life would be the greatest source of joy — for Stoics that means our own progress toward virtue. Christian authors later criticized the Stoics for excessive pride as they viewed our fulfilment or salvation as a direct result of our own actions, our freewill, rather than something requiring the grace of God. However, I think many modern readers might agree more with the Stoics.
2. Happiness with Mankind
The virtue of others is not under our direct control but, nevertheless, we should wish for them to achieve fulfilment, “Fate permitting”. This caveat is called the Stoic “reserve clause”. It means we wish for something while simultaneously accepting that it is not up to us. Book One of the Meditations shows Marcus repeatedly contemplating the virtues of his closest family members and favourite tutors.
Marcus actually explains one of his reasons for doing this later in the same text:
When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you. For instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Hence we must keep them before us. — Meditations, 7.28
The Stoics believed that one of the best ways to acquire virtue is through the contemplation of those we admire, or having genuine role models. When the wise glimpse the highest good in others, they naturally experience a very profound sense of happiness. It is as though they are contemplating the mirror image of the potential for wisdom and virtue they have within themselves.
3. Happiness with God or Nature
For the Stoics, the key to happiness with the universe as a whole is acceptance of our own external fate, or amor fati. Marcus also emphasizes that by contemplating the transience or absence of certain things, presumably preferred externals such as health, we can cultivate a healthy emotion of gratitude.
Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the [the best] from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. — Meditations, 7.27
Throughout the Meditations, Marcus reminds himself of the transience of material things, and of his own existence. This allows him to experience joy or gratitude toward existence. The Stoics, incidentally, considered appropriate gratitude to be a virtue, classed under the heading of justice.
I think it helps humanize Stoicism when we realize that healthy emotions played an important role in their system of psychology. The Greek philosophy of Stoicism (capitalized) should not be confused with the unemotional coping style we call stoicism (lowercase) today.
The three categories of healthy emotion above correspond with a threefold structure that is found throughout the Meditations. For instance, Marcus lists all three together in this passage:
Different people find their joy in different things; and it is my joy to keep [i] my ruling centre unimpaired, and [ii] not turn my back on any human being or [iii] on anything that befalls the human race, but to look on all things with a kindly eye, and welcome and make use of each according to its worth. —Meditations, 8.43
We should, in other words, train ourselves to welcome our fate, while exhibiting kindness toward others, and living wisely, in accord with virtue.
The conversation I had recently with Ryan Holiday about Stoicism has just been published on the Daily Stoic YouTube channel.
News. Our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which is available in ebook and hardback formats, from all bookstores, has now been reviewed by nearly 140 readers on Amazon.