The world is a pretty miserable place, all told. Many people live in squalid conditions, struggling to survive in the face of starvation, disease, or military strife.

Even those who enjoy a modicum of comfort find little satisfaction in the endless accumulation of trinkets. Looming over all of us is an ecological catastrophe, which our dysfunctional political institutions lack the will or the wherewithal to tackle.

What is the appropriate response to such a situation?

The Ancient Greeks had an answer. Their drama emphasised that fate was cruel and tragedy unavoidable. You cannot avoid misfortune – your choice in its face was how valiantly to deal with it. This way of thinking reaches its zenith in Stoicism, the greatest intellectual movement of the period.

At first blush, it is hard to see what Stoicism may have to teach us about happiness. We tend to use the word stoic to refer to someone who is grimly unemotional. But the Stoics were indeed concerned with happiness – they simply disagreed with what constitutes being happy. For the Stoics, true happiness was only possible by controlling ‘disruptive’ emotions which prevent us from calmly seeing reality as it truly is. To achieve this, we must foster a range of intellectual and moral virtues – a process involving rigorous training.

Indeed, the Stoics claimed virtue is not merely necessary for happiness – as most Greek thinkers agreed – but also sufficient for it. Many Hellenistic philosophers drew the rather extreme conclusion that external goods were entirely irrelevant to happiness. Epicurus, for instance, allegedly claimed the sage could find happiness in any situation even while being tortured. What mattered – especially for the Stoics – was a person’s virtue.

The properly Stoic course of action is to attend to those aspects of our life we can affect, rather than engaging in grandiose projects of resistance that may be more about vanity than virtue.

But if virtue is sufficient for happiness, then what incentive do we have for opposing gross inequality or political oppression? The sage could surely find the internal resources to be happy even in a dictatorship. It’s notable that two of the most significant Stoic thinkers, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, represented the polar opposites of Roman society: Marcus Aurelius was one of the greatest emperors, while Epictetus was a freed slave.

The issue of slavery is a particularly pointed one. Philosopher Julia Annas, a modern admirer of the Stoics, suggests the Stoics, who are clearly impeccable in so many other respects, appear to have a blind spot when it comes to slavery. She also argues we have a similar blind spot regarding the hyper-exploitation of the developing world.

Annas concludes we will always be ‘imperfectly’ virtuous because we are often powerless to make change as individuals. The properly Stoic course of action is to attend to those aspects of our life we can affect, rather than engaging in grandiose projects of resistance that may be more about vanity than virtue.

The abolition of slavery would have never occurred had the abolitionists been overcome by fear of change. Real change requires us to think the unthinkable.

Herein lies the greatest danger of Stoicism as an ethical view – a tendency towards ‘quietism’ in the face of intolerable injustice. Perhaps the point at which Stoicism has nothing useful to say about an ethical issue is the point at which ethics must become political philosophy. In other words, it is the point at which we reach the limits of individual action and must deliberate and act collectively about the kind of society we want.

This kind of collective action seems to require the ability for us to hope for a better world, which German philosopher Ernst Bloch thought was located in the universal human propensity for daydreaming – imagining reality to be other than it actually is.

Bringing this imagination into being requires us to embrace certain risks, recognising, as philosopher Axel Whitehead wrote, “the great advances of Civilisation are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur”. The abolition of slavery would have never occurred had the abolitionists been overcome by fear of change. Real change requires us to think the unthinkable.

This kind of hope is much more than wishful thinking – the sort peddled by positive-thinking gurus. It is prepared to stare reality starkly in the face and still be prepared to imagine a better world. It goes without saying, such hope requires courage. It also comes accompanied with a degree of anger that the world is not as it should be.

We are familiar with the destructive consequences of rage – no matter how righteous its inspiration. Yet to fail to be angry at injustice indicates a failure of compassion.

The consequences of rage

Anger represents a uniquely problematic case for Stoicism. It seems to be the polar opposite of the calm acceptance of how things are. The Stoic Seneca famously counselled against anger because he believed it always arose from infantile frustration at the conflict between our desires and the facts.

This Stoic position has much merit. We are familiar with the destructive consequences of rage – no matter how righteous its inspiration. Yet to fail to be angry at injustice indicates a failure of compassion. As Aristotle suggests, someone who “endures beings insulted and … puts up with insults to one’s friends” is morally defective.

This then is the paradox: ethics seems to demand both the angry rejection of reality and calm acceptance of the facts. How is such a conflicted set of attitudes compatible with happiness? Calm acceptance can quickly degenerate into either despair or wishful thinking, but anger brings costs of its own.

You might point to those rare examples – Gandhi or Nelson Mandela perhaps – who somehow seem to transcend this dilemma: resisting oppression without anger. But surely the point is they are rare. It is the hallmark of systematically oppressive societies that it is virtually impossible for most people to resist or endure them without substantial cost to their own wellbeing. And even in the case of Gandhi and Mandela, political success came at substantial personal cost.

Our task then is to create communities in which ordinarily decent individuals can flourish. In order to create them, we require the peculiar combination of courage and anger necessary for hope. Perhaps then we might dream of happiness.

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