Gretchen Rubin

“Stoics Generally Are a Humble and Good-Natured Crowd.”

“Stoics Generally Are a Humble and Good-Natured Crowd.”

Interview: Ward Farnsworth

I got to know Ward Farnsworth during the year when we were both clerking for the Supreme Court; I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and he was clerking for Justice Anthony Kennedy.

I've strayed far from law, but not Ward. He's dean of the University of Texas Law School and has held many important legal positions over the years. Not only that, he's written many interesting books on law, rhetoric, philosophy, and chess.

For a long time, I've been meaning to read his book Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor, and while I haven't read it yet, I recently finished his terrific new book The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual.

It's a clear, accessible, enjoyable, and thought-provoking look at Stoic philosophy—which, as Ward makes clear, has much value to us today.

I couldn't wait to talk to Ward about the relationship between happiness and stoicism.

Gretchen: To most people, Stoicism doesn’t sound like it has much to do with happiness—more like the opposite, right?

Ward: Yes, that’s the first thing to know about Stoicism—the word is misleading. In ordinary modern English it means something like “suffering without complaint.” But Stoicism as an ancient philosophy was a way to think about every aspect of being human, including happiness. The Stoics were deep analysts of happiness—in my view, the most interesting students of that subject who ever lived—present company excepted, of course. One of Seneca’s most important essays was called “On the Happy Life.”

Gretchen: So what are some of the things they have to say about being happy?

Ward: Well, I’ve written a new book—The Practicing Stoic—that presents the teachings of the Stoics in way that is meant to make sense for us now. Lesson number 1 is that we don’t react to events or people or anything else in the world. We react to our thoughts about them. And the thoughts are up to us.

Gretchen: Hmmm. What’s an example?

Ward: Let’s say that others are criticizing you—on Twitter, maybe—and you’re feeling down about it. The Stoic would say: you aren’t unhappy about what they said, at least not primarily. Your being upset arises from beliefs you hold—that you care what the critics think, for example, or that their opinions are worth worrying about for some other reason. If you didn’t hold those views, you wouldn’t be unhappy. So then the Stoic would spend some time asking why you care what some idiot on Twitter said, and after a while you would probably feel better.

Gretchen: Definitely useful. But aren’t some reactions harder to see that way?

Ward: Yes, I picked an easy example. But the Stoics think everything works roughly like that. If you’re mad about something, it’s because of your judgments, not the thing you’re mad at. If you’re afraid of something, it’s because of your thoughts, not because of the thing itself.

Gretchen: But sometimes we should be mad or afraid, shouldn’t we?

Ward: The Stoic would just ask: how does the anger or fear serve you? It probably makes you worse off. If something is dangerous, by all means avoid it; but how does the feeling of fear help? If something makes you angry, by all means consider fixing it or rectifying it; but how does getting angry help?

Gretchen: But it isn’t that easy to decide to stop being afraid of some things.

Ward: Yes, of course—sometimes it’s harder than it sounds. But sometimes it’s easier than it sounds. You realize that your fear comes from the way you talk to yourself, so you knock it off. But anyway the Stoics don’t just tell us to take responsibility for our thinking and leave it at that. They offer lots of ways to take apart a fear or a source of anger or whatever else and dissolve its effects—ways to replace thinking that probably doesn’t help with thinking that does.

Gretchen: All right, but then let’s go back to happiness. How does that figure in?

Ward: Of course reducing anger and fear is a great help towards happiness for most people. But the Stoics also talk a lot about gaining more happiness as such. Basically they think you can’t gain real happiness through direct effort. If you try to make yourself happy by satisfying your desires, for example, you find that they never really end. The way to find happiness is by focusing on things larger than yourself—on serving others and the greater good, on the love of truth, or (in a word) on virtue. The Stoics think of happiness as a byproduct of that way of life. It’s like sleep. You can’t fall asleep by working hard at it. You fall asleep by focusing on other things. The Stoics think happiness works in roughly that way.

Gretchen: You talked about “Lesson 1.” What are some other Stoic teachings that are useful in trying to find happiness?

Ward: Lesson 2 is the difference between things that are up to us and things that aren’t. The Stoics thought that most people waste a great deal of energy and misery worrying about things they can’t control. The Stoic approach is to never get worked up about them, and to focus on the things in life that are up to you. This turns out to be a very versatile and helpful idea.

Gretchen: Again, how about an example?

Ward: The simplest example, and a case everyone can understand, is spilled milk. Once something you don’t like has happened and can’t be helped, the Stoics would say it’s a mistake to spend a moment agonizing about it. It’s done. If you can learn something from it, great, but otherwise forget it. It’s the same if you’re stuck in traffic. If you can’t change it, shrug it off. These examples are understood by all of us at least some of the time. But again, the Stoics take that attitude toward everything in life that they can’t control. One can’t control one’s partner, as you’ve emphasized in your own writings; you can’t control other people in general, and what they say or think, or the fact that you’re going to die eventually. So Stoics don’t worry about that stuff.

Gretchen: Does that mean that Stoics don’t care about politics?

Ward: No, that’s not quite it. The Stoics thought participating in public life was important. And some of the greatest Stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius, were important public figures in Rome. The Stoics believed we should each regard ourselves as individually small but as parts of a whole, so doing one’s part is important even if it’s a small part. But if some politician did something that they couldn’t affect, Stoics wouldn’t let it disrupt their equanimity. That’s an important idea in Stoicism in general. Stoics have preferences about things like anyone else does. They just don’t let their peace of mind depend on them.

Gretchen: Do you think of Stoicism as a kind of psychology or philosophy?

Ward: It’s both. The old Stoics did their writing at a time when those two disciplines weren’t separated the way they are now. Sometimes they do talk about the same themes you would find in modern books about psychology. For example, they’re very interested in what we now might call adaptation—the ways that we get used to things, and how this affects the way we feel about them. We tend get used to the good things in our lives, and so lose the ability the appreciate them. We also tend to get used to the bad things, which prevents them from always making us miserable. Stoics try to undo the bad kind of adaptation by staying grateful for what they have. And they try to cultivate, or simulate, the good kind of adaptation. When they deal with some sort of adversity, they try to approach it as they would if they had dealt with a lot, not like amateurs.

Gretchen: So do you think the ancient Stoics were happy?

Ward: I think their Stoicism made them happier. For them, “happiness” had multiple meanings. It usually meant eudaimonia—the good life, rather than the good mood. But they also cared about simple peace of mind and pleasures they considered natural. Most people who study Stoicism end up with a least a little more of those things. People nowadays think of Stoicism as a kind of grim resolve. But Stoics are more likely to find mild humor in things that everyone else regards as grim. They find the comedy in things that made everyone else mad. Stoics generally are a humble and good-natured crowd.

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