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17 June 2013

Happiness vs Responsibilities?

I do desire to be untroubled and free of turmoil, but I also want to be a pious man, a lover of Wisdom, a careful student, knowing my duties towards the gods, towards my parents, towards my brothers, towards my country, and towards strangers. 

                                             - Epictetus, Discourses 2:17

     Like the adherent of most religious and philosophical schools, the Stoic desires to be "untroubled" and "free of turmoil" - that is, to have inner peace and happiness.  Indeed, this is the aim of Stoicism. This state of being, however, is not and cannot be attained through the shunning of (or the denying of) one's natural duties and roles.  Happiness is achieved through Virtue, and Virtue consists of living according to Nature.
     Many of the same people who are initially attracted to Stoicism because of this living-in-accordance-with-Nature slogan are the same who are later repelled by Stoicism when they discover what this slogan means.  Stoicism is not a philosophy of retreat, and it has little to do with the kind of nature worship common in some circles today.  The Stoic does not retire to his garden like the Epicurean; to his cave or monastery like the extreme ascetic; within the recesses of his own mind denying the reality around him like some Far Eastern systems; or to the forest like some of the more radical environmentalists who love trees and squirrels but hate people. 
     Nor does the Stoic embrace the hyper individualism that has been prevalent in some Western countries in recent decades, embracing moral relativism and rejecting the concept of natural duties and roles as artificial and even oppressive.  For the Stoic, Liberty is not the freedom to do whatever one wants; it is to conform one's wants to Nature's demands. It is the Liberty to live virtuously and not to sin. 
     Stoic liberty and the stoic notion of living according to Nature consists of freely living in conformity to our own particular function. Like soldiers, we have been stationed at our post. We are good soldiers when we do not abandon the post that has been assigned to us. And these posts, these functions, are assigned.  They are not of our own choosing any more than we can choose to be a dog instead of a human.  Some of these functions will be universal, as we are all human.  Some will be more particular, as the parent, for example, has clearly different natural responsibilities than the child.
     I am a male, and I will live as a male; a husband, and I shall live as a husband; a father, and I shall live as a father; a son, and I shall live as a son; I am a citizen of a particular country, and I shall be a loyal citizen; I am an inheritor of a particular language, religion and culture, and I shall live as such; and so on. To do otherwise, to futilely and impiously rage against Nature, would be to live unhappily and miserably indeed. 
     Personal happiness and personal responsibilities are never at odds.  The former depends upon the latter.