SP 003 : Hedonism and Stoicism on Happiness

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Hello! Have ever you wondered why almost nobody seems to be happy? Or why even if they feel happy, it’s all gone soon? Is it that there is no happiness at all, or the standard definition is all faulty? After all, how can one feel one way all his life? Yet, against all the modern take on happiness, the Greek philosophers thought they knew what happiness was. Let’s see if their conception is the one that will teach us how to become happy.

I’m your host Alexander Krapenitskiy. And we are ready to become slightly more self-present today.

My story

Let me tell a story of my own. I didn’t take it seriously the notion of happiness for a long time. It means something weak to me. I could see that a man wouldn’t become more intelligent or stronger if he were sentimental. Life holds lots of struggle with unpleasant things. I could look at examples of historical figures and see that they had often experienced misfortune. Then I found a clear-cut solution in Immanuel Kant’s writing – happiness is not an ideal of reason, but imagination. And it seems right if we understand by happiness feeling well or having enough stuff to satisfy our needs. I would go with Kant’s on the back of my thought for over ten years till I noticed something more satisfactory in the way the Greeks thought on this topic.

The plan

So, my plan today as follows. First, I’ll redefine the notion of happiness a bit. Second, I’ll depict two streams of philosophising about happiness that will break under any serious attack, including that of Kant’s. And finally, I’ll hint at a stronger approach that can even wrestle with Aristotle’s understanding of happiness, which will become the topic of our next talk.

Feeling well or being well

Now, a common approach is to believe that to be happy is to feel happy. Only pleasant experiences indeed give us that feeling. So, then living by feeling seems to be the solution, where the feeling is the result of having health, fame or money. When you have an abundance of those external things, you feel happy. However, it rarely dawns on such a belief that the feeling itself is internal, and we would be better off with speaking about intrinsic qualities of happiness. Just talking about the feeling won’t do because of its volatile nature.

Might it be that happiness is being well, instead? For if you are the right kind of person, you might be in a good state that does make you happy.

In all of these, I indicated all the approaches we’re going to talk next.


So, they were some people in Ancient Greece that decided to explain the daily experience. Why wish for all the array of things while not knowing their inherent quality? Will those things make me happy or miserable? What quality must a thing have to make me happy? They noticed that happiness as feeling well comes from pleasant things. Thus, pleasure became the centrepiece of their thought. Such people are known as hedonists. They deem that the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of suffering is the goal of human life.

Those named Cyrenaics took the word feeling literally and generalised all pleasure as sensual. As with all hedonists, they were something like today’s materialists imagining that there is nothing else except physical existence. However, the Cyrenaic philosophy didn’t need any metaphysical teaching that much due to the thoughtless nature of sense-certainty. They just assumed that sense-certainty was so unique that it was impossible to communicate it to anybody else. The immediate pleasure was better for them than the anticipation or memory of it. To debunk such philosophy isn’t that difficult. After all, they talk about singular experiences and things being unique, yet it is all expressed in a language that holds no singular items and represents the universal. Hedonists talk about here and now not realising that they have just spoken a universal. They may, of course, blame the language and stay in their thoughtless existence, which they usually do. Still, once they start to argue, they betray they need for the universal. Let me skip going deeper here for it deserves more time. I will just show the consequences of the sensual hedonism and why we’d better stayed away from it.

Not only we, but the hedonists themselves soon noticed the problems with their approach. The earliest ones would jump at any opportunity of pleasure, disregarding the consequences. Then suffering a lot because of that silly behaviour; noticing that the disease lasts longer than the pleasure; they would conclude that life is nothing but suffering and pleasure is scarce. Eventually, they would consider ending their lives. The conclusion here is that any pleasure is so tied up to displeasure that there is no way to detach them from each other.

So, the rest of the sensual hedonistic crowd dialled back a bit and began to be edifying. They went on praising being a good citizen, a family member, a friend, etc. But such things were obvious to anyone, and there was no need to talk about it that much. A happy person does enjoy being around his people, yet they may be around him because of luck or him being good. But the whole point of doing philosophy for hedonist was to figure out how to become happy and that right kind of person. Not just state the obvious things that a happy person might have.

OK. Let’s go now to a better version of hedonism.

And let me interpose here and mention that names mean not that much in philosophy. They help us to locate some thought and history and find its origin. We make ourselves a favour by having a shortcut to a particular logical notion. However, we must think through them to make them part of our argument. Once your thoughts become logical, the souls that move your mind, you don’t need to operate with names anymore.

Right. The man named Epicurus with the help of the ancient atomistic theory had a conviction that there is nothing beyond atoms and their mixture. According to him, the human body was designed to perceive sensual data. The soul, the life that moves the body, was nothing else but its harmony. Imagine a guitar with all its parts. It makes a sound as long as all its elements work together. It may become tattered, and some parts could even be missing, but still function. It is only when the essential elements and their mixture are gone, the music is too. The same holds for the human body. Once it breaks, human music, aka the soul, is also gone.

Epicurus believed that as physical beings, we have the senses as the only input. The interaction between our body and external bodies bring either pleasure or pain, where the former is choiceworthy. Epicurus admits that reasoning upon sense data is the most proper activity of a man. He doesn’t deny choice and free will. With the help of deliberation, he wants to achieve ataraxia, that is freedom from fear or disturbance of thought.

This goal prompts him to measure pleasures and distinguish the best ones. Some he regards as kinetic or moving pleasures, and some as static. All the sensual he places under the category of the moving. They arise because of a need, let’s say hunger, and are removed by satisfying the need. In other words, mild suffering is the cause of the following pleasure. This cycle can be called desire. The satisfaction of a desire is short-lived, and the constant need to satisfy it troubles us greatly. However, with the help of reasoning, we can measure, classify, and reduce desires to a minimum. Like any other sensible philosopher, Epicurus would agree with Plato that the easiest way to satisfaction is better than a more complex. Thirst, for examples, requires liquid; and through observation, we see that water is more beneficial and easier to get. The need for a fancier drink is artificial and against the best judgement if it requires a man to spend more effort on getting it.

The same goes for the rest of the needs. And some appetites, according to Epicurus, are just vain and empty. They do not belong to our essence. By these, he understands wealth, fame, and power. They only disturb us, is all. They never satisfy due to the lack of measure in them.

Thus, knowing the measure, we remove the fear of not having some goods that we used to believe were necessary. After all, it is almost impossible that you will be so poor as not to allow yourself bread and water. And be it even these are absent, death, says Epicurus, is nothing to fear because sentient beings cannot feel what is not; that is, we can’t perceive when we are not. Once I am here, I’m alive. And once I’m not alive, I’m not here. Removing the fear of suffering and knowing where the suffering could occur, we get a pleasant life, which is equal to the happy one, as for all hedonists.

To summarise. Pleasure is the absence of suffering for a thoughtful hedonist. We need to deliberate upon our natural and social existence to choose those pleasures that bring less or no suffering at all. Apart from the satisfaction of our needs, we find pleasure being among good people and pondering upon life. Step by step, this thought leads to an ideal of a solitary life with occasional socialising. A startling conclusion, isn’t it? If you want to survive hedonism and leave happily, you must become a moderate ascetic.

In the end, the teaching of hedonism hints at a life of the mind as an ideal. But the very metaphysical teaching of Epicurus is about bodies that lead and the mind that subdues. His theory contradicts the practice.

His ideal becomes similar to the rival school of Stoicism.

A spoiler. Stoicism will logically lead to the conclusions of some kind of hedonism. Thus, both hedonism and Stoicism will show that they are not enough to explain reality and happy life.


Stoicism will define a happy life as the life of a free choice. Their ideal is apathia, apathy in English, which means freedom from being affected by the senses. They maintain that everything external is not a property of the intellect and is not up to it. To be affected by something external is equal to be a slave. To be defined by desire is not good at all.

The situation that the philosophy of Stoicism has reached is self-consciousness that wanted to part with Nature. The intellect became free from everything foreign to it. Yet the Stoics’ grasp of the intellect as a Logos that was parallel to the structure of Nature made it dependent on it, nonetheless. I’ll explain the consequences of this metaphysics a bit later.

As you remember, the hedonists taught that we should seek pleasure and avoid pain. So, Stoic philosophers summarised it as desire and aversion. But they denied that pleasure or pain is good or evil. Instead, they reckoned that the mind makes them so according to its beliefs. And hardly ever our opinions are correct. Their sole job became to correct wrong believes and to teach that the only thing we must be concerned about is how to make our soul good and avoid making it evil.

After all, if we understand the processes of Nature correctly, and this is the job of the Stoic metaphysics, we won’t expect it spin in tune with our desires. The necessity of Nature is just the cause-effect relationship with no place for wishful thinking. But in us, Nature arrived at self-consciousness. It wants us to think. Our goal, as it were, is to align our beliefs and actions with natural processes. It is up to us to decide the good.

There is no need to believe that externals can harm me. If I’m just a self-consciousness, then those externals are indifferent to me. The anguish we have is self-made because we wanted the necessity to respect our irrational desires. The Stoic we’ll be undisturbed both in pleasant and unpleasant times. He will only wish to keep his unity of consciousness.

Up to this point, this ethics is very sublime. However, the problem lies in the metaphysics that lets nothing beyond the physical reality. The Stoic consciousness proclaimed freedom from Nature but was the part of it anyway. All his thoughts are about freedom from externals. Stoic wisdom is busy with things and how to be independent of them. Their free intellect has nothing else to do.

Moreover, being materialistic in their grasp of the world, they imagine the soul being like a fire that is gone when the material it feeds upon is gone. There is no soul without the body. Their life of the intellect becomes a tedious exercise. After all, it’s not critical living this or that long if we are in a constant struggle and pretend to be free from Nature when we are not. Stoicism will come under the attack of Scepticism later on both on the practical and theoretical grounds.

For now, though, it is enough to conclude that the stoic life is no better than that of Hedonism. The latter talked about the pleasure coming from this or that thing; he tried to avoid almost everything so as not to harm himself. Likewise, the Stoic avoids everything and acts ascetically so as not to become miserable. The only difference is in theory. The hedonist believes that happiness comes from pleasure, but in the end, becomes pleased with his meditations. While the Stoic imagines that joy comes from the freedom from externals and is happy in his reflections too. They both want to be undisturbed by things, no matter their theories.


Before hedonists and stoics, there were two philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The first would believe that happiness comes from a virtuous life, which meant being wise and just. He didn’t need anything to align with our bodily needs for he grasped a world above the change, that is the world of ideas. And the second man, that is Aristotle, would approve of Plato’s emphasis on virtue, but added that society, nature, and luck must be added if one is to be happy. Aristotle worked this out when Plato was long gone. And he wouldn’t expect him to fire back with a new set of arguments. Yet it happened indirectly when the thought of Plato got its second life in the founder of Neoplatonism Plotinus.

And it is the talk of our next episode.

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Be happy! And I’ll see you next time.