In the writings of the ancient Roman Stoics, there is much talk about God (Zeus), and the gods, having designed humans, utilizing their divine reason to give the same to us. The Stoics put forth that since we were created with reason, we must use it in order to have a good life.
If one reads the undercurrents though, it is clear that the Stoics put little stock in faith, or anything akin to it, such as superstition.
They paid lip-service to divine beings, as many academics and people in power do today, in order to keep the believers happy, and the coffers of the temples full.
They believed a god set the universe in motion, became subject to the laws of Nature himself, and the Stoics’ message is very clear: A good life has little to do with faith in the gods, but everything to do with reason.
They held it as an axiom that if one’s life is based on lies, half-truths, and misinformation, it could not objectively be referred to as a “good life.”
What is the most powerful tool we have as a species to do away with falsehood and ignorance, as well as propping up truth?
Libraries are filled with books from throughout the ages on this subject. I do not pretend to have the mind of an Aurelius or Seneca, so I will try to be as simple, clear, and succinct as I can in dealing with this topic.
2 + 2 = 4.
But, you say, “Duh! Of course it does! For, if I have two fountain pens, then add two more fountain pens, then count them all again, I will see that I have four fountain pens.”
So simple and straightforward, even a first-grader could figure it out.
So what does “2 + 2 = 4” have to do with having a good life? How does something so simple, based on reason, matter to one’s day-to-day existence?
Whether you realize it or not, there are countless people out there trying to convince you and untold others that “2 + 2 = 5,” or “2 + 2 = 230,” or perhaps even “2 + 2 = fish.”
Sounds crazy at first, but if you are born into a home, a culture, or a belief system, where “2 + 2 = fish,” and you are told this from the time you wore diapers, it will seem true and reasonable to you regardless of the mountains of verifiable evidence that dictate otherwise.
(For you philosophy and logic junkies out there ready to argue what “2” is, what “+” is, what “=” is, and what “4” is, just…let it go. The Stoics, especially Seneca, were adamantly against turning the tool of philosophy into word games. The functional reality is if you have two fountain pens, and I give you two more, you will have four fountain pens. End of story. Thank you for your time. Have a nice day.)
Before you feel good about yourself by thinking, “Why, of course my life is based on reason. I like science, completely disregard superstition, and don’t cling to any outdated religious beliefs.”
Not so fast.
Unless you’ve literally spent your entire life focusing solely on the pursuit of logic and reason, you have at least some characteristics and modes of operation that are as far from reason as London is from Tokyo.
Here are some things that reason truly contradicts, yet many hold to be “reasonable.”
- If I have more money, I will be happier
- If I have more followers on social media, I will be happier
- If ________ were changed about my physical appearance, I would be happier
- If ________ were out of office/government, my life would be happier
- If I have Smartphone Model X+1 instead of Model X, my life would be happier
On a superficial and fleeting level, all these ideas have some validity in limited ways. Politicians, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and religious leaders offer you things that can make you happy; but truly?; and for how long?
Step back. Take an objective look at all that you hold to be important in life. You will find that certain authority figures or institutions have you convinced that 2 + 2 = fish, and it must be true, because everyone else in your sphere of functioning believes the same thing.
But, it is vital to remember that believing in something does not make it true.
Let’s repeat that.
Believing in something does not make true.
I am not putting these words forth in order to tell you what to think; however, since you actually made it this far, I assume you want to hear not only what I, but also the Stoics, would say about how you should think.
And the answer to that is…reasonably!
Reason is not guided by whether it makes you feel good or not. No government representative, or supposed holy man, or movie star should have the ability to exert their will, in contradiction of reason. And simply because large groups of people accept something as true is not a qualifier of reason either.
What is reasonable?
2 + 2 = 4.
If you want to think differently, that’s a choice, but it would be a choice not in alignment with reality.
If you don’t function according to the “what is” of reality, you will not only miss out on a good life, but experience much needless suffering as well. The key word there being needless.
Acta Non Verba: Consistently ask the question, “How do I know that is true?” Not only of information online, from news sources, and politicians, but of yourself (especially the things you think are 100% true.)
Or simply follow the advice of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson:
“Demand evidence. Think critically.”
…instead of pursuing things that really are good and noble, thoughtless people pursue things that only seem good…Thoughtlessness is very close to insanity. – Musonius Rufus
…a mistake that has been passed down from one hand to another takes us over and spins our ruin…So let us inquire what is the best, not what is the most customary thing to do. – Seneca
Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. – Epictetus
The life of wisdom is a life of reason. It is important to learn how to think clearly. – Epictetus
So many of our beliefs have been acquired through accident and irresponsible or ignorant teaching. Many of these beliefs are so deeply ingrained, that they are hidden from our own view. – Epictetus
Nothing produces greatness of mind like the habit of examining methodically and honestly everything we encounter in this life. – Marcus Aurelius
…the thinking are higher than those who can merely draw breath. – Marcus Aurelius
Test every thought and sense perception, if possible, by the methods of science, the laws of morality, and the rules of logic. – Marcus Aurelius
…for no one can be called happy if he has been cast beyond the border of truth. – Seneca
Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.
Original, non-meme image from Igor Ovsyannykov via Unsplash.com.