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How to Feel Joy Like a Roman Emperor

On page 132-133 of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson brings up two key points about Stoic joy that we need to keep in mind in our daily lives:

  1. The Stoics tended to view joy not as the goal of life, which is wisdom, but as a by-product of it, so they believe that trying to pursue it directly might lead us down the wrong path if it's sought at the expense of wisdom.

  2. Joy in the Stoic sense is fundamentally active rather than passive; it comes from perceiving the virtuous quality of our own deeds, the things we do, whereas bodily pleasures arise from experiences that happen to us, even if they're a consequence of actions like eating, drinking, or having sex.

These things might seem counter-intuitive at first, but if one tries to dig deeper into the meaning of these reminders, some important observations arise about the nature of joy. In the first thing Robertson emphasizes, he reminds us that the Stoics were often cautious of a "free lunch" so-to-speak. When we pursue joy as the end goal instead of a byproduct of wisdom, we are in danger of pursuing joy in reckless ways. With these reckless ways, we often sacrifice some of our virtue. Here is an example. Suppose you are trying to pursue joy simply from the realization that winning money might help bring you joy. You then decide to go to a local casino in order to fill that void that you think will satisfy your craving. At the casino, you triple your money. Soon after the fact, you feel like you are on top of the world at the thought that you didn't have to work for this feeling of grandeur. You conclude that you do not need wise avenues in order to chase this feeling; it is potentially available with every roll of the dice, pull of the lever, or spin of the roulette wheel. In this way, you are finding an alternate route to joy that doesn't involve the road of wisdom.

As for the second thing Robertson emphasizes, he reminds us that we are free to experience joy from our own actions instead of waiting for the right combination of "good" things to happen to us. We all know people who are always unhappy unless something good happens to them that wasn't the result of any of their actions. This type of person is really a slave to circumstance, and it would be beneficial for them to actively seek out opportunities to observe joy in life instead of taking the passive role of waiting for it to happen. With my clinically-diagnosed depression, I find that it hits hardest when I feel powerless to pursue my own routes to joy. In this state, I typically feel helpless, and I tell myself that nothing I can do can make me feel better.

Marcus Aurelius notes the importance of taking an active role in your own joy when he writes, "Not being done to, but doing—the source of good and bad for rational and political beings. Where their own goodness and badness is found—not in being done to, but in doing" (Meditations 9.16). He notices that when we seek wisdom actively, we have the ability to feel the common side-effect of joy. Don't try to be the person who sits back and waits for things to happen to them. Start right now!

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