People throughout history have disagreed on the philosophical issue of whether or not life has meaning.
Some think that there is a predetermined meaning or purpose to existence, while others think that there is no inherent meaning to life and that each person must find their own meaning.
In the end, whether our existence has a purpose is also a matter of personal conviction.
As Emperor Caracalla, also known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (not Emperor Marcus Aurelius who wrote “Meditations”) said, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
What do the Stoic philosophers think the meaning of life is?
What is the meaning of life as a Stoic?
According to a Stoic, the meaning of life is to live in accord with reason and virtue, to find fulfillment and peace through acceptance of whatever happens, and to live in the present moment. This implies living a moral and virtuous life, practicing mindfulness and exercising self-control, and focusing on what is within our control than on external events or other people.
The Stoics believed that the cosmos is governed by a rational principle or logos. And it is the purpose of human life is to understand the nature of the cosmos and to live in harmony with this principle.
They believed we could achieve this through applying sage-like wisdom to our thoughts and actions and by living morally good lives.
As a Stoic, you try your best to live in accordance with nature by acting out on virtues to reach a state of eudaimonia – a life of ultimate goodness. A Stoic’s life is firmly moored in the present, fully realizing that we are powerless to rewrite the past or influence the future.
Stoics believed in focusing on the process of the task at hand, working at it with complete awareness and devotion, without worrying too much about the outcomes.
A Stoic’s Need To Do Purposeful Work
A Stoic would advise that you should select a goal, but you should not seek it to turn out exactly as you want.
Keep in mind the Stoic archer while setting a goal.
An archer can focus on the target but cannot fully will the arrow to strike exactly where he wants to. And if the arrow misses the target, they must accept it rather than view it as a source of anger or frustration.
What would better work is to pick up the arrow and rework his skill with dedication and passion.
A Stoic seizes the day (carpe diem), making every effort to be useful to others until their time is over, as fate decides.
You cannot say for sure if something is outright good or bad because it depends on how you see it from your moral perspective.
Your life, and all your riches, are preferred indifferents.
What they hold is that while human life is precious, your life is not meaningful in itself. Its meaning lies in what you do with it.
Whether a king (Marcus Aurelius) or a water-bearer (Cleanthes) or a slave (Epictetus), you have the power to choose what to do right now.
“What is the meaning of life, Marcus Aurelius?”
“The fruit of this life is good character and acts for the common good.” – Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE), born as Marcus Annius Verus, given the name Verissimus (‘most truthful’).
Marcus Aurelius was not a pure Stoic, but rather an eclectic Stoic, with influences from Cynicism and Epicureanism. His Meditations revolves around the following three Stoic ideas on its ethics:
- Our beliefs about what is valuable or attractive have a direct influence on our emotions and desires.
- A virtuous life is the same as a happy life, and all that is needed to secure happiness is Virtue. Health, money, success, and even the well-being of one’s family and friends are all unimportant for happiness; they are known as “indifferents” or “matters of indifference.”
- We have an inborn tendency to help and benefit others. This tendency, when fully realized, manifests itself in both engaging with family and society and seeing all human beings as forming a “brotherhood” or cosmopolitan city.
Stoics And The Meaning of Death
A Stoic does not fear death, because they realize that Death has already claimed whatever days we have lived up to this point. The best course of action is to take the time we are left with and practice a life of virtue.
Marcus also advised us, and himself, on the futility of fearing death.
“Let your every action, word, and thought be those of one who could depart from life at any moment. But taking your leave of the human race is nothing to be feared, if the gods exist; for they would not involve you in anything bad. If, on the other hand, they do not exist,* or if they do not concern themselves with human affairs, why should I care to go on living in a world devoid of gods or devoid of providence?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.11
What do modern Stoics think of the true meaning of life?
Most modern Stoics would hold the idea that the goal of human life is to align ourselves with reason and virtue. This means using reason to understand the universe and to make decisions that are in accordance with virtue.
Some modern Stoics may also focus on the idea of living in the present moment and finding peace and fulfillment by practicing Amor Fati and Premeditatio Malorum.
Most of them would hold that our choices in the present moment are what we are in complete control of.
What do Stoics value the most?
Stoics regard Virtue and The Four Cardinal Virtues as the most important value in life. Their idea was that a virtuous life is identical to a happy life, and that virtue is all that is needed to ensure happiness. If a person is nothing else than a person of virtue, then it is sufficient to keep them happy.
So, instead of asking “What is the meaning of life?” a Stoic would rather ask himself, “What can I do now to make my life more meaningful?”
To make their existence purposeful, Stoics would use the freedom of their minds to choose what to do in the here and now, accept full responsibility for their decisions and actions, embrace the uncertainties of the future, and live in virtue.
The Stoics believed that the universe has predestined all of us to have a purpose or meaning.
The Epicureans, on the other hand, believed that the universe had no meaning since it was a random collection of atoms.
Surprisingly, Epicurus (341-270 BCE) was the first person to claim that everything is composed of tiny, indivisible, and invisible particles called atoms.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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