The Stoics on How to Find Personal Fulfilment

Most of you, unfortunately, have forgotten how to find personal fulfilment in your careers, and in your lives. I say this because so many of the human population has forgotten what it means to serve; and more importantly, we have forgotten why we should be serving.

I know, on the surface of it, this seems to be a strange connection to make. I mean the connection between knowing how to find personal fulfilment in your careers; and forgetting why we should be serving others.

To clarify why I make this connection, I want to share a piece of history with you, because an ancient school of philosophy has lessons for us.

Stoicism and the Success of the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire was a monumental achievement of civilisation. Through its history it spanned around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, North Africa and West Asia. It survived for well over 5 centuries, and provided the context for innumerable innovations in all areas of human life. The difference between the Roman Empire and the barbaric tribes that populated the rest of Europe at the time was stark. The Romans were civilised, the rest of Europe were savages, point of fact.

Now, when contemplating the success of the Roman Empire, it is very important to consider its intellectual landscape; and to consider the intellectual landscape in the times preceding its rise. The Roman Empire arose out of a context of philosophical and intellectual flourishing. So, in and around what is today Greece, Italy and Turkey, with the City of Athens as a focal point, thinkers of historic calibre succeeded in having a dramatic impact on the societies of the time.

Philosophy in Ancient Greece and Rome

The most famous of these figures are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. As some may know, Plato, a student of Socrates, is perhaps most famous for starting what many think is the first university; an institution called the Academy. Aristotle for his part, famously, was a student of Plato’s and served as the tutor of Alexander the Great.

These great thinkers, particularly Socrates, inspired a whole host of thinkers, through numerous generations. One of those was a guy called Zeno, who, trying to capture in doctrine his understanding of the Socratic way of life, developed Stoicism as a school of thought. Stoicism as a School of thought, along with all of the other dominant philosophical schools, had a profound impact on Hellenistic society. Stoicism became dominant as a philosophical school and profoundly shaped the social fabric of the Roman Empire. More importantly, Stoicism shaped the nobility of the Roman Empire, improving the moral and ethical fibre of the Roman nobility.

Cultivating Excellence in Youth

For most noble youth of the time, philosophical education was a very important part of their upbringing and early training. It was very common for the nobility to send their youth to learn from philosophers. Philosophers of the time would teach the doctrines of the dominant schools. More importantly however, philosophers groomed the characters of the youth who were placed in their charge.

We must remember that education back then was different to how we think about it now. Unlike today, the aim of education was less about imparting technical knowledge, and more about forming the characters of the students. Philosophers devoted huge effort to improving the characters and moral fibre of their students. This practice produced a highly sophisticated civil society that managed to hold back to barbaric hordes for centuries.

Stoicism and its Impact

Stoicism is an extensive body of interdependent doctrines that all support each other. The Stoics divided philosophy into 3 parts; namely, Logic (the study of reasoning), Ethics (the study of morality) and physics (the study of natural phenomena). All three of these were part of a philosophical education.

The Stoics and Your Personal Fulfilment

Of particular interest to us however are the Stoic views on Ethics. Like all of the Hellenistic schools, the Stoics were eudaimonists. Among other things, this means that happiness, personal fulfilment, was, for the Stoics, the most important part of Ethics. The Stoics set up ethical deliberation as an investigation into what makes a human life good, and what makes a person happy.

The Stoics are notorious for what they had to say about happiness. Much to the confusion of the modern audience, the Stoics believed that virtue and happiness were identical with one another. According to the Stoics, the only thing that is truly good (prudentially) for a human being, is virtue. Virtue is the only thing that will make your life better. Everything else that we associate with happiness, the so-called external goods, like wealth, reputation, and even health, were considered to be indifferent. Indifferent in the sense that they are neither good nor bad; they have no real value. The only thing that is bad is vice.

In this way the Stoics argued that being happy and being excellent are the same thing.

What does “Being Excellent” Mean for the Stoics?

But, if I tell you that being happy and being excellent are the same thing, then it is important to understand what being excellent is. At a foundational level, the Stoics understand virtue as a matter of “being reasoned in all that you do”.

This has been described in different ways by different Stoics. Zeno, the founder of the school, said that happiness is “living in agreement with nature”. Another notable Stoic, Diogenes, declares that happiness is to “act with good reason in the selection of what is natural”. Archedemus, yet another Stoic, said that it is “to live in performance of all befitting actions”.

The Stoics saw all these description of happiness as synonymous with each other. They were all trying to talk about the same thing, each in their own way.

Understanding the Stoics in the 21st Century

Unfortunately, people struggle to understand what the Stoics actually meant; and why their ideas were so powerful. That is not surprising though, because these statements challenge our routine patterns of thought. But, what exactly did Zeno mean when he said that virtue is “living in agreement with nature”? And, why should we believe that this is the only thing that is really good for us?

As to the first question, you must remember that “living in agreement with nature”, for the Stoics, meant doing what is appropriate in the moment that you are in. They argued that human beings are able to determine, with the use of their reason, the course of action that is appropriate, given the way things are.  The virtuous person recognises and acts according to that understanding in every situation that they are in.

But what really sets the virtuous person apart is that he does what is appropriate because he believes it to be appropriate. He does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. And this is what the Stoics took to be happiness; living a life where you at all times do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

The Stoics on How to Find Personal Fulfilment

We can reasonably ask however why we should believe that doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do is the same thing as happiness?

Believe it or not, there are actually very good reasons for thinking that this is true. We can most easily make sense of this idea when we draw a distinction between outcome and process. Ordinarily we associate our personal fulfilment with things that are the outcomes of the things that we do. We think that our fulfilment is in the health we get after exercising. Likewise, we think that it is in the financial stability we get after succeeding in our careers. We think that it is in the  respect people show us, after working hard to each their respect.

Unfortunately, your personal fulfilment does not happen when you get these thing; it happens on the way to getting them, in the day by day living of your life. You will never be fulfilled when you have these things if you are not fulfilled whilst working on getting them.

This is firstly because we can never actually possess any of these things. If you think that health will fulfil you; then you will never be healthy enough stop worrying about your health. The threat of disease is always there. If you think riches will fulfil you, you will never be rich enough that we can stop worrying about your wealth. Your fortune, big or small, will always be under threat. Often the richest are the most worried about their wealth. Naturally, they have more of it to worry about.

How to Find Personal Fulfilment? Focus on Process

Naturally, human beings incline towards the pursuit of certain outcomes. Naturally, we prefer to have wealth because it facilitates our endeavours. We are naturally inclined to want connection with others, because we are social beings. Similarly, we are naturally inclined to preserve our health, because our first impulse is towards self-preservation.

But fulfilment doesn’t come from getting them, it happens on the way to getting them. You will achieve personal fulfilment in the process, you cannot possess in the outcome. When the Stoics tell us to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, they are essentially telling us to live our life to live it well.

This is the true origin of fulfilment, doing something to do it well. This is why we take up hobbies. We all have those things in our lives that we do for the sake of doing them well. Some grow vegetables, others play football. Whatever it is that you do, the same fundamental principles applies, doing a thing simply to do it well fulfils us.

Focusing on Process in Your Life

The trick however is living our whole lives like that, our work lives included. If you want to know how to find personal fulfilment at work, then you have to crack this code. How do you go to work to work well? Not go to work just to earn a living. Not just go to work to advance your career. If that is why you are going to work, you will have to suffer through the work day.

The Stoics thus advise us to pursue the outcomes we are naturally inclined to pursue as human beings. But, very importantly, we must make excellence in the process our top priority. It is not reaching our goals that matter, but the process of getting there. Prioritising excellence in process where our lives are concerned means doing the thing you recognise to be the best thing in the moment that you are in. Doing your best to do the right thing. This is what it means to prioritise excellence in process. This is what will give a sense of fulfilment in your life.

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