The study of ethics has for many years divided the philosophy community into competing schools of thought. Two of these schools, Stoicism and Epicureanism, have wrestled with the specific question “How can I be happy?” While the answer may appear obvious at first, the two schools have developed competing theories of happiness that prove it is not such an easy question to answer. The Stoics argue that the way to a happy life is through pursuing virtue. In comparison, the Epicureans argue that a happy life is one free of pain. To clarify, neither school is declaring specific actions right or wrong; rather each is prescribing their own way of life in which happiness can be obtained (Sharples 82). In this paper, I will argue that the Stoic School succeeds because it accounts for the human desire to purse certain virtues without regard to pleasure or pain which is essential to happiness.
For the Stoics, what is necessary to live a happy life does not derive itself from physical pleasure or mental peace, rather virtue (Sharples 100). When one acts virtuously, they act in accordance with their human nature, following the guidance of their reason. For the Stoics, this guidance from reason leads us to certain things which give us pleasure such as wisdom or even other virtues we may feel. This life of virtue in accordance with reason is completely sufficient for living a happy life and in no way is it affected by an action’s consequence. The Stoics stress the importance of reasonable action in pursuance of a specific outcome without giving worth to the specific outcome itself (Sharples 107). If a man follows his reason to obtain an outcome, the outcome in question plays no role in the assignment of happiness, only the use of his reason. Externalities are beyond human control; our “aim” is what counts for the stoics.
For the Epicureans, the way of living most conducive to attaining happiness is not based on attaining virtue or wisdom, rather the avoidance of pain in the pursuit of physical pleasure and mental peace (Sharples 84). The Epicureans believe that the removal of pain is “the limit of pleasure” as to ensure that excessive behaviors such as ornate feasts do not give us more pleasure than simple foods that satisfy hunger. When we go above and beyond the removal of pain, the level of pleasure is not increased; it is only varied (Sharples 85). When we pursue desires that relieve the body and mind from pain, the Epicureans conclude that we are happy.
Stoicism prevails in the pursuit of happiness because it is guided by our natural reason and desire to attain wisdom. If we do not secede to our natural inclinations toward virtue, how could we ever be happy? For the Stoic, physical pain and pleasure are arbitrary and do not correlate with happiness because they are external to us and are simple desires of the moment. During our pursuit of wisdom, we have no control over externalities such as pleasure and pain and therefore should feel indifferent to them....