The Fundamental Rule

So what’s the most important thing I need to know in order to be happy? What’s the most important thing I can hope to learn?

That the only good is moral good. The only evil is moral evil. Everything else is indifferent and meaningless. Nothing is good or bad except what you do.

That's preposterous, surely you must know you're exaggerating. There are many things in the world that are good or bad, beyond just my own actions.

That’s what common sense tells you, but if you truly want to be happy, you have to question your common sense.

The most important belief is that the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil. Only virtue and vice matter. If you internalize this and make this belief guide your actions, you can be tranquil and happy in any situation.

This idea is not new. It originated perhaps with Socrates and has been taken up by many others since then, most notably the ancient Stoics. It is, however, a radical departure from the day to day values most of us have.

Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by their opinions about the things…When, then, we are impeded or disturbed or grieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our opinions. - Epictetus

So you’re saying that being poor isn’t bad? Being sick isn’t bad? That’s obviously ridiculous

That’s exactly what I’m saying. Pain, poverty and disease mean nothing. Pleasure, wealth and health are likewise meaningless. The only thing that really exists for you is your mind. The only things that really have meaning are your thoughts, opinions, desires. The way you behave. You’re the one that gives things meaning, so why give meaning to things outside of your control?

The only thing that can be truly good or bad is acting morally or immorally and this is always under your control. Now in a sense it's better to be healthy than sick, but don't mistake this for something with real value. If you're healthy, that doesn't mean you will do what you really should do. And if you're sick, that won't stop you from living like you should... except that you choose to let the sickness stop you.

All things being equal, it’s better to be healthy than be sick. But much better than either of those is to live virtuously. Everyone goes through periods of health and illness and everyone will die at some point, but not everyone will truly live well.

Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. Add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. – Epictetus

The only thing that really matters is what you really control: your own will, your power to form opinions, beliefs and desires.

Some things are in our control and others are not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions. The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. You will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you will not be harmed. – Epictetus

Ok, I get your point. You claim that morality leads to happiness, but I can think of a lot of counter-examples. I can think of very immoral people who seem to be quite happy.

It's more than morality. Virtue encompasses not only your actions but your way of thinking and seeing the world. Morality is just a part of that, you have to learn to judge the things you experience correctly, giving each event the correct level of importance and understanding how your life fits into the larger existence of everything you see around you.

So from this point of view, it's not possible to be immoral and happy. To behave badly means you don't understand. Yes, there are superficial forms of happiness that you can achieve through illusions and immorality. But these are very shallow experiences and nothing like the happiness that comes from a deeper understanding of the world. These are momentary, transitory things. Quick bursts of molecules in your brain that give you a brief high, but soon fade away.

True, lasting happiness is not a euphoria or a physical pleasure, but rather a certain type of understanding. A knowledge that brings tranquility and leads naturally to proper behavior. But perhaps we should approach the issue from another angle that will seem more practical right now. We’ll worry about what ‘happiness’ means later.

Just think of this, should you make your happiness depend on things you control or things you don’t control? Obviously it makes more sense to make it depend on what you control. If you make your happiness depend on external things, on other people, on events that you believe must happen in order for you to be happy, on things you believe you must own, on a certain status in society you believe you must have, then you’re a fool. Those things aren’t really under your control, only your thoughts and actions are under your control. 

If you let your happiness depend on other things, on other people, on other events, are you even free? Or are you not actually a slave to something else?

Whoever, then, would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must necessarily be a slave. – Epictetus

I can see something attractive about this way of thinking, but how am I supposed to actually do it? The things that make me happy are just the things that happen to make me happy, how can I change that?

In order to achieve this high level of self-control, you have to question yourself, you have to become truly self-aware. You have to observe your own mind and spend as much time thinking about your own thinking as you do about the millions of trivial things most people occupy their time with.

Not knowing what other people are thinking is not the cause of much human misery, but failing to understand the workings of one’s own mind is bound to lead to unhappiness. - Marcus Aurelius

The way to do this is to simply do it. You learn to walk by walking. Just start analyzing your thinking a little bit every day. At each moment, get in the habit of asking yourself, ‘is this something that I should really allow to affect my happiness?’

But won’t this way of thinking contradict itself? You’re basically saying that obvious things, like ‘cancer is bad’, aren’t true.

Yes, this does leads to all sorts of interesting - and at first glance strange - conclusions. Does this mean that if you get cancer it’s not a bad thing? Yes. The only thing that can be bad is the way you react to it. If you let it crush you, then it is bad. If you persevere and it makes you stronger, then it is a good thing. But only your thinking and actions are good or bad.

But what if you get a disease that kills you? Wouldn’t that be a bad thing? No. Something is going to kill you, what does it matter to you what it is? But maybe you’ll feel that your life is being cut short and that is a bad thing.

Does it really matter how long you live? If you heard about two people, one who lived 30 years and one who lived 80 years, could you say that one of them had a better life than the other? No, you need more information than just the length of time they lived. What if the 80 year old lived as a serial killer and the 30 year old as a saint? Which is the better life then?

The length of your life doesn’t really matter. How and when you die doesn’t matter. The only thing that really truly matters is how you live.

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that a man can lose only the life he is living, and he can live no other life than the one he loses. Whether he lives a long time or a short time amounts to the same thing, for the present moment is of equal duration for everyone, and that is all any man possesses. This is why the loss of life seems so momentary. A man cannot lose the past or the future – how can he be robbed of what is not his? Remember, then, these two truths: first, that everything from the beginning is just the same pattern repeating itself, and it makes no difference whether you watch this same show for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for all eternity; and second, that the man who dies young loses not a jot more than the man who dies old. A man can only be deprived of the present moment, for this is all he has, and how can a man lose what he doesn’t possess? - Marcus Aurelius

Rodrigo Etcheto