(If you wish to ask a question for the Stoic advice or Stoic Q&A series, please email me at epictetus64 at yahoo dot com.)
A follower on Twitter posted this excellent question, which really gets at the core of Stoic philosophy and, for that matter, of any philosophy of life or religion. In order to answer it, though, we need to begin by clarifying what we mean by those two key terms: “virtue” and “happiness.”
Starting from the latter, what we definitely don’t mean is a temporary feeling of elation, as in “I’m happy to finally be on vacation.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with that sort of happiness, but it isn’t the kind of thing philosophies of life (or religions) are in the business of fostering. Moreover, psychologically speaking, happiness-as-elation is not sustainable by human beings, it is necessarily temporary. Of course, a Stoic (or a Christian, or a Buddhist) can certainly be “happy” in that sense, but that isn’t the goal of their practice.
Happiness, however, may also mean something like fulfillment, as in “my life is a happy one because I find meaning in what I do.” Happiness-as-fulfillment very much is the sort of things that a philosophy of life may be in the business of fostering.
Let us now consider “virtue.” For a Christian, virtue is one of seven habits to be cultivated, as famously codified by Thomas Aquinas: practical wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, hope, faith, and charity. A meaningful Christian life is one in which the faithful cultivate these virtues in order to follow the path laid out by Jesus. This, however, is not in itself sufficient, as it has to be accompanied by the belief that there is a God along the lines described by that particular religion, that his Son came to Earth to redeem us, and that we will be in the presence of such God for eternity after death, if we have lived rightly.
Something similar can be said for Stoics, though with a number of major differences. We too attempt to practice virtue, where the original Greek word, arete means excellence: we are trying to be the best human beings we can be. This, broadly speaking, means that we constantly attempt to use reason — which we consider the best guidance to human actions — to improve social living. We think of ourselves as cosmopolitan, meaning that we treat every human being as a brother or sister with whom we share existence on this planet. Our practice also relies on being mindful of specific virtues, which happen to be a subset of the Christian ones: practical wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. (It is no chance that Aquinas included these four in the Christian set: he got them from the Stoics.) We don’t believe, however, in a transcendental reality, nor do we think that the ancients who wrote down Stoic doctrines and precepts have to be treated as prophets. They were exceptional human beings, but like all human beings, fallible. Which means that we feel free to improve on their thoughts from the vantage point of modern science and philosophy.
Now that we have a better grasp of what “happiness” and “virtue” mean, here is the Stoic move: happiness is virtue! In the sense that a happy (i.e., meaningful) life is one in which we strive to be the best persons we can, regardless of what the universe throws at us. So the answer to the question: “why do Stoics focus on virtue rather than happiness?” is that Stoics think that virtue is the same thing as happiness.
This move may seem bizarre and rather unconvincing, until you pause and realize that pretty much every philosophy of life or religion makes a similar move, though they cash happiness-as-meaning differently. Indeed, arguably the major difference among philosophies and religions lies in how they conceive of a meaningful (“happy”) life. For a Christian this involves service to humanity and worship of God. For a Buddhist it consists in following the eightfold path and accepting the four noble truths. Epicureans thought that a meaningful life is one in which one follows virtue while avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. The Aristotelians taught that a life of flourishing (yet another conception of “happiness”) comes from following virtue and having at least a modicum of external goods, such as education, health, wealth, and a bit of good looks. And so on.
What is strange, in a way, is that in our modern society we have come to believe that happiness is decoupled from meaning, and particularly from a life of service to others. Which in turn has led us to consider as perfectly intelligible the sort of question that I am attempting to answer here. But for Stoics, Epicureans, Aristotelians, Christian, Buddhists, Confucians, Taoists, and so forth the question itself doesn’t make much sense, because it is predicated on the dubious assumption that happiness is categorically different from virtue. Could perhaps this be a major root of much contemporary malaise?