Whitworth alumnus Stephen T. Davis presented the lecture “Happiness in Life: Epictetus and Christianity” last Thursday night in the Robinson Teaching Theatre. The audience of students, faculty and community members listened close as Davis said that the secret to happiness lies not in ambition and achievement, but in changing the way one’s mind reacts to the external world.
Junior Anneliese Immel was deep in thought after the presentation.
“The philosophy of happiness that he presented—as a shift in the way of thinking—was not surprising to me,” Immel said. “What was surprising is that I know and believe in the concept, but I don’t live my life that way.”
“Everybody wants to be happy,” Davis said.
Davis is a professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California, and a Whitworth alumnus. He majored in philosophy and history at Whitworth, and later received both the distinguished alumnus award and an honorary doctorate from Whitworth.
“If you follow the usual theory of how to be happy, happiness runs through your fingers like water,” Davis said.
Davis says that the modern equation for happiness has to do with trying to fulfill as many wants and desires as possible while trying to avoid as many undesirable things as possible, in the hope that this will make bring happiness. He says that the fallacy of this recipe is that it assumes that people will be satisfied when they achieve their wants and desires.
“Human desire is insatiable,” Davis said.
Davis says that as one achieves a goal that he or she thought would bring happiness, one instantly begins thinking of the next goal that will bring happiness, but happiness never comes.
Davis gave a brief history of the philosopher Epictetus and provided the premise of his philosophy. He said that Epictetus believed that the internal world inside the mind can be moral or immoral and that it is the only thing a person can control. He said that the external world, the things that happen are fated, beyond control, and are neither moral nor immoral.
Davis iterated that the bulk of Epictetus’s philosophy is stoicism. A stoic trains oneself to live a life of reason and accept the world as it is and as it comes. Those who think that stoicism and achievement are mutually exclusive are wrong, he said.
A stoic can work to achieve an external goal, such as getting into the Stanford MBA program, if three conditions are set. They must realize that internal goals are more important than external goals, that external goals will not make you happy, and that you should not allow failure to achieve an external goal to disturb your internal goal of tranquility.
Davis disagrees with Epictetus on two levels. First, he believes that there should be more distinction between how much people are in control or not in control of situations. Second, he disagrees with Epictetus’s approach to loss and suffering.
Epictetus says that death along with everything else, isn’t bad because it has no moral and that you shouldn’t mourn the death of a loved one, because it is out of your control. Consequently, Epictetus says that you should pretend to mourn another’s loss, but not actually mourn, because another’s sorrow is of no concern to you. Davis disagrees and argues that some things in the external world do have morals and are truly bad.
Davis said that Epictetus’s philosophy of stoicism relates to Christianity, but that they have basic differences. Stoicism values self-sufficiency and personal happiness, assumes that the external world is morally neutral, and doesn’t require a social ethic.
On the contrary, Christianity values doing things through God and community and honoring God in one’s life, believes that there are morally good and morally bad occurrences, and requires a social ethic.
Davis said that even though the Bible has little to say about happiness, that the Christian value of joy, which is arguably more important, is presented often.
Despite these differences, Davis believes that with adhering to Christianity placed first, before stoicism, that stoicism can be a useful tool for Christians.
President Beck Taylor attended the lecture and was pleased with the results.
“This was a good example of integrating faith and learning,” Taylor said. “It’s great to see him (Davis) embodying Whitworth as an alum.”
In summation, Davis said, “So far as joy in life is concerned, stoic philosophy is good, but Christianity is better.”