You can’t have your cake and eat it too is an old proverb. But it’s obviously quite dated. I mean, people implicitly mean that they’re going to eat cake when they ask, “can I have that piece of cake?” So the logical implication is quite apparent that if you are going to have your cake, you are certainly going to eat it too. But anyway, playing on the old idea that if you eat your cake, then you can’t have it since you ate it, well, I think Stoicism is a situation where you can have your cake and eat it too. Stoicism is about having an obstacle and having the path. The obstacle in the path becomes the path, right?
There are a few ways in which Stoicism is like having your cake and eating it too. Stoicism requires investment and the only thing you get out of it is being virtuous, right? So that seems like it’s quite a taxing philosophy, right? Well, yes and no. Before Stoicism, life is hard and practicing Stoicism is harder. So why would anyone practice Stoicism if life is hard and Stoicism is harder? Because while there is some effort put into practicing Stoicism, it pays you back incalculably.
The payoff from Stoicism is worth more than the hard life you had before and the time you put into practicing Stoicism. One of the doctrines of Stoicism is that everyone is mad except for the Sage. What this means is that without a life of virtue, we’re consumed by suffering. All of our negative emotions spring from a lack of wisdom. The important wisdom that we lack is that externals actually make no difference to our character and our character is entirely in our control. To have a good character, we must first have a good will and a good judgment that realizes that only virtue is truly good and the only thing truly worth wanting. Everything else is either preferred, dispreferred, or absolutely indifferent. Epictetus reminds us that wealth doesn’t make us better, wealth just makes us wealthier. Health doesn’t make us better, health makes us healthier. What makes us better is being more virtuous. That means being wise, being just, being courageous, and being temperate. So being virtuous means being free from suffering since we don’t invest all of our concern into externals like health, wealth, and reputation. Our freedom from suffering (i.e., pathos) is the reward we get from following virtue.
The Stoics state that virtue is sufficient for happiness. This is a specific form of happiness called eudaimonic happiness. It’s purposefully and virtuously generated happiness that results from living without pathos (suffering) and developing eupatheia. Eupatheia is what is referred to as the good feelings. Eupatheia are the feelings that the Sage will have. The Sage will have the feeling of joy, which is a rational kind of elation. The Sage will also have the feeling of caution, which is respect and modesty. And, finally, the Sage will have the feeling of wishing, which is goodwill, benevolence, friendliness, and affection. So the work that you put into becoming virtuous pays for itself and rewards you with positive feelings like joy and goodwill.
One last thing that must be mentioned is that we experience pain in life but Stoicism helps us stop further inflaming the pain by judging it as evil and something to be hated. We can experience very unpleasant situations and it can be hard sometimes to stand back and not let the situation drag us into the mud. But, Stoicism says that if you try hard at living a life of virtue and prepare yourself for circumstances that require temperance and courage, it’ll be easier to react more rationally and calmly to situations that are painful and adverse. And that in itself will make life go easier.
Stoicism is exactly like having your cake and eating it too. Adverse situations can shape you into a better and more joyful person. It’s all about how you use the situation. Virtue requires investment but virtue rewards you incalculably by giving a eudaimonic life free of negative passion and full of positive passion. So if anyone ever tells you that you can’t have your cake and eat it too, tell them about Stoicism. Tell them that the obstacle is the way and how the cake that is eaten is also had.