Is stoicism good or bad

we live well

Character or body? - What needs to be optimized?

"To do more sports." - This is arguably one of the most popular New Year's resolutions. There is nothing wrong with that - is there? What do stoics mean by good intentions? What standards can one set on resolutions to check whether they are really “good”? As a reminder: In the philosophy of the Stoa, a good character and the virtuous (= wise, just, courageous and measured) action associated with it is the highest good.

From the perspective of stoicism, there is nothing wrong with striving to develop one's own skills and talents. To get involved as much as possible and to create a benefit for society is even our duty. Just when optimizing yourself you have to be careful and ask yourself what the underlying motives are. Are they materialistic, vain, superficial motives? Do I exercise or do I lose weight to get recognition and admiration? Do I want to be healthier or do I want to stage myself and my body?

The problem of self-optimization is the danger of chasing after an unattainable ideal and slipping into an ego-centeredness. Optimization is increasingly taking place in all areas of life. A so-called "perfect life" includes a healthy, beautiful body, professional success, an attractive partner, material prosperity and visually stunning, professionally staged leisure experiences. Constantly optimizing themselves in this regard and presenting this on social media is not desirable for the stoics. It is more likely the alternative to a life based on virtuous action - and perhaps the sure way to burnout. The growing desire, and above all the pressure to be perfect, leads, especially in Generation Y, to excessive demands, depression and burnout. (1) (2)

Why actually “do more sport”?

When making resolutions, you should always check the underlying motivation and ask yourself what consequences this will have for yourself and, above all, for the social and ecological environment.

Should one now do more sport or not? Physical training is (usually) healthy and enables fitness and discipline to be developed, which in turn can help to act virtuously and to meet one's social responsibilities. However, neglecting family and friends to exercise can be problematic. On the other hand, it is to a certain extent a personal obligation, if possible and exercised with moderation, to be physically active, for example to prevent lumbago or chronic ailments. Health has an indirect, instrumental value, i.e. it enables or facilitates (more) virtuous action.

Let's take an example: A couple with small children who have a tight schedule, with family, work and household, resolves to do more sport. This could, for example, take two forms and be done for two reasons:

a) You train for several hours five days a week in order to have a perfectly shaped body and to be perceived as a great, fit mother or father. To the same extent, you spend less time with family and friends and neglect your tasks, e.g. at work and at home.

b) You train two to three times a week for an hour each time, especially to strengthen your back and the musculoskeletal system. As a result, you are both mentally more balanced and better able to lift a small child, for example, without getting back or neck pain from it.

Conclusion: It is far more important to be a good person than a fit person

Physical fitness can certainly contribute to a good character. When it comes to weighting, it can be said very clearly: A good character and the virtuous behavior associated with it are far more important for a good, fulfilled and successful life than physical fitness. The philosopher and psychotherapist Donald Robertson sums up the stoics' attitude to fitness as follows:

Remember, the goal is to improve your self-discipline and related ‘virtues’ or character strengths, rather than to lose weight or gain physical health. If you're exercising self-discipline and perseverance, though, it makes sense to do it in a healthy direction, doesn't it? Stoics refer to physical health and fitness as something preferred ’but ultimately irrelevant, or‘ indifferent ’, in relation to true happiness and fulfillment. Cultivating a healthy character is infinitely more important to them than cultivating a healthy body. Nevertheless, we develop self-discipline precisely by trying to do healthy and appropriate things in the world, whether or not they turn out as we’d have preferred. (3)

For stoics, the best resolution is to work on your character and become a better person. If “doing more sport” helps us, or at least doesn't stop us, there is nothing wrong with it.




(3) Robertson, Donald, 2015: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. Ancient Tips for modern Challenges. Page 12-13.