Two of the most influent philosophers in the antiquity proposed different perspectives on how we should attain happiness: Plato and Epictetus.

Plato points out that our civilization contains fundamental imperfections that will eventually lead it to its own downfall. If nothing is done, there will always be a vicious cycle: the creation of civilizations, its decline, destruction. The population cannot enjoy the comfort of a stable political system. Therefore, we should put effort in reforming the entire system. In other words, we should attempt to create a perfect society to reach happiness.

However, Epictetus believes that there are things in our control and things outside of it. A happy person makes his peace with the things that he cannot control so that he is not troubled by them. For him, anyone who adopts this perspective can be happy. If the course of the world cannot be controlled by an individual, then his best way to happiness is to accept whatever happens (the external events are neither good nor bad).

Which of these two points of view best applies to today's world from a philosophical perspective?

  • 2
    It can be argued that both are necessary. Even if only changing ourselves, we in fact change a part of the world, and that is not that different from changing another part of the world. There are cases where other things must also change besides ourselves (eg inhuman living conditions).
    – Nikos M.
    Dec 8, 2022 at 6:30
  • 2
    Note to Epictetus: Social constructs (which may result in unhappy conditions) are human constructs and thus are always under our collective control.
    – Nikos M.
    Dec 8, 2022 at 6:35
  • 2
    Or perhaps by changing oneself?
    – Roger V.
    Dec 8, 2022 at 9:09
  • 2
    Become happy / calm, then work on improving things for others. (It doesn't work the other way around)
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 8, 2022 at 17:51
  • 4
    “God, grant me the grace to accept with serenity the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
    – Jedediah
    Dec 8, 2022 at 23:00

6 Answers 6


Definitely do not accept it as it is. It is the most destructive force our planet has ever seen.

To live rightly, you should follow these maxims:

  • Seek Truth,
  • Protect Beauty,
  • Fight for Justice, and
  • Risk for Love.

These are the things that can restore our world. You have enormous control over anything that belongs to Mankind, because ultimately -- whether you're an evolutionist or a Creationist -- YOU made it.

Find me, I've been trying to do it alone and it doesn't work. Without Love (the last item in the list) in this insane society, I have no energy to fight.

  • Some more perspective on this: Love: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:12
  • Interesting to see my upvoted comment was deleted. Being familiar with the policy for leaving comments, it did not violate the policy. This answer is full of platitudes and empty statements. Such platitudes are dangerous because they oversimplify reality and cause naivety. My suggestion for improving this post is for it to be more realistic by considering broader perspectives of morality. Dec 19, 2022 at 23:12

All this presupposes happiness as a desirable goal; it is not.

Happiness as a sensation of momentous pleasure

The psychologist Kahneman maintains this position, and concludes that people don't want to be happy.1

Happiness as pleasure in life itself

The psychologist Jordan Peterson says that people have a far stronger desire to avoid misery than to be happy, and that happiness cannot be achieved if you are in the active search of that.

Happiness as planning satisfaction (satisfaction on what you have done with your life)

Happiness as a planning experience is a individually desirable goal and a goal that people naturally strive to get. But trying to get all satisfaction for all is impossible because there will always be contradictory plans, and trying to get a ideal is also impossible because you can compare interpersonal satisfaction.


You don't want happiness to be the objective, just a secondary effect of a healthy life.

  • 2
    I find the reasoning in this answer unsatisfactory in the sense that just because one cannot formally define the straw that breaks the camel's back certainly does not mean that such a straw is non-existent or that it is empirically unverifiable and nonsense.
    – Nikos M.
    Dec 8, 2022 at 23:25
  • 1
    I feel this is more of a quibble on the the semantics of the word "happiness" than an answer in the spirit of the original question. One could replace it perhaps with "satisfaction in the long run" or whatever it is that would make you happy in a non transient sense.
    – Bruce
    Dec 9, 2022 at 5:23
  • @Bruce sastisfaction in the long run is what is being explored in "Happiness as pleasure in life itself"
    – Rieke
    Dec 9, 2022 at 5:48
  • @NikosM. without formal definitions is impossible to properly reason about a topic.
    – Rieke
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:12
  • @Rieke this only demonstrates that some formalizations are unable to capture a certain topic, nothing more.
    – Nikos M.
    Dec 9, 2022 at 17:44

Pursue both

It's not necessary to choose only one of those options. We might consider a person mentally ill who adhered strictly to just one or the other throughout their entire lives.

Perhaps you're familiar with the "Serenity Prayer":

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

It explicitly acknowledges two facts:

  • each of us does have some power to change the world around us
  • that power has limits

We should also recognize the fact that a person generally does not need to reshape all human society in order to achieve happiness. Countless people have found fulfillment in working to achieve a better society, without ever getting to enjoy the realization of that goal.

Conventional wisdom holds that a person ought to pursue both strategies more or less continuously throughout their life. Do whatever is in your power to make the world a better place, but be prepared to encounter intractable problems on your journey.

Consider also that some of the change that a person ought to make is within themselves. Virtue ethics (which was familiar to Plato, as well as Socrates and Aristotle) tells us that we each have a responsibility to cultivate good qualities in ourselves, and that failing to do so will prevent us from being happy. This requires more than simply choosing to accept things about the world that displease us.

Deliberately modifying our own character is likely to alter our reactions to the imperfect world around us. This is probably the area in which you have the greatest control (which is not to say you won't find intractable problems here, too).

  • 1
    One intractable problem can be that changing oneself can create conflict with others.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:51

Those perspectives aren't incompatible.

Change the things within your control and accept the things outside your control.

Any given way to reform the world may be within your control, or it may (appear to) be outside your control.

Plato isn't saying you should attempt to reform the world in ways you're unable to, so it's not incompatible with what Epictetus said.

Epictetus's point was not that you should do nothing if you can't fix everything by yourself, but rather that you should do what you can, and not worry about things beyond that.

Perhaps the underlying question here is:

Given that we can't broadly control the world, should we bother taking part in any collective (good) actions?

While you may not be able to single-handedly reform the world, you can certainly still contribute to reforming it and influence others to help.

You can't directly control e.g. who wins an election or who others vote for, but you can control who you vote for and what you say to influence the vote of those around you (and as a result of your influence on them, they may influence others, and those people may influence others, and so on, and so on), and this can help shift the result in one way or the other.

(And if you can convince others to vote for you, you may end up in a position where you can practically single-handedly reform the world.)

This is without even considering the fact that in taking part in the collective action of reforming the world, you may single-handedly change one person's life (which is not negligible). For example, if you convince one person to vote for a different party, during that process you may change their perspective on a lot of issues and on life in general (in a good way, hopefully). Or if you fight for equal rights for a group of people, that may involve, among other things, you standing up for the rights of one individual, which may have a very noticeable impact on that person's life (whether it's from actually having their rights respected, or from them simply knowing that others are looking out for them).

There has been other questions relating to the same topic of taking part in collective actions (whether good or bad):

  • "Don't worry - Be happy" Sounds like a hit!
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:48
  • This answer would be better if it offered some explication of Epictetus's point. I mention this because it seems to directly challenge OP's interpretation of Epictetus.
    – Tom
    Dec 10, 2022 at 0:22
  • @Tom Expanded..
    – NotThatGuy
    Dec 10, 2022 at 15:33

Plato was an Aristocrat, who lived under the 30 Tyrants imposed on Athens by Sparta after, as he saw it, democracy proved ineffective at military decision making. Plato attempted direct political action, by supporting The Tyrant of Syracuse. It did not go well.

Epictetus was born into slavery, and later was banished from Rome along with all philosophers by Emperor Domitian. He always had to find a difficult line between change and acceptance, of slavery, of the government. It's hard to make reforms, when you're dead.

"I only worry about sending the fruits of the garden which I cultivate off to be sold there.’ Having said these words, he invited the strangers into his house; his two sons and two daughters presented them with several sorts of sherbet, which they had made themselves, with kaimak enriched with the candied-peel of citrons, with oranges, lemons, pine-apples, pistachio-nuts, and Mocha coffee… – after which the two daughters of the honest Muslim perfumed the strangers’ beards. ‘You must have a vast and magnificent estate,’ said Candide to the turk. ‘I have only twenty acres,’ replied the old man; ‘I and my children cultivate them; and our labour preserves us from three great evils: weariness, vice, and want.’ Candide, on his way home, reflected deeply on what the old man had said. ‘This honest Turk,’ he said to Pangloss and Martin, ‘seems to be in a far better place than kings…. I also know,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden." "

-Voltaire, in 'Candide'

Voltaire lived during extraordinarily violent and turbulent times. He worked on the Encyclopedia, one of the most defining projects of the Age of Enlightenment, which aimed at being a 'Bible of reason'. He barely escaped execution multiple times for his temerity in doing that, and other deviations from the state's politics and theology. He feuded with other reformers like Rousseau, about how to change things. He certainly had wished to change the world, and knew many others with that wish, and it has to be said he probably did, or was at least part of doing so. So, this passage from Candide must be understood as all the more striking in light of that.

It's very easy to burn out if all your energy and attention is focused on causing a visible change in the world, given that such changes are almost inevitably slow, if they are going to last. It is crucial to cultivate a nourishing way to be, from which to act. I take that as the real message of Candide, because of course Voltaire did not simply stay home in his garden, he wrote and published this book for instance. I think he is saying, satisfaction and happiness don't come from trying to change the world, we should seperate and balance those things, that to plant good seeds in the world we must be cultivating our own garden, that is finding a healthy and happy way to be with ourselves, above imposing ways to be on others.

"Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it"

-Marx, 11th in his 'Theses on Feuerbach'

Marx made perhaps the most uncompromising call for philosophers to engage in creating political change, from his outrage over the conditions of the Industrial Revolution. Yet Stalin was much like a Tsar, as is Putin.

I would say the key to successful political change is making the argument, pursuading others and winning over a majority for change. A minority imposing choices, always results in measures having to be taken to enforce those, and moves towards autocracy - whether or not that is called 'dictatorship of the proletariat'. Discussed in relation to the social contract and Game Theory here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

Embedding key rights and laws allows people to recruit others to their ideas, and restrict governments being able to impose theirs, is key to a society remaining cohesive without autocracy, and must be a priority to defend - and extend. Citizen Assemblies are a really promising avenue, which are actually a system used in Ancient Athens called sortition, where contentious decisions are made by a jury of citizens chosen by lot, who must listen to evidence from all sides before coming to conclusions. Discussed here: Philosophers on alternatives to capitalism and communism

"The work of an intellectual is not to form the political will of others; it is, through the analyses he does in his own domains, to bring assumptions and things taken for granted again into question, to shake habits, ways of acting and thinking, to dispel the familiarity of the accepted, to take the measure of rules and institutions and, starting from that re-problematization (where he plays his specific role as intellec­tual) to take part in the formation of a political will (where he has his role to play as citizen)."

-Foucault, in an interview in 1984

Or more pithily:

"Don't act. Just think."

-Zizek, in a Big Think video

I see this as about accepting that there are different tasks to take up, and the realpolitik and chicanery necessary for practical politics is generally in conflict with the best philosophical thinking. See Does philosophy have a dark side? As philosophers, our task is to do the best thinking we can.

It is common to describe Stoicism as a form of Quietism, as the withdrawal from attempts to change things. But Marcus Aurelius is the epitamy of an engaged-Stoic, and wrote his Meditations while ruling Rome, towards him understanding how to find a balance between change, and acceptance.

I'd say the best advice, as discussed here Is quietude a good thing? is the Serenity Prayer:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

the courage to change the things I can

and the wisdom to know the difference."

-attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr


This is a false dichotomy. Both can be done. World can be changed for better AND world can be accepted as it is, at same time.

There is time and place for everything. All one has to be is put things at their right place. Therefore, in some matters world should be changed for better and in other matters world should be accepted as it is.

We have two levers, not one. We can look for pleasure AND avoid pain. We can do both at same time for different things.

One shouldn't tolerate pain unless its an investment for greater pleasure. So, if something in world is hurting you or others and after careful analysis with sufficient data you are sure the pain would not lead to greater pleasure you should start working on making the world a better place.

A tyrant should be removed, unless in emergency situations where alternate is chaos and in-fighting. In simple words a tyrant is "not worth it".

If one is bullied in school one should fight back in some way. Tolerance of this pain wouldn't make the pain go away and it wouldn't make one a better person. Its not like military training. One should atleast complain to authorities when bullied.

If you are ill you should do something about it. See a doctor or if you yourself are sufficiently knowledgeable in medicines prescribe yourself one. Doing nothing is not acceptable. Same if you are wounded.

Now if you are having only a minor disease that your experience / observation shows go away on its own and make you stronger, or if the wound is a slight one and letting it heal on its own make you stronger then doing nothing is the way to go.

The second part is getting pleasure. If getting a larger house with your own lawn make you happy then go for it. If having a luxurious perfume make you happy and you can afford it, do get it. Don't deprive yourself of pleasures.

At some point, to be happy, you have to learn to accept things as they are. There is only upto a size house you can get in life, given your skills and how much society allow you. Spending all your life getting stuff for a little more pleasure is stupid, you will never have time to enjoy what you have. So, do accept what you have and be contend with it.

Suppose you go on a vacation and are staying in a hotel room. Well you can get to a better resort, and to a better hotel room. Suppose you pack your back and travel to there, then what. There are better places still. Where will you stop? At some point you have to stop somewhere. So better stop where you are right now as the thing is giving you some pleasure.

Accept what you have if you want pleasure, if the thing is giving you some pleasure, don't change world for that. Avoid pain if its not going to give you greater pleasure later, do change world for that.

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