Lessons from the Porches of Antiquity

I’ve been enjoying myself this week reading up on ancient philosophies, specifically the Stoics. I know. Don’t ask.

Philosophy (root words: philo meaning love and sophia meaning wisdom) is described by Wikipedia as the “study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reason, existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved.” Or, as The Philosophy Foundation put it, “The hope is that by doing philosophy we learn to think better, to act more wisely, and thereby help to improve the quality of all our lives.”

I think philosophy has a bad reputation at the moment, because so many recent philosophical schools and trains of thought are so removed from real life as it is actually lived, not just navel-gazed about. Post-modernism, for instance, is definitely having a moment currently but really… with its cynicism and concentration on the Individual ahead of the Collective and denial of objective reality, universal morals and shared truth…. well. It’s possibly a good subject for a Friday night when the wine starts to flow, but arguing the merits or drawbacks of Derrida, Foucault or Kellner is not going to inspire me much.

I’m a simple girl at heart, a realist, who doesn’t want a utopia or indeed proof that my head exists even when my eyes are closed or any other strange philosophical arguments. I want my philosophy nice and easy: that’s probably why I’m happy reading up on the Stoics.

Stoic philosophy, first surfacing in the Greek and Roman civilisations of pre-Christian thought, was one of many schools at the time. Some schools emphasised the mind ahead of the body (so long as you look after your mind, you can ignore the container) and other emphasised the physical nature of the body and the pursuit of pleasure as a worthy goal (hedonism, I’m looking at you). I’m not an either/or person, so I was never going to go for the ‘eat, drink and be merry because you’ll never pay the bill’ approach. I want a good life, a quiet (as far as possible) life, with contentment for myself and the people around me.

Stoic philosophers said that you could live well… as long as you were living in a way that wouldn’t harm other people, and wouldn’t damage your own morals. They emphasised a united world, where we all live together so should all look after each other. The Stoic world was about living a moral life, a just life, a balanced life. So far, so good. It was about living in accord with nature in a world where we are all interdependent, and that striving to be a good person was a good thing to do, whatever situation you found yourself in. The situation may be good or bad, but ultimately what determined our quality was how we responded to it. Of all the greek philosophical schools, Stoics are the one that appeal to me most.

I like that they lived careful lives, by which I mean that they focused on what was good for the whole world, not just themselves. They recognised their role in a natural world, not as master and overlord but as another cog in the wheel of nature, all be it one that is capable of slightly tilting the wheel in their favour. I like their emphasis on the idea that the circumstances may be good or bad, but what matters to you as a person is how you respond to it. The Stoic train of thought is at the root of modern Cognitive Behaviour Therapy as well as shared by many world religions and philosophies. The search for happiness, the recognition that small things make a difference, the curating of life through good reading and sensible living…. it all makes sense.

And I like the fact that their school is not named after a person, the Great Stoic of Athens or anywhere else, but the place where they met. Stoa is Greek for porch, and they first taught from the Painted Porch of the Athens Agora. They taught in small groups, encouraged personal relationships, and were open to anyone who could hear. The great Stoic philosophers of the past have included tutors to emperors (Seneca), boxers (Cleanthes) and ex-slaves (Epictetus) as well as most famously of all Marcus Aurelius, the great Philosopher King. The philosophy was open to all, classless and sexless (women, who were often not allowed anywhere near anything as dangerous as thinking by most Athenian philosophers were positively encouraged by many stoic teachers) and it has stood the test of time. Even today, thinkers like Ryan Holiday, Massimo Pigliucci and Donald Robertson base their lives on stoic philosophy. Live simply, live well and live in harmony with nature and each other is a good life system for any person.

And hygge is also a philosophy, using the excuse that if Stoicism “began in the guise of, and has always been understood as, a quest for a happy and meaningful life”, as Massimo Pigliucci puts it in How to Be a Stoic, then hygge living which is essentially seeking for a happy life and a happy life is best achieved in a meaningful life, can be a real means to an end.

At the very least, it’s a part of a whole country’s or block of countries’ philosophy: that how we live our lives is important, that inner and outer peace matter and that we collectively and individually need balance. Hygge, lagom, outdoor living, healthy mind in a healthy body and egalitarian communities. Add in Finnish Sissu (what we English call Stiff Upper lip) and you have a very stoical outlook on life. The Stoics emphasised personal responsibility for public issues, balanced living, charitable attitudes to those in need. Many of them kept journals to records thoughts, feelings and especially those parts of life that they were most grateful for. They didn’t seek out great wealth, but sought to life well. Discipline of mind and body mattered, and excess was frowned on. When you’re not allowed to splurge nightly, the little things in life matter more. Problems and difficulties happen, and hwat makes a big difference i show we respond to them: change what we can, live with what we can’t and wisdom rests on knowing which is which.

When I started this blog I couldn’t think of a ‘category’ to put hygge in… was it an art, a way of life or a lifestyle trend? (was it ever a lifestyle trend? I don’t think so. There are many people I know who, once they found the tenets of a hygge life, have adopted them, adapted them and adore them. It’s so much more than a lifestyle trend even if the interior decor shops tried to persuade us otherwise in 2016)

Hygge is a philosophy, or part of a philosophy: It’s a system for living that needs careful thought sometimes but more often than not runs on instinct. It values equality and community, it asks for restraint and indulgence and it gives the small details of life an enhanced ability to boost our way of living. That’s why Hygge Philosophy has always been one of the categories I use to assign posts. We enjoy the hygge in the moment because we have thought through the philosophy that underpins it at other times. It’s also a very available philosophy: it takes no brains, no tortured thinking, no great labels. Just a good heart and a healthy laugh. What are its rules? Well, those I might well start collecting: what would you say the best advice you could give to someone new to hygge would be?

Today’s header is by Maria Butyrina on Unsplash. I chose it because it seemed a very hyggely cottage: the door colour is attractive but not so glossy and new as to be off putting. Indeed, the fact it’s well-worn and loved makes me feel comfortable. There are pots of flowers and herbs by the door, and I always think that makes a place look welcoming. Finally, there’s enough chairs for a small gathering of friends, as well as that one comfortable chair that speaks of whoever lives here enjoying their neighbourhood enough to want to see people walking past. I can imagine them grabbing a large mug of milky tea and a good book and sitting out there in the summer evening smiling and waving to their meighbours. Decent porches or verandas are a really good idea, and one of the best parts of American houses. I wish we had them as well. UK porches tend to be closed in, lockable, and not that welcoming. And, as the Stoics show, we can learn a lot about life from sitting on the porch and watching.

How to Hygge the British Way is my gift to the world. I don’t get paid for writing it, I’m not in it for the kudos, financial rewards, to become an influencer, work with brands or otherwise make any money from the blog. That’s why there are no ads, and any products I mention and recommend have either been gifted to me or bought by me with my everyday wages or donations from supporters. Every book I review has been bought and read by me, unless stated otherwise.

I do get a couple of pennies each time someone buys from the Amazon links on my page, as an Amazon Affiliate, but otherwise if you’d like to support me, I like to give something back in return. That’s why I write books. You can find a full list of my books at my Author’s Page on Amazon, but especially recommended for this time of year are:

Happier: Probably my most personal book, it’s the story of how I used hygge and the little things in life to help boost my happiness. I still go back and reread to remind myself what I need to do to be a happy human.

Cosy Happy Hygge: Setting up a rhythm to life and rituals to enjoy it to make for a more balanced life that handles waves and storms better.

How to Hygge Your Summer: Hygge isn’t just about candles, throws and fireside cuppas (if indeed it is ever actually about them) and this book gives you ideas for creating hygge ready spaces and paces of life throughout the summer.

If you’d like to support me, but don’t want to buy a book, I have a Paypal.Me account as Hygge Jem. Every little helps, so even a few pence goes towards the books, goods and courses I use and recommend on the site. I’m grateful for every little bit that brings me closer to my dream of full-time writing, and I know I couldn’t still be writing if it weren’t for the support of many readers and friends out there. Thank you all for every little bit of support, emotional, physical and financial, you give me.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, don’t forget to share it or save it so others can enjoy reading and thinking about hygge as well.

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