I published an article a while back in which I lightheartedly (at least, that was the aim) wrote that Stoicism was a little much for me, a little too serious, so I considered being an Epicurean on weekends. I meant to highlight some problems that I personally saw with Stoicism and some positive aspects of Epicureanism. I don’t think the five days on, two days off schedule was something I literally contemplated for myself with Stoicism. The idea was that an eclectic worldview that included Stoicism and Epicureanism might suit me.
At any rate, a few months after I published that, I came across a post on the Figs in Winter blog debunking a number of the points I made in my article. I read with interest and was thinking, Wow, this person has got some pretty appropriate quotes at his disposal. After clicking around I finally realized it was Massimo Pigliucci’s blog. What an honor! Also, Boy, am I screwed.
Emotions in Stoicism
Based mostly on primary texts I have read, I concluded–and I’ve only been practicing for a few years, so this might have changed over time anyway–that Stoicism does not place primacy on positive emotions, by the same logic that it does not do so for negative emotions. I see emotions as sort of in the “not to be trusted” category of human thoughts and sensations. It is well-documented that virtue is for Stoics the main goal in life. Positive emotions are a by-product, not undesirable, but not the primary goal. Pigliucci appears to understand my article as saying that Stoics do not care about positive emotions. If they did not, then what is the point of doing all of that work in practicing Stoicism? Naturally, eudaimonia comes with rewards, and it is not just the emotionless feeling that you have made the world a better place. Still, I think of the rewards as being more in the sublime realm, like “Ah, I’m doing all I can to be a good person.” I don’t think of the joy of eating chocolate cake as being Stoic per se.
Then and now, even that sublime sense of satisfaction brings positive emotions to someone who performs good deeds. I intended to say, and probably could have said it more clearly, that I nonetheless think that the ancient Stoics counseled against attachment to emotions and outcomes, good or bad. Pigliucci notes that Margaret Graver has argued (in Stoicism and Emotion) that the “Stoic approach is better understood as aiming at shifting our emotional spectrum, away from destructive emotions . . . and toward positive emotions.” I would definitely agree that Stoicism is useful for quelling negative emotions. I have not read Graver but I would be lying if I said I did not pursue Stoicism in order to improve the general quality of my emotional life.
Philosophy and Religion
Pigliucci writes that a philosophy of life is “not in the business of delivering truths, but rather of providing a useful framework to navigate one’s life.” Eclecticism, which I suppose is what I am pursuing, may be more useful than an approach based on a single philosophy, he writes, but there are “tradeoffs” which may be damaging enough to negate the benefits of adopting a philosophy of life–by which he may mean the benefits of adopting a single philosophy of life such as Stoicism.
I was surprised to see Pigliucci draw an analogy between Stoicism and Christianity and Buddhism throughout his article. Religion is precisely what I do not want when I practice Stoicism. With a religious worldview there is of course no eclecticism, as someone’s religion has to answer all questions and contain multitudes within it, to borrow Whitman’s phrase. Even if there are contradictions, you are not supposed to seek outside of it for the resolution. I have been similarly perturbed by my local humanist chapter’s insistence (by some) on referring to ethical humanism as a “religion.” I do not necessarily feel that Stoicism itself contains all the answers to doubts about Stoicism.
I happily accept that I may have been mistaken about certain elements of Stoicism, or may have misperceived certain things. Naturally, for any quote extracted from original texts to support a point there are others that contradict it. We can only keep reading and judge for ourselves whether we see more things for or against a certain opinion.
For example, with respect to my purportedly off-the-cuff remark that Stoicism wasn’t much fun, Pigliucci notes that someone saying Christianity wasn’t much fun would be missing the point. If you choose this particular way of life, fun doesn’t enter into it, and besides, you can still have fun and be a Christian, unless your idea of fun was pedophilia (yeah, he went there). I would say that depends on what kind of Christian you are. According to many Christians, you should not have sex unless you are married, and even in a marriage you should not use birth control, so you had better be ready to be a dad or mom. Also, if you are gay, that kind of fun is strictly off-limits and you should attend conversion therapy sessions. But I digress. I was not talking about pursuing unethical activities when I lamented Stoicism’s seriousness; obviously that cannot be an acceptable break from the rigor of Stoicism. I am happy to hear that the ancient Stoics sometimes, as Pigliucci reminds us, would get drunk or go for a walk. Simply by getting together and eating and drinking wine and discussing philosophy, which they seemed to do quite a bit, they are displaying their proclivity to enjoyment.
When I say Stoicism is a bit serious for my tastes at times, I call to mind the Stoics’ exercise of imagining your loved ones dying and rehearsing your reacting to the inevitability with equanimity. And it was Seneca who said we need to concentrate on virtue every moment of every day. Epictetus advised us not to speak or laugh too much. It does seem to me that the ancients themselves, and not simply their modern interpreters, emphasized intellectual rigor, rationality, and virtue as priorities.
It occurred to me after I published my article last fall that maybe I was showing my hand. Maybe the problem was that I personally wasn’t enjoying life as much as I should, and I was looking for some way to do so. Perhaps–and this is why I haven’t been posting as much on this blog–Stoicism was losing some of its luster for me. Well, that’s unfortunate for me, but it’s a personal matter that maybe I shouldn’t have even written about. The problem with writing about philosophy “as a way of life” is that it veers into inspirational messages, and if I risk discouraging even one person who might benefit from Stoicism then that is a serious risk indeed–what if that person is depressed? I really do not want to get too personal, but I have struggled with things over the years that Stoicism has not been that helpful with. If that is because I had misperceptions about Stoicism, then I suppose that’s on me, but if after reading the Stoics for years I come to certain conclusions that are somehow incorrect, then maybe I have been reading different texts than someone else.
I fail to see the necessity to choose between Stoicism and Epicureanism, in the end, because I find that both philosophies have useful elements. Pigliucci argues that you can choose only one because Stoicism encourages social and political engagement, and Epicureanism does not; and because Stoicism’s goal is a virtuous life in service of others, and Epicureanism’s is a virtuous life so that one can be free of pain and fear. I maintain that I can bust my ass during the week and serve others and engage with society and read the news and try to change the world, and when I have a free moment, imagine my son gunned down in a school shooting. I agree with Pigliucci that I may have had some misperceptions about Stoicism (although Pierre Hadot might, if he were alive, deny that he was apparently “wrong” on many things) and I am grateful to him for pointing me in some new directions of things to read. However, I do not agree that the “tradeoffs” of disengaging from the world and from premeditatio malorum can really be said to negate the benefits I receive from practicing Stoicism most of the time. Since it is not a religion, thank our lucky stars, I appreciate the lack of rigidity in my life. To quote Seneca (Letter 33):
I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.