Three Sources of Joy in the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius

Vatican Museum SilenusMany people assume that Stoicism is synonymous with being unemotional.  I think this is often because they confuse stoicism (lower-case), the “stiff upper lip” personality trait, with Stoicism (upper-case) the school of Greek philosophy.  (Here’s an article explaining the difference.)   In fact, the Stoics teach us how to replace unhealthy emotions with healthy ones, and the latter play an important role in their philosophy.  They have a system for classification of both.  The Stoic term “passion” actually encompasses both what we call desires and emotions and the healthy ones, termed eupatheiai by the Stoics, are divided into three broad categories:

  1. Joy or delight (chara), the enjoyment of perceiving goodness in ourselves and others, which is the healthy alternative to hedonistic pleasure; we’re told it includes both feelings of cheerfulness (euphrosunos) and peaceful contentment (euthumia).
  2. Caution or discretion (eulabeia), a healthy and rational aversion to vice, which we might perhaps compare to feelings of conscience; we’re told it includes dignity or self-respect (aidô) and a sense of aversion to what is profane or impure (agneia)
  3. Wishing or willing (boulêsis), a healthy and rational desire for what is good, or goodwill toward ourselves and others, perhaps encompassing a rational form of love or friendship; we’re told it includes benevolence (eunoia), kindness (eumeneia), acceptance (aspasmos) and affection (agapêsis)

Diogenes Laertius says that good passions such as joy (chara) and cheerfulness (euphrosunos) are not strictly-speaking virtues but that they “supervene” on the virtues, a kind of side-effect of them.  He also describes them as being more transitory than virtues.  Hence, these sort of healthy feelings and desires are not the goal of Stoicism per se but rather a byproduct of the underlying attitudes that constitute genuine wisdom and goodness.  We can nevertheless say that the ideal Stoic Sage is someone who feels relatively calm and cheerful in the face of adversity, has a sense of dignity or conscience that prevents him doing what he senses is wrong, and feels goodwill, a sense of kindness, and even affection toward others, and presumably also toward himself.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the Stoics typically held up Socrates as their supreme role model and it’s easy to see how he might fit this description.  Far from being stuffy or a cold fish, Socrates is generally portrayed as a very lively character.  Both Xenophon and Plato wrote dialogues entitled the Symposium where he is depicted drinking and feasting with his friends.  Indeed, Xenophon opens by saying that he thinks it’s important not only to portray great men in more serious situations, presumably with the trial and execution of Socrates in mind, but also to show the sort of people they were during lighter moments, enjoying banter with their friends.  Plato even notes that Socrates looked like Silenus, the mythic drunken tutor of Dionysus (shown above), who exemplified both humour and wisdom.

Indeed, Socrates is cheerful and good humoured, even in the face of adversity such as facing his own execution.  He’s kind and gentle toward his friends, and treats them with obvious affection.   Socrates was also famously guided by a mysterious daimonion or inner voice, which warned him not to undertake certain courses of action.  I think we can obviously compare this to the Stoic concept of eulabeia, a healthy feeling of aversion to folly and wrongdoing.  The Stoics point to Socrates as an example of their ideal so the vivid descriptions of his character found in Plato and Xenophon, etc., undoubtedly help us to interpret what the Stoics have in mind when speaking of the “healthy passions” exhibited by the wise.

However, I also want to say something about three sources of joy described by Marcus Aurelius in The Meditations, as I think these help to shed some light on what the Stoics had in mind.  First of all, Marcus says the wise man’s sense of delight comes from one thing alone: acting consistently in accord with wisdom and virtue (6.7).  This certainly appears to be the most important source of joy for Stoics but Marcus also mentions two others.  These three types of joy correspond to a recurring threefold structure that should be very familiar to readers of The Meditations:

  1. Contemplating virtue in ourselves.  Marcus describes this as the primary source of both “serenity” and “joy” for the Stoic Sage (7.28).
  2. Contemplating virtue in others. However, he also tells says that when he wants to gladden his heart, he should meditate on the good qualities of those close to him, such as modesty, generosity, etc. (6.48).
  3. Welcoming our fate (amor fati). Marcus tells himself that rather than desiring things that are absent, as the majority do, he should train himself to develop gratitude by reflecting on the pleasant aspects of what he already has before him, and contemplate how he would miss them if they were not there (7.27).

The second source of joy for Stoics, the contemplation of virtue in others, is presumably related to religious sentiments such as piety or love of Zeus, as well as love of the ideal Sage.  Likewise, in Book One of The Meditations, Marcus seems to provide numerous examples of virtues among his family members and teachers, which gladden his heart in this way.  Contemplating the virtue of others was an important source of inspiration for ancient Stoics.  They recognized that we learn by emulating the examples set by others, role models such as Socrates or Zeno, whose characters we admire.  Students once enjoyed the company of teachers such as these and were inspired by knowing them in person.

The third source of joy is perhaps the one most often overlooked in discussions of Stoicism.  So it’s worth quoting the key passage in full:

Do not think of things that are absent as though they were already at hand, but pick out the [the best] from those that you presently have, and with these before you, reflect on how greatly you would have wished for them if they were not already here. At the same time, however, take good care that you do not fall into the habit of overvaluing them because you are so pleased to have them, so that you would be upset if you no longer had them at some future time. (7.27)

The word Marcus actually uses here to describe a healthy and moderate sense of enjoyment in those external things that deserve to be valued is charis or gratitude.  It is is related to chara the more general word for the healthy passion of Stoic joy.  He means the kind of gratitude that we would experience when we perceive that someone has done us a favour or shown goodwill toward us.  (If like the Stoics, we think of Zeus or Nature as being providential and caring for our welfare, then this would resemble Christian joy in the grace [charis] of God.)

Marcus seems to be saying here that in addition to rejoicing in virtue, his own and that of others, the Sage will experience joy or gratitude by contemplating what Stoics call “preferred indifferents”.  These are external things to which it’s reasonable to assign value (axia), within reasonable bounds, such as health, property, and friendship.  External things such as these aren’t strictly “good” because they don’t contribute directly to the goal of wisdom and virtue but it is nevertheless rational to prefer health over sickness, life over death, property over poverty, and friendship over having enemies, etc.

For Stoics, the two most valued externals or preferred indifferents are life and the company of friends who are wise and good.  These are probably the two things for which we should be most grateful, as they’re both externals granted to us by fortune.  There are many things such as food and shelter which contribute to life and Stoics are grateful for these insofar as they have value in supporting life, providing us with the opportunity to flourish by acquiring wisdom and virtue.  However, as Marcus emphasized above, we should not become so attached to them that we would be distressed if they were lost.

The attitude we should seek to cultivate is described by Epictetus in the Handbook and Discourses as that of someone who has been invited to a banquet or festival and behaves like a good guest.

Remember that in life you ought to behave as at a banquet. Suppose that something is carried round and is opposite to you. Stretch out your hand and take a portion with decency. Suppose that it passes by you. Do not detain it. Suppose that it is not yet come to you. Do not send your desire forward to it, but wait till it is opposite to you. Do so with respect to children, so with respect to a wife, so with respect to magisterial offices, so with respect to wealth, and you will be some time a worthy partner of the banquets of the gods. (Encheiridion, 15)

We should, in other words, be grateful for what life gives us, as if we were receiving a gift or a favour, without becoming over-attached to them, greedily craving things we don’t have or clinging on to those of which we must let go.  However, he does goes on to say that Diogenes the Cynic, Heraclitus, and other wise philosophers like them, were regarded as divine because they did not even take as much as they could have and looked down on such externals with an even greater sense of indifference than the Stoics.  Perhaps this is an allusion to the Stoic notion that the Cynic way of life, which involved greater renunciation and voluntary hardship, can provide a shortcut to virtue.  Epictetus appears to have believed, though, that the austere life of a Cynic is only suitable for certain exceptional individuals.  Stoics typically adopted a more moderate way of life which allowed them to participate in ordinary society, to earn a living and attend social events, etc., as long as they don’t place more importance on the externals they value than they do on their own character, or living wisely and in accord with reason and virtue.

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