By Camden Gaspar
One of the most common questions that newcomers to Stoicism have is, “What pleasures should I avoid?” They want to know, specifically, if things like alcohol, video games, gambling, and the like, should be avoided in pursuit of a happy life. This is a fair question, but it’s ultimately the wrong one. Stoicism, contrary to what some may say, is not about depriving yourself of everything you enjoy. It’s not about seeing a beautiful painting or sculpture as a colorless mass, or eating a delicious meal and tasting nothing, or refusing to go out with friends.
No, the Stoics didn’t look at pleasure as something to be avoided. If the goal is a happy life, then we must understand where and how pleasure, certainly a big part of happiness, fits into the big picture. The role that pleasure plays in life according to the Stoic conception is that it must follow virtue. Without virtue, life’s pleasures are hollow traps. They can enslave you and make you dependent on their constant presence. Without these pleasures, life becomes unbearable, leaving you weak and despondent.
What Stoicism is about is giving you the emotional and mental armor to steel yourself against the ups and downs that life inevitably puts you through. It gives you the means by which you can experience pain and pleasure and weather both, because both can lead to ruin if you haven’t trained yourself to handle them properly. In the case of pleasure, a well-trained mind would be able to see the pleasure as an “indifferent” in the words of Diogenes Laertius. That’s part of the work of the Stoic practitioner: to understand that pleasure (and pain) are ephemeral. What you love can be taken away, or even turn on you.
Fortune is Fickle
Stoicism gives you the means by which you can experience pain and pleasure and weather both, because both can lead to ruin if you haven’t trained yourself to handle them properly. In the case of pleasure, a well-trained mind would be able to see the pleasure as an “indifferent” in the words of Diogenes Laertius. That’s part of the work of the Stoic practitioner: to understand that pleasure (and pain) are ephemeral. What you love can be taken away, or even turn on you. For this reason, we “must be attentive to all the advantages that adorn life, but with over-much love for none — the user, but not the slave, of the gifts of Fortune.”
Seneca reminds us that we can enjoy the pleasures that come to us as a result of good fortune, but that we should always view them with suspicion and a willingness to part with them if needed. As Diogenes says, we must be indifferent – enjoying the pleasures when we have them and not allowing their absence to break us.
Virtue as the Leader
The Stoics saw areté or virtue as being the highest good. According to Robin Campbell, this supreme ideal “is usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self-control, and justice (or upright dealing).” The Roman Stoic, Seneca, in his essay “On the Happy Life” argues that virtue is like the leader in a battle. Real virtue, like any good leader, must lead from the front. Everything else is subordinate.
We can only experience pleasure and happiness if we make virtue the ultimate pursuit in our lives. Seneca states that by pursuing virtue, happiness and pleasure will naturally ensue as a by-product. It doesn’t work the other way around, pursuing pleasure before virtue. Virtue is the vital tool that allows pleasure to be a rejuvenating force in our lives by ensuring that it doesn’t take over everything else.
Additionally, practicing virtue in a haphazard or fake way will not work. Virtue cannot be faked. It’s something you have to cultivate by actually practicing it in the real world. Stoicism and virtue can only exist where failure and ruin are a possibility. Seneca points out that pleasure is like the flowers that sprout in a field that a farmer has tilled. They are pleasant – a welcome addition to the scenery, but they aren’t why the field was plowed in the first place. According to Seneca: “Just so pleasure is neither the cause nor the reward of virtue, but its by-product, and we do not accept virtue because she delights us, but if we accept her, she also delights us.”
Goals and Purpose
A corollary to the pursuit of virtue is that you actually have to be striving for something meaningful in your life. Working toward a chosen task or goal where you are challenged along the way – in your career, family, relationships – will naturally lead to setbacks and disappointment. This is where the Stoic begins to practice what he preaches.
Seneca, in his letters, reminds that we should always be working toward something greater than ourselves. This gives us direction and keeps us grounded. Where pleasure comes into the picture is when we need to take a break from our work for sanity’s sake. “I’m not telling you to always be bent over some book or writing tablets,” says Seneca, “The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed until it falls to pieces.”
Ask yourself: “Am I using my leisure time to refresh myself, or am I running away from my responsibilities?” Very often, people use pleasure, whether it’s video games, drugs, travel, etc, to run away from the difficulties of life and the expectations placed upon them as members of society. “If one accomplishes some good though with toil, the toil passes, but the good remains; if one does something dishonorable with pleasure, the pleasure passes, but the dishonor remains,” says Musonius Rufus. If you are at a point where you neglect the more nourishing parts of life: family, friends, career, hobbies, etc. in order to tend to your pleasures, you will find that when the pleasure fades, it leaves nothing worthwhile behind.
Living with Pleasure
The great preservers and transmitters of Stoic philosophy, to my knowledge, never strictly forbade their listeners from engaging in a specific pleasure. And even if they did, so what? They weren’t deities or prophets. Stoicism isn’t a religion, where salvation is promised to devoted followers and damnation to those who ignore the teachings. You don’t have to follow any of it if you don’t want to. But, speaking from personal experience and the experiences of others, your life will improve if you do.
Stoicism takes into account that we will fail, and often, we will fail repeatedly. We will get too attached to something that doesn’t really belong to us and be distraught when we lose it, we will get overly emotional when something unpleasant happens. That’s okay, as long as you can reflect and recognize what you can do better next time and constantly be striving for improvement.
When you read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, you might notice that Marcus tends to go over the same themes and ideas over and over again. This isn’t by accident. Each day, when Marcus sat down to write what was essentially his journal/diary, he would reflect on the situations and problems he had during the day and how he dealt with them or should have dealt with them. When we see the same issues cropping up, such as dealing with praise, we know that he was probably not as gracious and stoic as he would have liked and had to give himself a reminder.
Marcus wrote of his adoptive father: “One might say of him what we’re told [by Xenophon] of Socrates, that he could abstain from or enjoy those things that many people are not strong enough to refrain from and too much inclined to enjoy. But to have the strength to persist in the one case and to abstain in the other is typical of a man with a perfect and indomitable mind.” For Marcus, his adoptive father was the living model of Stoic indifference – to avoid being trapped by the pleasures that other men allowed to take over their lives and instead to view them with indifference.
Stoicism doesn’t ask us to live without pleasure. It teaches us how to live with it. To be able to have the things that make us happy, whether they are just little pleasures like a glass of wine before bed, or the bigger things like a vacation, and understand that they are transient, temporary, and not fully belonging to us, but rather a gift a fortune.