What Would a Stoic Do? On entertainment

soccer-TottiI must admit that one of the toughest aspects of practicing Stoicism is that it is pretty difficult to justify spending one’s time on entertainment. Not to add to the already pretty stern stereotype of the Stoic that is widespread in the general culture, but here is what Epictetus says, for instance:

“When you’re called upon to speak, then speak, but never about banalities like gladiators, horses, sports, food and drink – common-place stuff. Above all don’t gossip about people, praising, blaming or comparing them.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 33.2)

This I find to be generally good advice, but it seems to imply that entertainment is “banal,” and hence not really the sort of thing a Stoic should indulge in. I mean, I’m not too fond of gladiatorial games, but I do go to see a live soccer game once in a while, and occasionally I even watch them on television.

And here is Marcus, listing the things he learned from influential people in his life

“From my governor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partisan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators’ fights” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations I.5)

Well, at the least the emperor went to the games! But does that mean I cannot be “partisan” to A.S. Roma or NYC FC (my favorite soccer teams)? You see my problem.

The issue extends far more broadly than spectator sports, of course. It includes watching one’s favorite TV show (Doctor Who, anyone?), going to the movies, eating out, reading a book for leisure (as opposed to studying philosophy), attending a museum exhibit, going on a vacation, and so forth.

And yet, Stoicism is not Cynicism. It isn’t supposed to be a philosophy of strict minimalism and asceticism, regardless of how much Epictetus occasionally veered toward that extreme. So, how is a modern Stoic to approach the issue of entertainment, without either giving up on Stoicism (c’mon, forget about virtue because I want to watch my favorite TV show?) or engaging in unsustainable rationalization to make one’s favorite pastimes fit the bill?

Something like the same problem afflicted early utilitarianism, which is what brought John Stuart Mill to introduce his famous distinction between high and low pleasures. (You see, if all pleasures are created equal, then Jeremy Bentham’s famous “hedonic calculus” immediately leads to some nasty consequences, like that it’s okay to kill an innocent person if this gives pleasure to a sufficiently high number of people.)

Here is how Mill explained it (in Utilitarianism):

“It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.”

This is the same reason Epicureans (who influenced Mill) emphasized the distinction between bodily and intellectual pleasures, which distinguished them from the Cyrenaics. But we are Stoics, so hedonism doesn’t enter into it, and we can’t use the Epicurus-Mill solution to the problem at hand.

One answer is to simply admit that we are not Sages, we are imperfect human beings, and thus also imperfect Stoics. So we do un-Stoic things, from time to time. While this is true, it just isn’t good enough. We plan our entertainment, which means it is the result of deliberate choices made by our “ruling faculty,” not “mistakes.”  To err is human, but to persevere in one’s errors…

But perhaps engaging in entertainment isn’t an error at all. For one, it has value in terms of social bonding. Marcus was by all accounts a rather solitary individual, who likely did not actually enjoy attending games. But he did it because it was one of his duties as emperor, something to be done in order to help maintain the good will of the people, as well as social cohesiveness more broadly.

While I’m not an emperor, much (but not all!) of my entertainment is indeed of a social nature, shared with family and friends, and therefore perfectly justifiable (within limits) in this vein from a Stoic perspective.

Yet another way of approaching the “problem” (yes, I’m aware that for most people entertaining themselves isn’t a problem) is by treating games, movies and the like as “preferred indifferents,” that is falling into the broad category of things that the Stoics don’t think are relevant to one’s eudaimonia (because only the pursuit of virtue is), but are nonetheless things that can be pursued (or, in the case of dispreferred indifferents, avoided), so long as one doesn’t mistake them for actually important things — think people for whom playing video games becomes the defining activity of their life.

This is indeed promising, and I think Seneca would have agreed. As he put it in On The Happy Life, “I prefer to display the state of my soul clad rather in the toga and shoes than showing naked shoulders and with cuts on my feet,” meaning that there is nothing wrong with a bit of comfort, and by extension, pleasure.

(Incidentally, Piotr Stankiewicz wrote an essay over at Stoicism Today on whether Stoics are or should be ascetic. His answer is a resounding no. However, this rebuttal is actually pretty convincing, based mostly on Musonius, and a bit of Epictetus. Then again, I think this essay by Camden Gaspar strikes the wise middle ground, and sure enough is largely supported by quotes from Seneca…)

I would, however, argue that a good Stoic would want to lean — other things being equal — toward entertainment that has value from the point of view of flourishing. So, avoid whenever possible what might be termed “mindless” entertainment (the “common-place stuff” that Epictetus was complaining about), and steer toward things that have a point, in terms of learning and, ideally, virtue. For instance, rather than watch another episode of The Kardashians, maybe a documentary going behind the scenes of Scientology? The first would truly be a waste of one’s little grey cells, but the latter will teach you important lessons about humanity and how people can be taken advantage of. (An interesting study recently suggested that watching good television drama is good for your social skills.)

In this respect I must say that I have always had a tendency to enjoy entertainment “with a point,” so to speak, so the above considerations already sit very well with my natural self, independently of Stoicism.

But there is yet another way of looking at the issue from a Stoic perspective: it is possible that entertainment is a bit like sleep for human beings: it doesn’t have anything to do directly with virtue, but it is necessary for normal functioning, and therefore indirectly necessary to pursue virtue.

Indeed, there is empirical evidence that primates have a need for play, at the least throughout development, and likely throughout their lives. If this is the case, however, one could still say that just like one wants to have the proper length and quality of sleep, so one should want the same with entertainment: proper length, and good quality — or it risks getting in the way of pursuing a flourishing life, and one then turns into a Epicurean or, worse, a Cyrenaic…

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Categories: What Would a Stoic Do?

35 replies

  1. Oops, the system took out stuff that I put between angle brackets.

    Two edits:

    “Having read some of the treatments of (e.g.) artists like Koons, I would also not be shocked to find some enterprising professor or PhD student writing a book about why is actually making a profound commentary on our contemporary culture. Eventually and always it comes down to a matter of taste. Chacun a son goût.”

    Should read:

    “Having read some of the treatments of (e.g.) artists like Koons, I would also not be shocked to find some enterprising professor or PhD student writing a book about why {insert trashy pop culture figure here} is actually making a profound commentary on our contemporary culture. Eventually and always it comes down to a matter of taste. Chacun a son goût.”

    and:

    “The only difference I see between Koons and is that Koons is in the permanent collection of MoMA and they are not.”

    Should read:

    The only difference I see between Koons and {insert trashy pop culture figure here} is that Koons is in the permanent collection of MoMA and they are not.”

    Apologies.

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  2. Douglass,

    “Eventually and always it comes down to a matter of taste”

    The question is what comes down to taste, exactly? Yes, without a doubt it is a matter of taste whether one does or does not enjoy Britney Spear or Beethoven. But what I’m rejecting here is that there aren’t good reasons to consider the first “low” and the second “high” culture. Despite the existence of instances (Brillo Boxes-as-art, for instance) where there can be genuine debate.

    “The only difference I see between Koons and is that Koons is in the permanent collection of MoMA and they are not.”

    And you think the MoMA curators purposely put trash on exhibit? Or do they have what they think are good reasons to separate Koons from other trash? I’m not saying that their reasons are unarguable. I’m saying that there are reasons, and that — other things being equal — I’m happy to go with whatever the relevant epistemic / scholarly community thinks.

    “This goes back to Duchamp’s urinal: anyone can make great art, all it takes is a signature and the imprimatur of a famous gallery”

    I disagree. Duchamp got away with it because he was making a (obviously ironic) statement. Nobody has ever argued that the urinal is good art in the sense that a Michelangelo is good art.

    “what is the case is that the thing’s getting in the gallery had nothing whatever to do with its intrinsic features”

    But that’s because art doesn’t have to do *just* with intrinsic features.

    “It’s not completely arbitrary. But I think it is significantly more so than we would like to believe.”

    I actually think this is by and large restricted to some narrow types of contemporary art, precisely those that go “conceptual” rather “substantive.” Outside of that it isn’t really that difficult to separate high culture from trash.

    “I would simply say that there is no substantive response to someone who does not see depth where we do in artwork”

    But by that token there is no substantive response to someone who doesn’t want to pursue virtue, or be moral, or whatever. You are in danger of a bit too much cultural relativism, seems to me.

    “Where I see depth in Wagner, someone else may see boredom or even moral turpitude”

    Depth isn’t the same as entertaining, so boredom isn’t the opposite of depth. As for moral turpitude, it can certainly be found in Wagner’s political ideas, but his music?

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  3. Thanks for humoring me, Massimo.

    “… art doesn’t have to do *just* with intrinsic features.”

    Right. IIRC certain of Beethoven’s and Wagner’s contemporary critics thought that what they wrote was not music, but cacophony. In their cultural milieu, perhaps they were correct. I think this too could be part of art’s extrinsic nature: whether something counts as music or cacophony.

    “I actually think this is by and large restricted to some narrow types of contemporary art, precisely those that go “conceptual” rather “substantive.” Outside of that it isn’t really that difficult to separate high culture from trash.”

    Perhaps so, but then the question is whether conceptual art is just as “high” a kind of culture or art as anything else. If so, then the distinction doesn’t matter to the point. Then anything (or a thing with any intrinsic features) can be “high art” if it appears in the right conceptual space.

    Perhaps this isn’t controversial. I am led to believe it isn’t controversial in contemporary art circles.

    “But by that token there is no substantive response to someone who doesn’t want to pursue virtue, or be moral, or whatever. You are in danger of a bit too much cultural relativism, seems to me.”

    Yes, this is the crux of the matter, isn’t it. I think there are facts we can point to about what sorts of things are pleasurable and painful, and that creatures generally want to gain pleasure and to avoid pain. One key reason (perhaps not the only reason) for pursuing virtue is that being virtuous is the surest way to gain lasting pleasure and avoid lasting pain. This is also one key reason for pursuit of wisdom generally. Such arguments can be made quite generally and non-arbitrarily, I think, to anyone who claims not to want to be virtuous or moral. They can be accused of a kind of self-contradiction, or at least of a kind of self-sabotage. By their own lights they should want virtue or wisdom.

    On the other hand, while there are key facts we can point to about what kinds of visual stimulae people find pleasurable, those facts seem to play little if any role in contemporary notions of “high art”. E.g., Komar and Melamid say that people like landscapes with trees, open space, and a pond in the distance. But paintings of trees, open spaces, and ponds in the distance now come under the rubric of “low art”. A contemporary artist would have to channel a painter of the 19th century or earlier to be taken seriously as a painter of pretty landscapes, like Borges’s Pierre Menard with Quijote.

    It would seem that art — or at least its contemporary manifestation — has nothing to do with pleasurable stimulae. Contemporary taste-makers have said as much, in disdaining works as “decorative” if beautiful.

    I think what’s left is largely cultural relativism plus some good marketing by taste-makers. Indeed, there is quite an insidious relationship between wealthy collectors and the galleries and museums that display their collections, some of it done pretty clearly to increase prices for sale.

    But then no doubt I am being overly cynical.

    One can, of course, simply say that these contemporary taste-makers are all wrong, and that in fact (e.g.) Rackstraw Downes and Richard Estes are artists who should be commanding the prices and attention that Jeff Koons gets in their stead. Estes’s recent retrospective was held at the MAD, a craft museum for gosh sakes, rather than at MoMA down the block.

    It’s an argument I would be happy to make, but one that I fear would be factually thin on the ground. Chacun a son goût, after all.

    One thing that bears reflection is how much effort culturally astute educated folks like ourselves put into arguing which artworks should be considered “high” and “low” art. Is there a more clichéd example of a dorm-room discussion, or a wheel-spinning essay in a literary journal?

    “… so boredom isn’t the opposite of depth.”

    Can something be both deep and boring?

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  4. Douglass,

    as you pointed out on Twitter, this is a good exchange. It shows how two people can rationally disagree and yet engage in constructive conversation; and it allows me, at any rate, to make my own thoughts clearer because I have to present them to someone else.

    “certain of Beethoven’s and Wagner’s contemporary critics thought that what they wrote was not music, but cacophony”

    True, but I think that simply says that aesthetic judgment — like historical judgment, and sometimes even scientific judgment — ought to be left to posterity.

    Which is also why I think that talking about contemporary art is problematic: it ain’t settled yet! We have good examples from the history of art and literature of figures that were once prevalent but that posterity has relegated to footnotes, and vice versa of people who were not appreciated in their own times but are then considered giants.

    “then the question is whether conceptual art is just as “high” a kind of culture or art as anything else”

    My own judgment is that conceptual art is more politics than art. And that most of it will soon be in the dustbin of (art) history. But see comment above about making judgments on things ongoing…

    “One key reason (perhaps not the only reason) for pursuing virtue is that being virtuous is the surest way to gain lasting pleasure and avoid lasting pain … On the other hand, while there are key facts we can point to about what kinds of visual stimulae people find pleasurable, those facts seem to play little if any role in contemporary notions of “high art””

    But that wasn’t really my point. My point was that certain kinds of entertainment are either damaging or not constructive for the human spirit, and that judgment seems to me akin to the one you are making about virtue (and with which I agree, of course). So what I call “high” art is the sort of thing that contributes to the betterment of the human spirit, and what I call “low” art doesn’t (or is even detrimental).

    “A contemporary artist would have to channel a painter of the 19th century or earlier to be taken seriously as a painter of pretty landscapes”

    Agreed, but that’s because that sort of thing has been done before, as you point out. That’s no different from, say, science: in Galileo’s time discovering a new lunar crater was a big deal. Nowadays, not so much.

    “there is quite an insidious relationship between wealthy collectors and the galleries and museums that display their collections, some of it done pretty clearly to increase prices for sale.”

    Agreed, which is why I’d rather wait what the next few generations will say about it.

    “Can something be both deep and boring?”

    Consider a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, for anyone who isn’t inclined toward deep mathematics, which is almost everyone on earth.

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  5. “It shows how two people can rationally disagree and yet engage in constructive conversation; and it allows me, at any rate, to make my own thoughts clearer because I have to present them to someone else.”

    Agreed, Massimo. Though I don’t think we actually disagree as much as it might seem. I like using occasions like these to try out thoughts and hone them in discussion. As you say, it clarifies things for me, and at times makes me feel that my own ideas need rethinking.

    “My own judgment is that conceptual art is more politics than art. And that most of it will soon be in the dustbin of (art) history. But see comment above about making judgments on things ongoing…”

    You won’t get any argument from me on that account. Though as you note, one glance at the history of art in the last couple of centuries should make one very careful about reacting against the new material. Old fuddy duddies are all too often swept away by the tides.

    “So what I call “high” art is the sort of thing that contributes to the betterment of the human spirit, and what I call “low” art doesn’t (or is even detrimental).”

    Yes, well this is hard to put a finger on. The first thing that comes to mind re. arts that better the human spirit are morality plays or didactic art forms: things that use the narrative or pictorial form to instruct. Didacticism of course has been anathema in the arts (at least what goes under the rubric “high” arts) for probably over a century now, and most particularly after the great wars of the twentieth century. I think nobody really has the stomach for it, except in the guise of works for children.

    Ironically, perhaps the last bastion of didacticism is in conceptual art, which as you note is “more politics than art”: its message, such as it is, is generally for some sociopolitical end. Often these ends are in fact ends to which we would assent, but we bridle at being hit over the head with them, or we feel the same message could be better got across without the folderol of the poor artwork itself.

    Now, what might be said against the argument for didacticism is that it is dull or predictable, and that (e.g.) one can “better the human spirit” by viewing more apparently realistic or morally mixed works. I am, however, unconvinced. At the least such a philosophical approach to art would require quite an extensive revision to standard canons of “high” and “low” art. To take the example I mentioned before, many people believe that the Godfather and Goodfellas belong in any canon of “high” film; and as film I can’t disagree: they are beautifully made, gripping, compelling works. They also glorify criminality. Here I think Plato’s concerns with the power of rhetoric in the arts are spot on: what makes art great, at least as commonly considered, are not necessarily properties that involve bettering the human spirit. Instead they involve gripping, emotionally violent human dramas. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Othello.

    Of course, given time any of us can manufacture moral messages from morally mixed or depraved artworks. We can always say that it’s showing us how bad things can get if we act wrongly, etc. But this I think is more a reflection on our powers of rationalization than a reflection of the meaning or intent of the works themselves.

    This does leave open the possibility that we could revise the canon to strike out those works that were morally mixed or depraved, leaving works that were not overtly or crassly didactic but that did nonetheless “better the human spirit”. In my prior piece I mentioned the Japanese aesthetic of ‘wabi-sabi‘ or ‘mono no aware’: this comes across in artworks that display to us the melancholy transience or impermanence of life. There may of course be other such aesthetic methods.

    “Consider a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, for anyone who isn’t inclined toward deep mathematics,”

    Yes, definitely correct on that ground. But I think what I was after had more to do with emotional depth rather than intellectual. I’m not sure that something can be both emotionally deep and boring. Rather, I think each of us finds our emotional depth where we may, and there’s no accounting for taste. Andrew Wiles no doubt finds Fermat’s Theorem emotionally profound, but I don’t think it makes sense for someone to say, “Oh yes, Wagner is emotionally very deep but it bores me.” Unless of course they were being subtly ironic. We can OTOH say “Quantum Mechanics is intellectually deep but it bores me” without irony.

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