I 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…