Stoic advice column: should I be thankful?

Advice[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

C. writes: “Is it appropriate for a Stoic to express thanks for a preferred indifferent? While I believe I was totally prepared to accept my fate, on being given a reprieve, I feel the need to, in Christian terms, “fall on my knees.” What is the Stoic equivalent?”

That very much depends on the circumstances, as well as on what you mean by “thankful,” but let me begin with the broader point that there is nothing in Stoicism that precludes being thankful for a positive outcome regarding something falling under the (very) broad category of “preferred indifferents” (i.e., everything that does not affect virtue). On the contrary, it can be argued that part of the point of several Stoic exercises is precisely to enhance our gratitude for the things we have and the people we love, properly appreciating them in the brief span of time that we have them.

Modern Stoic Bill Irvine writes: “Hedonic adaptation [the psychological phenomenon by which we get used to the pleasurable things we enjoy] has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than delighting in them. Negative visualization, though, is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.” (A Guide to the Good Life, p.73) Which implies that we should be grateful for what we have, actively trying not to get used to it and thus take it for granted.

The message is patently clear in some of the ancient texts. Consider, for instance, that the beginning of the first book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a long list of thanks to people he is grateful to because they taught him something valuable:

“From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper. … From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. … From Diognetus [I learned] not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of demons and such things. … From Rustics [I learned] with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled. … From Sextus [I learned] to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.” And so on.

Seneca even thanks the gods for our very nature as human beings and our place in the cosmos: “How much better is it to turn to the contemplation of so many great blessings, and to be thankful that the gods have been pleased to give us a place second only to themselves in this most beautiful abode, and that they have appointed us to be the lords of the earth!” (On Benefits, II.29)

And here is Epictetus: “And what is the divine law? To keep a man’s own, not to claim that which belongs to others, but to use what is given, and when it is not given, not to desire it; and when a thing is taken away, to give it up readily and immediately, and to be thankful for the time that a man has had the use of it, if you would not cry for your nurse and mamma.” (Discourses II.16)

So, yes, Stoics can, indeed should, be thankful when good things happen to them. But this comes with a caveat, made clear in the last quote above: we don’t actually own either things or people, we “borrow” them from the universe, as Epictetus puts it, and we should not complain when the universe takes them back, in whatever fashion, and at whatever time.

Stoic thankfulness, however, is not at all like the Christian variety. Despite the fact that both Seneca and Epictetus mentioned God in the passages quoted above, let’s not forget that the Stoics identified God with Nature, and especially from a modern standpoint it sounds a bit weird to think natural processes for anything, since they are impersonal. Even within the ancient Stoic paradigm, consider this passage by Marcus:

“For hand or foot to feel pain is no violation of nature, so long as the foot does its own appointed work, and the hand its own. Similarly pain for a man, as man, is no unnatural thing so long as he does a man’s appointed work. But, if not unnatural, then is it not an evil either.” (Meditations VI.33)

That is, even when they talked about Providence, the Stoics saw themselves as part of a cosmic organism (the hand or foot of the metaphor), which could readily be sacrificed, or made to step in the mud, for the good of the body (i.e., the cosmos). In other words, the universe doesn’t care about us in particular, there is no God that answers to prayers and who loves every one of us. But rather than deriving despair from this realization, the Stoic finds comfort in it, and even more reason to be thankful (to no one in particular).

Finally, there is the particular case of another human being responsible for whatever good happen to you. In those instances we actually have a specific one to be thankful to, and we should express such thanks to reinforce that we are part of a cosmopolis, that is of a social world were everyone is supposed to take care of improving things because that benefits both himself and everyone else. Sometimes we are not willing to do our duty within the cosmopolis, but Marcus reminds himself, and therefore us:

“In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being.” (Meditations V.1)

That work includes expressing gratitude to people who do good things for us (because it is in our power to do so), though we don’t necessarily expect them to do likewise (because what they do is not within our power).

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Categories: Stoic Advice

52 replies

  1. Eric,
    the other side has refused to enter imaginatively into your view.

    Has he? Is his presence on this blog not his way of entering imaginatively into your world view? I know that is true in my case and I learn a great deal from it. But in any case no matter what the other person refuses to do we should at least do what we believe in.

    Daniel said that Stoicism is “an inadequate foundation for any life or building.”

    I think that is an unexceptional statement. We make this kind of assessment all the time. Of course there is an unstated qualifier “…for my purposes“. Many things are inadequate for our purposes and stating this is quite banal but unexceptional.

    Daniel has made an impermissible move.

    He has expressed his point of view in a courteous way. I think that is permissible. My criticism is that he should have expanded on his statement which was, perhaps, unduly sweeping.

    What next? One can…

    5) One can ask him to to clarify, expand upon or otherwise justify his assertion. This is the normal course of action and often it results in useful insights. At the very least we will have a better understanding of why he feels that way.

    … complex negative feedback (in the form of psychologizing your opponents

    I don’t recognise your use of the term. Psychologising is normally impermissible or weakly founded speculation about another person’s motives or state of mind. I did neither. I expressed the quite reasonable expectation of Stoic behaviour in this situation.

    patronizingly telling them how they ought to use their introspection

    I expressed a reasonable expectation of Stoic behaviour. That is not patronising.

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  2. Eric,
    PS: Labnut, I think there are still interesting aspects of this topic (meta-topic?) that you and I have yet to uncover together. I’m happy to continue our conversation in a more focused way

    See my last comment. I think that deals with the matter in a succinct way. You are welcome to expand on them.

    I think that somehow you are missing something that seems very obvious to Massimo and I.

    No, I don’t think so, but you are welcome to point out the obvious.

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  3. Labnut,

    Once more, I find this particular discussion between you and Eric/me both unproductive and unrelated to Stoicism. I think it’s time to move on.

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  4. Massimo,
    I find this particular discussion between you and Eric/me both unproductive and unrelated to Stoicism. I think it’s time to move on.

    I’m sorry you feel this way. I’ve had my say and will move on 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Labnut,

    My invitation still stands to continue the conversation on a different forum. I’d love to respond, but we’ve overstayed our welcome here!

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  6. Labnut,

    Your responses encourage me to examine myself and to take stock of my own shortcomings. Underlying your many sound points is the understanding that true conversation and fraternity require courage, a virtue of Stoicism. It is easy to be courageous in an exchange with those who lack the learning that I have, as minimal as it might be. However, it is another thing to courageously and openly face the challenges of those who are able to threaten our worldview. This requires me to endure discomfort.

    And let’s not minimize the power of this kind of threat. It can be highly destabilizing, even to the extent of assailing our very self-identities.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Labnut,

    On the topic of gratitude:

    “Gratitude, by itself, is another example of self-directed emotion…”

    I’m not sure I’m persuaded of your argument here. I’ll raise two counter-thoughts, one from the basic Stoic value theory, and one from my personal experience implementing it:

    Stoicism really isn’t compatible with the sort of narcissism you’ve described, because in the Stoic value system, concern for others is a fundamental part of our self-interest. Narcissism, therefore, is self-contradictory. We are made for social ends. The only valid way to love ourselves is to love others.
    Personally, I don’t experience Stoic gratitude as being focused specifically “on what the self received from the outer world,” per se. Stoic gratitude, as I understand it, is closely connected to Stoic theodicy: it’s the ability to look at the world and say “this is good,” and “this is worthy of my love.” How is Nature worthy? It has given us the capacity for virtue. All of us. Every expression of virtue in every human being, and every opportunity that allows human beings to express virtue, is something worthy being absolutely grateful for.

    Ultimately, then, my exercise of Stoic gratitude leads me to think about how the entire human family is well-fitted for one another as social animals, and to reflect on how wonderful it is that Nature has left us all with the seeds of virtue that we need to form beautiful relationships, to help one another, and to express our eudaemonia by serving one another, and by recognizing and loving the virtue in one another.

    I think the Stoic idea of “gratitude” or “prayer,” then, ends up leading in a very direct way to the Circles of Hiercoles and a meditation on love for all mankind, and even for the cosmos itself. We arrive here not through tortuous gymnastics, but via a direct route along the core principles of the Stoic value system: virtue is the only good, but Nature has made us social animals whose virtue is expressed in love, and the virtue of others is also a good.

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  8. Eric, You had quoted me this way:

    • “Daniel said that Stoicism is “an inadequate foundation for any life or building.””

    However, the actual quote was:

    • “Pragmatism lacks the essential glue to hold these vital foundational elements (even gratefulness) in place. It leaves us with evolving-virtue – an inadequate foundation for any life or building.”

    Please understand that my argument isn’t specifically against Stoicism, which, in many regards, I respect. My argument is against pragmatism, when it becomes the primary basis for justifying our philosophy. And yes, I do think that some Stoics fall into this trap, which is a self-centered – “what do I get out of it” – trap, as Labnut has also pointed out.

    In fact, the pragmatism-first orientation is actually the antithesis of Stoicism, as I see it. Stoicism is supposed to be virtue-centered and not me-centered, right? Of course, many here can speak more authoritatively on this subject than I can.

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  9. Daniel,

    I’ve pointed out this before: Stoicism is not a pragmatic philosophy. The Stoics had a priori arguments for why virtue is the only good, and they definitely didn’t go for “whatever works,” which is the hallmark of pragmatism.

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  10. Eric,

    I can embrace what you have written:

    • Stoic gratitude, as I understand it, is closely connected to Stoic theodicy: it’s the ability to look at the world and say “this is good,” and “this is worthy of my love.” How is Nature worthy? It has given us the capacity for virtue. All of us. Every expression of virtue in every human being, and every opportunity that allows human beings to express virtue, is something worthy being absolutely grateful for.

    However, I have to add some observations:

    • You capitalized “Nature,” elevating it to a god-like status, thereby conflating your position with a theistic one. But is nature worthy of exercising this kind of authority over us or even our reverence? After all, nature all contains rape and the survival-of-the-fittest and other things that we are loathe to regard as normative for us.

    • You write: “this is good,” as if you are invoking a standard of objective goodness or a moral law higher than self-interest and independent of social changes and preferences.

    In other words, you seem to be flirting with God without actually dating Him.

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  11. No, Daniel, Capitalizing Things Doesn’t Mean One Makes Them Into Gods…

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  12. Massimo,

    I understand that this is not the intention. However, when Nature becomes the underpinning and the rationale for our behavior, it seems to assume the role of God (not gods, which many are attracted to because it offers plurality of choosing the god they want.)

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  13. Daniel, it seems so to you because you begin with certain assumptions. It nowhere does seem so to me.

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  14. Daniel,

    “However, the actual quote was…”

    Then it seems part of our dispute was a misunderstanding! I had thought you were dismissing any and all moral theories that accept Darwinian evolution as our origins.

    “you seem to be flirting with God without actually dating Him”

    Haha, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Where I wrote “Nature,” most of the Stoics would be happy to use “God” or “Logos” interchangeably.

    The idea of “Nature/Logos/God” can be interpreted many different ways, however, from theism to pantheism to outright atheism. In my opinion, the notion that we can be grateful and inspired with awe by how well-fit certain aspects of reality are is compatible with all three. I find that much of the religious part of Stoicism is compatible with my atheism.

    “You write: ‘this is good,’ as if you are invoking a standard of objective goodness or a moral law higher than self-interest and independent of social changes and preferences.”

    I am indeed invoking a standard of objective goodness. From what I understand of meta-ethical terminology (which is not much), I believe I am a “moral realist:” there are objective moral facts. Many atheists are moral realists.

    I believe that you and I would differ greatly in our understanding of where those facts come from, however.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. PS: Nature does indeed contain many things that we “are loathe to regard as normative for us.”

    But we (referring to either Stoics or atheists) don’t draw our normative principles indiscriminately from Nature. Nature does not dictate divine commands. Cancer is “natural,” said Epictetus, but that doesn’t make it “good.”

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  16. Eric,

    Thanks for acknowledging the misunderstanding.

    While I endorse “moral realism,” I just don’t see how atheism gives you an adequate basis to be a moral realist. An atheist/naturalist/materialist believes that morality is evolving. It is therefore relative to time and place. And therefore, Nature will say different things at different times and places. Which nature then to listen to?

    Besides, if moral laws are merely the product of mindless, purposeless evolution, why even bother to embrace them? Yes, you can embrace them for primarily pragmatic reasons, but to do so, you must also sacrifice moral realism.

    Why? Because as you have written:

    • Stoic gratitude, as I understand it, is closely connected to Stoic theodicy: it’s the ability to look at the world and say “this is good,” and “this is worthy of my love.”

    You are correctly basing gratitude on a higher good, not on pragmatic considerations of “what I can get out of it.”

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  17. Eric,

    “Nature does not dictate divine commands.”

    If not Nature, what does dictate divine commands?

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  18. Daniel,

    It seems to me that you are attempting to interpret my statements on morality from within a Divine Command Theory framework, because that is the framework that makes the most sense to you (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_command_theory). Forgive me for the link if you are already very familiar with DCT—I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.

    “Which nature then to listen to?”
    “Why even bother to embrace them?”
    “If not Nature, what does dictate divine commands?”

    My personal answer: nothing. Morality does not come from divine commands, no more than it comes from the commands of a terrestrial king. Moreover, while most people assume that religion has an easy time establishing “objective morality” by appealing to God’s will, I’m in the school that thinks that religion, in fact, has just as difficult a time justifying moral realism as anybody else.

    On the whole topic of religious morality, atheist morality, and moral realism, you’re better of reading actual philosophers on the topic than I am—they can walk you through the two horns of the Euthyphro dilemma and the various arguments that religious people have developed to address them (here’s one good paper that summarizes much of the issue’s complexity: https://infidels.org/library/modern/jason_thibodeau/moral-theory.html).

    ——

    What I can say is that, for me personally, the way to understand where morality comes from is to use an analogy to color. Color is a real, objective part of human experience. I can make logical propositions about the color of objects, and those propositions can be tested empirically by investigating properties of the natural world.

    But ultimately, the experience of color is not a physical property of the natural world—it is something that “supervenes” on human experience when we see certain wavelengths of light. In a sense, then, color comes to us via “natural law.”

    Similarly, our perception of Justice supervenes on physical scenarios that have a Just configuration, and so on. In principle, given an advanced enough moral science, we could identify all the logical properties that define Justice, just like we can define the wavelengths that define the colors.

    Now, one may believe that God designed the physical laws and neural structures that give us a perception of color, and that give us a perception of morality. But in my view, moral ideas are no more dependent on God’s will than our perception of color is.

    I think that this analogy to color makes me both moral realist and an “non-reductive ethical naturalist.” But I find meta-ethical terms to be very slippery and hard to interpret, so I prefer to just say “I believe morals are like colors” ;).

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  19. Eric,

    Euthyphro’s Dilemma illegitimately limits DCT to two problematic (strawmen) alternatives. However, there is another alternative that this “Dilemma” does not address: Morality is actually inherent within God, and we are created to have this morality engraved on our conscience as “image bearers” of God. As such, we know moral truth and are accountable even if we had been raised under ISIS.

    Therefore, I agree with what you that we do have an objective “perception of Justice”:

    • Similarly, our perception of Justice supervenes on physical scenarios that have a Just configuration, and so on. In principle, given an advanced enough moral science, we could identify all the logical properties that define Justice, just like we can define the wavelengths that define the colors.

    However, you add:

    • But in my view, moral ideas are no more dependent on God’s will than our perception of color is.

    I think that our objective perception of color is essentially different from our objective perception and knowledge of moral law. Even though I think that you are right that colors might impose certain objective neural reactions upon us, there is nothing coercive or normative about these reactions. I can wear yellow, even if I hate yellow and it makes me feel uncomfortable; I can choose to wear it without it eliciting feelings that I have broken a law and have done something deserving of punishment, or at least censure.

    I can even defy the law of gravity by flying on a plane without any sense of guilt or shame. Not so if I defy a moral law.

    I believe that these feelings tell me that I have committed an objective wrong. It is like a fire alarm which alerts us to a real external threat. However, it would seem that for the atheist, feelings of guilt and shame might be objective in an internal biochemical sense (like yellow), but are not necessarily normative, as we experience them to be.

    Therefore, the atheist would lack the philosophical tools to convince Hitler or Al Bagdadi that he is guilty. They might even admit to the same biochemical moral responses as you experience, but they might insist that there are things that are more important than our biochemically induced emotions. And they might even admit taking drugs to quiet these feelings, but so what!

    Of course, I would also have a problem convincing them. However, at least I have the rational tools to appeal to a higher truth.

    There is yet another problem with excluding God from the equation. We both recognize moral elegance as we do elegance in the scientific laws. However, I do not think that naturalism can even begin to explain where this elegance or immutability comes from.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Eric,

    I think we need to move this exchange elsewhere. I’ve noticed that you are not on Facebook. So I’d be glad to offer my blog: mannsword.blogspot.com

    To facilitate our exchange (anyone else is welcome), I can post my last response under a new entry entitled Stoicism?

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Daniel,

    I do actually have Facebook, under the name “Eric Siggy Scott.” If you join the “Stoic Christian” group on Facebook, actually, that might be a good venue to continue such a discussion.

    Otherwise I will seek out your blog tomorrow.

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  22. I just sent out a request to “Stoic Christian” and to you. Whichever venue is best for you!

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