[Stoicism is a practical philosophy, as Epictetus often reminds his students: “If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35) Accordingly, I have started a “Stoic advice” column, a philosophically informed, hopefully useful, version of the classic ones run by a number of newspapers across the world. If you wish to submit a question to the Stoic advice column, please send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please be mindful that the advice given in this column is strictly based on personal opinion and reflects my own, possibly incorrect, understanding of Stoic philosophy.]
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).