[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]
C. writes: What would be the Stoic position on the benign but pleasurable things I’m sure many of us do to pass time when we’re bored (or while avoiding something else)? Things like playing video games, fantasizing, surfing the Internet, reading popular magazines, shopping online for things we have no real intention of buying but enjoy looking at (e.g., a new Lamborghini), etc. It seems to me that all of these activities are concerned with “indifferents,” and “preferred” to the degree that they make us feel better (up to the point when they don’t) and “dispreferred” when they interfere with more important things.
I’m particularly interested in how you’d analyze this with your Stoic decision-making algorithm (which I’m just starting to use and finding very helpful). With this topic, I’d say (1) Yes, passing my time this way is in my control, but I then get stuck on (2) “Does it concern virtue?,” because these appear to be largely “indifferent” pastimes, and yet I can also see that they might interfere with virtue.
Very good question, and I have come to think that there are two answers, one for “strict” Stoics and one for “lay” Stoics, so to speak. The distinction I’m drawing here is between those of us who practice Stoicism in the manner in which, say, most Christians or Buddhists practice their religion or philosophy, and those who engage with them more rigorously, like Christian ordained ministers, priests, nuns, and cardinals, or Buddhist (and Christian) monks.
Lay practice is more directly reflected in my Stoic decision making algorithm. Let’s take a closer look, particularly at the branch I highlight here:
The things you are referring to are clearly under your control, because they stem from decisions you made following your judgment that, for instance, it is worth your while to spend some time engaging in online window shopping. As you point out, the answer to the next question in the flow chart, “does it concern virtue?” is clearly negative, so we are talking about a preferred / dispreferred indifferent.
The next question, then, is whether it “conflicts with” virtue. There the answer depends on whether you are a lay or a strict Stoic. For the lay Stoic (i.e., most of us) the answer is no, unless you indulge in so much of the leisurely activity that it begins to interfere with your duties as a human being. If, say, you play video games so much that you neglect your family, friends, and profession, then your video gaming is interfering with your virtue, and it ought to be curtailed. But if you are simply using the activity as a past time to relax, then there is no harm, and indeed, relaxation is something that is both necessary for human beings and probably helpful in the practice of virtue. Seneca agreed. At the end of On Tranquillity of Mind he writes:
“Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music. … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.”
However, if your goal is to practice Stoicism in the strict sense, i.e., to approach the level of “virtuosity” about your agency that Larry Becker talks about in his A New Stoicism, then you may want to be very cautious about how you spend your limited time on earth, focusing as much as possible on “indifferents” that are preferred not merely because they are not in conflict with virtue, but because they positively help us to practice virtue. Seneca has something to say here too. In his first letter to his friend Lucilius he writes:
“Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.” (I.1)
To which, shortly thereafter, he adds:
“Hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” (I.22)
“For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.” (I.5)
So far, I have articulated the answer to your question as if it were dichotomous: you are either a lay or a strict Stoic. But, more sensibly, this is really a continuum, unlike the cases I referred to above, of lay Christians and Buddhists contrasted with monks. While there is a somewhat sharp distinction there — you either are a monk, in which case you are supposed to follow certain strict practices and rules of conduct, or you are not — there is no monkhood in Stoicism (thank Zeus!). Indeed, Zeno of Citium apparently explicitly wrote in his Republic that there would be no temples in the ideal Stoic society (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.33).
This means that we should really think of preferred / dispreferred indifferents as a gradient: at a minimum, an indifferent is preferred if it doesn’t positively get in the way of practicing virtue; at the opposite extreme, indifferents are preferred only insofar they directly help us to practice virtue. And here is a bonus: we can use this idea of a continuum as a metric to assess progress in our practice. The closer we get to the “strict” end of the spectrum, the more advanced we are as prokoptontes and prokoptousai (male and female for “those who make progress”).