Stoic advice: what about small pleasures?

Small pleasures - wine[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:

Stoic decision making algorithm - annotated

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)

And finally:

“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”).

7 thoughts on “Stoic advice: what about small pleasures?

  1. E. O. Scott

    As you hint already, a Stoicism that is “strictly” focused on the goal of letting virtue guide every decision needn’t necessarily veer toward asceticism.

    I’ve latched onto a passage of Seneca’s letters where he says that certain personal indifferents—such as good hygiene and grooming—are preferred not because they are pleasurable but because they are “well chosen.”

    This gives me the sense that part of virtuous behavior includes selecting well from the things that are according to nature for myself (though social duties and benefiting others of course takes precedence). Cicero’s description of what it means to “follow nature” also seems to hint at this (even though Cicero, to my reading, leans toward insisting that all our actuios be directed at virtue as an end).

    So, 100% virtue orientation and small pleasures :).

    That said, my more ascetic Stoic friends would warn me of the importance of training, and of how easily the idea that “self care is part of virtue!” can be distorted into an excuse to let me moral guard down, especially when it comes to pleasures that are easier to give up entirely than to moderate.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. jbonnicerenoreg

    Two other analogies, one from India and one from athletics. In the stages of life tradition one can be a householder with its duties or one can be an ascetic pursuing Enlightenment. Each follows the same morality but the ascetic or saint has certain practises that the householder does not.
    In athletics one can exercise for health or one can train to be an Olympic athlete.
    I think family responsibilities are the dividing line between those who pursue ideals to a certain extent and those that pursue them fully.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Massimo Post author


    Indeed, both are good analogies. As for family responsibilities being a dividing line, yes, that’s why Epictetus says the Cynics are exempt from family responsibilities, they are incompatible with an ascetic life style.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ron Peters

    I can hear Seneca saying “Well, a little bit of enjoyment in life can’t really hurt!” Followed by Epictetus snarling, “Slave! Are you going to live forever! When do you think you will perfect your prohairesis?”

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  5. E. O. Scott

    Ron: I can think of Seneca quotes that could support either side! This one recently struck me:

    “Our faults have so long been left to grow that a whole life is hardly enough time to subdue them and bring them under the yoke. Our chances are even less if we divide up our brief span with interruptions. Even constant vigilance and effort can scarcely perfect some single element of our lives.”

    —Letters to Lucilius, 69.5.

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  6. jimjamshazam

    Massimo, I have a quick question which has been bothering me for a while. Larry’s book outlines how ideal agency, virtue, and eudaimonia are necessary and sufficient for each other, etc.

    My concern is that for “lay stoics” as you describe them here, if we don’t aim for virtuoso agency, can we have virtue? As I understand it, we cannot, since virtue is an all-or-nothing affair, so we strive instead to be prokopton, to do our utmost to make progress. But if that’s the case, we don’t actually have virtue per se, which means we don’t have eudaimonia either. So, is it possible to have ‘a life worth living’ if we never really have virtue, but only ever make progress towards it?


  7. Massimo Post author

    Check out this particular post on Larry’s book: It addresses your question, I think, particularly when I introduce the metaphor of the circle (perfect) and different types of ellipses (all imperfect, but to different degrees). So, yes, we can have a near-eudaimonic life even if we do not have virtuoso levels of wisdom.


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