Thursday, September 10, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 18 - On Festivals and Fasting

On Festivals and Fasting

Summer is over; school has begun.  Having circled the sun over 40 times now, I'm used to the excitement that Autumn brings for someone like me who lives in the United States.  Many of my friends, neighbors and acquaintances love the return to school, cooler weather, football and the anticipation of the holidays - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.

One significant theme of these holidays is food.  If you strain your ears around 5pm on the fourth Thursday of November, you can almost hear the simultaneous "pop" of the pants button coming un-done as people push away from the dinner table and shuffle to the couch to watch the football game.  About six weeks after that, if you listen closely, in the early weeks of January, you'll hear the faint "creak" of the scale as overweight people moan in realization that they've over-indulged for the last three months.

Seneca proposes a year-round solution to these problems.

During the course of the year, 

set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?"
Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby ... you will understand that a man's peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune;

let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard.


set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish [a relationship] with poverty.

Fasting or eating well below what is needed strengthens our resolve as well as our body.  Seneca also mentions a certain pleasure from eating below our needs or eating very plain or coarse food.

yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one's needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

And not only can this be applied to food, but it can also be applied to possessions and wealth.

For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.

If you incorporate these "living minimally" practices through the year, you can approach Saturnalia, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween with serenity.  You neither have to hide away to prevent yourself from overindulging, nor do you have to feel unprepared in partaking of the festivities.  You participate with temperance and demonstrate courage.

It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.

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