Monday, November 8, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 123 - On the Conflict between Pleasure and Virtue

On the Conflict between Pleasure and Virtue

In my studies of Stoicism, I've learned the summum bonum is eudaimonia - this is the why of philosophy.  And eudaimonia is the state of having a good soul, or if you earnestly believe the Stoics, it means to align your own part of divinity (your daimon) with the Whole - the Cosmos - Nature, hence the motto live according to Nature (Long, 197; Sellars, 122-123).  Or to put it even more bluntly, to align with, choose with, desire with and will with God (Stephens, 59).

And, in my opinion, the goal is not only to achieve eudaimonia once for a brief moment, but to be able to achieve a constant state of flourishing and excellence - to completely grow and progress into the full bloom of a rational, human adult (logikē psuchē, see Sellars 104-105).

The Stoics will say that avoidance of pain, toil and trials and the pursuit of pleasures and ease are not up to us.  And therefore, if we try to avoid the former and pursue the latter in hopes of achieving eudaimonia, we will end up disappointed and fail in our quest.

But, if we place our desires on the pursuit of exercising moral virtues (and this is entirely up to us), then we have a shot at finding and retaining lasting equanimity, serenity and eudaimonia.

Therefore, all that the Stoics try to teach us, is too focus only on what is up to us and to not get caught up in the avoidance of things (pain, toil, trial) not up to us and the pursuit of things (fame, status, wealth, pleasures) not up to us.  These indifferents are mere materials or mediums for us to exercise what is entirely ours: our will; our volition; our character; our morals.

In this spirit, Seneca attempts to explain how, regardless of circumstances, we can find a way to act with moral conviction.  And he will rail against those whose philosophy is to pursue pleasure and ease, not to make himself feel better or to make others feel bad, but on the contrary - to help people understand the reality of the situation, and to help them find an alternative to folly and disappointment.

nothing is heavy if one accepts it with a light heart, and that nothing need provoke one's anger if one does not add to one's pile of troubles by getting angry.

If your expectations do not match reality, your expectations may need an adjustment.  And your attitude of the situation can be immediately adjusted.  If you find some circumstance to be "heavy" you can simply choose to change your attitude about it.  If something upsets you and you are angry, recognize that by being angry, you are piling on more trouble.

I must not eat until hunger bids me; so I shall wait and shall not eat until I can either get good bread or else cease to be squeamish about it.  It is necessary that one grow accustomed to slender fare

The antidote to gluttony is to delay eating until necessary.  When you complain about the food, wait even longer until the coarse bread becomes rich.

To have whatsoever he wishes is in no man's power; it is in his power not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.

Folly begins when you find yourself always wishing.  Wishing and desiring for things not up to you will lead to disappointment.  But cheerful acceptance is something you can do something about.

Every circumstance is a test of your character and resolve.  Complaining and anxiety are symptoms of an internal misalignment.  Reflect on these and improve.

viewing one's own troubles not only fairly but calmly, not flying into fits of temper or wordy wranglings, supplying one's own needs by not craving something which was really due, and reflecting that our habits may be unsatisfied, but never our own real selves.

We must be leery of desire infection from others.

how much do we acquire simply because our neighbours have acquired such things, or because most men possess them!   Many of our troubles may be explained from the fact that we live according to a pattern, and, instead of arranging our lives according to reason, are led astray by convention.  There are things which, if done by the few, we should refuse to imitate; yet when the majority have begun to do them, we follow along

Seneca goes so far as to advocate shunning certain people because of their "bad habits."

You should avoid conversation with all such persons: they are the sort that communicate and engraft their bad habits from one to another. We used to think that the very worst variety of these men were those who vaunted their words; but there are certain men who vaunt their wickedness. Their talk is very harmful; for even though it is not at once convincing, yet they leave the seeds of trouble in the soul

I would temper Seneca's advice.  If you are just beginning to practice a philosophical life and if you are trying to drink and eat less, for example, then you should probably not talk much with people who would have you join them at the bar or buffet every week.  A bit more distance from them would be in order.  However, if you have established, good habits, then there is no need for avoiding such people.  Rather, you could be an anchor and boon to them, in helping them see a better way.

Seneca would warn us to avoid such people, because we might catch their tune in our head and soon, we would not be able to get it out of our mind.  Thereafter, we would begin to be persuaded by such devious philosophies such as this:

"Virtue, Philosophy, Justice – this is a jargon of empty words. The only way to be happy is to do yourself well. To eat, drink, and spend your money is the only real life, the only way to remind yourself that you are mortal. Our days flow on, and life – which we cannot restore – hastens away from us. Why hesitate to come to our senses? This life of ours will not always admit pleasures; meantime, while it can do so, while it clamours for them, what profit lies in imposing thereupon frugality? Therefore get ahead of death, and let anything that death will filch from you be squandered now upon yourself. You have no mistress, no favourite slave to make your mistress envious; you are sober when you make your daily appearance in public; you dine as if you had to show your account-book to 'Papa'; but that is not living, it is merely going shares in someone else's existence.  And what madness it is to be looking out for the interests of your heir, and to deny yourself everything, with the result that you turn friends into enemies by the vast amount of the fortune you intend to leave! For the more the heir is to get from you, the more he will rejoice in your taking-off! All those sour fellows who criticize other men's lives in a spirit of priggishness and are real enemies to their own lives, playing schoolmaster to the world – you should not consider them as worth a farthing, nor should you hesitate to prefer good living to a good reputation."

These are siren voices; and we ought to take precautions in order to avoid their messages becoming our philosophy.  And be wary of those who profess to be Stoics, but in reality, they are not.

let us retreat from the objects that allure, and rouse ourselves to meet the objects that attack.


only those men bring ruin to our ears, who praise pleasure, who inspire us with fear of pain – that element which is in itself provocative of fear; I believe that we are also in injured by those who masquerade under the disguise of the Stoic school and at the same time urge us on into vice.

The sage is wise and knowledgeable in both intent and actions.

No man is good by chance. Virtue is something which must be learned.

Philosophy fights vice.

philosophy ought not to try to explain away vice.


Long, Anthony A. Hellenistic Philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. London, Duckworth, 1986.

Sellars, John. Stoicism. Berkeley, University Of California Press, 2006.

Stephens, William O. Stoic Ethics : Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom. London ; Oxford ; New York ; New Delhi ; Sydney Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

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