Saturnalia 2020

Today is Saturnalia—a holiday with no meaningful significance to any extant religious or ethnic group and, thus, ripe to be appropriated by the modern secular Stoic community. The following are a few thoughts I had on how we could observe Saturnalia, but also how we could observe any holiday as thoughtful and responsible Stoics.


Saturnalia is the Ancient Roman holiday traditionally celebrated 16 days [inclusive] before the first of January, which became Dec. 17th after the Julian calendar reform of 45 BC. It was a Roman version of the Greek holiday Kronia (which was observed in Summer). Both holidays celebrated their respective ‘golden age’ in which Saturn/Kronos reigned and everyone was happy and free.

Quick note on the date: After the Julian reform, some thought Saturnalia should be celebrated 14 days before the first of January (i.e., Dec. 19); some apparently wanted to celebrate it in conjunction with the solstice (Dec. 21); and some wanted it to merge with another festival/fair called Sigillaria (Dec. 23). Thus, Saturnalia has been known to last 1, 3, 5, or 7 days depending on imperial edict or popular custom. Modern Stoics seem to prefer a one-day celebration on Dec. 17th, but I can see the appeal of a week-long celebration leading up to Christmas Eve.

Saturnalia and Stoicism

The holiday was significant throughout Roman history. It is mentioned by Seneca in Letters 18 and by Epictetus in Discourses 1.25, 29 and 4.1. Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis [divi Claudii] (The Pumpkinification [of Claudius the God]) is speculated to have been written for public reading at the Saturnalia festivities in 54 AD.

By the time of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, observances officially extended for five days and unofficially for seven (see “note” above). Though it seems excessive, that really depends on how you “observe” this holiday. So how do Stoics observe it?

Stoics would not have observed this holiday as the general public did—this is Seneca’s point in Letter 18. Instead, ancient and modern Stoics can use this holiday season as an opportunity to cultivate moderation (sōphrosúnē) amid indulgences; foster a sense of community (sympátheia) with others; and contemplate the nature of true freedom (eleutheríā) that accompanies wisdom.

Moderation (sōphrosúnē / temperantia)

Moderation is one of the four virtues that humans manifest insofar as they possess knowledge and exercise reason. Seneca seems ambivalent to describe moderation in the sense that it usually is—that moderation amounts to restraining our impulses so that we don’t indulge too much in a good thing. No, if too much of a thing is ‘bad,’ then that thing was never good to begin with. This is one of the reasons pleasure is not good (see Epictetus Discourses 2.11.19-25 for a succinct discussion of this). Nor are any of the emotions (pathe) good (see Seneca Letters 85 especially on this point).

Moderation is the knowledge and exercise of reason directed towards external things. Moderation is what’s good and external things are indifferent. During the holiday season, we may be inclined to neglect moderation towards external things: eating and drinking in particular. The following readings are meant to counteract those inclinations and encourage diligence and discipline. Once we cultivate good habits (i.e., we are disposed to thinking and acting rationally), then there is no need for restraint.

Readings to cultivate moderation: Musonius Rufus Lectures 18; Seneca Letters 18, 83

Sense of Community (sympátheia / sympathīa)

Sympatheia was used to describe “fellow feeling” shared among all sentient beings. It seems to have connotation shared with the modern English term ‘simpatico’ used to describe a relationship between like-minded people who get along well or work well together. Human beings work especially well with one another because of their shared rational faculties (though misinformation/disinformation can high-jack that faculty and lead to vice). Also, Stoics are keen to note that humans work especially well with the cosmos itself because of how their rational faculty let them attend to the rational laws of nature. This is a kind of ‘simpatico’ with the universe.

It’s important to stress that sympatheia refers to something deep—a deep, intuitive understanding or ‘feeling’ that one has toward the social or natural world. This holiday season is especially helpful to cultivate this feeling by reinforcing that we are all parts of a larger organized whole. Though things can irritate us, expressing gratitude and keeping a larger picture in mind can help us foster community with other people and with the world at large.

Reading to foster sympatheia: Marcus Aurelius Meditations Book 6

Freedom (eleutheríā / lībertās)

The Stoics often emphasized that we are all slaves to many masters. One of the Stoic ‘paradoxes’ that Cicero explored was the claim that “only the wise person is free” (Paradoxa Stoicorum 5). In his discourse on freedom, Epictetus only cites Socrates and Diogenes the Cynic as truly free (Discourses 4.1.151-169).

What’s fascinating about the Stoic notion of ‘freedom’ is that they don’t actually define it differently than how most people would: you are free if you can do whatever you desire without being compelled or impeded. Insofar as you can’t do whatever you want—insofar as you feel compelled or impeded—you are not free. The solution amounts to Stoic practice and especially the ‘discipline of desire’. During Saturnalia, Roman slaves would get a taste of political freedom; today, we can all take this opportunity to contemplate true freedom—moral, psychological freedom.

Readings to help contemplate freedom: Epictetus Discourses 4.1; Also Enchiridion 1; Letters 37; Meditations 1.8

io saturnalia!

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