Stoic Thanks-giving 2019

QUICK NOTE: I have postponed my series on Indian Philosophy and Stoicism until the New Year. My apologies for those that were excited about it. I will have more time after the semester and holidays. Cheers.

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It has been celebrated on and off every year since the first pilgrim and puritan settlers – presumably passed down from earlier European Christian and ‘pagan’ traditions. It was made a federal holiday after the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln and eventually set to the fourth Thursday of the month by FDR. You can read all about it on its wikipedia page if you’d like, which cites many interesting historical documents.

I – of course – would like to discuss how the ancient Stoics perceived thanks-giving and gratitude. I would also like to give some advice about how to approach Thanksgiving (and Black Friday) as a Stoic.

Did the Stoics find gratitude helpful? Or else is it included in the long list of irrational and harmful affections? We can answer this question pretty easily after recognizing that Marcus Aurelius dedicated the entirely of the first book of his Meditations to those that positively influenced him and whose examples he wished to model: his biological father, mother, and grandfather, his adoptive father (Emperor Antoninus Pius), his colleagues, and his many teachers. Note that he omits any mention of his adoptive grandfather (Emperor Hadrian), who was probably not a good role model by Stoic standards. We should not be thankful toward anyone – be they relatives or acquaintances – who serve as bad examples or who undermine our ability to be virtuous somehow.

As Marcus Aurelius demonstrates, the main things that people seem to express gratitude towards are the relationships they have with loved ones, so I’m going to dwell on this for the most part. I think the Stoics can impart two general lessons regarding this gratitude… 

LESSON 1: Gratitude and Desire

We should differentiate gratitude for current or past relationships with a desire for those relationships to continue. I’m thankful for my mother, but that should not imply that I desire or – or worse, expect – an unconditional show of support and love. Other people and the relationships we have with them are out of our control. That is, we can’t guarantee that any of our relationships will continue after today. And to desire something which is out of our control (in our case, the unconditional preservation of a relationship) is pointless. Instead, we should shift our desires away from the relationship itself and towards that which is in our control: our attitudes, judgments, and intended behavior. I’m grateful for my mother’s supportive presence and show of love, but I desire to show this appreciation, to be kind, generous, honest, etc. Though I am not overtly desiring for these relationships to continue (which would be in vain), those things that I am desiring will make it more likely that the relationships will continue (though, again, it is ultimately out of my control). The point: be thankful for relationships and loved ones, but never neglect your own character, attitude, and behavior towards them.

LESSON 2: Impermanence

Another reason why we should not desire relationships to continue is due to their inherently impermanent nature. There are many things that may end a relationship due to the fault of one or both participants. But even a perfect relationship between two perfect Stoic sages will end one day… the day one of them dies. Everyone we know will, at some point, die – mortality is an inherent quality of all human beings. Thus, I may be thankful for my loving partner, but that should not lead me to desire the relationship last forever. To desire something that is outright impossible (to enjoy a relationship forever) is irrational. Whereas the first lesson is about how to express gratitude, this second lesson seems to be about the source of gratitude. Let me explain…

Some may respond to the brute fact of impermanence and death with apathy, fear, anger, anxiety, or sadness. The most sensible reaction, though, is gratitude. The other emotions like fear and anxiety detract from the good experiences that are happening right now (if only you could pay attention to them!)… What gratitude does is focus your attention on the present. And, again, focusing on the present is good because this is where we can actually attend to things in our control: after realizing that my loving partner will certainly die, I’m grateful for this companionship and my gratitude will encourage me to be a good companion myself. Being present-oriented will help the relationship flourish and bring happiness to me and my partner.

BOTTOM LINE: You can’t control what happens in the future? True, but you can be thankful for the good things Fate has allotted you – most things in life are out of your control, yet things could have been worse. Your loved ones are going to die at some unknown point in the future? True, but you can be thankful for the time you have left with them. 

Applying Lesson 1: Dichotomy of Control

Acknowledge what is in your control and what is not in your control. Don’t desire and dwell upon things that are out of your control. Understand that things in your life have come as a matter of Fate and things will stay or go as a matter of Fate. You can only influence these things by addressing what is in your control: your attitude, judgments, and behavior towards others. Here’s a passage from Epictetus to help you with this:

Remember that you should behave in life as you do at a banquet. Something is being passed around and arrives in front of you: reach out your hand and take your share politely. It passes: don’t try to hold it back. It has yet to reach you: don’t project your desire towards it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. So act likewise with regard to your children, to your wife, to public office, to riches, and the time will come when you’re worthy to have a seat at the banquets of the gods. 

— Epictetus, Enchiridion/Handbook Ch. 15

Applying Lesson 2: Meditation of Bad Things (premeditatio malorum

Though it sounds morbid, it helps to just acknowledge that everything is impermanent, that material possessions come and go, and that everyone you care about will die sooner or later (including yourself!). We should be thankful for having a chance to “borrow” our loved ones from the universe. Here’s Epictetus again with a deliberately provocative analogy:

With regard to everything that is a source of delight to you, or is useful to you, or of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.

Epictetus, Echiridion/Handbook Ch. 3 (Cf. Ch. 11)

Miscellaneous Advice for the Thanksgiving/Black Friday Holiday

How to deal with all the food and drink? Seneca and his friend Lucilius seems to consider two approaches. Which approach is more effective depends on the person I think:

Approach 1 (The Intermediate Approach): practice moderation

Don’t “be exactly like the crowd with the party hats,” but don’t “be exactly completely different” … one should not “hold oneself apart or draw attention to oneself, while still not mingling in every respect” … “do as others do, but not in the same manner”

— Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 18 (trans. Graver & Long)

Approach 2 (The Bolder Course): abstain from pleasure and remain sober

“Take charge of one’s mind, ordering it to abstain from pleasures just when everyone else is indulging in them.” … This is “by far the bolder course, to remain cold sober when everyone else is drunk and vomiting.”

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 18 (trans. Graver & Long)

How do I deal with conversations with my relatives? Here’s a good tip from Epictetus:

Remain silent for the most part, or say only what is essential, and in few words. Very infrequently, however, when the occasion demands, do speak, but not about any of the usual topics, not about gladiators, not about horse-races, not about athletes, not about food and drink, the subjects of everyday talk; but above all, don’t talk about people, either to praise or criticize them, or to compare them. If you’re able to so, then, through the manner of your own conversation bring that of your companions round to what is fit and proper. But if you happen to find yourself alone among strangers, keep silent.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion/Handbook Ch. 33.2-3

What about Black Friday? Should I get those deals? The Cynics would have a lot to say about the harm that material possession inflict on us, but the Stoics are more reasonable. As with people, you can have gadgets and nice clothes and shoes unless they undermine our ability to be virtuous. Do not run out and get the newest tech without first exercise prudence and being confident that it will not prevent you from being courageous, just, and moderate. Here are more passages to reflect this Stoic intermediate position:

Anyone who thinks, to the contrary, that wealth is the greatest consolation . . . and that those who have it live without regret is mistaken. Wealth lets people enjoy food, drink, sex, and other pleasures, but wealth would never bring contentment to a wealthy person nor banish his grief. Consider, after all, how many rich men grieve, are disheartened, and think themselves wretched.

— Musonius Rufus, Lectures & Sayings 17 (trans. King)

Our [us Stoics’] clothes should not be fine, but neither should they be filthy; we should not own vessels of silver engraved with gold, but neither should we think that the mere fact that one lacks gold and silver is any indication of a frugal nature. The life we [Stoics] endeavor to live should be better than the general practice, not contrary to it.

Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 5 (trans. Graver & Long)

And here’s one last word from Seneca which can be applicable to many circumstances this time of year. A good rule of thumb to use when considering whether an activity, relationship, or possession may undermine your character, ask yourself whether it allows us to follow Nature:  

No matter how small the amount, it will be enough if only we get what we need from ourselves. Dear Lucilius, not wanting is just as good as having. The result is the same in both cases: either way, you will avoid anxiety. It’s not that I am advising you to deny your nature . . . You should understand, rather, that everything that goes beyond nature is a favor and not a necessity. I am hungry, so I have to eat. Nature does not care whether the bread is course or of the finest flour: its interest is not in pleasing the stomach but merely in filling it. I am thirsty, but nature does not care whether I take water from the nearest pool or whether it is water I have chilled in a pile of snow. All that nature commands is quenching the thirst. It does not matter whether my cup is made of gold, crystal, or agate or whether it is just a [plain] cup or even the hollow of my hand. Look to the ultimate point of everything, and then you will let go of the extra.

[[ For those that want more great lines from Seneca in his conversations with Lucilius about the acquisition of wealth, I suggest you read more of Letter 119 ]]

— Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 119.2-4 (trans. Graver & Long)

Happy Thanksgiving.

— Justin K.

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