Thoughts on Stoic Holidays

Hello and Happy Holidays

I’m writing this on New Years Eve according to the Gregorian Calendar. This, of course, is the last holiday of 2019 and gives me an opportunity to have a quick discussion about … holidays!

You may have expected me to use this as an opportunity to reflect on more serious matters – my personal growth, the lessons I’ve learned, or the progress of the Stoic community as a whole – but Stoics are encouraged to reflect every day on serious matters; I wouldn’t want to single-out New Years as the time to do what we already should be doing…

First off, I want to emphasize that modern Stoics – especially those in Los Angeles – seem very diverse in their cultural beliefs. They may observe all sorts of holidays including Christmas, Hanukkah, Bodhi Day, Kwanzaa, Zarathosht Diso, Gita Jayanti, etc. and those are just holidays this past December. For Catholic Christians (which is the largest religious group in Los Angeles), there are potentially many holidays and feast days one can commemorate throughout the year. I wouldn’t deny a Stoic to observe these holidays that are crucial to preserving one’s culture and the important values therein. 

The question I want to discuss is whether there are any Stoic-specific holidays.

Just this week, I received a 2020 calendar featuring Stoicism-themed artwork by Wyn Robertson, a member of the Redwood Stoa in the “West Coast Region” of the Stoic Fellowship (which includes eight Stoic groups located on the West Coast of the US).

Before it went to print, the regional leader, James, emailed the other group facilitators and asked us to review the calendar for typos or other changes. Besides the regular holidays, there were non-standard holidays or commemorations…

The calendar marked the vernal/autumnal equinoxes and summer/winter solstices, which are great opportunities for reflection and to acknowledge one’s connection to the greater cosmos.

The calendar commemorated the founding day of each Stoic group (or, “Stoa”), which allows for more reflection and helps us acknowledge our connection to the larger community of Stoics.

Lastly, there were three non-standard holidays that originated with the Roman Empire: 1) The Ides of March (March 15) – a date that had religious significance before Julius Caesar, but can now commemorate the fall of an overambitious dictator; 2) Marcus Aurelius’s birthday (April 26) – celebrated during the reign of Marcus and may have continued out of respect for the emperor; and 3) Saturnalia (Dec. 17) – a celebration in honor of the god Saturn leading up to the winter solstice (and rebirth of the ‘unconquerable sun’).

This past December, I have encountered an “Oi Saturnalia” here and there as a salutation from my fellow Stoics. I enjoy the good spirit with which Saturnalia is mentioned on the internet and I do think it helps us connect us with those ancient Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius – who were known to celebrate the holiday to some degree. 

But I have to admit that observing this holiday has always felt like parody or satire to me. The problem is that the Roman Stoics were Romans who actually lived in the capital most of their lives (where Saturn supposedly resided during the ‘Golden Age’ of the distant past). The holiday was integral to the regional culture they developed within. But Modern Stoics – not including modern Italian Stoics – are not Romans… and Stoicism isn’t uniquely Roman. Thus, the Saturnalia holiday isn’t much of a ‘live option’ to those – say – Californian Stoics who don’t really understand what Saturn signifies.

Marcus Aurelius’s birthday, on the other hand, is unquestionably a Stoic holiday in the sense that it gives us an opportunity to contemplate the life of a committed and influential Stoic. Unfortunately, this is the only Stoic whose birthday posterity deemed worthy to preserve (he was an emperor after all).

Are there any other Stoic Holidays?

Yes. It’s true that we don’t know the date of any other Stoic’s birth, but we have ample information to calculate a very important date for Stoicism (and all philosophy for that matter!)… The Trial of Socrates and The Death of Socrates. Here are the calculations (you can skip the next paragraph is you trust my math)…

Plato and Xenophon mention that Socrates’s death was postponed due to the “Delia” ceremony during the Attic month of Thargelion: the sacred ‘Ship of Theseus’ would depart from Athens (Piraeus); it would sail 100 miles away to the sacred island of Delos; ceremonies would be performed in honor of Apollo; then the ship would return to Athens. While it was away from the city, no executions were permitted (see Crito 43d-44a). The Ship of Theseus would presumably set sail on the first of Thargelion, Plato says that the trial was held a day after this ship departed (see Phaedo 58a-c), and Xenophon says that Socrates had to wait “thirty days after the verdict was given” until the ship returned (see Memorabilia 4.8.2). His death then took place at sunset at then end of that thirtieth day (this is dramatized at the end of Plato’s “Phaedo”)… In addition to the textual evidence, it helps to know that the Attic calendar was lunisolar: each month starts once a new moon is sighted and the year starts on the first new moon after the summer solstice (thus linking the lunar months with the solar year). The month of Thargelion starts once the eleventh new moon after the summer solstice is sighted. The ‘Ship of Theseus’ would have launched that day, the main trial of Socrates would have started the day after that, and his death would have taken place at sunset thirty days after that.

Because this is all based off of the ancient Attic lunisolar calendar, we have two options of how to commemorate the trial and death of Socrates. I’ll use this year’s dates (2020) as the basis for the discussion… 

OPTION A (as a floating holiday): We can count eleven new moons from the last summer solstice and use that as an anchor for each year’s dates. In 2020, the Trial of Socrates can be commemorated on April 24th and the Death of Socrates can be commemorated on May 24th. In the future, the dates will keep changing (as with many religious calendars) but they will stay within April, May, or June.

OPTION B (as a fixed holiday): We have lunar and solar data from 400/399 BCE that we can use to find the probable dates of Socrates’s trial and death in 399 (according to the Julian calendar). The Trial of Socrates would be fixed at April 15th and the Death of Socrates would be fixed at May 15th. These will stay the same though the moon phases will change around them (as with most of our civic holidays).

As with commemorating the solstices and equinoxes, having holidays calculated according to the sun and moon (Option A) may help us forge a connection with Nature and the greater cosmos. Socrates’s best friend, Crito, visited him a day before the execution. Because this event will happen about 30 days after a new moon, I imagine that the event took place around the next new moon (May 13th, 399 BCE according to the data) – the perfect conditions for Crito to help Socrates escape in the darkness. It might be nice to keep this connection and perhaps have a third holiday (“The Plea of Crito”). Though the dates are changing, we can better experience what Socrates and his friends might have experienced, at least when it concerns the moon. Of course, if we were to go ahead with Option A, it can all be quite confusing and discouraging for folks since they’ll have to rely on others to do the calculations every year. Also, some of my math and slight guesswork may be controversial.

A fixed date (Option B), on the other hand, is simple and easy for everyone to use. It will help them plan for the commemoration in the future and they won’t have to depend on others. The fixed date involves just as much guesswork. The eleventh new moon after the 400 BCE summer solstice occurred on April 13th, 399 BCE at 7:33pm. I’m guessing that the Athenians would observe the new moon and start Thargelion on the very next day (April 14th) and Socrates would be tried on April 15th and then executed on May 15th.

I suggested to James and the West Coast Stoa that we go with Option A for now, so if you order the Stoic 2020 calendar, you will see the “Trial of Socrates (floating)” and the “Death of Socrates (floating)” in their respective 2020 dates… BUT… I think the Stoic community needs to have a discussion about this so we can focus more on the actual commemoration of one of the most influential figures in the history of philosophy. We can read and reflect upon Xenophon’s “Apology” and Plato’s “Apology,” “Crito,” and the death scene of his “Phaedo” as a community.

Those are my last thoughts concerning the ‘holiday season’. Have a safe and joyous New Years.

— Justin K.

REVISION: On May 20, 2020, I returned to the source material that I used to calculate the dates of lunar phases in 400 BCE and 399 BCE. I’m embarrassed to say that I neglected to account for there being no Year 0 (rookie mistake!). This obviously affected when the start of the attic lunar months occurred. I quickly edited this post to prevent misinformation; the current version has all the correct dates. Apologies!

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