Stoicism and Christmas 2020

Hello fellow Stoics and Stoic-minded folks

Today is Christmas Eve (Dec. 24) according to the Gregorian calendar (For many Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Christians, who still use the Julian Calendar, Christmas falls on Jan. 7).

For all Christians, Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ who is said to have come to liberate mankind (from their sin) and establish a righteous kingdom (in heaven). The full import of his mission wasn’t realized until Jesus died and was resurrected, so the most important holiday in Christianity is actually Easter. But of course Christmas has become very popular in modern times, especially when things are tough (pandemic-level tough) and we all need some good cheer and uplifted spirits.

That leads me to the topic that I just decided to write about in this entry: cheerfulness and good spirits. These are the common translations of two kinds of joy (chara), a good emotion (eupatheiei) that the Stoics claim is experienced by good people. The doxographer Diogenes Laertius lists them among the other eupatheiai, but omits any definitions (DL 7.116). The following are definitions provided by an unknown author known as “Pseudo-Andronicus” (because his work was once erroneously attributed to Andronicus of Rhodes):

  • cheerfulness (euphrosune) is “joy in the sensible person’s deeds”
  • good spirits (euthumia) is “joy in the management or self-sufficiency of the universe”
  • (in Margaret Graver’s Stoicism and Emotion, p. 58, Fig. 5, citing Pseudo-Andronicus, On Emotions 6)

Joy itself feels the same as the ordinary emotion (pathos) of pleasure or delight (hedoné). The difference is that joy is rational and delight is irrational (DL 7.115). That is, joy is directed at a genuine good (i.e. at an instance of virtue like courage or generosity) and delight is not.

Two quick conclusions can be drawn from all these definitions:

  1. The sage, “whose every action is an exercise of virtue, has reason to be joyful at every moment of the day” (Graver 52-3).
  2. Cheerfulness is directed at the goodness of good deeds; good spirits is directed at the goodness of the universe (or, universal Nature)

Though these emotions are not often—if at all—accessible to us ordinary, flawed human beings, we can still get glimpses of them on occasions like Christmas. When you see yourself or others undertake an act of generosity or kindness and you feel elated, then you are getting a taste of true joy (in the form of “cheerfulness”). When you look around you and feel at home among the human community or among nature—an essential part of a larger organized whole—you are getting a taste of true joy (in the form of “good spirits”). The holidays provide more opportunities for these glimpses and tastes of what our lives could be like all year long.

Take advantage of these opportunities and you’ll notice them more often. 

When you show courage by staying at home rather than travelling, sit with the fact that you are cultivating something noble within you. When you patronize our local restaurants, look within yourself and take pride in your generosity. When hearing news of nurses working overtime to help cope with the surge of ICU patients, rejoice in the fact that those people are actualizing a potential that you yourself also have. Indulge in cheerfulness when confronted with virtue manifested in action.

Take moments throughout the day away from your mobile devices and marvel at how you’re interrelated with something so large and complex that you can’t understand it. Yet marvel still at how it is all comprised of small ostensibly disparate parts (like you and your neighbor), working together according to the same rational principles of cause-and-effect. Indulge in the good spirits that come when confronted with the virtue of the universe.

Does this sound like more work than you’re willing to put forth? Would you rather take what pleasure you can from binging quality Netflix series? That’s understandable. And you can watch your Netflix shows. As long as you don’t neglect what’s best within you. Nothing worth having comes without effort. Cheerfulness and good spirits are serious matters that takes practice to realize despite it being a natural manifestation of what is most human within us—our rationality and sociability. 

Here’s Seneca that echos this sentiment to his dear friend Lucilius:

Believe me, true joy is a serious matter. Do you think that it is with a relaxed and cheerful countenance that one despises death, opens his home to poverty, reins in pleasure, and rehearses the endurance of pain? One who is pondering such things is experiencing a great joy, but hardly a soft or seductive one. This is the joy I want you to possess: you will never run out of it, once you learn where it is to be found. . . . Cast aside those things that glitter on the outside, those things that are promised you by another or from another, and trample them underfoot. Look to your real good and rejoice in what is yours. What is it that is yours? Yourself; the best part of you.

Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius 23.4-6

Merry Christmas. Happy holidays.

―Justin K.


2 responses to “Stoicism and Christmas 2020”

  1. Luis Monzo Avatar
    Luis Monzo

    Thank you for posting this, Justin. I found the definitions of cheerfulness and good spirit to be especially helpful in my effort to get a good handle on the Stoic concept of Joy. In my own practice, I try to nurture joy (though not terribly successfully) by: (1) acting virtuously, (2) noticing, acknowledging, and trying to emulate the good qualities I see in others, and (3) being grateful for all the preferred indifferent things in my life, yet without clinging to any of them. Point #3 is my way of practicing being aware of the “blessings” that Universal Nature brings into my life.

    1. losangelesstoics Avatar

      Luis! Yes. Noticing the virtue of yourself and others may elicit “cheerfulness.” Expressing gratitude for what fate has allotted may elicit “good spirits” if it prompts you to contemplate the goodness of fate in a larger sense. It may also elicit a third form of joy which I omitted in my blog: “enjoyment” (terpsis). This is defined as “joy befitting the
      surrounding advantages.” That might be closer to the emotion that comes from expressing gratitude for what you have… It’s all joy though! Recognizing the goodness in and around you. What’s beautiful is that it can be nurtured whenever you allow yourself to have it. Thanks for sharing your practice!

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