[[this post is adapted and expanded from a 2020 post of mine]]
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 traditions. It was made a federal holiday after the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln and eventually fixed to the fourth Thursday of the month by FDR. You can read all about it on its wikipedia page if you’d like or this , which cites many interesting historical documents.
I would like to discuss how the ancient Stoics perceived giving thanks or expressing gratitude; how we should approach these things (on a daily basis and during the holidays); and also—as a bonus—how we as Stoics should approach Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
First off: Did the ancient Stoics really 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.
To drive the point home, I would also cite the longest treatise from Seneca that we have: On Benefits. This is made up of seven books and hundreds of pages about the practice of giving and receiving benefits (beneficia). Though Book 3 is especially concerned with expressing gratitude when one receives a benefit, it is at the beginning of the entire treatise where Seneca makes this remarkable statement:
Within the wide range of mistakes made by those who live recklessly and without reflection [. . .] there is almost nothing, I would claim, more harmful than our ignorance of how to give and receive benefits. [. . .] [A]mong the large number of extremely grave vices, none is more common than those stemming from an ungrateful mind.―Seneca, On Benefits 1.1-2 (trans. Trans. by Griffin & Inwood)
Thus, the long treatise. And, thus, the length of Book 1 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (longer than Books 2 and 3 at least). My post here can’t be that long, so I’ll try to focus on how to express gratitude in relationships with with loved ones [rather than expressing gratitude towards colleagues, fellow citizens, the gods/nature, or toward yourself (Cf. On Benefits 5.7-11)]. In this vein, 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 ultimately fall outside our power of 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 hands (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 within our power: 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 in fact desiring will make it more likely that the relationships will continue. It’s one of those beautiful paradoxes that make sense upon reflection.
BOTTOM LINE: You should be thankful for your relationships and loved ones, but you should not make them objects of your desires. Rather, you should desire to maintain your good character, a positive attitude, and make choices that express care and love—this is all that is within your power to do.
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 (a.k.a. mortals). Thus, I may be thankful for my loving partner, but that should not lead me to desire the relationship to 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!)… gratitude focus your attention on the here and now. And, again, focusing on the present is good because this is where we can actually attend to things within our power: after realizing that my loving partner will certainly die, I’m grateful for this companionship here and now. In turn, my gratitude will encourage me to be a good companion here and now. Being present-oriented will help the relationship flourish and help secure happiness for 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 the universe has allotted you—most things in life are out of your power, 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 here and now.
Applying Lesson 1: Epictetus’ “First Rule” (prôton kanôn)
Here’s one passage from Epictetus to help apply the first lesson:
[E]xamine [each impression] and test it by these rules that you possess, and first and foremost by this one, whether the impression relates to those things that are within our power, or those that aren’t within our power; and if it relates to anything that isn’t within our power, be ready to reply, “That’s nothing to me.’—Epictetus, Handbook Ch. 5 (trans. Robin Hard)
Acknowledge what is within your power and what is not. Don’t desire and dwell upon things that are outside your power. Understand that things in your life have come as a matter of Fate (natural order) and things will stay or go as a matter of Fate. You can only influence these things by addressing what is within your power: your attitude, judgments, and intended behavior towards others. Here’s a second 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, Handbook Ch. 15
You can treat this analogy more literally and apply it to your behavior at the Thanksgiving dinner table: when your favorite dish gets to you, take your portion and pass it along. Your desire for more would likely diminish the enjoyment of what you have. The larger point is that this is the attitude you should adopt towards everything.
Applying Lesson 2: Premeditation of Bad Things (praemeditātio malōrum)
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, Handbook Ch. 3 (Cf. Ch. 11)
BONUS: Advice on the Accoutrements of the Holiday Season
There are many things that reside in the peripheries of the actual Thanksgiving holiday—that have been tacked on in the spirit of celebratory indulgence. This includes the exorbitant amount of food on Thanksgiving Day and the fixation on material things as a result of Black Friday and—now—Cyber Monday sales.
How to deal with all the food and drink
This is not so straight-forward as you might expect. We should keep in mind that the Stoics were not ascetics (as their Cynic compatriots seemed to be). More importantly, the ‘moderation’ or ‘temperance’ (sôphrosunê) that the Stoics aspire to in relation to food and drink is a feature of one’s mind and not of one’s behavior. This is just to further emphasize that what is within our power and, thus, what we should be paying attention to are our attitudes, judgments, and intended behavior.
Seneca and his friend Lucilius seem to consider two approaches in Letter 18 (trans. Graver & Long). Which approach is more effective depends on the person:
Approach 1 (The Intermediate Approach): moderate one’s behavior
The first approach is to not “be exactly like the crowd with the party hats,” but also to not “be completely different.” He says that one should not “hold oneself apart or draw attention to oneself, while still not mingling in every respect.” That is, “do as others do, but not in the same manner.”
Although this is incredibly vague, I think he provides a helpful metric for those taking this approach. On the one hand, If the goal is to not stand out and “draw attention to oneself” then we’ll know we’ve succeeded if nobody makes a big ado about the way we’re commemorating the holiday. On the other side, if the goal is to “not mingle in every respect” then we’ll know we’ve succeeded if we exercise more mindfulness on our thoughts and intentions throughout the holiday. That would be enough. And barring any excess in drugs or alcohol, it is quite reasonable to ask yourself to keep this up through the Thanksgiving celebration.
Approach 2 (The Bolder Course): abstain from pleasure and remain sober
The second approach is simpler, but more difficult.
“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.”
Some of you may think this isn’t very difficult—to completely abstain from the festivities. But the difficulty comes from maintaining the right intentions and making sure we’re abstaining for the right reasons. If your strange behavior is standing out and making others feel uncomfortable, it’s reasonable to reconsider your commitment to this approach for the sake of fostering a sense of community.
How to deal with conversations with my relatives
Here’s one last good tip from Epictetus:
Remain silent for the most part, or say only what is essential, and in a 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 do 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, Handbook Ch. 33.2-3
In other words, if you must talk, don’t fuel frivolous conversations about sports, movies, celebrities, food and drink, or any other “subjects of everyday talk.” My take on this is that you should not talk about these things without also using it as a medium to discuss what is “fit and proper.” More importantly, you should try not to gossip about people to the extent that you cast judgment about them without insufficient information (“to praise or criticize them, or to compare them”).
Instead, talk about things that are “fit and proper.” What are these things? In short, focus on good things that are within your power: how people can exemplify good character—wisdom, courage, temperance, justice. Try to find common ground and work from there. Don’t assume that you have any answers (this is the opposite of wisdom). Don’t dominate the conversation (this is the opposite of temperance and justice). Don’t let any opportunity for gratitude and forgiveness slip away (this is the opposite of courage).
How to deal with deals
Again, the Stoics are not ascetics. The Cynics would have a lot to say about the harm that material possession inflicts on us, but the Stoics are less hostile towards these things. As with our personal relationships, 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 exercising 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 (including the most Cynical Stoic, Musonius Rufus)::
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)
If you recall the begininng of this post, I said that it should not be too long… and to make good on that promise, I’ll start to wrap things up… But here’s one last word from Seneca which can be applicable to many circumstances this time of year. Here’s 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 coarse 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.— Seneca, Letters to Lucilius 119.2-4 (trans. Graver & Long)
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. For an even longer treatment of generosity and gratitude, check out Seneca’s On Benefits. Besides that, try not to keep your nose in a book or your eyes on a screen during the holidays. We can only become good through practicing with others and internalizing the lessons found in the ancient texts. For many reasons, this is the prime opportunity to practice.