Tuesday, December 25, 2012

An Antidote for Hedonism

It's funny how a holiday season of giving thanks, religious rites and the start of a new year has turned into a festival of avarice, gluttony and drunkenness. An antidote: Stoicism.

Hear me out. Briefly, Stoicism is a middle way about material things, between being ascetic and finicky. Alcohol, fine foods, trendy gadgets and fancy furnishings can be enjoyed, but they aren't held dear. If you're hung over, if your pants don't fit, if you can't pay off the credit card bill, you've gone overboard, even if everyone else is doing it.

Stoics don't care much about what everyone else is doing. It's out of their control, so they don't worry about it. They don't worry over the past, either. If you overindulged over the holidays, they'd tell you to forget about it and get back on track. If there are things you simply can't eat, drink or buy, stop thinking about them. And internalize your goals. Instead of saying that you'd like to lose 20 pounds, your goal would be to eat a simple diet that would lead to good health, and that you could live with. (Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher, ate more bread than meat. But as a rationalist, if he knew then what we know now, I think he'd change his stance.)

The philosophy has a lot to do with avoiding certain things. It doesn't sound like much until you consider what shape the hedonists are in after the holidays: many of them have too much middle and too little money. They go on an austerity program for, oh, a few months or weeks. Considering the reality of hedonic adaptation (your new stuff just raises your standards for more new stuff), they'll soon start running up a new tab. Stoics, OTOH, have no need to whip themselves into shape, since the bills are paid and they haven't gained any weight.

Where's the fun in keeping such an even keel? It's occurred to me that a person who has saved a little bit of money, and has no reservations about being in a swimsuit in public, could enjoy a vacation at the beach. That's what I'm planning to do for my birthday next February. Good times aren't the exclusive property of hedonists.

If you want to find out how stoic you are, I've made a quiz. Good luck!

How Stoic are You?
1) Do you ever imagine that your life could be a lot worse than it is?
How could my life get any worse?
No, I'm a positive thinker.
Only when I'm having a bad day.
Yes, it makes me appreciate what I have.
For further reading:  
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Seneca Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales (link goes to text) 

Epictetus Discourses and Enchiridion (link goes to online book)

1 comment:

FredT said...