Philosophy q&a: the four cardinal bad sensations

[Photo by Pixabay from Pexels; essay #247 in “Philosophy as a Way of Life” series]

B. writes: Last night I thought about the possibility that there may be four ‘cardinal bad sensations’: cold, hot, pain, and hunger. While we can’t control them, I can see that unless you are a true sage it would be hard to have a fulfilled life, i.e., it would be hard to concentrate on the Stoic principles if you were always hungry, in pain, shivering in the cold, or being blasted by the heat. I think only a true sage could overcome that. Fear, anger, hate, jealousy, despair — those are things most practicing Stoics can keep at bay. Hunger and pain — it’s possible, but not so much.

So , I think practicing Stoicism could be tweaked. The precept of following the four virtues remains, but we should also pursuit the goal of not being in a constant state of pain, hunger, cold, or heat. The avoidance of those last four things is out of our control but I think it is reasonable to think that they are necessary and sufficient to live a life worth living.

This makes me think that it is certainly possible for everyone in the world not to suffer from hunger and pain, and to have decent shelter (it is a political problem, not one of resources). That would give everyone in the world the chance to have a life worth living. What do you think?

These are all excellent considerations that strike at the core of Stoic philosophy, so let’s examine them in a bit more detail.

Your four “cardinal bad sensations” really reduce, I think, to two categories: pain and suffering. And suffering, of course, is the result of our mental attitude toward pain. Which is why Epicurus said that the overarching goal in life is to stay away from pain — both physical and mental.

For the Stoics, by contrast, pain is a dispreferred indifferent: we certainly do not seek it, but it doesn’t enter into our conception of a eudaimonic life, because pain and suffering do not affect our character and moral wellbeing.

The best way to understand the difference, I think, is to reflect on how various philosophical schools conceptualized the term eudaimonia. It is often translated as “flourishing,” in which case you would be absolutely correct: one cannot possibly flourish if one is in a constant state of pain or suffering. But this clearly slants things in favor of the Aristotelian tradition, according to which a eudaimonic life requires not just virtue, but also a number of externals, like health, wealth, education, and even good looks.

The Stoic understanding of eudaimonia, however, is different. We conceptualize it as the life worth living, which includes, but is not limited to, flourishing. While pain is certainly not a preferable state of affairs, people in pain may still have a life worth living. Consider, for instance, Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison during the Apartheid regime in South Africa. He was deprived of most things, was often hungry, cold, or in physical pain. Nevertheless, his life is a quintessential example of one that is worth living, despite lack of flourishing. Why? Because regardless of circumstances Mandela kept trying to do the right thing by his people, fighting against injustice, and even taking care of ethical self-improvement (he read a smuggled copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which convinced him that anger was not the path, and that instead he needed to reach out to his fellow human beings, including his jailers).

The difference between the Aristotelian and Stoic views has fundamental practical implications. It means that for the Aristotelian a good number of people are simply bound to have a bad life. They will not be eudaimon because — though virtuous — they lack one or more of the other essentials for flourishing: health, wealth, education, good looks, you name it. For the Stoics, by contrast, everyone, regardless of her circumstances, can still live a life worth living, because that is entirely under her control.

That is why, paradoxically, the Stoics say that the sage is “happy” (meaning, eudaimon) even on the rack. That’s not because the sage has superhuman strength and somehow doesn’t mind the pain of torture. Seneca explains:

Yes, [the wise person] has felt pain; for no human virtue can rid itself of feelings. But he has no fear; unconquered he looks down from a lofty height upon his sufferings. Do you ask me what spirit animates him in these circumstances? It is the spirit of one who is comforting a sick friend. (Letters, LXXXV.29)

That is also why Epictetus makes a grand promise near the beginning of the Enchiridion:

If you have the right idea about what really belongs to you and what does not, you will never be subject to force or hindrance, you will never blame or criticize anyone, and everything you do will be done willingly. (1.3)

Meaning: if you focus only on what is up to you, you will be free in the only true sense in which a human being can be free. Not because she is unimpeded by circumstances, nor because luck looks favorably upon her, but simply because she is in control of her judgments and decisions.

That said, sometimes pain and suffering is indeed unendurable, especially if there is no end in sight. The Aristotelian answer there is a very unhelpful “you’re screwed, mate.” And the Epicurean isn’t much more helpful either, since in his view you truly are not eudaimon if you experience a lot of pain.

In fact, one of the early Stoics, Dionysius the Renegade, quit the sect over this very issue. As Diogenes Laertius recounts:

Dionysius, the Renegade, declared that pleasure was the end of action; this under the trying circumstance of an attack of ophthalmia. For so violent was his suffering that he could not bring himself to call pain a thing indifferent. … When he fell away from Zeno, he went over to the Cyrenaics, and used to frequent houses of ill fame and indulge in all other excesses without disguise. After living till he was nearly eighty years of age, he committed suicide by starving himself. (Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.166-167)

Dionysius really misunderstood Stoicism: pain is not “indifferent” because we don’t care about it, or because somehow adopting a Stoic worldview will magically make us impervious to it. It’s indifferent in the sense that it doesn’t turn us into bad people. And I seriously doubt that Dionysius’ frequenting of prostitutes made his ophthalmia go away. Or that it made him more virtuous.

The Stoics do have one last option at their disposal, to be applied only in extreme cases: Epictetus’ famous, and controversial, “open door” policy:

Don’t believe your situation is genuinely bad — no one can make you do that. Is there smoke in the house? If it’s not suffocating, I will stay indoors; if it proves too much, I’ll leave. Always remember — the door is open. (Discourses I, 25.17-18)

The “door” is a metaphor for suicide, the option is to leave “the house,” meaning life, if the situation truly is unendurable. But this is also a reminder that, as it turns out, often the situation is bad and yet we can endure it. The existence of an open door, however, means that, once again, we are truly free: if we decide to stay, that is our choice; if we decide to go, that too is our choice.

Finally, I am going to disagree with you, B., when you write: “The avoidance of those last four things [pain, hunger, cold, or heat] is out of our control but I think it is reasonable to think that they are necessary and sufficient to live a life worth living.”

Such avoidance is not necessary, and certainly not sufficient, for a life worth living. A life is worth living — according to the Stoics — only if we constantly try to better ourselves ethically. And that, as I’ve argued before, is possible regardless of our material conditions. Should we be so lucky to live a life without experiencing much pain, hunger, cold, or heat, then we are truly lucky and we should constantly appreciate Fortuna. But we resolutely refuse to put our life into her fickle hands, because:

Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. (Seneca, Letter XXXVI.6)
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 14 exclusive posts
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 14 exclusive posts