Stoic Q&A: is gratitude a Stoic value?

[If you wish to submit a question for this series, or for the Stoic advice one, please send it to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org]

T. writes: In your Stoic advice column, you answered the question of whether one should be thankful and your answer was, if I may oversimplify, “yes.” Nevertheless, you did not list gratitude as one of the 24 Stoic practices, e.g. by counting one’s blessings (for virtue and preferred indifferents). Why is that? Also, how does gratitude relate to the concept of “amor fati”? If one should “love fate,” wouldn’t that mean one should “love” and be grateful even for dispreferred indifferents such as chronic pain or poverty?

Excellent question, and though I will stand by my original answer (yes!), it gives me a chance to elaborate on it a little bit.

First off, the fact that gratitude is a Stoic value is clear simply from the perusal of the first book of Marcus’ Meditations, which is entirely devoted to thanking people who have influenced him in a positive fashion. For instance:

From my mother [I learned] abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich. … From Rustics [I learned] with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled. … From Sextus [I learned] to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration. (I.3, 7, 9)

Modern Stoics also interpret the famous self-deprivation exercises as, in part, having to do with gratitude:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ (Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, XVIII.5)

While Seneca here clearly intends this as a way to overcome the fear of not having certain things, modern psychology tells us that mild self-deprivation is a way to reset the so-called hedonic treadmill, the notion that we quickly get used to having certain things (new iPhone!) or even people (new boyfriend!), and begin to take them for granted. Doing without those things (or people) for a while makes us appreciate what we have and help us enjoying it afresh.

The reason I did not list gratitude explicitly as one of the 24 exercises I culled from Epictetus and Marcus is simply that I couldn’t fit everything, and that particular item got left out. However, my friend and partner in crime Greg Lopez and I are putting out a new book of 52 exercises, which includes gratitude.

Your point about “amor fati” and the dispreferred indifferents is an interesting one. Setting aside that that specific phrase comes from Nietzsche, who was definitely not a Stoic, it is true that Epictetus says:

The faculty of desire purports to aim at securing what you want, while aversion purports to shield you from what you don’t. If you fail in your desire, you are unfortunate, if you experience what you would rather avoid you are unhappy. (Enchiridion 2.1)

This amounts to say that we should desire only the things that are under our control, and since these do not include externals, then we should not desire not to be poor, or in pain. (More properly, we should not be averse to those conditions.)

But Epictetus isn’t saying that we should love poverty or pain. After all, they are dis-preferred indifferents, meaning that they are things to be avoided so long as such avoidance doesn’t get in the way of practicing virtue (like all externals, they are morally indifferent). Poverty and pain have negative axios, value or worthiness, just like wealth and health are axia, they have positive value. So, no, we should not love the dispreferred indifferents, though if they come our way they represent yet another way to practice virtue, as Seneca clearly explains:

‘What then,’ you say; ‘is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?’ None at all, as regards the virtues themselves; very great, however, in the circumstances in which either of these two virtues is displayed. (Letters to Lucilius, LXI.14)
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