Weekend Epicureanism?

I have been studying and practicing Stoicism intensely for a bit more than four years now (yeah, it feels much longer, given the amount of stuff I’ve written about it!). And one of the most recurring questions from non practitioners, or even from people who are very interested in practical Greco-Roman philosophy, is: well, can’t I be eclectic? In fact, wouldn’t it be better to pick from the best notions that a number of philosophies have to offer, say combining elements of Stoicism, Epicureanism, perhaps even Buddhism, into one’s own philosophy of life?

Sure, that’s possible. But such a move comes at a cost, and is predicated, I think, on a mistaken assumption about what a philosophy of life is. Let me start with the second point. It is a category mistake, in my opinion, to assume that there must be one “true” philosophy out there. Philosophies of life are not in the business of delivering truths, but rather of providing a useful framework to navigate one’s life. Truth and usefulness are very distinct concepts in philosophy.

Why is this relevant? Because a major argument in favor of eclecticism is that no single philosophy “gets it right,” i.e., delivers the truth. That’s correct, but irrelevant, since delivering truths isn’t the business of philosophies of life. Of course it may still be the case that an eclectic approach is more useful than one based on a single philosophical framework, which brings me to the second point: eclecticism comes with tradeoffs, and some of these may be sufficiently damaging to negate much of the advantage of adopting a philosophy of life.

To see what I mean, let’s take a look at a thoughtful piece that appeared recently in 3QuarksDaily: “Weekend Epicureanism,” by Anitra Pavlico. Pavlico has been practicing Stoicism for a while, with the aim of living a purposeful and ethical life. Which is exactly the right approach. But now doubts have crept in: perhaps Stoicism is too compelling, meaning that it isn’t much fun?

That strikes me as a rather strange question. Let’s say that you are religious, and specifically Christian. A major reason to practice Christianity (which, like all religions, is also a philosophy of life), is to live a life that is both purposeful and ethical. But it would be odd to say that Christianity is a bit too much since it’s no fun. Fun simply doesn’t enter into it (another category mistake), and moreover there is no contradiction between being a Christian and having “fun,” so long as the latter is understood as not including unethical activities. (If your idea of fun, for instance, includes pedophilia, well, you are out of luck, both as a Christian and as a Stoic. And yes, I’m aware of the irony here.) Also, consider this and tell me that the Stoics don’t explicitly acknowledge that one needs mental vacations from virtue:

Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases. (Seneca, On Tranquillity of Mind, XVII.4)

But Pavlico is not convinced, going on to say that perhaps it would be good to be a Stoic during the week and an Epicurean on weekends. Then again, the author immediately points out that there a lot of similarities between the two philosophies of life, and that moreover, Epicureanism is nothing like the philosophy of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” that it is so often portrayed to be. Epicureans thought that the highest pleasure is actually lack of pain, especially emotional. And in terms of positive pleasures, they focused on a rather minimalist life in which they enjoyed simple food, good conversation, and especially the company of friends.

Which is not really much of a “vacation” from Stoicism:

Zeno thought it best to avoid gourmet food, and he was adamant about this. He thought that someone who once experiences gourmet cuisine would want it all the time, inasmuch as the pleasure associated with drinking and eating creates in us a desire for more food and drink. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures 18A.6)


Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. (Seneca, Letters III.2)

Epicurus would have approved of Zeno’s and Musonius’ take on gourmet food in the first quote, and the second quote is one of many in which the Stoics extoll the value of friendship, just like the Epicureans did.

Pavlico (surprisingly) also indulges in some misconceptions about Stoicism, for instance with the claim that “unfortunately, along with negative emotions, positive emotions are also deemed to be not undesirable, exactly, but something of a distraction that we should not strive for per se.” This strikes me as incorrect, as argued at length by Margaret Graver, in her landmark book on Stoicism and Emotion. The Stoic approach is better understood as aiming at shifting our emotional spectrum, away from destructive emotions (pathe), like anger and fear, and toward positive emotions (eupatheiai), like love, joy and a sense of justice.

There are other - more subtle and perfectly understandable - misconceptions in Pavlico’s essay: “the ideal state for a practicing Stoic is one of ‘spiritual tension’ (tonos) that involves an unceasing mindfulness (prosochē) of one’s own thoughts and desires, and adjustment in accordance with Stoic precepts.” Well, again, not exactly. A large emphasis on prosochē is the result of the disproportionate influence of Pierre Hadot’s specific interpretation of Stoicism, but a number of modern scholars and practitioners think that Hadot got that one (and a few others) wrong. Stoics need to be mindful of what they are doing and why, but this shouldn’t conjure up a constant state of deep concentration that leaves no room for living a normal life. Again, the parallel with Christianity, or Buddhism, is appropriate: a good Christian or Buddhist also needs to pay attention to the ethical dimension of what she does, but this does not come with a tradeoff with fun and relaxation, unless one is a monk. And there are no monks in Stoicism.

Pavlico is also concerned by the alleged discounting of past experiences in Stoicism, something that, by contrast, is not the case in Epicureanism. But I’m not sure where this comes from either. For the Stoics the past is not up to us (i.e., we can’t change it), and therefore, according to the principle of the dichotomy of control, we should not engage in regret. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn from our experiences, and in fact even indulge in good memories that make us feel good. Here, for instance, is what Seneca writes to Polybius, to console him for the loss of his brother:

Prolong the remembrance of your brother by inserting some memoir of him among your other writings: for that is the only sort of monument that can be erected by man which no storm can injure, no time destroy. (To Polybius, On Consolation, XVIII)

And I’m pretty sure that the Epicureans also would counsel not to dwell on negative past experiences, since that brings about emotional pain, the chief enemy of the Epicurean.

Finally, Pavlico remarks that Stoicism - and Epicureanism - is at odds with modern cognitive science because it pits thoughts vs emotions. But this is yet another misconception. Setting aside that, on the contrary, a significant amount of modern research in cognitive science actually backs up the fundamental tenets of Stoic psychology, again the idea is not to suppress emotions in favor of a Spock-like existence, but to engage in an ongoing argument, so to speak, with our instinctive emotional responses, in order to re-direct them toward more positive outcomes. It is not by chance, after all, that Stoicism (not Epicureanism) inspired modern cognitive behavioral therapy (which works!).

In the end, however, I have still not given a positive argument against a Stoic-Epicurean (or any other kind of) eclecticism. The best one is often provided by Don Robertson on the Facebook Stoic forum, where this issue comes up frequently. Despite their remarkable similarities, there are two major differences between Stoicism and Epicureanism:

(i) Stoicism actively encourages social and political engagement, which is our duty as members of the human cosmopolis; Epicureanism, by contrast, prefers withdrawal into a small community of friends, because politics is bound to cause emotional pain.

(ii) The chief goal of Stoicism is to live a life of virtue in the service of others, while pain is something to be avoided, but not at all costs; Epicureanism also encourages living a virtuous life, but the chief goal is ataraxia, serenity induced by lack of pain and fear.

As Robertson puts it: well, then, if it comes to choosing between socio-political engagement or a withdrawn life of tranquillity, which are you picking? And if it comes to exercise virtue at the cost of pain or achieving ataraxia by avoiding pain, which are you picking? There are only two answers to each question: either the Stoic way or the Epicurean path. Not both.

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