Hedonism vs Stocism: What’s the best way forward?

Is it better to plough on with a stiff upper lip, or simply enjoy the here and now? Stoicism exponent Massimo Pigliucci and hedonism expert Dr Sandy Grant discuss how to get the most from life

Should I keep calm and carry on?

Massimo Pigliucci: Stoicism isn’t about suppressing emotions and going through life with a stiff upper lip. However, the Stoics did counsel to shift our emotional range from positive to negative, meaning we should not act out of anger because it is destructive and we will regret what we do under its influence. Take a deep breath or go for a walk before tackling a tough situation. As for carrying on, resilience is a good thing but you do want to change for the better whatever is in your power to change, starting with your own life.

Sandy Grant: That outlook accords excessive significance to negative things in life. A far better question is: should I live for pleasure? Hedonists say yes. The first was Aristippus, who said: “Good cheer is no hindrance to a good life.” So hedonists defend the goodness of individual pleasure against its subordination to ‘higher’ faculties or gods, or its sacrifice to the demands of ‘the community’. And hedonism questions a social order that limits the pleasure of many and brings about outright misery for some. At the same time it is a philosophy for everyday life, which asks people to care about their pleasures and those of others.

Hedonism does not require a disregard for future consequences

Should I save for a rainy day?

MP: Yes, we should plan for the future. But the Stoics also teach there is a profound distinction between our decisions and efforts (which are under our control) and what actually happens (which depends on other factors as well). So consider that your plans may not come to fruition. If that happens, devise an alternative plan of action.

SG: Some people save up to better deal with possible bads. That is a sort of hedonism of the future, insuring yourself against pains. But why let it predominate? Hedonism does not require a disregard for future consequences, although it does suggest that it isn’t good to make yourself or others miserable just because the future is uncertain.

How can we survive great personal tragedy?

MP: Tragedy is an unavoidable part of life. We all lose our parents, some of our friends and if we are unlucky, even our children. Grieving is a natural human need but it is not good to dwell on it, to become paralysed by it. To avoid that, the Stoics counselled putting things in perspective, reminding ourselves everyone else goes through similar experiences, and they survive them. Even after a tragedy we have a duty toward our family and friends, as well as roles to play in society at large. So developing an attitude of equanimity and acceptance will help us get back to being productive human beings.

SG: People who suffer things like life-changing injuries, terrible crimes or the death of their child undergo great personal tragedies. Hedonists see these for the great ills that they are. Such dire circumstances are not cause for equanimity and we should not demand that from people. Most subject to tragedies survive, and some recover in time. If they do, this is a good thing for their own sake. But it is not something that we require them to do because we want to hold them to duties. Sadly others may not recover, and a hedonist would be prepared to provide for them. So a hedonist is solicitous toward those subject to tragedy, and criticises failures of compassion.

Massimo Pigliucci

Should I ask for a pay rise?

MP (above): If you deserve it. But, again, some things are under our control and other things aren’t. Under your control is to do your job in the best way you can, and to put together the best résumé for a promotion. Whether you have competition, how good your competitors are, and on what basis your boss will make a decision are not under your control. Stoics focus on internal goals, not external outcomes, though of course the latter are more likely to come to fruition if you are serious about the former.

SG: Let’s suppose you want more pay so you can enjoy some leisure activities. Without the wherewithal needed for pleasure-taking, lives are limited. But chasing more pay may make you miserable. And people working harder and harder just in order to spend more is pretty grim.

Developing an attitude of equanimity and acceptance will help us get back to being productive human beings

Should I get married?

MP: The ancient Stoics were in favour of marriage and procreation because it was the ‘natural’ thing to do for a Greco-Roman citizen. But the philosophy has evolved, and we think personal decisions like that depend on the individual and the circumstances. It is crucial, though, to remember you are in control only of your judgments, decisions and behaviour. What your partner does is a different matter.

SG: Never for the reason that ‘you should’! If you think it will make you and your beloved happy, you might get married. But others happily cohabit, or don’t go in for coupledom.

Should I give more to charity?

MP: A crucial aspect of Stoic philosophy is that we are all members of a large human family – they were among the first cosmopolitans. They also practised the virtue of justice and what they called the discipline of action, according to which we should be helpful to other people, especially those in need.

SG (below): Hedonists live for pleasure, and so they care about the pleasures and the pains of others. They care about those whose lives are harder than theirs. Questions about who gets to enjoy, and who has the freedom to pursue their pleasure, and who takes their pleasure at the expense of others, and what to do about painful lives and those vulnerable to such lives come to the fore. Some give to charity. Others seek to change laws. Some do both.

Should I eat more cake?

MP: The Stoics enjoyed a good meal and wine but did not stuff themselves or get drunk. They practised self-control. As one of the most famous ancient Stoics, the slave-turned-teacher Epictetus, put it – think about how short-lived your pleasure is, and how long you are going to beat yourself up for having overindulged.

SG: A sufficient reason to eat cake is the pure pleasure to be taken in doing it. Gluttony is an old word pertaining to a sin or vice. So let’s call the thing what it actually is: over-eating. Over-indulgence doesn’t follow from pleasure-taking, and the swift recourse to talking about it only reveals how down on pleasure Stoics are. Sure, if you eat too much you may be ill or become unhealthy, and some would choose to avoid that. But a life in which people never did things just for pleasure, or were passionate in enjoying things, would be pretty awful. We should be wary indeed of the enemies of pleasure.


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Should I vote?

MP: Yes. Stoicism is a philosophy of social and political engagement. Human nature is that of a social animal capable of reason, and it follows that we try to use reason to improve social living. Which includes carefully considering who to vote for, and why. Stoics may be conservative or progressive, in political terms, but they always take seriously their social duty to make the best choice among those available.

SG: Why wouldn’t you? Pleasure is at stake. Today many are dissatisfied with the dominant idea of self-actualisation through work and its material benefits. This all provides scant pleasure for the individual. We have a social system that exacerbates drudgery and toil, and in which inequality thwarts pleasure. We still have politicians who say gays are sinners. And we are polluting the planet, with all the bads that entails.

Should I read more of my book or go outside and be in the world?

MP: Both, in equitable measure. Seneca, an ancient Roman Stoic, advised his friend Lucilius to read books but not too many because one needs to live one’s life. Another Roman Stoic, Posidonius, travelled across the known world to learn people’s customs and observe natural phenomena. Pick your books well and pack your suitcase for interesting places.

SG: What would bring you most pleasure?

How to be a Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living by Massimo Pigliucci is out
now (Rider, £12.99). Dr Sandy Grant is at this year’s Latitude Festival @TheSandyGrant