The spicy pleasures of Stoicism are a lot like the pleasures people derive from skydiving and bungee-jumping. We’re dealing, here, with the thrill of the near-death experience.
We’re very good at being philosophical about other people’s losses. For instance, we find it easy to calmly remark “Well, you know, these things happen” when we learn that our next-door neighbor’s kid has accidentally broken a glass, scratched the new car, or stained the white-leather sofa. But when your kid breaks your precious-little-antique-cup-you-got-in-Cape-Cod-when-you-were-eleven, you freak out. When it’s your new car that’s been scratched, you freak out. When it’s your fancy sofa that’s been stained, you freak out. Stoic practice seeks to remedy this by making you just as philosophical about your own losses as you are about other people’s losses.
In The Art of Living, the Roman Stoic Epictetus maintains that we should meditate—each and every day—on what it would be like to lose everything we care about: our stuff, our health, our wealth, our reputation, even our loved ones: “Has the child or spouse or other dear one of another person died? Under such circumstances, there is no one who would not say, ‘Such is the cycle of life. Death happens. Some things are inevitable.’ But if our own child or dearly beloved dies, we tend to cry out, ‘Woe is me! How miserable I am!’ Remember how you feel when you hear the same thing concerning other people. Transfer that feeling to your own current circumstances. Learn to accept events, even death, with intelligence.”
This is all supposed to make us better able to deal with adversity when it comes our way. But in my experience it rarely does. I’ve seen stoical John Wayne types fall apart under pressure and I’ve seen emotional basket cases behave heroically in a crisis. As such, I’m inclined to believe, with Aristotle, that people often surprise you, and that a man’s “philosophy” isn’t a particularly good predictor of how he’s going to behave in the face of adversity. If you really want to know what a man’s made of, you’re going to have to wait and see what he’s like in the face of actual (as opposed to theoretical) adversity. Be that as it may, I think the aforementioned Stoic visualization technique is good for you regardless of whether or not it helps you deal with future losses. Why? Because it feels good. Because it’s pleasurable. In fact, as I said to my friend Graeme Blake on Mount Royal yesterday, I’ve come to suspect that Stoicism is really just a refined form of Hedonism.
As baby-food manufacturers well know, some things, like the sweetness of sugar and the saltiness of salt, taste good the first time. They’re straightforwardly and immediately pleasurable to all. Other tastes—like the face-pinching sour of vinegar, the burn of really spicy food, and the bite of hard alcohol—must be acquired. Things of this kind do not taste good the first time. All to the contrary! For instance, I’ll never forget the first time I accidentally ate a mouthful of really spicy food. We were in a crowded Cuban restaurant in Washington, DC. And it was horrible. Felt like a near-death experience or a panic attack or a really bad acid trip. At first everything got really quiet, like someone had just turned down the volume on the room. Even the voices of the people at my table sounded muffled, distant, and barely audible. My chest seized up and I forgot how to breathe for so long that I thought I might pass out. And then came the burn—oh, the burn—a burn so hot it felt cold at first. I frantically reached for my glass and brought it to my lips. But the water only made things worse. Way worse. Tears streamed down my face and my light-grey t-shirt was soon drenched in sweat. Alas, this was not a positive experience. Even so, I grew to love spicy food, just as I’ve grown to love many things I initially hated, like whiskey, wine, and Stoic meditation.
Like the thrill of a roller-coaster ride or a really good horror movie, the pleasure we derive from Stoic visualization is always, to some extent, masochistic pleasure. At first we’re shocked and unsettled by the horrors we’re imagining, but then we’re comforted by the realization that everything’s actually okay and we’re really not in danger. The spicy pleasures of Stoicism are, then, not so different from the pleasures people derive from skydiving and bungee-jumping. We’re dealing, here, with the thrill of the near-death experience.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.