Seneca and Stoic philosophy take a strong stand against pleasure. But who in the twenty-first century doesn’t value simple pleasures? If we want to follow Seneca’s Letters as a guide to living, it helps to start with an understanding of our attitude to pleasure, and how it differs from the attitude of the ancient Roman Stoics.
A good a cup of coffee or tea is rarely the same, they vary from day to day. Some days the flavor of a fresh cup is magical. On those days the mental refreshment is so strong it feels like a tonic for the soul, connecting us to our whole world. The effect is such a joy the question arises, is this a pleasure the Stoics would want me to treat indifferently? Is this pleasure, which has brought me a moment of happiness, in accord with the Stoics approach to pleasure?
These questions are always fluttering in and out of consciousness. We live in an age deeply influenced by the Utilitarian philosopher’s preference for happiness over suffering, or pleasure over pain. In philosophical terms we call this Hedonism. It is not a bad thing by any means, just a very different value structure to the Stoics. The early Stoics differentiated themselves from the Epicureans on the basis of an assumption about the first instinct of humans and animals. Epicureans believed the first impulse was to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Whereas the ancient Stoics took the first impulse of beings to be self-preservation.
The romantic revolution
Modern Stoics, living as we do after the Romantic revolution in philosophy, also need to consider Nature as a source of the good, not simply as something to live in accord with. In particular, the moral ideal of authenticity that emerged from existential philosophy, connects us directly with the belief in nature as a source of wonder. This sense of wonder as a moral emotion matters to my understanding of a good life.
The Romantic revolution gave us William Blake and his notion we can see a universe in a grain of sand. This takes us to the very heart of wonder as morally significant emotion. Ancient Stoics did not value emotions. They were more likely to be trying to extirpate emotions from their lived experience. This is simply impossible for most 21st century Westerners living in societies with a moral value on authenticity as a virtue.
Kant and the moral life
Which brings us to the Kantian moment. The ancient philosophers like Aristotle and the Stoics who put virtue at the center of a way of life, viewed a moral life in a very different way to us. To them every second of every day was a moral moment. They lived through the prism of the virtues because how they acted every second of every day was a moral judgement on their character. To the ancients, virtue and morality infused every moment of our day.
The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant changed all that. His philosophy takes us to a place where a cup of tea can simply be a cup of tea, a refreshment that if it brings a sense of happiness to us, brings only a sensational sense of happiness. After Kant it is possible to experience life when we have fulfilled all our moral duties of the moment. In those situations there are no moral claims on us. We do not live in a moral universe where every action is an indictment of our character and moral rectitude.
A dash of existentialism
In my view the Existentialists, who were Romantics, took us further. Suddenly things bringing us to an experience of wonder becomes a moral good. So for us in the 21st century there can be something good about a good cup of tea. This is a distinct sense of good, quite different from Kant or Aristotle’s. And, for the same reason Utilitarian happiness permeates our culture, it cannot be trivially dismissed.
It is not clear to me yet whether a modern Stoic guide to living allows this too. My intuition tells me Seneca is inclined to welcome the simple pleasures that encourage wonder. Not least because he is such a believer in resting when weary, and resting when weary without a cup of tea is barely resting at all. But in a philosophy of life, intuition is not the way to form judgments and conclusions
 M. Schofield Stoic Ethics, in Inwood B. The Cambridge Companion to The Stoics. 2003
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