The Stoics On Pleasure
(Note: See also this Epicurean v Stoic comparison chart.)
The following is a list of quotations from (or about) prominent Stoics on the topic of pleasure. This list is very incomplete and will be updated as time allows:
- “14 FROM THE MEMORABILIA OF EPICTETUS … bringing forward the peevish philosophers, who hold that pleasure is not natural, but accompanies things which are natural—justice, self-control, freedom. Why then does the soul take a calm delight, as Epicurus says, in the lesser goods, those of the body, and does not take pleasure in her own good things, which are the greatest? I tell you that nature has given me a sense of self-respect, and I often blush when I think I am saying something shameful. It is this emotion which prevents me from regarding pleasure as a good thing and as the end of life. Flor. 6. 50.” Discourses of Epictetus
- “He is impressed with Cynicism, but sees it as a vocation to itinerant teaching and bare-bones living rather than as a body of doctrine (3.22). Epicureanism he identifies with the pleasure principle and accordingly despises (3.7).” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, entry on Epictetus.
- 34 “When you receive an impression of some pleasure, as with others, watch yourself, not to be carried off by it; however let it wait upon your business, and get some delay for yourself. Next remember both the times, when you will enjoy the pleasure, and when having enjoyed it later you will repent and reproach yourself; and against these refraining how much you will be glad and commend yourself. But if an opportunity appears to you to engage in the action, be sure you are not overcome by its softness and pleasure and attraction; but set against it, how much better is the awareness for yourself to have won a victory over it.” Epictetus, Enchridion
- “And if any instance of pain or pleasure, or glory or disgrace, is set before you, remember that now is the combat, now the Olympiad comes on, nor can it be put off. By once being defeated and giving way, proficiency is lost, or by the contrary preserved. Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything. attending to nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as one desirous of becoming a Socrates.” Epictetus, Enchiridion
- “What is our nature? To be free, noble, self-respecting. What other animal blushes? What other can have a conception of shame? We must subordinate pleasure to these principles, to minister to them as a servant, to evoke our interests and to keep us in the way of our natural activities.” Discourses of Epictetus, Chapter VII (Note: This entire chapter is dedicated to discrediting Epicurean philosophy.)
- Chapter XX is also dedicated to attacking Epicureans: “What, then, do you hold good or evil, base or noble? Is it this doctrine, or that? It is useless to go on disputing with one of these men, or reasoning with him, or trying to alter his opinion. One might have very much more hope of altering the mind of a profligate than of men who are absolutely deaf and blind to their own miseries.”
- “Diogenes, who was sent scouting before you, has brought us back a different report: he says, ‘Death is not evil, for it is not dishonour’; he says, ‘Glory is a vain noise made by madmen’. And what a message this scout brought us about pain and pleasure and poverty! ‘To wear no raiment’, he says, ‘is better than any robe with purple hem’; ‘to sleep on the ground without a bed’, he says, ‘is the softest couch.’ Moreover he proves each point by showing his own confidence, his tranquillity of mind, his freedom, and withal his body well knit, and in good condition. ‘No enemy is near,’ he says, ‘all is full of peace.'” Discourses of Epictetus, Chapter 24
- “Moreover Epictetus also, as we heard from the same Favorinus, used to say that there were two faults far more serious and vile than any others, want of endurance and want of self-control, the failure to bear and endure the wrongs we have to bear, and the failure to forbear the pleasures and other things that we ought to forbear.” Discourses of Epictetus
Zeno of Citium (The following quotes are from Diogenes Laertius Book VII and may refer to followers rather than Zeno himself.)
- “As for the assertion made by some people that pleasure is the object to which the first impulse of animals is directed, it is shown by the Stoics to be false. For pleasure, if it is really felt, they declare to be a by-product, which never comes until nature by itself has sought and found the means suitable to the animal’s existence or constitution; it is an aftermath comparable to the condition of animals thriving and plants in full bloom. And nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically (Baird, 507).” Diogenes Laertius
- Zeno to King Antigones: “”I welcome your love of learning in so far as you cleave to that true education which tends to advantage and not to that popular counterfeit of it which serves only to corrupt morals. But if anyone has yearned for philosophy, turning away from much-vaunted pleasure which renders effeminate the souls of some of the young, it is evident that not by nature only, but also by the bent of his will he is inclined to nobility of character.” Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- And Athenaeus the epigrammatist speaks of all the Stoics in common as follows: O ye who’ve learnt the doctrines of the Porch And have committed to your books divine The best of human learning, teaching men That the mind’s virtue is the only good! She only it is who keeps the lives of men And cities, – safer than high gates and walls. But those who place their happiness in pleasure Are led by the least worthy of the Muses. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- “Ariston, the son of Miltiades and a native of Chios, who introduced the doctrine of things morally indifferent; Herillus of Carthage, who affirmed knowledge to be the end; Dionysius, who became a renegade to the doctrine of pleasure, for owing to the severity of his ophthalmia he had no longer the nerve to call pain a thing indifferent…” Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- As for the assertion made by some people that pleasure is the object to which the first impulse of animals is directed, it is shown by the Stoics to be false. For pleasure, if it is really felt, they declare to be a by-product, which never comes until nature by itself has sought and found the means suitable to the animal’s existence or constitution; it is an aftermath comparable to the condition of animals thriving and plants in full bloom. And nature, they say, made no difference originally between plants and animals, for she regulates the life of plants too, in their case without impulse and sensation, just as also certain processes go on of a vegetative kind in us. But when in the case of animals impulse has been superadded, whereby they are enabled to go in quest of their proper aliment, for them, say the Stoics, Nature’s rule is to follow the direction of impulse. But when reason by way of a more perfect leadership has been bestowed on the beings we call rational, for them life according to reason rightly becomes the natural life. For reason supervenes to shape impulse scientifically. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- Amongst the virtues some are primary, some are subordinate to these. The following are the primary: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance. Particular virtues are magnanimity, continence, endurance, presence of mind, good counsel. And wisdom they define as the knowledge of things good and evil and of what is neither good nor evil; courage as knowledge of what we ought to choose, what we ought to beware of, and what is indifferent; justice . . .;93. magnanimity as the knowledge or habit of mind which makes one superior to anything that happens, whether good or evil equally; continence as a disposition never overcome in that which concerns right reason, or a habit which no pleasures can get the better of; endurance as a knowledge or habit which suggests what we are to hold fast to, what not, and what is indifferent; presence of mind as a habit prompt to find out what is meet to be done at any moment; good counsel as knowledge by which we see what to do and how to do it if we would consult our own interests. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- Goods comprise the virtues of prudence, justice, courage, temperance, and the rest; while the opposites of these are evils, namely, folly, injustice, and the rest. Neutral (neither good nor evil, that is) are all those things which neither benefit nor harm a man: such as life, health, pleasure, beauty, strength, wealth, fair fame and noble birth, and their opposites, death, disease, pain, ugliness, weakness, poverty, ignominy, low birth, and the like. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- For, say they, such things (as life, health, and pleasure) are not in themselves goods, but are morally indifferent, though falling under the species or subdivision “things preferred.” Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- Hecato in the ninth book of his treatise On Goods, and Chrysippus in his work On Pleasure, deny that pleasure is a good either; for some pleasures are disgraceful, and nothing disgraceful is good. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- Pleasure is an irrational elation at the accruing of what seems to be choiceworthy; and under it are ranged ravishment, malevolent joy, delight, transport. Ravishment is pleasure which charms the ear. Malevolent joy is pleasure at another’s ills. Delight is the mind’s propulsion to weakness, its name in Greek (τέρψις) being akin to τρέψις or turning. To be in transports of delight is the melting away of virtue. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- And as there are said to be certain infirmities in the body, as for instance gout and arthritic disorders, so too there is in the soul love of fame, love of pleasure, and the like. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- Again, they tell us that all good men are austere or harsh, because they neither have dealings with pleasure themselves nor tolerate those who have. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- “And yet what reason is there that he should provide a living? For if it be to support life, life itself is after all a thing indifferent. If it be for pleasure, pleasure too is a thing indifferent. While if it be for virtue, virtue in itself is sufficient to constitute happiness. Diogenes Laertius Book VII
- List of Books of Chryssippus: “Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action, four books. Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, four books. Of the Arguments commonly used on Behalf of [Pleasure].” Diogenes Laertius Book VII
Marcus Aurelius (all quotes are from his Meditations):
- Show those qualities then which are altogether in thy power, sincerity, gravity, endurance of labour, aversion to pleasure, contentment with thy portion and with few things, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling magnanimity.
- But no such man would ever repent of having refused any sensual pleasure. Pleasure then is neither good nor useful.
- In the constitution of the rational animal I see no virtue which is opposed to justice; but I see a virtue which is opposed to love of pleasure, and that is temperance.
- And indeed he who pursues pleasure as good, and avoids pain as evil, is guilty of impiety.
- And he who pursues pleasure will not abstain from injustice, and this is plainly impiety.
- For he who is excited by anger seems to turn away from reason with a certain pain and unconscious contraction; but he who offends through desire, being overpowered by pleasure, seems to be in a manner more intemperate and more womanish in his offences. Rightly then, and in a way worthy of philosophy, he said that the offence which is committed with pleasure is more blameable than that which is committed with pain; and on the whole the one is more like a person who has been first wronged and through pain is compelled to be angry; but the other is moved by his own impulse to do wrong, being carried towards doing something by desire.
- But death certainly, and life, honour and dishonour, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.
- How quickly all things disappear, in the universe the bodies themselves, but in time the remembrance of them; what is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the bait of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are noised abroad by vapoury fame; how worthless, and contemptible, and sordid, and perishable, and dead they are – all this it is the part of the intellectual faculty to observe.
- In the third place, the soul does violence to itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or by pain.
- What means all this? Thou hast embarked, thou hast made the voyage, thou art come to shore; get out. If indeed to another life, there is no want of gods, not even there. But if to a state without sensation, thou wilt cease to be held by pains and pleasures, and to be a slave to the vessel, which is as much inferior as that which serves it is superior: for the one is intelligence and deity; the other is earth and corruption.
- With perfect openness thou mightest, immediately answer, This or That; so that from thy words it should be plain that everything in thee is simple and benevolent, and such as befits a social animal, and one that cares not for thoughts about pleasure or sensual enjoyments at all, nor has any rivalry or envy and suspicion, or anything else for which thou wouldst blush if thou shouldst say that thou hadst it in thy mind.
- For the man who is such and no longer delays being among the number of the best, is like a priest and minister of the gods, using too the deity which is planted within him, which makes the man uncontaminated by pleasure….
- And remember that philosophy requires only the things which thy nature requires; but thou wouldst have something else which is not according to nature.- It may be objected, Why what is more agreeable than this which I am doing?- But is not this the very reason why pleasure deceives us?
- Let the part of thy soul which leads and governs be undisturbed by the movements in the flesh, whether of pleasure or of pain; and let it not unite with them, but let it circumscribe itself and limit those affects to their parts.
- He who loves fame considers another man’s activity to be his own good; and he who loves pleasure, his own sensations; but he who has understanding, considers his own acts to be his own good.
- Everything exists for some end, a horse, a vine. Why dost thou wonder? Even the sun will say, I am for some purpose, and the rest of the gods will say the same. For what purpose then art thou? to enjoy pleasure? See if common sense allows this.
- When thou art offended at any man’s fault, forthwith turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself; for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like.
- But the fourth is when thou shalt reproach thyself for anything, for this is an evidence of the diviner part within thee being overpowered and yielding to the less honourable and to the perishable part, the body, and to its gross pleasures.
- The mind which is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and for the future be inexpugnable. He then who has not seen this is an ignorant man: but he who has seen it and does not fly to this refuge is unhappy. –“Meditations,” Book VIII
For additional reference, here is Frances Wright’s fictional confrontation between Zeno of Citium and Epicurus from “A Few Days In Athens”