Against Stoicism

Steve Gimbel at Philosopher's Playground, has a recent post about the Stoic Epictetus. Reading that in combination with this piece in The Smart Set about "longevity hot spots" got me thinking about my own approach to ordinary pleasures, especially eating & drinking. When you hit your fifties you start thinking about how long you'll live. American culture saturates everyone with recommendations for a "healthy life," but that message becomes particularly grim when it is directed to those of us who are closer, shall we say, to the abyss. The subtext of the rhetoric of health is that one must strive to extend that "healthy lifestyle" as long as possible. (It is always a lifestyle, never just a life.) I'm a member of AARP & their monthly magazine is relentlessly upbeat about such things. Lately, calorie restriction has been in the news. Mice live longer if they consume 30% fewer calories than their fellows. So, starve yourself & live longer. I don't suppose I qualify as "an hedonist" (a phrase that always makes me thing of Ezra Pound's "Mauberley"), but I don't have any of the Stoic in me at all. Moderation can be too moderate, devolving into a stingy emotional parsimony. Point being, there is an equation between reason & pleasure that might actually have bodily consequences. If you are always thinking about what the experts tell you you should & shouldn't eat & how you should & shouldn't live, the anxiety will kill you more quickly than the heart disease. If every meal is a grim task, a matter of quantification, then what's the point of living to be 100? Even if you live a long time, what will have been the point of your existence? The sanest moments of a person's life will be spent breaking bread & drinking wine, but if you push away the glass or the gratin you are pushing away the world. And that is itself a kind of death. 

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “Against Stoicism”


    After the transmission went out
    on the pickup there was
    the uncertain pleasure
    of stars around us

    to hold on to cornering
    that future without which
    there’s no hope

    no steadfastness as we whirl
    along the tightrope
    parallax to parallax

    now tell me again
    the sum of one and zero
    and don’t say one.

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