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059 - On Joy And Enjoyment - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Joy as we understand it does not depend on what possessions you are currently enjoying, and what pleasurable experiences you may be seeking. It is a condition arising from a tranquil mind, undisturbed by external things.
An empty hiking trail leading to craggy mountains - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I enjoyed reading your latest commentary. I say enjoyment in the usual meaning of the term, Deuteros, and not the philosophical mean we aim for. Enjoyment is what one commonly feels when the way is easy and distractions are few. I would normally tell you that enjoyment is no sign of virtue, but rather of an uncontrolled mind. For most, enjoyment is the condition that signals its opposite is not far behind, and is thus not to be confused with joy, which when attained is lasting.

Joy as we understand it does not depend on what possessions you are currently enjoying, and what pleasurable experiences you may be seeking. It is a condition arising from a tranquil mind, undisturbed by external things. You may take enjoyment in your friend’s business success, her new house, and her doting spouse, but when we remember that all of these are potential fault lines from which future disappointment may yawn wide, we will not mistake the feeling for joy, which cannot be undone by any reversals of fortune.

I did take pleasure from your commentary, and I will tell you why I enjoyed it. You put words into service with purpose and meaning, and your army of words is both varied and wide. The rich vocabulary you call into the field is employed to illuminate and not obfuscate. I am compelled to pay attention, but I do so eagerly, because I am not kept long waiting for a tangible example to illustrate an ephemeral point.

Sometimes I am rewarded with a simile, like when you compared the author’s writing to orderly rows of corn in the field, stretching uniformly into the distance. Sometimes it is a metaphor, for example calling wealth a weight that pins us down to places and pursuits that hold us captive more than they free us. If I can draw an analogy, the evidence of your clear thinking can be found in your clear writing, just as a pure source of water will generate a clear stream even though it travels over a muddy bed.

I will not go on in this vein, because I am mindful of what Confucius once said of his student:

Hui does not help me – he takes such delight in everything I say.

I would help you, and not just praise you, so I will tell you what else Confucius brings to mind on this topic. It is that wisdom bubbles up from many sources, and these springs flow freely for us all.

If you want confirmation that we are but keepers of the waters of wisdom rather than its possessors, consider this: the Roman philosophers we are so fond of reading were performing their mental gymnastics some 2,000 years ago, and they made frequent reference to the “ancients” that were their inspiration, including the Greek thinkers that pre-dated them by half a millennium. In the East, Confucius lived and died 500 years before Cicero walked the earth, yet Confucius looked to the principles of Zhou religion that were ancient in his day.

Considering the pace of technological change, the year 2,500 is as far from us today as we are from the Roman Stoics. Should we doubt that those who follow in the centuries long after we are dead and gone will look back upon our “modern times” and consider our practices and our troubles ancient? But the wisdom we lay claim to is not ours, it is the common property of humankind.

When we look back into the deep recesses of time and compare what our forebears had to bear, many people living today have every reason to be masters of themselves, for they have been given rich advantages: a lifespan that is three times as long as what humans enjoyed even two hundred years ago, and one that is marked by remarkable health and curing of disease; societies freely organized under principles of individual freedom and inalienable rights; the accountability and certainty arising from the rule of law, with life, liberty, and property coming under the protection of the state.

When the ancients talked of freeing themselves from the burdens of fortune, their concerns included imprisonment, banishment, war, slavery, torture, and death, to name but a few. Not only their own deaths, but those of their children, siblings, partners, and friends; reversals of fortune that would keep Hollywood scriptwriters salivating for years; the rise and fall of empires! In our absolute comfort and ease, with ready access to all the world’s wisdom, and with the least to objectively complain of, we are among the unhappiest of all generations. How to explain the riddle that for all our enjoyment, joy consistently eludes us?

In being surrounded by plenty we have not grown virtuous but have grown accustomed to vice. Our enjoyment of easy pleasures has made us flabby of mind, as undisciplined as a college wrestler gone to fat in middle age, maintaining bulk while losing substance. Used to having everything at our fingertips, no more than a one-click order and same-day delivery away, we no longer appreciate what we have.

When your freedom and your very life are forfeit to the whims of chance, you cannot help but think on what things are of real value. When you not only cannot control your own suffering, but you see it meted out with a generous hand all around you, you appreciate fully when you are not suffering. The ancients faced mighty troubles and found ways to nonetheless not be troubled. The purpose of holding troubles in your mind, my dear Deuteros, is not to be consequently plagued by worry by what might happen or not happen. You become the thief of your own peace of mind when you worry about others taking it from you.

Think on troubles to remind yourself that these are troubles only in your thoughts and hold no power over your mind. You will achieve lasting joy by remembering that while it may be found in enjoyment, enjoyment is not its exclusive domain. When you are free from doubt, worry, jealously; when your course is the same whether you are pushing into the headwind or blown along by a tailwind; when you delight in stillness as much as you do in motion; when you do not rely on external things, joy is your reward.

Be well.

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