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From Vol. 3, Issue 6, June 2021

Enjoying the festival of life vs. trying to get more


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“I stop and remind myself daily that I have a singular shot at this life – both as a lover of knowledge, and as a human who dances, sings, and enjoys celebrating at the festival.”

How should followers of Stoic life philosophy direct our energies in the chaos of everyday lives?

Going after ‘more’

It’s easy to be distracted by the pressures that tend towards “more” of everything: money, fame, material goods, to name a few. It’s hard to take a step back and ask ourselves what we’re really seeking, and how we can make the most of the time we have. This is especially relevant as we consider our return to the busy, hectic lives of “re-opening” in a post-pandemic world. Someday soon, we may have more choices for how to spend our days… so it’s a good time to seek reminders on how to live.

Life as a festival

Fortunately, Stoic philosophy has a way of re-framing our thinking that helps set us on course. The ancient Stoics were influenced by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who gifted them an intriguing metaphor for life: The festival.

[Pythagoras] used to compare life to a festival [panêguris].

And as some people came to a festival to contend for the prizes, and others for the purposes of selling their wares, and the best as spectators; so also in life, the men of slavish dispositions, said he, are born to the pursuit of fame and material gain, but philosophers are seekers after truth. – Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 8.6

Epictetus also talks about the festival:

Our situation is like that at a festival… most people come either to buy or to sell, while only a few come to look at the spectacle of the festival, to see how it is proceeding and why, and who is organizing it, and for what purpose. So also in this festival of the world. Some people are like sheep and cattle and are interested in nothing but their fodder; for in the case of those of you who are interested in nothing but your property, and land, and slaves, and public posts, all of that is nothing more than fodder. Few indeed are those who attend the fair for love of the spectacle. Discourses, 2.14.23-5)

Those who “love the spectacle” are people who have developed a philosophical mindset: They work to understand the nature of this microcosm, and make the most of it.

Later, Epictetus tells us that we are expected to

“...join in the holiday and the dance… and sing hymns of praise about the festival” - Discourses, 4.1.

On the other hand, we must also anticipate that the festival will “come to an end” and when it does, we must “depart as a grateful and reverent spectator departs [and] make room for others”.

The ending makes it meaningful

How can this festival concept help us stay present, focused, and grounded – and to flourish as humans today?

First, both Pythagoras and Epictetus make the point that what’s valuable in life is to observe what it is, and to understand its inner workings on a higher level than buying, selling, and gaining recognition. Second, the festival has its own rituals of entertainment, dancing, and singing to participate in – but we must recognize that those are a temporary gift.

Indeed, it is precisely because it will end that this festival is meaningful. Knowing that we have one opportunity to both observe and enjoy this festival, while also preparing ourselves to let go of it, gives it its ultimate value. I stop and remind myself daily that I have a singular shot at this life – both as a lover of knowledge, and as a human who dances, sings, and enjoys celebrating at the festival.

Meredith A. Kunz is the author of The Stoic Mom blog @thestoicwoman on Twitter