“In the very temple of delight veiled melancholy has her sovran shrine, / Seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine. / His soul shall know the sadness of her might and be among her cloudy trophies hung.” Amen.
If Stoicism has an unpleasant connotation in the minds of many today it is probably most on account of its discounting joy and pleasure. We are supposed to seek joy, revel in it, value it, and trust that there is more coming our way, almost as a right. Joy- seeking is not new. Hedonism was a competing school of philosophy back in the Greek world where Stoicism got its start. Just as the name suggests to us today, Hedonism considered joy and pleasure to be the way to a happy life. On the opposite end of the spectrum, just to round out the picture, there were also the Cynics, who eschewed anything pleasurable, so certain that life was unrelenting hardship that it was a fool’s errand to believe or act otherwise. Although they were said to have had a sense of humor, they promoted what we would consider a “negative” outlook and lived in the street by begging, having renounced comfort as part of pleasure.
What is wrong with joy and pleasure? Although I have taken this up previously (and propose my article, “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” under a static post in this blog), it bears revisiting. First, this discussion assumes that tranquility is the goal. If you have a different goal, to not be tranquil, i.e. miserable, overcome with ennui, frustrated, anxious, and let down, then make joy your be all and end all.
Joy leads to a lack of tranquility in one way through a process called hedonistic adaptation. I came across that term in Elle magazine (the French version) many months ago. So, the fleeting nature of joy is now a popular idea nicknamed by modern psychology. Every joy winds up losing its thrill, leaving us searching for the next high and down in the dumps until it comes along, which in turn, breeds that other awful practice of living on hope and expectation.
Next, I think there is an underside to the very feeling of joy. Being outside of moderate bounds, it is a little version of the manic side of a bipolar episode. Maybe that uncomfortable undercurrent to joy is actually the instinctual if not realized notion that it will be over soon and then what? Even if we have not exhausted our interest in the joyous occasion, as per hedonistic adaptation, and we want it to continue, we know that it won’t. Life is not one long joyful or pleasurable sensation.
The worst yet, is the inevitable aftermath for the person who has reveled in the joy or pleasure and is left with “a heart high sorrowful and cloyed, / a burning forehead and a parching tongue,” as Keats describes the erstwhile “bold lover” on the Grecian urn in the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
An image of such a person sated with joy centers the last stanza of Keats’s Ode to Melancholy, which I quoted at the start of this post. Only the person who has known the excessive and explosive burst of joy will fall to the clutches of the goddess Melancholy, who is more closely connected to Delight than one might have thought. Her shrine occupies a spot in the temple of Delight, waiting for the souls who truck with joy.
Does avoiding the pitfalls laid by joy and pleasure, Stoic- wise, make a person lackluster, dour and irritable? To the contrary, although it may seem paradoxical, the greatest joy lies in not seeking or overly indulging joy and pleasure, but keeping a mind focused on the middle ground, free from the distractions of excess to engage in self-fulfilling pursuits and to appreciate what is at hand.