#9: A Stoic Thanksgiving with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: We see one of those turkeys drawn in the style that we learned to draw them in grade school based around a hand's outline. Behind it burns the flame which represents the Logos, which is the spirit of logic and reason. This image is made for writing on this site (virtualstoa.org) that connects Stoicism to the holiday of Thanksgiving.
Though you may not realize it, Thanksgiving Day can be a very Stoic holiday. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius shows us how this can be.
This piece is Episode 9 of the podcast: Philadelphia Stoic Thouhts
By the normal schedule, this episode of Philadelphia Stoic Thoughts would not be released until tomorrow – but on this special occasion, I am releasing it a day early, on Thursday rather than Friday. The reason why I am doing this is that today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States of America. It is a holiday that some people associate with stress, but which many people look forward to every year. We get together with family and/or close friends and enjoy a meal the likes of which we rarely allow ourselves to indulge in – a meal featuring (unless you’re vegetarian or vegan) a large turkey filled with yummy bread-based stuffing as the centerpiece, surrounded by a decadent sweet-potato dish, cranberry sauce – and we haven’t yet gotten to the pies that are served for desert.Many people also associate Thanksgiving with the football game that’s aired on that Thursday — if you’re into that sort of stuff, which I’m not. And then, the next morning, many people get up early for a much-anticipated day of shopping known as Black Friday which ostensibly kicks off the Christmas shopping season (though in the last several years, shopkeepers have stopped waiting for Thanksgiving to start that shopping season, but have started further and further before Thanksgiving, last few years not even waiting for Halloween to start).

So these are the trappings we’ve come to associate with Thanksgiving Day — the huge turkey-based meal – the football – and officially (though not actually) the start of the Christmas shopping season. While all these things a Stoic might enjoy in moderation, they certainly aren’t tied to what Stoicism is all about. But is that the true essence of what Thanksgiving Day is supposed to be about?

In grade school I was taught that the holiday commemorates the first-contact between the Puritans who landed in what is today Massachusetts and a Native Americans tribe that lived in the area – and of a meal that the two groups shared together to celebrate their new friendship. Of course, not only is that historic meal barely documented at all – but the narrative of it being the basis of Thanksgiving Day is part of the sanitized and whitewashed version of history that too many children in-general are taught in school and ignores pretty much the entire reality of the history of contact between Native Americans and those of European origin — as Wednesday Addams so aptly points out in the movie Addams Family Values.

Needless to say – delusions of any kind, including delusions about history, are something that a Stoic tries to avoid. But fear not – for this false narrative, also, is not what Thanksgiving Day is actually by tradition supposed to be about.

So what is Thanksgiving Day really about? For that, let us look no farther than the name of the holiday, “Thanksgiving”. That’s what Thanksgiving truly is about – it is a day of giving thanks. As the relevant Wikipedia article puts it, “[i]t began as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year”. And the giving of thanks, in addition to being tue true meaning of Thanksgiving, is something that is very much at the heart of Stoicism.

I remember years ago when I opened the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius for the first time ever. The first thing he does at the beginning is mention important life lessons that he learned from his grandfather, implicitly thanking his grandfather for those life lessons. This didn’t strike me at all as unusual. After all – many modern books begin with a dedication like this, so why can’t an ancient book do the same as well? Then he mentions what he learned from the memory of his father – implicitly expressing thanks that he had such a man for his father, even if he never had the pleasure of meeting him. After that, he similarly mentions what he learned from his mother, implicitly thanking her. Still not a big deal – as it’s really not that uncommon for more than one person to be mentioned in a book’s dedication.

But then, this list of dedications went on and on, became longer, and started to include things that are more and more awkward to include in a book’s dedication. Finally, I turned to another person to ask what exactly the deal was here.

It was then that I was explained (for the first time) that when Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations, he had no intent of it ever being published, but rather was writing it for his own benefit. The way that person put it, I wasn’t reading a publication of the Good Emperor, but rather, I was reading his diary.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius spans twelve volumes – and this list which I at first mistook for a dedication spans the entire first volume. Marcus Aurelius undoubtedly never ate turkey (as at that time in history, they only existed in what would later be known as the “New World”, which from the European perspective was altogether undiscovered at the time) and just as undoubtedly never ate pumpkin pie (for pretty much the same reason). But nonetheless, he knew how to keep Thanksgiving in his own way. He kept it not just on a certain day of the calendar, but every day of the year.

We have direct knowledge that he kept Thanksgiving by giving thanks in his journal because that’s written all over the first volume of the Meditations. But the fact that he so diligently does this in his journal suggests that he saw this practice as an inherent part of Stoic discipline, which would imply that he strove to do this in the rest of his life as well.

And such giving of thanks is undoubtedly an inherent part of Stoic discipline. It is the inseparable flip-side of another well-known and even better-documented Stoic practice, Meditatio Malorum. Meditatio Malorum (often translated to “Negative Visualization”, but probably better translated to “Meditation on Adversity”) is when you identify something that you are accustomed to taking for granted and visualize as vividly as possible a scenario in which you don’t have that thing. After visualizing not having whatever that thing is, it is very likely that you will find that you have moved from taking that thing for granted to truly appreciating it.

Some people claim that when you acknowledge the things that you do have going for you, you inevitably become less bitter about the things that you don’t have. Unfortunately, in reality, things don’t always work that way. Sometimes you can appreciate the things you have going for you, but still sorely long for other things that elude you. Furthermore, if you hold too tightly to the expectation that recognizing the things you have going for you will cause your longing for other things to evaporate, there’s several ways that this expectation can cause the practice of giving thanks to backfire. Classical Stoics might deny this – but my variant of Stoicism, which includes the Onion Will model that I’ve described in earlier episodes, acknowledges and respects this reality.

However, if you acknowledge the things that are going well for you and do so without the expectation that doing so will magically cure you of longing for things beyond that – then even if your heart still breaks over something that you don’t have, you will at least realize that not everything is bad – that even if there is legitimate sorrow in your life, there is also cause for celebration.

So this Thanksgiving, before you dig into that stuffed turkey, sweet-potato casserole, and cranberry sauce – take a moment and come up with a few things that you would put in your journal if you were doing what Marcus Aurelius did in the first volume of his Meditations. Some families even have a Thanksgiving tradition that can help in this regard – where going around the table, each person in their turn expresses aloud what they’re thankful for. If your family has such a tradition, take full advantage of it for this purpose – and if your family does not have such a tradition, maybe you should consider starting it.

At any rate, Happy Thanksgiving to you wherever you live in the United States – and if you live elsewhere, then Happy Thanksgiving to you on whatever day it is celebrated in your country. And no matter where in the world you live – remember to give thanks, not just on Thanksgiving Day, but every day of the year.

“Life of Riley” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License

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