8 Stoic Lessons in A Christmas Carol

Or, Scrooge’s journey from wretch to sage.

I’ve always enjoyed a Christmas Carol. Partly it’s pseudo-nostalgia for its Victorian winter aesthetic. It’s spooky, it’s heartwarming, it’s funny! With its ghosts and distinct pagan elements along with a theme of more secular social reform – it’s somehow as Christmas as mince pie but not too overtly religious.

Putting the ‘sage’ in ‘sage and onion’ Stuffing

I came to Stoicism much later than Christmas. As a student of the philosophy, I’m very much more wretch than sage; But while watching one of several versions of A Christmas Carol I’ll catch this year, for the first time, I recognised just how many Stoic lessons are to be found in the journey of that miserly and unhappy old man, as he’s visited by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, learning valuable lessons about the importance of compassion, empathy and generosity.

Here are some of the Stoic lessons to be found in a Christmas Carol

1. Misfortune is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.

“To Bear Trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and Burden” Seneca 

The man of constant misfortune I have in mind is Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s downtrodden and underpaid clerk. Despite his difficult circumstances, Cratchit maintains a positive attitude and a strong sense of responsibility towards his family: he’s a virtuous character.

He has a boss who mistreats and underpays him and a large family to support, including a disabled son. How many might turn to drink, take it out on the family and constantly bemoan their bad fortune? – but Bob finds joy and meaning in the simple pleasures of life. Spending time with his loved ones and celebrating Christmas. He and his family demonstrate the Stoic belief that true happiness comes from within and is not dependent on your external circumstances.

This Stoic trait of acceptance leads many to make the mistake that it’s a passive philosophy, but that’s far from true. Bob could look at what’s in his control, such as the effort to find a better job. But only the effort is in his control, not the success, and in the meantime while he can’t control how Scrooge treats him, he can control how he chooses to react.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl

2. Be Grateful for what you have.

“They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty… But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.”

The Cratchits are happy with their lot – that is, they might well want more, but still, having little doesn’t stop them being happy.

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. ”

Seneca

Their little collection of glassware for drinking warm gin punch is meagre… But so what? It fulfils its purpose well.

“(only)…Two tumblers and a custard cup without a handle. These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done.” 

Their goose is small, but hey, it is the goose they have, bemoaning its size won’t grow it or make it taste any better.

“Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family;”

The pudding may be small-

“…but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family.”

A larger goose and golden goblets might be nice, sure, but would it really have made their Christmas that much jollier? It couldn’t improve the company or the sentiment.

Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as is actually will – then your life will flow well” – Epictetus 

 

3. Offences carry their own punishment

“He’s… not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment…Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself!, always. Here he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence?” ( he misses out on a good dinner) (Nephew Fred on Scrooge)

The Stoic lesson this reminds me of is the teaching that when you do wrong to others, it’s really yourself you are harming. This feels very counter-intuitive and is a concept I struggled with as a new Stoic so it’s worth diving into a bit.

After all, if someone punches you in the face, or robs you, surely it is you that is harmed and not them? 

To the Stoics, however, that isn’t the case. Physically you may be hurt, even killed, and yes you have lost possessions – but these are external matters so beyond your control. They can’t harm what really matters which is your character. If someone robs from you, it’s not a stain on your character – but it is a stain on theirs.

There is a Cosmopolitan aspect to this as well: you can’t harm someone else without harming yourself, because you are inevitably connected to them, as a foot and hand are part of the same body. Like the saying ” cutting off your nose to spite your face”.

When Marcus Aurelius says

“What isn’t good for the hive isn’t good for the bee”

Marcus Aurelius

He means that if someone does something harmful to society, they must be harming themselves. As Cosmopolitans, Stoics know we are all part of a single interconnected society.

Scrooge may make his London poorer with his usury, more miserable with his miserliness, he may foreclose on businesses leading to shuttered shops… Well, he has to live in London too. He’s making his own environment the worse off, even if he feels richer for it.

 

4. How others treat you is none of your concern – you can only control how you treat them.

“Is a brother unjust? Well keep your own situation towards him. Consider not what he does, but what you are to do to keep your own faculty of choice in a state comfortable to nature”

Epictetus, Enchiridion 

Here Epictetus talks of the duties we have as defined by relationships – If you have neighbours, they have a duty to you and you to them as part of a community – however even if they are a bad neighbour to you, that does not give licence to be a bad neighbour in return. You are fully responsible for still doing the right thing yourself. Epictetus explores this with several examples of relationships such as those of a citizen, a general, or a parent.

This fits exactly with the attitude of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.

“I mean to give him the same chance every year, whether he likes it or not, for I pity him. He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can’t help thinking better of it—I defy him—if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you?”

“A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “He wouldn’t take it from me, but may he have it, nevertheless. Uncle Scrooge!” 

Every Year Fred wishes his Uncle Ebeneezer Season’s Greetings and invites Uncle Scrooge to spend Christmas with them, and every year he gets rebuffed – but Scrooge’s reaction is not Fred’s business. It is not in his control: What’s in Fred’s control is how he acts. If Scrooge is a bad Uncle, well, so what? that can’t prevent Fred from being a good nephew.

5. Externals are not “Good” or “Bad” in themselves

“Externals” are a concept from the core Stoic doctrine of the dichotomy of control.

“There are things which are within our control, and there are things which are beyond our control. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our control are our body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”

Epictetus 

The idea is that you should only focus your attention, energy on what you can control – and if you cannot control something you should not give it power over you.

The things you can control are ‘internals’ and things beyond your control are ‘externals’. Externals are not good, or bad, in themselves. It depends on both the use they are put to, and the impact they have on your character. Stoics try to remain ‘indifferent’ to them: but they can be a ‘preferred’ indifferent if they are something that you want, and would not harm your character. Or an ‘unpreferred’ indifferent. You might naturally strongly prefer not to to be lame, but if you are lamed you should not let it disturb you too much, it has not harmed your character, and in ethics based philosophy that is all that truly matters.

5 a. The External Wealth

“His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it.” ( Fred on Scrooge)

In this article, Donald Roberston paraphrases Socrates argument in Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus why wealth ( and other externals such as health and beauty) are neither good nor bad.

 “Sure, if you give a lot of money to someone wise and virtuous, that seems good,because it allows them to do more wise and virtuous things… However, what if you give a lot of money to someone foolish and vicious? Won’t it just allow them to do more foolish and vicious things as a result, and to cause more harm in the world? Wealth, in itself, is neither good nor bad, but what matters is the use we make of it.”

Donald Robertson

Scrooge, who is rich and miserable, thinks Bob is literally mad for being poor yet with a capacity for happiness!

“My clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”

He makes a similar point to his nephew, and is stumped when called out on how illogical he is being:

“Said Scrooge: “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough.” “Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough.” .Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

Scrooge is living proof that being rich doesn’t make you happy – so why should being poor make you morose? By the standards of Stoics like Epictetus, Bob and Fred are far wealthier than Scrooge.

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” – Epictetus

There is sound modern research that backs this up – to a point. Happiness increases with wealth up until basic needs are met ( and a bit more). But after a point being richer simply doesn’t make you any happier. The Scrooge at the end of the book is just as wealthy as the Scrooge at the start: but he is clearly both happier and a better person. The key point is it wasn’t his bank balance that determined how good a person he was.

This also puts me in mind of Seneca, one of the three key Stoics of late antiquity. He’s come under a fair bit of criticism as potentially being a hypocrite. Seneca was rich. Richer than Scrooge. Multi-billionaire level rich, one of the richest and most powerful senators in Rome. It might seem a very easy task for someone immensely wealthy to argue that money doesn’t matter and they’d be just as happy without it. But as Seneca quoted Epicurus, we can still quote Seneca where we find wisdom in his words even if we aren’t sure he would live up to them in person.

5 b)Illness is not good or bad

Tiny Tim doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, but is pivotal to the plot – his symbolic innocence shaming Scrooge into sympathy, A lesson we can take from this is that while he is crippled and weak, he has perhaps the largest impact. To me, he brings to mind Epictetus, the late roman Stoic, who was made lame by a cruel master while a slave – but didn’t let that stop him.

“Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will”

Epictetus 

Tiny Tim is lame but he: finds what he feels is a positive side to being crippled – in Church he thinks the sight of him will encourage others

“it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

His logic there is a bit of a stretch to me, but within his own religious context, it is internally logical. Being lame, and likely not long for the world, doesn’t stop him from being a good person and making the most of what he can. He is as excited as any of the family to get a taste of Christmas dinner, he entertains them by singing well. His line “God bless us every one” used also to close the book, could surely be something of a Cosmopolitan motto. Lameness – or old age, or any illness of the body – is an external beyond our control, it may limit physically what we can do: but we can still choose how to think, and how to act, and how to react.

6. You’re going to die: (and you can’t take it with you).

This is perhaps THE message of A Christmas Carol. The entire story, but especially the Spirit of Christmas future is a Memento Mori . Memento Mori is a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember you will die’ If you are only familiar with Scrooge’s encounter with the Spirit of Christmas future through one of the many excellent movie adaptions, I strongly recommend reading the original. It’s far more harrowing.

In movie adaptions, generally, Scrooge hears the conversation on the street of debtors glad at a death, possibly inspired to break into a song, and then is led to a grave where he wipes away the snow to find his own name on the gravestone. In the book, however, he also hears how the Charwoman, Laundress and Undertaker’s man who called at the house after his body was found stripped the very shirt off it to sell.

“Who’s the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose.” 

Scrooge is then confronted with a dead body in a bed, cold and alone, while rats are gnawing to get in, with a covered face he dare not reveal. It’s a terrifying passage, but Scrooge has been given the gift of considering himself dead.

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.”

Marcus Aurelius 

7. Every morning is a new opportunity.

At the end of the book, Scrooge awakens and repents, and changes – and is overjoyed to be awake, to be alive and have the opportunity to change.

“I am as light as a feather! I am as happy as an angel! I am as merry as a schoolboy! I am as giddy as a drunken man! A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world”.

I can’t help but think of this quote from Marcus Aurelius which I think resonates with the ‘joi de vivre’ Scrooge feels when he comes to, in his own bed, on Christmas morning!

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”

Marcus Aurelius

The Stoic secret is that it doesn’t take four supernatural visitors and visions to have the same epiphany! We know we are going to die, and thinking of the length of human history, a lifetime ain’t that long; but we have the opportunity to seize each day that we awaken. 

8. Don’t mind what others think, just do the right thing.

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to external things.”

Epictetus

Scrooge has changed – and there are those who mock and laugh at him for it – but these are external matters and they are no matter to him. The only judgment that matters is the one he makes of himself.

“ Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset…His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.” 

Conclusion

There have been so many, excellent, versions of A Christmas Carol. I recommend reading the original book, but some of my other favourites are – the Muppets Christmas Carol, with Michael Caine as Scrooge, and another favourite “A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong” which while adding a bit of Slapstick comedy also highlights the strength of perseverance when things don’t go to plan. There’s the classic musical version with Albert Finney. “SCROOGE” and the 1980’s reimagining “Scrooged” with Bill Murray.

But in all of them can be found Stoic themes of self-improvement, empathy, cosmopolitanism, generosity – of spirit as well as wealth, the dichotomy of control, resilience, and acceptance in the face of inevitable death.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no deliberate link between “A Christmas Carol and Stoicism.” It’s just convergent evolution from observation of human nature, and doing the right thing. Although Dickens was referencing a mostly Christian festival, and there’s no doubt that early Christians were heavily influenced by Stoic morality, so maybe the overlap isn’t that surprising.

While Charles Dickens has a persona, carefully crafted by him and his team, of a social reformer – and there’s no doubt he did some good in raising awareness and speaking against things like child labour – there is also plenty of evidence that he was a terrible person, by any times standards. Among other things he treated his wife terribly, starting an affair with a young actress and then trying to get his wife locked up as insane. But he’s not profiting from sales now, and it’s possible to separate the writer from the work when there is something to be learned from it.

As Seneca says, on quoting the Stoics’ great rival Epicurus

“Perhaps you will ask me why I mention so many fine sayings from Epicurus rather than from our own school. But is there any reason why you should consider them to belong to Epicurus rather than to the public?”

Seneca, Morales Epistles viii

“Epicurus said that,” you say. “What business have you with another’s property?” Whatever is true, is my own.

Seneca – Morales Epistles xii

Whatever is true, is my own: Seneca’s open-minded enquiry

If something is true and beneficial, then we should consider it a public property that we can make good use of, even if we disagree fundamentally with other aspects of the author’s personal philosophy. I did find one reference to Stoicism in Dickens, in Barnaby Rudge, highlighting it in the breach rather than the observance.

“Indeed this gentleman’s stoicism was of that not uncommon kind, which enables a man to bear with exemplary fortitude the afflictions of his friends, but renders him, by way of counterpoise, rather selfish and sensitive in respect of any that happen to befall himself.”

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

I mention it here because it highlights, in the breach, a Stoic technique, used to try and minimise distress: which is to imagine whatever has befallen you to have happened to someone else.

You might be upset to find someone has scratched your car – but are you overly upset by it? To put it into perspective try and think how upset you are when you hear that a friend’s car has been scratched. What is harder, though, is to do the same thing with things that do naturally hurt more. For example the death of a loved one. The Stoics were not against grief or emotion, they recognise they are inevitable and human, only against excessive grief or emotion: they looked for healthy ways to process them.

The exercise is explained here better than I can do it : Your Favourite Cup 

Extra Reading 

If you have seen the film adaptions but not read the book – it’s freely available online in several versions.

A Christmas Carol: Full Text https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm

If you are interested in Stoicism, While I’ve quoted mainly from the three key figures of late roman Stoicism, I would recommend starting with Modern Stoics, who write in clear modern language to explain ancient concepts – and who have built on them and developed Stoic ideas in line with modern psychotherapy and neurology and physics. I would strongly recommend checking out Donald Robertson and Massimo Pigliucci

How to Actually practice Stoicism: Use these Three Simple Techniques in Daily Life – Donald Robertson

https://medium.com/stoicism-philosophy-as-a-way-of-life/how-to-actually-practice-stoicism-993721d3ed9

And I can strongly recommend these two books. Massimo uses Epictetus as his basis, and Donald Marcus Aurelius. They are a great introduction, and handbooks to keep to hend.

How to be a Stoic – Massimo Pigliucci

How to think like a Roman Emporer – Donald Robertson

Published by Bingo Demagogue

Twitter - @BingoDemagogue

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