Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 86 - On Scipio's Villa

On Scipio's Villa

There is not much to commentate for this letter.  It is a rather simple exercise which Seneca practices, contemplating the voluntary exile of Scipio and how some people grow accustomed to luxury.  Below are the few highlights from the letter.

he showed moderation and a sense of duty to a marvellous extent.

admire this magnanimity, which led him to withdraw into voluntary exile

For he was accustomed to keep himself busy and to cultivate the soil with his own hands, as the good old Romans were wont to do.

What a vast number of statues, of columns that support nothing, but are built for decoration, merely in order to spend money! And what masses of water that fall crashing from level to level! We have become so luxurious that we will have nothing but precious stones to walk upon.

he taught me that a tree can be transplanted, no matter how far gone in years.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 85 - On Some Vain Syllogisms

On Some Vain Syllogisms

It seems Lucilius is looking for proofs in the forms of syllogisms, to support the Stoic claim that living a virtuous life leads to a happy life.  While reluctant to do so, Seneca does offer a few arguments to support the main claim.

I was satisfied to give you a sort of taste of the views held by the men of our school, who desire to prove that virtue is of itself sufficiently capable of rounding out the happy life. But now you bid me include the entire bulk either of our own syllogisms or of those which have been devised by other schools for the purpose of belittling us. If I shall be willing to do this, the result will be a book, instead of a letter. And I declare again and again that I take no pleasure in such proofs.

The first one he tackles is this:

"He that possesses prudence is also self-restrained; he that possesses self-restraint is also unwavering; he that is unwavering is unperturbed; he that is unperturbed is free from sadness; he that is free from sadness is happy. Therefore, the prudent man is happy, and prudence is sufficient to constitute the happy life."

The Peripatetics do not argue for the abolishment of passions, but rather for the moderation of them.  Seneca disagrees and argues against the notion of simply trying to be better than the least common denominator.  He argues for in favor of striving towards sage hood.

how petty is the superiority which we attribute to the wise man, if he is merely braver than the most craven, happier than the most dejected, more self-controlled than the most unbridled, and greater than the lowliest! ... This is speed estimated by its own standard, not the kind which wins praise by comparison with that which is slowest.  Would you call a man well who has a light case of fever? No, for good health does not mean moderate illness.

He later states,

I am not referring to the gradual weeding out of evils in a good man, but to the complete absence of evils; there should be in him no evils at all, not even any small ones.

As I read Seneca's argument on this, I am reminded of the sentiment of aiming for the stars when you wish to go to the moon.

The aim for a practicing Stoic and one who is making progress, is to be a sage.  And while very few may be considered a sage, it nonetheless is a worthy goal.

He then makes a number of arguments for putting down passions and vices urgently and with focus, rather than making little progress across multiple passions and vices.

a throng of such, even though they be moderate, can affect him more than the violence of one powerful passion. ... We could deal better with a person who possessed one full-fledged vice, than with one who possessed all the vices, but none of them in extreme form.

And once you break the habit and over-come passions and vice, you must never let them in again.

Tigers and lions never put off their wildness; they sometimes moderate it, and then, when you are least prepared, their softened fierceness is roused to madness. Vices are never genuinely tamed.  Again, if reason prevails, the passions will not even get a start ... it is easier to stop them in the beginning than to control them when they gather force. This half-way ground is accordingly misleading and useless; it is to be regarded just as the declaration that we ought to be "moderately" insane, or "moderately" ill.

Therefore, work to remove them wholly, and then keep them out.

You can more easily remove than control them. ...  it is easier to keep a thing out than to keep it under after you have let it in.

This idea leads to the next syllogism:

"If a man has self-control and wisdom, he is indeed at peace as regards the attitude and habit of his mind, but not as regards the outcome. For, as far as his habit of mind is concerned, he is not perturbed, or saddened, or afraid; but there are many extraneous causes which strike him and bring perturbation upon him."

This is a recognition of external or "extraneous" causes which may bring fear to the doorstep of his inner citadel.  If the man never allows them (fear, passions) into his mind, he retains self-control and wisdom.

Taking this approach to happiness, a man may retain self-control, temperance and courage, regardless of what lands on his doorstep.  And if this is true, then he may be content and happy with life and what is up to him.

since the happy life contains in itself a good that is perfect and cannot be excelled, if a man has this good, life is completely happy.  Now if the life of the gods contains nothing greater or better, and the happy life is divine, then there is no further height to which a man can be raised.  Also, if the happy life is in want of nothing, then every happy life is perfect ... the Supreme Good does not admit of increase ... so the happy life cannot be increased either.

He then clarifies a notion, in which many do err.  If you always want something else, how can you be happy?

the more prudent he is, the more he will strive after the best, and he will desire to attain it by every possible means. But how can one be happy who is still able, or rather who is still bound, to crave something else?

He rectifies the erroneous thinking:

men do not understand that the happy life is a unit; for it is its essence, and not its extent, that establishes such a life on the noblest plane. Hence there is complete equality between the life that is long and the life that is short, between that which is spread out and that which is confined, between that whose influence is felt in many places and in many directions, and that which is restricted to one interest. Those who reckon life by number, or by measure, or by parts, rob it of its distinctive quality.

This is a profound concept and one which Pierre Hadot discusses in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life.  Hadot quotes Nietzsche (p. 235):

Let us assume we say "Yes!" to one single, unique moment: we have thus said yes, not only to ourselves, but to the whole of existence.  For nothing is isolated, neither in ourselves nor in things.  And if, even once, our soul has vibrated and resounded like a string with happiness, all eternity was necessary to created the conditions for this one event; and all eternity has been approved, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

Seneca gets more specific about happiness:

Now, in the happy life, what is the distinctive quality? It is its fulness. ... Satiety.

Think about this - do you want to strive towards a limitless list of desires, pursuing a life by checking off desires one by one?  Where does it end? Will you ever be happy?  Or could you be highly discriminating in your pursuit of the most important desire and pursue it?  If you had one desire which brought happiness or an infinite list of desires which may bring happiness, which would you choose?

The answer, as I understand it, is to place your desires on pursuing an excellent character, so as to be beyond the grasp of Fortune and indifferents.  Regardless of having health or illness, wealth or poverty, life or death, you could attain satisfaction and happiness based on your attitude and virtuous soul - this is what Stoicism proposes.

The next syllogism Seneca discusses is this:

"He who is brave is fearless; he who is fearless is free from sadness; he who is free from sadness is happy."

But fearful of what?  Other schools focus on fear of evils and herein we need to unpack what is evil and what is not.

Others may say evils are pain, torture and misfortune.  But to a Stoic sage, evils are not those things.  The sage "believes that the only evil is baseness" or assuming an unvirtuous character.

death, imprisonment, burning, and all the other missiles of Fortune... are not evils.

To the Stoic sage, if you 

Paint him a picture of slavery, lashes, chains, want, mutilation by disease or by torture, – or anything else you may care to mention; he will count all such things as terrors caused by the derangement of the mind. These things are only to be feared by those who are fearful.

He further clarifies what are evils to the Stoic sage.

It is the yielding to those things which are called evils; it is the surrendering of one's liberty into their control, when really we ought to suffer all things in order to preserve this liberty. Liberty is lost unless we despise those things which put the yoke upon our necks. If men knew what bravery was, they would have no doubts as to what a brave man's conduct should be. For bravery is not thoughtless rashness, or love of danger, or the courting of fear-inspiring objects; it is the knowledge which enables us to distinguish between that which is evil and that which is not.

Allowing indifferents to control your state of mind - your happiness - is evil.  It is letting the idea of achieving riches, wealth, fame, glory or letting the idea of trying to avoid poverty, destitution, ignominy, dishonor, control your state of mind.

And to be precise and whole, Seneca also notes this on emotions and feelings.

Yes, he has felt pain; for no human virtue can rid itself of feelings. But he has no fear; unconquered he looks down from a lofty height upon his sufferings.

He continues with the next syllogism, which is related to the preceding point.

"That which is evil does harm; that which does harm makes a man worse. But pain and poverty do not make a man worse; therefore they are not evils."

After using an analogy of a good helmsman or pilot, Seneca concludes the thought with this:

The wise man's purpose in conducting his life is not to accomplish at all hazards what he tries, but to do all things rightly. ... And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent.

And then he writes this excellent passage on right use of a universe full of indifferents:

the wise man is not harmed by poverty, or by pain, or by any other of life's storms. For all his functions are not checked, but only those which pertain to others; he himself is always in action, and is greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom; and this wisdom I have declared already to be, both the good of others, and also his own.  Besides, he is not prevented from helping others, even at the time when constraining circumstances press him down. Because of his poverty he is prevented from showing how the State should be handled; but he teaches, none the less, how poverty should be handled. His work goes on throughout his whole life.  Thus no fortune, no external circumstance, can shut off the wise man from action. For the very thing which engages his attention prevents him from attending to other things. He is ready for either outcome: if it brings goods, he controls them; if evils, he conquers them.  So thoroughly, I mean, has he schooled himself that he makes manifest his virtue in prosperity as well as in adversity, and keeps his eyes on virtue itself, not on the objects with which virtue deals.

We moderns love Marcus Aurelius' quote regarding the 'obstacle is the way', which has been popularized by Ryan Holiday.  But the word "obstacle" causes some to trip up, perhaps.  It implies the traveler is on a path and there is an obstruction in his path and all that the traveler wants to do is continue on the path.  To slightly alter the analogy, we need to get into the attitude and head of the traveler.  Instead of thinking "all the traveler wants to do is continue on the path", we change her attitude to "I wish to show the world how well I travel on this path, whatever it throws in my path."  Now, instead of an obstacle in the way, that big rock is an opportunity for her to show and demonstrate her ability to rock climb.  Now, no matter what is on the path, or if there is sunshine or rain, she demonstrates skill and excellence of attitude, in all circumstances.

In my opinion, the clue to realizing you do not have the correct mindset is to recognize when you are complaining.  The sage does not complain about exile, poverty, illness or death.  Nor is he overjoyed (or complaining) when he has health, wealth, fame and is alive.  The word - the goal - to strive for is equanimity.

Seneca concludes:

So the wise man will develop virtue, if he may, in the midst of wealth, or, if not, in poverty; if possible, in his own country – if not, in exile; if possible, as a commander – if not, as a common soldier; if possible, in sound health – if not, enfeebled. Whatever fortune he finds, he will accomplish therefrom something noteworthy. ...  the wise man is a skilled hand at taming evils. Pain, want, disgrace, imprisonment, exile, – these are universally to be feared; but when they encounter the wise man, they are tamed.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 84 - On Gathering Ideas

On Gathering Ideas

In the aim of loving wisdom, we must expose ourselves to many ideas, make some of them our own and add to those that need enhancing.  And in that quest for wisdom, we must read and write.  Seneca correctly observes:

I have not stopped my reading in the slightest degree. And reading, I hold, is indispensable – primarily, to keep me from being satisfied with myself alone, and besides, after I have learned what others have found out by their studies, to enable me to pass judgment on their discoveries and reflect upon discoveries that remain to be made. Reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it when it is wearied with study; nevertheless, this refreshment is not obtained without study.  We ought not to confine ourselves either to writing or to reading; the one, continuous writing, will cast a gloom over our strength, and exhaust it; the other will make our strength flabby and watery. It is better to have recourse to them alternately, and to blend one with the other, so that the fruits of one's reading may be reduced to concrete form by the pen.

I've written a bit more extensively on the topics of reading and writing as methods of learning and gaining wisdom (see Applied Stoicism essay on Education).

Seneca sees natural processes, such as bees making honey, as analogous to how humans can gather various ideas from many sources (flowers / books) to produce good ideas (i.e. honey).

Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation, – whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

As a side note, I recommend this video for learning the amazing process of how bees make honey, and how they work and socialize.

Seneca applies the analogy to humans and how we ought to learn.

We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate ...  blend those several flavours into one delicious compound.

We are not merely to learn and copy, but to comprehend, assume the mindset and improve upon it where we can.

we should see to it that whatever we have absorbed should not be allowed to remain unchanged, or it will be no part of us.  We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power.

And while at times we may mimic others, we should strive to add our unique perspective on it, so as to not be identical.

Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

We add our unique perspective to the chorus of those who have added previously, and it is blended into a harmony.

how many voices there are in a chorus? Yet out of the many only one voice results.

And our mind should similarly be like the chorus - to take in many voices and blend them into one.

I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one.

He concludes with a plea to not pursue indifferents for the sake of them, but rather to use them well - to demonstrate wisdom; to demonstrate an excellent soul.  Don't focus on the low (indifferents), but focus on the high - take the view from above - as you approach indifferents.  While others will regard the indifferents as "the goal" of life, you will see that those things are a means to an end.  The end is wisdom - the wise use of indifferents - not possession of indifferents.

direct your course hither to wisdom, and seek her ways, which are ways of surpassing peace and plenty. Whatever seems conspicuous in the affairs of men – however petty it may really be and prominent only by contrast with the lowest objects – is nevertheless approached by a difficult and toilsome pathway. It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness; but if you desire to scale this peak, which lies far above the range of Fortune, you will indeed look down from above upon all that men regard as most lofty, but none the less you can proceed to the top over level ground. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 83 - On Drunkenness

On Drunkenness

The letter starts of emphasizing the importance of conducting self-retrospectives, so that we may learn from our past.

Seneca advocates transparency and constant introspection.

we should live, – as if we lived in plain sight of all men; and it is thus that we should think, – as if there were someone who could look into our inmost souls; and there is one who can so look. For what avails it that something is hidden from man? Nothing is shut off from the sight of God. He is witness of our souls, and he comes into the very midst of our thoughts – comes into them. ...

I shall keep watching myself continually, and – a most useful habit – shall review each day. For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future always depend on the past.

Then he delves into the topic of drunkenness.

I've never been drunk and I don't understand the desire for people who drink until they are drunk.  In high school, I generally avoided the crowd that smoked weed and drank.  While I was living in Guatemala, I saw plenty of drunks.  Two examples stand out - one repulsive, the other graphic and tragic.

The first was of a man who was attempting to walk home, but who was so slammed, he passed out in the middle of the dirt walking path, just before a foot bridge.  He was lucky enough to have avoided smashing his head on something hard enough to split his head open.  But, after he passed out, he wet himself and vomited.

The second was of a man who was so smashed, he could not hold onto the metal bar while standing in the back of a truck (jalon).  Therefore, he stumbled backwards, out of the back of the truck, hit the ground and cracked open his head and bled out before help could arrive.

As for Seneca, he makes a good argument, simply stating that the sage will not get drunk.

the sage ... always stops short of drunkenness.

He continues,

if you wish to prove that a good man ought not to get drunk, why work it out by logic? Show how base it is to pour down more liquor than one can carry, and not to know the capacity of one's own stomach; show how often the drunkard does things which make him blush when he is sober; state that drunkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed.

The rest of the letter are the many examples of how drunkenness usually brings out the worst vices in us. 

If you or a loved one suffers from alcohol addiction, seek help.  Here's one resource to consider.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 82 - On the Natural Fear of Death

On the Natural Fear of Death

The letter begins with a question.

"Whom then of the gods," you ask, "have you found as your voucher?"

The footnote of this letter provides a bit more context with regard to the term 'voucher'.  It states:

One who incurs liability by taking upon himself the debt of another. It is part of the process known as intercessio.

Having been raised Christian, I immediately recognized the concept of someone taking on the sins (debts) of another.  In Christian theology, the one to takes on the sins of others is Christ - some would call him god.

Seneca explains that the Stoic voucher - or god - is

A god ... who deceives no one, – a soul in love with that which is upright and good.

Men deceive, but god does not.  God has no need of deception, but men, who want to manipulate and control others, deceive.

Stoic philosophy would have us steer clear of luxury and decadence.  Seneca states as much.

Proceed as you have begun, and settle yourself in this way of living, not luxuriously, but calmly.  I prefer to be in trouble rather than in luxury; and you had better interpret the term "in trouble" as popular usage is wont to interpret it: living a "hard," "rough," "toilsome" life.

But ought we to pursue a life full of slavery, toil and dread?  Neither luxury nor drudgery are the wise course of action.  We are to prepare for toughening and when Fortune sends trials our way, we are prepared to act virtuously toward them.  But as for luxury and decadence - shun them.

If you do have free time, then study philosophy in order to more perfectly practice it.

gird yourself about with philosophy, an impregnable wall. Though it be assaulted by many engines, Fortune can find no passage into it. The soul stands on unassailable ground, if it has abandoned external things; it is independent in its own fortress; and every weapon that is hurled falls short of the mark.

He continues,

Let us then recoil from her as far as we are able. This will be possible for us only through knowledge of self and of the world of Nature.

Note above, the reference to the three disciplines: knowledge of self, as related to the discipline of assent; knowledge of the world, as related to the discipline of action; and knowledge of Nature, as related to the discipline of desire.

The ultimate preparation and toughening is the preparation for death.

strength of heart, however, will come from constant study, provided that you practise, not with the tongue but with the soul, and provided that you prepare yourself to meet death.

Learn philosophy, then practice it.  Practice it by contemplating death so as to not fear it at all.

Death falls under the category of indifferent.  And just like all other indifferents, we are to use them in order to exercise our excellence.  For we all die, but to die with excellence is 'up to us.'

I classify as "indifferent," – that is, neither good nor evil – sickness, pain, poverty, exile, death.  None of these things is intrinsically glorious; but nothing can be glorious apart from them.

Note Seneca's observation in the last sentence.  We are not to ignore and shun indifferents.  Rather, they are the medium though which we demonstrate excellence.  Indifferents hold no intrinsic value.  What is of value is our use of indifferents in order to demonstrate our excellence of character (or not).

He provides examples:

For it is not poverty that we praise, it is the man whom poverty cannot humble or bend. Nor is it exile that we praise, it is the man who withdraws into exile in the spirit in which he would have sent another into exile. It is not pain that we praise, it is the man whom pain has not coerced. One praises not death, but the man whose soul death takes away before it can confound it.

Both Cato and Brutus died.  But one exercised excellence and the other disgrace.

the death which in Cato's case is glorious, is in the case of Brutus forthwith base and disgraceful.

Seneca offers more examples of indifferents and correct (or incorrect) use of them.

thus it is with the things which we call indifferent and "middle," like riches, strength, beauty, titles, kingship, and their opposites, – death, exile, ill-health, pain, and all such evils, the fear of which upsets us to a greater or less extent; it is the wickedness or the virtue that bestows the name of good or evil.

Preparing for one's death cannot be actually practiced.  Therefore, we must use all other manner of thought experiments to prepare for death; this is the practice of memento mori - or constantly recalling that we are mortal and that we must always keep this fact in the forefront of our minds - in order to meet death with neither fear nor trepidation, so that we can rationally choose the manner and attitude in which we will die.

The soul must be hardened by long practice, so that it may learn to endure the sight and the approach of death.

We must do everything willingly, or else it will count for naught.  True virtue is choosing the wise course of action for the correct reasons.  When it comes to true philosophy, the sage is one who willingly complies with Fate and Fortune for the right reasons.  This is why noble lies are of no use.  We must face reality and Nature without a veil.  Preachers, teachers and leaders who intend to deceive in order to trick people into the right course of action, do many a disservice.

nothing glorious can result from unwillingness and cowardice; virtue does nothing under compulsion.  Besides, no deed that a man does is honourable unless he has devoted himself thereto and attended to it with all his heart. ... virtue accomplishes its plans only when the spirit is in harmony with itself.

Because so many fear death and wish to cline to life, convincing people to prepare for death is difficult.  This is hard mental work.  But if one puts in the time and effort to prepare for death and to shun it, our excellence will be equal to the heroes of Sparta - the 300.

I point out to you the Lacedaemonians in position at the very pass of Thermopylae! They have no hope of victory, no hope of returning. The place where they stand is to be their tomb. ... Leonidas: how bravely did he address his men! He said: "Fellow-soldiers, let us to our breakfast, knowing that we shall sup in Hades!" ...  It is not the Three Hundred, – it is all mankind that should be relieved of the fear of death.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 81 - On Benefits

On Benefits

This letter relates to gratitude and ingratitude, and it delves into the social ledger of giving and receiving.  As is the usual case with Seneca, he writes a lot to make a point.  I'll try to summarize the gist of each paragraph and point.

The whole topic begins when Lucilius complains about meeting an ungrateful person.  Seneca wishes to teach Lucilius that on the topic of gratitude, it is not so much about checking debits and credits in a social ledger as it is about embracing and expressing the attitude of gratitude.  Seneca quips:

caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

Stated differently, he instructs Lucilius that if he focuses on whether someone repays him (in the form of gratitude or benefits) or not, then he may exercise greater "caution" or reservation, so as to not harm his ego.  But in so doing, Lucilius would only harm himself.  Gratitude is not about squaring a debt or incurring a credit (although many people do think this way), rather gratitude is an inward disposition - an attitude one assumes and embraces - to his own benefit.

Seneca is of the opinion it is always better to assume a gracious attitude regardless of what others' response is.  Therefore, it is better to always be gracious and to never have gratitude returned than to never be gracious in the first place.  Being gracious is good for the person, even when the other person does not reciprocate.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again ...  In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

An excellent, rational human always chooses virtue regardless of others' response.  But if you live your life according to the social ledger, you may soon find yourself quite a hermit and a nobody.

If one were compelled to drop everything that caused trouble, life would soon grow dull amid sluggish idleness; but in your case this very condition may prompt you to become more charitable. For when the outcome of any undertaking is unsure, you must try again and again, in order to succeed ultimately.

Ultimate success means the individual Stoic acts as a potential catalyst of igniting the fire of love throughout the Cosmos.  While this may largely be unsuccessful in an individual's lifetime, the good thing to do is to try, try again!

Seneca then asks an interesting ethical question.

"Whether he who has helped us has squared the account and has freed us from our debt, if he has done us harm later."

Restated differently, the question asks if another person who has previously helped us, but then later does us harm - are we obligated to return the good favor they previously bestowed, since they have now harmed us?

Seneca analyzes the situation, but in the end, simply notes that the good man will give maximum benefit of the doubt to the person who has helped and then injured.

The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Again, to restate his point: if someone has helped us and we, in a sense, 'owe them' for the favor, and this same someone later injures us, if we are good, then we will be grateful for the benefit that someone has given us and we will minimize the harm of that injury.  In modern vernacular, we give them the most benefit of the doubt - we try to be generous of our opinion of them when they helped us, and we discount the injury as much as possible when they harm us.

Seneca continues,

"But surely," you say, "it is the part of justice to render to each that which is his due, – thanks in return for a benefit, and retribution, or at any rate ill-will, in return for an injury!" This, I say, will be true when it is one man who has inflicted the injury, and a different man who has conferred the benefit; for if it is the same man, the force of the injury is nullified by the benefit conferred.

In his opinion, if it is the same person who both helps and then injures, then we should give the best benefit of the doubt.  But if the injury is by one person and the help is by a different, then perhaps a tit-for-tat strategy is more justified.  Although, for my own part, I think we ought to give others the benefit of the doubt even if they have only injured us and have not helped us.  I would implement a tit-for-tat if I were repeatedly injured by the same person over a long period of time.

He continues,

The wise man will inquire in his own mind into all the circumstances: how much he has received, from whom, when, where, how. And so we declare that none but the wise man knows how to make return for a favour; moreover, none but the wise man knows how to confer a benefit, – that man, I mean, who enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving. ... In this balancing of benefits and injuries, the good man will, to be sure, judge with the highest degree of fairness, but he will incline towards the side of the benefit; he will turn more readily in this direction. ...  the good man will be easy-going in striking a balance; he will allow too much to be set against his credit. He will be unwilling to pay a benefit by balancing the injury against it. The side towards which he will lean, the tendency which he will exhibit, is the desire to be under obligations for the favour, and the desire to make return therefor. 

Again - the principal is revealed: give the benefit of doubt; assume the best of intentions in others.

If we are wise, we will assume an attitude of gratitude in all circumstances.

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible.  For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself ...  I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me. ... your being grateful is more conducive to your own good than to your neighbour's good ... you have had a great experience which is the outcome of an utterly happy condition of soul, – to have felt gratitude.

The opposite is also true.  An ungrateful person only harms himself.

The ungrateful man tortures and torments himself; he hates the gifts which he has accepted, because he must make a return for them, and he tries to belittle their value, but he really enlarges and exaggerates the injuries which he has received. And what is more wretched than a man who forgets his benefits and clings to his injuries?

Returning to more fully describing what 'giving the benefit if the doubt' means:

He despises the wrongs done him; he forgets them, not accidentally, but voluntarily.  He does not put a wrong construction upon everything, or seek for someone whom he may hold responsible for each happening; he rather ascribes even the sins of men to chance. He will not misinterpret a word or a look; he makes light of all mishaps by interpreting them in a generous way.  He does not remember an injury rather than a service. As far as possible, he lets his memory rest upon the earlier and the better deed ... the spirit of kindliness always tries to bend every doubtful case toward the better interpretation

In sum, the grateful person does not walk around with a chip on his shoulder, daring any and all to knock it off!

Where does gratitude find its root?  How does one gain, instill and embrace gratitude?

no man can be grateful unless he has learned to scorn the things which drive the common herd to distraction; if you wish to make return for a favour, you must be willing to go into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or – and this will frequently happen, – even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders. It is no slight price that a man must pay for being grateful.

This passage hearkens to the spiritual exercise of negative visualization or premeditatio malorum.  To feel gratitude, subtract things from your life.  Ponder your own exile, your own ill health, your own poverty and even your potential ill-repute.  Practice thinking about experiencing these things and how they are nothing to be feared - how they are not up to you.  And when you return to the present, you will note how much you have and you will feel gratitude.  As you think of these things, your greed will diminish.

Do you ask what it is that makes us forget benefits received? It is our extreme greed for receiving others. We consider not what we have obtained, but what we are to seek.

We give in to hedonic adaptation.  And when we become used to all these things, we take them for granted and when they are taken away, we feel offended.  We ought to reflect that we have been infected with the 'common herd's' desires.  Therefore, we ought to despise what the majority pursues.

those things possess no grandeur wherewith to enthrall our minds, except the fact that we have become accustomed to marvel at them. For they are not praised because they ought to be desired, but they are desired because they have been praised; and when the error of individuals has once created error on the part of the public, then the public error goes on creating error on the part of individuals.

He concludes with the point, that regardless of the many opinions in the world, gratitude is common among all people.

Amid all this diversity of opinion all men will yet with one voice, as the saying is, vote "aye" to the proposition that thanks should be returned to those who have deserved well of us.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 80 - On Worldly Deceptions

On Worldly Deceptions

Because the people in Seneca's life are off enjoying the games and boxing, Seneca has time to himself, uninterrupted.  He then observes:

my thoughts may march safely on, – and that is all the more necessary for one who goes independently and follows out his own path. Do I then follow no predecessors? Yes, but I allow myself to discover something new, to alter, to reject. I am not a slave to them, although I give them my approval.

Said differently, he indeed follows predecessors, but he also reflects on what has been discussed and he feels the freedom to agree, reject or alter it.  He simply asserts his independent thought.  I admit I've suffered from a "going-along mindset" for much of my life.  It feels that I spend most of my time reviewing what has been discussed, said or thought, and then I agree, reject or add a nuance.  I don't think I'll ever come up with some novel philosophical idea.  And even if I do, the chances are likely that it's simply a matter of having not yet discovered who has previously thought it!

He next ponders the amount of time and effort people spend on their bodies, but don't dedicate as much time and effort on the mind.  The premise is that humans' unique nature is the rational.  We share the physical with beasts, but they do not share the rational with us.  Therefore, if we are to live according to our unique nature, we ought to spend our time in the rational area of our lives.  Seneca writes:

How many men, I say to myself, train their bodies, and how few train their minds!  What crowds flock to the games, – spurious as they are and arranged merely for pastime, – and what a solitude reigns where the good arts are taught! How feather-brained are the athletes whose muscles and shoulders we admire!

Epictetus notes in Enchiridion 41,

It is the mark of a crude disposition to spend most of one's time on bodily functions such as exercise, eating, drinking, defecating, and copulating.  These are things to be done just incidentally.  All your attention should be on your mind.

How many people are willing to train and torture the body for a few minutes of fame in the arena.  Ought we not to spend more time training our minds to withstand the "blows of Fortune"?

if this can be done, how much more easily might the mind be toughened so that it could receive the blows of Fortune and not be conquered, so that it might struggle to its feet again after it has been laid low, after it has been trampled under foot? ... Yonder athletes must have copious food, copious drink, copious quantities of oil, and long training besides; but you can acquire virtue without equipment and without expense. All that goes to make you a good man lies within yourself.

All that is needed to make progress is to wish for freedom from Fortune.  And the first areas to overcome are freedom from death, and poverty.

shall you not be eager to attain liberty at any price, seeing that you claim it as your birthright? ... freedom is possessed neither by those who have bought it, nor by those who have sold it. You must give this good to yourself, and seek it from yourself. ... First of all, free yourself from the fear of death, for death puts the yoke about our necks; then free yourself from the fear of poverty.

You may look on those who have much wealth and think them happy.  But you do not know if they truly have freedom or not.  Don't be so hasty to fall for the trap in thinking wealth brings happiness and freedom.

in every case their happiness is put on like the actor's mask. Tear it off, and you will scorn them. ... if you judge a man, do you judge him when he is wrapped in a disguise? ... If you wish to see what he amounts to, and to know his full worth, take off his diadem; much evil lurks beneath it. But why do I speak of others? If you wish to set a value on yourself, put away your money, your estates, your honours, and look into your own soul.

The only thing that is up to you, is your soul.  You cannot accurately judge yourself by using the standard of health, wealth, status or fame.  Your lucid judgement and discerning assessment of events, things, people and circumstances and how you react to these is what is up to you.  This is never so simple, and can only be ascertained through much thought and objectivity - seeing things from the perspective of Nature.  Do not let such worldly deceptions deceive you.  Always look to wisdom to guide you.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 79 - On the Rewards of Scientific Discovery

On the Rewards of Scientific Discovery

The first third of the letter is centered around Lucilius' trip in and around Sicily, along with the sights and land and sea marks in that area.  Lucilius writes about poem about Mt. Aetna, a topic of which many previous writers have tackled.  And due to the fact that so many have written about Mt. Aetna, Seneca observes:

It makes a great deal of difference whether you approach a subject that has been exhausted, or one where the ground has merely been broken; in the latter case, the topic grows day by day, and what is already discovered does not hinder new discoveries. Besides, he who writes last has the best of the bargain; he finds already at hand words which, when marshalled in a different way, show a new face. And he is not pilfering them, as if they belonged to someone else, when he uses them, for they are common property.

He's absolutely right.  On topics which have been discussed and written about for so many years and centuries, even millennia, it is quite difficult to add to the subject.  So much so, that many of these topics are now "common property."  I feel this way about philosophy.  And at this time in my life, I am embarking on a grand journey to delve a bit deeper to explore the many varying philosophies and aspects of philosophies (pursuing B.A. in philosophy).  And on a related topic of the principal of charity and debate, I read in this article, the quote: "First, we listen and only then do we respond."  I feel that I should hardly add anything to the grand debate because I have not fully listened!  And to tidy up this thought, I will simply say, that the reason I engage in discussion and writing about the topic of philosophy is because I wish to learn, and in discussion, inquiry and writing, I learn.

Seneca next pivots to the topic of wisdom and this concept of one either being a sage or a fool.  Either you have wisdom (i.e. you've reached the top of a summit) or you don't, but are progressing (you are still hiking to the summit).

Wisdom has this advantage, among others, – that no man can be outdone by another, except during the climb. But when you have arrived at the top, it is a draw; there is no room for further ascent, the game is over. Can the sun add to his size? Can the moon advance beyond her usual fulness? The seas do not increase in bulk. The universe keeps the same character, the same limits.

Then he makes an interesting observation about gifts.  Perhaps Nature has given us these unique gifts, but the path to wisdom is still open for all.

Men who have attained wisdom will therefore be equal and on the same footing. Each of them will possess his own peculiar gifts: one will be more affable, another more facile, another more ready of speech, a fourth more eloquent; but as regards the quality under discussion, – the element that produces happiness, – it is equal in them all. 

Returning to the timeless and unmovable concept of virtue, Seneca notes:

virtue will not be brought down to a lower plane either by flames or by ruins. Hers is the only greatness that knows no lowering; there can be for her no further rising or sinking. Her stature, like that of the stars in the heavens, is fixed. Let us therefore strive to raise ourselves to this altitude.

We attain to virtue - we ascend her summit.  The outcome we seek is the summit.  But if you are distracted by competition with other hikers on the mountain, you are missing the point.  While you may be higher up (or lower) than others, that is not the goal.

goodness does not mean merely being better than the lowest. Who that could catch but a mere glimpse of the daylight would boast his powers of vision? One who sees the sun shining through a mist may be contented meanwhile that he has escaped darkness, but he does not yet enjoy the blessing of light.  Our souls will not have reason to rejoice in their lot until, freed from this darkness in which they grope, they have not merely glimpsed the brightness with feeble vision, but have absorbed the full light of day and have been restored to their place in the sky, – until, indeed, they have regained the place which they held at the allotment of their birth. The soul is summoned upward by its very origin. And it will reach that goal even before it is released from its prison below, as soon as it has cast off sin and, in purity and lightness, has leaped up into celestial realms of thought.

My son and I climbed Mt. Elbert in Colorado last year.  It was our first 14K foot mountain to climb.  Since we are just day-hikers, we chose the gentle giant - we didn't want any technical issues - but it is a notable mountain to climb as it is the highest peak in Colorado.  The views were spectacular and rewarding as we slowly made our way up it's side.  But having lived at sea-level for over 20 years, the climb up was difficult.  We stopped many times and with each stop, the views and sense of accomplishment became clearer.  Towards the top, as the incline became quite steep, we wondered if we ought to turn around.  But we pressed on, keeping an eye on any incoming storms.  Many others, on the trail, encouraged us to press on - that the view at the top was worth it.  We plodded on.  And when we did get to the top, the view was spectacular and the sense of accomplishment was thrilling.  We snapped some pictures and then raced back down to avoid an incoming storm.

At the bottom of the mountain, we felt victorious for having climbed it without incident or injury.  We gave each other a big hug in the parking lot - as a father - this would be my last hike with my son for a while as he would head off to the Marines two months later.

To tie this back to Seneca - while we ascended a bit up the mountain and while the views were excellent, we could not appreciate the full, unimpeded view from the summit.  We would never enjoy that full sense of achievement and accomplishment until the ascent was complete.  The ascent to wisdom is the same.  Many of us will only ever be prokoptons for the duration of our life and only enjoying limited views on this massive mountain.

The last third of Letter 79 deals with the fact that many people are blind to virtue and only see it many years later.  Seneca says, "Fame is the shadow of virtue."

When I first read that, my brain froze up a bit.  Fame is an indifferent; why should Seneca care about it as related to virtue.  But as I read that again as well as the rest of the letter, it became more evident that he was simply saying something synonymous with the idea of "truth will out!"  A similar idea I've heard others say is "history will be the judge of me."  This notion stems from the idea that many people today can't see that the decisions being made are indeed the right decisions.  Seneca references many historical figures, including Cato.  Perhaps the sentiment of the day was that many supported Ceasar, but history shows that Cato was right!

And how long did our state remain in ignorance of Cato! They rejected him, and did not know his worth until they had lost him ... how many there are whose progress toward virtue has come to light only after their death!

Later on, he takes a long-winded approach to saying that history is the ultimate judge of us all.  While we may be blind today, given sufficient time and retrospective thought, we will see the follies of our ways.

Virtue is never lost to view; and yet to have been lost to view is no loss. There will come a day which will reveal her, though hidden away or suppressed by the spite of her contemporaries. That man is born merely for a few, who thinks only of the people of his own generation. Many thousands of years and many thousands of peoples will come after you; it is to these that you should have regard. Malice may have imposed silence upon the mouths of all who were alive in your day; but there will come men who will judge you without prejudice and without favour.

I don't think he is saying that we should live to be famous in the history books.  But he's saying that given a sufficient amount of time, if the people of the future look back on your life, will they regard you as wise?  I guess it depends on the state of mind of those in the future!

Regardless, we should live according to Nature, who is virtuous.  We should look to the unmovable standard and align our life accordingly.  Be loyal to her alone.

Virtue has never failed to reward a man, both during his life and after his death, provided he has followed her loyally, provided he has not decked himself out or painted himself up, but has been always the same, whether he appeared before men's eyes after being announced, or suddenly and without preparation. Pretence accomplishes nothing. Few are deceived by a mask that is easily drawn over the face. Truth is the same in every part. Things which deceive us have no real substance. Lies are thin stuff; they are transparent, if you examine them with care.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 78 - On the Healing Power of the Mind

On the Healing Power of the Mind

Lucilius and Seneca suffer from catarrh, which the buildup of mucus in the back of the nose, throat, or sinuses. Doctors sometimes refer to catarrh as postnasal drip.

Apparently, Seneca had it so bad, he

entertained the impulse of ending [his] life then and there; but the thought of [his] kind old father kept [him] back. For [he] reflected, not how bravely [he] had the power to die, but how little power [his father] had to bear bravely the loss of [him]. And so [he] commanded [himself]to live.

Next comes a quote which I have seen quoted many times:

For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.

The rest of the letter contains Seneca's advice for getting over disease and dealing with pain.  The main point of it all, is that the study of the soul and mind and philosophy will go a long way to helping the sufferer of pain.

these very aids to my peace of mind were as efficacious as medicine. Honourable consolation results in a cure; and whatever has uplifted the soul helps the body also. My studies were my salvation. I place it to the credit of philosophy that I recovered and regained my strength. I owe my life to philosophy.
He also mentions friendship as a form of relief of suffering.  And as to the specific ailment of the catarrh, he advises walking, reading aloud, and a proper diet.  But for biggest aid and cure for disease, pain and the entire problem of life, he recommends philosophy - learning how to die well.
my counsel to you is this, – and it is a cure, not merely of this disease of yours, but of your whole life, – "Despise death." There is no sorrow in the world, when we have escaped from the fear of death.  There are these three serious elements in every disease: fear of death, bodily pain, and interruption of pleasures
If we can scorn death and never fear it, we will be able to face suffering and pain and be able to endure the lack of pleasures.  More specifically, he addresses the management of pain.  Either it is endurable, in which can we can endure in between breaks in the pain; or it is severe and acute, in which case either we die or the acuteness will not last long.
The suffering, however, is rendered endurable by interruptions; for the strain of extreme pain must come to an end.  No man can suffer both severely and for a long time; Nature, who loves us most tenderly, has so constituted us as to make pain either endurable or short.
Later on, he notes that when we put ourselves through self-inflicted suffering, we are able to better endure pain and diseases when they come.  A person acquainted with pain will not be fearful of it's onset.  In a way, he is able to separate his mind from his body.
The reason, however, why the inexperienced are impatient when their bodies suffer is, that they have not accustomed themselves to be contented in spirit. They have been closely associated with the body. Therefore a high-minded and sensible man divorces soul from body, and dwells much with the better or divine part, and only as far as he must with this complaining and frail portion.
And when pain does come into our life, we would do well to not complain about it.  Complaining does not make the pain go away and only serves to add mental suffering to the situation.  While it may seem extreme, Seneca's advice works.  If you think nothing of a trifle of pain or even of 'ambition, luxury, greed,' you will find the grip of those things will slacken.  But by drawing attention to them, you increase the sensitivity to them.
One can endure the suffering which disease entails, if one has come to regard its results with scorn.  But do not of your own accord make your troubles heavier to bear and burden yourself with complaining. Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; but if, on the other hand, you begin to encourage yourself and say, "It is nothing, – a trifling matter at most; keep a stout heart and it will soon cease"; then in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.
The same too can be said of past physical and mental suffering.
What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy? Besides, every one adds much to his own ills, and tells lies to himself.
Enduring pain and overcoming it is one way to rise above Fate and Fortune.  We can think of these events like an enemy attacking our position.  If we don't give in, we will be rewarded with the knowledge that our character has proven itself excellent.
if you hold your ground and make up your mind to push against it, it will be forced back. ... the reward is not a garland or a palm or a trumpeter who calls for silence at the proclamation of our names, but rather virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time, if fortune has once been utterly vanquished in any combat.
Another remedy he recommends is to look to think of other things and other people.  Recall the good, brave deeds in your own past; recall what brave people have done to overcome suffering.  One example of this, which I've found useful in situations where I am prone to complain, is to think of Anne Frank.  Whenever I catch myself complaining about something, I picture Anne, with arms folded, tapping her foot and impatiently looking at me, as if to say, "you think your problems are tough?"
to turn the mind aside to thoughts of other things and thus to depart from pain. Call to mind what honourable or brave deeds you have done; consider the good side of your own life. Run over in your memory those things which you have particularly admired. Then think of all the brave men who have conquered pain: of him who continued to read his book as he allowed the cutting out of varicose veins; of him who did not cease to smile, though that very smile so enraged his torturers that they tried upon him every instrument of their cruelty.
In recalling other people who have endured suffering, Seneca notes people who never uttered a moan or even broke out in a smile under the torturer's hands!

Before pain comes into our life, we must try to become accustomed to it.  We ought to organize our mind and soul through meditation.  Thereby, we are able to attain self-control and demonstrate an excellent character even on our sick-bed.
if your soul be habitually in practice, you will plead and teach, listen and learn, investigate and meditate. What more is necessary? Do you think that you are doing nothing if you possess self-control in your illness? You will be showing that a disease can be overcome, or at any rate endured.  There is, I assure you, a place for virtue even upon a bed of sickness. ... a man can display bravery even when wrapped in his bed-clothes. You have something to do: wrestle bravely with disease.
As we meditate and
roam through the universe, the truth can never pall (lose strength or potency); it will be the untruths that will cloy (be distasteful or displeasing).
We will come to know the truth that
honourable things do not depend on time for their growth; but any life must seem short to those who measure its length by pleasures which are empty and for that reason unbounded.
He closes:
"A single day among the learned lasts longer than the longest life of the ignorant."  Meanwhile, hold fast to this thought, and grip it close: yield not to adversity; trust not to prosperity; keep before your eyes the full scope of Fortune's power, as if she would surely do whatever is in her power to do. That which has been long expected comes more gently.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 77 - On Taking One's Own Life

On Taking One's Own Life


This post deals with and discusses suicide.

If you are in a good spot mentally speaking, then feel free read this post with all the candidness that philosophy has to offer.

But if you have suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide, please ask for professional help.  Below are phone numbers for immediate help, if you are based in the United States of America.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (for the transgender community)

TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (for LGBTQ youth)

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

If you are not based in the USA, please search on the internet for sources of help in your country, before reading this post.


To be a bit clearer, Seneca's 77th letter really deals with euthanasia rather than suicide in general.

The object of the letter is Tullius Marcellinus, but before he begins discussing him, Seneca observes the hustle and bustle of people in the excitement of the ship which has just docked.  

While everybody was bustling about and hurrying to the water-front, I felt great pleasure in my laziness, because, although I was soon to receive letters from my friends, I was in no hurry to know how my affairs were progressing abroad, or what news the letters were bringing; for some time now I have had no losses, nor gains either. Even if I were not an old man, I could not have helped feeling pleasure at this; but as it is, my pleasure was far greater. For, however small my possessions might be, I should still have left over more travelling-money than journey to travel, especially since this journey upon which we have set out is one which need not be followed to the end.

Seneca is pleased with himself because he has not been caught up in the excitement of the incoming ship and pivots this reflection into the fact that he thinks, metaphorically, he still has ample time left in his journey of life.  He makes the point very much clearer when he states that the length or end of the journey matters not so much as the manner in which you leave it.

An expedition will be incomplete if one stops half-way, or anywhere on this side of one's destination; but life is not incomplete if it is honourable. At whatever point you leave off living, provided you leave off nobly, your life is a whole.

In other words, a man of 20 years can live just as nobly as a man of 90 years.  The length does not matter so much.  What does matter is the fashion of leaving.  Therefore, a boy of 20 years old, who jumps on a grenade is much more honorable than the couch potato who dies of a heart attack at age 50.  Equally honorable is the man who labors for 40 years teaching ungrateful middle school students, in order to provide for his family, and dies on the day he retires, while it would be dishonorable of a man of 20 years who drinks to excess and dies in a drug overdose.

The object of the letter is one

Tullius Marcellinus ... [who] fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying.

He called his friends together to give him advice.  One of his friends was a Stoic.

[the] Stoic friend, a rare man, and, ... a man of courage and vigour, admonished him best of all. ... [He said]: "Do not torment yourself, my dear Marcellinus, as if the question which you are weighing were a matter of importance. It is not an important matter to live; all your slaves live, and so do all animals; but it is important to die honourably, sensibly, bravely. Reflect how long you have been doing the same thing: food, sleep, lust, – this is one's daily round. The desire to die may be felt, not only by the sensible man or the brave or unhappy man, but even by the man who is merely surfeited."

Marcellinus' slaves were reluctant to help him in his death.  So the Stoic friend advised him

to distribute gifts to those who had attended him throughout his whole life, when that life was finished, just as, when a banquet is finished, the remaining portion is divided among the attendants who stand about the table. ... so he distributed little sums among his sorrowing slaves, and comforted them besides.

He fasted, then made a steam tent, as it were, and sat in a hot bath and had hot water poured over him until he passed out and then passed away.

Death becomes us all.  If you are someone who desperately wishes to cling so tightly to life, recall Seneca's words:

Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you.

You are a blip in an unfathomable ocean of time and space.  Do not cling to something so insignificant.

Do not pray for something that is impossible, namely to escape death.

Give over thinking that your prayers can bend Divine decrees from their predestined end.  These decrees are unalterable and fixed; they are governed by a mighty and everlasting compulsion.

Returning to the concept of an honorable death, Seneca recounts the story of the Spartan boy who was taken captive.

The story of the Spartan lad has been preserved: taken captive while still a stripling, he kept crying in his Doric dialect, "I will not be a slave!" and he made good his word; for the very first time he was ordered to perform a menial and degrading service, – and the command was to fetch a chamber-pot, – he dashed out his brains against the wall.

Do not forget that we are all free from the bonds of life.  Do not fear death.

Unhappy fellow, you are a slave to men, you are a slave to your business, you are a slave to life. For life, if courage to die be lacking, is slavery.

And while you live, ponder deeply on what is up to you - on what your purpose is.  Do not let your purpose be so lowly as an animal.  Do not be a robot who works all day, to earn money, to spend it on things and food, to process said food, to deposit it in a hole, to be flushed and then to repeat the whole process again.  You are not a food processor.  You are a rational being.  Find meaning; live purposely; carpe diem.

It makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand measures pass through your bladder; you are nothing but a wine-strainer.  You are a connoisseur in the flavour of the oyster and of the mullet; your luxury has not left you anything untasted for the years that are to come; and yet these are the things from which you are torn away unwillingly.

And if you are the type of person who is duty bound and must keep on living to fulfill your duties, recall that dying is a duty too and that to live excellently (your duty) also means choosing to die excellently (also your duty).

"I wish to live, for I am engaged in many honourable pursuits. I am loth to leave life's duties, which I am fulfilling with loyalty and zeal." Surely you are aware that dying is also one of life's duties?

His letter ends,

It is with life as it is with a play, – it matters not how long the action is spun out, but how good the acting is. It makes no difference at what point you stop. Stop whenever you choose; only see to it that the closing period is well turned.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 76 - On Learning Wisdom in Old Age

On Learning Wisdom in Old Age

Seneca attended philosophy lectures in his advanced years.  How timely this letter comes to me.  Just this week, I have mapped out the path I plan to take in order to pursue a B.A. in Philosophy in my mid-40's after having secured a B.S. and MBA twenty years ago.  My courses begin August 2, 2021 and I aim to have my degree by early 2025.  The moonshot goal is to then pursue an M.A. in Philosophy; perhaps finishing that degree around 2028, and then continue to work in my career for a few more years and then perhaps to retire and pursue a dream of teaching philosophy at a community college.

Some people might be a bit surprised by someone studying philosophy in their later years, but Seneca's responses are wise.

what is more foolish than refusing to learn, simply because one has not been learning for a long time? ... Men of all ages are admitted to this class-room. ...  You should keep learning as long as you are ignorant, – even to the end of your life ... "As long as you live, keep learning how to live."

He notes there are many in classes learning how to be a good flute and piper player, but very few are in attendance on the subjects of "What is a good man?" and "How to be a good man."  He notes that

the majority think that even these few [people attending philosophy lectures] are engaged in no good business; they have the name of being empty-headed idlers. [and he hopes he may] be blessed with that kind of mockery; for one should listen in an unruffled spirit to the railings of the ignorant.

Indifferents and preferred indifferents will come and go.  But that which is up to us needs to be learned, and reinforced in order to live well.

Money will come of its own accord; titles will be given to you; influence and authority will perhaps be thrust upon you; but virtue will not fall upon you by chance. Neither is knowledge thereof to be won by light effort or small toil; but toiling is worth while when one is about to win all goods at a single stroke. For there is but a single good, – namely, that which is honourable.

The remainder of the letter covers the topic of the Good, which he has discussed in previous letters.  He does make a few additional, finer points on the topic in this letter.

Everything is estimated by the standard of its own good. The vine is valued for its productiveness and the flavour of its wine, the stag for his speed. We ask, with regard to beasts of burden, how sturdy of back they are; for their only use is to bear burdens. If a dog is to find the trail of a wild beast, keenness of scent is of first importance; if to catch his quarry, swiftness of foot; if to attack and harry it, courage. In each thing that quality should be best for which the thing is brought into being and by which it is judged.  And what quality is best in man? It is reason; by virtue of reason he surpasses the animals, and is surpassed only by the gods.

Stoics will say "live according to Nature."  What is the human's unique Nature, which she does not share with any other being?  It is her rational virtue or excellence.  Seneca will then build on this important concept.

Reason is the human's unique feature.  While we share many other features with plants and animals, we possess reason "which is peculiarly [our] own."  And this feature alone will lead to our happiness.  He writes,

What then is peculiar to man? Reason. When this is right and has reached perfection, man's felicity is complete. ...  if a man has brought his reason to perfection, he is praiseworthy and has reached the end suited to his nature. This perfect reason is called virtue, and is likewise that which is honourable.

On this feature and basis ought we to judge if a person is good or bad.  And it is only on this basis that the good resides.  To judge a man good or bad based on health, riches, genes, possessions misses the mark.  A person may or may not have these things and still be judged a good person.  And equally true is the fact that a bad person may or may not possess all these things.

Therefore, that attribute of man whereby he is approved or disapproved is his chief and only good.  You do not doubt whether this is a good; you merely doubt whether it is the sole good. If a man possess all other things, such as health, riches, pedigree, a crowded reception-hall, but is confessedly bad, you will disapprove of him. Likewise, if a man possess none of the things which I have mentioned, and lacks money, or an escort of clients, or rank and a line of grandfathers and great-grandfathers, but is confessedly good, you will approve of him. Hence, this is man's one peculiar good, and the possessor of it is to be praised even if he lacks other things; but he who does not possess it, though he possess everything else in abundance, is condemned and rejected. ... Each thing is praised in regard to that attribute which is taken as its standard, in regard to that which is its peculiar quality.

Seneca reiterates what makes a person good.

He is good, however, if his reason is well-ordered and right and adapted to that which his nature has willed.  It is this that is called virtue; this is what we mean by "honourable."

In this statement, we can see the tripartite division, with "well-ordered" aligned to the discipline of assent or logic, "right" aligned to the discipline of action or ethics and "adapted" to the discipline of desire or physics.

He later writes "every good is in the soul" which is another way of saying the good is up to us; it is something that we are entirely responsible for choosing or not.  It is in this space which our equanimity, contentment and happiness resides.  Pursuit of indifferents will not lead to happiness.  Trying to avoid our fate or lot in life will not lead to happiness.  If we take this route, we cheat ourselves.

He continues,

All the actions of life, taken as a whole, are controlled by the consideration of what is honourable or base ... A good man will do what he thinks it will be honourable for him to do, even if it involves toil; he will do it even if it involves harm to him; he will do it even if it involves peril; again, he will not do that which will be base, even if it brings him money, or pleasure, or power.

Excellence of character leads to equanimity, enduring joy and a good life.

how much more can be accomplished by virtue, which does not act impulsively or suddenly, but uniformly and with a strength that is lasting!

And this is achieved only from within your soul.  It cannot be achieved via externals.

it will never be possible for any virtue to be won and held, if there is anything outside itself which virtue must take into consideration.

Seneca echoes the strong Stoic sentiment and implied trust in Nature or the Cosmos.  Many moderns today have a hard time accepting this.  But it is difficult to separate this important aspect of Stoic philosophy without having the entire framework collapse.  If a person has a hard time thinking about gods, he should consider if he understands that the Stoic god is not the same as the Christian, Muslim, Jewish or even oriental based religious gods.

Any opinion, however, which is at variance with truth, is wrong.  A good man, you will admit, must have the highest sense of duty toward the gods. Hence he will endure with an unruffled spirit whatever happens to him; for he will know that it has happened as a result of the divine law, by which the whole creation moves. This being so, there will be for him one good, and only one, namely, that which is honourable; for one of its dictates is that we shall obey the gods and not blaze forth in anger at sudden misfortunes or deplore our lot, but rather patiently accept fate and obey its commands. 

He further explains the pursuit of the good with an example about how someone can demonstrate excellence of soul.

ask yourself whether, at the call of duty, you would be willing to die for your country, and buy the safety of all your fellow-citizens at the price of your own; whether you would offer your neck not only with patience, but also with gladness.

When I read this part of the letter, I noted that the assumption would have to be that the country aspires to the good as well.  I'm not sure I'd be willing to die for a tyrant, but rather for the betterment and ideals of my country.  I think Seneca is alluding to Cato, who fought for the ideals of the Republic, rather than giving in to the tyranny of Caesar.

The thought experiment further proceeds with regard to how some people might prevent you from dying for your country and your response might reveal if you are focused on the good or not.  Some might say,

"Your deed will speedily be forgotten," or "Your fellow-citizens will offer you scant thanks."

But the wise man

will answer: "All these matters lie outside my task. My thoughts are on the deed itself. I know that this is honourable. Therefore, whithersoever I am led and summoned by honour, I will go."

Focus on what is up to you - your soul - your character.  All externals mean nothing.  When judging something, limit the quality to the object being judged.

A dwarf is not tall, though he stand upon a mountain-top; a colossal statue will still be tall, though you place it in a well.

So when you observe people, try to limit your judgement based on the thing that is up to him.  We make a false judgement when we judge people by what they wear or what they possess.

This is the error under which we labour; this is the reason why we are imposed upon: we value no man at what he is, but add to the man himself the trappings in which he is clothed.

Rather, we are to

Consider his soul, its quality and its stature, and thus learn whether its greatness is borrowed, or its own.

Therefore, a practicing Stoic ought to dwell on how he will react various situations.  More specifically, he will practice negative visualization or premeditatio malorum.  Seneca writes,

I have always threatened myself with them, and have prepared myself as a man to meet man's destiny." If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. ... the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance. We sometimes hear the inexperienced say: "I knew that this was in store for me." But the wise man knows that all things are in store for him. Whatever happens, he says: "I knew it."

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 75 - On the Diseases of the Soul

On the Diseases of the Soul

Two main ideas are addressed in this letter.

1. how to conduct philosophical discourse

2. three classes of prokoptons

Seneca briefly discusses that the purpose of discourse, which is to heal the soul.  It is not to prove how eloquent one can be.  While it doesn't hurt to be eloquent in philosophical discourse, eloquence is not the primary purpose.

Seneca hits on a very important point, one which is especially relevant in 2021 - speaking up; saying what is on your mind.

let us say what we feel, and feel what we say; let speech harmonize with life.  That man has fulfilled his promise who is the same person both when you see him and when you hear him.  We shall not fail to see what sort of man he is and how large a man he is, if only he is one and the same.

"Let speech harmonize with life."  I love that so much it's worth repeating.  How can we become better than we are if we can't enjoy the safety of open and free speech and honest dialogue?  I've just finished reading "The Fearless Organization" by Amy Edmondson in which she advocated for managers and leaders to provide a culture which supports candor.  Indeed, we all need to be temperate in our speech - we ought not to speak lies and actively deceive - and we should not use rhetoric to inflame the mob.  But we ought to practice courage and speak our minds and raise concerns and awareness of important issues.  Philosophy, which deals with matters of the soul, deserves the candid discourse which requires people to speak what the feel and feel what they speak.

The task is large and important and will require not only discourse, but practice and action.

You are required to cure a disease that is chronic and serious, – one which affects the general weal. You have as serious a business on hand as a physician has during a plague. Are you concerned about words? Rejoice this instant if you can cope with things. When shall you learn all that there is to learn? When shall you so plant in your mind that which you have learned, that it cannot escape? When shall you put it all into practice? For it is not sufficient merely to commit these things to memory, like other matters; they must be practically tested. He is not happy who only knows them, but he who does them.

There is a significant difference between a sage and a fool.  But there are varying degrees of fools, especially those who are making progress (prokopton).  Seneca distinguishes with three classes.

Class One - people who have

laid aside all passions and vices, who have learned what things are to be embraced; but their assurance is not yet tested. ... having escaped the diseases of the mind, but not yet the passions.

He notes the difference between disease and passion.

Disease represents

hardened and chronic vices, such as greed and ambition; they have enfolded the mind in too close a grip, and have begun to be permanent evils thereof. ... a persistent perversion of the judgment, so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or ... too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all, or to value highly things which ought to be valued but slightly or valued not at all.

Passion, on the other hand, is 

objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement; [which] have come so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

Class Two - people who have 

laid aside both the greatest ills of the mind and its passions, but yet are not in assured possession of immunity.

Class Three - people who are

beyond the reach of many of the vices and particularly of the great vices, but not beyond the reach of all. They have escaped avarice, for example, but still feel anger; they no longer are troubled by lust, but are still troubled by ambition; they no longer have desire, but they still have fear. And just because they fear, although they are strong enough to withstand certain things, there are certain things to which they yield; they scorn death, but are in terror of pain.

The task is urgent and while I read Seneca's letter, I am forced to admit I agree with his assessment.  We make progress, but we have no great sense of urgency.

We hasten towards virtue while hampered by vices. I am ashamed to say it; but we worship that which is honourable only in so far as we have time to spare.  But what a rich reward awaits us if only we break off the affairs which forestall us and the evils that cling to us with utter tenacity!  Then neither desire nor fear shall rout us. Undisturbed by fears, unspoiled by pleasures, we shall be afraid neither of death nor of the gods; we shall know that death is no evil and that the gods are not powers of evil.

I try to infuse philosophy into all my life, but it does feel like I only address it as I "have time to spare."  I seem to approach it on an 'as-needed' basis.  I hear of 'bad' news about my performance assessment and I go into a mental tailspin.  Then I delve into Stoic text and try to rouse myself out of the tailspin.  It would seem it would be better if I never went into that tailspin to begin with!  But I can't expect to be a sage after only practicing for a mere few years.  I suspect this work will take another 40 to 50 years and even then, I won't accomplish the task before I die.

Will I ever reach Seneca's description of the ideal outcome?  I'll try.

There await us, if ever we escape from these low dregs to that sublime and lofty height, peace of mind and, when all error has been driven out, perfect liberty. You ask what this freedom is? It means not fearing either men or gods; it means not craving wickedness or excess; it means possessing supreme power over oneself And it is a priceless good to be master of oneself.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 74 - On Virtue as a Refuge from Worldly Distractions

On Virtue as a Refuge from Worldly Distractions

The good is free and obtainable for all.  It can be found within.  It is independent of external events.  It is we rational beings who choose to embrace it or deny it.  Seneca writes,

he who has in every case defined the good by the honourable, is happy with an inward happiness.

For those who choose not to embrace this wisdom, Seneca describes the mental state they will be in because of their perceptions of external events.

One man is saddened when his children die; another is anxious when they become ill; a third is embittered when they do something disgraceful, or suffer a taint in their reputation. One man, you will observe, is tortured by passion for his neighbour's wife, another by passion for his own. You will find men who are completely upset by failure to win an election, and others who are actually plagued by the offices which they have won.  But the largest throng of unhappy men among the host of mortals are those whom the expectation of death, which threatens them on every hand, drives to despair.

Review the states of emotion: sad, anxious, embittered, tortured, upset, plagued, unhappy, despair.

And why do they feel this way?  Because they place high value in things that are not up to them.  Their expectations are not level with reality.

If (and that is a big, important "if"), you don't place your values, happiness and calm in externals, then you may begin to live an excellent, virtuous life.  But as long as you couple your happiness with externals, your happiness or sadness will not be up to you and it will ebb and flow with Fate.

Whoever has largely surrendered himself to the power of Fortune has made for himself a huge web of disquietude, from which he cannot get free; if one would win a way to safety, there is but one road, – to despise externals and to be contented with that which is honourable.

Seneca sees a similarity in the practice of doles (i.e. welfare or free money or benefits which are distributed) and a person tying their emotions and happiness to Fate.  When the bread and coins are being tossed, the crowds will fight and trample each other to get doles.  If you don't wish to be caught up in a fight or trampled, it's best to leave the area before the doles are tossed!

The most sensible man, therefore, as soon as he sees the dole being brought in, runs from the theatre; for he knows that one pays a high price for small favours. No one will grapple with him on the way out, or strike him as he departs; the quarrelling takes place where the prizes are.  Similarly with the gifts which Fortune tosses down to us; wretches that we are, we become excited, we are torn asunder

You "pay a high price" in terms of your mental quietude and emotions when you associate your soul and character to externals.  You no longer are choosing what is up to you; the externals are choosing for you.  In a word, the price you pay is servitude.

The answer to this predicament?  To leave the doles and externals to the crowds.

Let us therefore withdraw from a game like this, and give way to the greedy rabble; let them gaze after such "goods," which hang suspended above them, and be themselves still more in suspense.

Furthermore, "all wishing [for externals or indifferents] on our part must cease."

Virtue and excellence of soul do not need indifferents.

virtue needs nothing.  Because it is pleased with what it has, and does not lust after that which it has not. Whatever is enough is abundant in the eyes of virtue.

He continues,

one who desires to exhibit [duty and loyalty] must endure much that the world calls evil; we must sacrifice many things to which we are addicted, thinking them to be goods.

He uses the word "addicted" and perhaps that is a strong word to use.  We can possess many of the things he is descrying, but we ought hold the proper perspective.  Indeed, many of these things could be "preferred indifferents."  But while we may prefer them, we must never forget that they are external to us.  We must hold in check our desires and keep them temperate.  If our desires rise to the level of addiction, then we stray into vice.  The Cynics, (who Stoics such as Epictetus looked up to), made a hard line with indifferents.  They would never agree with the idea of 'preferred indifferents.'  But the Stoics moderated a bit and acknowledged that some externals indeed enhance our living in agreement with Nature.  The nuance here is that one may still be a sage and live with excellence of character and be happy while stilling having preferred indifferents taken from him.  The Cynics set out to prove none of these preferred indifferents mattered (e.g. Diogenes the Cynic).

If we desire to live with the gods, then we should live like them - out of reach of indifferents.

God has no enjoyment of the things which are given to us.  For lust pertains not to God, nor do elegant banquets, nor wealth, nor any of the things that allure mankind and lead him on through the influence of degrading pleasure. 

Seneca notes the delineation of the body and the soul.  If we are to reach the Good, we must focus on the rational and not the physical.

Let us limit the Supreme Good to the soul; it loses its meaning if it is taken from the best part of us and applied to the worst, that is, if it is transferred to the senses; for the senses are more active in dumb beasts. The sum total of our happiness must not be placed in the flesh; the true goods are those which reason bestows, substantial and eternal.

Seneca makes the point clear about preferred indifferents.

Other things are goods according to opinion, and though they are called by the same name as the true goods, the essence of goodness is not in them. Let us therefore call them "advantages," and, to use our technical term, "preferred" things.  Let us, however, recognize that they are our chattels, not parts of ourselves; and let us have them in our possession, but take heed to remember that they are outside ourselves. Even though they are in our possession, they are to be reckoned as things subordinate and poor, the possession of which gives no man a right to plume himself. For what is more foolish than being self-complacent about something which one has not accomplished by one's own efforts?

What can we truly call our own?  Our own will, attitude and character.  All else, including preferred indifferents are to be considered subordinate.

Think of preferred indifferents as true externals and as not a part of us.  We should be ready to part with them and they should be so independent that there is nothing of them which could stick to us.

Let everything of this nature be added to us, and not stick fast to us, so that, if it is withdrawn, it may come away without tearing off any part of us. Let us use these things, but not boast of them, and let us use them sparingly.

Wealth and luxury should be handled with great caution, should a Stoic so choose to embrace them.  Seneca warns,

foresight must be brought into play, to insist upon a limit or upon frugality in the use of these things, since license overthrows and destroys its own abundance. That which has no limit has never endured, unless reason, which sets limits, has held it in check. The fate of many cities will prove the truth of this; their sway has ceased at the very prime because they were given to luxury, and excess has ruined all that had been won by virtue.

Ego, decadence and ease have been the downfall of many nations and cities.  In my lifetime alone, I've witnessed California and Michigan go from powerful, wealthy states in the Union, to impoverished and bordering on appearing like a third world country.  One sign of this fall is San Francisco's feces map.  As a kid growing up out west, San Francisco was the crown jewel of California.  Now that city is to be avoided like the plague.  The decadence and lack of discipline and virtue are the cause of these long, hard falls.

While it is relatively easy to swear off preferred indifferents such as wealth and leisure, what about family?  Seneca addresses this claim by setting the stage.

Men say to us:  "You are mistaken if you maintain that nothing is a good except that which is honourable; a defence like this will not make you safe from Fortune and free from her assaults. For you maintain that dutiful children, and a well-governed country, and good parents, are to be reckoned as goods; but you cannot see these dear objects in danger and be yourself at ease. Your calm will be disturbed by a siege conducted against your country, by the death of your children, or by the enslaving of your parents." (emphasis added).

Can you be a good Stoic if you are disturbed by a foreign invasion of your country, the death of your children and the imprisonment of your elderly parents?  What he describes here sounds an awful lot like what many people endured in World War 2.

This is where it can be quite difficult to practice and apply Stoicism.  Could I get to the point of being calm in the face of such Fate?  I suppose.  Would it entail me doing nothing about it?  No.  While I would be forced to accept the fate, part of my accepting it would include doing something to cure the injustice of tyranny.  If I lack calm and rationality because I'm in such a tizzy over these externals being taken from me, then I probably won't be in a good state of mind to do something about it.  But if I practice negative visualization (country invaded, death of children, imprisonment of elderly parents), perhaps I will be able to keep my emotions in check and plot a course of action that would right the wrong, if these events came to be.

Seneca's response may seem a bit cold-hearted, but the point remains valid.  Focus on what is up to you and arete remains unharmed.  You retain your equanimity.

What does it matter if running water is cut off and flows away, as long as the fountain from which it has flowed is unharmed? ... As long as your virtue is unharmed, you will not feel the loss of anything that has been withdrawn from you.

He compares virtue to a circle.  Whether it is large or small, it is still a circle.

Whether you draw a larger or a smaller circle, its size affects its area, not its shape.

It's the shape that matters, not so much the magnitude.

And as you retain your equanimity, you are prepared for action.

It is ever a dishonour for a man to be troubled and fretted, to be numbed when there is any call for activity. For that which is honourable is free from care and untrammelled, is unafraid, and stands girt for action.

The Brits summed up this mindset: Keep Calm and Carry On!

Is a Stoic emotionless?  No.

the sage will retain the firm belief that none of these things [emotions] is evil, or important enough to make a healthy mind break down.  Whatever shall remain to be done virtue can do with courage and readiness.

As for time - future and past - that is not up to us.  Therefore, why let it disturb you?

what is greater madness than to be tortured by the future and not to save your strength for the actual suffering, but to invite and bring on wretchedness? If you cannot be rid of it, you ought at least to postpone it.  Will you not understand that no man should be tormented by the future?  ... In the same way, souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records. Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel.