Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 29 - On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus

On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus

It seems that Marcellinus is a common friend or acquaintance of Seneca and Lucilius, and his character isn't the best.  Seneca and Lucilius seem to be trying to do something to help him improve his character.

He doesn't want to go near Seneca for fear he will "hear the truth."  And Seneca is fine with that!  Seneca is of the opinion that "one must not talk to a man unless he is willing to listen."  He compares this to talking to a deaf person - it's useless.  Seneca is in the camp of teaching only those who are willing to listen and change.  He won't waste his breath on someone unwilling to improve.

The other camp is the like the salesman, who takes a talk-to-everyone approach.  They think words are free and by "[scattering] this advice by the handful ... It is impossible that one who tries often should not sometime succeed."  Seneca does not approve of this approach.  The thinking goes: if you are always talking and hit the mark a few times, then it cheapens your words.

To use an archer analogy - who would you prefer?  The archer who takes 100 shots and kills a handful?  Or an archer who hits consistently every time he fires?

Seneca also thinks teaching wisdom and living wisely is an art.  And if you are not discriminating in your art, can it really be called art?  Where is the intentional, rational choice if all you do is throw words and teachings mindlessly and indiscriminately?

I can see the appeal to both.  If you are appealing to the masses, then taking an all-the-above approach and casting a wide net might gain some followers of philosophy.  But the quality may be low.  On the other hand, being prudent with teaching and appealing only to people who are going to take it seriously, has a higher success rate.

Back to Marcellinus specifically.  He is so vigorous in his lack of living philosophically, that he is a danger even to those who would want to help him.  Like a powerful person flailing in the water, he could pull his rescuer under water and two people drown instead of one.

But Seneca puts up with him and hopes to at least check and slow down Marcellinus' vices if not to turn him altogether to philosophy.

His quote from Epicurus: "I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know, they do not approve, and what they approve, I do not know."

The only commentary I'll share on this quote is to share another quote (source):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 28 - On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

Equanimity, regardless of circumstance, time or place: that seems to be an important reason why people seek to live a life of wisdom.  But as it is for many, they seek to change their circumstances rather themselves.  With this mindset, the person will not really be satisfied with constant vacationing.  They take the root cause of their problems everywhere they go!

Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.

"You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate!"  That is a great line!

And more of the same from Seneca:

Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you?

...

because you flee along with yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.

He compares a the unwise soul of a person to an unbalanced cargo ship.  As long as the inside stuff is not secure, the person will be tossed to-and-fro.

Rather, we ought to do the hard inner work.  We must correct our inner dialogue and seek a life of wisdom and virtue.  This will balance the soul.  You fix the person, you fix the "bad vacation."  You will no longer complain where you are in life but will live with good flow and equanimity no matter where you are.

The person you are matters more than the place to which you go; for that reason we should not make the mind a bondsman to any one place. Live in this belief: "I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country." ... that which you seek, – to live well, – is found everywhere.

He finishes the letter quoting Epicurus on why knowledge of "sin" is the beginning of salvation.  Ignore the religious parlance and focus on the aspects of introspection and self-improvement.  How can you improve yourself if you don't know what needs improvement?  For this reason, Seneca writes:

Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. At times be harsh with yourself.

See also Letter 104

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 27 - On the Good which Abides

On the Good which Abides

As mentioned on this blog before, I used to be quite religious, actively attending the LDS (Mormon) church most of my life.  I used to hear an analogy on the subject of regularly attending church services every Sunday.  People would say that going to church was like going to the hospital.  We are all ill and need to help each other get better.  This analogy was brought up in response to people who said that 'you need to be perfect or good to attend church ... if you were unworthy, you should not attend.'

I generally agreed with the analogy, but I had a bit of a problem with how many people said they were 'ill too' but then proceeded to talk and act like they weren't.  Therefore, there was a lot of finger-wagging and not much humility.  When moral failures occurred, they were hidden, so as to allow leaders to keep some moral high ground, upon which to preach.  But eventually the moral failures were revealed and there was no acknowledgement and the high ground was lost.

The correct way of looking at moral teaching and learning is how Seneca describes it in this letter (my emphasis added).

No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital. Listen to me, therefore, as you would if I were talking to myself. I am admitting you to my inmost thoughts, and am having it out with myself, merely making use of you as my pretext.

Realistically, you should not compare your moral learnings and failures with other people.  What ultimately matters is the progress from your younger years to your elder years.  A worthy goal is to have your faults die before your body does.

Count your years, and you will be ashamed to desire and pursue the same things you desired in your boyhood days. Of this one thing make sure against your dying day, – let your faults die before you die.

And if you can eliminate your faults, this will allow virtue within you to grow.  Virtue replaces vice turning to inner peace and good flow, regardless of external circumstances.

Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.

This work can only be done by you.  There's no way to buy this path.  You have to trod it on your own.  Seneca talks of a man who tried to gain knowledge by paying for slaves to read books and memorize them.  And then he would have the slaves stand around him and at his demand, they would repeat the memorized passages.  Now, before you laugh at this, how is this any different than what many of us do today (including me)?  Rather than spend the time in books and study, we say to ourselves that we have the knowledge in our pocket - in our internet-connected smart phone.  With a few swipe and taps, we instantly have information.  Any we pay for this!

To be clear, I'm grateful for the massive about of history and knowledge we have at our disposal.  But do we use it wisely?  Are we transferring the wisdom of the ages into our brains and hearts?  Or do we flick through social media ego feeds and only decide to search for something [useful] when the need arises?  We aren't so different than the old man Seneca critiques.

No man is able to borrow or buy a sound mind; in fact, as it seems to me, even though sound minds were for sale, they would not find buyers. Depraved minds, however, are bought and sold every day.

We sell our time to pass it.  Tech companies buy our time to re-program us.  I'm not so sure that their programming is based on ancient Greek wisdom.  Therefore, we all should pursue sound, wise, rational philosophy.  By my investigation, I've found it's available for the taking.  What is undecided is whether to choose to seek it or not.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 26 - On Old Age and Death

On Old Age and Death

Read Seneca's perspective on being old:

age has done no damage to my mind, though I feel its effects on my constitution. Only my vices, and the outward aids to these vices, have reached senility; my mind is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body.

I'm drawn to that last part of the quote: "my mind is strong and rejoices that it has but slight connexion with the body"  When I read that, and taking Seneca for his word, he means that his old body isn't really driving him anymore and that his mind has more sway over the body.  This is an important note - your body craves things; it has desires.  But your mind knows what's best for you.  Do you give in to the body's desires or does rational philosophy, in your mind, call the shots?

Next he gets into whether he owes this result to old age or to philosophy.

how much of this peace of spirit and moderation of character I owe to wisdom and how much to my time of life; it bids me distinguish carefully what I cannot do and what I do not want to do.

Said differently, how much of your lack of desires are due to simply becoming old versus you having done the hard work to educate yourself in the proper management of desires?

Seneca proposes a test to find out.

The showing which we have made up to the present time, in word or deed, counts for nothing. All this is but a trifling and deceitful pledge of our spirit, and is wrapped in much charlatanism. I shall leave it to Death to determine what progress I have made. Therefore with no faint heart I am making ready for the day when, putting aside all stage artifice and actor's rouge, I am to pass judgment upon myself,whether I am merely declaiming brave sentiments, or whether I really feel them; whether all the bold threats I have uttered against fortune are a pretence and a farce.  Put aside the opinion of the world; it is always wavering and always takes both sides. Put aside the studies which you have pursued throughout your life; Death will deliver the final judgment in your case. This is what I mean: your debates and learned talks, your maxims gathered from the teachings of the wise, your cultured conversation, – all these afford no proof of the real strength of your soul. Even the most timid man can deliver a bold speech. What you have done in the past will be manifest only at the time when you draw your last breath. I accept the terms; I do not shrink from the decision.

And here is a different translation of the same passage, to help the meaning become a bit clearer.

All that I’ve done or said up to now counts for nothing. My showing to date, besides being heavily varnished over, is of paltry value and reliability as a guarantee of my spirit. I’m going to leave it to death to settle what progress I’ve made. Without anxiety, then, I’m making ready for the day when the tricks and disguises will be put away and I shall come to a verdict on myself, determining whether the courageous attitudes I adopt are really felt or just so many words, and whether or not the defiant challenges I’ve hurled at fortune have been mere pretence and pantomime. Away with the world’s opinion of you – it’s always unsettled and divided. Away with the pursuits that have occupied the whole of your life – death is going to deliver the verdict in your case. Yes, all your debates and learned conferences, your scholarly talk and collection of maxims from the teachings of philosophers, are in no way indicative of genuine spiritual strength. Bold words come even from the timidest. It’s only when you’re breathing your last that the way you’ve spent your time will become apparent. I accept the terms, and feel no dread of the coming judgement.

In the above passages, I italicized parts which I find impactful to myself.

So there it is - it's a mental exercise to test yourself if you are ready.  Can you close your eyes and pretend to think if you are ready to die.  Will your life reflect the actions your words espoused?  What will the score show when time runs out?  In one column will be all the times you professed a wise bit of advice.  In the other column will be the courageous, just, wise actions you have carried out.  Which will have more?  I like to think I've lived a good life and that I've tried to act wisely.  I know I am not perfect - no where near it.  I do talk and write about it a lot; with the hopes that some of this will sink in and manifest itself through my mind and body in the real world.

Epicurus advised people to think on their death too.  And if death is too morbid to think on, then alter the thought a little.  Death is just a bit of traveling from one place to another; with some liberation thrown in.

"Think on death," or rather, if you prefer the phrase, on "migration to heaven." ... When we can never prove whether we really know a thing, we must always be learning it.  "Think on death." In saying this, he bids us think on freedom. He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 25 - On Reformation

On Reformation

This is a shorter letter with not much to chew on, besides what has already been discussed.

It would seem Lucilius and Seneca are discussing two mutual friends; one young and one older.  The younger one must focus on faults that need to be fixed with some minor correction, while the older one might take more effort to "crush out" stubborn habits.

A few concepts to take away from this letter:

  • a reminder to limit your desires
  • use a good, moral person to be your mental guardian; if you ask yourself 'what would you do if Cato saw you now?' that might persuade you to act more virtuously
  • be careful of crowds and after some time and practice of 'guarding yourself' you can then trust yourself to go out into crowds and not be influenced by them
  • but also be careful to be alone - 'an idle mind is the devil's workshop' sort of thing

Monday, October 12, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 24 - On Despising Death

On Despising Death

In Letter 13, Seneca says "we suffer more often in imagination than in reality."  In Letter 24, he digs a bit deeper on this concept.  Pain and death are two anxieties we may heap on ourselves needlessly.  How can you minimize these imagined sufferings?

Seneca writes,

if you would put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen will certainly happen in any event; whatever the trouble may be, measure it in your own mind, and estimate the amount of your fear. You will thus understand that what you fear is either insignificant or short-lived.

Confront the imagined sufferings!  Make them your friends and become acquainted with them.  The more time you spend in their company, the less you have to fear from them.

History is replete with humans who have endured pain, exile, imprisonment and death.  Therefore, if you cannot imagine yourself suffering well, then look the the examples provided by history: RutiliusMetellusSocratesMuciusCatoScipio (I hope I got the correct figures linked).

And if they aren't enough, Seneca advises to simply look at all those - in his time and even in the present day - who despise death, exile, imprisonment and pain.

I shall not refer you to history, or collect examples of those men who throughout the ages have despised death; for they are very many. Consider these times of ours, whose enervation and over-refinement call forth our complaints; they nevertheless will include men of every rank, of every lot in life, and of every age, who have cut short their misfortunes by death.

When you do the 'heavy lifting' of contemplating death, you will realize there is nothing to fear.

death is so little to be feared that through its good offices nothing is to be feared. Therefore, when your enemy threatens, listen unconcernedly. Although your conscience makes you confident, yet, since many things have weight which are outside your case, both hope for that which is utterly just, and prepare yourself against that which is utterly unjust. Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.

This is the life to which we were born.  Never were humans promised to not suffer or to not die.  This is our lot!  If someone promises you a life of leisure, safety and protection, know this: you are being lied to!  None of that is guaranteed.  I fear, in our modernization, we have come to expect far too more than what life actually offers.  We imagine we should not have to die of disease or accidents.  We imagine we can expunge the world of accidents and viruses.  In our pursuit of a scientifically perfect world, we have lost wisdom.  Seneca was wise to note:

You were born to these perils. Let us think of everything that can happen as something which will happen.

Be prepared for poverty, exile, imprisonment, sickness and death.  This is our lot in life.

I may become a poor man; I shall then be one among many. I may be exiled; I shall then regard myself as born in the place to which I shall be sent. They may put me in chains. What then? Am I free from bonds now? Behold this clogging burden of a body, to which nature has fettered me! "I shall die," you say; you mean to say "I shall cease to run the risk of sickness; I shall cease to run the risk of imprisonment; I shall cease to run the risk of death."

We are dying every day.  Every day we march closer to our final death.  While we live, we must learn wisdom and be wise.  And if you ever grow tired of life, this too is folly.  It is not virtuous to escape a life that has become stale.  If you've reached that point, then you have not learned wisdom.  The three quotes from Epicurus:

It is absurd to run towards death because you are tired of life, when it is your manner of life that has made you run towards death.

What is so absurd as to seek death, when it is through fear of death that you have robbed your life of peace?

Men are so thoughtless, nay, so mad, that some, through fear of death, force themselves to die.

Seneca comments on these three quotes.  In sum, live wisely, die purposefully.

Whichever of these ideas you ponder, you will strengthen your mind for the endurance alike of death and of life. For we need to be warned and strengthened in both directions, – not to love or to hate life overmuch; even when reason advises us to make an end of it, the impulse is not to be adopted without reflection or at headlong speed.  The brave and wise man should not beat a hasty retreat from life; he should make a becoming exit. And above all, he should avoid the weakness which has taken possession of so many, – the lust for death. For just as there is an unreflecting tendency of the mind towards other things, so, my dear Lucilius, there is an unreflecting tendency towards death; this often seizes upon the noblest and most spirited men, as well as upon the craven and the abject. The former despise life; the latter find it irksome.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 23 - On the True Joy which Comes from Philosophy

On the True Joy which Comes from Philosophy

It's cliché to think a Stoic is not joyful.  This comes from a misunderstanding of what it means to be Stoic.

Stoicism aims to help an individual to be resilient; to have and retain equanimity.  This does not mean they are always sad or always ebullient.  But rather, the goal is to be steady in joyfulness or happiness or to always have a good spirit about you - eudaimonia.

Seneca exhorts Lucilius to focus on being of a sound mind at all times.

The "foundation" of a sound mind is to "not find joy in useless things."  What are useless things?  These are "externals" - those things that lay beyond your control.  You control the "internals" but you cannot control the externals.

Seneca notes externals which should not disrupt your equanimity: death, poverty, pleasure and pain.

Real joy, believe me, is a stern matter. Can one, do you think, despise death with a care-free countenance, or with a "blithe and gay" expression, as our young dandies are accustomed to say? Or can one thus open his door to poverty, or hold the curb on his pleasures, or contemplate the endurance of pain? He who ponders these things in his heart is indeed full of joy; but it is not a cheerful joy. It is just this joy, however, of which I would have you become the owner; for it will never fail you when once you have found its source.

The contemplation of your death or your poverty; or your forbearance of pleasure and your endurance of pain is your work and practice for becoming Stoic - which is synonymous for always having a good sprit - a good flow - a steady joy about you all the time.  It is not easy to do.  This is why there are so many practices in Stoicism.  These are designed to help you be resilient and joyful all the time, regardless of circumstance.  They also teach you to rely less on externals and to help place your center for desire within yourself rather than something that could come or go in your life.

Externals are superficial and fickle.  But if you center your joy on doing what is right, from a virtuous perspective, then you will have dug deep enough to find an unending source of joy.

The yield of poor mines is on the surface; those are really rich whose veins lurk deep, and they will make more bountiful returns to him who delves unceasingly.

Marcus Aurelius expressed a similar sentiment when he said,

Dig inside yourself. Inside there is a spring of goodness ready to gush at any moment, if you keep digging.

Seneca further advises,

cast aside and trample under foot all those things that glitter outwardly and are held out to you by another or as obtainable from another; look toward the true good, and rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by "from your own store"? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you. The frail body, also, even though we can accomplish nothing without it, is to be regarded as necessary rather than as important; it involves us in vain pleasures, short-lived, and soon to be regretted.

This life of joyful equanimity can be yours if you put in the work.  You have to practice, live your life, introspect and learn from mistakes in order to improve.  Just reading quotes or motivational posters won't cut it.  The inner heavy lifting must be done to show outward gains.  And get on with it!  Stop making plans to become better.  Be better today.

They live ill who are always beginning to live.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 22 - On the Futility of Half-Way Measures

On the Futility of Half-Way Measures

Lucilius' position in life and what he does for his business is unknown.  But it sounds like he is quite deep in many ventures and he may hold a position of prominence.  At the same time, it seems that Lucilius is trying to embrace a life of complete philosophy and he is allowing his business is keeping him from jumping in with both feet.

I couldn't help but put myself into this letter and pretend that Seneca were writing to me.  It made me wonder if I am like Lucilius and am making up excuses as to why I can't or won't embrace a life of complete philosophy.

The first part of the letter is centered around the them of being present in the moment or mindfulness.  The Stoic concept is called prosoche.  And in this case, with Lucilius, Seneca is counseling him to look for opportunities to escape the life of business:

you must withdraw yourself from those showy and depraved pursuits ... You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity. Accordingly, look about you for the opportunity; if you see it, grasp it, and with all your energy and with all your strength devote yourself to this task, – to rid yourself of those business duties.

Watching and waiting for the opportune time to depart that (business) life and then to act when that opportunity presents itself - that is what Seneca suggests.  Seneca makes the point that it can be done little by little.

But I likewise maintain that you should take a gentle path, that you may loosen rather than cut the knot which you have bungled so badly in tying, – provided that if there shall be no other way of loosening it, you may actually cut it. ...

hasten as fast as he can, and beat a retreat before some stronger influence comes between and takes from him the liberty to withdraw. But he also adds that one should attempt nothing except at the time when it can be attempted suitably and seasonably. Then, when the long-sought occasion comes, let him be up and doing.

Seneca observes some common worries of business and what a good man would think of them.

a good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy. Neither will he, as you imagine, become so involved in ambitious schemes that he will have continually to endure their ebb and flow. ... From business, however, my dear Lucilius, it is easy to escape, if only you will despise the rewards of business. We are held back and kept from escaping by thoughts like these: "What then? Shall I leave behind me these great prospects? Shall I depart at the very time of harvest?" ... Hence men leave such advantages as these with reluctance; they love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves.

And then this spot-on quote: "there are a few men whom slavery holds fast, but there are many more who hold fast to slavery."

Become free.  Shed stuff.  You won't and can't take anything with you.  Life is a pursuit of virtue and wisdom and by discarding all the indifferents, you become free to focus on the most important.  The urgency should be the same as if you were thrown overboard a ship with all your possessions.  Get to the shore!  Leave the junk behind.

if you keep turning round and looking about, in order to see how much you may carry away with you, and how much money you may keep to equip yourself for the life of leisure, you will never find a way out. No man can swim ashore and take his baggage with him. Rise to a higher life.

Focus on and love virtue and wisdom.  Stop starting and start finishing the objective.

No one has anything finished, because we have kept putting off into the future all our undertakings. ...

You've learned what life offered to teach you if you are at peace every day up to the day you die.  If you can live and die well, then philosophy reached you.  But if the thought of death causes intense anxiety, then you have philosophical work to do.  Philosophy is nothing more than preparation for death. 

A man has caught the message of wisdom, if he can die as free from care as he was at birth; but as it is, we are all a-flutter at the approach of the dreaded end. Our courage fails us, our cheeks blanch; our tears fall, though they are unavailing. But what is baser than to fret at the very threshold of peace? ...

Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man's power to live long.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 21 - On the Renown which my Writings will Bring you

On the Renown which my Writings will Bring you

This letters starts with addressing the desire for fame and ends with advice for managing the desire of the belly.  Both are desires often found in the human condition.

The good news is this: you can fix the problems; it is within your control.  It would seem that Lucilius, to whom Seneca is writing, is still having trouble solving these problems.  He knows what to do, but fails to act accordingly.  And one might even say that the real problem is that Lucilius doesn't really know the right course of action - that's he's not been properly convinced and educated in the matter, otherwise his actions would follow the course of his knowledge.  Perhaps this is what Seneca means when he says "you do not know what you want."

Seneca chides him:

Your greatest difficulty is with yourself; for you are your own stumbling-block. You do not know what you want. You are better at approving the right course than at following it out. You see where the true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.

Fame: public recognition; having a well-known reputation.  Fame is quite the challenge to attain it and keep it.  You could try a search engine query with "the most famous person in ..." and pick a year older than your mom's birth year and odds are, you probably never heard of them.  And out of the billions of people alive on the earth today, you have only heard the names of a minute fraction of them.

And if you do chase it and attain some fame and then lose it; you are actually getting a promotion in life.  The same could be said of being sent into exile.

You think that this condition, which you are to abandon, is one of importance, and after resolving upon that ideal state of calm into which you hope to pass, you are held back by the lustre of your present life, from which it is your intention to depart, just as if you were about to fall into a state of filth and darkness. This is a mistake, Lucilius; to go from your present life into the other is a promotion.

Fame is worthless.  You are a speck of a drop in an endless sea of atoms.  Fame is nothing and meaningless, therefore, don't waste time chasing it.  Remember Seneca's words:

The deep flood of time will roll over us; some few great men will raise their heads above it, and, though destined at the last to depart into the same realms of silence, will battle against oblivion and maintain their ground for long.

For sure, fame brings influence.  And if you are seeking to influence others, perhaps a better way to go about it is the "pay it forward" method - or the "word of mouth" method.  By being a good person and helping others, you become a part of another person's memory.  That person, in turn, may turn the same good deed by helping another person and the cycle may repeat itself.  If your desire for influence stems from this, then perhaps that is a good thing to pursue.

But in the case of innate ability, the respect in which it is held increases, and not only does honour accrue to the man himself, but whatever has attached itself to his memory is passed on from one to another.

Seneca uses the phrase "innate ability."  To me, this means the part of you that truly belongs to you: your attitude; your will to act and perform good deeds.

And taking a broader view of the desire for fame, but also other desires, Seneca quotes Epicurus about becoming rich (in whatever).  In brief, the quote means: If you wish to be rich, subtract desires.

When you budget your money and you wish to be rich, there is more than one way to accumulate wealth.  You can continue to add revenue streams or you may reduce your costs.  The same concept applies to all markets in human desires.  The less you have, the richer you are.  To put a finer point to it, the less worries you have, the more fulfilled you are.  And to not have anxiety or worry is something in your control.

Now, to address those desires that are tied to our survival; and more precisely: eating.  Seneca calls these the "desires which refuse alleviation."  How do you deal with these?

The belly will not listen to advice; it makes demands, it importunes. And yet it is not a troublesome creditor; you can send it away at small cost, provided only that you give it what you owe, not merely all you are able to give.

Admittedly, this is a struggle I've dealt with for a long time.  I think genetics plays a big part of the source and management of this desire.  Some, like a relative of mine, can eat 13 beef ribs and not be affected at all by it.  For me, what I've found that works in management of this desire, is to avoid sugars and processed food.  I try to eat a lot of protein and do a lot of intermittent fasting.  This seems to give the belly its due without spending my life at the dinner table.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 20 - On Practising what you Preach

On Practising what you Preach

I'm appreciative of Pierre Hadot and others like him, who have helped to change the perception of philosophy from an academic study to a way of life.  Indeed, Hadot has honed in on the concept of practice and action and a complete overhaul of one's life as the aim of philosophy.  Much of this is discussed in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life.  This bias to action is evident in Seneca's Letter 20.

I ask and beg of you, on your part, that you let wisdom sink into your soul, and test your progress, not by mere speech or writings, but by stoutness of heart and decrease of desire. Prove your words by your deeds. ...

philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak

Reading, learning, meditation and discussion will provide the knowledge for a one who wishes to understand philosophy.  But all of this is useless unless put into action.  A philosophy is demonstrated to be valid through the actions of the adherent.

I sometimes wonder if we have our learning process backwards in our society.  We teach reading, writing, math, history and other core classes, but we don't teach our students the most important education: to what end is the purpose of life?  I'm not proposing that only one philosophy be taught, but that students should be exposed to an array of philosophies and consider which one they think will bring them the most good.

Then, once they decide which philosophy to follow, they have a heading in life - a direction to guide them.

But as it is now, most don't figure out what their own philosophy is until much later in life.  Perhaps this is why some college students have a hard time deciding what to major in, or perhaps this is why some people experience a mid-life crisis.  I propose we teach and expose the various philosophies to as many young students as possible and the earlier, the better.

Then, once a person decides which one they judge best, they should practice it.

You should lay hold, once for all, upon a single norm to live by, and should regulate your whole life according to this norm. ...

it is because no man resolves upon what he wishes, and, even if he has done so, he does not persist in it, but jumps the track; not only does he change, but he returns and slips back to the conduct which he has abandoned and abjured. ...

no man ever decided once and for all to desire or to refuse. Judgment varies from day to day, and changes to the opposite, making many a man pass his life in a kind of game

As for the Stoics, they would teach you to focus on virtue; to desire it.  And they would also teach you to treat everything that is not up to you, with indifference.  Wealth is an indifferent.  So, what is the Stoic advice for wealth?

let your thoughts, your efforts, your desires, help to make you content with your own self and with the goods that spring from yourself; and commit all your other prayers to God's keeping!

And what can be done to strengthen your view wealth as an indifferent?  Seneca offers this:

hold it essential, therefore, to do as I have told you in a letter that great men have often done: to reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. There is all the more reason for doing this, because we have been steeped in luxury and regard all duties as hard and onerous. Rather let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us. No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 19 - On Worldliness and Retirement

On Worldliness and Retirement

This is an interesting letter from Seneca and I've been procrastinating writing about it, because I've had a bit of a hard time pulling out Stoic principals.

The topic is retirement.  By this, I suppose he means roughly the same thing that we mean today - to cease, generally speaking, the day-to-day work in which you are employed. 

Not that I would advise you to try to win fame by your retirement; one's retirement should neither be paraded nor concealed. Not concealed, I say, for I shall not go so far in urging you as to expect you to condemn all men as mad and then seek out for yourself a hiding-place and oblivion; rather make this your business, that your retirement be not conspicuous, though it should be obvious.

The golden mean applied in retirement too.  Don't be extravagant; don't make it oblivious.  Find the right approach to retirement when you enter it.

Depending on your personality (extrovert or introvert), you may be saddened to leave all your work acquaintances or you may be relieved.  But none of this is good or bad.  Rather what is in your attitude is that matters most.

Depending on your lifestyle, saving and investment habits, retirement may bring the same sort of life or it may force you to live below your means.  Also, depending on the type of power and authority you had while working, you may have the same or less, when you retire.  All of this is indifferent and quite subject to change when you retire.  Also, if you've not done the proper philosophical contemplation regarding these indifferents, retirement will force you to finally accept the truth.

We hold that there is a succession of causes, from which fate is woven; similarly, you may be sure, there is a succession in our desires; for one begins where its predecessor ends. You have been thrust into an existence which will never of itself put an end to your wretchedness and your slavery. Withdraw your chafed neck from the yoke; it is better that it should be cut off once for all, than galled for ever. If you retreat to privacy, everything will be on a smaller scale, but you will be satisfied abundantly; in your present condition, however, there is no satisfaction in the plenty which is heaped upon you on all sides. Would you rather be poor and sated, or rich and hungry? Prosperity is not only greedy, but it also lies exposed to the greed of others. And as long as nothing satisfies you, you yourself cannot satisfy others.

Seneca seems to admonish the retiree to embrace the lack of abundant money, power and prestige.  While a person may never have done the philosophical work of limiting desire for indifferents while fully employed, perhaps there is hope yet for them in retirement.

That last statement is impactful: "as long as nothing satisfies you, you yourself cannot satisfy others."  Those who never limit their desires can never help another person.  The game of desire is an un-winnable game.  And everyone who plays it, loses.  But the person who limits their desires can win (enjoy eudaimonia) and they can be in a position to help others win too.

A worry of many who wish to retire is: "will I have enough?"  Seneca poses this question in a slightly different way: "how can I take my leave?"  To which he responds with noting that said person, who wishes to retire, already is worrying about their day to day activities.  They are worrying about ensuring new ventures make money and all such manners of toil and stress.  Why should the stress of not having enough money be any different?  You worry when you work; you worry when you retire.  It's all worries!  He uses a different analogy to express this sentiment.  One may worry about being struck by lightening in the valley and and even more so on the peaks of mountains ("There's thunder even on the loftiest peaks.")  In retirement, stay in the valley, "hug the shore."

The ending quote of the letter is another one by Epicurus.

You must reflect carefully beforehand with whom you are to eat and drink, rather than what you are to eat and drink. For a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf.

Giving favors to win friends may be productive, but mind the real cost!  Instead of thinking about what favors to give people, thing more carefully about to whom you will grant favors - consider their character wisely!  Don't become like the man who abounds in fortune, who thinks he has many friends, when in fact they are not friends, but sycophants.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Notes, Comments, Quotes from "Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics" by A.A. Long

 

General Comments from Introduction

  • Hellenistic philosophy begins around the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) and ends with the victory of Octavian over Mark Antony at the battle of Actium (31 B.C.)
  • The major figures of early Hellenistic philosophy all migrated to Athens from elsewhere
  • "Philosophy, so many have said, responded to the unsettled age of the Hellenistic monarchs by turning away from disinterested speculation to the provision of security for the individual.  Stoicism has been described as 'a system put together hastily, violently, to meet a bewildered world'" p. 3
  • "The needs of people in the Hellenistic world for a sense of identity and moral guidance can help explain why Stoicism and Epicureanism rapidly gained adherents at Athens and elsewhere." p. 3
    • I sense that this is also why we are seeing a resurgence of modern interest in ancient Greek philosophy.  The change in science, politics and technology as well as the spread of information of history, has far outpaced the individual philosophies and religions of the post-modern citizen.  People are looking for solid ground on which to stand - to make sense of it all.
  • "Alexander, Diogenes and Aristotle, all died within a year of two of each other (325-322), and this is worth mentioning because it emphasizes the need to take into account of continuity as well as change in the interpretation of Hellenistic philosophy." p. 3
  • "'The reason for discovering philosophy is to allay that which causes disturbance in life'" - Xenocrates ... "the statement harmonizes well with the general aims of Hellenistic philosophy" p. 6
    • Reiterates my comment above about the need to discover a solid philosophy in today's complex world.
  • "philosophy advances by criticism." p. 11
    • Agree!  Having been raised in a religion where criticism of the leaders was very taboo, what a breath of fresh air to be in a position to freely debate philosophy.  We help ourselves and the world by debate and dialogue.
Epicureanism
  • 'live quietly' ... a prescription for attaining traquility; the highest good.  p. 16
  • "He claimed to derive great pleasure from a subsistence diet which cheese would turn into a feast." p. 16
  • "Epicurus has various ways of establishing his hedonism, none of which draws direct support from atoms and void.  In this he differs markedly from the Stoics whose moral theory is intrinsically related to their metaphysics.  But Epicurus thought he could show the validity of hedonism by appeal to immediate experience which, less directly, he held to support atomism." p. 21
    • Another reason, for me, why Stoicism is preferable - it tries to be based in empiricism, not anecdotal data.
  • the concept of 'the swerve' is interesting - never heard of this before!  "The movements of atoms, and therefore any consequences of its movement, are not entirely predictable ... It follows then that an atom, independently of any secondary motion which may result from collisions, has both a unidirectional movement and an unpredictable tendency to deviate from this." p. 38
  • "Lucretius praises Epicurus for delivering mankind from 'the weight of religion'.  He means popular religion, superstitious beliefs in the gods as direct arbiters of human destiny and fears of divine anger as expressed in thunder and lightening." p. 40
  • "There is no purpose which the world as a whole or things in particular are designed to fulfill.  For design is not a feature of the world; it is manifestly imperfect." p. 40
    • Another strong feature that does not align with ancient/traditional Stoicism.  And I sometimes see this same sentiment in some moderns; they would embrace the atoms of Epicureanism.
  • "Nothing disquieted Epicurus more profoundly than the notion that supernatural beings control phenomena or that they can affect human affairs.  That there are gods he did not deny.  But he repeatedly and vociferously rejected the belief that gods are responsible for any natural events." p. 41
    • This was a bit surprising to me.  I did not know Epicurus believed in gods.  He just didn't believe they pulled strings and caused events.
    • And I have to applaud him for this attempt in disabusing people from fear of fallible gods.
    • "Epicurus thought he could remove the source of one basic human anxiety - fear of divine judgement and eternal punishment." p. 42
  • "In his view happiness, whether human or divine, requires for its full realization a life of uninterrupted tranquility or freedom from pain." p. 44
    • based on three assumptions 1) there are gods 2) the gods are sublimely happy and immortal 3) their happiness consists of uninterrupted tranquility
    • all races and people believe in gods; therefore, there are gods
    • gods enjoy existence free of toil; by virtue of their nature, they can preserve their existence; they dwell in no world but in the spaces which separate one world from another. p. 48
      • This sounds like what Cooper experiences in Interstellar; but Cooper isn't exactly free of pain!
    • "Epicurus hoped to show that beliefs in a system of rewards and punishments as recompense for life on earth were mere mythology." p. 49
  • More on the swerve
    • If all movements are causally related; no new movements are created by a swerve in atoms, then there could be no such thing as free will.
    • Free will is a new movement at no fixed time or place
    • But there is such a thing as free will
    • Therefore the atoms sometimes create new beginnings by swerving. p. 58
    • the swerve is some event which "presents itself to consciousness as 'free' will to initiate new movement" p. 59
    • swerves help initiate new action in the pursuit of tranquility p. 60
Scepticism
  • "As the name of a philosophical method or particular school Scepticism originates with Pyrrho.  But long before Pyrrho of course we can find philosophers expressing sceptical attitudes.  The fallibility of sense-perception as a source of knowledge was emphasized in different ways by Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles and Democritus in the Presocratic period." p. 78
  • "The important point for this chapter is that certain problems of knowledge to which Pyrrho drew attention had already been recognized by earlier philosophers. ... Pyrrho's scepticism has its closest conceptual connexion with Protagoras among his predecessors ... Pyrrho's scepticism provides the basis for a penetrating criticism of such theories of knowledge, though there is no evidence that Pyrrho himself attacked Epicurus and Zeno specifically." p. 79
  • Another goal of Scepticism is "freedom from disturbance" p. 79
  • "Anecdotes about Pryyho suggest that he was sympathetic to the Cynic advocacy of a simple life in withdrawal from civic affairs." p. 79
  • "His pupil Timon says that the man who means to be happy must consider these three questions: 1) what things are really like; 2) what attitude we should adopts towards them; 3) what the consequence of such an attitude will be.  According to Timon Pyrrho declared that things are equally indistinguishable, unmeasurable and indeterminable.  For this reason neither our acts of perception nor our judgements are true or false.  Therefore we should not rely on them but be without judgements, inclining neither this way nor that, but be steadfast saying concerning each individual thing that it is no more is that is not, or that it both is and is not, or that it neither is nor is not.  For those who adopt this attitude the consequence will be first a refusal to make assertions and second, freedom from disturbance." p. 80-81
    • This sums up perfectly what I understand of Scepticism.  I agree with some of the assertions, but to live entirely like this, all the time?  I can see why it would create freedom from disturbance, but I don't think a life will flourish, nor would one attain eudaimonia.
  • "There are no necessary truths about empirical objects, and David Hume was probably right to argue that no sufficient reasons can be given for inferring the nature of physical objects from sense-perception." p. 87
  • "Like other Sceptics Carneades exploited differences of opinion between dogmatic schools.  Epicurus, as we have seen, argued that the world's obvious imperfections give clear evidence against its being under control of the gods.  The Stoics argued quite the opposite way: the world is manifestly the work of providences, the supreme example of which is man himself, a rational beings designed by the gods to live a virtuous life.  Carneades held that the sufferings of the virtuous and the flourishing of malefactors prove that the gods are quite indifferent to human affairs." p. 101
    • Loved the contrast in points of view to the three schools on the point of the gods.
Stoicism
  • "Many of the Christian fathers were more deeply affected by Stoicism than they themselves recognized ... the effect of Stoic moral teaching on Western culture has been pervasive.  Sometimes Stoic doctrines have reappeared in the work of major philosophers.  Spinoza, Bishop Butler and Kant were all indebted to the Stoics." p. 107
  • Page 114 notes the debates between the Sceptics and the Stoics in the area of ethics related to the good and the preferred.  The Sceptics were successful in causing the Stoics to modify their ethics.  Later in the chapter, we learn later Stoics focused less on the theoretical sage and focused their efforts on practical ethics.  It would seem the Sceptics had a hand in this long-standing debate.
  • Page 119 - reference to the egg, animal and garden analogies.  I had not heard of the animal analogy: bones/sinews = logic ... fleshy parts = ethics ... soul = physics
  • Chrysippus advocated learning logic first, then ethics and finally physics. p. 120
  • Page 134 ... some interesting ideas on the primary sounds of language; harsh and smooth words corresponding to harsh and smooth things.
  • a good reminder: 'only the present is real' but the present is said to consist of past and future ... Time like lekta has no independent existence but is rather something which rational beings make use of in order to explain the movements of bodies." p. 138
  • "Ancient critics of the Stoics found fault with them for their fussiness about logical form and rigorous analysis.  But it is these qualities which have earned the Stoics the admiration of modern logicians." p. 143
    • personal commentary on myself and differing people.  I prefer 'high level' views and opinions and prefer not to "get into the weeds" but others embrace technicalities.  The more I study philosophy, the more I see the importance of "fussiness" and "rigor" and the need to embrace and have dialogue over technicalities.  It still bothers me a bit, but I'm trying to get use to it!
  • Heraclitus "held that the world is a unity of opposites, a harmony of opposing forces which can be signified by such statements as: 'God is day night, winter summer, war peace'; 'The road up and down is one and the same' ... The Stoics did not make much use of Heraclitus' notion of unity in opposition, though we find traces of this.  But they took from him the concept of the logos which directs all things and which is shared by all men." p. 147
  • "Many Stoic versions of the argument from design are also recorded, all of which seek to show that this is the best of all possible worlds with divine purpose immanent in it and working for the benefit of rational beings." p. 149
  • "Stoic theology is pantheist" p. 150
  • "the human soul as an 'offshoot' of God" p. 150
    • Scott Adams God's Debris ... the god particle
  • "You are peeved because you fail to realize how what is best for you is best for the universe as well as yourself." p. 151
  • Prime Mover / artistic fire "pervades all things and accounts for their persistence and their change." "As advocates of a continuous and purposive universe Aristotle and the Stoics are at one against the Epicureans." p. 152
  • "boldly asserted that justice and all moral qualities are bodies like anything else which exists." p. 153 ... explained by the concept of mixture  ... see page 154-159 and the section on Mixture beginning on p. 159
  • This whole concept of mixture sounds a lot like the idea of the god particle in God's Debris.  And whenever I think of the concept of mixture, I think of the beginning scene in the movie Prometheus where the guy drinks the dark goo stuff and then dissolves and starts the chain of 'active fire' mixing with the passive matter on a planet and then life begins.
  • "The universe itself is a sphere and all its constituents tend to move towards the centre." p. 156
  • "The ultimate constituents of Epicurus' universe are empty space and atoms ... the Stoic universe sets this system on its head.  The movement and properties of individual bodies are a consequence of the dispositions of a single all-pervading dynamics substance." p. 157
  • "pneuma may be compared with the notion of a 'field of force' activating matter." p. 158
  • "Matter and energy are simply different aspects of the same fundamental reality and in all their manifestations obey ineluctable cosmic laws ... There exists a single unified system from one end of the cosmos to the other; in the last analysis, everything is energy [the Stoics would write 'pneumatic force'].  Its spirals are the galaxies, its smaller eddies suns and planets, its softest movement the atom and the gene. Under all forms of matter and manifestations of life there beats the unity of energy according to Einstein's law.  Yet this unified stuff of existence not only twists itself into the incredible variety of material things; it can also produce living patterns of ever greater complexity - from the gas bubble in the original plasma to ... the crowning complexity of the human brain." p. 158
  • "In Stoicism, to be a good and happy man is to be related in a certain way to Nature or God.  The psychological need to relate - to oneself, to one's society, to the world - was sensed acutely by the Stoics.  Like William James, or Jung, or Fromm, they detected an all-inclusive desire to 'feel at home in the universe'. p. 163
    • Another MAJOR theme and difference from other philosophies.  While the Sceptic and Epicurean will doubt everything and go off and eat cheese in a garden, the Stoic wishes to engage with the cosmos and everything therein.
  • "Chance is simple a name for undiscovered causes." "Possibility exists to the extent that, but only to the extent that, men are ignorant of the causal connexion between events." p. 164
  • "divine providence ... a capacity in God or Nature to bring about good works ... The Stoics held that this is the best of all possible worlds; ... harmony is present in the whole ... The psychological and moral implications of this notion are constantly invoke by Marcus Aurelius, and it seems to be a fact that many men have found considerable comfort in the belief that, come what may, their lives contribute to some grand universal scheme." ... this attitude "is not one of bling resignation" ... rather they believe there is creative reason at work in all our lives. p. 165
  • The "test of human power is not freedom to act otherwise but acting deliberately." p. 168
  • "The history of the universe is the harmony of one thing ... Uncreated and imperishable Nature, God, pneuma of universal logos, exercises its activity in a series of eternally recurrent world-cycles.  Beginning and ending as pure fire each world-cycle fulfils the goals of its active principle.  Within each cycle Nature disposes itself in different forms, animal, vegetable and mineral.  To one class of animals, men, Nature gives a share of its own essence, reason, in an imperfect but perfectible form.  Because Nature as a whole is perfect, rational being, all of its acts are ones which should commend themselves to other rational beings." p. 168
  • Regarding moral evil: "nothing is strictly bad except moral weakness." p. 169
    • "As Pope, following Shaftesbury, wrote: 'All discord, harmony not understood, all partial evil, universal good.'  But all the facts cannot be known and therefore the supposed value of much that happens must be taken on trust." p. 170
      • In all my years of studying Stoicism, I've hardly ever encountered the word faith, but when it comes to all the acts of moral evil and violence created by humans over the centuries, my response to the above statement is that Stoics have to trust in the Cosmic Perspective, I tell myself that individual, rational people still make their own choices.  And while it most often will be out of ignorance, it therefore creates all the more urgency for Stoics and other moralists to propagate and share the philosophy of virtue being the sole good.  Just as an individual person may suffer from inner conflict about what to do, so too, perhaps may Nature be having an internal conflict (all of us possessors of god particles in us) and that virtue will win out in the end.
      • "This optimistic attitude towards natural events, no matter how terrible they may seem, is one of the least palatable features of Stoicism.  It is one thing to say that human vision is limited, unable to grasp the full cosmic perspective.  But even at its noblest, in the writings of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, there is something chilling and insensitive about the Stoic's faith that all will turn out well in the end.  They were the only Greek philosophers who tried to find a rationale for everything within their concept of a perfect, all-embracing Nature." p. 170
  • "The soul of man is a portion of the vital, intelligent, warm breath with permeates the entire cosmos.  That which it pervades, in the case of man, is his body where body answers to matter." p. 171
  • 'well-disposed' oikeios... oikeiosis determines an animal's relationship to its environment, but that to which is is primarily well-disposed is itself." p. 172
  • "Reason, the late developer, is a faculty which shapes but does not destroy those faculties that precede its emergence.  In the Stoic view of human development, innate impulses are so transformed by the flowering of reason that they cease to exists as an independent faculty.  They are taken over by reason.  Human nature is so constituted that it develops from something non-rational and animal-like into a structure which is governed throughout by reason.  This conception is of greatest importance in Stoic ethics.  The development of rationality brings with itself a change in the direction of impulse.  New objects of desire take precedence over the satisfaction of basic bodily needs.  Virtue is found to be something which 'belongs to man' in a more fundamental sense than food, drink, shelter and so forth." p. 173-174
    • I can't help but wonder if Nature goes through a similar phase and growth approach, growing from meeting basic needs to fully rational, in which all rational beings, living in Nature, become sages, at which point a new cycle begins.
  • "The Stoics distinguished good men from others by reference to the consistency of their logos. ... absence of consistency with right reason marks us out as 'foolish' or bad men" while progress is increasing in consistency of right reason. p. 177
  • All is good for Nature ... Hymn of Zeus ... "out of disharmony, Zeus creates harmony" p. 181-182
  • "Man is naturally equipped with impulses to virtue or seeds of knowledge, and this equipment is sufficient to direct human reason in the right directions.  But Nature itself does not go further than this.  The achievement of a good character calls for the most arduous efforts from any man and, as we have seen, external influences can (and generally do) prevent him from developing a rational disposition perfectly harmonious with Nature itself.  In order that virtue shall be attainable the potentiality for vice must also be granted.  Nature has established these conditions and given man the status of moral agent by making him a conscious participant in the rational processes of the universe." "As the Stoics look at the world it is better to be viscous and to have the opportunity of virtue than to be denied the latter possibility" p. 182-183
    • Freedom to choose is of the utmost importance for the development of humans.
    • This freedom does not grant people to act passively.  Education and rigorous training are vitally important.
  • Five Stages of Development in Stoic ethics p. 187-192
    • appropriate function of a creature; maintain itself in it natural condition
    • seize hold of the things which accord with Nature and banish those which are the opposite
    • select appropriately; act with appropriate behavior
    • be consistent at selecting appropriately; acting appropriately
    • select consistently and absolutely act appropriately in total agreement with Nature; right action for the right reason
  • "only virtue has absolute or intrinsic worth" p. 192
  • "The Stoics claimed that virtue, the comprehensive goal of human nature, is wholly constitutive of eudaimonia, happiness, welfare or well-being: in order to fare well a man needs nothing by virtue, and as virtue is something absolute, welfare admits of no degrees." p. 197
  • the goodness of intention must be evaluated independent of achievement of a result ... "The virtuous man, having done everything in his power, does not feel pity or regret.  He accepts what happens without reacting emotionally." p. 198
  • "Nature ordains that a man can and should attain well-being solely through what is in his own power.  This means through virtue, the only good. ... virtue is something he can choose irrespective of circumstances." p. 199
  • Virtue definition; p. 199-200
    • a disposition and faculty of the governing principal of the soul, 'or rather: reason itself, consistent, firm and unwavering
    • the goal which Nature has laid down for man
    • pattern of appropriate behavior
    • knowledge or art; "a unitary disposition of the soul which can be analysed into four primary virtues: practical wisdom, justice, moderation, courage ... each of these is defined in terms of knowledge ... i.e. courage is knowledge of things to be endured
  • Virtue attainment; p. 200-205
    • "Only he who has seen 'the good' know precisely what it is.  But we can conjecture what it entails.  To know 'the good' means discovering a principle of conduct which satisfies the general idea of 'accordance with Nature', formed by induction and introspection, and the particular facts of human nature - that man is a rational being with the capacity to understand and participate in the universal activities of Nature."
    • "The antecedents of moral knowledge are 'observation' and 'comparison' of repeated acts."
    • We observe acts of wisdom, justice, temperance and courage in people.  Perhaps they are acts in one sphere of their life, but not in others.  We but recognize the virtues.
    • We observe other people who are more consistent in their acts of virtue and behavior.
    • "This kind of man is 'always consistent with himself in every action, good not through policy but under the direction of a disposition such that he is able not only to act rightly but cannot act without acting rightly.  In him we recognize that virtue has been perfected.'" 
    • To know how to act with virtue in orderliness, propriety, consistency and harmony.
    • "If virtue is to be something supremely worthwhile it deserves every effort on the part of man, and the ideal sage persists as a standard to which we may seek to conform ourselves."
  • Stoic Sage
    • moral expert; know infallibly what should be done in each situation in life and takes every step to do it at the right time and in the right way. p. 205
    • free from all passion; anger, anxiety, cupidity, dread, elation
    • does not regard pleasure as something good, nor pain as something evil p. 206
Later Developments in Hellenistic Philosophy
  • Panaetius
    • His focus was on human nature over universal Nature
    • rejected the idea of eternal recurrence
    • focused on intermediate goals and duties
    • his "readiness to admit 'likeness of virtue' represents a methodological concession which made Stoicism less rigid and more humane." p. 214
    • justice: do no injury to another man; see public interest is maintained
    • the cosmic dimension in his version virtually disappeared
  • Posidonius
    • devoted a great deal of energy to the collection and classification of factual data
    • recommended various irrational procedures for curing emotional disturbance p. 220
    • he showed that a Stoic could advance doctrines of Stoic physics on a very wide front p. 221
  • Antiochus
    • fundamentals according to him; are the criterion of truth and the chief good or object of desire. p. 224
    • virtue will lead to a happy life, but not the happiest life; adding good health, riches, reputation, etc. will make one who has virtue, even happier. p. 225
      • is he really a Stoic then??
  • Cicero
    • "If anyone wonders why I am entrusting these reflections to writing at this stage of my life, I can answer very easily.  With no public activity to occupy me and the political situation making a dictatorship inevitable, I thought that it was an act of patriotism to expound philosophy to my fellow-countrymen, judging it to be greatly to the honor and glory of the state to have such a lofty subject expressed in Latin literature." p. 230
Hellenistic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition
  • "The Stoa continued to exist formally until 529 when Justinian closed the four philosophical schools at Athens." p. 235
  • "But it was the Church which helped above all to keep Stoic ideas in circulation, and Stoicism in its turn had an important influence on Christian Fathers, in association with the still more notable influence on Platonism." p. 235
  • "The answer to scepticism for Augustine was the Christian revelation." p. 237
  • Enchiridion, 1495; first edition of Meditations; Heidelberg, 1558
  • "The philosophical influence of Stoicism, as I have already mentioned (p. 208), is evident in Spinoza and Kant.  Two English philosophers whose work is worth studying from this point of view are the Earl of Shaftesbury and Bishop Butler." p. 241
  • "The sceptic solved the problem of judging between Stoics, Epicureans and others by developing arguments designed to show that certainty and truth were unattainable by any system.  Later, as we have seen with Lactantius and Augustine, Christian thinkers asserted that the only adequate answer to scepticism lay in faith and revelation. ... scepticism was called upon, especially by Catholics, as a means of attacking the other side. ... Montaigne makes use of Pyrrhonism for its original purpose of casting doubt upon every objective criterion of judgement.  He 'defends' Sebond in an oblique way by seeking to show that faith, not rational demonstration, is the basis of the Christian religion.  Certainty is unattainable  ... stripped of human knowledge and all the more ready to accommodate the divine in himself, annihilating his own judgement to make greater room for faith." p. 244-245
    • This whole line of thinking - be sceptical to all human knowledge, so that you can have faith in God - is actively used in my former religion.  I imagine many modern day religions would want skeptics in the pews on Sunday - have the congregants doubt everything, so that they can be re-programmed as good Christians who have faith in a Christian god; or any other religion for that matter.  One leader in my former religion said to people who had doubts about the truth claims of the church, told them, to "doubt your doubts."
  • "The Stoics defended their system on rational grounds, but part of its attraction was aesthetic and emotional.  The idea or ideal of an orderly universe to which men contribute as rational beings is one of its most important legacies to western culture." p. 247

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 18 - On Festivals and Fasting

On Festivals and Fasting

Summer is over; school has begun.  Having circled the sun over 40 times now, I'm used to the excitement that Autumn brings for someone like me who lives in the United States.  Many of my friends, neighbors and acquaintances love the return to school, cooler weather, football and the anticipation of the holidays - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.

One significant theme of these holidays is food.  If you strain your ears around 5pm on the fourth Thursday of November, you can almost hear the simultaneous "pop" of the pants button coming un-done as people push away from the dinner table and shuffle to the couch to watch the football game.  About six weeks after that, if you listen closely, in the early weeks of January, you'll hear the faint "creak" of the scale as overweight people moan in realization that they've over-indulged for the last three months.

Seneca proposes a year-round solution to these problems.

During the course of the year, 

set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?"
...
Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby ... you will understand that a man's peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune;
...

let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard.

...

set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish [a relationship] with poverty.

Fasting or eating well below what is needed strengthens our resolve as well as our body.  Seneca also mentions a certain pleasure from eating below our needs or eating very plain or coarse food.

yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one's needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

And not only can this be applied to food, but it can also be applied to possessions and wealth.

For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.

If you incorporate these "living minimally" practices through the year, you can approach Saturnalia, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween with serenity.  You neither have to hide away to prevent yourself from overindulging, nor do you have to feel unprepared in partaking of the festivities.  You participate with temperance and demonstrate courage.

It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 17 - On Philosophy and Riches

On Philosophy and Riches

How urgent is your quest for wisdom?

This question haunts me.  Am I a product of my time and only leisurely pursue wisdom while I type away all day long at my computer, working for a corporation?  Am I biding my time, checking in on my 401K account every so often, waiting to retire and only then fully focus on my pursuit of wisdom?

Then I read Seneca.

Cast away everything of that sort, if you are wise; nay, rather that you may be wise; strive toward a sound mind at top speed and with your whole strength. If any bond holds you back, untie it, or sever it.

I might reply, "But I need to work now; I have a wife and children to support.  I don't want to be a burden on my children or society, when I am old."

Seneca retorts;

You do not seem, when you say this, to know the strength and power of that good which you are considering. You do indeed grasp the all-important thing, the great benefit which philosophy confers, but you do not yet discern accurately its various functions, nor do you yet know how great is the help we receive from philosophy in everything, everywhere, – how, it not only succours us in the greatest matters but also descends to the smallest.

He divines one of my fears and poses another question.

Doubtless, your object, what you wish to attain by such postponement of your studies, is that poverty may not have to be feared by you. But what if it is something to be desired?

The poorest I've been was when I was living single in Guatemala.  Everything I owned was stored and transported in a couple of suitcases.  I ate tortillas, beans and rice most days and when I wasn't talking and teaching people, I spent much of my time walking the landscape of the Guatemalan lowlands and highlands in Baja and Alta Verapaz.  I may not have been wise at the time, but I was happy.

Now, I have a wife, children, a mortgage, a career and taxes to pay.  I'm not so sure I fear poverty for myself, but perhaps what I fear more is poverty for my wife and children.  Is it morally and ethically acceptable to desire poverty at this time in my life?  Can I expect that my wife and children should want to be philosophers and abandon desires for a home, clothes and material possessions?

I try to have conversations with them about this.  Our intent, as parents, is to teach them well enough, so that they want to enjoy their freedom with no strings attached.  We want them to find a way to enjoy life, independently - to support themselves - and to find their calling in life, whatever it may be.  And in my opinion, part of that learning process could include living in poverty, on their own.  I would hope that they too, would learn poverty is nothing to fear and perhaps they may even desire to live a minimalist life.

Riches have shut off many a man from the attainment of wisdom; poverty is unburdened and free from care. ...  It is easy to fill a few stomachs, when they are well trained and crave nothing else but to be filled. Hunger costs but little; squeamishness costs much. Poverty is contented with fulfilling pressing needs.

For my part, I try (but still mostly fail), to live below my means.  When I can, I try to push the boundaries of what can be excised from my life.  The year 2017 gave us that opportunity, when we lost much to the flood.  We rapidly pivoted to a lifestyle of bare need.  What we fail to remember, though, is flood or not, it is in our power to live this way all the time.

Even the rich man copies her [wisdom] ways when he is in his senses. If you wish to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man, or resemble a poor man. Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: "I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy."

Seneca continues,

"I wish to acquire something to live on." Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly. There is no reason why poverty should call us away from philosophy, – no, nor even actual want.

And so, I try to learn and live philosophy, while I work and collect a paycheck.  One of my practices I return to often is the negative visualization of losing my job.  Having spent time with this prospect, I don't fear it.  In fact, I sometimes day dream of it - not unlike a painter who day dreams while staring at a blank canvas, thinking of what he will paint.  I think I would view my time and life without my current job, as an opportunity to learn and grow and paint something new.  But, I must admit, that I'm only in this position because of my prior choices, wherein I studied, graduated from college and worked many years, improving my craft in the corporate world.  For this I am grateful that if I lost my job, forced poverty would not descend on our home so quickly.

How much greater is the promise of the prize of everlasting liberty, and the assurance that we need fear neither God nor man!  Even though we starve, we must reach that goal.

Therefore one should not seek to lay up riches first; one may attain to philosophy, however, even without money for the journey. ... Is philosophy to be the last requisite in life, – a sort of supplement? Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now.

And if poverty calls us quickly, philosophy teaches us to be happy still.  Seneca proposes various reasons to be happy in poverty.

In the first place, you cannot lack them; because nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature.

he will do justice to his belly and his shoulders; with free and happy spirit he will laugh at the bustling of rich men, and the flurried ways of those who are hastening after wealth.

And then there is the concluding thought, that whether in riches or poverty, the education of the mind and the pursuit of wisdom are noble  and top-priority goals.  Poverty and wealth are indifferents - that are out of our control.  Our focus is and will always be on what is in our control - and that is the sole good.

"The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles." I do not wonder. For the fault is not in the wealth, but in the mind itself. That which had made poverty a burden to us, has made riches also a burden. Just as it matters little whether you lay a sick man on a wooden or on a golden bed, for whither-soever he be moved he will carry his malady with him; so one need not care whether the diseased mind is bestowed upon riches or upon poverty.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 16 - On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

 On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

Seneca begins the letter with a bold statement.

no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun.

Said a bit differently, people who don't study philosophy aren't truly happy.  For my part, I fall in the latter camp, where I've only begun to study philosophy, so I can at least endure life.

Living a life of wisdom is like brushing your teeth: it needs to be performed daily and not quickly.  You cannot expect the dentist to give you a pass if you never brush your teeth every day, but then on the morning of the day you go to the dentist, you brush for five minutes expecting to get all the decay off.  No, you must learn and practice it every day.

This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones.

Seneca also notes that habits kept are habits made.  You must not go on to setting goals of new habits until you've established the ones you've already committed to.

Through daily reflection, you must introspect if you are passing the test or merely passing time.

Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself that you have made progress.

An alternate translation of the above passage notes the subtle difference:

Carry out a searching analysis and close scrutiny of yourself in all sorts of different lights. Consider above all else whether you’ve advanced in philosophy or just in actual years.

I don't often come across the God or atoms debate when I read Seneca.  Marcus alludes to it quite often.  But in this passage, Seneca puts a slightly different perspective on the debate.

Perhaps someone will say: "How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans."

In sum, Seneca asks if there is free will, weather God is calling the shots or if everything based on a flip of a coin.  I didn't get any answers from Seneca, other than some consolation.

She [philosophy] will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.

To me, he saying "it's all in your attitude."  If you think God's calling the shots, then follow your fate.  If you think the coin determines your fate, then endure it well.

Seneca closes with a quote from Epicurus.

"If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich."  Nature's wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless.

Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature. 

Very little is required to live a fulfilled life.  But if your wants are insatiable (living according to opinion or what the neighbors just bought), then you'll never be satisfied.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 15 - On Brawn and Brains

 On Brawn and Brains

Several years ago, I learned what the name of the shoe company really meant: asics

a - anima

s - sana

i - in

c - copore

s - sano

This is Latin for, sound mind, in a sound body.  That has stayed with me for a long time.  And I think that is ultimately what Seneca is trying to convey in Letter 15.

There is a happy medium between advancing the mind and maintaining a healthy body.  One can tip the scales in one direction and spend an inordinate amount of time in the weight room.  Vice versa, one can spend too much time with his nose in a book.  The golden mean would suggest treating the body with its due diligence, while persisting in growing in wisdom, neither at the expense of the other.

Seneca expresses this idea, when he wrote:

Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.

He goes on to explain the mindlessness of heavy eating and drinking, followed by heavy exercise.  The beasts do as much.  But we are not beasts.  We are rational beings and we ought to give the body its due diligence, so as to give ourselves the best time in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

In our post-modern society, many have sacrificed both mind and body.  Going to the mall to shop and spend time with friends was a memorable pass-time in my youth.  But over the years, I can think of a handful of tortures I'd rather endure than spend time at the mall.  Sometimes, in the last few years, the demands of family time and Christmas shopping caused me to sit in contemplation on a bench in the middle of the mall, while my wife was shopping.  During these times, I took a poll of how many obese people walked past me and how many people were walking, head-down, staring into their smart phone.  It was disheartening.  Very, very few were not obese and very few were not staring into a phone.  I wondered if our post-modern society has failed when it comes to educating people on obtaining sound health and sound minds.

What is the right balance?  I guess it depends on the person.  But the Mayo clinic recommends about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, coupled with some resistance training (link).  Once your exercise is complete, get back to the reading, writing and learning.

But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind. The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour; and this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years.

Do you have to be either in a state of exercise or a state of study at all times?  No.

Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change, – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent.

For this reason, I would recommend when you are not exercising, learning or working, you should take up an activity that "unbends" the mind and refreshes it.  This would be a hobby.

In closing, Seneca shares a couple of quotes about living in the present and being content.

"The fool's life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future."

for we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.

If you would thank the gods, and be grateful for your past life, you should contemplate how many men you have outstripped.

As to what the future's uncertain lot has in store, why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?