Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 55 - On Vatia's Villa

On Vatia's Villa

The human mind is incredible.  As a child, I would day dream so much, my teachers were always trying to get my attention back into the classroom.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the floor in my bedroom and play with my toys - imaging the small figurines and cars were armies or football teams fighting against each other.  But over the years, I've been disciplined by teachers and the demands of school and work to focus on the here and now.  I will admit, that frequently (especially at 2pm on most days) my mind drifts off in contemplation.

What does this have to do with Seneca's letter about Vatia's Villa?  It's this unique ability of the human mind to give itself an instant vacation while at work and engaged in society.  We do not need a villa to escape.  We can practice instantaneous escape and then snap right back into the present moment.

Before making this point, Seneca commentates a bit about luxuries and how they make us weak.

Nature gave us legs with which to do our own walking, and eyes with which to do our own seeing. Our luxuries have condemned us to weakness; we have ceased to be able to do that which we have long declined to do.

If this were true for Seneca's time, it is truer still today in the year 2021.  I recently read a comment on-line where a person said that it has never been easier to be strong, than now.  Everyone is weak and with a little effort, you can appear strong.

Back to Vatia and his village.  Seneca notes,

people used to cry out: "O Vatia, you alone know how to live!"  But what he knew was how to hide, not how to live; and it makes a great deal of difference whether your life be one of leisure or one of idleness.

To me, it sounds like Seneca is saying Vatia does not have a meaningful life and all he is doing is hiding out in his villa.  His life is not one of leisure, but of idleness.

He goes on,

the mass of mankind consider that a person is at leisure who has withdrawn from society, is free from care, self-sufficient, and lives for himself;

Seneca begins to make the point here.  You do not need to withdraw from society in a villa or in the mountains to be at leisure.  Rather, you main attain leisure in your mind alone.

The person who hides from society does not know how to live.  You must learn how to live in order to learn how to attain leisure.  Therefore, the person who shuts himself off from the world does not know how to live nor does he know leisure.

Does he even know (and that is of first importance) how to live at all?  For the man who has fled from affairs and from men, who has been banished to seclusion by the unhappiness which his own desires have brought upon him, who cannot see his neighbour more happy than himself, who through fear has taken to concealment, like a frightened and sluggish animal, – this person is not living for himself; he is living for his belly, his sleep, and his lust, – and that is the most shameful thing in the world.

Therefore, we now know that the place you are at or where you live cannot bring fulfillment.  If you are always wanting to be somewhere else, then you will always be malcontented.  You fail to fix the very thing you take with you no matter where you go!

The place where one lives, however, can contribute little towards tranquillity; it is the mind which must make everything agreeable to itself. I have seen men despondent in a gay and lovely villa, and I have seen them to all appearance full of business in the midst of a solitude. For this reason you should not refuse to believe that your life is well-placed merely because you are not now in Campania.

The trick - the lesson - is to learn to be content where you are at, no matter where you are.  If you can do this, then you can allow yourself the freedom and leisure to drift off to the villa for a moment of respite.  This is what wise men do.

If you develop this ability, you may also develop the ability to converse with people who are not now with you.  You will always have a friend with you if you can think on them and talk with them in your mind.

You may hold converse with your friends when they are absent, and indeed as often as you wish and for as long as you wish.

This is precisely what Seneca and Lucilius are attempting to do.  While they are not corresponding in letters, they are advising each other - in a sense, they are living in each other's heads.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 54 - On Asthma and Death

On Asthma and Death

Seneca suffers from asthma and according to what he says, physicians of the day called asthma "practicing how to die" - which some have also called philosophy!

He notes it would be 

absurd to take delight in such supposed restoration to health, as it would be for a defendant to imagine that he had won his case when he had succeeded in postponing his trial.

Rather than taking delight that he's overcome a bout with asthma, Seneca reassures Lucilius that he has "never ceased to rest secure in cheerful and brave thoughts."  He has long pondered the before and after of living, and arrived at the conclusion he's already lived death before he was born!

would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted? We mortals also are lighted and extinguished; the period of suffering comes in between, but on either side there is a deep peace. ... it has both preceded us and will in turn follow us.

And because he has spent time contemplating death, he claims he is ready for it and won't be frightened when it comes and will go willingly.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 53 - On the Faults of the Spirit

On the Faults of the Spirit

It seems that Seneca was persuaded to take a trip across the sea; against his better judgement.  They set off in fair weather, but when they were out a ways, a terrible storm set in and gave him terrible sea-sickness.  He begged the captain to get to shore, but the captain would not because of the danger.

But I was suffering too grievously to think of the danger, since a sluggish seasickness which brought no relief was racking me, the sort that upsets the liver without clearing it. Therefore I laid down the law to my pilot, forcing him to make for the shore.

As they approached the coast, he did not way, and emerged into the cold water and scrambled onto the rocks!  I can only imagine the physical suffering for Seneca was so great, he was willing to sacrifice life and limb to get relief!

After he settled a bit, he reflected 

how completely we forget or ignore our failings, even those that affect the body, which are continually reminding us of their existence, – not to mention those which are more serious in proportion as they are more hidden.

It seems he knew that he would react this way before going on the sea trip, but yet he forgot, dismissed or minimized his "failings" of his body.  He compares these hidden physical failings to our own moral failings.  If we seem to forget or minimize our physical failings, more much more are we apt to forget or minimize our moral deficiencies.

Why will no man confess his faults? Because he is still in their grasp; only he who is awake can recount his dream, and similarly a confession of sin is a proof of sound mind.

Our solution?  Philosophy.  It will crack the whip on our moral failings and it will demand we address them.  We need to give proper heed to her counsel.

Philosophy, however, is the only power that can stir us, the only power that can shake off our deep slumber. Devote yourself wholly to philosophy. You are worthy of her; she is worthy of you; greet one another with a loving embrace. Say farewell to all other interests with courage and frankness. Do not study philosophy merely during your spare time.

He compares the urgency of studying philosophy to that of healing yourself if you were physically ill.

If you were ill, you would stop caring for your personal concerns, and forget your business duties; you would not think highly enough of any client to take active charge of his case during a slight abatement of your sufferings. You would try your hardest to be rid of the illness as soon as possible. What, then? Shall you not do the same thing now?

This comparison underscores an important observation: the fact that many of us, who are not sages, value our physical natures above our rational.  We would drop all our activities if we were sick, but we don't give the same urgency to our moral illnesses.  If we were convinced, individually and as a civilization, that our rational natures are of the utmost importance, many of our policies and dialogues might be different.  Despite that, we still can make inroads into correcting our moral failings, and therefore, we should give more of our time to the study and practice of philosophy.

She is not a thing to be followed at odd times, but a subject for daily practice; she is mistress, and she commands our attendance. ... Turn to her, therefore, with all your soul, sit at her feet, cherish her; a great distance will then begin to separate you from other men.

This is something in our control - how we prioritize our study and practice of philosophy.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 52 - On Choosing Our Teachers

On Choosing Our Teachers

This is somewhat of an odd letter and I'm not so sure I agree with parts of it.

Seneca speaks of a force that "drags us in one direction when we are aiming in another, urging us on to the exact place from which we long to withdraw."

In other words, why do we seemingly want to drift away from virtue and demonstrating an excellent soul and towards indifferents?  I think it goes back to oikeosis and our animal nature of physical self-preservation.  We have to fight the drift and recognize that our true nature is that of a rational being.

Seneca seems to think that some people are naturally (Nature made them that way) predisposed to more easily lead a virtuous life, while others need assistance.

how or when can we tear ourselves away from this folly? No man by himself has sufficient strength to rise above it; he needs a helping hand, and some one to extricate him.

He notes Epicurus, who mentions that some people make it on their own, without help.  People who

have worked their way to the truth without any one's assistance, carving out their own passage. And he gives special praise to these, for their impulse has come from within, and they have forged to the front by themselves.

Another class of people cannot lead a virtuous life unless they have some help.

there are others who need outside help, who will not proceed unless someone leads the way, but who will follow faithfully.

A third class need a bit more focused help, but who can still succeed.

forced and driven into righteousness, who do not need a guide as much as they require someone to encourage and, as it were, to force them along.

He then compares different types of people to the kind of foundation they are built on.  One building is built on solid rock (i.e. natural disposition toward virtue), the building of the edifice is easier and built more efficiently and quickly.  Another identical (visually) building is not built on solid rock, but rather "soft and shifting ground" (i.e. does not have a natural disposition toward virtue), and therefore much more effort goes into stabilizing the foundation.  Seneca, it seems, is more impressed with the person who fights a less solid, natural predisposition to overcome it and improve himself.

I should accordingly deem more fortunate the man who has never had any trouble with himself; but the other, I feel, has deserved better of himself, who has won a victory over the meanness of his own nature, and has not gently led himself, but has wrestled his way, to wisdom.

For those of us who need help, Seneca suggests we call for assistance.  If we cannot find someone alive who can demonstrate excellence of soul, then we should "go to the ancients" for help.  But if we can find someone living who can help us, then we should find the kind of people who are not hypocrites - people who practice what they preach.  People who

teach us by their lives, men who tell us what we ought to do and then prove it by practice, who show us what we should avoid, and then are never caught doing that which they have ordered us to avoid.

Avoid the people who do not walk the talk.

they appear before the people for the express purpose of improving themselves and others, and do not practise their profession for the sake of self-seeking. For what is baser than philosophy courting applause?

The latter part of the letter gets into, what I think, specious ideas.  Seneca thinks that you can judge a person's character by the slightest of signs such as a person's gait, hand movements, touching his head with a finger, shifting eyes, how he laughs and his general appearance and how he gives and receives praise.  I think some of this might be accurate, but as a general rule of thumb, I do not think we can judge a person's character by physical movements.  Perhaps they can be clues, but we should not cast full judgement until we really know the person.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 51 - On Baiae and Morals

On Baiae and Morals

Baiae is a luxury resort, for lack of a better description, with its fair share of hedonism.  Because of the rampant debauchery, Seneca was not impressed with it.  As he writes, 

I left it the day after I reached it; for Baiae is a place to be avoided, because, though it has certain natural advantages, luxury has claimed it for her own exclusive resort.

He thinks places such as Baiae should not necessarily be shunned, but rather "the wise man or he who is on the way toward wisdom will avoid as foreign to good morals."

The wise man will prefer 

to select abodes which are wholesome not only for the body but also for the character. ... We ought to see to it that we flee to the greatest possible distance from provocations to vice. We should toughen our minds, and remove them far from the allurements of pleasure.

He later opines

We too have a war to wage, a type of warfare in which there is allowed no rest or furlough. To be conquered, in the first place, are pleasures, which, as you see, have carried off even the sternest characters. If a man has once understood how great is the task which he has entered upon, he will see that there must be no dainty or effeminate conduct.

He then shows disdain for steam and dry saunas by saying "perspiration should flow only after toil."

The attack on luxury and pleasure continues!

The soul is not to be pampered; surrendering to pleasure means also surrendering to pain, surrendering to toil, surrendering to poverty. Both ambition and anger will wish to have the same rights over me as pleasure, and I shall be torn asunder, or rather pulled to pieces, amid all these conflicting passions.

I had to read the above quote a few times to ensure I understood clearly.  When he says the soul should not be pampered by surrendering to pleasure, I assume he means "giving yourself to pleasure; to seek it."  And when he says "surrendering to pain ... toil ... poverty" I assume he means we avoid pain, toil and poverty.

In this whole vein of thought is the ideal golden mean.  I do not think we have to live like monks and nuns and completely shun luxury resorts, nor do I think wise people or sages will necessarily seek them out and yearn to stay at such places.  More specifically, lets suppose a practicing Stoic needs to travel to Las Vegas for a business meeting.  He would not refuse and tell his boss that for moral reasons he can't step one foot in Las Vegas.  But perhaps he would go and then exercise restraint in Sin City.  He doesn't have to drink to excess, visit strip clubs or gamble, nor would he choose to.

Similarly, when it comes to pain, toil and poverty, the practicing Stoic may do painful and toilsome things because perhaps he fears them.  In which case, he would chop wood or pile rocks (or push a big one up and down a hill for eternity) or do something that might cause him pain.  While doing so, he would therefore see that there is nothing to fear in pain and toil.  Similarly, he might live like a pauper for a week or month or longer, eating base foods and sleeping on the floor.  At the same time, a practicing Stoic is not required to constantly live a strict monk-like life.  He does not have to seek extreme pain or toil either.  He only engages in such activities to see that there is nothing to fear or to avoid about them, if, in fact, Fate decided that his whole life would follow such patterns.

The goal of avoiding pleasures and embracing pain is to gain real freedom.

I have set freedom before my eyes; and I am striving for that reward. And what is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms. And on the day when I know that I have the upper hand, her power will be naught.

If you treat yourself with more pain, toil and poverty and less pleasure, then you will be adapted for any lifestyle.  But if you live a soft, luxurious life full of pleasure, you will not be ready nor adapted for harsh circumstances which Nature may send your way.

Animals whose hoofs are hardened on rough ground can travel any road; but when they are fattened on soft marshy meadows their hoofs are soon worn out. The bravest soldier comes from rock-ribbed regions; but the town-bred and the home-bred are sluggish in action. The hand which turns from the plough to the sword never objects to toil; but your sleek and well-dressed dandy quails at the first cloud of dust.

Seneca gives this parting advice to Lucilius.

Vice, Lucilius, is what I wish you to proceed against, without limit and without end. For it has neither limit nor end. If any vice rend your heart, cast it away from you; and if you cannot be rid of it in any other way, pluck out your heart also. Above all, drive pleasures from your sight.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 50 - On our Blindness and its Cure

On our Blindness and its Cure

The story goes that Seneca's wife has a female clown - I don't know if this is a real clown or not - but it seems that this clown is intended to make you laugh and cheer you up.  The clown's name is Harpasté and she is going blind but doesn't know it.  She keeps asking to be moved to a different room for her living quarters because the one she occupies is too dark for her.  She thinks its the room that's too dark, when in reality she is simply going blind.

Seneca uses this as a teachable moment for himself, Lucilius and now us.

For what else are you busied with except improving yourself every day, laying aside some error, and coming to understand that the faults which you attribute to circumstances are in yourself? We are indeed apt to ascribe certain faults to the place or to the time; but those faults will follow us, no matter how we change our place.

Where do you place the blame for your faults?  Do you chalk them up to circumstances, or other people or random events?  For example, do you complain about your lack of promotion at work because a manager kept you stuck in a certain role for too long?  Perhaps, if this is your way of thinking, the blame you place on the manager actually should be placed on yourself.  Not that you could have actually promoted yourself, or that you could have done something differently to please your manager, but that you may have forgotten that this is something out of your control.  You wanted the promotion - fair enough.  Did you want it with a reserve clause or an impulse with a condition?  And why did you want the promotion?  Was it for more wealth?  Greater fame?  For distinction?  Depending on the answers to any and all of these questions, there are plenty of issues to address that are in your control.

Seneca continues,

Why do we deceive ourselves? The evil that afflicts us is not external, it is within us, situated in our very vitals; for that reason we attain soundness with all the more difficulty, because we do not know that we are diseased.

To fix ourselves, we require education, contemplation and observation.  We ought to study the philosophers and learn from their wisdom.  We ought to contemplate the gap between true wisdom and what we lack in order to attain that wisdom.  We ought to observe within ourselves, our motivations, desires and impulses.  If we do this, then we can at least acknowledge that we are blind and stop asking for a change of living quarters.

Now it would be easier to attain true wisdom if we started out correctly and early.  But as it is, many of us learn the hard way and now we are in the process of bending the warped wood so that it is straight again.

At present, we do not even consult the physician, whose work would be easier if he were called in when the complaint was in its early stages. The tender and the inexperienced minds would follow his advice if he pointed out the right way.  No man finds it difficult to return to nature, except the man who has deserted nature. ... 

No, we must work. To tell the truth, even the work is not great, if only, as I said, we begin to mould and reconstruct our souls before they are hardened by sin. But I do not despair even of a hardened sinner.  There is nothing that will not surrender to persistent treatment, to concentrated and careful attention; however much the timber may be bent, you can make it straight again. Heat unbends curved beams, and wood that grew naturally in another shape is fashioned artificially according to our needs. How much more easily does the soul permit itself to be shaped, pliable as it is and more yielding than any liquid!

We can change course now, bit by bit, day by day, judgement by judgement, until we have become more excellent in wisdom, courage, temperance and discipline.  It may be difficult at first, but with practice and endurance, we come to love the beauty and even pleasure of loving wisdom.

proceed to the task of freeing ourselves from faults with all the more courage because, when once committed to us, the good is an everlasting possession; virtue is not unlearned. ... the first steps in the approach to them are toilsome, because it is characteristic of a weak and diseased mind to fear that which is unfamiliar. The mind must, therefore, be forced to make a beginning; from then on, the medicine is not bitter; for just as soon as it is curing us it begins to give pleasure. One enjoys other cures only after health is restored, but a draught of philosophy is at the same moment wholesome and pleasant.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 49 - On the Shortness of Life

On the Shortness of Life

Just last night, my wife and I were watching an episode from The Crown which had such an insightful scene.  The princess Alice and her brother Lord Mountbatten share a quiet moment in her bedroom - both of them very elderly having lived full lives and now both are contemplating their lots in life.  Lord Mountbatten had recently tried to start a coup of the government and was told to stop by the Queen.  He who commanded armies and lived a life for his country and who was trying to help his country again, was told to stop, by his niece.  Princess Alice tells him that around the age of 70, she realized she was only a participant in life, to which he replies that he's discovered that himself!  But here are these two royals, one who lived the royal life and the other as a nun, and at the end of their long lives, they realize that indeed, much is out of their control.  But they still fought and did their best for what they thought was right.

Another thought struck me as I watched this scene again - it was like watching two children talk in contemplation after the return from a long day of play and they chat and laugh and then go to bed.  Life can seem long, but it can also seem short, when you watch two elderly people talk and you realize that you could be watching your grandparents talk or they could be your parents and one day, they will be you!

Seneca writes:

Infinitely swift is the flight of time, as those see more clearly who are looking backwards.

Everything slips into the same abyss.

The time which we spend in living is but a point, nay, even less than a point.

We must always be keen about time.  It slips from our hands every second and it never stops.  We can either waste it or use it; it cannot be saved.  Seneca is angered by those who waste their time.

I am all the more angry that some men claim the major portion of this time for superfluous things, – time which, no matter how carefully it is guarded, cannot suffice even for necessary things.

Even if we guard our time and use it as wisely as possible, the amount of time we have still won't be enough for "necessary things."  For this reason, one should, as soon as possible, educate himself on philosophy and understand what his philosophy is and then get on with it.  Seneca does not approve of the dialecticians who "believe that they are themselves engaged upon serious business" but in fact are engaging in foolishness.  He does admit,

one must cast a glance at dialectic; but it ought to be a mere glance, a sort of greeting from the threshold, merely that one may not be deceived, or judge these pursuits to contain any hidden matters of great worth.

Later on he advises that we solve problems that are worth solving.  It is better to not solve a foolish problem.

Why do you torment yourself and lose weight over some problem which it is more clever to have scorned than to solve?

I believe a modern concept of this idea is: pick your battles.  You and I need to be like soldiers where the enemy (time) is pressing us from the rear.  Drop the useless, the superfluous, the un-wise and foolish, the low-value, the clutter, the mindlessness, the minutiae, the trash and junk, the lies and fake news of the day.  Spend your time wisely and usefully.  At the very least, think about what you want to accomplish with your time and then spend it accordingly.

Seneca rants about the dialecticians a bit.  He would rather they spend time helping him solve serious problems rather than "tricks constructed after the model of this piece of sheer silliness."  He would prefer they solve problems such as dealing with troubles, hardships and death.

teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life's length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. Say to me when I lie down to sleep: "You may not wake again!" And when I have waked: "You may not go to sleep again!" Say to me when I go forth from my house: "You may not return!" And when I return: "You may never go forth again!"  You are mistaken if you think that only on an ocean voyage there is a very slight space between life and death. No, the distance between is just as narrow everywhere. It is not everywhere that death shows himself so near at hand; yet everywhere he is as near at hand.

Rid me of these shadowy terrors; then you will more easily deliver to me the instruction for which I have prepared myself.  At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected.  Discuss for me justice, duty, thrift, and that twofold purity, both the purity which abstains from another's person, and that which takes care of one's own self.

The time we have is enough.  What we need to focus on is the wise use of it.  We must realize much is out of our control and we should focus our moral choice and good on that which is beneficial for us and others.  We should look to Nature and live accordingly.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 48 - On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher

On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher

The first part of the letter addresses some advice.  Seneca seems to say that in some cases, more deliberation should be taken before giving out advice, because a hasty reply might exacerbate the problem.

since more deliberation is necessary in settling than in propounding a problem!

He then discusses how a true friend takes on his friend's problems.

I am not your friend unless whatever is at issue concerning you is my concern also. Friendship produces between us a partnership in all our interests.

And later he writes,

you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.  This fellowship, maintained with scrupulous care, which makes us mingle as men with our fellow-men and holds that the human race have certain rights in common, is also of great help in cherishing the more intimate fellowship which is based on friendship, concerning which I began to speak above. For he that has much in common with a fellow-man will have all things in common with a friend.

For anyone who thinks a Stoic is a lone wolf who wants to disengage with people and society, they should consider the above passage from Seneca.  Stoics are social; our ethics are based on the Hierocles Concentric Circles of Cosmopolitanism which focuses on concern and care for oneself and then for those nearest him, then next nearest to him, until he has care and concern for all those who live in the cosmos.

Seneca then gets into the "quibble" (defined as an evasion of or shift from the point or a minor objection or criticism) about the "subtle dialecticians."  Seneca would prefer

those subtle dialecticians of yours advise me how I ought to help a friend, or how a fellow-man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word "friend" is used, and how many meanings the word "man" possesses.

In other words, the aim of dialectic is to advise the wise approach of action with regard to friends, rather than talking about the meaning of the word friend.  As Epictetus teaches - show me, don't tell me; or embody your philosophy, don't merely talk of it.  Seneca provides other examples of foolish syllogisms which waste time and energy.

The seriousness of the problems our friends and humanity face are not to be played with by such foolish syllogisms.

Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel. Death calls away one man, and poverty chafes another; a third is worried either by his neighbour's wealth or by his own. So-and-so is afraid of bad luck; another desires to get away from his own good fortune. Some are ill-treated by men, others by the gods.  Why, then, do you frame for me such games as these? It is no occasion for jest; you are retained as counsel for unhappy mankind. You have promised to help those in peril by sea, those in captivity, the sick and the needy, and those whose heads are under the poised axe. Whither are you straying? What are you doing?

One feels the deep sense of obligation of trying to help others in distress and anxiety after reading the above passage.  "You are retained as counsel for unhappy mankind."  It is indeed a challenge to convince others that their fears, worries and anxieties stem from their own false value judgements.  

Death is nothing to fear - we Stoics practice remembering our own deaths every day.

People wring their hands about poverty - we Stoics practice by living with little means and sleeping on the ground to prove that it is nothing to fear; we fast and eat little to know that we can survive living minimally.

Others stew over the possessions, homes, boats, cars, 401K accounts and vast sums of money our neighbors' have, while we have relatively little - we Stoics know that this is an indifferent to our moral well-being and that a life worth living does not depend on vast sums of wealth.

Some get depressed about their lot in life, thinking that they have bad luck - we Stoics know that we can take any obstacle and use it to prove our will and moral good is the only good.

Still others feel they are cuffed with golden chains or can never have a private moment from their political, managerial or famous roles - we Stoics know a good life can be lived in a palace or on a street.

Some people feel they are rebuffed, discriminated against or pushed aside by other people or by Fate - we Stoics know that much is out of our control and that the only thing in our control is our will to act nobly with courage, wisdom and justice; we know that injustice cannot be fixed with more injustice.

By embodying our philosophy we can help others remedy their ills.  We can talk and show others there is a way out of the ills society largely brings on itself.  Syllogisms will not help them.

Help him, and take the noose from about his neck. Men are stretching out imploring hands to you on all sides; lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance; men's hopes, men's resources, depend upon you. They ask that you deliver them from all their restlessness, that you reveal to them, scattered and wandering as they are, the clear light of truth.  Tell them what nature has made necessary, and what superfluous; tell them how simple are the laws that she has laid down, how pleasant and unimpeded life is for those who follow these laws, but how bitter and perplexed it is for those who have put their trust in opinion rather than in nature.

This life does not have to be complex and technical.  It can be made simple and clear.  In sum, "Frankness, and simplicity beseem true goodness."

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 47 - On Master and Slave

On Master and Slave

History is strewn with examples of slavery, indentured servants and other forms of servitude.  While many snap to America when they think of slavery, it's wise to remember this was not the only form practiced in humanity's history.  In fact the practice still survives today, in 2021, as practiced by government of China (Communist Party of China); see here and here for recent reports or search for "Muslim Uyghurs China" to see many other harrowing reports.

The Romans during Seneca's time were not exempt from this moral failing.  It seems that Seneca at least recognized the need to be as kind as possible if one were to own slaves or have servants.  In this context, Seneca writes this letter to Lucilius.

So what are we to learn from this letter, if we live in a society where slavery is outlawed?  Can we glean something applicable to us?  There are a few things from the letter we can consider.

Treat everyone as humans, comrades, friends and fellow slaves (see first paragraph of letter).

Masters and those who lord over us, in some cases, are slaves to their own passions.

The master eats more than he can hold, and with monstrous greed loads his belly until it is stretched and at length ceases to do the work of a belly; so that he is at greater pains to discharge all the food than he was to stuff it down.

We all come from the same genetic root; we are all brothers and sisters.

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.

If you ever find yourself looking down upon someone else, for example, a homeless person or someone who suffers from addiction, stop and consider that your lot may become like theirs' some day.  Therefore, treat everyone with kindness and service.  Treat others as you would want to be treated.

But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters. And as often as you reflect how much power you have over a slave, remember that your master has just as much power over you.  "But I have no master," you say. You are still young; perhaps you will have one. 

Your character and attitude is in your control; but your fate largely is not.

Each man acquires his character for himself, but accident assigns his duties.

If there are those in your circle of influence who need education, strive to educate and mentor them.  We are all striving to help each other.  Too many today close themselves off from society; they build up walls and post security guards around their mansions and send their children to private schools.  If we are to elevate society as a whole, we must not segregate.  I fear we are rapidly segregating and losing the ability to learn from others as well as to help others.

if there is any slavish quality in them as the result of their low associations, it will be shaken off by intercourse with men of gentler breeding.

Be a mentor.

Good material often stands idle for want of an artist.

Don't judge a person by looks or title only.

doubly a fool who values a man from his clothes or from his rank.

Contemplate who your own master is.  We are all slaves in one form or fashion; and many times we possess the key to unlock the chains and free ourselves, but often we choose not to.

Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear. I will name you an ex-consul who is slave to an old hag, a millionaire who is slave to a serving-maid; I will show you youths of the noblest birth in serfdom to pantomime players! No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed.

Mark what angers you; there you will find your master.

That which annoys us does not necessarily injure us; but we are driven into wild rage by our luxurious lives, so that whatever does not answer our whims arouses our anger.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 46 - On a New Book by Lucilius

On a New Book by Lucilius

There isn't much to comment on this letter.  Seneca receives a book by Lucilius and he enjoys it so much, he reads it from start to finish.

However, I'll take time to make some observations about this letter.

First - there is an in-depth, on-going conversation between Lucilius and Seneca, in the form of these letters.  This is a Stoic practice - that of discussion, learning, asking.

Second - in addition to the letter writing, there appears to be more formal writing in the form of a book, to which Seneca is referring.  This is also a Stoic practice - writing.  We see this in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations as well as this book that Lucilius wrote.  Seneca also was a prolific writer.

Why writing?  Good writing involves thinking.  It helps you organize your thoughts, put them on paper, and spell them out.  But after that, you are not done.  You must read it, check assumptions and logic.  Is it accurate?  Truthful?  Honest?  If not, then it's back to revising.  The entire process helps your inner dialogue and self-critical analysis.

From the letter, note this tid-bit from Seneca:

Your subject also contributed something; for this reason you should choose productive topics, which will lay hold of the mind and arouse it.

The topic of writing is for the mind, which then leads to lived actions, which then leads to introspection and analysis which should lead to further education and correction which should lead to improved action and behavior.  This is how writing can be productive and "arouse" the mind.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 45 - On Sophistical Argumentation

On Sophistical Argumentation

It would appear that Lucilius wants a wider variety of books to read and that the supply is "scant" where he is located.  He then seems to suggest to Seneca that he write more to send to him.  Seneca cautiously advises Lucilius to remember that he too (Seneca) is still learning.

whatever the quality of my works may be, read them as if I were still seeking, and were not aware of, the truth, and were seeking it obstinately, too.

Seneca notes that much of his knowledge is attributed to "great men," but he also notes that these "great men" have also left "problems whose solution is still to be sought."  He continues,

They lost much time in quibbling about words and in sophistical argumentation; all that sort of thing exercises the wit to no purpose. We tie knots and bind up words in double meanings, and then try to untie them.

We don't have time to stew.  Our time should be kept focused on matters at hand; on duty.

We should rather proceed with our whole souls towards the point where it is our duty to take heed lest things, as well as words, deceive us.

The point is that we should get to the heart of the matter - understanding what is good and evil; ensuring that we are following the path to virtue and not to vice and ensuring that we do not fool ourselves into thinking we are virtuous when in fact we are full of vice.

Why, pray, do you discriminate between similar words, when nobody is ever deceived by them except during the discussion? It is things that lead us astray: it is between things that you must discriminate. We embrace evil instead of good; we pray for something opposite to that which we have prayed for in the past. Our prayers clash with our prayers, our plans with our plans ... Vices creep into our hearts under the name of virtues, rashness lurks beneath the appellation of bravery, moderation is called sluggishness, and the coward is regarded as prudent; there is great danger if we go astray in these matters. So stamp them with special labels.

Virtue - excellence of soul - arete leads to eudaimonia - a good spirit.  Here is wisdom if you can teach and learn what a happy man is.

he whose possessions are all in his soul, who is upright and exalted, who spurns inconstancy, who sees no man with whom he wishes to change places, who rates men only at their value as men, who takes Nature for his teacher, conforming to her laws and living as she commands, whom no violence can deprive of his possessions, who turns evil into good, is unerring in judgment, unshaken, unafraid, who may be moved by force but never moved to distraction, whom Fortune when she hurls at him with all her might the deadliest missile in her armoury, may graze, though rarely, but never wound. For Fortune's other missiles, with which she vanquishes mankind in general, rebound from such a one, like hail which rattles on the roof with no harm to the dweller therein, and then melts away.

On this aim should the Stoic place his gaze.  And it requires constant attention and focus.  Therefore, the Stoic does not have time for "the superfluous" - they must live now and stop "preparing to live."

transfer your efforts to making it clear to all men that the search for the superfluous means a great outlay of time, and that many have gone through life merely accumulating the instruments of life? Consider individuals, survey men in general; there is none whose life does not look forward to the morrow.  "What harm is there in this," you ask? Infinite harm; for such persons do not live, but are preparing to live. They postpone everything.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 44 - On Philosophy and Pedigrees

On Philosophy and Pedigrees

Lucilius complains in a letter, to which Seneca responds.  What does Lucilius complain about?  He complains "saying that nature in the first place, and fortune in the second, have treated [him] too scurvily."

What is the Stoic response to someone who is complaining about his lot in life?  What do we tell someone who says they were born with the odds stacked against them; that they didn't have the advantages and privileges of their peers?

Seneca says, "you have it in your power to separate yourself from the crowd and rise to the highest human happiness!"

He says, "a noble mind is free to all men."

He says, "Philosophy neither rejects nor selects anyone; its light shines for all."

Advantage does not bestow a good flowing spirit and happiness to the person.

Privilege does not grant someone virtue or arete.

Lack of advantage and privilege, likewise, does not grant, nor take away a good flowing spirit, happiness or virtue.

A hall full of smoke-begrimed busts does not make the nobleman. No past life has been lived to lend us glory, and that which has existed before us is not ours; the soul alone renders us noble, and it may rise superior to Fortune out of any earlier condition, no matter what that condition has been.

Seneca continues with advice for gaining contentment, regardless of circumstances.

by your own efforts come to be the only free man amid a throng of gentlemen ... You should look, not to the source from which these things come, but to the goal towards which they tend.

First, recognize that you have the power to be a free person, regardless of your status in life.

Second, the past does not matter in this quest.  No matter how many injustices implemented to correct an injustice from the past, your circumstance will be the same.  Therefore, don't look to the past to fix yourself.  Rather, look towards your aim.  What are you striving for?  Most likely, you are striving for happiness.

Problems begin when people misunderstand how to go about attaining happiness.  Many seek happiness in acquiring things that don't truly matter and they misuse them.  They think that their means of living (health, wealth, possessions) will bring them happiness.  In fact, it is the wise use of indifferents which demonstrates an excellent character, is what brings a person happiness.

they regard the means for producing happiness as happiness itself, and, while seeking happiness, they are really fleeing from it. For although the sum and substance of the happy life is unalloyed freedom from care, and though the secret of such freedom is unshaken confidence, yet men gather together that which causes worry, and, while travelling life's treacherous road, not only have burdens to bear, but even draw burdens to themselves; hence they recede farther and farther from the achievement of that which they seek, and the more effort they expend, the more they hinder themselves and are set back.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 43 - On the Relativity of Fame

On the Relativity of Fame

There is only one passing phrase discussing, directly, the relativity of fame: 

For greatness is not absolute; comparison increases it or lessens it. A ship which looms large in the river seems tiny when on the ocean. A rudder which is large for one vessel, is small for another.

It is a good reminder, whether addressing the topic of fame, skill, riches, health or any number of indifferents, to remember that they are all mostly relative.  If you think you possess a bit of an indifferent, the odds are overwhelming that someone has more than you and someone has less than you.  The reason why you should keep this thought in your head is so that you are reminded that whatever it is you have, doesn't really mean anything; rather it just is.  No need to get all worked up that you have less than someone else an no need to be anxious that you don't have more than someone else.

Spend your time and concern and care on your soul.  To be clear, you do need to interact and use indifferents wisely.  But they should not be your primary concern.  Provide food, shelter, clothing, education and so forth for yourself and your family.  But do so wisely; not extravagantly nor sloppily.

As for fame - focus on being an influence for good in your circle.  If your circle continues to widen (more fame and influence), use it wisely.  This is where much of modern society flounders, as many use their fame for petty, ignorant and useless things.

The last part of the letter is somewhat related to fame (being seen or not), but deals more with judging a person's character and where a person's feels guilty or not by allowing others to peer into his life.

I shall mention a fact by which you may weigh the worth of a man's character: you will scarcely find anyone who can live with his door wide open.  It is our conscience, not our pride, that has put doorkeepers at our doors; we live in such a fashion that being suddenly disclosed to view is equivalent to being caught in the act. What profits it, however, to hide ourselves away, and to avoid the eyes and ears of men?  A good conscience welcomes the crowd, but a bad conscience, even in solitude, is disturbed and troubled. If your deeds are honourable, let everybody know them; if base, what matters it that no one knows them, as long as you yourself know them? How wretched you are if you despise such a witness!

The spirit of this last part seems to be saying: let others see your life; if your actions are noble, then no need to hide behind closed doors.  But if your actions are foolish, it doesn't matter that others see them, only that you recognize them yourself and are willing to submit to correction.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 42 - On Values

On Values

This letter resonates deeply with me.  I'm in my mid-40's as I write this commentary.  Over half my career is behind me.  Many people experience what is called a mid-life crisis at this age.  I think it stems from the fact that one feels the pressing weight of time beginning to bear down on them.  And if they've not achieved their goals which they've set for themselves while they were in their 20's, they begin to feel they have a chance to start over and accomplish them.  Some wish to re-gain their youthful vigor through exercise regimens, plastic surgery or new friends, while others strive to preserve what they already gained.  Regardless the approach, the one common denominator is time.  The older one gets, the more acutely aware he is of this precious commodity.  Seneca discusses time and other important values, which too many of us trade cheaply.

But before we get to that, Seneca starts off the letter by warning Lucilius of people who say they are good men.  This is a red flag.  He observes:

it is impossible in so short a time for one either to become good or be known as such. ...  if he knew what it meant to be "a good man," he would not yet believe himself such ... In the case of many men, their vices, being powerless, escape notice ... These men simply lack the means whereby they may unfold their wickedness.

Therefore, be weary of people who say they are good and to 'follow me.'  The truly good man is exceptionally rare.  I presume Seneca is referring to the sage, and that sages are as rare as the phoenix.

For one of the first class perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years. And it is not surprising, either, that greatness develops only at long intervals; Fortune often brings into being commonplace powers, which are born to please the mob; but she holds up for our approval that which is extraordinary by the very fact that she makes it rare.

In the second half of the letter, Seneca analyzes value.  Have you thought about this?  What do we value and how do we value it?

Just the other night, the world observed Saturn and Jupiter align almost perfectly, making the appearance of a 'new star.'  Honestly, it wasn't much to behold if you are used to seeing the night sky - all the celestial bodies are simply glittering lights in the dark sky.  But because these two planets had not aligned like this for 800 years, people were awash with anxiety to see it.  If you missed it, and you're fairly young, don't worry; you'll see them this close in the year 2080.

But what about with regard to the indifferents we pursue in life?  Are there hidden costs?  Do we not see the other values lost when we pursue them?

with regard to the objects which we pursue, and for which we strive with great effort, we should note this truth; either there is nothing desirable in them, or the undesirable is preponderant. Some objects are superfluous; others are not worth the price we pay for them. But we do not see this clearly, and we regard things as free gifts when they really cost us very dear.

Don't think of 'buying' only in terms of hard cash.  Rather, think of the aspects of your very self that you spend in pursuit of objects.

we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.

This is where I worry most at my age.  It feels as though I'm constantly analyzing the cost-benefit analysis of all my activities.  Am I really getting benefit out of this activity?  Is this work useful and a wise expenditure of time?  Am I wasting away myself in a certain pursuit?

There was a time, when I was younger, when I would never leave a meeting until it ended.  But now, when I think of all the work I have to accomplish and the time wasted by people blathering on about nothing important, I feel the sting of time slipping out of my hands.  Sometimes I do quietly leave a meeting and never regret it.  But I also feel the sting of broken relationships.  These are largely built on time; simply talking and getting familiar with each other.  Therefore, I have to find a balance.

I think the key point Seneca is trying to make, is for each of us to consider our time, anxiety, danger, honor and freedom when we are deciding how to live.  I've focused a lot on time, as I think it is the most precious.  But we can also consider freedom, which is closely related to time.

Consider a person who moves upwards through the corporate ranks and acquires wealth, expensive cars, prestige, a large home, a vacation home and so forth.  At some point, they have really acquired golden handcuffs.  At some point, they lose real freedom.  They don't have much say in the matter of how they spend their time.  Their choices are limited and they are no better off than a slave.

Have you ever seen the couple who has so much wealth, that the children expect it to be given to them?  The children's growth is stunted as they've been given everything.  The parents begin to resent their children who won't stand on their own, as the kids hold out their hands for more.  The whole relationship is a sad state of affairs.

I believe there is a medium that many can achieve.  We don't have to be paupers or slaves.  But we also don't have to be executives.  We can also help our kids holistically by striving for wisdom, rather than ease.

Seneca offers some advice when deciding if our very selves are worth the expense.  We should be stingy with our time as if we were stingy with our money if a "huckster" approached us trying to sell us something.

Let us therefore act, in all our plans and conduct, just as we are accustomed to act whenever we approach a huckster who has certain wares for sale; let us see how much we must pay for that which we crave. Very often the things that cost nothing cost us the most heavily; I can show you many objects the quest and acquisition of which have wrested freedom from our hands. We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.

The same goes for things that we may lose!  If we lose money, or home, or other possessions, we should also not spend our anxiety or time by wringing our hands over a loss.  There is always a silver lining to look for, if you but look.  If you lose money, then you will have less worry; if you lose influence, you will have less envy.

Look about you and note the things that drive us mad, which we lose with a flood of tears; you will perceive that it is not the loss that troubles us with reference to these things, but a notion of loss. No one feels that they have been lost, but his mind tells him that it has been so. He that owns himself has lost nothing. But how few men are blessed with ownership of self!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 41 - On the god within us

On the god within us

Like Socrates, the ancient Stoics believed in a daimon which acted as a guiding spirit for each person - each person has a unique daimon which guides them in life and in death.  Whether this is what Seneca is referring to in this letter or not, is not clear.  Stoic physics teach that there is pneuma in everything in the universe - that this is the creative fire which makes the Stoic god God.  So whether Seneca is referring specifically to one's daimon or whether he is simply referring to the fact that pneuma (god) dwells within us, the key idea remains the same: we owe our rationality and the ability to become good, to the cosmos which gave rise to us.

Therefore, no need to pray to a statue or in a temple to "attain sound understanding."  Rather, look within.

God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.  This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian.

This next part of the letter seems a little controversial, at least to me.

Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior to fortune unless God helps him to rise?

What are we to think of this?  It seems that it could be construed a number of ways.  It could simply mean that we humans cannot be good if we did not exist and the cosmos / Nature / god gave rise to us, therefore we could never be good without god's help.  Or it could mean that despite our best efforts and whether we are conscious of god's help or not, no matter what we do, we could not become good without a daimon or perhaps our rationality, guiding us.  I think there is much we can do and learn on our own.  At the very least, we can have a grateful attitude for our existence.  On the other hand, we could seek to understand Nature and god and learn how our daimon can guide us to the best life that we could have.

In the next part of the letter, Seneca's reverence for Nature waxes poetic.  For people who love the outdoors, it is hard to not envision the beauty Seneca writes of.

If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of pleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. Or if a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God. We worship the sources of mighty rivers; we erect altars at places where great streams burst suddenly from hidden sources; we adore springs of hot water as divine, and consecrate certain pools because of their dark waters or their immeasurable depth.

As I read the above passage, I can't help but think of the times I've spent hiking Mt. Elbert or Mt. Timpanogos with my son, or walking my dog in the cool autumn forest near my home, or seeing deer graze along the path.  Regarding the cave - I know this hallowedness of which he speaks, as do countless others.  Having visited many caves in both North and Central America as well as Malaysia, there is an awe when one enters such a massive, natural structure.  Simply looking into the dark sky with no city lights around, will cause you to lose your breath beneath the vastness of space.

Seneca also stands of awe of people who have exercised tremendous virtue, to which (again) he ascribes to god.  The things to note in the following passage are the qualities of character found in such a person.  These are the same a good person should emulate.

When a soul rises superior to other souls, when it is under control, when it passes through every experience as if it were of small account, when it smiles at our fears and at our prayers, it is stirred by a force from heaven.

Such a person, according to Seneca, comes from god, like rays come from the sun.

Just as the rays of the sun do indeed touch the earth, but still abide at the source from which they are sent; even so the great and hallowed soul, which has come down in order that we may have a nearer knowledge of divinity, does indeed associate with us, but still cleaves to its origin.

Where can the good be found?  From within you and me.  Your good comes from your soul.  Mine stems from my soul.  This is the only thing over which we have control.  All else is not under our control.  The only way to become good is entirely within our control, regardless of whatever happens.

Does a gold ring make a person good?  No.  Does a million dollar home make a person good?  No.  Does a fit body make a person good?  No.  Does a title or do accolades make a person good?  No.

Seneca asks if a gold bit makes a horse better than others horses; no it does not.  Does a golden mane make a lion great?  No it does not.  What makes a horse great is its speed and strength.  What makes a lion great is its wild ferocity.

A golden bit does not make a better horse. The lion with gilded mane, in process of being trained and forced by weariness to endure the decoration, is sent into the arena in quite a different way from the wild lion whose spirit is unbroken; the latter, indeed, bold in his attack, as nature wished him to be, impressive because of his wild appearance, – and it is his glory that none can look upon him without fear, – is favoured in preference to the other lion, that languid and gilded brute.

What makes a human good?  Arete.  The ability to exercise the right virtues for the right reasons at the right time.

And if you are going to praise a human, do not praise them for some indifferent they possess.  Praise them for the virtue they exercise; praise them for having a good character; for choosing wisely.

Praise the quality in him which cannot be given or snatched away, that which is the peculiar property of the man. Do you ask what this is? It is soul, and reason brought to perfection in the soul. For man is a reasoning animal. Therefore, man's highest good is attained, if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth.

And he ought to be especially praised when the majority claim that the good is found in riches, health, fame and other perishables.

to live in accordance with his own nature. But this is turned into a hard task by the general madness of mankind; we push one another into vice. And how can a man be recalled to salvation, when he has none to restrain him, and all mankind to urge him on?

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 40 - On the Proper Style for a Philosopher's Discourse

On the Proper Style for a Philosopher's Discourse

This is a longish letter, which takes its time to simply state, "be slow of speech."

I couldn't help but think of the clip from Interstellar where Cooper tells Case to slow down!

When I was younger I was prone to haste.  Today, I still fall into the same mindset occasionally - wanting to get it done and move on to the next task.  While haste may be the correct way to go about some menial, mindless tasks, other projects should not be approached in the same way.  Philosophy is one of those projects which should not be approached or engaged with haste.

For the philosopher, his life and his speech should be well-composed and unhurried.

his speech, like his life, should be composed; and nothing that rushes headlong and is hurried is well ordered.

It should not be like the life and speech of a used car salesman or someone selling you something for $19.95 on TV.  Seneca called these types "mountbacks" which is another word for charlatan or quack.

forceful manner of speech, rapid and copious, is more suited to a mountebank than to a man who is discussing and teaching an important and serious subject.

As a philosopher, your job is to pursue the Truth.  This pursuit needs to be apparent for all, and not propped up.  Truth stands on its own and has no need for sleight of hand.

speech that deals with the truth should be unadorned and plain. This popular style has nothing to do with the truth; its aim is to impress the common herd, to ravish heedless ears by its speed; it does not offer itself for discussion, but snatches itself away from discussion.

Another reason to not use haste when discussing philosophy is so that the hearer and learned can digest what is being taught.  What good does it do the student who gulps it down so quickly, they cause themselves to vomit it back up?  The medicine has to stay in the body for the remedy to be effective.

Remedies do not avail unless they remain in the system.

The doctor has to remain with the patient to be able to help them.  A quick and dirty prognostication may do more harm than good.

What physician can heal his patient on a flying visit? 

A few more quotes from Seneca:

philosophy should carefully place her words, not fling them out, and should proceed step by step.

he should not quicken his pace and heap up words to an extent greater than the ear can endure.

But words, even if they came to you readily and flowed without any exertion on your part, yet would have to be kept under control.

In sum: slow down; absorb; be thoughtful; think; contemplate.  Don't be hasty with wisdom.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 39 - On Noble Aspirations

On Noble Aspirations

Before you were born, people were "working for your benefit."  Have you ever contemplated that idea?  We are born and injected with the philosophy (for better or for worse) of our parents and those who help to raise us.  We have no say in the matter of how they were raised philosophically.  For all we know, their philosophy in which they were raised or came to believe, is misguided and focused on the wrong things.  Some people are fortunate enough to have parents come to a correct understanding of what is good, and subsequently teach their children.  The rest of us simply stumble along and grasp at straws in the dark.

But perhaps the answer to this problem can be found in the writings and ideas of those who have spent a lifetime thinking, discussing and debating this important question.  This is what Seneca means, I think.  If a person's soul becomes "roused" enough to seek for what is the good, then there are opportunities to learn.

Pick up the list of the philosophers; that very act will compel you to wake up, when you see how many men have been working for your benefit. You will desire eagerly to be one of them yourself. For this is the most excellent quality that the noble soul has within itself, that it can be roused to honourable things.

No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean; the vision of great achievement summons him and uplifts him.


But happy is the man who has given it this impulse toward better things! He will place himself beyond the jurisdiction of chance; he will wisely control prosperity; he will lessen adversity, and will despise what others hold in admiration.

There is the answer - begin to learn from the philosophers!  Start reading and contemplating their writings.  Talk to others about it.  Write about it; then repeat.  And once you begin to learn, you will also learn to live wisely.

You begin to learn what is important; what belongs to you and what does not.  You will learn learn what virtue and vice really mean; what has utility and what does not.

This last section of his letter, to me, sounds a bit more Epicurean than Stoic.

Utility measures our needs; but by what standard can you check the superfluous? It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensable. And so they are the slaves of their pleasures instead of enjoying them; they even love their own ills, – and that is the worst ill of all! Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached, when men are not only attracted, but even pleased, by shameful things, and when there is no longer any room for a cure, now that those things which once were vices have become habits.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 38 - On Quiet Conversation

On Quiet Conversation

A short letter with some key points about effectively learning.

The goal: teaching others.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways: a formal lecture or presentation where many can listen but few can engage in dialogue.  Reading & writing letters, which is very asynchronous and takes times.  Then there is one-on-one mentorship and dialogue, or quiet conversation, as the letter is entitled.

Seneca says,

when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation.

And further, he writes,

we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words.


Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. Reason grows in the same way; it is not large to the outward view, but increases as it does its work.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 37 - On Allegiance to Virtue

On Allegiance to Virtue

This is an unusual letter.  Has Lucilius made an oath to philosophy?  Seneca states at the beginning of the letter:

You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a sound understanding.

He further elaborates that the oath is the same one as a gladiator.

The words of this most honourable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit: "Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword."

Then Seneca confidently states that while a gladiator has the option to beg for pity from the crowd, the Stoic does not enjoy the same luxury.  The Stoic must face daily life and death with equanimity:

The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born.

The path to freedom and other benefits is philosophy.

Betake yourself therefore to philosophy if you would be safe, untroubled, happy, in fine, if you wish to be, – and that is most important, – free.

Free from what?  Passions.  Philosophy will teach you to be free from passions instead of being driven by them.

These passions, which are heavy taskmasters, sometimes ruling by turns, and sometimes together, can be banished from you by wisdom, which is the only real freedom. There is but one path leading thither, and it is a straight path; you will not go astray. Proceed with steady step, and if you would have all things under your control, put yourself under the control of reason.

Many people give into their passions and do not lead a life of reason.  As they are driven more and more by their passions, they become lost.  Until, one day, they wake up and ask themselves, 'how?'

It is disgraceful ... to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: "How did I get into this condition?"

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 36 - On the Value of Retirement

On the Value of Retirement

Key ideas from this letter

  • a Stoic will value indifferents differently from most other people
  • how a Stoic manages, uses and thinks of indifferents is how he demonstrates his character
  • death is not the end, but merely an interruption / eternal recurrence
It seems that this man to whom Seneca is referring, is contemplating retirement and some of his associates are reproaching him and goading to not retire.  Seneca seems to think that the man considering retirement is choosing wisely.

Seneca commentates a bit about the indifferent of wealth and fortune:

Prosperity is a turbulent thing; it torments itself. It stirs the brain in more ways than one, goading men on to various aims, – some to power, and others to high living. Some it puffs up; others it slackens and wholly enervates.

If you give your desires wholly over to acquiring fortune, then you will suffer the follies he lists above.  Wisdom is knowing how to use indifferents well and not be affected by them, but to retain equanimity regardless if you acquire wealth or not.

And because this man chooses retirement over acquiring more wealth, less wise people accuse him of being "a trifler and a sluggard."  Perhaps this man has chosen wisely because "he continues to cherish virtue and to absorb thoroughly the studies which make for culture."  And perhaps he learned this wisdom while young and now he can spend his retirement in continued pursuit of virtue.

the young man must store up, the old man must use.

Seneca explains more clearly, further in the letter, the wise course of action.

Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. Let him so regulate his character that in perfect peace he may bring to perfection that spirit within him which feels neither loss nor gain, but remains in the same attitude, no matter how things fall out. A spirit like this, if it is heaped with worldly goods, rises superior to its wealth; if, on the other hand, chance has stripped him of a part of his wealth, or even all, it is not impaired.

The latter part of the letter hits on themes of memento mori and the eternal recurrence.

I say, let him learn that which is helpful against all weapons, against every kind of foe, – contempt of death ...

In death there is nothing harmful ...

And death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we shall be restored to the light of day ... everything which seems to perish merely changes. Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind. Mark how the round of the universe repeats its course.