Saturday, October 16, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 115 - On the Superficial Blessings

On the Superficial Blessings

The superficial blessings, of which Seneca discusses are riches and power.  The rub of the letter appears towards the end, where he notes that we should consider the prayer of those who possess riches and power.  If we could be a fly on the wall of those who possess such things, when we hear them pray, then we would know that these "blessings" are indeed superficial.  The gist of the letter is: be careful what you ask and prayer for.

The beginning of the letter discusses one of the important aspects of writing.  We write to impress upon our minds.

You should seek what to write, rather than how to write it – and even that not for the purpose of writing but of feeling it, that you may thus make what you have felt more your own and, as it were, set a seal on it.

He returns to the topic of 'style' and calls certain styles defects.

Style is the garb of thought: if it be trimmed, or dyed, or treated, it shows that there are defects and a certain amount of flaws in the mind.

Then he tries to paint a picture of a virtuous soul and how if we saw such a soul, we would be enamored by them, rather than by riches and power.  Note the various virtues in the passage below (I've italicized them).

If we had the privilege of looking into a good man's soul, oh what a fair, holy, magnificent, gracious, and shining face should we behold – radiant on the one side with justice and temperance, on another with bravery and wisdom! And, besides these, thriftiness, moderation, endurance, refinement, affability, and – though hard to believe – love of one's fellow-men, that Good which is so rare in man, all these would be shedding their own glory over that soul. There, too, forethought combined with elegance and, resulting from these, a most excellent greatness of soul (the noblest of all these virtues) – indeed what charm, O ye heavens, what authority and dignity would they contribute!

Later he lists things which cut off our vision of virtue, namely the body, poverty, lowliness, disgrace, unloveliness, the gleam of riches.

We need to become fully grown, rational adults.  We should consider what pleases children, as there is an analog in fully grown adults too.

how contemptible are the things we admire – like children who regard every toy as a thing of value, who cherish necklaces bought at the price of a mere penny as more dear than their parents or than their brothers. And what, then, as Aristo says, is the difference between ourselves and these children, except that we elders go crazy over paintings and sculpture, and that our folly costs us dearer? Children are pleased by the smooth and variegated pebbles which they pick up on the beach, while we take delight in tall columns of veined marble brought either from Egyptian sands or from African deserts

Then too, is status - how much we are driven to gain status among others.  Much of the high status in Seneca's time as well as our own, is mere falsities; it's all rot underneath.

all the famous men whom you see strutting about with head in air, have nothing but a gold-leaf prosperity. Look beneath, and you will know how much evil lies under that thin coating of titles.  Note that very commodity which holds the attention of so many magistrates and so many judges, and which creates both magistrates and judges – that money, I say, which ever since it began to be regarded with respect, has caused the ruin of the true honour of things; we become alternately merchants and merchandise, and we ask, not what a thing truly is, but what it costs; we fulfil duties if it pays, or neglect them if it pays, and we follow an honourable course as long as it encourages our expectations, ready to veer across to the opposite course if crooked conduct shall promise more.

Money, riches, power, fame - these give people status.  We are a culture obsessed with gaining it.  We grab at money and wish to 'go viral' in order to gain a position of status off which to influence others.  We fail to focus on becoming a better virtuous person.  We fall into the trap of thinking that by gaining status we help ourselves and others, when in fact we perpetuate the problem of producing "style" on the outward, while we rot on the inside.

Most likely, our parents, or teachers, or co-workers or friends trained us to think this way.  The culture of "prosperity" rolls forward and an entire nation, which argues over virtually everything, will agree on this one thing.  It will take an exceptional effort to overcome the desire infection.

Our parents have instilled into us a respect for gold and silver; in our early years the craving has been implanted, settling deep within us and growing with our growth. Then too the whole nation, though at odds on every other subject, agrees upon this; this is what they regard, this is what they ask for their children, this is what they dedicate to the gods when they wish to show their gratitude – as if it were the greatest of all man's possessions! And finally, public opinion has come to such a pass that poverty is a hissing and a reproach, despised by the rich and loathed by the poor.

He quotes Ovid and this one part stood out to me:

All ask how great my riches are, but none
Whether my soul is good.

Seneca continues,

What tears and toil does money wring from us! Greed is wretched in that which it craves and wretched in that which it wins! Think besides of the daily worry which afflicts every possessor in proportion to the measure of his gain!

...

though Fortune may leave our property intact, whatever we cannot gain in addition, is sheer loss!

And here is the part of the letter where Seneca asks us to consider the whole perspective of those who chase greed.  If we could peer into their souls, me may not then desire riches and power.

Do you think that there is any more pitiable lot in life than to possess misery and hatred also? Would that those who are bound to crave wealth could compare notes with the rich man! Would that those who are bound to seek political office could confer with ambitious men who have reached the most sought-after honours! They would then surely alter their prayers, seeing that these grandees are always gaping after new gain, condemning what is already behind them. For there is no one in the world who is contented with his prosperity, even if it comes to him on the run. Men complain about their plans and the outcome of their plans; they always prefer what they have failed to win.

What is the cure for greed and this desire infection?  Philosophy.

philosophy can settle this problem for you, and afford you, to my mind, the greatest boon that exists – absence of regret for your own conduct.

...

Let words proceed as they please, provided only your soul keeps its own sure order, provided your soul is great and holds unruffled to its ideals, pleased with itself on account of the very things which displease others, a soul that makes life the test of its progress, and believes that its knowledge is in exact proportion to its freedom from desire and its freedom from fear.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 114 - On Style as a Mirror of Character

On Style as a Mirror of Character

The gist of this letter is found towards the end of the middle.  While Seneca spends a lot of time talking about style of speech and other styles, his point is that the outward stems from the inward.  A sound soul leads to a sound body and style.

take care of the soul; for from the soul issue our thoughts, from the soul our words, from the soul our dispositions, our expressions, and our very gait.  When the soul is sound and strong, the style too is vigorous, energetic, manly; but if the soul lose its balance, down comes all the rest in ruins.

Early in the letter, he cites a Greek proverb and then expounds a bit more on it.

"Man's speech is just like his life."  Exactly as each individual man's actions seem to speak, so people's style of speaking often reproduces the general character of the time, if the morale of the public has relaxed and has given itself over to effeminacy. Wantonness in speech is proof of public luxury, if it is popular and fashionable, and not confined to one or two individual instances.  A man's ability cannot possibly be of one sort and his soul of another. If his soul be wholesome, well-ordered, serious, and restrained, his ability also is sound and sober. Conversely, when the one degenerates, the other is also contaminated.

Does this apply to all?  I've seen some people who seem to not have a well-ordered gait or even fit body or style of speech, but upon talking with them, they seem to be wise and virtuous.  Conversely, I've seen people who are able to speak very well and their outward appearance and style seems to be fit and ordered, but upon talking to them, they only had appearance and not substance.

Is Seneca's analysis a hard and fast rule?  Perhaps not.  He does have a point, that if you take care of the soul and strive to keep it ordered, logical, virtuous and resilient, then perhaps the style will follow.

Sometimes, as individuals, we have to overcome the sentiment of the time.  When culture and all around us has focused on the wrong things for so long, we have to strive, even harder as individuals, to rise above the polluted air and breath the fresh, clean air.

This fault is due sometimes to the man, and sometimes to his epoch.  When prosperity has spread luxury far and wide, men begin by paying closer attention to their personal appearance.

Take care of our own soul first.  Appearances will follow.  Don't focus on your appearance and style, rather focus on what is virtuous, what is good.  Strive for courage, wisdom, and temperance.

Here are a few more quotes from the letter which stood out to me.

Just as luxurious banquets and elaborate dress are indications of disease in the state, similarly a lax style, if it be popular, shows that the mind (which is the source of the word) has lost its balance. Indeed you ought not to wonder that corrupt speech is welcomed not merely by the more squalid mob but also by our more cultured throng.

...

The soul is our king. If it be safe, the other functions remain on duty and serve with obedience; but the slightest lack of equilibrium in the soul causes them to waver along with it. And when the soul has yielded to pleasure, its functions and actions grow weak, and any undertaking comes from a nerveless and unsteady source.

...

We should be sensible, and our wants more reasonable, if each of us were to take stock of himself, and to measure his bodily needs also, and understand how little he can consume, and for how short a time! But nothing will give you so much help toward moderation as the frequent thought that life is short and uncertain here below; whatever you are doing, have regard to death.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 113 - On the Vitality of the Soul and Its Attributes

On the Vitality of the Soul and Its Attributes

The letter answers the question: are virtues living things?  In sum, Seneca replies they are not; the soul is a living thing, which possesses virtues.  He discusses this somewhat extensively, and then ends the letter with some thoughts on bravery and discipline.

Seneca doesn't think talking about this question is a good use of time, but nonetheless answers it.

You wish me to write to you my opinion concerning this question, which has been mooted by our school – whether justice, courage, foresight, and the other virtues, are living things.  By such niceties as this, my beloved Lucilius, we have made people think that we sharpen our wits on useless objects, and waste our leisure time in discussions that will be unprofitable.

He gets directly to the answer.

The soul, men are agreed, is a living thing ... But virtue is nothing else than a soul in a certain condition; therefore it is a living thing. Again, virtue is active, and no action can take place without impulse. And if a thing has impulse, it must be a living thing.

The soul is a living thing with impulses.  Virtue is active and prompts us to have an impulse, which we then act on.

We may have multiple virtues (or vices) in our soul, but we are still one living soul.  Just like the hydra has many heads, it is still one soul.

each separate head fighting and destroying independently. And yet there is no separate living thing to each head; it is the head of a living thing, and the hydra itself is one single living thing.

Later in the letter, Seneca repeats and succinctly states his answer to the main question.

Every living thing acts of itself; but virtue does nothing of itself; it must act in conjunction with man. All living things either are gifted with reason, like men and gods, or else are irrational, like beasts and cattle. Virtues, in any case, are rational; and yet they are neither men nor gods; therefore they are not living things.

To conclude the letter, he makes the very important point that use of knowledge is what matters; not discussing and nitpicking.  He focuses on the virtue of bravery to make this point.

Teach me, not whether Bravery be a living thing, but prove that no living thing is happy without bravery, that is, unless it has grown strong to oppose hazards and has overcome all the strokes of chance by rehearsing and anticipating their attack.

What is bravery?

It is the impregnable fortress for our mortal weakness; when a man has surrounded himself therewith, he can hold out free from anxiety during life's siege.

He quotes Posidonius:

"There are never any occasions when you need think yourself safe because you wield the weapons of Fortune; fight with your own! Fortune does not furnish arms against herself; hence men equipped against their foes are unarmed against Fortune herself."

Then he focuses on Alexander the Great, who conquered nations, but could not conquer himself and ended up killing his own friends.

he, the conqueror of so many kings and nations, was laid low by anger and grief! For he had made it his aim to win control over everything except his emotions.

Seneca writes a few, excellent reminders, which we all would do well to repeat to ourselves often.

Self-Command is the greatest command of all.

...

I must be just without reward.

...

May I take pleasure in devoting myself of my own free will to uphold this noblest of virtues.

...

Those who wish their virtue to be advertised are not striving for virtue but for renown.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 112 - On Reforming Hardened Sinners

On Reforming Hardened Sinners

According to Seneca, some people are very difficult to reform.

Now this person, concerning whom you have sent me your message in writing, has no strength; for he has pampered his vices.   He has at one and the same time become flabby and hardened. He cannot receive reason, nor can he nourish it.

...

Luxury has merely upset his stomach; he will soon become reconciled to it again.

...

Men love and hate their vices at the same time. It will be the proper season to pass judgment on him when he has given us a guarantee that he really hates luxury; as it is now, luxury and he are merely not on speaking terms.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 111 - On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

The intent of philosophy is flourishing - eudaimonia - in which the Stoics claim that one's personal virtue, reasoning and actions are aligned with Nature.  If the philosophy is not lived, and instead simply held in a theoretical paradigm, then did you really learn anything?

In this vein, Seneca attacks the practice of sophismata - he calls them mental gymnastics.  Speaking of sophismata or mental gymnastics, he writes,

If a man has surrendered himself to them, he weaves many a tricky subtlety, but makes no progress toward real living; he does not thereby become braver, or more restrained, or loftier of spirit.

But one who applies what he has learned is the one making progress.

He, however, who has practised philosophy to effect his own cure, becomes high-souled, full of confidence, invincible, and greater as you draw near him.

He goes on,

our true philosopher, true by his acts and not by his tricks. He stands in a high place, worthy of admiration, lofty, and really great.

...

He is therefore above earthly things, equal to himself under all conditions, – whether the current of life runs free, or whether he is tossed and travels on troubled and desperate seas; but this steadfastness cannot be gained through such hair-splittings as I have just mentioned.

If you are going to play these mental games, Seneca advises to

let it be at a time when you wish to do nothing.

He further cautions that if you practice sophismata, be sure to not get caught up in thinking that since you can work out these puzzlers, you think you are wise.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 110 - On True and False Riches

On True and False Riches

In Seneca's time, many believed a personal god or protector accompanied each person.

the present the belief of certain persons – that a god is assigned to each one of us as a sort of attendant – not a god of regular rank, but one of a lower grade – one of those whom Ovid calls "plebeian gods."

This is not unlike the Stoic view of deity.  The Stoics believe that there is a bit of god in each of us - our own daimon.  Marcus refers to the daimon often and this is where the word eudaimonia comes from - to have a good god-soul within us; to align our unique part of us with the Whole or Nature.

Seneca makes the point that regardless if you have a bit of god in you or not (and we are therefore neglected), he observes, 

you can curse a man with no heavier curse than to pray that he may be at enmity with himself.

If we are at enmity with ourselves, then we deny our very existence!

He then pivots to the observation that 'evils' do not really turn out to be evils, especially if we take the perspective of the view from above - seeing things from the perspective of God or Nature.

evils are more likely to help us than to harm us. For how often has so-called affliction been the source and the beginning of happiness!

Our lives may be built up over many years; we may enjoy decades of health and savings and prosperity.  But then along comes some misfortune.  We may become ill or lose a job.  How often do we see people reinvent themselves and start anew?  Was the illness or job loss really a misfortune?

But let us also never forget that regardless of the 'highs' and 'lows' of life, the very end for everyone ends up the same.  When compared to our final state (death), all 'lows' and 'downs' in life (e.g. illness, job less, exile, etc.) are nothing.

But this very fall has in it nothing evil, if you consider the end, after which nature lays no man lower.

Wise people consider the Whole.  The wise aim for equanimity - neither tormented by the fears of 'lows' nor overcome with joy by the 'highs.'

measure all things according to the state of man; restrict at the same time both your joys and your fears.

Wise people also remember that externals are nothing to us.  They do not depend on us.  Therefore, we should never get worked up about them!

All these things which stir us and keep us a-flutter, are empty things.

Referring to externals, Seneca observes,

how fleeting, how unsure, and how harmless are the things which we fear.

What is the antidote to succumbing to externals?  To learn what is truly good and evil: our moral choice.  We can learn this.

we acquire by knowledge this familiarity with things divine and human, if we not only flood ourselves but steep ourselves therein, if a man reviews the same principles even though he understands them and applies them again and again to himself, if he has investigated what is good, what is evil, and what has falsely been so entitled; and, finally, if he has investigated honour and baseness, and Providence.

Furthermore, we may frequently take flight and return often to the view from above; and ignore what the majority incorrectly deem as good: riches, fame, status.

The range of the human intelligence is not confined within these limits; it may also explore outside the universe – its destination and its source, and the ruin towards which all nature hastens so rapidly. We have withdrawn the soul from this divine contemplation and dragged it into mean and lowly tasks, so that it might be a slave to greed, so that it might forsake the universe and its confines, and, under the command of masters who try all possible schemes, pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up therefrom – discontented with that which was freely offered to it.

When Seneca admonishes us to 'explore outside the universe' it sound very familiar to Marcus:

Further, the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole. It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future" (Meditations 11.1.2).

Hadot often speaks of this practice of 'taking flight' and traversing the Cosmos.  See this entry on my blog.

Returning to the Seneca quote above, he also notes that greed is the cause for humanity to turn away from the heavens and towards the earth - to dig for gold, silver and minerals.  Our greed drives us to 'pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up' as we are 'discontented with that which is freely offered.'  Seneca says something similar in Letter 94.  In this letter he adds,

we have brought to light the materials for our destruction, against the will of Nature, who hid them from us. We have bound over our souls to pleasure, whose service is the source of all evil; we have surrendered ourselves to self-seeking and reputation, and to other aims which are equally idle and useless.

Our goal; and what is freely ours, is

to see clearly for yourself what is necessary and what is superfluous.  What is necessary will meet you everywhere; what is superfluous has always to be hunted-out – and with great endeavour.

We ought to despise greed, gluttony and luxury.  These are all for show.  These are externals and truly are not a part of us nor 'up to us.'  To acquire, to eat to excess, to bask in riches are merely activities of display, but do not demonstrate actual human excellence.

Seneca closes with a quote from Attalus, who speaks of a procession of wealth by an empire, of which a few parts I've copied below.

What else is this, I said to myself, than a stirring-up of man's cravings, which are in themselves provocative of lust? What is the meaning of all this display of money? Did we gather merely to learn what greed was? For my own part I left the place with less craving than I had when I entered. I came to despise riches, not because of their uselessness, but because of their pettiness

...

the riches seemed to me to be as useless to the possessors as they were to the onlookers.

...

It is all show; such things are displayed, not possessed; while they please they pass away. 18. Turn thyself rather to the true riches. Learn to be content with little

...

Do you ask what is the cure for want? It is to make hunger satisfy hunger

...

freedom comes, not to him over whom Fortune has slight power, but to him over whom she has no power at all. This is what I mean: you must crave nothing, if you would vie with Jupiter; for Jupiter craves nothing.

Think often of these things.

If you are willing to think often of these things, you will strive not to seem happy, but to be happy, and, in addition, to seem happy to yourself rather than to others. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 109 - On the Fellowship of Wise Men

On the Fellowship of Wise Men

The question at hand and the topic of the letter is: can a wise man help another wise man.  In Seneca's view, the answer is 'yes' for these reasons:

Each needs someone with whom he may make comparisons and investigations.

...

The wise man also needs to have his virtues kept in action; and as he prompts himself to do things, so is he prompted by another wise man.

...

He can quicken his impulses, and point out to him opportunities for honourable action. Besides, he can develop some of his own ideas; he can impart what he has discovered. For even in the case of the wise man something will always remain to discover, something towards which his mind may make new ventures.

...

will bring joy to the other, he will strengthen his faith, and from the contemplation of their mutual tranquillity the delight of both will be increased. Moreover, they will communicate to each other a knowledge of certain facts; for the wise man is not all-knowing.

...

the wise man cannot maintain his mental standard without intercourse with friends of his own kind – with whom he may share his goodness. 10. Moreover, there is a sort of mutual friendship among all the virtues.

...

in order to prompt perfect reason, there is need of perfect reason.

...

the wise man can also be useful by discussing honourable things in common, and by contributing his thoughts and ideas.  Moreover, it is in accordance with Nature to show affection for our friends, and to rejoice in their advancement.

...

Now virtue advises us to arrange the present well, to take thought regarding the future, to deliberate and apply our minds; and one who takes a friend into council with him, can more easily apply his mind and think out his problem.

Seneca closes the letter by musing that this sort of discussion (can the wise help the wise), is all simply "mental gymanstics."  Seneca wants to discuss how to go about acting more like a wise person.

What good does this do me? Make me more brave now, more just, more restrained! I have not yet the opportunity to make use of my training ...  teach me now what it is necessary for me to know!


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 108 - On the Approaches to Philosophy

On the Approaches to Philosophy

The big idea of this letter is that we ought to learn philosophy to apply it, not to simply learn it.  While we may be eager to learn at the onset, we ought to ensure that not only do we learn, but we constantly practice and apply.

this eagerness to learn, with which I see you are aflame, should be regulated, so that it may not get in its own way.  Things are not to be gathered at random; nor should they be greedily attacked

And a sound, stable mind is required as you enter this journey.

Only be of a sound mind, and then you will be able to hold all that you wish.

A teacher of philosophy should both demonstrate and teach; and ensure the students do likewise.

The same purpose should possess both master and scholar – an ambition in the one case to promote, and in the other to progress.

Seneca warns that some students will not make progress.  Their determination and motivation is not whole and they only seek to learn in leisure.  He calls these people "squatters."

This class, as you will see, constitutes a large part of the listeners, who regard the philosopher's lecture-room merely as a sort of lounging-place for their leisure. They do not set about to lay aside any faults there, or to receive a rule of life, by which they may test their characters.

The genuine student, however, takes these matters seriously.

But the true hearer is ravished and stirred by the beauty of the subject matter, not by the jingle of empty words. When a bold word has been uttered in defiance of death, or a saucy fling in defiance of Fortune, we take delight in acting straightway upon that which we have heard.

In the quote above, there is another insight.  Note the different types of externals to which Seneca refers.  Much of what Seneca writes about falls under the category of dis-preferred externals (e.g. death, ignominy, illness, poverty, exile, etc.).  But there is another type of external, those which are preferred.  How often do we contemplate these happening to us and we prepare for them accordingly.  These would be wealth, fame, strong health and success.  We should not let our equanimity be disturbed by these either.  We should not get heady or prideful or fall for the trap that these things are 'up to us.'  We should be prepared to meet these just as much as we should prepare to meet with the dis-preferred.  In other words, we should not be distracted by Fortune; rather we should throw "a saucy fling in defiance" at such good luck.

Rare is the student who is successful.

only a few can carry home the mental attitude with which they were inspired.

But we have it in us - we have the ability and capacity to grow philosophically.  We just need to be taught or 'stimulated' to grow.

Nature has laid the foundations and planted the seeds of virtue in us all. And we are all born to these general privileges; hence, when the stimulus is added, the good spirit is stirred as if it were freed from bonds.

One of the abilities of a good philosopher is having the ability to craft words to have great effect.  Good teachers can do this for others as well as himself.  A prokopton also learns and practices this form of self-instruction in the form of hypomnemata.  This is precisely what Marcus Aurelius was doing when he wrote the Meditations.

when such things are uttered by a philosopher, when he introduces verses among his wholesome precepts, that he may thus make those verses sink more effectively into the mind of the neophyte!

Of course, the prokopton needs initiation before he can practice.  Therefore, much learning, reading and writing needs to come first, before the short and pithy precepts can have effect.  Seneca writes,

We talk much about despising money, and we give advice on this subject in the lengthiest of speeches, that mankind may believe true riches to exist in the mind and not in one's bank account, and that the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man; but our minds are struck more effectively when a verse like this is repeated:

He needs but little who desires but little.

or,

He hath his wish, whose wish includeth naught; Save that which is enough.

And one sharp remark is not enough.  We have to keep peppering away to "lay on still harder!"

When you see them thus disposed, strike home, keep at them, and charge them with this duty, dropping all double meanings, syllogisms, hair-splitting, and the other side-shows of ineffective smartness. Preach against greed, preach against high living; and when you notice that you have made progress and impressed the minds of your hearers, lay on still harder.

Seneca then talks a bit about his teacher - Attalus - and how he taught and what things stuck with Seneca.

when he began to uphold poverty, and to show what a useless and dangerous burden was everything that passed the measure of our need, I often desired to leave his lecture-room a poor man. Whenever he castigated our pleasure-seeking lives, and extolled personal purity, moderation in diet, and a mind free from unnecessary, not to speak of unlawful, pleasures, the desire came upon me to limit my food and drink.

He lists the ways he has resolved to keep certain practices.

later, when I returned to the duties of a citizen, I did indeed keep a few of these good resolutions. That is why I have forsaken oysters and mushrooms for ever: since they are not really food, but are relishes to bully the sated stomach into further eating, as is the fancy of gourmands and those who stuff themselves beyond their powers of digestion: down with it quickly, and up with it quickly!  That is why I have also throughout my life avoided perfumes; because the best scent for the person is no scent at all.  That is why my stomach is unacquainted with wine. That is why throughout my life I have shunned the bath, and have believed that to emaciate the body and sweat it into thinness is at once unprofitable and effeminate. Other resolutions have been broken, but after all in such a way that, in cases where I ceased to practice abstinence, I have observed a limit which is indeed next door to abstinence; perhaps it is even a little more difficult, because it is easier for the will to cut off certain things utterly than to use them with restraint.

Later he writes about the habit of abstaining from meat, which Pythagoras and Sextius admonished for different reasons.  After explaining these things, Seneca states how he too has come to live this way.

He also notes his habit of sleeping with a hard pillow.

Next Seneca talks about how "time flies" and that we are in a race with it.  We ought to use our youth to learn, while we are still "pliable."

in every case our best days are the first to be snatched away; why, then, do we hesitate to bestir ourselves so that we may be able to keep pace with this swiftest of all swift things?

...

we can bend to nobler purposes minds that are ready and still pliable; because this is the time for work, the time for keeping our minds busied in study and in exercising our bodies with useful effort; for that which remains is more sluggish and lacking in spirit – nearer the end.  Let us therefore strive with all courage, omitting attractions by the way; let us struggle with a single purpose

...

Let every day, as soon as it comes, be welcome as being the choicest, and let it be made our own possession.

He closes the letter with the thought that philosophy can lead to a happy life.  As we learn it, we must apply it in order to achieve that happiness.

all study of philosophy and all reading should be applied to the idea of living the happy life

...

we should seek precepts which will help us, utterances of courage and spirit which may at once be turned into facts. We should so learn them that words may become deeds.  And I hold that no man has treated mankind worse than he who has studied philosophy as if it were some marketable trade, who lives in a different manner from that which he advises.

...

 A teacher like that can help me no more than a sea-sick pilot can be efficient in a storm. He must hold the tiller when the waves are tossing him; he must wrestle, as it were, with the sea; he must furl his sails when the storm rages; what good is a frightened and vomiting steersman to me?

...

One must steer, not talk.

...

I shall show you how men can prove their words to be their own: it is by doing what they have been talking about. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 107 - On Obedience to the Universal Will

On Obedience to the Universal Will

The big ideas:

  • amor fati
  • your fate (what actually happens to you) is the material from which you demonstrate excellence of human character or virtue or arete
  • if you did not have an opportunity to demonstrate excellence, then how could you practice and improve at being an excellent human being?  what is a painter without a canvas?  what is a sculptor without the clay?
  • get on with it!  prepare for events and be ready for them
  • premeditatio malorum is how you prepare for your fate
This letter is a reality check and a tune-up for your practice of premeditatio malorum.  All of these cases involve externals; they are indifferents which come from the cosmos, events and other people.  Thinking and anticipating them helps you to not be caught off-guard when they happen.  You will be more accepting of the events as they happen, which frees you from the burden of anxiety, fear, complaining, overjoy, ecstasy, and pride.  And instead of spending time being consumed by these emotions, you can wisely reflect on a virtuous course of action: how you will respond to your fate.

Most of Letter 107 will focus on the dis-preferred indifferents; things which we generally wish to avoid.  But, there is a whole other side of externals which we rarely prepare for: preferred indifferents.  How often do we put our equanimity at risk when a preferred indifferent comes into our life?  It's something to think about.

Here is a list of all the dis-preferred indifferents Seneca notes in this letter:

  • slaves run away (perhaps a modern example would be employees or people for hire don't show up to do a job, and leave you in the lurch)
  • friends lie and deceive you
  • being robbed, blackmailed, betrayed, attacked, poisoned, slandered
  • cold winters, hot summers or unseasonable weather
  • dealing with wild beasts
  • floods and fires, damaging winds
  • death
And here are some stand-out quotes from this letter:

It is as nonsensical to be put out by such events as to complain of being spattered in the street or at getting befouled in the mud. The programme of life is the same as that of a bathing establishment, a crowd, or a journey: sometimes things will be thrown at you, and sometimes they will strike you by accident. Life is not a dainty business.

...

you will despise them, if you often take thought and anticipate the future. 4. Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practised how to meet them.

...

We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.

...

no matter what trouble you mention, it has happened to many.

...

We should not manifest surprise at any sort of condition into which we are born, and which should be lamented by no one, simply because it is equally ordained for all.

...

Be sure to prescribe for your mind this sense of equity; we should pay without complaint the tax of our mortality.

...

And we cannot change this order of things; but what we can do is to acquire stout hearts, worthy of good men, thereby courageously enduring chance and placing ourselves in harmony with Nature.

...

Eternity consists of opposites.  It is to this law that our souls must adjust themselves, this they should follow, this they should obey. Whatever happens, assume that it was bound to happen, and do not be willing to rail at Nature. That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure, and to attend uncomplainingly upon the God under whose guidance everything progresses

...

we should welcome our orders with energy and vigour, nor should we cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven.

...

let Fate find us ready and alert. Here is your great soul – the man who has given himself over to Fate

Friday, September 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 106 - On the Corporeality of Virtue

On the Corporeality of Virtue

This is an 'academic' type letter in which Seneca outlines the argument that virtue is a body or corporeal.  There is nothing new or significant, in my opinion, about this letter.  For those interested (who are reading this letter), I would direct you to a couple of links.

See my summary of John Sellars chapter on Stoic Physics.  It discusses this at a good level as to what the argument was and why the Stoics took the position they did.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the entry on Stoic Physics is good too.

One other thing I will note from this letter - his introduction.  He writes,

My tardiness in answering your letter was not due to press of business. Do not listen to that sort of excuse; I am at liberty, and so is anyone else who wishes to be at liberty. No man is at the mercy of affairs. He gets entangled in them of his own accord, and then flatters himself that being busy is a proof of happiness.

This is an important observation he makes.  How often do we make excuses for things; and blame the excuse on something beyond our control, when in fact, it was up to us?  Indeed, blame 'busyness' for why you did not do something, but you were still 'at liberty' to stop the busyness and do whatever might be more important.

It may seem like a minor quibble, but it's worth a self-reflection.  Our choices make us who we are.  The tangled web of events are complicated, but be sure to not entangle what is 'up to you' in things that are 'not up to you.'  Take responsibility for what is 'up to you' and be precise when casting blame to a certain cause.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 105 - On Facing the World with Confidence

On Facing the World with Confidence

Seneca begins the letter with,

I shall now tell you certain things to which you should pay attention in order to live more safely.

That word 'safely' is interesting.  If a Stoic is concerned about safety (physical and rational), I would balk at that.  Safety is a bit of an external or indifferent.  But then, I observe the title of the letter and perhaps Seneca means 'safely' in terms of living confidently - being secure in one's own philosophy; at least that is how I'm reading this.

Next he takes on the root causes of humanities problems; what motivates people to seek the destruction of others?

Reflect on the things which goad man into destroying man: you will find that they are hope, envy, hatred, fear, and contempt.

Hope and envy, somewhat, go hand in hand.  Because one person lacks something (AND they think that they need it), envy stirs within them and they hope to get what others have.

How do you safely avoid these people?

you can avoid the envious hopes of the wicked so long as you have nothing which can stir the evil desires of others, and so long as you possess nothing remarkable. For people crave even little things, if these catch the attention or are of rare occurrence.

Seneca says one way to prevent envy is to simply not possess things which may cause it.  This sounds like a resounding endorsement for minimalism.

Another way to avoid the envy of others is to simply keep quiet about your status and possessions.

You will escape envy if you do not force yourself upon the public view, if you do not boast your possessions, if you understand how to enjoy things privately.

As for avoiding the hatred of others, he writes,

Hatred comes either from running foul of others: and this can be avoided by never provoking anyone; or else it is uncalled for: and common-sense will keep you safe from it. Yet it has been dangerous to many; some people have been hated without having had an enemy.

Either never provoke someone, or perhaps choose a path of de-escalation.

You can prevent others' fears of you by being of

a moderate fortune and an easy disposition.

And then there is the matter of avoiding others' contempt for you.  The best thing to do is to keep still and talk little of yourself with others.

Nothing, however, will help you so much as keeping still – talking very little with others, and as much as may be with yourself.

You could apply all these little tactics to be able to live safely and confidently.  Alternatively, you could do one thing: do no wrong.

The most important contribution to peace of mind is never to do wrong. Those who lack self-control lead disturbed and tumultuous lives. ... A wrongdoer sometimes has the luck to escape notice but never the assurance thereof.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 104 - On Care of Health and Peace of Mind

On Care of Health and Peace of Mind

Seneca travels to cure his ailing body.  This gives him an opportunity to reflect on people who travel yet remain discontent.

Regarding old age and the preservation of life, he writes,

the good man should not live as long as it pleases him, but as long as he ought. ... It gives proof of a great heart to return to life for the sake of others ... the greatest advantage of old age is the opportunity to be more negligent regarding self-preservation and to use life more adventurously.

Regarding travel,

Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: "It serves you right! You travelled in your own company!"

Living philosophically allows you to enjoy your travels.  If you are not content with yourself, it does not matter where you are.  Philosophy teaches you to have the good personality.

If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place but another personality.

If you would be content, enjoy what is in the present.  But do not cling.

Regard everything that pleases you as if it were a flourishing plant; make the most of it while it is in leaf, for different plants at different seasons must fall and die.

The act of travelling or going on vacation does not solve root cause issues.

Travelling cannot give us judgment, or shake off our errors; it merely holds our attention for a moment by a certain novelty, as children pause to wonder at something unfamiliar.

The time spent learning and applying philosophy will go a long way to relieve you of your discontent.

We ought rather to spend our time in study, and to cultivate those who are masters of wisdom, learning something which has been investigated, but not settled. ...  as long as you are ignorant of what you should avoid or seek, or of what is necessary or superfluous, or of what is right or wrong, you will not be travelling, but merely wandering. 

Wherever you go, your ailments will follow unless you apply remedies to them.

That from which you are running, is within you. Accordingly, reform your own self, get the burden off your own shoulders, and keep within safe limits the cravings which ought to be removed.  ...  If you would be stripped of your faults leave far behind you the patterns of the faults.

Nature would have us live according to Nature.  Therefore, she has blessed us with the necessary tools to pursue this goal.  It is a lofty goal; one with which many disagree - aligning your will with 'the soul of the universe' - but not the Stoics.

Nature has brought us forth brave of spirit, and, as she has implanted in certain animals a spirit of ferocity, in others craft, in others terror, so she has gifted us with an aspiring and lofty spirit, which prompts us to seek a life of the greatest honour, and not of the greatest security, that most resembles the soul of the universe.

Reflect on the causes of your fears and anxieties.  Reflect that it is your judgement that is the cause.  These things which you think you fear, are not really frightening.

Shapes dread to look upon, of toil or death are not in the least dreadful, if one is able to look upon them with unflinching gaze, and is able to pierce the shadows.

History has given us sages to look towards as examples of equanimity.  Whatever happened to them, they remained unperturbed.

Take the time to read Seneca's reflection on Socrates.  This is what we are to aim for by living philosophically.  I've italicized that parts which stand out to me, as I read this passage.

a long-suffering old man, who was sea-tossed amid every hardship and yet was unconquered both by poverty (which his troubles at home made more burdensome) and by toil, including the drudgery of military service. He was much tried at home, whether we think of his wife, a woman of rough manners and shrewish tongue, or of the children whose intractability showed them to be more like their mother than their father.  And if you consider the facts, he lived either in time of war, or under tyrants, or under a democracy, which is more cruel than wars and tyrants. The war lasted for twenty-seven years; then the state became the victim of the Thirty Tyrants, of whom many were his personal enemies. At the last came that climax of condemnation under the gravest of charges: they accused him of disturbing the state religion and corrupting the youth, for they declared that he had influenced the youth to defy the gods, to defy the council, and to defy the state in general. Next came the prison, and the cup of poison. But all these measures changed the soul of Socrates so little that they did not even change his features. What wonderful and rare distinction! He maintained this attitude up to the very end, and no man ever saw Socrates too much elated or too much depressed. Amid all the disturbance of Fortune, he was undisturbed.

Seneca then reflects on Cato.

His whole life was passed either in civil warfare, or under a political regime which was soon to breed civil war. ... No one ever saw Cato change, no matter how often the state changed: he kept himself the same in all circumstances – in the praetorship, in defeat, under accusation, in his province, on the platform, in the army, in death.

...

And this is the vote which he casts concerning them both: "If Caesar wins, I slay myself; if Pompey, I go into exile." What was there for a man to fear who, whether in defeat or in victory, had assigned to himself a doom which might have been assigned to him by his enemies in their utmost rage? So he died by his own decision.  You see that man can endure toil: Cato, on foot, led an army through African deserts. You see that thirst can be endured: he marched over sun-baked hills, dragging the remains of a beaten army and with no train of supplies, undergoing lack of water and wearing a heavy suit of armour; always the last to drink of the few springs which they chanced to find. You see that honour, and dishonour too, can be despised: for they report that on the very day when Cato was defeated at the elections, he played a game of ball. You see also that man can be free from fear of those above him in rank: for Cato attacked Caesar and Pompey simultaneously, at a time when none dared fall foul of the one without endeavouring to oblige the other. You see that death can be scorned as well as exile: Cato inflicted exile upon himself and finally death, and war all the while.

What are we to do?  Reject pleasures, and spurn wealth.  "If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else."

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 103 - On the Dangers of Association with our Fellow-Men

On the Dangers of Association with our Fellow-Men

Seneca warns of dangers - not of accidents, but of other people.

Of accidents, he says to "shun those troubles."

But of those which come from other people, he says, "it is from his fellow-man that a man's everyday danger comes. Equip yourself against that; watch that with an attentive eye."

While storms may forewarn us of dangers to come, "damage from man is instantaneous."

What is this damage from other people he speaks of?  The footnote on the wiki page of this letter points to Letter 7, which addresses the dangers of mixing with crowds or what is popular.  I would be more precise and call this "desire infection."  Simply observe what is popular with teens and kids and even adults, and observe how they succumb to social media and marketing, then you will understand "desire infection."

Just this past week, we learned Facebook and Instagram have been well aware of the negative impacts on teenagers their platforms are.  As we discussed this with our teenage daughter, she fully comprehends and observes how this game works.  Social media influencers will make it appear that they achieved their looks by doing a certain workout, when in fact, often we do not see the hard work (or money or plastic surgery) they put in to gain a certain look.  Teenagers see this and try what the social media influencer is suggesting, but when the teen inevitable fails, she loses self-esteem and has a poorer self-image.

Joshua Becker (becomingminimalist.com) has long documented ways for adults to break the cycle suggestion, marketing, advertising, purchasing, cluttering, and then minimalization.  The best way to break this cycle is to never give into the suggestions to begin with!

Seneca could have easily been speaking to the tech giants of social media as well as marketing, when he said,

You are wrong to trust the countenances of those you meet. They have the aspect of men, but the souls of brutes.

As you think on the dangers we may face at the hands of these people, we ought to reflect on our own duty: "Try, in your dealings with others, to harm not, in order that you be not harmed."

Furthermore, we should be human; and kind to others.

You should rejoice with all in their joys and sympathize with them in their troubles, remembering what you should offer and what you should withhold.

Lastly, study philosophy and live it!  Let philosophy make you better, but never use it to shame others!

this very philosophy must never be vaunted by you; for philosophy when employed with insolence and arrogance has been perilous to many. Let her strip off your faults, rather than assist you to decry the faults of others. Let her not hold aloof from the customs of mankind, nor make it her business to condemn whatever she herself does not do. A man may be wise without parade and without arousing enmity.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 102 - On the Intimations of Our Immortality

On the Intimations of Our Immortality

Many fear dying as well as dying as a 'nobody.'  Therefore, to alleviate this fear, they will either pursue fame or becoming a legend, or they may seek a path to immortality, or, perhaps they don't see how these two paths are possible, if so, then they pivot to telling themselves a story that they will resurrect and become immortal in heaven.  Even Seneca seems to take this final path as we will read in the letter.

Seneca addresses the above human problems.

The first half of the letter gets into the minutia of the difference between glory and renown.  While glory "depends upon the judgments of the many, ... renown [depends] on the judgments of good men."

Earlier, Seneca writes,

we believe that nothing is a good, if it be composed of things that are distinct. For a single good should be checked and controlled by a single soul; and the essential quality of each single good should be single.

Good men will all say the same thing about other good men.  In this way, the good is 'controlled' singly.  But glory and fame depend on the varied opinions of many, and therefore is not good.

All this seems a bit obscure and I didn't have much patience to detangle all the nuances which Seneca argues.  Half way through the letter, he admits this type of discussion is all 'petty quibbles.'

But it should not be our purpose to discuss things cleverly and to drag Philosophy down from her majesty to such petty quibbles.

He then pivots and gets into what Hadot calls 'spiritual exercises' which lead us to live with the gods and to think nothing of fame and death (externals and indiffernts).

Seneca writes,

Tell me rather how closely in accord with nature it is to let one's mind reach out into the boundless universe!

...

The soul's homeland is the whole space that encircles the, height and breadth of the firmament, the whole rounded dome within which lie land and sea, within which the upper air that sunders the human from the divine also unites them, and where all the sentinel stars are taking their turn on duty.

...

"All the years," says the soul, "are mine; no epoch is closed to great minds; all Time is open for the progress of thought.

Letting your soul imaginatively explore time and space, is a spiritual exercise.  It has the effect of diminishing our fears and anxieties surrounding the pursuit of fame and immortality.  If we contemplate the Whole sufficiently, we will reason that we are a part of an enormous, complex Whole, which is the Stoic God.  Fame and death are nothing when view from the perspective of the Whole.  Why would we waste our most rare and precious resource (time), on worrying over such matters?

If you are still hung up on the idea of no immortality, then contemplate how your soul will become part of the eternal Whole.  Just as it was difficult, at first, for us as newborns, so too will our death be difficult, but later we adjust and settle into our new state.

These delays of mortal existence are a prelude to the longer and better life. As the mother's womb holds us for ten months, making us ready, not for the womb itself, but for the existence into which we seem to be sent forth when at last we are fitted to draw breath and live in the open; just so, throughout the years extending between infancy and old age, we are making ourselves ready for another birth.

We must never lose sight of the reality of our situation.  We were born with nothing and we die with even less.

Survey everything that lies about you, as if it were luggage in a guest-chamber: you must travel on. Nature strips you as bare at your departure as at your entrance.  You may take away no more than you brought in; what is more, you must throw away the major portion of that which you brought with you into life: you will be stripped of the very skin which covers you – that which has been your last protection; you will be stripped of the flesh, and lose the blood which is suffused and circulated through your body; you will be stripped of bones and sinews, the framework of these transitory and feeble parts.

And if we are forced, in the end, to let go of all this, what stops us from preparing now for that day?  Nothing!   We should prepare for and be comfortable with our own death.

let go your already useless limbs with resignation and dispense with that body in which you have dwelt for so long. It will be torn asunder, buried out of sight, and wasted away. Why be downcast? This is what ordinarily happens: when we are born, the afterbirth always perishes. Why love such a thing as if it were your own possession? It was merely your covering. The day will come which will tear you forth and lead you away from the company of the foul and noisome womb.  Withdraw from it now too as much as you can, and withdraw from pleasure, except such as may be bound up with essential and important things; estrange yourself from it even now, and ponder on something nobler and loftier.

Having thought of your own death, move on to consider grander and nobler things: the Whole.  Nature.  And as you do so, your fears and anxieties will diminish.

Picture to yourself how great is the glow when all the stars mingle their fires; no shadows will disturb the clear sky. The whole expanse of heaven will shine evenly.

...

Such thoughts permit nothing mean to settle in the soul, nothing low, nothing cruel. They maintain that the gods are witnesses of everything. They order us to meet the gods' approval, to prepare ourselves to join them at some future time, and to plan for immortality. He that has grasped this idea shrinks from no attacking army, is not terrified by the trumpet-blast, and is intimidated by no threats.  How should it not be that a man feels no fear, if he looks forward to death?

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 101 - On the Futility of Planning Ahead

On the Futility of Planning Ahead

This is a somewhat timely letter to read.  I was just talking to my wife about this subject.  I venture to guess that most people are highly motivated to suck the marrow out of life by pursuit of health, fame, career, wife, husband, children, family, and fortune.  And to be clear - none of these are bad per se; rather they are indifferents.  But the majority of people don't view them as indifferents; rather they view them as goods to pursue.  And in their pursuit of them, they forget to contemplate their death.

what a nothing we are, and [time reminds] us with some fresh evidence that we have forgotten our weakness; then, as we plan for eternity, [time compels] us to look over our shoulders at Death.

Seneca then recounts a man who was good at making money and keeping it and who "lived most simply, careful of health and wealth."

But then, he 

was suddenly seized with an acute attack of quinsy, and, with the breath clogged tightly in his swollen throat, barely lived until daybreak. So within a very few hours after the time when he had been performing all the duties of a sound and healthy man, he passed away.

This is life.

Now, back to what my wife and I were talking about.  Having done a lot of contemplating of my own death, as well as practicing the view from above, I find myself able to very, very quickly pivot from being concerned or anxious or fearful of some aspect of life, and pivot towards acceptance of my fate and even my death.  For example, I might have a bit of motivation for progressing in my career, but after a spell of bad days and even a poor performance ranking, instead of becoming upset, I very quickly realize these outcomes were not up to me and that ultimately I am a miniscule speck in the vast expanse of the cosmos and that I soon will be dust in that chasm of space and void.

This thinking has the intended effect of not letting circumstances upset me.  But, at times, I don't quite stop there and I spin into this cycle of thinking that since nothing really matters in time and space, why should I try to have motivation at all?  But this way of thinking is folly too.  Therefore, I have to 'tap the breaks' a bit and recall the aim of life - demonstration of excellence of character.

And even when some of my motivation wanes in pursuit of arete, there is this notion of: "I have lived!"  This comes from Montaigne and I found it while reading Hadot.  Montaigne "imagines a person who had done nothing all day long, and he responds, 'What, you have done nothing, but have you not lived!  Is that not the most illustrious of your preoccupations!'" (see The Present Alone is our Happiness, p. 125).  "I have lived!"  Life is tough and simply having lived is sometimes enough - it is a valid way to survive.  Don't remain stuck there, but grant yourself the acceptance when you need it.

Between these two poles: existence and non-existence I must find the balance.  The practices of memento mori and 'view from above' keep me grounded in reality.  But I cannot live at that pole.  And the reminder to carpe diem and to 'suck-the-marrow-out-of-life' can lead to a life of overblown expectations.  Therefore, keeping these two in tension becomes my task.  Personally, I drift very easily toward memento mori and therefore, I have to exert a bit more effort to steer my motivations back toward carpe diem.  I call this memento vivere.

To me, it seems in this 101st letter from Seneca, he is addressing the majority of people who are constantly clawing their way towards what they think is the good, while ignoring the present moment.  We need to go about with our lives, but with our eyes wide open.

how foolish it is to set out one's life, when one is not even owner of the morrow! ... everything is doubtful, even for those who are prosperous.

We must live for the present moment; not in a hedonistic sense, but in a fulfilling, satisfied, wise sense.  As if our life were a work of art and each day we are putting the finishing touches on it.

Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's account every day.  The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time.

Have we paid the dues owed to our soul?  Have we reconciled our divine nature with the Whole?  If so, then we can say,

I have paid my soul its due, when a soundly-balanced mind knows that a day differs not a whit from eternity – whatever days or problems the future may bring – then the soul looks forth from lofty heights and laughs heartily to itself when it thinks upon the ceaseless succession of the ages.

Each day becomes a life unto itself,

whose daily life has been a rounded whole, is easy in his mind; but those who live for hope alone find that the immediate future always slips from their grasp and that greed steals along in its place, and the fear of death, a curse which lays a curse upon everything else.

...

The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Is Philosophy a Luxury? by Pierre Hadot

This is part 12 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

"In general, nonphilosophers consider philosophy to be an abstruse language, an abstract discourse, which a small group of specialists, the only ones able to understand it, develops endlessly on the subject of questions that are incomprehensible and bereft of interest.  It is an occupation reserved for a few privileged people who, thanks to money or to a fortunate concourse of circumstances, have the luxury to engage in it: in other words, a luxury" (p. 186).

He notes that, like art or poetry, philosophy is not a useless luxury.  Rather, it frees us "from utilitarian urgency."  "And it is true that leisure is necessary for this, as leisure is necessary for painting and for composing music and poetry" (p. 187).

"It is precisely the role of philosophy to reveal to men the usefulness or the useless, or, if you will, to teach them to distinguish between two meanings of the word useless.  There is what is useful for a given particular goal: heating, or electricity, or transportation, and there is what is useful to human beings qua human beings, qua thinking beings.  The discourse of philosophy is 'useful' in the latter sense, but it is a luxury if one considers as useful only what serves for particular and material ends" (p. 187).

"What is ultimately the most useful for human beings qua human beings?  Is it discourse on language, or on being and non-being?  Isn't it, rather, to learn how to live a human life?" (p. 188).

"The philosopher was not especially a professor or a writer, but a person who has made a certain choice of life, who has adopted a style of life ... the choice of life was expressed in dogmas" (p. 188).

"Proposing to people the art of living as a human being, they addressed all human beings: slaves, women, and foreigners.  They were missionary and sought to convert the masses" (p. 189).

"But worries, necessities, and the banalities of daily life prevent us from acceding to this conscious life of all its possibilities.  How can one harmoniously unite daily life with philosophical consciousness?  It can only be a fragile conquest, always threatened.  'All that is beautiful,' said Spinoza at the end of Ethics, 'is as difficult as it is rare.'"  And how could the billions of human beings crushed by poverty and suffering achieve this consciousness?  Might not being a philosopher also mean to suffer from this isolation, this privilege, always bearing in mind this drama of the human condition?" (p. 190).

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - What is Ethics? by Pierre Hadot

This is part 11 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Regarding the quest to be your best self -

At the end of the Timaeus, Plato speaks of the most excellent part of ourselves, which we must place in agreement with the harmony of the All.  I was struck, moreover, particularly when commenting on the Manual of Epictetus, to see how the notion of going toward the best, or turning toward the best (p. 176).

...

one might say that it is a quest for a higher state or level of the self (p. 176).

...

All Epictetus' labor consists precisely in trying to make the disciple aware of the fact that we must begin, above all, by sticking with things as they are, that is, with an objective representation ... One very often find lived logic in Marcus Aurelius, but also in Epictetus.  It means becoming aware of destiny, for Stoic philosophy, or else of becoming aware of physical realities, for the Epicureans (p. 177).

...

duties of everyday life ... duty of taking the common good into account (p. 177).

...

there is no separation between everyday life and philosophy (p. 179).

...

One might then speak of silent ethics.  In fact, I have always tended to understand that at the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein considers that his reader has learned enough to leave philosophy behind and enter into wisdom, since wisdom is silent (p. 181).

...

Bergson: 'Philosophy is not the construction of a system, but the resolution, taken once and for all, to look naively within oneself and around oneself' (p. 181).

...

There is no end to philosophy, and it always oscillate between two poles: discourse, and decision about a way of life (p. 181).

...

Nietzsche also says, in a very interesting way, that one must not be afraid of taking a Stoic recipe and then, according to the needs of life, an Epicurean recipe (p. 183).

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - The Present Alone is Our Happiness by Pierre Hadot

This is part 10 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Regarding which attitudes and spiritual exercises Hadot prefers and practices - 

meditation on death ... give, as it were, absolute value to every instant of life ... The thought of death thus led me to this exercise of concentration on the present (p. 162).

Regarding the balance between concentration the present and action and orientation to the future -

implies a double liberation: from the weight of the past, and from fear of the future ... concentration on the present is a concentration on what we can really do (p. 163).

Goethe's Faust II says, "Then the spirit look neither forward nor backward.  The present alone is our happiness."  Hadot is asked "how can one say that the present alone is our happiness?"

He cites a portion of the poem in response, "Do you want to mold yourself a pretty life?  Do not let the past worry you, get angry as little as possible, rejoice in the present, rejoice without ceasing, hate no one, and abandon the future to God" (p. 164).

...

it consists in knowing how to recognize the infinite value of every moment.  In fact, this is very difficult, but it is good to regain awareness of the wealth of the present instant as much as possible (p. 165).

...

Ordinarily our life is always incomplete, in the strongest sense of the term, because we project all our hopes, all our aspirations, all our attention into the future, telling ourselves that we will be happy once we have attained this or that goals.  We are afraid as long as the goal is not attained, but if we attain it, already it no longer interests us and we continue to run after something else.  We do not live, we hope to live, we are waiting to live (p. 166).

How do we overcome this?

an action that is well done [is] done for itself, with attention and consciousness. ... we can tell ourselves, I am here, alive, and that's enough ... we can even add, Here I am, in an immense and wonderful world.  It is this present instant, Marcus Aurelius said, that puts us into contact with the whole cosmos.  At every instant I can think of the indescribable cosmic event of which I am a part ... wonder before the world (p. 166).

Regarding the look from above -

the existence of a look from above is indeed attested among the Greeks and the Romans (p. 167).

... 

this exercise consists in imaginatively traversing the immensity of space, and in accompanying the movement of the stars (p. 167).

...

The contemporary period has achieved flight in space.  And those who have lived this experience underwent an unforgettable shock, and reported ideas and sentiments analogous to what was felt by those who had lived it merely as a spiritual exercise (p. 168).

...

aim for objectivity, the impartiality, of the historian and the scholar, but it is also to detach oneself from oneself, in order to open oneself to a universal perspective ... detach oneself from his egotistical point of view ... leave behind a unilateral view of things, to put onself in the place of others.

He quotes Einstein, again, about the human being as a part of the whole (see quote here).

in order to know the authentic value of a human, one must ask to what degree and to what end he has freed himself from himself. ... an awareness of the duty to put oneself in the service of the human community (p. 169).

...

Socrates, in Plato's Apology, insists a great deal on the fact that he neglects all his personal interests to occupy himself only with others (p. 172).

Regarding wonder and the splendor of existence - 

[seeing the world] for the first time is to get rid of the conventional and routine vision we have of things, to rediscover a raw, naïve vision of reality, to take note of the splendor of the world (p. 173)

...

He quotes Seneca, "it often happens to me to look at is as if I were looking at it for the first time" (p. 173).

...

A true connoisseur of nature must also love its repugnant aspects.  In all the works of nature, he said, there is something wonderful (p. 173).

...

Certain human beings, sometimes, very simple and 'ordinary' ones, as Montaigne remarked, have this courage, and thus gain access to the philosophical life.  Even when they suffer and find themselves in a desperate situation, they sometimes manage to consider existence as something splendid (p. 174).

...

One does not produce this sacred quiver at will, but on the rare occasions that it takes hold of one, one must not attempt to get away from it, because one must have the courage to confront the inexpressible mystery of existence (p. 174).

Friday, September 10, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Unacceptable? by Pierre Hadot

This is part 9 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Regarding how to communicate suggestions for a way of living, he says,

the method of indirect communication.  If one says directly, do this or do that, one dictates a conduct with a tone of false certainty.  But thanks to the description of the spiritual experience lived by another, one can give a glimpse of and suggest a spiritual attitude; one allows a call to be heard that the reader has the freedom to accept or refuse (p. 148).

Regarding memento mori

The exercise of death is in fact an exercise of life (p. 149).

...

to train for dying is in no way to torture one's body; it is 'to train for dying to one's individuality, to one's passions, to see things from the perspective of universality and objectivity ... this does not imply repulsion with regard to the flesh (p. 149).

Regarding the Christian connection to ancient philosophy

the Christians, wanting to seem like a philosophy, generally adopted Platonic philosophy, sometimes tinged with Stoicism (p. 152).

Regarding becoming invulnerable

philosophy is a mode of life ... does not mean that one must slavishly adopt all the attitudes (p. 153).

...

Socrates sincerely loved his children, but he also accepted the order of the world, the will of the gods (p. 153).

...

passions [are] a profound upheaval of intelligence, of insanity ... false judgement ... passions are false judgements ... make [people] lose their head, and [become] incapable of acting (p. 154).

...

the virtues imply respect for the other, whereas the passion of pity basically implies contempt for the other ... one must not allow oneself to be induced into the passion of pity, which disrupts the soul and obscures reason (p. 154).

Regarding desires

All the misfortune of our current civilization is indeed the exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that matter, but especially in the ruling class.  Common mortals can have simpler desires: work, happiness at home, health (p. 156).

...

To be happy, therefore, one must diminish as much as possible the causes of suffering, that is, desires.  [Epicurus] wanted to heal the misfortunes of humans, and therefore recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy, in order to try to be content with the desires that are easer to satisfy ... to eat, to drink, to clothe oneself (p. 157)

Regarding Providence

in the Stoics, one must represent providence not as a divine will interested in all the particular cases, but as on original impulse that instigates the movement of the universe, and the links between cause and effect that constitute destiny (p. 157).

Regarding "anthropological regularities" (e.g. criminal injustices, massacres, provoked famines, misery of the billions)

the Stoics considered there was no evil except in human will.  Thus, for them, what you can anthropological regularities do not belong to the order of the world, and thus, when they speak of collaborating in the work of the Whole, that meant for them recognizing themselves as a part of the universe; a part that, through its existence, contributes in its own way to the general movement of the universe.  It is not that one should consent to everything that is a moral evil, such as injustice and the exploitation of humans by humans, but one should combat it (p. 159)

...

But if action against evil fails, the Stoic is in this case obliged to recognize reality such as it is ... If he is absolutely reduced to powerlessness, he must not revolt uselessly against destiny, but believe that universal Nature and Reason, which here seem to suffer a defeat, since evil seems to be victorious, will be capable of turning what obstructs their path to their favor.  To believe this is to believe in the final triumph of Reason in the World (p. 159).

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - From Socrates to Foucault: A Long Tradition by Pierre Hadot

This is part 8 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

The modern day problem of philosophy is a matter of getting it out of the books and into our way of life.  Hadot quotes Merleau-Ponty:

Philosophy put into books no longer accosts people.  What is unusual and almost unbearable in it has hidden itself in the decent life of the great systems (p. 121).

...

if Socrates was a philosopher, it was by walking with his friends, eating with them, discussing with them, going like them to war, and finally drinking the hemlock, not by teaching from the height of a podium.  Thus he showed that everyday life makes it possible to do philosophy (p. 121).

...

Socrates' greatness was to be able to play with children, and to consider that this was time well spent.  Montaigne admires Socrates' capacity to adapt to all circumstances of life, to war and to peace, to abundance and to famine, to ecstasy and to play ... [this example] gives humble and simple folks the courage to live and to die, without need for all the philosophers' discourses.  Socrates lives a human life fully and simply (p. 122).

... 

When Socrates says, 'We owe a cock to Asclepius' it "suggests that Socrates wants to make a sacrifice of gratitude to the god of medicine, for having cured him of life.  Could it be that life, existence, is an illness? ... is not that life in itself is an illness, but that the life of the body is an illness, and that the only true life is the life of the soul (p. 122-123).

Hadot notes that Montaigne is the one "who best understood the essence of Socrates" (p. 124).

Montaigne "opposed well-made heads to head that are well-filled."  He imagines a person who had done nothing all day long, and he responds, "What, you have done nothing, but have you not lived!  Is that not the most illustrious of your preoccupations!"  Hadot continues, "Nietzsche echoes him in this respect, in his claim that human institutions aim at preventing human beings from sensing their lives.  One finds in this passage from Montaigne the recognition of the infinite value of life itself, of existence; this reverses all habitual values, and especially the pervasive idea that what counts above all is to do something, whereas for Montaigne what is more important is to be" (p. 125).

Regarding clarity, Hadot states, "Sometimes one also has the impression that it is a game for the philosopher, who, as we were saying, always has a natural inclination to listen to himself talk and to watch himself write" (p. 130).

Hadot does not prefer the notion of the existentialists about the notion of the absurdity of life.  He finds it "repulsive" and goes on to say, "As soon as God is dead there is no longer any justification of existence; therefore existence is absurd.  Personally, I do not perceive it absurd.  I prefer Merleau-Ponty's position ... 'The world and reason do not pose a problem; one might say that they are mysterious, but this mystery defines them.  There can be no question of dissipating it by some solution; it falls short of solutions.  Real philosophy is to learn to see the world again."

Hadot continues, "Astonishment, wonder before an inexplicable outpouring: I agree - but why nausea?" (p. 131).

Spiritual exercises are often language games, in which one tells oneself a phrase to provoke an effect, whether on others, or on oneself (p. 135).

...

The Stoics would have rejected this idea of an ethics of pleasure.  They were careful to distinguish pleasure and joy: joy, for them - joy, and not pleasure - was to be found not simply in the self, but in the best part of the self.  Seneca find joy no in Seneca, but in Seneca identified with universal Reason.  One rises from one level of the self to another, transcendent level (p. 136).

...

For me, what counts is above all the effort to pass from one perspective to another (p. 137).

...

It seems to me that seeing things in a universal perspective necessarily lead to recognizing certain permanent values: respect for the human person, respect for life, respect for the gift of language, to mention only a few (p. 139).

Regarding philosophies in other cultures, he says, "Now I have changed my mind somewhat, by observing undeniable analogies between Chinese thought and Greek philosophy.  I have spoken about the attitude of indifference toward things, a sort of Stoic attitude; one might also add the notion of instant illumination.  I explain to myself these analogies, not in terms of historical relations, but by the fact that analogous spiritual attitudes can be found in different cultures" (p. 144).