Thursday, June 17, 2021

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

On the Diseases of the Soul

Two main ideas are addressed in this letter.

1. how to conduct philosophical discourse

2. three classes of prokoptons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class One - people who have

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

He notes the difference between disease and passion.

Disease represents

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

Passion, on the other hand, is 

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

Class Two - people who have 

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

Class Three - people who are

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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

On Virtue as a Refuge from Worldly Distractions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtue and excellence of soul do not need indifferents.

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

He continues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca makes the point clear about preferred indifferents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is a Stoic emotionless?  No.

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

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

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

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 73 - On Philosophers and Kings

On Philosophers and Kings

It seems there is an accusation or belief that philosophers are "stubborn and rebellious, scorners of magistrates or kings or of those who control the administration of public affairs."  But Seneca contends it is the opposite; that philosophers ought to appreciate kings and public officials, who make the city and country a place where it is possible for philosophers to study and practice their theories.  He states,

those who are greatly profited, as regards their purpose of right living, by the security of the State, must needs cherish as a father the author of this good; much more so, at any rate, than those restless persons who are always in the public eye.

The assumption here, from what I understand, is that kings and public officials are not tyrants and have done an adequate job at securing some degree of peace and prosperity for most of their citizens.  Otherwise, I can't fathom how philosophers would or could extend gratitude to them if they were tyrants or dictators.

He does mention the ungrateful and covetous people, who perhaps are the types of people who eventually turn into tyrants.

there is no greater evil in covetousness than its ingratitude. ...  That is the trouble with every sort of ambition; it does not look back. Nor is it ambition alone that is fickle, but also every sort of craving, because it always begins where it ought to end.

But the good men in public life, who know the difficulties of governing, they more fully appreciate those who remain in public life and who continue to work to secure peace and prosperity for the people.

that other man, upright and pure, who has left the senate and the bar and all affairs of state, that he may retire to nobler affairs, cherishes those who have made it possible for him to do this in security ... the sage honours these men, also, under whose guardianship he can put his good theories into practice. ... the benefits of this peace, which extends to all, are more deeply appreciated by those who make good use of it.

Seneca seems to take a practical perspective and appreciates the work public officials do.  Just as the sun shines on all, as does the rain fall on all, what matters is our individual attitude.  We ought to acknowledge this fact and realize it is not our individual wishes which have made these things so.  Yet nonetheless, we can still show gratitude.

I owe a great debt to the sun and to the moon; and yet they do not rise for me alone. I am personally beholden to the seasons and to the god who controls them, although in no respect have they been apportioned for my benefit. ... But our philosopher considers nothing more truly his own than that which he shares in partnership with all mankind. ... the great and true goods are not divided in such a manner that each has but a slight interest; they belong in their entirety to each individual.

Seneca continues the letter with a reminder of focusing on what is up to us, which does not require division and sharing with others.

These goods, however, are indivisible, – I mean peace and liberty, – and they belong in their entirety to all men just as much as they belong to each individual.

And then he continues with his gratitude towards those who govern.

the philosopher thinks of the person who makes it possible for him to use and enjoy these things ... he gives thanks to the helmsman of his state. This is what philosophy teaches most of all, – honourably to avow the debt of benefits received, and honourably to pay them.

Next, Seneca briefly returns to the topic of virtue and excellence.  Virtue is independent of time.  Seneca uses the example of Zeus (Nature) as well as two wise men, one who lives briefly and one who lives longer, to make his point.

In what respect is Jupiter superior to our good man? His goodness lasts longer; but the wise man does not set a lower value upon himself, just because his virtues are limited by a briefer span. Or take two wise men; he who has died at a greater age is not happier than he whose virtue has been limited to fewer years: similarly, a god has no advantage over a wise man in point of happiness, even though he has such an advantage in point of years. That virtue is not greater which lasts longer.

The way to virtue is via knowledge and moral ethics.  Seneca quotes Sextius.

"This is 'the way to the stars'; this is the way, by observing thrift, self-restraint, and courage!"

Seneca closes the letter in a way that is similar to the parable of the ground and seeds, which Jesus taught.  It seems that both analogies focus on the good nature of the seed, but the different way that the seed is received is what matters if the seed grows or not.  In Jesus' parable, the soil represents our unique choice as to whether the seed takes root or not.  Similarly, in Seneca's analogy, the way the husbandman receives the seed determines if the roots (the good) take hold or not.

Here is the link to Jesus' parable and below is the passage from Seneca.

Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat.

To be more clear, from a Stoic perspective - each of us has divinity within ("divine seeds"), which is pneuma.  What we choose to do with that divinity is up to us.  We can either give in to vice or we can demonstrate excellence of character by exercising moral, ethical excellence, by rationally and actively choosing to live and act this way.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 72 - On Business as the Enemy of Philosophy

On Business as the Enemy of Philosophy

The hard work of setting a life course of action and living must never be delayed.  Not even the matters of the day and business ought to get in the way of pursuing the love of wisdom.

Seneca has taken time to learn and apply the lessons of philosophy, but every so often, he must review what he has learned so he has his principles at the ready - like a boxer whose hands are always ready to fight.

my mind needs to be unrolled, and whatever has been stored away there ought to be examined from time to time, so that it may be ready for use when occasion demands.

Even when our day is packed with things to do, we must make time to keep up the study and application of philosophy.  Don't procrastinate the important work of philosophy.

the study of philosophy is not to be postponed until you have leisure; everything else is to be neglected in order that we may attend to philosophy, for no amount of time is long enough for it ... We must resist the affairs which occupy our time; they must not be untangled, but rather put out of the way. Indeed, there is no time that is unsuitable for helpful studies; and yet many a man fails to study amid the very circumstances which make study necessary.

The task is urgent and we have to reach escape velocity to overcome the gravity of the daily business which tries to suck us back to the mundane.

We must resist the affairs which occupy our time; they must not be untangled, but rather put out of the way. Indeed, there is no time that is unsuitable for helpful studies; and yet many a man fails to study amid the very circumstances which make study necessary.

The very problems we may complain about, can be resolved by the study and application of philosophy.  Therefore, if we are to fix ourselves, we must not put off the work that will address the root causes of our ailments.  If you are saying, "I don't have time to study philosophy and apply it because I have too many other concerns and work to do," then you are falling for the trap and will be stuck in a loop called the rat race of life.  Like a hamster who runs and spins on a wheel endlessly and goes nowhere.

He then returns to the standard of the wise man and describes his equanimity and unassailable fortress.

the joy of a wise man, on the other hand, is a woven fabric, rent by no chance happening and by no change of fortune; at all times and in all places he is at peace. For his joy depends on nothing external and looks for no boon from man or fortune. His happiness is something within himself; it would depart from his soul if it entered in from the outside; it is born there.  Sometimes an external happening reminds him of his mortality, but it is a light blow, and merely grazes the surface of his skin.  Some trouble, I repeat, may touch him like a breath of wind, but that Supreme Good of his is unshaken.

The description above sounds similar to Marcus' description of his inner citadel.

The aim and object of philosophy is to heal one's mind.  He describes what a healthy mind looks like.

the mind is content with its own self; if it has confidence in itself; if it understands that all those things for which men pray, all the benefits which are bestowed and sought for, are of no importance in relation to a life of happiness; under such conditions it is sound. For anything that can be added to is imperfect; anything that can suffer loss is not lasting; but let the man whose happiness is to be lasting, rejoice in what is truly his own. 

And while the sage does not come along very often, similar to the regeneration of the phoenix, the rest of us can still strive and make some progress to wisdom.  We are 

those who toy with wisdom; they have not indeed touched it, but yet are in sight of it, and have it, so to speak, within striking distance. They are not dashed about, nor do they drift back either; they are not on dry land, but are already in port.

And until we reach sage hood or until our death, we

we should not give ourselves up to matters which occupy our time ... [we should] resist [these matters] in their early stages. It is better that they shall never begin than that they shall be made to cease.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 71 - On the Supreme Good

On the Supreme Good

Advice should be unique and as timely as possible.

For advice conforms to circumstances; and our circumstances are carried along, or rather whirled along. Accordingly, advice should be produced at short notice; and even this is too late; it should "grow while we work,"

A coach will take the same approach, by observing the student and see the gaps between the standard and what the student lacks.  If the coach can give the feedback in the moment, the student will learn better and more quickly.

A great many flounder in life (including me) because we have been programmed by our parents, friends, teachers, clergy leaders and others.  And these people, perhaps, have been floundering too, guessing as they go along.  Many of us have no choice but to learn as we live.  Better would be to figure out the Supreme Good first and then endeavor to achieve it.

As often as you wish to know what is to be avoided or what is to be sought, consider its relation to the Supreme Good, to the purpose of your whole life. For whatever we do ought to be in harmony with this; no man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose of his life.

Calvin was on to something when he quipped to his teacher! (source)

Seneca further states

The artist may have his colours all prepared, but he cannot produce a likeness unless he has already made up his mind what he wishes to paint.  The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole.

If we begin with the end in mind (live according to Nature), our mistakes may be fewer, en route to our art of living well.

He references the example of the archer and the sailor.

The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill. Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

And what is the Supreme Good?

the Supreme Good is that which is honourable.  Besides (and you may be still more surprised at this), that which is honourable is the only good; all other goods are alloyed and debased.  If you once convince yourself of this, and if you come to love virtue devotedly.

He continues a little later in the letter:

there is nothing good except that which is honourable, and all hardships will have a just title to the name of "goods," when once virtue has made them honourable.  Many think that we Stoics are holding out expectations greater than our human lot admits of; and they have a right to think so. For they have regard to the body only. But let them turn back to the soul, and they will soon measure man by the standard of God.

The sole good is our virtuous, excellent, rational, character, which should be noble, wise, honorable, courageous, just and temperate regardless of fate, fortune or circumstances.

He quotes Socrates, who say, "if only virtue dwells with you, you will suffer nothing."

For my part, I love the word: equanimity.  It evokes the idea of not ever being disturbed nor overjoyed by events.  It brings to mind the idea of rationally choosing the wise response and attitude to any given circumstance or event.  It's choosing the wise response to a cancer diagnosis or a promotion.  You neither succumb to despair nor are overcome with joy, respectively.

Seneca writes:

it is by the same virtue that evil fortune is overcome and good fortune is controlled. Virtue, however, cannot be increased or decreased; its stature is uniform.

After providing examples from Cato's life, he notes,

Cato will bear with an equally stout heart anything that thwarts him of his victory, as he bore that which thwarted him of his praetorship. The day whereon he failed of election, he spent in play; the night wherein he intended to die, he spent in reading.  He regarded in the same light both the loss of his praetorship and the loss of his life; he had convinced himself that he ought to endure anything which might happen. 

And despite seeing his beloved Republic fall to a tyrant, he wisely considered that the stars and the earth too will fall someday.  Change is constant, as Seneca observes.

For what is free from the risk of change? Neither earth, nor sky, nor the whole fabric of our universe, though it be controlled by the hand of God. It will not always preserve its present order; it will be thrown from its course in days to come.  All things move in accord with their appointed times; they are destined to be born, to grow, and to be destroyed. The stars which you see moving above us, and this seemingly immovable earth to which we cling and on which we are set, will be consumed and will cease to exist. There is nothing that does not have its old age; the intervals are merely unequal at which Nature sends forth all these things towards the same goal.

He quotes Cato again, calling him wise.

"The whole race of man, both that which is and that which is to be, is condemned to die. Of all the cities that at any time have held sway over the world, and of all that have been the splendid ornaments of empires not their own, men shall some day ask where they were, and they shall be swept away by destructions of various kinds; some shall be ruined by wars, others shall be wasted away by inactivity and by the kind of peace which ends in sloth, or by that vice which is fraught with destruction even for mighty dynasties, – luxury. All these fertile plains shall be buried out of sight by a sudden overflowing of the sea, or a slipping of the soil, as it settles to lower levels, shall draw them suddenly into a yawning chasm. Why then should I be angry or feel sorrow, if I precede the general destruction by a tiny interval of time?"

Returning to describing the Supreme Good, he further describes it.

Just as truth does not grow, so neither does virtue grow ... virtue [is] high-spirited and exalted ... Wisdom will bring the conviction that there is but one good – that which is honourable; that this can neither be shortened nor extended, any more than a carpenter's rule, with which straight lines are tested, can be bent. Any change in the rule means spoiling the straight line.  Applying, therefore, this same figure to virtue, we shall say: Virtue also is straight, and admits of no bending.

Therefore, virtue can be applied to any circumstance and you will see if a man measures up to it or fails.  And because so few demonstrate arete, we can be sure to "reserve [our] wonderment for cases where a man is lifted up when all others sink, and keeps his footing when all others are prostrate."

The Stoic sage is one learns and lives according to knowledge and right reason all the time.  The sage truly lives according to Nature.  The Stoic sage

stands erect under any load. Nothing can subdue him; nothing that must be endured annoys him. For he does not complain that he has been struck by that which can strike any man. ... [he is a person] whose virtue is complete, loves himself most of all when his bravery has been submitted to the severest test, and when he not only, endures but welcomes that which all other men regard with fear, if it is the price which he must pay for the performance of a duty which honour imposes, and he greatly prefers to have men say of him: "how much more noble!" rather than "how much more lucky!"

While many of us are mere prokoptons striving to improve, we should do well to remember that we will not attain sage hood in one leap, if ever.  It takes multiple attempts at learning and practicing to approach Stoic sage hood.

Just as wool takes up certain colours at once, while there are others which it will not absorb unless it is soaked and steeped in them many times; so other systems of doctrine can be immediately applied by men's minds after once being accepted, but this system of which I speak, unless it has gone deep and has sunk in for a long time, and has not merely coloured but thoroughly permeated the soul, does not fulfil any of its promises. 

Improvement may come, but so too will setbacks.  The key is to not give up - to continue to strive.

That which is short of perfection must necessarily be unsteady, at one time progressing, at another slipping or growing faint; and it will surely slip back unless it keeps struggling ahead; for if a man slackens at all in zeal and faithful application, he must retrograde. No one can resume his progress at the point where he left off.  Therefore let us press on and persevere. There remains much more of the road than we have put behind us; but the greater part of progress is the desire to progress.

We must strive to be in control of our absolute freedom and therefore our own time.  We cannot delay in letting others decide our attitude and character.  Only then, will we be able to fully use our time allotted to us by Nature.

Let us see to it that all time belongs to us. This, however, cannot be unless first of all our own selves begin to belong to us.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 70 - On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable

On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable

This post deals with and discusses suicide.

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

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

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

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

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

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

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

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


I've contemplated taking my life.  In 2014, I was perhaps at the closest point to seriously taking it.  But as I considered the impact on my children and wife, I decided I needed help and therefore, I sought a therapist who helped me see a clearer path.  Things and life were not as dark as I was making them out to be in my mind.  I didn't have any problems that were worth dying to avoid.

Around that same time, perhaps in 2013 or 2014, I began to drink coffee and found it to be a wonderful antidote to contemplating suicide so often.  Later, I learned of a quote that has been attributed to Albert Camus which goes: "Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?"  My new found love of coffee coupled with that quote resonated with me.  It's an absurd way to reframe life's challenges and problems to the point that if I ever went to that dark place, I could ask myself that question and almost all the time, I would prefer to simply go have a cup of coffee.  It became my internal rallying cry in the years 2015-2017.

I continued to see a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for about 4 months in 2014, after which I learned of the connection between CBT and Stoicism and the rest is history.  I hardly ever contemplate suicide these days, but I do contemplate my own death.  For the Stoics, death (suicide) was always open.  Seneca gets into it a bit here in the 70th letter from a Stoic.

Just a bit more commentary about suicide before delving into the letter.  I was listening to a Victor Davis Hanson podcast last week and he discussed this ancient concept of luxury and decadence (link to podcast, go to minute 45:01) and it got me thinking about how we, in this modern era and particularly in the west, have become decadent.  And, I think several years back, I was prone to consider that life was bad, when in actuality, it really wasn't that bad!  In a sense, I had become decadent.  Temporally speaking, our society has had it quite easy - air conditioning, cars, indoor plumbing, heated water at the turn of the tap, massive amounts of data and information in our pocket at all times and ample time to sit in leisure and comfort.  Just today, the jobs report for the United States came out, and one news story noted:

However, that drop in the jobless rate also came alongside an unexpected drop in the labor force participation rate to 61.6% from the 61.7% in May, suggesting a smaller share of Americans out of work returned to the labor force to look for or take new jobs.

This indicates that anxiety to work and provide for families and people is less urgent.  Stated differently, people don't feel the need to work, perhaps because of unemployment benefits and the greater application of Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Again - what is my point?  To show that to live and survive is not that difficult compared to many people living in 3rd world countries today as well as compared to people who lived decades and centuries ago.  For me personally, it shows my excuses and complaints were and are small and I really didn't and don't have such a great grievance to justify contemplating taking my life.  This theme will emerge a bit in Seneca's letter.

He begins the letter by comparing life with a voyage.  Some reach the destination slowly; others quickly.

if a man has reached this harbour in his early years, he has no more right to complain than a sailor who has made a quick voyage. For some sailors, as you know, are tricked and held back by sluggish winds, and grow weary and sick of the slow-moving calm; while others are carried quickly home by steady gales.  You may consider that the same thing happens to us: life has carried some men with the greatest rapidity to the harbour, the harbour they were bound to reach even if they tarried on the way, while others it has fretted and harassed.

He then gets into the quality of life, which is what wisdom seeks.  It's not so much about quantity or length.

mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.  He will mark in what place, with whom, and how he is to conduct his existence, and what he is about to do. He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.

If you lead a rational life, you will contemplate this idea: that a life worth living, is also worth living well.  And once you've determined it's worth living, then your task is to live it well and even to end it well.  I've heard a similar sentiment about one's career.  Several people and managers at work say that as long as their job is interesting, they show up to work.  They realize that some days are just horrible, long and disastrous.  But they know that not all days are like that.  They also think about where they ought to draw the line of continuing to show up at work or to resign or retire.  One manager said that as long as he has 3 good days, he can accept a couple of bad days a week.  But as soon as it becomes 3 and then 4 bad days, he'll know when to call it quits.  It seems that Seneca is saying something similar with regard to living.

Seneca even offers an example of living ill (the opposite of living well).

This person was thrown into a cage by his tyrant, and fed there like some wild animal. And when a certain man advised him to end his life by fasting, he replied: "A man may hope for anything while he has life."  This may be true; but life is not to be purchased at any price. No matter how great or how well-assured certain rewards may be I shall not strive to attain them at the price of a shameful confession of weakness.

In other words, just because you can live doesn't not mean you ought to.  Living well is the goal of a philosopher and a good human.

Socrates continued to live well (rather than take his own life) and to prove a point (teach) his friends and the Athenians.

Socrates might have ended his life by fasting; he might have died by starvation rather than by poison. But instead of this he spent thirty days in prison awaiting death, not with the idea "everything may happen," or "so long an interval has room for many a hope" but in order that he might show himself submissive to the laws and make the last moments of Socrates an edification to his friends.

In living and in choosing death, we should do both rationally.

Do not be mindless about living or dying.  But have a purpose.  Seneca writes:

Every man ought to make his life acceptable to others besides himself, but his death to himself alone. The best form of death is the one we like.  Men are foolish who reflect thus: "One person will say that my conduct was not brave enough; another, that I was too headstrong; a third, that a particular kind of death would have betokened more spirit." What you should really reflect is: "I have under consideration a purpose with which the talk of men has no concern!"

A rational being will seek and know his purpose, though it is not an easy task.  A wise person, therefore, will not simply default into the thinking of: "I'll let Nature decide when I die."  Rather, the wise person will know why he lives and when he should die.  If he complains about living, then perhaps he does not know his reason for living.  But Nature has given every one of us the choice to die or keep on living.  Seneca echoes the idea often written by Marcus Aurelius.

This is the one reason why we cannot complain of life: it keeps no one against his will. Humanity is well situated, because no man is unhappy except by his own fault. Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place whence you came.

If you desire to hold on to life as long as possible, then pivot your thinking that your body is similar to a home: you can't live there forever.

Live in it as if you were about to leave it. Keep thinking of the fact that some day you will be deprived of this tenure; then you will be more brave against the necessity of departing.

While fortune may not test us on other matters and therefore we must practice them on our own (poverty, hardships, etc), there is one thing we must prepare for yet can't practice: our death.  Therefore, we ought to contemplate death often.

Seneca next goes into various examples of people who were put in horrible circumstances, and were prevented from killing themselves at every turn.  Yet, they sill managed!  Seneca cites these examples to prove that the door to leave life is, indeed, open to all.  He cites gladiators who shoved a wood stick tipped with a sponge down their throats, and who broke their necks with the spokes of a cart wheel while it was moving and one who used a spear to kill himself, by shoving it down his throat.  Again, the point of which is to prove that death is open to us all and that "the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery."

And, if death is open to the lowest of people (gladiators), then why should it not be available to rational people as well.

If such a spirit is possessed by abandoned and dangerous men, shall it not be possessed also by those who have trained themselves to meet such contingencies by long meditation, and by reason, the mistress of all things? It is reason which teaches us that fate has various ways of approach, but the same end, and that it makes no difference at what point the inevitable event begins.  Reason, too, advises us to die, if we may, according to our taste; if this cannot be, she advises us to die according to our ability, and to seize upon whatever means shall offer itself for doing violence to ourselves.

 In sum, the takeaways are:

- seek help if you are suicidal

- stay alive to find your purpose

- live with a purpose

- live rationally

- contemplate death - it is all our fates

- as far as you can, rationally choose your death

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 69 - On Rest and Restlessness

On Rest and Restlessness

The previous letter discussed retirement from work.  It would seem this letter is somewhat of a continuation, as Seneca advises Lucilius to cease his meandering and itchy legs.

the spirit cannot through retirement grow into unity unless it has ceased from its inquisitiveness and its wanderings.

As one enters a retirement phase of life and takes on more hours to the study of philosophy, he must focus and attempt to unify his soul and actions.  Too long, one has given into the things of indifferents and now one must direct his full attention to the pursuit of wisdom.

Give your eyes time to unlearn what they have seen, and your ears to grow accustomed to more wholesome words. ...  he who would lay aside his desire for all the things which he used to crave so passionately, must turn away both eyes and ears from the objects which he has abandoned.

Therefore, while in retirement and in a focused pursuit of love of wisdom, one must turn away from what he lusted after most of his life.  A whole life-time is not enough to rid oneself of all vices, let alone a few decades of retirement.  Therefore, in retirement, all the more sense of urgency ought to be applied.

Vices tempt you by the rewards which they offer; but in the life of which I speak, you must live without being paid. Scarcely will a whole life-time suffice to bring our vices into subjection ... Even constant care and attention can scarcely bring any one undertaking to full completion.

I don't know what my own retirement from the workforce will be like.  I've often contemplated that it ought to be lived in quiet and in minimalist fashion, rather than buying a large home and expensive cars.  I think what retirement has in the cards for my wife and I is a small, but comfortable home, cars that get us there and time with kids and grandkids well spent.  And the rest of my time, I hope, will be spent reading, writing and teaching philosophy to others, while continuing my own pursuit of wise and just and temperate living.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 68 - On Wisdom and Retirement

On Wisdom and Retirement

The three big points I gleaned from this letter are:

1. a Stoic (cosmopolitan) never retires from the universe

2. hide your retirement (from the daily grind) in plain sight

3. in the pursuit of wisdom, it's better late than never

The Cosmopolitan's Work Never Stops

While a Stoic may decide to retire from employment, he ought to have learned he never retires from the Cosmos.  He still yet has work to accomplish.

when we have assigned to our wise man that field of public life which is worthy of him, – in other words, the universe, – he is then not apart from public life, even if he withdraws; nay, perhaps he has abandoned only one little corner thereof and has passed over into greater and wider regions; and when he has been set in the heavens, he understands how lowly was the place in which he sat when he mounted the curule chair or the judgment-seat. Lay this to heart, – that the wise man is never more active in affairs than when things divine as well as things human have come within his ken.

In his retirement from employment, he has work on his soul yet to accomplish.  He may spend time reflecting on wisdom and perhaps he may observe that he can share this wisdom with those who still have years of life left on this rock floating in the Cosmos.  When the retired Stoic begins to see the divine as well as daily human affairs, perhaps he can share counsel for his fellow-travelers who will cross the path he treads today.

Retirement from Employment Ought to be Hidden in Plain Sight

Making a show of your retirement from employment may attract attention.  The flash of expensive cars and big homes may indicate the wealth you have amassed over a lifetime of work, but to satisfy the ego may welcome prying eyes and thieves.  Therefore, Seneca advocates us to not "vaunt one's retirement" but that we also ought not to "[withdraw] from the sight of men" as this also is a form of vaunting.  To vaunt also means to advertise and "to advertise one's retirement is to collect a crowd."

Therefore, retire from your employment, but do it in plain sight.  Perhaps, find a home that suits your needs rather than your ego.  Drive a car that gets you to where you need to go, but no need to be flamboyant.  I can't help but think of Sam Walton driving the same truck from 1979 to 1992, even after earning millions of dollars.

Retirement from Employment, but not from Work

And even after you retire from employment, you still have work to do.

When you withdraw from the world your business is to talk with yourself, not to have men talk about you. But what shall you talk about? Do just what people are fond of doing when they talk about their neighbours, – speak ill of yourself when by yourself; then you will become accustomed both to speak and to hear the truth. Above all, however, ponder that which you come to feel is your greatest weakness.

When the lionshare of our day is no longer spent in work meetings, then we will have time to hone in on our weakness, in order to correct them.  If others were to spot our weaknesses, what would they say?  This is how we ought to approach finding our weaknesses when we have much more time on our hands.

What, then, am I myself doing with my leisure? I am trying to cure my own sores ...  I do recommend retirement to you, but only that you may use it for greater and more beautiful activities than those which you have resigned.

But what is the point of self-improvement at such a late stage of life?

Let us do what men are wont to do when they are late in setting forth, and wish to make up for lost time by increasing their speed – let us ply the spur ... I shall depart a better man.

If you are convinced there is a path to wisdom, then get yourself going on the path.  Never deviate from the path once you are convinced.  And if you've not achieved the attainment of wisdom before you retire from your active life, then use your new-found time to pursue this noble quest.  You will have departed this life "a better man."

None of us know what awaits us after death.  Perhaps we have lived and will thousands of times as part of the Eternal Recurrence or perhaps we regress or progress into another life based on Buddhist reincarnation.  Or, maybe this is the only life we will live and there is nothing before or after it.  Regardless of your perspective, I think there is a case to be made that we should never give up our quest for wisdom and improving ourselves.  Our allotted time is sufficient; we simply need enough urgency to get going and to keep pursuing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 67 - On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering

On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering

Premise: the good is desirable

Premise: to be courageous under torture is good

Therefore: we should desire torture

More or less, that is the claim Lucilius seems to be making, to which Seneca replies:

there is something in them that is to be desired. I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage. Of course I prefer that war should not occur; but if war does occur, I shall desire that I may nobly endure the wounds, the starvation, and all that the exigency of war brings. Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships.

The concept of "preferred indifferents" emerges strongly in this passage.  The Stoic knows that Fortune or Fate will make us prosperous or poor; it may ravage our body with sickness or grant us long-lasting health and life; it may cause war and famine to sweep over our country or it may grant us peace.  Regardless of these circumstances, we, rational beings, will choose how we react to each event - this is 'up to us' - we choose (or not) to exercise moral virtue.  But, back to the point that Lucilius raises and Seneca addresses.  Ought a Stoic to desire torture?  Seneca would respond: 'no, but she ought to desire to demonstrate excellence of soul if her fate placed torture in her path.'  In this example, 'torture' would be a "non-preferred indifferent."

Sellars quotes Cicero:

All other things, he [Zeno] said, were neither good nor bad, but nevertheless some of them were in accordance with Nature and others contrary to Nature; also among these he counted another interposed or intermediate class of things. He taught that things in accordance with Nature were to be chosen and estimated as having a certain value, and their opposites the opposite, while things that were neither he left in the intermediate class. Th ese he declared to possess no motive force whatever, but among things to be chosen some were to be deemed of more value and others of less: the more valuable he termed “preferred”, the less valuable, “rejected” [i.e. “non-preferred”]. (Acad. 1.36–7) (see Sellars, Stoicism, p. 111).

While a Stoic may voluntarily endure hardships to toughen herself, she does not seek them out per se.  She would prefer life over death; health over illness; peace over war.  But regardless of what Fate sends her way, she will act with virtue in every case.

Many in the ancient world clearly knew that all of us will reap the same, ultimate fate: death.  Therefore, what many sought and preferred, was to die for a cause (as opposed for no cause, or needlessly).  A stark example today would be: would you prefer to die of a heart attack while eating ice cream and cake or would you prefer to die by throwing yourself on a grenade to save your platoon?  One death demonstrates a preference for vice while another demonstrates courage and love of brother.

Do you doubt, then, whether it is best to die glorious and performing some deed of valour? When one endures torture bravely, one is using all the virtues. Endurance may perhaps be the only virtue that is on view and most manifest; but bravery is there too, and endurance and resignation and long-suffering are its branches.

In many cases, Fate throws surprises at us and in a single reaction, we demonstrate an amazing act of virtue - such as taking a bullet for a brother.  Other acts of Fate are slow and the Stoic who demonstrates a deep understanding of cause and effect, knows what awaits him and still makes the rational choice to demonstrate excellence.

There, too, is foresight; for without foresight no plan can be undertaken; it is foresight that advises one to bear as bravely as possible the things one cannot avoid.

Seneca's words from ancient Rome echo still today.  What we witness on social media, in public and on television is an unending stream of examples of people seeking pleasure at all costs and avoiding virtue.  A wise person will pause and reflect on the perspectives of aimless people as well as how a excellent human being appears.

withdraw for a little space from the opinions of the common man. Form a proper conception of the image of virtue, a thing of exceeding beauty and grandeur; this image is not to be worshipped by us with incense or garlands, but with sweat and blood.

Seneca concludes with a couple of examples and admonishes us to amor fati.

I think of our friend Demetrius, who calls an easy existence, untroubled by the attacks of Fortune, a "Dead Sea."  If you have nothing to stir you up and rouse you to action, nothing which will test your resolution by its threats and hostilities; if you recline in unshaken comfort, it is not tranquillity; it is merely a flat calm.

The Stoic Attalus was wont to say: "I should prefer that Fortune keep me in her camp rather than in the lap of luxury. If I am tortured, but bear it bravely, all is well; if I die, but die bravely, it is also well."

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 66 - On Various Aspects of Virtue

On Various Aspects of Virtue

The Stoic motto "live according to Nature" has multiple levels of meaning.  This letter discusses one of those levels

He speaks of a friend, who's body is feeble and weak, but who's spirit and character is great.  He contemplates how Nature (i.e. the Universe / Cosmos / God) proves to us (humanity) that it is the soul - the character - that matters more than the body.

For Nature acted unfairly when she gave him a poor domicile for so rare a soul; or perhaps it was because she wished to prove to us that an absolutely strong and happy mind can lie hidden under any exterior. ... A great man can spring from a hovel; so can a beautiful and great soul from an ugly and insignificant body. For this reason Nature seems to me to breed certain men of this stamp with the idea of proving that virtue springs into birth in any place whatever. ... Nature does a still greater thing, for she produces certain men who, though hampered in their bodies, none the less break through the obstruction.

This last part, when he speaks of certain men who "break through the obstruction" reminds me of Marcus Aurelius speaking of the obstacle being way.  To be clear, the body is a Stoic indifferent.  It is not the Good, as it is a thing that does not depend on the truly unique part of us.  In the example of Seneca's friend, his body is the obstacle and the way for him to demonstrate excellence of soul or character is to prove that one can demonstrate courage, justice, diligence and wisdom regardless of the condition of your body.  I think of Stephen Hawking as a modern example.

The next section is about his conversation with his friend.

how can goods be equal if they are of three kinds?  For certain of them, according to our philosophical tenets, are primary, such as joy, peace, and the welfare of one's country. Others are of the second order, moulded in an unhappy material, such as the endurance of suffering, and self-control during severe illness. We shall pray outright for the goods of the first class; for the second class we shall pray only if the need shall arise. There is still a third variety, as, for example, a modest gait, a calm and honest countenance, and a bearing that suits the man of wisdom.

When he talks of three kinds of goods, I think he's referring to Stoic indifferents.  The first kind would be preferred indifferents.  And when he says "pray" I interpret that to mean more like 'prefer' or 'wish' as opposed to formal prayers.

A Stoic does not act indifferently to Stoic indifferents.  These Stoic indifferents are the material for demonstrating excellence of character.  In all three types of indifferents Seneca mentions, our goal is to rise above them.  Seneca elaborates:

the soul that gazes upon truth, that is skilled in what should be sought and what should be avoided, establishing standards of value not according to opinion, but according to nature, – the soul that penetrates the whole world and directs its contemplating gaze upon all its phenomena, paying strict attention to thoughts and actions, equally great and forceful, superior alike to hardships and blandishments, yielding itself to neither extreme of fortune, rising above all blessings and tribulations, absolutely beautiful, perfectly equipped with grace as well as with strength, healthy and sinewy, unruffled, undismayed, one which no violence can shatter, one which acts of chance can neither exalt nor depress, – a soul like this is virtue itself.

If I were to rephrase briefly, I would say an excellent soul is neither overcome with joy nor defeated by pain, but retains equanimity in all things and strives to see all things and events from the perspective of Nature; of God.

He continues;

For the Supreme Good cannot diminish, nor may virtue retrograde; rather is it transformed, now into one quality and now into another, shaping itself according to the part which it is to play.  Whatever it has touched it brings into likeness with itself, and dyes with its own colour. It adorns our actions, our friendships, and sometimes entire households which it has entered and set in order. Whatever it has handled it forthwith makes lovable, notable, admirable.

I may be wrong and perhaps others will inform me of how to comprehend this passage.  But it seems to me, that Seneca is saying that the "Supreme Good" is Nature; and as we humans are a part of Nature, we exercise what is truly ours - choice and attitude - to understand our part to play and then to play it well.  Nature "touches" us - it impacts us through events and circumstances - we might call it Fate.  And our part is to exercise our virtue.  We shape ourselves according to the part we ought to play.  As Nature proceeds and as we act with virtue, we are dyed with Nature's color - we live according to Nature.

And for humans to be good - to be a part of the Supreme Good - we are to be good ourselves, by exercising moral virtue.  Moral virtue is absolute and cannot be improved.

You will find nothing straighter than the straight, nothing truer than the truth, and nothing more temperate than that which is temperate.  Every virtue is limitless; for limits depend upon definite measurements. Constancy cannot advance further, any more than fidelity, or truthfulness, or loyalty. What can be added to that which is perfect? ... Honour, also, permits of no addition; for it is honourable because of the very qualities which I have mentioned.  What then? Do you think that propriety, justice, lawfulness, do not also belong to the same type, and that they are kept within fixed limits? The ability to increase is proof that a thing is still imperfect.

Seneca invokes the scala naturae again by noting the virtues of plants, which are perishable, and the virtues of humans, which are as enduring as Reason itself, since we have a portion of it within us.

to human virtues only one rule applies. For right reason is single and of but one kind. Nothing is more divine than the divine, or more heavenly than the heavenly.  Mortal things decay, fall, are worn out, grow up, are exhausted, and replenished. Hence, in their case, in view of the uncertainty of their lot, there is inequality; but of things divine the nature is one. Reason, however, is nothing else than a portion of the divine spirit set in a human body.

Seneca paints a picture of human excellence, regardless of circumstances.

the other virtues are also equal as compared with one another: tranquility, simplicity, generosity, constancy, equanimity, endurance. For underlying them all is a single virtue – that which renders the soul straight and unswerving. ... Virtue is not changed by the matter with which it deals; if the matter is hard and stubborn, it does not make the virtue worse; if pleasant and joyous, it does not make it better. Therefore, virtue necessarily remains equal. For, in each case, what is done is done with equal uprightness, with equal wisdom, and with equal honour. Hence the states of goodness involved are equal, and it is impossible for a man to transcend these states of goodness by conducting himself better, either the one man in his joy, or the other amid his suffering.

Retaining equanimity and being constant in any circumstance and event is a difficult proposition.  This is why there are no sages.  This is why previewing the day and then reviewing it at the end helps us contemplate the many different scenarios we face.  The practice of premeditatio malorum also helps us prepare to respond to the many different curve balls life throws at us.

Doing the morally correct thing must be done for the right reasons and it should be done willingly.  Just doing the right thing, but unwillingly, is not a demonstration of excellence.

no act is honourable that is done by an unwilling agent, that is compulsory. Every honourable act is voluntary. Alloy it with reluctance, complaints, cowardice, or fear, and it loses its best characteristic – self-approval. That which is not free cannot be honourable; for fear means slavery.  The honourable is wholly free from anxiety and is calm ...  when a man is about to do something honourable, he should not regard any obstacles as evils, even though he regard them as inconvenient, but he should will to do the deed, and do it willingly.

While a Stoic may prefer the indifferent of joy and dis-prefer the indifferent of pain, when it comes to demonstrating excellence of soul, the good man will do the right thing regardless if joy or pain are involved.

the good man will hasten unhesitatingly to any noble deed; even though he be confronted by the hangman, the torturer, and the stake, he will persist, regarding not what he must suffer, but what he must do; and he will entrust himself as readily to an honourable deed as he would to a good man.

The good man can demonstrate virtue whether he is rich or poor.  Whatever Fortune or Fate has given him, he will make good use of it.

virtue is just as praiseworthy if it dwells in a sound and free body, as in one which is sickly or in bondage. ... For all those things over which Chance holds sway are chattels, – money, person, position; they are weak, shifting, prone to perish, and of uncertain tenure. On the other hand, the works of virtue are free and unsubdued, neither more worthy to be sought when fortune treats them kindly, nor less worthy when any adversity weighs upon them.

The next section (24-27) is a bit obscure, but to me it seems Seneca is simply saying that virtuous (excellent) acts of moral behavior are equal, regardless of the "accessories" that surround the individual.  These "accessories" would be nothing more than indifferents.  You admire a good person because they are morally good; and you do not differentiate your love for the poor, weak good man and the wealthy, healthy good man.  Good is good.  He compares this equality to a loving parent.  A parent loves all her children.  If, however, a child faces hardships, there may be more care or help given to them.

Virtue, too, does not necessarily love more deeply those of her works which she beholds in trouble and under heavy burdens, but, like good parents, she gives them more of her fostering care.

Returning to the "good is good" concept; Seneca makes a finer point, which somewhat hits on the "preferred indifferents" aspects of Stoicism, when he says the first example of virtue is "desirable" and the second is "worthy of admiration."

there is an equality between feeling joy with self-control and suffering pain with self-control. The joy in the one case does not surpass in the other the steadfastness of soul that gulps down the groan when the victim is in the clutches of the torturer; goods of the first kind are desirable, while those of the second are worthy of admiration; and in each case they are none the less equal.

Philosophy helps us aim higher than the pursuit of indifferents.  What most people chase and admire is foolishness and brings nothing but "empty joy."  Also, we often fear that which is irrational.  Those who are educated in these two very important aspects of life can find a path to live rationally knowing not to chase one and avoid the other.  Many other people use these two facts to manipulate others; either to pursue indifferents or to instill fear into them in order to sell a solution to address that fear.  To avoid not being played by this sort of person, open your eyes to the reality of the situation and be rational.

those things which are thoughtlessly praised, and are goods in the opinion of the mob merely puff us up with empty joy. And again, those things which are feared as if they were evils merely inspire trepidation in men's minds, for the mind is disturbed by the semblance of danger, just as animals are disturbed. Hence it is without reason that both these things distract and sting the spirit; the one is not worthy of joy, nor the other of fear.

Seneca plays the preferred indifferents pretty strongly.

certain goods which reason regards as primary, to which she addresses herself purposely; these are, for example, victory, good children, and the welfare of one's country. 

I would agree with him about "good children" and "welfare of one's country", but I'm not so sure about the "victory" one.  I tend to think that preferred indifferents ought to be beneficial for all people in the world.  We all want our children to be good; good children is good for the world.  The same would be true for the welfare of the country - we want people to have food, to generally be healthy and be afforded an opportunity to live a good life.  As to "victory" this would imply someone or some other people lost.  Therefore, how could this be beneficial for all?

He makes a finer point on this topic.  While we prefer some indifferents, we still nonetheless can demonstrate excellence in the face of adversity.

being wounded, wasting away over a fire, being afflicted with bad health, – such things are contrary to nature; but it is in accordance with nature for a man to preserve an indomitable soul amid such distresses.

Later on he says that he would actually prefer the harsher hardships.

if any goods could be greater than others, I should prefer those which seem harsh to those which are mild and alluring, and should pronounce them greater. For it is more of an accomplishment to break one's way through difficulties than to keep joy within bounds.  It requires the same use of reason, I am fully aware, for a man to endure prosperity well and also to endure misfortune bravely. 

He ends by alluding to some story of Mucius, who willed his maimed hand to be held over some fire, defying his enemy.  And his enemy, fearing that the fame of Mucius would be greater, ordered that the fire be removed.  Thus Mucius became victorious over his enemy.

This was a very long, rambling letter and was somewhat difficult to follow.  It took me a few days to read it and try to understand what Seneca was trying to convey.  I hope this was useful in some way for anyone who comes across this post.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 65 - On the First Cause

On the First Cause

Seneca and some friends have a debate about the prime cause of the universe.  It seems his friends perhaps tilt towards the Platonic and Aristotelian perspectives.  Seneca does a fine job summarizing the differing perspectives.

For the Stoics, the prime cause is Nature/Reason/Cosmos/the Universe.  And to be even more specific, it is pneuma that is the prime mover and cause of all actions in the universe.

two things in the universe which are the source of everything, – namely, cause and matter.  Matter lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion. Cause, however, by which we mean reason, moulds matter and turns it in whatever direction it will, producing thereby various concrete results.


The Stoics believe in one cause only, – the maker.

Elsewhere, Aetius states,

The Stoics made god out to be intelligent, a designing fire which methodically proceeds towards creation of the world, and encompasses all the seminal principles according to which everything comes about according to fate, (2) and a breath pervading the whole world, which takes on different names owing to the alterations of the matter through which it passes (The Hellenistic Philosophers, Long, Sedley, p. 274-275).

After contrasting the Stoic view with the Platonic and Aristotelian, the question becomes very deeply philosophical.

Do you ask what God's purpose is?

Seneca states that God's purpose is goodness.

Elsewhere, I've written about what I've learned in the College of Stoic Philosophers, in which I noted others' theories that God not only has infinite potential, but God's purpose is to experience all that potential (see the God, Determinism and Free Will section of my essay on Stoic Physics).

Seneca then addresses a very practical question:

"What pleasure do you get from wasting your time on these problems, which relieve you of none of your emotions, rout none of your desires?"

His response to the question he poses, is worth reading in its entirety.

So far as I am concerned, I treat and discuss them as matters which contribute greatly toward calming the spirit, and I search myself first, and then the world about me.  And not even now am I, as you think, wasting my time. For all these questions, provided that they be not chopped up and torn apart into such unprofitable refinements, elevate and lighten the soul, which is weighted down by a heavy burden and desires to be freed and to return to the elements of which it was once a part. For this body of ours is a weight upon the soul and its penance; as the load presses down the soul is crushed and is in bondage, unless philosophy has come to its assistance and has bid it take fresh courage by contemplating the universe, and has turned it from things earthly to things divine. There it has its liberty, there it can roam abroad; meantime it escapes the custody in which it is bound, and renews its life in heaven.

Marcus Aurelius, similarly took a metaphysical flight through the cosmos, perhaps too, contemplating God's purpose.

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 (Meditations 11.1).

And lastly, I recently came across this passage by Pierre Hadot in The Present Alone is Our Happiness where he said,

Things changed at the time of my adolescence.  Indeed, I have long had the impression of having been in the world only from the time I became an adolescent.  I will always regret having thrown away - out of Christian humility - my first handwritten notes that were an echo of the birth of my personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychological content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then.  I do remember their context.  One happened on rue Ruinart, on the route I took home to my parents' house every day from the Petit Seminaire.  Night had fallen.  The stars were shining in an immense sky; one could still see them at the time.  Another took place in a room of our house.  In both cases I was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me in that world.  In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am I?  Why am I here?  What is this world I am in?  I experienced a sentiment of strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there.  At the same time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars. This world was present to me, intensely present.  Much later I would discover that this awareness of my immersion in the world, this impression of belonging to the Whole, was what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic feeling."  I think I have been a philosopher since that time, if by philosophy one understands this awareness of existence, of being-in-the-world (p. 5-6).

In a sense, it seems that Seneca, Aurelius and Hadot speak of out-of-body experiences.  Seneca reminds us that our body is a form of slavery and that we ought to spend our experience in the higher sphere rather the bodily.

The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.

Seneca then rhetorically asks thirteen deep questions, to demonstrate to Lucilius, that questions - philosophical questions - can have a freeing effect on our minds and that we are not slaves to our bodies and that our minds can contemplate and discuss such lofty subjects.

this freedom will be greatly helped by the contemplation of which we were just speaking.

He then evokes the Scala naturae in the context of God and humans.

All things are made up of matter and of God; God controls matter, which encompasses him and follows him as its guide and leader. And that which creates, in other words, God, is more powerful and precious than matter, which is acted upon by God.  God's place in the universe corresponds to the soul's relation to man. World-matter corresponds to our mortal body; therefore let the lower serve the higher. Let us be brave in the face of hazards. Let us not fear wrongs, or wounds, or bonds, or poverty.

And the very essence of us is pneuma as displayed by our hegemonikon.  While we are a part of the Cosmos and the Whole, we nevertheless have autonomy in how we display that which is unique to us.  While the indifferents in our life (hazards, fears, wrongs, wounds, bonds, poverty, riches, etc.) do not represent us entirely, it is our unique response to these things which define us.  In our space of choice, is how we exercise our autonomy, creativity, personality and virtue: our arete.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 64 - On the Philosopher's Task

On the Philosopher's Task

The point of this letter:

we should play the part of a careful householder; we should increase what we have inherited

Seneca praises Quintus Sextius the Elder because his style of writing "fills [Seneca] with a mighty confidence before [he] closes his book" and causes him to say:

I want to challenge every hazard; I want to cry: "Why keep me waiting, Fortune? Enter the lists! Behold, I am ready for you!"

Therefore, we inheritors of philosophy ought to praise and honor our philosophical fore-fathers and then we ought to dedicate our time to solving problems and applying treatment.

I worship the discoveries of wisdom and their discoverers; to enter, as it were, into the inheritance of many predecessors is a delight. It was for me that they laid up this treasure; it was for me that they toiled. But we should play the part of a careful householder; we should increase what we have inherited.

It then becomes our task to "adding something further."

The cures for the spirit also have been discovered by the ancients; but it is our task to learn the method and the time of treatment.  Our predecessors have worked much improvement, but have not worked out the problem.

More and more, we, humanity, are learning over again, hard-fought lessons our forbearers learned.  While our challenges may not be all too different from theirs', how we approach and re-learn solutions may demand creativity.

Related to this are a few quotes from Vauvenargues, who Pierre Hadot cites in "Philosophy as a Way of Life" (see p. 108 and footnote 184 of the chapter):

"Every thought is new when the author expresses it in his own way"

"There are many things we do not know well enough, and that it is good to have repeated."

"A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths."

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 63 - On Grief for Lost Friends

On Grief for Lost Friends

Lucilius' friend, Flaccus, died and Seneca is writes about grief.

Stoics are not without emotion.  The excess and deficiency are perhaps not ideal.  Therefore, when grief comes as a result of a loss of a friend or loved one, we should neither grieve with excess nor should we lack grief at all.

I would not have you sorrow more than is fitting. That you should not mourn at all I shall hardly dare to insist ... Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow. We may weep, but we must not wail.

Some people may truly be deeply grieving, but if they do not cease at some point, then there may be deeper issues or perhaps it is for show.

It is because we seek the proofs of our bereavement in our tears, and do not give way to sorrow, but merely parade it. No man goes into mourning for his own sake. Shame on our ill-timed folly! There is an element of self-seeking even in our sorrow.

Later in the letter he write,

The reason why they lament too unrestrainedly at such times is that they are afraid lest men doubt whether they really have loved; all too late they seek for proofs of their emotions.

To grieve is human, to grieve excessively is folly.  It would seem excessive grief is no longer about the lost loved one but about the griever!

Therefore, we ought to grieve, let our grief be about the person who we lost, and let us move on contemplating the memory of the one lost.

Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a pleasure even in this sting.

And if we contemplate the death of our friends, similarly to how we contemplate our own death, we will enjoy the company of our friends while they are yet with us.

To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. ... Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given.  Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.

Seneca then goes on to remind us of the importance of friends and to not only have one, but many.

If we have no other friends, we have injured ourselves more than Fortune has injured us; since Fortune has robbed us of one friend, but we have robbed ourselves of every friend whom we have failed to make.

And when we lose a friend to death, we ought to seek a new one.

You have buried one whom you loved; look about for someone to love. It is better to replace your friend than to weep for him.

I don't know how precise Seneca is talking here.  Would he include spouses in this discussion?  I know some men and women, who after having lost their spouse to death, refuse to remarry because it would violate some trust or commitment to their spouse.  Even some children do not want their parent to remarry after having lost the other parent.  But I think Seneca makes a very valid point.  We humans need friends; we need social interaction and we need close friends.  If we lose one, we ought to find new ones.  Perhaps that does not mean getting remarried, but that does not mean slamming the door shut on the proposition of another marriage.

His next point is interesting.

the most shameful cure for sorrow, in the case of a sensible man, is to grow weary of sorrowing. I should prefer you to abandon grief, rather than have grief abandon you; and you should stop grieving as soon as possible, since, even if you wish to do so, it is impossible to keep it up for a long time.

It seems he is saying that we need to actively observe and be aware of our grief and approach our sorrows rationally.  Acknowledge that it is human to grieve; then grieve; then reconcile and move on.  But, don't let time cure your grief.  He proposes active resolution, rather than passive abandonment.  Perhaps to use a dental analogy.  We should deal with a toothache, rather than letting time do it's work.  If we deal with a toothache, then a dentist can help us resolve it and we can keep our tooth.  But if we simply let time pass, we eventually get over the toothache, but lose the tooth in the process.

In sum, practice contemplation of death - yours, your friend's and death in general.

Now is the time for you to reflect, not only that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality is subject to no fixed law. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.