Saturday, September 19, 2020

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

 

General Comments from Introduction

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

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 18 - On Festivals and Fasting

On Festivals and Fasting

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

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

Seneca proposes a year-round solution to these problems.

During the course of the year, 

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

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

...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 7, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 17 - On Philosophy and Riches

On Philosophy and Riches

How urgent is your quest for wisdom?

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

Then I read Seneca.

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

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

Seneca retorts;

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

He divines one of my fears and poses another question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca continues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

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

 On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

Seneca begins the letter with a bold statement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca closes with a quote from Epicurus.

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

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

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

Friday, August 21, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 15 - On Brawn and Brains

 On Brawn and Brains

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

a - anima

s - sana

i - in

c - copore

s - sano

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

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

Seneca expresses this idea, when he wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 14 - On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

At the heart of this letter, Seneca is giving us all some food for thought, on how to influence society.  While political action may be the swiftest way to influence society, Seneca seems to suggest there are other, wise ways to take action.

The first couple of paragraphs discuss the Stoic view of self-preservation.  We do not live for the body, but we must take care of the body to ensure our survival.


I do not maintain that the body is not to be indulged at all; but I maintain that we must not be slaves to it ... We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live without it ... Virtue is held too cheap by the man who counts his body too dear. We should cherish the body with the greatest care; but we should also be prepared, when reason, self-respect, and duty demand the sacrifice, to deliver it even to the flames.


And when it comes to harming the body, a Stoic would not needlessly open himself to significant self-harm or death, if the Stoic could prevent it.  It is based on this reasoning, that the Stoic would not seek to offend the powerful.  It's as if Seneca is saying "stay in the game; and as long as you're in the game, you have a chance to be useful to society."


So the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship ... he holds his course far from that region notorious for its swirling waters. Our wise man does the same; he shuns a strong man who may be injurious to him, making a point of not seeming to avoid him, because an important part of one's safety lies in not seeking safety openly; for what one avoids, one condemns.


Similarly, a Stoic would avoid the danger of the mob.


Next, he shares the middle ground Cato took.  Cato fought to stay in the game as long as he could.  But when it became clear that there was going to be a tyrant regardless, he chose the wise path.


Philosophy itself, however, should be practised with calmness and moderation. "Very well, then," you retort, "do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato's voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!" Nevertheless, one may well question whether, in those days, a wise man ought to have taken any part in public affairs, and ask: "What do you mean, Marcus Cato? It is not now a question of freedom; long since has freedom gone to rack and ruin. The question is, whether it is Caesar or Pompey who controls the State. Why, Cato, should you take sides in that dispute? It is no business of yours; a tyrant is being selected. What does it concern you who conquers? The better man may win; but the winner is bound to be the worse man." I have referred to Cato's final role. But even in previous years the wise man was not permitted to intervene in such plundering of the state; for what could Cato do but raise his voice and utter unavailing words? At one time he was "hustled" by the mob and spat upon and forcibly removed from the forum and marked for exile; at another, he was taken straight to prison from the senate-chamber.


Indeed, there are many other ways to influence society, besides taking an active political role.

consider those Stoics who, shut out from public life, have withdrawn into privacy for the purpose of improving men's existence and framing laws for the human race without incurring the displeasure of those in power. The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living.

A virtuous life is an examined life, a reasoned life.  The outcome is left to fate.

And finally, the wise man regards the reason for all his actions, but not the results. The beginning is in our own power; fortune decides the issue, but I do not allow her to pass sentence upon myself.

And then there is this parting advice and the management of desire.  This falls squarely in the minimalism ideaology.

"He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most." ... He who craves riches feels fear on their account. ... While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 13 - On Groundless Fears

On Groundless Fears

Not everyone does it, but there are many who catastrophize things.  We may think the worst is going to happen, that we are going to die young, or our child will be mangled to death in a car wreck, or we'll contract the corona virus while shopping or that our child will be kidnapped while walking to school.

It's exhausting; thinking of all the possible things that could end up happening to us or our loved ones.  But the truth is, we are all dead in the end anyway.  Which is why, I think, the Stoics advocated practicing memento mori.  If you can get comfortable with death, then everything else should be a bit easier to deal with, emotionally speaking, and you can get on with life.

And once you get on with life and start taking your licks, you can begin to be truly tested and learn from adversity.

It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves.  This is the touchstone of such a spirit; no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent's fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary's charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.

Besides, even if you decide to engage in doubting and fear-mongering about your future and thinking the worst might happen, vastly more often than not, the worst you feared does not come to pass.

There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. ... some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Since I am prone to catastrophizing things, I've made it a habit to note, every day, the worst things that could happen.  Sometimes I write down things that might happen that very day and other times I write down things that may happen at any time or far into the future.  Then at the end of the day, I make sure to ask myself if the catastrophe happened.  So far, the catastrophes I've dreamt of have not happened.

On some of the catastrophes I think if, I will pivot into a premeditatio malorum and assume that they legitimately will happen.  I then let my mind process the emotions and then I begin to think of the wise reaction.  From there, I outline the next few actions I would take.

Often, especially in today's uber-safetyism society, we allow ourselves to be carried away with fear and panic, when it is not warranted.  In the 1990s, when I was in high school, the fear of children being kidnapped was exceptionally high.  I remember when every kid I knew, would often wander my city, on his or her bike, with no adult supervision.  We would be gone for hours and hours, before returning home in time for dinner.  But then that all changed with the introduction of John Walsh's crusade, after his son was kidnapped and murdered.  Every kid who grew up in the 1980s and 90s remembers the pictures of kids on milk cartons.

Eventually, parents everywhere, were uber-cautious about letting their child walk or ride their bike alone.  Kids were told to walk in packs and never to take candy from strangers.  To be sure, all of these are wise practices.  But have parents gone too far?  Have they, for the sake of safety, not allowed their kids to spend hours and hours outside, playing and riding bikes?

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, think we have let safetyism (another form of catastrophizing) run amok.  Consider this passage on kidnapping statistics:

The abduction and murder of a child by a stranger is among the most horrific crimes one can imagine. It is also, thankfully, among the rarest. According to the FBI, almost 90% of children who go missing have either miscommunicated their plans, misunderstood directions, or run away from home or foster care, and 99.8% of the time, missing children come home. The vast majority of those who are abducted are taken by a biological parent who does not have custody; the number abducted by a stranger is a tiny fraction of 1% of children reported missing—roughly one hundred children per year in a nation with more than 70 million minors. And since the 1990s, the rates of all crimes against children have gone down, while the chances of a kidnapped child surviving the ordeal have gone up. (Haidt, Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, in the section entitled "A Parent's Worst Fear")

After I read the above paragraph, I was in a state of shock about how astronomically over-protective and worried I've been with my kids!  There are far many more things to be worried about than having my child be kidnapped.

At the time of this writing (August 2020), America and the world are in the grip of fear about the corona virus.  So much is not known about the virus and people are so fearful of death, that we have effectively shutdown society.  Many wonder if we have over-reacted.  Just yesterday, I pulled the statistics on COVID-19 deaths and found that the vast majority of deaths related to COVID-19, occur in people who have retired.  Well over 95% of the deaths are age 55 and older.  The younger a person is, the death-rate drops off significantly.  Yet, we act as though the virus is killing both the old and young on a grand scale.  We have not heeded the advice of Seneca.

Yes, my dear Lucilius; we agree too quickly with what people say. We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour. ... that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind. That is why no fear is so ruinous and so uncontrollable as panic fear. For other fears are groundless, but this fear is witless.

Seneca goes so far as to argue, "life is not worth living, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent."  Many senior citizens I've talked to, have said as much.  Sitting in a locked-down home and city and state and world is no way to live.  While temporary lockdowns may be prudent, the seemingly endless threats of lockdowns and shutting of stores and economies makes monks of us all.  While sad, I was yet impressed with a recent headline of a loving couple who refused to be separated in the twilight of their years.  She contracted corona virus and was quarantined, yet he was told to stay away.  He refused, and spent time with his bride.  He too contracted COVID-19 and they both died.  From a news article, their daughter is quoted, “he knew the risks,” she said. “There wasn’t anything any of us could have done to have talked him out of that. He would have gotten himself there one way or the other to see her. I do believe that.”

Now, lest you think I'm a cold-hearted bastard who cares nothing of life - I agree that we need to socially distance ourselves where appropriate; that we should wear masks where appropriate; that we should follow guidance where and when it is wise.  But we need to be mindful of over-doing the fear and anxiety.

Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted ... We let ourselves drift with every breeze; we are frightened at uncertainties, just as if they were certain. We observe no moderation. The slightest thing turns the scales and throws us forthwith into a panic.

And in closing, Seneca reminds us to get busy living.  It is the foolish man, who in old age is getting ready to live.  The order should be reversed.  The young man should be getting ready to live and then get on living with life.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 12 - On Old Age

On Old Age

Old age does not have to be bitter or lonely.  If one so chooses, one can find contentment in youth, middle age and old age.

Now, Seneca was no sage!  He transparently shares how upset he is upon returning to his country home.  Not only does he complain about the cost of up-keep, but he complains about how stones are falling apart before he is!  He complains about how the trees he planted long ago, no longer have leaves.  And he complains about how old his play-mate is when he finds him standing in the doorway.

If we are to appreciate our life now, as well as in old age, we must practice memento mori.

Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike.

We ought not go so far as Pacuvius, where he practiced his own funeral burial every day!  But, with that idea in mind, we should reflect that every day could be our last.

Thinking on our death, we appreciate every day we rise.

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: "I have lived!", every morning he arises he receives a bonus.

His closing quote, which he shares in the letter, reminds us that life is opinion.  If we think we are constrained, then we are constrained.  And as such, we have the freedom to think we are not constrained, and if we do, we won't be constrained.

 "It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint." Of course not. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life. We may spurn the very constraints that hold us.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 11 - On the Blush of Modesty

On the Blush of Modesty

Seneca mentions several physical reactions people may have in certain situations; such as when they are speaking publicly.  These reactions may range from sweating to stammering to blushing.  He contends, that no matter what a person may try, they can never overcome these types of physical reactions.

The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into a perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.  I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it.

He later remarks that little can be done to remove these habits.

Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them.

In the spirit of sharing and transparency, I too fall under this category of which Seneca speaks.  In today's terms, we would call it social anxiety.  During high school, I usually never got nervous in public speaking forums or in social situations, such as parties or small group meetings, even with strangers.  But sometime in college, social anxiety began to get the best of me.  One of the earliest times I recall breaking into a sweat, was during a public speaking class I was taking.  I thought it was rare and a one-off.  But as I was presented with more opportunities to speak in public, I would feel my face get flush and I would break into a sweat.

On another occasion, I was teaching small class and I invited another teacher in the room to do a demo and I felt the heat of anxiety set in.  In this case, it was winter time, the classroom heater was on, and I was wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt and tie.  Once I broke a sweat, I got more anxious and it became incredibly uncomfortable.

Over the years, I've learned to deal with it.  Preparation is very important for me.  If I can prepare mentally and practically, then I will feel more confident and the chances of a sweating-attack diminish.  Also, if I know ahead of time, that I have a big presentation, then I will be sure I don't drink much liquid.  This lessens the chance of my brow sweat-spigot turning on!  And on the occasion that I do break into a sweat, I be sure to have something with me, with which I can fan myself.  If there are others near me, I will simply comment that I feel hot, and with fanning, the sweat, and heat pass and things return to normal.

I've since learned that there are some genetic factors to this.  Some of my siblings have mentioned to me that they too suffer from the same condition.  This lends support to Seneca's idea, that as hard as you try, Nature will simply win every time.  You can't fight Nature.

Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.

Seneca's final remark, in this letter, relates to the practice of having a moral guide (a person) in your mind all the time. This someone should be a person whom you respect and look to as a good example.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.
Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Indeed, looking to others as an example helps a person a lot, in terms of being steady.  Christians often teach their children the concept of "what would Jesus do?" to guide them when parents and teachers are not around to correct them.  It would seem this is another Stoic idea that Christians have adopted.  Regardless, the idea is valid and useful.  The entire book 1 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations an an exercise of looking to people who provide good examples.  Marcus was very fond of his mentors and often wrote of them so that they could be in his mind all the time.  We would all do well to think of examples of other people and carry them with us, in our minds.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 10 - On Living to Oneself

On Living to Oneself

This is a simple, short letter, but one that needs a bit of unpacking.

This first part of the letter, in which Seneca states, "avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual," speaks of balance.  There is a time when the individual should avoid the many - the crowds.  There is a time for when the individual should avoid the few.  And there is a time for when the individual should avoid solitude.

The concept that Seneca is trying to share here, is one of caution and learning.  If someone is uneducated, then spending time by himself will not help him improve.  Therefore, it would be prudent for him to find a mentor or teacher.  If someone is newly educated, but needs practice, it would be prudent for him to avoid the uneducated crowds, and perhaps spend more time with peers who are also learning.  I think this is what Seneca is trying to convey.

He recommends to Lucilius, that he should be OK spending time with himself.  Upon hearing Lucilius speak, Seneca thought to himself,
These words did not come from the edge of the lips; these utterances have a solid foundation. This man is not one of the many; he has regard for his real welfare.
Seneca seems to judge Lucilius as well-grounded and well educated, and therefore, Lucilius can trust himself to be with himself as he introspects.

The latter part of the letter delves into prayers to the gods.  If you are a praying sort of person, then the evaluation of your prayers ought to be conducted.  Are you praying to receive indifferents?  Or are you praying for something that the gods have already granted you?  Seneca offers this advice, "pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body."

His closing quote also deals with desires and prayer.
Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.
This passage reminds me of the quote from Crates of Thebes - practice being in need of only a few things.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 9 - On Philosophy and Friendship

On Philosophy and Friendship

In sum, the Stoic sage is self-content.  He or she can derive eudaimonia with or without friends - there is no need, for the sage, to achieve eudaimonia by looking towards externals to grant them.  Now, with that stated, the Stoic would prefer to have friends and be a friend.

To begin, Seneca discusses a nuance between the Epicureans and the Stoics.  I'm still trying to digest it to ensure I fully understand it.  But here is the passage:
There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea, – that the wise man is self-sufficient
I understand Seneca to mean that the Stoic sage feels emotions, but learns to deal with them with a rational response.  While the Epicurean sage achieves a state of experiencing no emotions.

Seneca goes on to note that while the Stoic sage is self-content, even without friends, he still would prefer to have friends.  He compares this to other losses a Stoic might experience and how he would react.
If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them.
This passage reminds me of a phrase I recently heard while listening to the audio book The Coddling of the American Mind by Haidt and Lukianoff.  As a father or mother, the proper parenting mindset to have is to prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.  In this mindset, the child represents the human will and attitude, and the road is symbolic of the world and everything in it.  If you want to achieve eudaimonia then you can achieve it with Stoic philosophy.  But if you think you'll achieve eudaimonia by trying to change the world to your expectations and will,  you will fail.

So in the event that you are unjustly accused or exiled or get cancer or you lose a friend or child to death, you can adapt yourself to the circumstance instead of getting stuck in a mental trap of thinking that circumstances and the universe should conform to your preconceived expectations.

And bringing the topic back to friendship, Seneca makes the excellent point that even in the event you lose a friend, there is much to be said in the pleasure it brings to acquire new friends.  Just as the Stoic learns and masters the art of achieving eudaimonia, so too can he learn and master the art of making new friends.
Now there is great pleasure, not only in maintaining old and established friendships, but also in beginning and acquiring new ones. 
He also makes the observation that it is the process of making new friends that is fulfilling and he supports this with the idea that parents love to be parents when they are actively parenting.  And when the child is fully grown, the opportunities of parenting are less and they may miss those times when they were raising their children.
In the case of our children, their young manhood yields the more abundant fruits, but their infancy was sweeter.
On the topic of practicing friendship, Seneca notes that this is the area where the Stoic has the opportunity to demonstrate virtue.  A Stoic will look for a friend in order to have opportunities to practice virtue.  While some people will want friends, so that when they are in a bind, their friends can help them out, Stoics will want friends so that when their friends are in a bind, the Stoic has opportunities to practice virtue.
The wise man, I say, self-sufficient though he be, nevertheless desires friends if only for the purpose of practising friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant. Not, however, for the purpose mentioned by Epicurus in the letter quoted above: "That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want;" but that he may have someone by whose sick-bed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free. He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly.
He notes that friendship which starts on the premise of reward and payment, such friendship will most likely end as such.
He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. A man will be attracted by some reward offered in exchange for his friendship, if he be attracted by aught in friendship other than friendship itself.
Seneca then gets more into the details of the nuance of self-sufficiency and friends.  In so explaining, he notes the Stoic concept of Eternal Recurrence and the conflagration and cycles of the Cosmos (Nature).
Therefore, although he is self-sufficient, yet he has need of friends. He craves as many friends as possible, not, however, that he may live happily; for he will live happily even without friends. The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune. 
People may say: "But what sort of existence will the wise man have, if he be left friendless when thrown into prison, or when stranded in some foreign nation, or when delayed on a long voyage, or when cast upon a lonely shore?" His life will be like that of Jupiter, who, amid the dissolution of the world, when the gods are confounded together and Nature rests for a space from her work, can retire into himself and give himself over to his own thoughts.
It is part of our nature to want sociability.  To deny such would be to deny our very nature.  But is it a requirement to be in the constant presence of friends, essential to achieving eudaimonia?  The Stoic response is: no.  Even God/Nature/the Cosmos goes through periods of solitary time in contemplation.  A practicing Stoic, too, would choose to spend time alone, in contemplation.  Just as today's modern stoics take cold showers and fast, to practice hardship, so too the Stoic should incorporate time alone into her routine.

Stilbo offers the right perspective and demonstrates true equanimity regardless of fate.
after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: "I have all my goods with me!"  There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. "I have lost nothing!" Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. "My goods are all with me!" In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good.
I'm not sure how I could endure the same fate as Stilbo.  This is a premeditatio malorum exercise I'll have to contemplate.  And it is this kind of exercise Epictetus wants us to practice too.  We may need to start small - with a favorite coffee mug - and then work our way up to a circumstance similar to what Stilbo actually faced.

It is awe-inspiring to see such fortitude in Stilbo.  Seneca writes in admiration:
We marvel at certain animals because they can pass through fire and suffer no bodily harm; but how much more marvellous is a man who has marched forth unhurt and unscathed through fire and sword and devastation! Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man? This saying of Stilbo makes common ground with Stoicism; the Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.
Three quotes, to wrap up this letter.  Three quotes to contemplate in your solitude today.

"Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the whole world." 

"A man may rule the world and still be unhappy, if he does not feel that he is supremely happy."

"Folly is ever troubled with weariness of itself."

And an alternate translation of the same quote above ... "All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself."

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 8 - On the Philosopher's Seclusion

On the Philosopher's Seclusion

In the previous letter, Seneca advocates avoiding crowds.  Lucilius seems to mistake this for absolute seclusion - like a Stoic monk (a bit of an oxymoron).  While Seneca may be working in retirement, his work is more of an influence for future generations; for those who would tread the path he has trod.  Therefore his work is more in the written form, than in an active work setting.  Those of us who rub shoulders with coworkers, fellow citizens, neighbors and children, still have a Stoic duty to help in many other ways, besides the verbal and written form.

Seneca defends himself by making the point that his work is thought-work.
I never spend a day in idleness; I appropriate even a part of the night for study. I do not allow time for sleep but yield to it when I must, and when my eyes are wearied with waking and ready to fall shut, I keep them at their task.
Two thoughts come to me as I reflect on this passage.  One, how many of us spend large parts of our day in idleness?  How many times have I told myself "I need a break" and then flip to social media or TV to waste away my time?  Perhaps a bit too much.

And two, the thought of the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, where he said, "there will be sleeping enough in the grave."

Seneca continues with his argument that his work is for those who come after him.
I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at any rate ceased to spread.
A couple of his counsels are then shared in this letter.

First, he reminds us that things like chance and fortune are out of our control and we need to not give weight to these things.  A Stoic must always view these things as indifferents; a Stoic must not let these things sway his proper perspective about life.

Secondly, he gives some advice about possessions and the things are go in and around the body.
Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life; that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health. The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort.
The only focus of the Stoic should be the spirit / soul.
reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.
And a different translation of the same passage:
Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents it from being impressed by anything.
His final point, before he concludes with sharing some quotes, deals with focusing on the greater good - the inner work that must be done by every individual.
Believe me, those who seem to be busied with nothing are busied with the greater tasks; they are dealing at the same time with things mortal and things immortal.
As per his custom, he concludes with a quote; this one from Epicurus, along with some commentary from Seneca.
"If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy." The man who submits and surrenders himself to her is not kept waiting; he is emancipated on the spot. For the very service of Philosophy is freedom.
What is this freedom Philosophy offers?  Freedom from the burdens of possessions, the body, fame, passions, others' opinions and oppression.  More succinctly, it is freedom from desires and aversions.

For more on the treatment of this idea, I refer the reader to Epictetus, Discourses 4.1 and my commentary on it.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 7 - On Crowds

On Crowds

At the time of this writing, it is July 2, 2020.  The COVID-19 pandemic continues to roll on.  People are told to socially distance themselves (six feet apart) and wear masks so as to limit the spread of the virus, which seems to bring death mostly to the elderly and people with pre-existing breathing and health conditions.

Seneca, by contrast, instructs Lucilius to socially distance himself from crowds for moral reasons.  Being in crowds (or the 'general population' as my old supervisor would often say), leads to not only exposure to germs and viruses, but also moral decay.  Now before people get out their pitch-forks to say that there is nothing wrong with crowds, Seneca puts a finer point on this topic by admitting his own weakness.
I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.
He continues with the specifics, as to why he chooses to avoid crowds:
To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
It has been my personal experience, that every time I go a professional sporting event, or a carnival or state fair, or something similar to the Consumer Electronics Show, the sole purpose of the event is to show off something new, unique, pleasurable or entertaining.  And furthermore, the intent of said 'shows' is to get you (the consumer) to buy something or to buy more.  They will try to convince you that you will be 'better' or 'sexier' or 'richer' or 'happier.'  I've never seen one of these typical events or crowds offer the consumer more honesty or virtue.  Their usual aim is to instill more vice.  I would suggest that we also avoid on-line crowds in terms of social media.  The aims and ends of these platforms are similar to shows and events: to install more vice.
vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure
In the next part of the letter, Seneca delves into the analysis of the games in the arena, where men and beasts tear each other apart.  His point is that a bit of the spectator's soul dies every time they view such violence.
what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? ... The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob.
While there are seemingly two ends of the spectrum regarding the crowd, in classic philosophic fashion, Seneca cuts a path right down the middle in pursuit of wisdom.
You must either imitate or loathe the world.  But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.
So, we should avoid the crowds, but not shun them, nor hate them.  We should share and teach wisdom and prudence with those who would listen.  Some may listen and you can have a positive impact on them.  But it will take time.  Know that the time and effort you put in to studying philosophy and trying to teach others, is never wasted.  At the very least, you will have benefited from the study.
But you need not fear that you have wasted your efforts; it was for yourself that you learned them.
He closes, as always, with some quotes.  This time, Lucilius gets three!
One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.
I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all [regarding reaching an audience of students]
I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.
Seneca concludes:
Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.
In sum: if and when more waves of pandemics hit our countries and world, and you are supposed to self-quarantine, grab a philosophy book, read it, find a mentor, install Zoom and begin the process of learning.  Avoid crowds to not only avoid getting ill, but also to prevent moral decay!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 6 - On Sharing Knowledge

On Sharing Knowledge

My current assignment at work is to help a group of roughly 200 employees transform from a traditional management-style approach to work, to an agile mindset approach to work.  In all the conversations I've had with many people about an agile transformation, the hallmarks that always stand out are:

1) the team is there to please the customer
2) the team needs to continuously inspect and adapt the way it works

So, when I come across letters from Seneca that convey a similar sentiment, it pleases me.

The overlapping themes are: improvement and mindfulness of that improvement.  Similarly, it is about recognizing the need to be better, and then installing a feedback mechanism (in the form of introspection and a mentor/coach) to ensure the continuity of progress.

Seneca starts off this letter discussing his transformation as well as his ability to recognize his self-transformation.  And then he readily acknowledges that he still has work to do.
I feel, my dear Lucilius, that I am being not only reformed, but transformed. I do not yet, however, assure myself, or indulge the hope, that there are no elements left in me which need to be changed. Of course there are many that should be made more compact, or made thinner, or be brought into greater prominence. And indeed this very fact is proof that my spirit is altered into something better, – that it can see its own faults, of which it was previously ignorant.
He then pivots into a key ingredient in a person's transformation: having someone to improve with or learn from; in a word: a mentor.

Seneca wishes to share not only wisdom with his friend, but also setbacks or troubles.
I am glad to learn in order that I may teach. Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.
He does note that the only thing better than a mentorship via correspondence, is to actually live with the mentor.  This is how Cleanthes learned from Zeno; and how all the sages arrived at their station in life.
Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word ... Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules.  Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof.
Seneca concludes with a quote about how a person may know if they are making progress: "'I have begun to be a friend to myself.' That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind."