Sunday, November 22, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 35 - On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

How beneficial for Seneca and Lucilius to have such an intimate friend who both listens and coaches you to strive to be a better Stoic!  Seneca's care seems to be very deep.

A true friend deeply cares and helps you; and it's stronger than love.  A true friend learns how to truly love.

Friendship, accordingly, is always helpful, but love sometimes even does harm. Try to perfect yourself, if for no other reason, in order that you may learn how to love.

The ending part of the letter provides a bit more insight about how one makes progress.  If you begin to feel a steadiness in your life and you are not tossed and turned at every emotion or change of circumstance, then you are making progress.

A shifting of the will indicates that the mind is at sea, heading in various directions, according to the course of the wind. But that which is settled and solid does not wander from its place. This is the blessed lot of the completely wise man, and also, to a certain extent, of him who is progressing and has made some headway.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 34 - On a Promising Pupil

On a Promising Pupil

One who is making progress in Stoicism is called a prokopton.  In this letter, Seneca is pleased that his pupil is making progress.

How do you know if you are making progress in Stoicism?

I would say someone is making progress who is first, convinced of the wisdom of Stoicism, second, who wants to put it into practice and third, who ensures his inner dialogue is wise and sound, and that his actions align with his inner dialogue.

the larger part of goodness is the will to become good. You know what I mean by a good man? One who is complete, finished, – whom no constraint or need can render bad.  I see such a person in you, if only you go steadily on and bend to your task, and see to it that all your actions and words harmonize and correspond with each other and are stamped in the same mould.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 33 - On the Futility of Learning Maxims

On the Futility of Learning Maxims

The key ideas of this letter are:

  • Stoic philosophy is a whole
  • Reading and memorizing is not enough; you must embody the philosophy and teach it
  • Truth was never discovered by constant following
A Philosophy in Whole

There are a number of analogies in explaining how logic, physics and ethics are tied together in Stoicism.  While not my favorite, the egg analogy is great in one one key aspect: indivisibility.

The garden and body analogies could be divided, where the fence could exist independent of the dirt and fruit.  You could still have a garden without a fence.  But you can't really have an egg, without the shell or without the yolk or without the whites.  All three are required in order for the egg to be called an egg.

Seneca notes that the early founders of Stoicism built the philosophy to be all-encompassing and rich.  It is not a 'chicken-soup-for-the-soul' philosophy.

they did not interest themselves in choice extracts; the whole texture of their work is full of strength.

Nor did the founders and progenitors of Stoicism want to showcase "the good parts" and hide the "bad / embarrassing parts."  There is no bait and switch in Stoic philosophy.  All of it is useful and beneficial for humans.

we have no "show-window goods," nor do we deceive the purchaser in such a way that, if he enters our shop, he will find nothing except that which is displayed in the window. We allow the purchasers themselves to get their samples from anywhere they please.

When the philosophy is all equally good, it is hard to pick out certain aspects of it and focus solely on them.

Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.

Kill the Buddha

At some point, you have to stand on your own two feet.  There is a Buddhist koen which goes, "if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him."  The key idea is to focus on your learning and seeking new paths to wisdom - to be able to think independently.  If you are constantly reliant on Zeno, Cleanthes, Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, Hadot, Becker, Irving, Long, Wiegardt, Holiday, Robertson, Gill, Sellers or Pigliucci, then you will never truly learn.  For sure, follow the beaten path.  But how will you know there is not a more efficient path to wisdom?

Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.

For me, this is a challenge.  There is so much wisdom from the ancients and the moderns.  I feel as though for every one book on Stoicism that I finish reading, there are two or three more published!  And then there are times when I write something and think I've hit on a novel idea or see something in a new light or different perspective, only to discover through reading, that the idea has already been shared.

I don't know when it will be (and maybe it's a long, slow process) but at some point I hope to be able to stand on my own philosophical feet.  For now, I feel I'm still a novice.  Therefore, when I read the following passage from Seneca, I can't help but feel a bit of urgency.

disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a note-book knowledge. "This is what Zeno said." But what have you yourself said? "This is the opinion of Cleanthes." But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man's orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock.  For this reason I hold that there is nothing of eminence in all such men as these, who never create anything themselves, but always lurk in the shadow of others, playing the role of interpreters, never daring to put once into practice what they have been so long in learning. They have exercised their memories on other men's material. But it is one thing to remember, another to know.

So, for now, I'm learning as much as I can and figuring out how to put it into practice.  And maybe, some day, I'll have a creative thought which will benefit the world in someway.  But, today, I'll play the part of the prokopton as well as guide to those near me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Essay on Refuting Musonius Rufus (Never to File a Lawsuit)

 Originally written August 2020

Musonius Rufus Would Never File a Lawsuit for Assault

Musonius Rufus argues “he would never file a lawsuit against anyone for assault” 1 and that by pressing charges, a philosopher would demonstrate he is disturbed, upset, or feeling revengeful by the assault.

His argument could be framed with the following:

1) If a Stoic is assaulted, then he will retain his equanimity.

A Stoic is assaulted.

Therefore, a Stoic retains his equanimity.

2) If a Stoic files a lawsuit, then he loses his equanimity.

A Stoic files a lawsuit.

Therefore, a Stoic loses his equanimity.

This essay will briefly explore a key assumption in Rufus’ argument and then refute it by showing a Stoic may, in some cases, file a lawsuit, while simultaneously retaining his equanimity.  This will be demonstrated by exploring the possibility that a Stoic would not file a lawsuit out of a sense of having been offended, but rather would file a lawsuit out of a sense of duty to justice and social oikeiôsis, with the intent to help society by educating the person who has carried out the assault.

Musonius Rufus’ Assumption

Musonius’ argument seems to be strictly based on the premise that if you file a lawsuit, then this equates to feeling injured or insulted.  If, however, he were to limit his recommendation that a Stoic would take jeering, beating, being spat upon and outright assaults with perfect indifference, then his point would be entirely defensible from a Stoic perspective.  But in his argument, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that since a person is filing a lawsuit, then that person must be doing so out of revenge or spite or being insulted.  He says, “Indeed, plotting how to bite back someone who bites and to return evil against the one who first did evil is characteristic of a beasts, not a man.” 1 But how do we know the reasons for someone filing a lawsuit?  Musonius seems to be mind-reading and assuming as to why a person is filing a lawsuit.  Per Musonius’ logic, the only reason a person would file a lawsuit is so that they can plot how to bite back.

However, he opens the door related to two other Stoic duties: upholding justice and educating others, which are valid Stoic reasons as to why a person could file a lawsuit.  He says, “A beast is not able to comprehend that many of the wrongs done to people are done out of ignorance and lack of understanding.  A person who gains this comprehension immediately stops doing wrong.” 1

If a Stoic can find a way to educate the person who has assaulted him, ought he to try?  And if this education leads to upholding justice (the assaulter “immediately stops doing wrong”), is it not the Stoic’s duty to pursue and uphold justice, no matter what form it takes and who the victim is?

And if we can prove that filing a lawsuit would lead the assaulter out of ignorance and into understanding, and if the Stoic can file said lawsuit with perfect indifference and with the sole intention of upholding justice and educating the assaulter, then we can show that at least in some circumstances, Rufus ought to ignore his own argument.

This essay will next explore the path to upholding justice and educating the ignorant, via filing a lawsuit with indifference.

Virtue is the Sole Good – A Duty to Uphold Justice

Without having to delve into a deep philosophical, divine discussion around justice, for the sake of this argument, I propose the concept of justice is based on the aim of humans living in harmony with each other.

Humans can live in harmony based on laws and rights and justice as defined from a commonly accepted dictionary: 2

the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments

the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity

the quality of being just, impartial, or fair

the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action

conformity to this principle or ideal

Included in the above definition is an implication of action.  For as many laws that are agreed upon, those laws ultimately mean nothing unless they are enforced.

A society without laws, is beholden to tyrants and anarchists, in which case there is no justice.  Similarly, a society with laws, but with no law enforcement, would also soon devolve into a society with no justice.  For this reason, the French philosopher Pascal Blaise noted, “Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical.” 3

If a Stoic, whose aim is to live a life of virtue, agrees that virtue is the sole good; and as part of living a life according to virtue, the Stoic subscribes to living by and in support of justice, then one could say it is the Stoic’s duty to support and uphold the laws of society.

Therefore, if a society deems that physical assault against an innocent person is against law and justice, then a Stoic’s duty would be to uphold the law regardless of who is involved.  If upholding the law includes the prosecution of or the filing of a lawsuit against the perpetrator, then a Stoic’s duty would include such action.

Failing to support such action would erode justice and encourage law-breaking by society’s members.  As more laws are ignored, the harmony of society breaks down and anarchy and tyranny rise.

Consider what a Stoic ought to do if he witnessed a rape or an assault.  Would a good Stoic ignore this?  Or would he intervene to uphold the law for the sake of justice?

One bleak example of people failing to uphold justice is found in the tragic story of Kitty Genovese.  After finishing her shift at a bar, she returned to her neighborhood, in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964.  After parking her car, she walked toward her residence, and then was attacked by Winston Moseley, who stabbed her twice, with a hunting knife.  She cried out for help, after which a neighbor yelled out the window, and Moseley ran off.  She continued to cry for help as she tried to return to her apartment.  But no definitive action was taken by neighbors, many of whom thought the cries and yells were domestic fights or drunken quarrels.  Mosely, seeing that no one was aiding Genovese, returned, murdered, and raped her. 4

Genovese’ story shocked New York City and the United States – shocked at how many neighbors failed to definitively act to not only uphold justice, but to render aid to a victim of an injustice.  This outrage lead to several psychology studies, which named this behavior the Bystander Effect.  One psychologist bleakly noted,

In his book, Rosenthal asked a series of behavioral scientists to explain why people do or do not help a victim and, sadly, he found none could offer an evidence-based answer. How ironic that this same question was answered separately by a non-scientist. When the killer was apprehended, and Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman asked him how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many witnesses, the psychopath calmly replied, 'I knew they wouldn't do anything, people never do’ 5

For justice to be upheld, action must be taken, based on established legal and moral laws.  If a Stoic’s duty is to uphold justice, then he must uphold laws where injustices have been committed against others and even himself.

To put a theoretical emphasis on this point, assume Genovese survived the assault and was a Stoic.  If she took Musonius’ teaching seriously, she would not file a lawsuit.  Moseley would supposedly not be held accountable for his assault and would perceive that people “wouldn’t do anything.”  He would potentially never be corrected and could go on to commit more assaults.  Affirming and upholding justice is a Stoic’s duty and a commitment to maintaining a harmonious society, regardless if he is the victim or not.

Next, this essay will explain how upholding justice, in some cases, begins the process of educating others and how filing a lawsuit may be the catalyst for moral growth.

Social Oikeiôsis

Stoic ethics is based on the idea of oikeiôsis which is “the basic desire or drive in all animals (including human beings) for self-preservation.” 6 Furthermore, Stoics put a premium on rational self-preservation over physical self-preservation.  By focusing on one’s rational nature, one begins to live according to nature.

Stoic ethics further elaborate on the concept of social oikeiosis wherein the Stoic widens his “circle of concern” and care for others – including desiring that others, too, are preserved both physically and rationally. 6 Ultimately, the Stoic views all humans as fellow citizens of the cosmos.  And as the Stoic develops the view of his place in the cosmos, he begins to see how others too, may live under a common, rational set of laws.  And if those laws are broken, then it does not preserve a rational society.  On this basis, Marcus Aurelius notes “What does not benefit the hive does not benefit the bee either.” 7

As an example, we may assume that war does not benefit or preserve humanity, therefore war does not benefit or preserve the human.  From this starting point, we can walk it down to a minute level.  Nuclear war, regional conflicts, border skirmishes, riots, mobs, and plundering do not benefit humanity nor the human.  Going even further down the spectrum, we can argue that widespread abuses, assaults, and bullying, also do not benefit humanity and therefore do not benefit the human.

Therefore, in the intermediate circles of concerns for others, a Stoic’s duty is to act rationally and think of ways to preserve those who need it.  One way to accomplish this is through education.  A Stoic’s ethics ask him to consider ways to care for the human and for humanity through education.

Consider this argument:

If a Stoic always educates others, then he will help educate a person who assaults him.

If he helps educate a person who assaults him, then the assaulter may become a better citizen.

Therefore, if a Stoic always educates others, then a person who assaults him may become a better citizen.

If it can be demonstrated that filing a lawsuit becomes the catalyst for the moral education of the assaulter, then a Stoic should file a lawsuit against the assaulter.  The assaulter not only becomes enlightened himself but could then be a person who upholds justice and goes on to help others, which benefits society.

Social Oikeiôsis – Care for the One

Instigating wars, conflicts, assaults, and bullying for immoral reasons is not good for the rational soul.  The highest good or summum bonum of philosophy, including Stoicism, is eudaimonia – which generally translates into happiness or even well-being or flourishing. 6 For Stoics, arete is the sole good and all vice is to be avoided to achieve eudaimonia.  Therefore, people will not achieve eudaimonia by creating conflict for immoral reasons.  As a result, a Stoic would never engage in such behavior.  And as a Stoic widens his circle of concern (social oikeiôsis), he would make efforts to teach and educate others to also not engage in such behaviors, so that they too can attain the summum bonum.

Therefore, if a Stoic knew, that someone’s life could be turned around or turned away from a life of instigating assaults, and if that path included filing a lawsuit against that person, he ought to do so.

Seneca offers a wise approach for educating others.  While some people are very receptive to moral education, others are not.  For those who assault a Stoic and perhaps are receptive to a moral education, all that may be needed is to talk to them and to help them see a better way.  There would be no need to file a lawsuit for assault.  However, for those not very receptive, it would take concentrated effort and a stronger catalyst.  Seneca states:

Amid this upset condition of morals, something stronger than usual is needed, – something which will shake off these chronic ills; in order to root out a deep-seated belief in wrong ideas, conduct must be regulated by doctrines. It is only when we add precepts, consolation, and encouragement to these, that they can prevail; by themselves they are ineffective.

"But what, then," people say, "have not certain persons won their way to excellence without complicated training? Have they not made great progress by obeying bare precepts alone?" Very true; but their temperaments were propitious, and they snatched salvation as it were by the way. For just as the immortal gods did not learn virtue having been born with virtue complete, and containing in their nature the essence of goodness – even so certain men are fitted with unusual qualities and reach without a long apprenticeship that which is ordinarily a matter of teaching, welcoming honourable things as soon as they hear them. Hence come the choice minds which seize quickly upon virtue, or else produce it from within themselves. But your dull, sluggish fellow, who is hampered by his evil habits, must have this soul-rust incessantly rubbed off.

It will therefore be of no avail to give precepts unless you first remove the conditions that are likely to stand in the way of precepts; 8

For some, such as repeat offenders or those who may not be mentally fit, filing a lawsuit could help with treating this “soul-rust.”

As an example of a lawsuit beginning the reform process, consider the abuses committed by Catholic priests.  For years, despite knowing that the abuse needed to stop, many continued to perpetrate and hide the assaults and abuses carried out by Catholic priests.  Over the course of ten years, the leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston tacitly admitted moral injustices by hiding the abuses through “private negotiations that never brought the parties near a courthouse.” 9  As the church quietly settled these assaults, the injustices continued and many priests who would have otherwise began to receive a more profound moral education, continued in their ways of error.  It was only after the Boston Globe newspaper shed greater light on the abuses, which ultimately lead to the full uncovering of the assaults, which lead to lawsuits, which lead to actual reform in both the individual priests and the Catholic church.  One article succinctly describes the moment when lawsuits became the catalyst for reform:

By the end of January, the documentary damage was essentially done. But by then, the first of hundreds of victims had begun contacting the paper with their stories. A further spate of civil lawsuits against the archdiocese followed, and the Globe reporters' hard work was finally crowned when an exasperated judge ordered the archdiocese to make public every single private church file kept on every Boston priest ever accused of sexual abuse. 10

What should a Stoic do if he were assaulted by a Catholic priest?  From a social oikeiôsis point of view, the Stoic ought to ignore Musonius Rufus’ advice.  Instead, he ought to consider if filing a lawsuit would prevent future abuses committed by the priests – for the sake of the well-being of the priest.  Given priest would be in a Stoic’s circle of concern, and if the Stoic would want the priest to achieve eudaimonia, and if the lawsuit would definitively be the catalyst for moral reform and education for the priest, then the Stoic must file the lawsuit.

Indeed, a philosopher may keep his equanimity by not filing a lawsuit for revenge, but rather he would do so with the intent to help the perpetrator begin the process of moral education.  Furthermore, the Stoic would not only be caring for the one, but he would be also caring for the many.

Social Oikeiôsis – Care for the Many

In the 2003 film The Matrix Reloaded, agent Smith has gone rogue after being severed from the matrix.  In a memorable scene, we observe his ambitious plan to replicate himself hundreds of times, by shoving his hand into the chest of bystanders, who then morph into a copy of agent Smith. 11 How efficient it would be to expand our circle of concern for others if a Stoic sage could simply copy her wisdom onto others so violently and swiftly!  As comical as that idea may seem, the end goal is somewhat similar.  Stoics want to spread wisdom through education and care for others; and by caring for the one, they care for the many either directly or indirectly.

Continuing with the example of the Catholic priest abuse, and asking the question if a lawsuit should be filed or not; it is not a stretch to think how filing a lawsuit not only would be the catalyst for moral education for the abuser, but the lawsuit would also prevent further injustices for many future, potential victims.

Consider the data on the number of abuses from the year 1970 to the year 2019.  Abuses continued for decades until the scandal was blown wide open leading to many public lawsuits.  Close to 2,000 abuses were documented in the years 1970-1974 and then dropping to about 120 after the Boston Globe investigation blew things open.  In the ensuing years, after the lawsuits became public, the number of allegations has dropped to 2 in the year 2019. 12


One could reasonably argue, that had the lawsuits not been filed, hundreds of victims would have been abused and assaulted in the last decade.  To bring this point back to what a Stoic should do after having been assaulted, if he were to follow Musonius’ advice to never file a lawsuit, then the Stoic would have failed in his duty to social oikeiôsis and circle of concern for others.  Therefore, if a Stoic is assaulted, they must not only face the abuse with equanimity, but must also consider what actions he could take considering his duty to those in his circle of concern.  If a lawsuit will prevent further injustices to many, then the Stoic ought to file a lawsuit.


In sum, this essay has attacked Rufus’ assumption that simply because a person has filed a lawsuit, that does not equate nor imply the person is intending to “bite back” at their assaulter.  Furthermore, the essay has attempted to refute Musonius’ argument by showing a Stoic may, in some cases, file a lawsuit, while simultaneously retaining his equanimity.  First by showing that a Stoic would not file a lawsuit out of a sense of having been offended, but rather out of a sense of duty to justice.  Secondly, a Stoic could also file a lawsuit out of a duty to social oikeiôsis, with the intent to help not only the individual, but also society through the means of educating the person who has carried out the assault.


1 Rufus, C. Musonius, Cynthia Ann Kent King, and William Braxton Irvine. Essay. In Musonius Rufus: Lectures & Sayings, 50-51. United States: Createspace, 2011.

2 “Justice.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed August 30, 2020.

3 Pascal, Blaise, and M. Kaufmann. Essay. In Blaise Pascal Thoughts: Selected and Translated, 56.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

4 “Murder of Kitty Genovese.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, August 23, 2020.

5 Takooshian, Harold. “The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, March 24, 2014.

6 Sellars, John. Essay. In Stoicism, 108, 123, 131. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

7 Aurelius, Marcus, Martin Hammond, and Diskin Clay. “Book 6, 54.” Essay. In Meditations. London: Penguin Classics, 2014.

8 “Moral Letters to Lucilius/Letter 95.” Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 95, v. 34-38  Wikisource, the free online library. Accessed August 30, 2020

9 Carroll, Matt, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michae Rezendes. “Scores of Priests Involved in Sex Abuse Cases - The Boston Globe.” Edited by Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V Robinson. The Boston Globe, May 30, 2012.

10 Henley, Jon. “How the Boston Globe Exposed the Abuse Scandal That Rocked the Catholic Church.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 21, 2010.

11 Silver, Joel (Producer), & The Wachowskis (Directors). (2003). The Matrix Reloaded [Motion Picture], United States, Warner Bros. Pictures

12 “Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.” Accessed August 30, 2020.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Essay on David Hume reductio ad absurdum Argument

Originally written August 2020

The Creation and the Creator

The context of this essay revolves around if the world (perfect or not) was created by a perfect or imperfect God.  Scottish Philosopher, David Hume, argues the world was not created by a perfect God.  He advances this claim with an analogy by comparing the world to a ship, which was created by a carpenter who finally succeeded by mimicking superior craftsmen, through repeated failures, attempts and successes.

Presented in the reductio ad absurdum form of argument, Hume claims:

To prove: the world does not have a creator in the way a ship does.

Assume the opposite: The world does have a creator in the way a ship does.

Argue that from the assumption we would have to conclude: an imperfect world must have been created by an imperfect god.

Show that this is false (morally or practically unacceptable): God cannot be imperfect.

Conclude: The world does not have a creator in the way a ship does.

This essay will first question the validity of Hume’s analogy and then respond to Hume’s premise that the world is imperfect.  If the analogy is not valid, then the argument breaks down.  Also, if it can be demonstrated that the world is indeed not imperfect, then Hume’s argument can be further refuted.  The essay will also elaborate on the Stoic concept of God, in response to the idea of perfection and imperfection.

Hume’s Analogy Not Quite Valid

Hume’s creator of the ship analogy is as follows:

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiple trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving. 1

Hume’s creator of the ship analogy fails in a few ways.

First, a ship is an inorganic object which floats on water.  Earth, on the other hand, is organic, teeming with life inside an atmosphere.  The earth exists in the vacuum of space instead of a body of water or a dry dock.

Secondly, the degree of complexity between ship and a planet is wide and the required maintenance of each varies.  The actual mechanisms to manipulate the ship are simple compared to those of the earth.  A ship merely needs a rudder and an engine, from something as simple as a sail or a motor.  After that, the ship requires a captain and crew to steer it and maintain it (removing barnacles, replacing rotten wood, etc.).  The earth, however, has a core, layers of earth, complex life support systems in the land, water, and layers of atmosphere, to maintain its viability to sustain life.  And despite its complexity, the earth requires no intervention of a crew for on-going maintenance and repairs.  A simple ship would crash and rot without a crew.  The complex earth needs no crew to persist.

Thirdly, the purpose of a ship and the purpose of the world are different.  The goal of a ship may range from being a pleasure boat for people to explore exotic islands or it may be to transport thousands of passengers across the world to another continent or it may be designed to carry munitions in a war, to fire them on an enemy.  Broadly speaking, a ship’s purpose is for transport of people and things over water – its purpose and scope is finite.  The world, in contrast, may have a multivariate purpose, some of which may be deeply philosophical.  But it is evident, the world is not strictly a means of transportation.  There is no port from which the world has departed nor to which it will return – there is no evidence to support this idea.  And there is no clearly defined goal and universally understood mission or purpose of the world – it is not finite.

The other part of Hume’s analogy compares the creator of the ship to God.  This part of the analogy does not quite seem relevant to the scope of argument.

When most people who believe in a God, think of the concept of God, they will “go up the chain” as a matter of speaking, as far as possible.  Even the deeply seated philosophical question of “who created me” hits at the very essence of the question.  Of course, we know that my biological mother and father created me – that is how I literally came into existence.  But we want to go further, to the point of asking, who created the first human.  And even then, we may not know if whoever created the first human is indeed God or not.  Perhaps Hume was trying to limit his analogy to the scope of a creator of a ship, but in fact, he should have found an analogy that assumes a broader scope, such as one that asks the question of who designed the creator of the ship, or who is the original architect of the design of ships.  The goal would be to get to the ultimate fount of creation, instead of focusing on an intermediary.  In sum, the scope of his analogy is too limited.

His creator of the ship analogy falls apart on a few levels.  Comparing the ship to the world does not equate.  And the creator, in the analogy, is too limited in scope.

Even if we were to grant that Hume’s analogy is valid, it still fails on the point of God creating an imperfect world.  The concept of perfection versus imperfection must be addressed from a Stoic perspective.

Refuting the Idea of Perfection Versus Imperfection – a Stoic Response

The Stoic God is everywhere and is everything.  Nature is God, to the Stoics.  Everything flows from Nature, including the world.  As such, Nature is greater than the notion of perfection and imperfection.

The idea of perfection (or a superior standard), is a difficult definition to pin down, in time and space.  Things are in a constant state of change regarding time and space.  Humans have created the idea of perfection (or a superior standard), which simply means any standard they think should exist is perfect.  Without evidence of perfection, or a standard to refer to, the idea of perfection and imperfection, does not exist; rather it only exists in our minds.

As opposed to this dichotomous thinking (perfect vs imperfect), we have evidence of a hierarchy of tension in objects in the cosmos.  At the foundational level of tension are things that have no consciousness and are always acted on.  Next would be things that have consciousness but may act on other things.  At higher levels would be things that are conscious and usually act on other things.  At the highest level resides the Stoic God: Nature, which is conscious and acts on everything.  From Nature flows all things, both conscious and unconscious, both things that are acted on, and things that act.

In sum, if there is only one fount, from which all the universe, and the cosmos and everything in the cosmos, flows, then everything within the cosmos has continually changed, and simply exists now, and is in a constant state of change in the future, due to things acting on other things.  Therefore, as the universe is in a constant state of flux, if such an idea of perfection existed, it would only exist in the now.  More succinctly stated: Nature is.

The Stoic God

Marcus Aurelius explains the Stoic view of God in one concise verse:

Think always of the universe as one living creature, comprising one substance and one soul: how all is absorbed into this one consciousness; how a single impulse governs all its actions; how all things collaborate in all that happens; the very web and mesh of it all. 2

Stoic physics describe God as a philosophical God, “a living being” who is “rational, animate and intelligent.” 3  The basis for arriving at this conclusion comes from the logic that since humans are rational, animate and intelligent, therefore the cosmos cannot give rise to something which it does not possess.  Zeno stated, “that which employs reason is better than that which does not.  Now nothing is superior to the cosmos; therefore the cosmos employs reason.” 4

Beyond Nature is only void.  Consequently, there is nothing with which to compare Nature.  Nature simply exists and is “governed by reason” and exists as “the best possible organization … as there is only one possible organization.” 5

Perfection vs. Imperfection

Traditional Christians and Skeptics suggest that God is either perfect or imperfect.  Hume outlines this argument through the voices of Philo, Cleanthes and Demea.

The Christian argument might focus on the perfection of God with God’s intent to design the world preceding the creation of it.  On the other hand, the Skeptic might argue that the world was a lesser production than the creator intended.

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiple trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving. 1

The Stoic view might respond to the debate between Philo, Cleanthes and Demea that this is dichotomous thinking.  How do we know what a perfect world is?  By what standard can we point that our world is the final result, stemming from a long string of mishaps and misfires?  It would seem the Skeptic is not skeptical enough!

To a Stoic, things, including our world, simply are.  There is no notion of perfect or imperfect.  Whereas the average person might question why brambles and bitter cucumbers were made and point to such things as evidence of an imperfect world, a Stoic, such as Marcus Aurelius, demonstrates the correct way of contemplating these things.

A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go round them. That is all you need, without going on to ask, 'So why are these things in the world anyway?' That question would be laughable to a student of nature, just as any carpenter or cobbler would laugh at you if you objected to the sight of shavings or off-cuts from their work on the shop floor. Yet they have somewhere to throw their rubbish, whereas the nature of the Whole has nothing outside itself. The marvel of its craft is that it sets its own confines and recycles into itself all within them which seems to be decaying, growing old, or losing its use: and then creates afresh from this same material. This way it requires no substance other than its own, and has no need for a rubbish-dump. So it is complete in its own space, its own material, and its own craftsmanship. 6

To reiterate, the Stoic response to the claim that the world is either perfect or imperfect, is to say that it is neither; rather, “it is complete in its own space.”

Marcus further emphasizes this point by demonstrating the philosophy of unity of the Whole.  Nature, and everything in it, is one whole and complete in its own space.

Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy; none of its parts are unconnected. They are composed harmoniously, and together they compose the world.

One world, made up of all things.

One divinity, present in them all.

One substance and one law—the logos that all rational beings share.

And one truth . . .

If this is indeed the culmination of one process, beings who share the same birth, the same logos. 7

In sum, Stoic physics explain the concept that everything is encompassed in Nature (God).  Things within may need to discard shavings, as evidenced in the metaphor of the carpenter.  But for Nature as a Whole, there is nowhere to place such things to be discarded.  Instead, Nature is able to self-regulate and use everything to its advantage.

The concept of self-regulation can be further explained through the concept of the hierarchy of tension of pneuma of things in the cosmos.

The Hierarchy of Tension

Stoic physics explain differing levels of tension or tonos of things in Nature.  At the low end is simple cohesion (hexis).  Things such as rock would have cohesion.  Moving up the hierarchy of tension is nature (phusis).  Things that have this level of tension would be classified as alive.  The next level up is soul (psuche).  Things with this level of tension would be animals that possess the power of perception, movement and reproduction.  And still higher would be the tension of rational soul (logike psuche).  Things with this level of tension would be adult human beings. 8

Taking this hierarchy one step further, we know that which is higher than the rational soul would be the rational Cosmos.  While the adult human being possesses a rational soul, she is still only “a fragment of matter that constitutes the cosmic body” of Nature.  From this basis of reasoning, we arrive at the conclusion that from Nature, all things flow, both things that are acted upon and things that act. 9

Observing this cosmic perspective of things and events, therefore, helps us to avoid the entire debate of things being perfect versus imperfect, or even good versus evil.

If we accept the premise that all things flow from Nature and that Nature (God) is rational, then we can assume that Nature has accounted for all and is able to self-regulate.

Therefore, as rational beings, we can observe the movement of the stars and the changes of the earth and the life cycle of the animals.  These things naturally manage themselves, without the need of oversight.  A weed grows, it dies, it replenishes the earth and enriches the soil.  If a person chooses to see a weed as an imperfection, then that person has not widened his aperture to the right level of perspective.  He should try to look at the weed in a broader, more cosmic perspective, and he may begin to not see the weed as imperfect, but as a necessary part of Nature’s way of self-regulation.


The essay has attempted to first, refute the validity of Hume’s creator of the ship analogy, by claiming that a ship does not equate to the world, nor does the scope of the creator quite arise to the scope of God.

The essay went on to also question the premise of God creating an imperfect world, by attacking the notion of perfect versus imperfect.  In so doing, it explained the macro framework of Stoic physics, including the Stoic God.  The Stoic God, which is Nature, encompasses things which have differing levels of tension, from simple cohesion such as in stones, all the way up to the fully rational, self-regulating organism of Nature itself.

Within Nature, some people have assumed the wrong perspective regarding perfection or imperfection.  If a person thinks our world is either perfectly made or not, then he has not considered the grand perspective of Nature, wherein all things are managed and in a constant state of change.  If he takes the correct perspective, he will appreciate that, to God (Nature) “all things are fair and good and just” and that it is “people [who] hold some things wrong and some right.” 10


1 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part V 

2 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4, 40

3 John Sellars, Stoicism p. 93, 95

4 Sellars, Stoicism p. 93

5 Sellars, Stoicism p. 99  

6 Aurelius, Meditations 8, 50

7 Aurelius, Meditations 7, 9

8 Sellars, Stoicism p. 91

9 Sellars Stoicism p. 104-105

10 Heraclitus, DK B102, from Porphyry, Notes on Homer, on Iliad 4.4

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 32 - On Progress

On Progress

There are a few good bits of advice and things to learn from this brief letter.

As mentioned in the previous letter about siren songs, Seneca reminds Lucilius to be mindful of those he chooses to associate with.

refrain from associating with men of different stamp and different aims. And I am indeed confident that you cannot be warped, that you will stick to your purpose, even though the crowd may surround and seek to distract you.

Focus is needed to make progress.  As my current assignment at work deals with coaching our teams on agile, one of my favorite quotes, which we've turned into a sticker, is "start finishing and stop starting."  We get so distracted by new things and ideas and initiatives.  What we need more of is focus to finish what we've set our minds to.

And much harm is done even by one who holds you back, especially since life is so short; and we make it still shorter by our unsteadiness, by making ever fresh beginnings at life, now one and immediately another. We break up life into little bits, and fritter it away.

Start finishing your quest to philosophy and stop with new distractions.  Life is short and when it comes to learning and applying your human craft, you have no time to lose.  Death is on your heels; like an enemy chasing after you.  The immediate goal is to "round out your life before death comes, and then await in peace the remaining portion of your time."

Learn to be content with little and give more to those in need - both materially and philosophically.

He makes an interesting comment about how Lucilius' parents prayed for many blessings on him.  And in some warped paradigm, Seneca thinks that Lucilius' parents' prayers have "plundered" the blessings from others.  "Whatever they make over to you must be removed from someone else."

I suppose if there were scarcity of some resource and if Lucilius' parents had such sway over the gods as to ask for said scarce resource that it be given to Lucilius and not another, then I guess the vice here is greed.  But that only makes sense if the resource is scarce and his parents controlled the gods.

The more important lesson here, I think, is that his parents didn't know what good to pray for, for their son.  Rather than praying for a scarce resource to be given to their son (and subsequently taken away from another), if they were to pray that their son be more just or have more courage or wisdom, I can't see how by granting their son with more virtue, the act takes away from others!  In sum, if you are going to pray, don't make it a Santa Clause wish-list of indifferents.  Pray for something the gods give (and have already given) in abundance: virtue.

The amazing things about the good is that once you learn it and truly grasp it (think of a fist tightly grasping something), you have it immediately.  The work is in the learning and being truly convinced.

I pray that you may get such control over yourself that your mind, now shaken by wandering thoughts, may at last come to rest and be steadfast, that it may be content with itself and, having attained an understanding of what things are truly good, – and they are in our possession as soon as we have this knowledge, – that it may have no need of added years.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 31 - On Siren Songs

On Siren Songs

Fads, trends, populism, crowd favorites - I've tried to be leery of what the majority desires.  If only the majority were in favor of justice for all, temperance, courage and wisdom, then perhaps I would willingly go along with the crowd.  But usually what the crowd desires is not wise, but foolish.  They will choose the well-worn, popular path.  For this reason, I think, Seneca approves of the "impulse which prompted" Lucilius to "[tread under feet] that which is approved by the crowd.

The phrase "tread under feet" seems to mean to ignore, or oppress or put down.  Therefore, Seneca approves of the idea of going against the crowd, as long as that means one is living philosophically.

He compares the desires of the crowd to a siren song.  Odysseus had to plug the ears of his men so they would not hear the siren song, lest they succumbed to it and dash their ships into the rock.  Similarly, we must plug our ears to the calls of the crowd, which are everywhere!

the song, however, which you have to fear, echoes round you not from a single headland, but from every quarter of the world. Sail, therefore, not past one region which you mistrust because of its treacherous delights, but past every city. Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they pray for bad things with good intentions. And, if you would be happy, entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass. What they wish to have heaped upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life, – trust in oneself.

Seneca warns that we must be deaf even "to those who love you most all."  What an odd thing to say.  I presume that what he means is that those who love us most, may not have embraced philosophy, and therefore, when they pray for you, they are praying that you become famous, rich, handsome, healthy or some sort of indifferent.  Or they may be praying that you don't die or become ill or fall on so-called misfortune.  Therefore, Seneca says that if you really want to be happy, plead with the gods that your loved ones' prayers are not answered.

I'm not so sure how sound this advice from Seneca is.  I'm not so sure a practicing Stoic would forbid his loved ones to pray for such things, nor would he go out of his way to pray to the gods to not answer the prayers of his loved ones.  At best, a practicing Stoic may be completely nonplussed by such prayers and would not worry if those things came (or not) into his life.  He would view them as indifferents regardless if they came (or not) due to prayers from a loved one or otherwise.

The next part of the letter delves into the subject of work; and I assume he means the subject of gainful employment.  Work, itself, is an indifferent.  Therefore, work can be infused with either virtue or vice.  A practicing Stoic, then would attempt to make his work noble.

Make yourself happy through your own efforts; you can do this, if once you comprehend that whatever is blended with virtue is good, and that whatever is joined to vice is bad. Just as nothing gleams if it has no light blended with it, and nothing is black unless it contains darkness or draws to itself something of dimness, and as nothing is hot without the aid of fire, and nothing cold without air; so it is the association of virtue and vice that makes things honourable or base.

Knowledge of how to make good use of things (indifferents) is the art of philosophy.  The good, therefore, is knowledge.  And evil is lack of knowledge.  Your human craft is to gain knowledge about how to be a good human.

Just as a carpenter learns to work with wood and there are varying degrees of craftsmanship in different carpenters due to knowledge and practice (as well as lack of knowledge and practice), so too we can apply this analogy to what it means to be a good human being.  A good human will seek justice for all (not only justice for some, and not at the expense of others' justice).  A good human being will be disciplined and temperate in eating, entertainment, learning and working.  A good human being will demonstrate courage and honesty.  A good human being learns and demonstrates wisdom.  The medium for the carpenter is wood.  The medium for a human being is work and life.

in order that virtue may be perfect, there should be an even temperament and a scheme of life that is consistent with itself throughout; and this result cannot be attained without knowledge of things, and without the art which enables us to understand things human and things divine. That is the greatest good. If you seize this good, you begin to be the associate of the gods, and not their suppliant.

The 'art' he refers to is philosophy.  If we learn and practice this art, we become equal with the gods.  It does not matter our lot in life, the choice we have is our response to our lot and circumstances in life.  Is our soul worthy to the challenge?  Will you take the path less travelled or will you follow the crowd?

The unique part of *you* has a choice, regardless of circumstances.

What we have to seek for, then, is that which does not each day pass more and more under the control of some power which cannot be withstood. And what is this? It is the soul, – but the soul that is upright, good, and great. What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? A soul like this may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman's son or a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedman's son, or a slave? They are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong. One may leap to heaven from the very slums. Only rise

"And mould thyself to kinship with thy God."

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 30 - On Conquering the Conqueror

On Conquering the Conqueror

Another letter on death.  This letter gets into the specifics of someone who is really old and therefore really near death.

I'm not going to commentate much on this letter, other than copy a few quotes from it and make a remark.

Seneca says,

Philosophy bestows this boon upon us; it makes us joyful in the very sight of death, strong and brave no matter in what state the body may be, cheerful and never failing though the body fail us.

This quote is a rift on Socrates who said that philosophy is nothing but preparation for death.

Seneca admires the subject of this letter (the man named Aufidius Bassus).  Bassus' courage is so great, he can observe and contemplate his own death as if it were simply the death of another. 

[He] contemplates his own end with the courage and countenance which you would regard as undue indifference in a man who so contemplated another's.

There is this gem, embedded in the letter, which serves as a good reminder of what is not good and evil.  We may think that the tumultuous ocean is bad and unsafe because we could drown in it.  But that is not necessarily the right perspective.

the sea has cast ashore unharmed those whom it had engulfed, by the same force through which it drew them down.

Seneca thinks that the nearer one is to death, the more courage they must muster.

I hold that one is braver at the very moment of death than when one is approaching death. ... an end that is near at hand, and is bound to come, calls for tenacious courage of soul; this is a rarer thing, and none but the wise man can manifest it.

Facing death - truly, deeply contemplating it - is something we must all face.  The longer we avoid facing death, the more slavish we can become.  For once you face death and not fear it, then you can truly begin to live.

He who does not wish to die cannot have wished to live. For life is granted to us with the reservation that we shall die; to this end our path leads. Therefore, how foolish it is to fear it, since men simply await that which is sure, but fear only that which is uncertain!  Death has its fixed rule, – equitable and unavoidable.

Seneca admires those who are comfortable with death and let it happen as fate happens.  Those who rush head-long into danger, hoping for death (loathing their life) seem to be less respectable.

those have more weight with me who approach death without any loathing for life, letting death in, so to speak, and not pulling it towards them.

Lastly, and precisely, "We do not fear death; we fear the thought of death. For death itself is always the same distance from us."

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

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

On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

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

On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

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

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

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

And more of the same from Seneca:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

See also Letter 104

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 27 - On the Good which Abides

On the Good which Abides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 26 - On Old Age and Death

On Old Age and Death

Read Seneca's perspective on being old:

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca proposes a test to find out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 25 - On Reformation

On Reformation

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

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

A few concepts to take away from this letter:

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

Monday, October 12, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 24 - On Despising Death

On Despising Death

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

Seneca writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

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

On the True Joy which Comes from Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Aurelius expressed a similar sentiment when he said,

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

Seneca further advises,

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

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

They live ill who are always beginning to live.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

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

On the Futility of Half-Way Measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2020

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

On the Renown which my Writings will Bring you

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

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

Seneca chides him:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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