Friday, June 19, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 5 - On the Philosopher's Mean

On the Philosopher's Mean

Mean, median and mode - three ways to statistically look at "the middle."  It is in this vein that Seneca teaches us to not be too radical in our way of life on either end of the spectrum.  In Aristotelian philosophy, the idea would be called the Golden Mean.

In this letter, Seneca advocates for a life of temperance, by avoiding extremes and excesses.  More precisely, he advocates for the self-improvement of the philosopher and not for self-aggrandizement.
I commend you and rejoice in the fact that you are persistent in your studies, and that, putting all else aside, you make it each day your endeavour to become a better man. I do not merely exhort you to keep at it; I actually beg you to do so. I warn you, however, not to act after the fashion of those who desire to be conspicuous rather than to improve, by doing things which will rouse comment as regards your dress or general way of living.
The right course of action for a philosopher is to work on the inward - the inner dialogue - and to focus less on the outward appearance.  And for outward appearances, the philosopher ought to maintain good decorum.  He writes:
Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society ...  Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.
Because Stoics believe in and practice social oikeiosis, they want to try to influence fellow citizens for the better.  But if they (the Stoics) are too radical in appearance or demeanor, then their influence for good would be less effective.  Seneca tried to strike the right balance with this thought:
Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance; and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 4 - On the Terrors of Death

On the Terrors of Death

Plato said, “In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly practice dying.”

Seneca, continues that tradition with this letter.  In a word, memento mori.

A few points from this letter.

In the following passage, Seneca expounds a bit on the thought: this too shall pass.
All you need to do is to advance; you will thus understand that some things are less to be dreaded, precisely because they inspire us with great fear. No evil is great which is the last evil of all. Death arrives; it would be a thing to dread, if it could remain with you. But death must either not come at all, or else must come and pass away.
The sooner we come to grips with the reality and inevitability of our own death, the sooner we will be at peace.  And we can live the remainder of our days, at peace with death.  Thus Seneca writes,
No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it ... Rehearse this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briars and sharp rocks.
And then there are the trials and difficulties of life (the indifferents).  People in a "wretched" state are those who are either worrying about death or worrying about the next flood, theft, sickness, layoff, bad grade or breakup.
Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.  For this reason, make life as a whole agreeable to yourself by banishing all worry about it. No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss; nothing, however, is lost with less discomfort than that which, when lost, cannot be missed. Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful (emphasis added).
That last part of the quote is advice Seneca gives to those who wish to practice Stoicism.  He is advocating the practice of memento mori as well as the practice of hardships.  Today's moderns will take a cold shower.  But to truly make practicing hardships meaningful to yourself, you must first ask yourself what you fear.  If you fear poverty, the live like a pauper every so often.

Now, we can't practice death.  But we can think about our death.  We can observe the deaths of others.  This is why Marcus' writings, in his Meditations, are full of such thoughts.  Death is nothing to fear.  In this very letter, Seneca goes on to discuss the sundry ways death claimed the powerful.

Never forget where you are being lead, day after day.  In the end - at the end of our journey - we die.
Take my word for it: since the day you were born you are being led thither. We must ponder this thought, and thoughts of the like nature, if we desire to be calm as we await that last hour, the fear of which makes all previous hours uneasy.
The last part of his letter, he ends with a thought about poverty: "Poverty brought into conformity with the law of nature, is great wealth."  And, just as we learned from Henry David Thoreau, very little is needed to sustain life.  Seneca said as much in this letter:
In order to banish hunger and thirst, it is not necessary for you to pay court at the doors of the purse-proud, or to submit to the stern frown, or to the kindness that humiliates; nor is it necessary for you to scour the seas, or go campaigning; nature's needs are easily provided and ready to hand. (emphasis added)
Much of our worry and sweat is for "superfluous" stuff - stuff that is not important (indifferents).
It is the superfluous things for which men sweat, – the superfluous things that wear our togas threadbare, that force us to grow old in camp, that dash us upon foreign shores. That which is enough is ready to our hands. He who has made a fair compact with poverty is rich. Farewell.
Now, go practice.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 3 - On True and False Friendship

On True and False Friendship

This letter provides a lot of food for thought pertaining to who you should call real friends.

The word friend varies in definitions, all of which could be correct in any given context.  Some examples to consider:

I have a friend who is my neighbor.  I see them every so often and we exchange pleasantries.  Sometimes, we will spend 15-30 minutes talking and catching up.  We may discuss our children's lives and how things are going with work.  The subject of our conversation may dip into the events of the day as well.  Every so often, we may get together for a BBQ to sit and chat.

I have another friend who is my neighbor, but we are slightly more closer.  Our conversation is more trusted and intimate.  This friendship started like the above example, but then bloomed into more frequent dinners and the conversation more personal and trusting and deeper.

I have a handful of friends with whom I work.  Much of our conversation is business related.  But through shared stressful times, and struggles, we got to know each other's strengths and weaknesses.  Our trust grew strong and we shared our personal lives, triumphs and failures with each other.  We share information about ourselves which are reserved for the truest of friends.  These friends, meet the Seneca standard of "friend."

Seneca advises, "When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment."

I have one friend, like no other.  She is my wife.  There is very little she does not know about me and that is due to the fact that we've only lived 22 years with each other, rather than 45.  We trust each other, absolutely.  I don't think Seneca is referring to these types of friends, in his letter.  But nonetheless, what he discusses is granted in spousal friendships as well.

Trust and true friendship are synonymous.  On this topic, Seneca wrote:
you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?
So what to take away from all this?  Start with some trust.  Share parts of your life with a person who is becoming your friend.  As you mutually gain trust, do your best to understand their true character. As Seneca teaches, " I would have you discuss everything with a friend; but first of all discuss the man himself."  Once you really know them, then you can be sure they are a true friend.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 2 - On Discursiveness in Reading

On Discursiveness in Reading

In sum, this letter is about focus.  Adding a slighter nuance to it, the lesson of this letter is about being present and in the moment.  While Seneca applies this idea to reading, the key lesson is applicable in many aspects of our lives.

I think this is why it is important, as a young person, to read and learn from the classics.  Teenagers and young adults need to stick with the classics and not be distracted by the latest fictional series.  A young person needs to be brought up to speed, as it were, on history, philosophy and the sciences.  If they spend enough time 'catching up' and focusing on what lessons we've learned as a civilization, then they will be in a position to add to the collective knowledge of a civilized society.

By sticking to these important texts, they can learn from them, and incorporate them into their personal lives.  But if they 'get bored' with them, they risk the opportunity to change themselves for the better.  Seneca uses a handful of analogies to make his point:
nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong.