Thursday, July 2, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 7 - On Crowds

On Crowds

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

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

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