Sunday, September 27, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 20 - On Practising what you Preach

On Practising what you Preach

I'm appreciative of Pierre Hadot and others like him, who have helped to change the perception of philosophy from an academic study to a way of life.  Indeed, Hadot has honed in on the concept of practice and action and a complete overhaul of one's life as the aim of philosophy.  Much of this is discussed in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life.  This bias to action is evident in Seneca's Letter 20.

I ask and beg of you, on your part, that you let wisdom sink into your soul, and test your progress, not by mere speech or writings, but by stoutness of heart and decrease of desire. Prove your words by your deeds. ...

philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak

Reading, learning, meditation and discussion will provide the knowledge for a one who wishes to understand philosophy.  But all of this is useless unless put into action.  A philosophy is demonstrated to be valid through the actions of the adherent.

I sometimes wonder if we have our learning process backwards in our society.  We teach reading, writing, math, history and other core classes, but we don't teach our students the most important education: to what end is the purpose of life?  I'm not proposing that only one philosophy be taught, but that students should be exposed to an array of philosophies and consider which one they think will bring them the most good.

Then, once they decide which philosophy to follow, they have a heading in life - a direction to guide them.

But as it is now, most don't figure out what their own philosophy is until much later in life.  Perhaps this is why some college students have a hard time deciding what to major in, or perhaps this is why some people experience a mid-life crisis.  I propose we teach and expose the various philosophies to as many young students as possible and the earlier, the better.

Then, once a person decides which one they judge best, they should practice it.

You should lay hold, once for all, upon a single norm to live by, and should regulate your whole life according to this norm. ...

it is because no man resolves upon what he wishes, and, even if he has done so, he does not persist in it, but jumps the track; not only does he change, but he returns and slips back to the conduct which he has abandoned and abjured. ...

no man ever decided once and for all to desire or to refuse. Judgment varies from day to day, and changes to the opposite, making many a man pass his life in a kind of game

As for the Stoics, they would teach you to focus on virtue; to desire it.  And they would also teach you to treat everything that is not up to you, with indifference.  Wealth is an indifferent.  So, what is the Stoic advice for wealth?

let your thoughts, your efforts, your desires, help to make you content with your own self and with the goods that spring from yourself; and commit all your other prayers to God's keeping!

And what can be done to strengthen your view wealth as an indifferent?  Seneca offers this:

hold it essential, therefore, to do as I have told you in a letter that great men have often done: to reserve a few days in which we may prepare ourselves for real poverty by means of fancied poverty. There is all the more reason for doing this, because we have been steeped in luxury and regard all duties as hard and onerous. Rather let the soul be roused from its sleep and be prodded, and let it be reminded that nature has prescribed very little for us. No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags.

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