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.

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