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.

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