Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 43 - On the Relativity of Fame

On the Relativity of Fame

There is only one passing phrase discussing, directly, the relativity of fame: 

For greatness is not absolute; comparison increases it or lessens it. A ship which looms large in the river seems tiny when on the ocean. A rudder which is large for one vessel, is small for another.

It is a good reminder, whether addressing the topic of fame, skill, riches, health or any number of indifferents, to remember that they are all mostly relative.  If you think you possess a bit of an indifferent, the odds are overwhelming that someone has more than you and someone has less than you.  The reason why you should keep this thought in your head is so that you are reminded that whatever it is you have, doesn't really mean anything; rather it just is.  No need to get all worked up that you have less than someone else an no need to be anxious that you don't have more than someone else.

Spend your time and concern and care on your soul.  To be clear, you do need to interact and use indifferents wisely.  But they should not be your primary concern.  Provide food, shelter, clothing, education and so forth for yourself and your family.  But do so wisely; not extravagantly nor sloppily.

As for fame - focus on being an influence for good in your circle.  If your circle continues to widen (more fame and influence), use it wisely.  This is where much of modern society flounders, as many use their fame for petty, ignorant and useless things.

The last part of the letter is somewhat related to fame (being seen or not), but deals more with judging a person's character and where a person's feels guilty or not by allowing others to peer into his life.

I shall mention a fact by which you may weigh the worth of a man's character: you will scarcely find anyone who can live with his door wide open.  It is our conscience, not our pride, that has put doorkeepers at our doors; we live in such a fashion that being suddenly disclosed to view is equivalent to being caught in the act. What profits it, however, to hide ourselves away, and to avoid the eyes and ears of men?  A good conscience welcomes the crowd, but a bad conscience, even in solitude, is disturbed and troubled. If your deeds are honourable, let everybody know them; if base, what matters it that no one knows them, as long as you yourself know them? How wretched you are if you despise such a witness!

The spirit of this last part seems to be saying: let others see your life; if your actions are noble, then no need to hide behind closed doors.  But if your actions are foolish, it doesn't matter that others see them, only that you recognize them yourself and are willing to submit to correction.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 42 - On Values

On Values

This letter resonates deeply with me.  I'm in my mid-40's as I write this commentary.  Over half my career is behind me.  Many people experience what is called a mid-life crisis at this age.  I think it stems from the fact that one feels the pressing weight of time beginning to bear down on them.  And if they've not achieved their goals which they've set for themselves while they were in their 20's, they begin to feel they have a chance to start over and accomplish them.  Some wish to re-gain their youthful vigor through exercise regimens, plastic surgery or new friends, while others strive to preserve what they already gained.  Regardless the approach, the one common denominator is time.  The older one gets, the more acutely aware he is of this precious commodity.  Seneca discusses time and other important values, which too many of us trade cheaply.

But before we get to that, Seneca starts off the letter by warning Lucilius of people who say they are good men.  This is a red flag.  He observes:

it is impossible in so short a time for one either to become good or be known as such. ...  if he knew what it meant to be "a good man," he would not yet believe himself such ... In the case of many men, their vices, being powerless, escape notice ... These men simply lack the means whereby they may unfold their wickedness.

Therefore, be weary of people who say they are good and to 'follow me.'  The truly good man is exceptionally rare.  I presume Seneca is referring to the sage, and that sages are as rare as the phoenix.

For one of the first class perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years. And it is not surprising, either, that greatness develops only at long intervals; Fortune often brings into being commonplace powers, which are born to please the mob; but she holds up for our approval that which is extraordinary by the very fact that she makes it rare.

In the second half of the letter, Seneca analyzes value.  Have you thought about this?  What do we value and how do we value it?

Just the other night, the world observed Saturn and Jupiter align almost perfectly, making the appearance of a 'new star.'  Honestly, it wasn't much to behold if you are used to seeing the night sky - all the celestial bodies are simply glittering lights in the dark sky.  But because these two planets had not aligned like this for 800 years, people were awash with anxiety to see it.  If you missed it, and you're fairly young, don't worry; you'll see them this close in the year 2080.

But what about with regard to the indifferents we pursue in life?  Are there hidden costs?  Do we not see the other values lost when we pursue them?

with regard to the objects which we pursue, and for which we strive with great effort, we should note this truth; either there is nothing desirable in them, or the undesirable is preponderant. Some objects are superfluous; others are not worth the price we pay for them. But we do not see this clearly, and we regard things as free gifts when they really cost us very dear.

Don't think of 'buying' only in terms of hard cash.  Rather, think of the aspects of your very self that you spend in pursuit of objects.

we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.

This is where I worry most at my age.  It feels as though I'm constantly analyzing the cost-benefit analysis of all my activities.  Am I really getting benefit out of this activity?  Is this work useful and a wise expenditure of time?  Am I wasting away myself in a certain pursuit?

There was a time, when I was younger, when I would never leave a meeting until it ended.  But now, when I think of all the work I have to accomplish and the time wasted by people blathering on about nothing important, I feel the sting of time slipping out of my hands.  Sometimes I do quietly leave a meeting and never regret it.  But I also feel the sting of broken relationships.  These are largely built on time; simply talking and getting familiar with each other.  Therefore, I have to find a balance.

I think the key point Seneca is trying to make, is for each of us to consider our time, anxiety, danger, honor and freedom when we are deciding how to live.  I've focused a lot on time, as I think it is the most precious.  But we can also consider freedom, which is closely related to time.

Consider a person who moves upwards through the corporate ranks and acquires wealth, expensive cars, prestige, a large home, a vacation home and so forth.  At some point, they have really acquired golden handcuffs.  At some point, they lose real freedom.  They don't have much say in the matter of how they spend their time.  Their choices are limited and they are no better off than a slave.

Have you ever seen the couple who has so much wealth, that the children expect it to be given to them?  The children's growth is stunted as they've been given everything.  The parents begin to resent their children who won't stand on their own, as the kids hold out their hands for more.  The whole relationship is a sad state of affairs.

I believe there is a medium that many can achieve.  We don't have to be paupers or slaves.  But we also don't have to be executives.  We can also help our kids holistically by striving for wisdom, rather than ease.

Seneca offers some advice when deciding if our very selves are worth the expense.  We should be stingy with our time as if we were stingy with our money if a "huckster" approached us trying to sell us something.

Let us therefore act, in all our plans and conduct, just as we are accustomed to act whenever we approach a huckster who has certain wares for sale; let us see how much we must pay for that which we crave. Very often the things that cost nothing cost us the most heavily; I can show you many objects the quest and acquisition of which have wrested freedom from our hands. We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.

The same goes for things that we may lose!  If we lose money, or home, or other possessions, we should also not spend our anxiety or time by wringing our hands over a loss.  There is always a silver lining to look for, if you but look.  If you lose money, then you will have less worry; if you lose influence, you will have less envy.

Look about you and note the things that drive us mad, which we lose with a flood of tears; you will perceive that it is not the loss that troubles us with reference to these things, but a notion of loss. No one feels that they have been lost, but his mind tells him that it has been so. He that owns himself has lost nothing. But how few men are blessed with ownership of self!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 41 - On the god within us

On the god within us

Like Socrates, the ancient Stoics believed in a daimon which acted as a guiding spirit for each person - each person has a unique daimon which guides them in life and in death.  Whether this is what Seneca is referring to in this letter or not, is not clear.  Stoic physics teach that there is pneuma in everything in the universe - that this is the creative fire which makes the Stoic god God.  So whether Seneca is referring specifically to one's daimon or whether he is simply referring to the fact that pneuma (god) dwells within us, the key idea remains the same: we owe our rationality and the ability to become good, to the cosmos which gave rise to us.

Therefore, no need to pray to a statue or in a temple to "attain sound understanding."  Rather, look within.

God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.  This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian.

This next part of the letter seems a little controversial, at least to me.

Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior to fortune unless God helps him to rise?

What are we to think of this?  It seems that it could be construed a number of ways.  It could simply mean that we humans cannot be good if we did not exist and the cosmos / Nature / god gave rise to us, therefore we could never be good without god's help.  Or it could mean that despite our best efforts and whether we are conscious of god's help or not, no matter what we do, we could not become good without a daimon or perhaps our rationality, guiding us.  I think there is much we can do and learn on our own.  At the very least, we can have a grateful attitude for our existence.  On the other hand, we could seek to understand Nature and god and learn how our daimon can guide us to the best life that we could have.

In the next part of the letter, Seneca's reverence for Nature waxes poetic.  For people who love the outdoors, it is hard to not envision the beauty Seneca writes of.

If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of pleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. Or if a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God. We worship the sources of mighty rivers; we erect altars at places where great streams burst suddenly from hidden sources; we adore springs of hot water as divine, and consecrate certain pools because of their dark waters or their immeasurable depth.

As I read the above passage, I can't help but think of the times I've spent hiking Mt. Elbert or Mt. Timpanogos with my son, or walking my dog in the cool autumn forest near my home, or seeing deer graze along the path.  Regarding the cave - I know this hallowedness of which he speaks, as do countless others.  Having visited many caves in both North and Central America as well as Malaysia, there is an awe when one enters such a massive, natural structure.  Simply looking into the dark sky with no city lights around, will cause you to lose your breath beneath the vastness of space.

Seneca also stands of awe of people who have exercised tremendous virtue, to which (again) he ascribes to god.  The things to note in the following passage are the qualities of character found in such a person.  These are the same a good person should emulate.

When a soul rises superior to other souls, when it is under control, when it passes through every experience as if it were of small account, when it smiles at our fears and at our prayers, it is stirred by a force from heaven.

Such a person, according to Seneca, comes from god, like rays come from the sun.

Just as the rays of the sun do indeed touch the earth, but still abide at the source from which they are sent; even so the great and hallowed soul, which has come down in order that we may have a nearer knowledge of divinity, does indeed associate with us, but still cleaves to its origin.

Where can the good be found?  From within you and me.  Your good comes from your soul.  Mine stems from my soul.  This is the only thing over which we have control.  All else is not under our control.  The only way to become good is entirely within our control, regardless of whatever happens.

Does a gold ring make a person good?  No.  Does a million dollar home make a person good?  No.  Does a fit body make a person good?  No.  Does a title or do accolades make a person good?  No.

Seneca asks if a gold bit makes a horse better than others horses; no it does not.  Does a golden mane make a lion great?  No it does not.  What makes a horse great is its speed and strength.  What makes a lion great is its wild ferocity.

A golden bit does not make a better horse. The lion with gilded mane, in process of being trained and forced by weariness to endure the decoration, is sent into the arena in quite a different way from the wild lion whose spirit is unbroken; the latter, indeed, bold in his attack, as nature wished him to be, impressive because of his wild appearance, – and it is his glory that none can look upon him without fear, – is favoured in preference to the other lion, that languid and gilded brute.

What makes a human good?  Arete.  The ability to exercise the right virtues for the right reasons at the right time.

And if you are going to praise a human, do not praise them for some indifferent they possess.  Praise them for the virtue they exercise; praise them for having a good character; for choosing wisely.

Praise the quality in him which cannot be given or snatched away, that which is the peculiar property of the man. Do you ask what this is? It is soul, and reason brought to perfection in the soul. For man is a reasoning animal. Therefore, man's highest good is attained, if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth.

And he ought to be especially praised when the majority claim that the good is found in riches, health, fame and other perishables.

to live in accordance with his own nature. But this is turned into a hard task by the general madness of mankind; we push one another into vice. And how can a man be recalled to salvation, when he has none to restrain him, and all mankind to urge him on?

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 40 - On the Proper Style for a Philosopher's Discourse

On the Proper Style for a Philosopher's Discourse

This is a longish letter, which takes its time to simply state, "be slow of speech."

I couldn't help but think of the clip from Interstellar where Cooper tells Case to slow down!

When I was younger I was prone to haste.  Today, I still fall into the same mindset occasionally - wanting to get it done and move on to the next task.  While haste may be the correct way to go about some menial, mindless tasks, other projects should not be approached in the same way.  Philosophy is one of those projects which should not be approached or engaged with haste.

For the philosopher, his life and his speech should be well-composed and unhurried.

his speech, like his life, should be composed; and nothing that rushes headlong and is hurried is well ordered.

It should not be like the life and speech of a used car salesman or someone selling you something for $19.95 on TV.  Seneca called these types "mountbacks" which is another word for charlatan or quack.

forceful manner of speech, rapid and copious, is more suited to a mountebank than to a man who is discussing and teaching an important and serious subject.

As a philosopher, your job is to pursue the Truth.  This pursuit needs to be apparent for all, and not propped up.  Truth stands on its own and has no need for sleight of hand.

speech that deals with the truth should be unadorned and plain. This popular style has nothing to do with the truth; its aim is to impress the common herd, to ravish heedless ears by its speed; it does not offer itself for discussion, but snatches itself away from discussion.

Another reason to not use haste when discussing philosophy is so that the hearer and learned can digest what is being taught.  What good does it do the student who gulps it down so quickly, they cause themselves to vomit it back up?  The medicine has to stay in the body for the remedy to be effective.

Remedies do not avail unless they remain in the system.

The doctor has to remain with the patient to be able to help them.  A quick and dirty prognostication may do more harm than good.

What physician can heal his patient on a flying visit? 

A few more quotes from Seneca:

philosophy should carefully place her words, not fling them out, and should proceed step by step.

he should not quicken his pace and heap up words to an extent greater than the ear can endure.

But words, even if they came to you readily and flowed without any exertion on your part, yet would have to be kept under control.

In sum: slow down; absorb; be thoughtful; think; contemplate.  Don't be hasty with wisdom.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 39 - On Noble Aspirations

On Noble Aspirations

Before you were born, people were "working for your benefit."  Have you ever contemplated that idea?  We are born and injected with the philosophy (for better or for worse) of our parents and those who help to raise us.  We have no say in the matter of how they were raised philosophically.  For all we know, their philosophy in which they were raised or came to believe, is misguided and focused on the wrong things.  Some people are fortunate enough to have parents come to a correct understanding of what is good, and subsequently teach their children.  The rest of us simply stumble along and grasp at straws in the dark.

But perhaps the answer to this problem can be found in the writings and ideas of those who have spent a lifetime thinking, discussing and debating this important question.  This is what Seneca means, I think.  If a person's soul becomes "roused" enough to seek for what is the good, then there are opportunities to learn.

Pick up the list of the philosophers; that very act will compel you to wake up, when you see how many men have been working for your benefit. You will desire eagerly to be one of them yourself. For this is the most excellent quality that the noble soul has within itself, that it can be roused to honourable things.

No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean; the vision of great achievement summons him and uplifts him.


But happy is the man who has given it this impulse toward better things! He will place himself beyond the jurisdiction of chance; he will wisely control prosperity; he will lessen adversity, and will despise what others hold in admiration.

There is the answer - begin to learn from the philosophers!  Start reading and contemplating their writings.  Talk to others about it.  Write about it; then repeat.  And once you begin to learn, you will also learn to live wisely.

You begin to learn what is important; what belongs to you and what does not.  You will learn learn what virtue and vice really mean; what has utility and what does not.

This last section of his letter, to me, sounds a bit more Epicurean than Stoic.

Utility measures our needs; but by what standard can you check the superfluous? It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensable. And so they are the slaves of their pleasures instead of enjoying them; they even love their own ills, – and that is the worst ill of all! Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached, when men are not only attracted, but even pleased, by shameful things, and when there is no longer any room for a cure, now that those things which once were vices have become habits.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 38 - On Quiet Conversation

On Quiet Conversation

A short letter with some key points about effectively learning.

The goal: teaching others.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways: a formal lecture or presentation where many can listen but few can engage in dialogue.  Reading & writing letters, which is very asynchronous and takes times.  Then there is one-on-one mentorship and dialogue, or quiet conversation, as the letter is entitled.

Seneca says,

when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation.

And further, he writes,

we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words.


Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. Reason grows in the same way; it is not large to the outward view, but increases as it does its work.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 37 - On Allegiance to Virtue

On Allegiance to Virtue

This is an unusual letter.  Has Lucilius made an oath to philosophy?  Seneca states at the beginning of the letter:

You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a sound understanding.

He further elaborates that the oath is the same one as a gladiator.

The words of this most honourable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit: "Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword."

Then Seneca confidently states that while a gladiator has the option to beg for pity from the crowd, the Stoic does not enjoy the same luxury.  The Stoic must face daily life and death with equanimity:

The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born.

The path to freedom and other benefits is philosophy.

Betake yourself therefore to philosophy if you would be safe, untroubled, happy, in fine, if you wish to be, – and that is most important, – free.

Free from what?  Passions.  Philosophy will teach you to be free from passions instead of being driven by them.

These passions, which are heavy taskmasters, sometimes ruling by turns, and sometimes together, can be banished from you by wisdom, which is the only real freedom. There is but one path leading thither, and it is a straight path; you will not go astray. Proceed with steady step, and if you would have all things under your control, put yourself under the control of reason.

Many people give into their passions and do not lead a life of reason.  As they are driven more and more by their passions, they become lost.  Until, one day, they wake up and ask themselves, 'how?'

It is disgraceful ... to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: "How did I get into this condition?"

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 36 - On the Value of Retirement

On the Value of Retirement

Key ideas from this letter

  • a Stoic will value indifferents differently from most other people
  • how a Stoic manages, uses and thinks of indifferents is how he demonstrates his character
  • death is not the end, but merely an interruption / eternal recurrence
It seems that this man to whom Seneca is referring, is contemplating retirement and some of his associates are reproaching him and goading to not retire.  Seneca seems to think that the man considering retirement is choosing wisely.

Seneca commentates a bit about the indifferent of wealth and fortune:

Prosperity is a turbulent thing; it torments itself. It stirs the brain in more ways than one, goading men on to various aims, – some to power, and others to high living. Some it puffs up; others it slackens and wholly enervates.

If you give your desires wholly over to acquiring fortune, then you will suffer the follies he lists above.  Wisdom is knowing how to use indifferents well and not be affected by them, but to retain equanimity regardless if you acquire wealth or not.

And because this man chooses retirement over acquiring more wealth, less wise people accuse him of being "a trifler and a sluggard."  Perhaps this man has chosen wisely because "he continues to cherish virtue and to absorb thoroughly the studies which make for culture."  And perhaps he learned this wisdom while young and now he can spend his retirement in continued pursuit of virtue.

the young man must store up, the old man must use.

Seneca explains more clearly, further in the letter, the wise course of action.

Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. Let him so regulate his character that in perfect peace he may bring to perfection that spirit within him which feels neither loss nor gain, but remains in the same attitude, no matter how things fall out. A spirit like this, if it is heaped with worldly goods, rises superior to its wealth; if, on the other hand, chance has stripped him of a part of his wealth, or even all, it is not impaired.

The latter part of the letter hits on themes of memento mori and the eternal recurrence.

I say, let him learn that which is helpful against all weapons, against every kind of foe, – contempt of death ...

In death there is nothing harmful ...

And death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we shall be restored to the light of day ... everything which seems to perish merely changes. Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind. Mark how the round of the universe repeats its course.