Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 54 - On Asthma and Death

On Asthma and Death

Seneca suffers from asthma and according to what he says, physicians of the day called asthma "practicing how to die" - which some have also called philosophy!

He notes it would be 

absurd to take delight in such supposed restoration to health, as it would be for a defendant to imagine that he had won his case when he had succeeded in postponing his trial.

Rather than taking delight that he's overcome a bout with asthma, Seneca reassures Lucilius that he has "never ceased to rest secure in cheerful and brave thoughts."  He has long pondered the before and after of living, and arrived at the conclusion he's already lived death before he was born!

would you not say that one was the greatest of fools who believed that a lamp was worse off when it was extinguished than before it was lighted? We mortals also are lighted and extinguished; the period of suffering comes in between, but on either side there is a deep peace. ... it has both preceded us and will in turn follow us.

And because he has spent time contemplating death, he claims he is ready for it and won't be frightened when it comes and will go willingly.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 53 - On the Faults of the Spirit

On the Faults of the Spirit

It seems that Seneca was persuaded to take a trip across the sea; against his better judgement.  They set off in fair weather, but when they were out a ways, a terrible storm set in and gave him terrible sea-sickness.  He begged the captain to get to shore, but the captain would not because of the danger.

But I was suffering too grievously to think of the danger, since a sluggish seasickness which brought no relief was racking me, the sort that upsets the liver without clearing it. Therefore I laid down the law to my pilot, forcing him to make for the shore.

As they approached the coast, he did not way, and emerged into the cold water and scrambled onto the rocks!  I can only imagine the physical suffering for Seneca was so great, he was willing to sacrifice life and limb to get relief!

After he settled a bit, he reflected 

how completely we forget or ignore our failings, even those that affect the body, which are continually reminding us of their existence, – not to mention those which are more serious in proportion as they are more hidden.

It seems he knew that he would react this way before going on the sea trip, but yet he forgot, dismissed or minimized his "failings" of his body.  He compares these hidden physical failings to our own moral failings.  If we seem to forget or minimize our physical failings, more much more are we apt to forget or minimize our moral deficiencies.

Why will no man confess his faults? Because he is still in their grasp; only he who is awake can recount his dream, and similarly a confession of sin is a proof of sound mind.

Our solution?  Philosophy.  It will crack the whip on our moral failings and it will demand we address them.  We need to give proper heed to her counsel.

Philosophy, however, is the only power that can stir us, the only power that can shake off our deep slumber. Devote yourself wholly to philosophy. You are worthy of her; she is worthy of you; greet one another with a loving embrace. Say farewell to all other interests with courage and frankness. Do not study philosophy merely during your spare time.

He compares the urgency of studying philosophy to that of healing yourself if you were physically ill.

If you were ill, you would stop caring for your personal concerns, and forget your business duties; you would not think highly enough of any client to take active charge of his case during a slight abatement of your sufferings. You would try your hardest to be rid of the illness as soon as possible. What, then? Shall you not do the same thing now?

This comparison underscores an important observation: the fact that many of us, who are not sages, value our physical natures above our rational.  We would drop all our activities if we were sick, but we don't give the same urgency to our moral illnesses.  If we were convinced, individually and as a civilization, that our rational natures are of the utmost importance, many of our policies and dialogues might be different.  Despite that, we still can make inroads into correcting our moral failings, and therefore, we should give more of our time to the study and practice of philosophy.

She is not a thing to be followed at odd times, but a subject for daily practice; she is mistress, and she commands our attendance. ... Turn to her, therefore, with all your soul, sit at her feet, cherish her; a great distance will then begin to separate you from other men.

This is something in our control - how we prioritize our study and practice of philosophy.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 52 - On Choosing Our Teachers

On Choosing Our Teachers

This is somewhat of an odd letter and I'm not so sure I agree with parts of it.

Seneca speaks of a force that "drags us in one direction when we are aiming in another, urging us on to the exact place from which we long to withdraw."

In other words, why do we seemingly want to drift away from virtue and demonstrating an excellent soul and towards indifferents?  I think it goes back to oikeosis and our animal nature of physical self-preservation.  We have to fight the drift and recognize that our true nature is that of a rational being.

Seneca seems to think that some people are naturally (Nature made them that way) predisposed to more easily lead a virtuous life, while others need assistance.

how or when can we tear ourselves away from this folly? No man by himself has sufficient strength to rise above it; he needs a helping hand, and some one to extricate him.

He notes Epicurus, who mentions that some people make it on their own, without help.  People who

have worked their way to the truth without any one's assistance, carving out their own passage. And he gives special praise to these, for their impulse has come from within, and they have forged to the front by themselves.

Another class of people cannot lead a virtuous life unless they have some help.

there are others who need outside help, who will not proceed unless someone leads the way, but who will follow faithfully.

A third class need a bit more focused help, but who can still succeed.

forced and driven into righteousness, who do not need a guide as much as they require someone to encourage and, as it were, to force them along.

He then compares different types of people to the kind of foundation they are built on.  One building is built on solid rock (i.e. natural disposition toward virtue), the building of the edifice is easier and built more efficiently and quickly.  Another identical (visually) building is not built on solid rock, but rather "soft and shifting ground" (i.e. does not have a natural disposition toward virtue), and therefore much more effort goes into stabilizing the foundation.  Seneca, it seems, is more impressed with the person who fights a less solid, natural predisposition to overcome it and improve himself.

I should accordingly deem more fortunate the man who has never had any trouble with himself; but the other, I feel, has deserved better of himself, who has won a victory over the meanness of his own nature, and has not gently led himself, but has wrestled his way, to wisdom.

For those of us who need help, Seneca suggests we call for assistance.  If we cannot find someone alive who can demonstrate excellence of soul, then we should "go to the ancients" for help.  But if we can find someone living who can help us, then we should find the kind of people who are not hypocrites - people who practice what they preach.  People who

teach us by their lives, men who tell us what we ought to do and then prove it by practice, who show us what we should avoid, and then are never caught doing that which they have ordered us to avoid.

Avoid the people who do not walk the talk.

they appear before the people for the express purpose of improving themselves and others, and do not practise their profession for the sake of self-seeking. For what is baser than philosophy courting applause?

The latter part of the letter gets into, what I think, specious ideas.  Seneca thinks that you can judge a person's character by the slightest of signs such as a person's gait, hand movements, touching his head with a finger, shifting eyes, how he laughs and his general appearance and how he gives and receives praise.  I think some of this might be accurate, but as a general rule of thumb, I do not think we can judge a person's character by physical movements.  Perhaps they can be clues, but we should not cast full judgement until we really know the person.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 51 - On Baiae and Morals

On Baiae and Morals

Baiae is a luxury resort, for lack of a better description, with its fair share of hedonism.  Because of the rampant debauchery, Seneca was not impressed with it.  As he writes, 

I left it the day after I reached it; for Baiae is a place to be avoided, because, though it has certain natural advantages, luxury has claimed it for her own exclusive resort.

He thinks places such as Baiae should not necessarily be shunned, but rather "the wise man or he who is on the way toward wisdom will avoid as foreign to good morals."

The wise man will prefer 

to select abodes which are wholesome not only for the body but also for the character. ... We ought to see to it that we flee to the greatest possible distance from provocations to vice. We should toughen our minds, and remove them far from the allurements of pleasure.

He later opines

We too have a war to wage, a type of warfare in which there is allowed no rest or furlough. To be conquered, in the first place, are pleasures, which, as you see, have carried off even the sternest characters. If a man has once understood how great is the task which he has entered upon, he will see that there must be no dainty or effeminate conduct.

He then shows disdain for steam and dry saunas by saying "perspiration should flow only after toil."

The attack on luxury and pleasure continues!

The soul is not to be pampered; surrendering to pleasure means also surrendering to pain, surrendering to toil, surrendering to poverty. Both ambition and anger will wish to have the same rights over me as pleasure, and I shall be torn asunder, or rather pulled to pieces, amid all these conflicting passions.

I had to read the above quote a few times to ensure I understood clearly.  When he says the soul should not be pampered by surrendering to pleasure, I assume he means "giving yourself to pleasure; to seek it."  And when he says "surrendering to pain ... toil ... poverty" I assume he means we avoid pain, toil and poverty.

In this whole vein of thought is the ideal golden mean.  I do not think we have to live like monks and nuns and completely shun luxury resorts, nor do I think wise people or sages will necessarily seek them out and yearn to stay at such places.  More specifically, lets suppose a practicing Stoic needs to travel to Las Vegas for a business meeting.  He would not refuse and tell his boss that for moral reasons he can't step one foot in Las Vegas.  But perhaps he would go and then exercise restraint in Sin City.  He doesn't have to drink to excess, visit strip clubs or gamble, nor would he choose to.

Similarly, when it comes to pain, toil and poverty, the practicing Stoic may do painful and toilsome things because perhaps he fears them.  In which case, he would chop wood or pile rocks (or push a big one up and down a hill for eternity) or do something that might cause him pain.  While doing so, he would therefore see that there is nothing to fear in pain and toil.  Similarly, he might live like a pauper for a week or month or longer, eating base foods and sleeping on the floor.  At the same time, a practicing Stoic is not required to constantly live a strict monk-like life.  He does not have to seek extreme pain or toil either.  He only engages in such activities to see that there is nothing to fear or to avoid about them, if, in fact, Fate decided that his whole life would follow such patterns.

The goal of avoiding pleasures and embracing pain is to gain real freedom.

I have set freedom before my eyes; and I am striving for that reward. And what is freedom, you ask? It means not being a slave to any circumstance, to any constraint, to any chance; it means compelling Fortune to enter the lists on equal terms. And on the day when I know that I have the upper hand, her power will be naught.

If you treat yourself with more pain, toil and poverty and less pleasure, then you will be adapted for any lifestyle.  But if you live a soft, luxurious life full of pleasure, you will not be ready nor adapted for harsh circumstances which Nature may send your way.

Animals whose hoofs are hardened on rough ground can travel any road; but when they are fattened on soft marshy meadows their hoofs are soon worn out. The bravest soldier comes from rock-ribbed regions; but the town-bred and the home-bred are sluggish in action. The hand which turns from the plough to the sword never objects to toil; but your sleek and well-dressed dandy quails at the first cloud of dust.

Seneca gives this parting advice to Lucilius.

Vice, Lucilius, is what I wish you to proceed against, without limit and without end. For it has neither limit nor end. If any vice rend your heart, cast it away from you; and if you cannot be rid of it in any other way, pluck out your heart also. Above all, drive pleasures from your sight.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 50 - On our Blindness and its Cure

On our Blindness and its Cure

The story goes that Seneca's wife has a female clown - I don't know if this is a real clown or not - but it seems that this clown is intended to make you laugh and cheer you up.  The clown's name is Harpasté and she is going blind but doesn't know it.  She keeps asking to be moved to a different room for her living quarters because the one she occupies is too dark for her.  She thinks its the room that's too dark, when in reality she is simply going blind.

Seneca uses this as a teachable moment for himself, Lucilius and now us.

For what else are you busied with except improving yourself every day, laying aside some error, and coming to understand that the faults which you attribute to circumstances are in yourself? We are indeed apt to ascribe certain faults to the place or to the time; but those faults will follow us, no matter how we change our place.

Where do you place the blame for your faults?  Do you chalk them up to circumstances, or other people or random events?  For example, do you complain about your lack of promotion at work because a manager kept you stuck in a certain role for too long?  Perhaps, if this is your way of thinking, the blame you place on the manager actually should be placed on yourself.  Not that you could have actually promoted yourself, or that you could have done something differently to please your manager, but that you may have forgotten that this is something out of your control.  You wanted the promotion - fair enough.  Did you want it with a reserve clause or an impulse with a condition?  And why did you want the promotion?  Was it for more wealth?  Greater fame?  For distinction?  Depending on the answers to any and all of these questions, there are plenty of issues to address that are in your control.

Seneca continues,

Why do we deceive ourselves? The evil that afflicts us is not external, it is within us, situated in our very vitals; for that reason we attain soundness with all the more difficulty, because we do not know that we are diseased.

To fix ourselves, we require education, contemplation and observation.  We ought to study the philosophers and learn from their wisdom.  We ought to contemplate the gap between true wisdom and what we lack in order to attain that wisdom.  We ought to observe within ourselves, our motivations, desires and impulses.  If we do this, then we can at least acknowledge that we are blind and stop asking for a change of living quarters.

Now it would be easier to attain true wisdom if we started out correctly and early.  But as it is, many of us learn the hard way and now we are in the process of bending the warped wood so that it is straight again.

At present, we do not even consult the physician, whose work would be easier if he were called in when the complaint was in its early stages. The tender and the inexperienced minds would follow his advice if he pointed out the right way.  No man finds it difficult to return to nature, except the man who has deserted nature. ... 

No, we must work. To tell the truth, even the work is not great, if only, as I said, we begin to mould and reconstruct our souls before they are hardened by sin. But I do not despair even of a hardened sinner.  There is nothing that will not surrender to persistent treatment, to concentrated and careful attention; however much the timber may be bent, you can make it straight again. Heat unbends curved beams, and wood that grew naturally in another shape is fashioned artificially according to our needs. How much more easily does the soul permit itself to be shaped, pliable as it is and more yielding than any liquid!

We can change course now, bit by bit, day by day, judgement by judgement, until we have become more excellent in wisdom, courage, temperance and discipline.  It may be difficult at first, but with practice and endurance, we come to love the beauty and even pleasure of loving wisdom.

proceed to the task of freeing ourselves from faults with all the more courage because, when once committed to us, the good is an everlasting possession; virtue is not unlearned. ... the first steps in the approach to them are toilsome, because it is characteristic of a weak and diseased mind to fear that which is unfamiliar. The mind must, therefore, be forced to make a beginning; from then on, the medicine is not bitter; for just as soon as it is curing us it begins to give pleasure. One enjoys other cures only after health is restored, but a draught of philosophy is at the same moment wholesome and pleasant.