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.

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