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.

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