Friday, March 26, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 60 - On Harmful Prayers

On Harmful Prayers

Recall: a Stoic achieves his own good because it is entirely up to him.  Moral virtue and excellence of character are the sole good.  The rest are indifferents to him.  While some may be preferred indifferents, they are nonetheless not needed to achieve the good.

Observe: what other people desire and pray for.  I'm not familiar with all Christian religions, but having lived Mormonism for over 30 years, I was taught and I believed in what I have come to know as "the prosperity gospel."  In sum, it is the belief that God will help you prosper (i.e. crops, wealth, etc.) if you obey the commandments.  One of the books of scripture for Mormons is the Book of Mormon and in that book, this teaching is repeated over and over again.  The first instance comes from early in the book:  "Inasmuch as thy seed shall keep my commandments, they shall prosper in the land of promise" (1 Nephi 4:14).  For all the other references, one may perform a search on their website using "prosper in the land" and most search results will reinforce the teaching of obedience to God's commandments leads to prosperity (i.e. wealth).

Observe: if a Stoic would pray, he would pray for greater courage, wisdom, justice and temperance.  He would pray to see the world as is really is and that his will is the same as Nature.  A Stoic would probably not pray to God for wealth and prosperity - he would not pray to God to grant him indifferents, preferred or not.  In fact, we can read Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus and in five particular stanzas, glean correct reason.

..., Thou canst

Make the rough smooth, bring wondrous order forth

From chaos; in Thy sight unloveliness

Seems beautiful; for so Thou hast fitted things

Together, good and evil, that there reigns

One everlasting Reason in them all.


The wicked heed not this, but suffer it

To slip, to their undoing; these are they

Who, yearning ever to secure the good,

Mark not nor hear the law of God, by wise

Obedience unto which they might attain

A nobler life, with Reason harmonized.


But now, unbid, they pass on divers paths

Each his own way, yet knowing not the truth,—

Some in unlovely striving for renown,

Some bent on lawless gains, on pleasure some,

Working their own undoing, self-deceived.


O Thou most bounteous God that sittest throned

In clouds, the Lord of lightning, save mankind

From grievous ignorance!


Oh, scatter it

Far from their souls, and grant them to achieve

True knowledge, on whose might Thou dost rely

To govern all the world in righteousness;

Therefore: in this light, we can read Seneca's Letter 60 and understand why he calls prayers for indifferents "harmful."  If others were to pray for me, then I would hope they pray to grant me more wisdom, courage, temperance and the ability to grant justice where it concerns me, but not that I get a promotion or greater wealth.  But we were born in a polluted world that desires indifferents.

Do you still desire what your nurse, your guardian, or your mother, have prayed for in your behalf? Do you not yet understand what evil they prayed for? Alas, how hostile to us are the wishes of our own folk! And they are all the more hostile in proportion as they are more completely fulfilled. It is no surprise to me, at my age, that nothing but evil attends us from our early youth; for we have grown up amid the curses invoked by our parents.

He then gets into humans' boundless desires.  We simply can't or won't check our appetites.  Yet we continue to demand of the gods for more.

How long shall we go on making demands upon the gods, as if we were still unable to support ourselves?

He notes that bulls and elephants need just a bit of land to live on and they do just fine.  But humans comb the world over for food and the delve into the sea and cast up big stores of grain.

Man, however, draws sustenance both from the earth and from the sea.  What, then? Did nature give us bellies so insatiable, when she gave us these puny bodies, that we should outdo the hugest and most voracious animals in greed? Not at all. How small is the amount which will satisfy nature? A very little will send her away contented.

Seneca seems to advocate for a simple life; one that is not dissimilar to Henry David Thoreau when he lived in the woods.  I'm not blind to the needs of people.  Much of the world still faces hunger in the year 2021 and we are still susceptible to famines.  I'm not advocating everyone live like Thoreau, but I think Seneca has a point and we can learn to live rationally and minimally without impacting the environment.  We can make mindful and informed decisions and change our behaviors.

Seneca quips about our desire for excess:

It is not the natural hunger of our bellies that costs us dear, but our solicitous cravings.  Therefore those who, as Sallust puts it, "hearken to their bellies," should be numbered among the animals, and not among men

He talks of food, but I think cravings for all kinds of indifferents applies - cravings for fame, recognition and wealth.

The Stoic aims to help - this is his social duty.

He really lives who is made use of by many; he really lives who makes use of himself.

While others, who do nothing but collect stuff are not really living and we might as well inscribe an epitaph on their fireplace mantel instead of their gravestone.

Those men, however, who creep into a hole and grow torpid are no better off in their homes than if they were in their tombs. Right there on the marble lintel of the house of such a man you may inscribe his name, for he has died before he is dead. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 59 - On Pleasure and Joy

On Pleasure and Joy

An excellent letter!  There is lots to learn and think about in this letter.

He spends the the first part discussing the differences between real pleasure and real joy.  We humans often twist the meaning of words, until the original meaning is lost.  This seems to be the case with pleasure and joy.

He writes,

we Stoics hold that pleasure is a vice. Very likely it is a vice; but we are accustomed to use the word when we wish to indicate a happy state of mind.

The first lesson or reminder - pleasure is a vice.  If you need Stoic toughening, this is where to begin: by attacking areas in your life where there is indulgent pleasure.  Why else do some hug cold statues or take cold showers or sleep on the floor?  They do it to show that these things are nothing to fear.  We may fear poverty because we take pleasure in living richly.  Therefore, you should live like a pauper for some time to show yourself that it is nothing to fear - that you can live in any circumstance and still be good.  Therefore, if you find areas in your life where there is real pleasure, there may be some work and practice in that area.

Joy is lasting; it is "an elation of spirit, – of a spirit which trusts in the goodness and truth of its own possessions."

He then gives Lucilius some feedback on his writing, which I find interesting.

You have your words under control. You are not carried away by your language ... all your words are compact, and suited to the subject. You say all that you wish, and you mean still more than you say. This is a proof of the importance of your subject matter, showing that your mind, as well as your words, contains nothing superfluous or bombastic.

Many of us suffer from long-windedness or rambling.  This may be a symptom of a disordered mind.  We should pay attention to our thoughts and we should give particular focus to our inner dialogue.  Then, when you have need to write or speak, you will have control over your thoughts.  Make your point - keep it "compact" and "suited to the subject."  Too many tangents and your point is lost in the jumble.  Strive to rid the excess ... "nothing superfluous or bombastic."

He further improves this point that a well ordered and attentive mind is always ready for whatever comes, by comparing it to an army.

One of his similes appealed especially to me, that of an army marching in hollow square, in a place where the enemy might be expected to appear from any quarter, ready for battle. "This," said he, "is just what the wise man ought to do; he should have all his fighting qualities deployed on every side, so that wherever the attack threatens, there his supports may be ready to hand and may obey the captain's command without confusion."

Marcus Aurelius also used an analogy about being in an alert and ready state of mind.

The model for the application of your principles is the boxer rather than the gladiator. The gladiator puts down or takes up the sword he uses, but the boxer always has his hands and needs only to clench them into fists (Meditations 12.9).

You can only accomplish this state of mind when you pay constant attention to your inner state of mind and dialogue.  The Greek term for this is prosoche.  We moderns call it mindfulness.

Seneca continues,
the wise man is fortified against all inroads; he is alert; he will not retreat before the attack of poverty, or of sorrow, or of disgrace, or of pain. He will walk undaunted both against them and among them.
Next he discusses vice and what we must do to lessen its sway on us.
We human beings are fettered and weakened by many vices; we have wallowed in them for a long time, and it is hard for us to be cleansed. We are not merely defiled; we are dyed by them. But, to refrain from passing from one figure to another, I will raise this question, which I often consider in my own heart: why is it that folly holds us with such an insistent grasp? It is, primarily, because we do not combat it strongly enough, because we do not struggle towards salvation with all our might; secondly, because we do not put sufficient trust in the discoveries of the wise, and do not drink in their words with open hearts; we approach this great problem in too trifling a spirit.
The reason we keep our vices and follies is because:
  • we don't fight them hard enough
  • we minimize or hand-wave the words of the wise; we are complacent
He elaborates about our complacency, saying that we listen too much to those around us and are in an echo chamber and hear only the good things about ourselves.  To fight this, we have to be very skeptical of those who would dissuade us of our pursuit of philosophy.  To each person who would flatter us, we must reply:
You call me a man of sense, but I understand how many of the things which I crave are useless, and how many of the things which I desire will do me harm. I have not even the knowledge, which satiety teaches to animals, of what should be the measure of my food or my drink. I do not yet know how much I can hold.
He describes what wisdom looks like:
The wise man is joyful, happy and calm, unshaken; he lives on a plane with the gods. Now go, question yourself; if you are never downcast, if your mind is not harassed by any apprehension, through anticipation of what is to come, if day and night your soul keeps on its even and unswerving course, upright and content with itself
If you are always joyful, happy, calm and unshaken and if you never are downcast, apprehensive and anxious about the future, but are unmoved and always choose a right and virtuous course of action and you are content with yourself, then you may be called wise.  This is the aim of philosophy!

Pleasures and vices simply distract and delay us from our aim.  He write, "These objects for which you strive so eagerly, as if they would give you happiness and pleasure, are merely causes of grief."  You think vice and pleasure will give you joy, but they actually lead to sorrow.  Furthermore, these pleasures and vices are externals - they come from without the soul.  Whereas virtue, which is the sole good, is found from within and is always up to you.  You never have to go to the bar to drink or seek validation from other people to obtain the good.  You can always have it, if you but learn.
Reflect, therefore, on this, that the effect of wisdom is a joy that is unbroken and continuous.  The mind of the wise man is like the ultra-lunar firmament; eternal calm pervades that region. You have, then, a reason for wishing to be wise, if the wise man is never deprived of joy. This joy springs only from the knowledge that you possess the virtues. None but the brave, the just, the self-restrained, can rejoice.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 58 - On Being

On Being

This is a longish letter from Seneca, but he eventually makes some excellent points.  He starts off by talking about how language and words have changed and evolved over time before getting into Plato's thoughts about ideas and forms and what exists or not.  It can be a bit opaque to read, if you don't have some background of what Plato is talking about.  I've done some reading on this and reading through the first half of Seneca's letter was a bit of a struggle.  If you need a brief summary of Plato's theory of forms, see this link.

Beginning around verse 25 of the letter, Seneca writes,

"Very well," say you, "what good shall I get from all this fine reasoning?" None, if you wish me to answer your question. Nevertheless, just as an engraver rests his eyes when they have long been under a strain and are weary, and calls them from their work, and "feasts" them, as the saying is; so we at times should slacken our minds and refresh them with some sort of entertainment. But let even your entertainment be work.

In sum, Seneca went through all this as a diversion to 'slacken [his] mind' for entertainment!  After this verse, is when the letter gets better, in my opinion.

He explains why he did the analysis of the essence of things.

I try to extract and render useful some element from every field of thought, no matter how far removed it may be from philosophy. Now what could be less likely to reform character than the subjects which we have been discussing? And how can I be made a better man by the "ideas" of Plato? What can I draw from them that will put a check on my appetites? Perhaps the very thought, that all these things which minister to our senses, which arouse and excite us, are by Plato denied a place among the things that really exist.  Such things are therefore imaginary, and though they for the moment present a certain external appearance, yet they are in no case permanent or substantial; none the less, we crave them as if they were always to exist, or as if we were always to possess them (emphasis added).

What Seneca gets out of that analysis is that the very things which we think are real and exist, in fact are imaginary.  Therefore, while a Stoic may not agree or adhere to the Platonic ideas of Forms, we nonetheless can see a similarity in how we view indifferents and things that cause us to desire and crave.  Seneca applies the discipline of assent in seeing things as they really are:

We are weak, watery beings standing in the midst of unrealities; therefore let us turn our minds to the things that are everlasting. Let us look up to the ideal outlines of all things

I understand this to mean that we Stoics recognize that there is a sole good and on it we should rest our desires - namely ageless and timeless ideas such as moral virtue.  Seneca doesn't quite come out and explicitly state this in the letter, but he tends to focus more on the "defects of the body" and our impulses and "pleasures" and how we should "acquire the ability to control and check those pleasures" which ail the rest of humankind.  He advocates that we should mimic Socrates who practiced "frugal living, by setting a limit upon all that rouses the appetites, and by painstaking attention to himself."

Next he gets into his opinions about old age and when one should consider enduring old age or ending his life.

The question, therefore, on which we have to record our judgment is, whether one should shrink from extreme old age and should hasten the end artificially, instead of waiting for it to come.

It all depends on the circumstances and Seneca wants to do the right thing for the right reasons.  He writes his thoughts on the matter of extreme old age and what he thinks is the wise course of action.

I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering.

Here he makes it clear - as long as I have my wits about me, I'll endure living.  But if I lose my wits, I'm outta here!

I shall not avoid illness by seeking death, as long as the illness is curable and does not impede my soul.  I shall not lay violent hands upon myself just because I am in pain; for death under such circumstances is defeat.

I won't let myself off easy by killing myself to avoid the pain from a curable ailment.

But if I find out that the pain must always be endured, I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living. He who dies just because he is in pain is a weakling, a coward; but he who lives merely to brave out this pain, is a fool (emphasis added).

But if he is going to endure pain that will never leave, he finds justification for ending his life.  If the pain hinders him for his reason to live, then he will depart.  We won't be a fool to bravely live out in pain.  He looks to his reason to live and if the pain prevents that, then he will go.

In sum, he will endure extreme old age, as long as he has his cognitive abilities and the pain does not prevent him from accomplishing his own reason or reasons to live (i.e. perhaps living to talk with loved ones, or writing letters to friends or something else).

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 57 - On the Trials of Travel

On the Trials of Travel

There isn't really anything novel to me in this letter.  Seneca makes two points about fear and his musings are based on his experience while travelling, which forced him to go through a very dark and dusty tunnel.

The first point: even a person whom "fortune has lost her control" (in other words, someone who has make exceptional Stoic progress of being indifferent to circumstances), will still experience involuntary movements.  Seneca writes:

For there are certain emotions, my dear Lucilius, which no courage can avoid; nature reminds courage how perishable a thing it is. And so he will contract his brow when the prospect is forbidding, will shudder at sudden apparitions, and will become dizzy when he stands at the edge of a high precipice and looks down. This is not fear; it is a natural feeling which reason cannot rout.

This involuntary movement or emotion is described by Aulus Gellius' in The Attic Nights where a Stoic philosopher experiences the same initial emotions stemming from a raging storm.  Many Stoic authors have referred to this experience.  Donald Robertson does a good job explaining it in his essay "Epictetus: The Stoic in a Storm at Sea."

The second point from this letter: our fears can be irrational if the end result is the same.  We should overcome the fear of the result, not necessarily the thing that would cause the result.  Seneca endured the dark and dusty tunnel.  And as he saw the light at the end of the tunnel, he observed his own emotions and thoughts.

Then at the first glimpse of restored daylight my good spirits returned without forethought or command. And I began to muse and think how foolish we are to fear certain objects to a greater or less degree, since all of them end in the same way.  For what difference does it make whether a watchtower or a mountain crashes down upon us? No difference at all, you will find. Nevertheless, there will be some men who fear the latter mishap to a greater degree, though both accidents are equally deadly; so true it is that fear looks not to the effect, but to the cause of the effect. 

He then gets into the immortality of the soul and whether it remains immortal if the body gets crushed.  It's a bit of an odd ending and I didn't get much out of it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 56 - On Quiet and Study

On Quiet and Study

The sum total of this letter to Lucilius is found in this quote:

what benefit is a quiet neighbourhood, if our emotions are in an uproar?

By the time you get to the end of the letter, you see the full picture.  Seneca purposely moved to and lived in a raucous part of the city to test himself to see if his mind could be at peace amid all the noise.  He wanted to know if he could tune out the noise and still be able to maintain his equanimity.

You may therefore be sure that you are at peace with yourself, when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be of flattery or of threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning din.  "What then?" you say, "is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?" I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice.

The rest of the letter is a list of things that cause him and others distraction.  The noises of the street to other peoples' words; from constant to intermittent noises.  If he can master keeping a tranquil mind with all the external noises, he can more fully comprehend how to quiet the disturbances within.

I force my mind to concentrate, and keep it from straying to things outside itself; all outdoors may be bedlam, provided that there is no disturbance within, provided that fear is not wrangling with desire in my breast, provided that meanness and lavishness are not at odds, one harassing the other. 

And if all the noises have been managed and you are left with a dead-quiet home and life and yet you are still disturbed, then you have need of further work.

For even when we seek slumber, our sleepless moments are as harassing as the daytime. Real tranquillity is the state reached by an unperverted mind when it is relaxed ... You need not suppose that the soul is at peace when the body is still. Sometimes quiet means disquiet.

One potential solution to address disquietude is to keep our minds busy with good interests.  As Proverbs 16:7 mentions, idle hands (and mind) are a devil's workshop.

We must therefore rouse ourselves to action and busy ourselves with interests that are good, as often as we are in the grasp of an uncontrollable sluggishness.  Great generals, when they see that their men are mutinous, check them by some sort of labour or keep them busy with small forays. The much occupied man has no time for wantonness, and it is an obvious commonplace that the evils of leisure can be shaken off by hard work.

In sum, stay busy with good interests; don't let the external raucous disturb you with the goal of having a tranquil mind whether in loud or quiet settings.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 55 - On Vatia's Villa

On Vatia's Villa

The human mind is incredible.  As a child, I would day dream so much, my teachers were always trying to get my attention back into the classroom.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the floor in my bedroom and play with my toys - imaging the small figurines and cars were armies or football teams fighting against each other.  But over the years, I've been disciplined by teachers and the demands of school and work to focus on the here and now.  I will admit, that frequently (especially at 2pm on most days) my mind drifts off in contemplation.

What does this have to do with Seneca's letter about Vatia's Villa?  It's this unique ability of the human mind to give itself an instant vacation while at work and engaged in society.  We do not need a villa to escape.  We can practice instantaneous escape and then snap right back into the present moment.

Before making this point, Seneca commentates a bit about luxuries and how they make us weak.

Nature gave us legs with which to do our own walking, and eyes with which to do our own seeing. Our luxuries have condemned us to weakness; we have ceased to be able to do that which we have long declined to do.

If this were true for Seneca's time, it is truer still today in the year 2021.  I recently read a comment on-line where a person said that it has never been easier to be strong, than now.  Everyone is weak and with a little effort, you can appear strong.

Back to Vatia and his village.  Seneca notes,

people used to cry out: "O Vatia, you alone know how to live!"  But what he knew was how to hide, not how to live; and it makes a great deal of difference whether your life be one of leisure or one of idleness.

To me, it sounds like Seneca is saying Vatia does not have a meaningful life and all he is doing is hiding out in his villa.  His life is not one of leisure, but of idleness.

He goes on,

the mass of mankind consider that a person is at leisure who has withdrawn from society, is free from care, self-sufficient, and lives for himself;

Seneca begins to make the point here.  You do not need to withdraw from society in a villa or in the mountains to be at leisure.  Rather, you main attain leisure in your mind alone.

The person who hides from society does not know how to live.  You must learn how to live in order to learn how to attain leisure.  Therefore, the person who shuts himself off from the world does not know how to live nor does he know leisure.

Does he even know (and that is of first importance) how to live at all?  For the man who has fled from affairs and from men, who has been banished to seclusion by the unhappiness which his own desires have brought upon him, who cannot see his neighbour more happy than himself, who through fear has taken to concealment, like a frightened and sluggish animal, – this person is not living for himself; he is living for his belly, his sleep, and his lust, – and that is the most shameful thing in the world.

Therefore, we now know that the place you are at or where you live cannot bring fulfillment.  If you are always wanting to be somewhere else, then you will always be malcontented.  You fail to fix the very thing you take with you no matter where you go!

The place where one lives, however, can contribute little towards tranquillity; it is the mind which must make everything agreeable to itself. I have seen men despondent in a gay and lovely villa, and I have seen them to all appearance full of business in the midst of a solitude. For this reason you should not refuse to believe that your life is well-placed merely because you are not now in Campania.

The trick - the lesson - is to learn to be content where you are at, no matter where you are.  If you can do this, then you can allow yourself the freedom and leisure to drift off to the villa for a moment of respite.  This is what wise men do.

If you develop this ability, you may also develop the ability to converse with people who are not now with you.  You will always have a friend with you if you can think on them and talk with them in your mind.

You may hold converse with your friends when they are absent, and indeed as often as you wish and for as long as you wish.

This is precisely what Seneca and Lucilius are attempting to do.  While they are not corresponding in letters, they are advising each other - in a sense, they are living in each other's heads.