Sunday, April 25, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 65 - On the First Cause

On the First Cause

Seneca and some friends have a debate about the prime cause of the universe.  It seems his friends perhaps tilt towards the Platonic and Aristotelian perspectives.  Seneca does a fine job summarizing the differing perspectives.

For the Stoics, the prime cause is Nature/Reason/Cosmos/the Universe.  And to be even more specific, it is pneuma that is the prime mover and cause of all actions in the universe.

two things in the universe which are the source of everything, – namely, cause and matter.  Matter lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion. Cause, however, by which we mean reason, moulds matter and turns it in whatever direction it will, producing thereby various concrete results.


The Stoics believe in one cause only, – the maker.

Elsewhere, Aetius states,

The Stoics made god out to be intelligent, a designing fire which methodically proceeds towards creation of the world, and encompasses all the seminal principles according to which everything comes about according to fate, (2) and a breath pervading the whole world, which takes on different names owing to the alterations of the matter through which it passes (The Hellenistic Philosophers, Long, Sedley, p. 274-275).

After contrasting the Stoic view with the Platonic and Aristotelian, the question becomes very deeply philosophical.

Do you ask what God's purpose is?

Seneca states that God's purpose is goodness.

Elsewhere, I've written about what I've learned in the College of Stoic Philosophers, in which I noted others' theories that God not only has infinite potential, but God's purpose is to experience all that potential (see the God, Determinism and Free Will section of my essay on Stoic Physics).

Seneca then addresses a very practical question:

"What pleasure do you get from wasting your time on these problems, which relieve you of none of your emotions, rout none of your desires?"

His response to the question he poses, is worth reading in its entirety.

So far as I am concerned, I treat and discuss them as matters which contribute greatly toward calming the spirit, and I search myself first, and then the world about me.  And not even now am I, as you think, wasting my time. For all these questions, provided that they be not chopped up and torn apart into such unprofitable refinements, elevate and lighten the soul, which is weighted down by a heavy burden and desires to be freed and to return to the elements of which it was once a part. For this body of ours is a weight upon the soul and its penance; as the load presses down the soul is crushed and is in bondage, unless philosophy has come to its assistance and has bid it take fresh courage by contemplating the universe, and has turned it from things earthly to things divine. There it has its liberty, there it can roam abroad; meantime it escapes the custody in which it is bound, and renews its life in heaven.

Marcus Aurelius, similarly took a metaphysical flight through the cosmos, perhaps too, contemplating God's purpose.

the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole (Meditations 11.1).

And lastly, I recently came across this passage by Pierre Hadot in The Present Alone is Our Happiness where he said,

Things changed at the time of my adolescence.  Indeed, I have long had the impression of having been in the world only from the time I became an adolescent.  I will always regret having thrown away - out of Christian humility - my first handwritten notes that were an echo of the birth of my personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychological content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then.  I do remember their context.  One happened on rue Ruinart, on the route I took home to my parents' house every day from the Petit Seminaire.  Night had fallen.  The stars were shining in an immense sky; one could still see them at the time.  Another took place in a room of our house.  In both cases I was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me in that world.  In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am I?  Why am I here?  What is this world I am in?  I experienced a sentiment of strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there.  At the same time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars. This world was present to me, intensely present.  Much later I would discover that this awareness of my immersion in the world, this impression of belonging to the Whole, was what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic feeling."  I think I have been a philosopher since that time, if by philosophy one understands this awareness of existence, of being-in-the-world (p. 5-6).

In a sense, it seems that Seneca, Aurelius and Hadot speak of out-of-body experiences.  Seneca reminds us that our body is a form of slavery and that we ought to spend our experience in the higher sphere rather the bodily.

The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.

Seneca then rhetorically asks thirteen deep questions, to demonstrate to Lucilius, that questions - philosophical questions - can have a freeing effect on our minds and that we are not slaves to our bodies and that our minds can contemplate and discuss such lofty subjects.

this freedom will be greatly helped by the contemplation of which we were just speaking.

He then evokes the Scala naturae in the context of God and humans.

All things are made up of matter and of God; God controls matter, which encompasses him and follows him as its guide and leader. And that which creates, in other words, God, is more powerful and precious than matter, which is acted upon by God.  God's place in the universe corresponds to the soul's relation to man. World-matter corresponds to our mortal body; therefore let the lower serve the higher. Let us be brave in the face of hazards. Let us not fear wrongs, or wounds, or bonds, or poverty.

And the very essence of us is pneuma as displayed by our hegemonikon.  While we are a part of the Cosmos and the Whole, we nevertheless have autonomy in how we display that which is unique to us.  While the indifferents in our life (hazards, fears, wrongs, wounds, bonds, poverty, riches, etc.) do not represent us entirely, it is our unique response to these things which define us.  In our space of choice, is how we exercise our autonomy, creativity, personality and virtue: our arete.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 64 - On the Philosopher's Task

On the Philosopher's Task

The point of this letter:

we should play the part of a careful householder; we should increase what we have inherited

Seneca praises Quintus Sextius the Elder because his style of writing "fills [Seneca] with a mighty confidence before [he] closes his book" and causes him to say:

I want to challenge every hazard; I want to cry: "Why keep me waiting, Fortune? Enter the lists! Behold, I am ready for you!"

Therefore, we inheritors of philosophy ought to praise and honor our philosophical fore-fathers and then we ought to dedicate our time to solving problems and applying treatment.

I worship the discoveries of wisdom and their discoverers; to enter, as it were, into the inheritance of many predecessors is a delight. It was for me that they laid up this treasure; it was for me that they toiled. But we should play the part of a careful householder; we should increase what we have inherited.

It then becomes our task to "adding something further."

The cures for the spirit also have been discovered by the ancients; but it is our task to learn the method and the time of treatment.  Our predecessors have worked much improvement, but have not worked out the problem.

More and more, we, humanity, are learning over again, hard-fought lessons our forbearers learned.  While our challenges may not be all too different from theirs', how we approach and re-learn solutions may demand creativity.

Related to this are a few quotes from Vauvenargues, who Pierre Hadot cites in "Philosophy as a Way of Life" (see p. 108 and footnote 184 of the chapter):

"Every thought is new when the author expresses it in his own way"

"There are many things we do not know well enough, and that it is good to have repeated."

"A truly new and truly original book would be one which made people love old truths."

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 63 - On Grief for Lost Friends

On Grief for Lost Friends

Lucilius' friend, Flaccus, died and Seneca is writes about grief.

Stoics are not without emotion.  The excess and deficiency are perhaps not ideal.  Therefore, when grief comes as a result of a loss of a friend or loved one, we should neither grieve with excess nor should we lack grief at all.

I would not have you sorrow more than is fitting. That you should not mourn at all I shall hardly dare to insist ... Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow. We may weep, but we must not wail.

Some people may truly be deeply grieving, but if they do not cease at some point, then there may be deeper issues or perhaps it is for show.

It is because we seek the proofs of our bereavement in our tears, and do not give way to sorrow, but merely parade it. No man goes into mourning for his own sake. Shame on our ill-timed folly! There is an element of self-seeking even in our sorrow.

Later in the letter he write,

The reason why they lament too unrestrainedly at such times is that they are afraid lest men doubt whether they really have loved; all too late they seek for proofs of their emotions.

To grieve is human, to grieve excessively is folly.  It would seem excessive grief is no longer about the lost loved one but about the griever!

Therefore, we ought to grieve, let our grief be about the person who we lost, and let us move on contemplating the memory of the one lost.

Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a pleasure even in this sting.

And if we contemplate the death of our friends, similarly to how we contemplate our own death, we will enjoy the company of our friends while they are yet with us.

To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. ... Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given.  Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.

Seneca then goes on to remind us of the importance of friends and to not only have one, but many.

If we have no other friends, we have injured ourselves more than Fortune has injured us; since Fortune has robbed us of one friend, but we have robbed ourselves of every friend whom we have failed to make.

And when we lose a friend to death, we ought to seek a new one.

You have buried one whom you loved; look about for someone to love. It is better to replace your friend than to weep for him.

I don't know how precise Seneca is talking here.  Would he include spouses in this discussion?  I know some men and women, who after having lost their spouse to death, refuse to remarry because it would violate some trust or commitment to their spouse.  Even some children do not want their parent to remarry after having lost the other parent.  But I think Seneca makes a very valid point.  We humans need friends; we need social interaction and we need close friends.  If we lose one, we ought to find new ones.  Perhaps that does not mean getting remarried, but that does not mean slamming the door shut on the proposition of another marriage.

His next point is interesting.

the most shameful cure for sorrow, in the case of a sensible man, is to grow weary of sorrowing. I should prefer you to abandon grief, rather than have grief abandon you; and you should stop grieving as soon as possible, since, even if you wish to do so, it is impossible to keep it up for a long time.

It seems he is saying that we need to actively observe and be aware of our grief and approach our sorrows rationally.  Acknowledge that it is human to grieve; then grieve; then reconcile and move on.  But, don't let time cure your grief.  He proposes active resolution, rather than passive abandonment.  Perhaps to use a dental analogy.  We should deal with a toothache, rather than letting time do it's work.  If we deal with a toothache, then a dentist can help us resolve it and we can keep our tooth.  But if we simply let time pass, we eventually get over the toothache, but lose the tooth in the process.

In sum, practice contemplation of death - yours, your friend's and death in general.

Now is the time for you to reflect, not only that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality is subject to no fixed law. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 62 - On Good Company

On Good Company

Point 1 - stop making excuses

"I don't have time to read or study philosophy!  I have too many things to do!"

Seneca replies,

We are deceived by those who would have us believe that a multitude of affairs blocks their pursuit of liberal studies; they make a pretence of their engagements, and multiply them, when their engagements are merely with themselves.

Point 2 - take back your independence!

If you prioritize what is most important (in the case of Seneca, it's the study and living of philosophy), then you will have a mind to do that first and then allow other interests to have time as you see fit.

my time is free; it is indeed free, and wherever I am, I am master of myself. For I do not surrender myself to my affairs, but loan myself to them, and I do not hunt out excuses for wasting my time. And wherever I am situated, I carry on my own meditations and ponder in my mind some wholesome thought.

When you pursue what is most important, you will only "loan" out your time for lower-value time commitments.

Point 3 - spend time with people worthy of it

I can almost hear Seneca say, "I don't always spend time with people, but when I do, I prefer to spend it with Demetrius."

As the footnote states, "Demetrius of Sunium, the Cynic philosopher, who taught in Rome in the reign of Caligula and was banished by Nero.  He ... achieved the Stoic ideal of independence of all external control; he is a king and has all things to bestow upon others, but needs nothing for himself."

It seems that Seneca quite admires the Cynic Demetrius; while Epictetus adored the Cynic Diogenes.

Point 4 - "The shortest cut to riches is to despise riches"

This part reminds me of the story of the businessman and the fisherman.  Here is a link to the 'Brazilian version of it.'

Monday, April 5, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 61 - On Meeting Death Cheerfully

On Meeting Death Cheerfully

While a brief letter, it is packed with wisdom!  I'll take the entire letter in chunks and share a bit of my thoughts on each part.

Let us cease to desire that which we have been desiring. I, at least, am doing this: in my old age I have ceased to desire what I desired when a boy. To this single end my days and my nights are passed; this is my task, this the object of my thoughts, – to put an end to my chronic ills.

With age comes wisdom.  As children, we focused largely on pursuing and getting various Stoic indifferents.  Some of us, myself included, continue the struggle of this pursuit well into our adult years.  We want to be famous, to wear nice clothes, to be popular, to have a great body, to drive a nice car, land a great job or career, make lots of money, buy better cars, a nice home, the latest technology or tools, to dine at the best restaurants.  The list of desires is endless.

But with the pursuit of wisdom, your eyes open a bit more and the more you think about it, the more you realize how short life is and how much time is wasted on stuff that doesn't matter.

It seems that, even in his old age, Seneca realizes there are still "chronic ills" he has to end.

I am endeavouring to live every day as if it were a complete life. I do not indeed snatch it up as if it were my last; I do regard it, however, as if it might even be my last.  The present letter is written to you with this in mind, – as if death were about to call me away in the very act of writing. I am ready to depart, and I shall enjoy life just because I am not over-anxious as to the future date of my departure.

In his late years, his practice of memento mori is even sharper and pronounced.  Indeed, any day could be his last.  I recall the many friends and acquaintances who have died suddenly.  From the man who hired me (who died from a heart attack after parking in his driveway; who was going to retire in a few days), to my son's soccer coach (who died of a stroke at around the age of 40, who was the epitome of fitness), I have witnessed death come unannounced and unexpected.  If such can be the fate of those near me, it can be mine too.

Therefore, we must suck the marrow out of each day.  We must not forget the fragility of life and instead, place emphasis on what matters most.  And we must be ready to depart at a moment's notice.  This is what makes philosophy all the more urgent and why so many suffer terribly.  But if we can get to the point of welcoming death and are ready, then we may be in a good spot.

Before I became old I tried to live well; now that I am old, I shall try to die well; but dying well means dying gladly. See to it that you never do anything unwillingly.  That which is bound to be a necessity if you rebel, is not a necessity if you desire it. This is what I mean: he who takes his orders gladly, escapes the bitterest part of slavery, – doing what one does not want to do. The man who does something under orders is not unhappy; he is unhappy who does something against his will. Let us therefore so set our minds in order that we may desire whatever is demanded of us by circumstances, and above all that we may reflect upon our end without sadness

Some people will remember the dog and the cart analogy.  The dog is tied to the cart and there is nothing the dog can do about getting the rope cut.  What is left to him is to decide whether to be dragged behind the cart or to go along willingly.  If you can *want* to do what fate demands, then you will be like the dog who willingly walks along with the cart.

This concept is the essence of amor fati.  When the Stoics say 'live according to Nature' in one sense it means accepting one's fate and that the Stoic accepts and even loves the events of the Universe.  A.A. Long makes an interesting point about this concept.

If Nature's providence is all-embracing then any event which causes injury or suffering has to be interpreted as something which, if all the facts were known, would be recognized as beneficial by rational men. As Pope, following Shaftesbury, wrote: 'All discord, harmony not understood, all partial evil, universal good.' But all the facts cannot be known and therefore the supposed value of much that happens must be taken on trust. This optimistic attitude towards natural events, no matter how terrible they may seem, is one of the least palatable features of Stoicism. It is one thing to say that human vision is limited, unable to grasp the full cosmic perspective. But even at its noblest, in the writings of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, there is something chilling and insensitive about the Stoic's faith that all will turn out well in the end. They were the only Greek philosophers who tried to find a rationale for everything within their concept of a perfect, all-embracing Nature. (Hellenistic Philosophy, p. 170).

Long aptly notes that the concept of amor fati requires "trust" and "faith."  When I first read this passage, I had this sinking feeling that I was turning to religion again!  I have had too much experience in life to quickly believe anyone who says "trust me."  Yet, that is kind of what the Stoics are saying with this concept of amor fati.  Long calls it "chilling and insensitive" and I cannot disagree.  My response to all this is: this is a brutal truth.  In other words, we are dogs tied to a cart and there is not a damn thing we can do about certain things (death, causes and effects, etc.).  But what is 'up to us' is our attitude and reaction to these things.  And in this space, we can either take a bitter, harsh attitude about events or we can make the pivot and attempt to make the best out of a given situation and take a positive attitude about circumstances.  And if my purpose is to demonstrate an excellent character at all times, then, when I think 'excellence,' I think positive, not negative.

We must make ready for death before we make ready for life. Life is well enough furnished, but we are too greedy with regard to its furnishings; something always seems to us lacking, and will always seem lacking. To have lived long enough depends neither upon our years nor upon our days, but upon our minds. I have lived, my dear friend Lucilius, long enough. I have had my fill; I await death. Farewell.

Whether you call it "lowering your expectations" or "looking for the silver lining" the idea is the same.  When we recognize a minimum appreciation, it makes everything else savory.  If you think on death often and become comfortable with the idea, then every added day of life is all the much more appreciated.  This is the purpose of the movie "A Wonderful Life" as George Bailey gets to see what life is like without him in it!  And when he realizes this, even though his circumstances remain unchanged, his attitude did not.  He made the pivot from the negative to the positive.

Several years ago, when I was a huge NBA fan and avidly followed the Dallas Mavericks, I often found myself upset when they lost.  But upon reflection, I came to realize that the best part of the game was in the middle of it while I was enjoying the tension and suspense.  I just needed to figure out how to not be disappointed by something out of my control.  I discovered this little mind trick: if it was a close game and it was uncertain if 'my team' was going to win or not, I would pause and reflect about how entertaining the game has been up to that point.  And I would tell myself: "I am satisfied; the entertainment has been good."  Then regardless if my team won or lost, I found an appreciation for the time I invested in it.  I think this is similar to what Seneca is attempting to point out when he says, "I have lived ... long enough.  I have had my fill."