Sunday, May 30, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 69 - On Rest and Restlessness

On Rest and Restlessness

The previous letter discussed retirement from work.  It would seem this letter is somewhat of a continuation, as Seneca advises Lucilius to cease his meandering and itchy legs.

the spirit cannot through retirement grow into unity unless it has ceased from its inquisitiveness and its wanderings.

As one enters a retirement phase of life and takes on more hours to the study of philosophy, he must focus and attempt to unify his soul and actions.  Too long, one has given into the things of indifferents and now one must direct his full attention to the pursuit of wisdom.

Give your eyes time to unlearn what they have seen, and your ears to grow accustomed to more wholesome words. ...  he who would lay aside his desire for all the things which he used to crave so passionately, must turn away both eyes and ears from the objects which he has abandoned.

Therefore, while in retirement and in a focused pursuit of love of wisdom, one must turn away from what he lusted after most of his life.  A whole life-time is not enough to rid oneself of all vices, let alone a few decades of retirement.  Therefore, in retirement, all the more sense of urgency ought to be applied.

Vices tempt you by the rewards which they offer; but in the life of which I speak, you must live without being paid. Scarcely will a whole life-time suffice to bring our vices into subjection ... Even constant care and attention can scarcely bring any one undertaking to full completion.

I don't know what my own retirement from the workforce will be like.  I've often contemplated that it ought to be lived in quiet and in minimalist fashion, rather than buying a large home and expensive cars.  I think what retirement has in the cards for my wife and I is a small, but comfortable home, cars that get us there and time with kids and grandkids well spent.  And the rest of my time, I hope, will be spent reading, writing and teaching philosophy to others, while continuing my own pursuit of wise and just and temperate living.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 68 - On Wisdom and Retirement

On Wisdom and Retirement

The three big points I gleaned from this letter are:

1. a Stoic (cosmopolitan) never retires from the universe

2. hide your retirement (from the daily grind) in plain sight

3. in the pursuit of wisdom, it's better late than never

The Cosmopolitan's Work Never Stops

While a Stoic may decide to retire from employment, he ought to have learned he never retires from the Cosmos.  He still yet has work to accomplish.

when we have assigned to our wise man that field of public life which is worthy of him, – in other words, the universe, – he is then not apart from public life, even if he withdraws; nay, perhaps he has abandoned only one little corner thereof and has passed over into greater and wider regions; and when he has been set in the heavens, he understands how lowly was the place in which he sat when he mounted the curule chair or the judgment-seat. Lay this to heart, – that the wise man is never more active in affairs than when things divine as well as things human have come within his ken.

In his retirement from employment, he has work on his soul yet to accomplish.  He may spend time reflecting on wisdom and perhaps he may observe that he can share this wisdom with those who still have years of life left on this rock floating in the Cosmos.  When the retired Stoic begins to see the divine as well as daily human affairs, perhaps he can share counsel for his fellow-travelers who will cross the path he treads today.

Retirement from Employment Ought to be Hidden in Plain Sight

Making a show of your retirement from employment may attract attention.  The flash of expensive cars and big homes may indicate the wealth you have amassed over a lifetime of work, but to satisfy the ego may welcome prying eyes and thieves.  Therefore, Seneca advocates us to not "vaunt one's retirement" but that we also ought not to "[withdraw] from the sight of men" as this also is a form of vaunting.  To vaunt also means to advertise and "to advertise one's retirement is to collect a crowd."

Therefore, retire from your employment, but do it in plain sight.  Perhaps, find a home that suits your needs rather than your ego.  Drive a car that gets you to where you need to go, but no need to be flamboyant.  I can't help but think of Sam Walton driving the same truck from 1979 to 1992, even after earning millions of dollars.

Retirement from Employment, but not from Work

And even after you retire from employment, you still have work to do.

When you withdraw from the world your business is to talk with yourself, not to have men talk about you. But what shall you talk about? Do just what people are fond of doing when they talk about their neighbours, – speak ill of yourself when by yourself; then you will become accustomed both to speak and to hear the truth. Above all, however, ponder that which you come to feel is your greatest weakness.

When the lionshare of our day is no longer spent in work meetings, then we will have time to hone in on our weakness, in order to correct them.  If others were to spot our weaknesses, what would they say?  This is how we ought to approach finding our weaknesses when we have much more time on our hands.

What, then, am I myself doing with my leisure? I am trying to cure my own sores ...  I do recommend retirement to you, but only that you may use it for greater and more beautiful activities than those which you have resigned.

But what is the point of self-improvement at such a late stage of life?

Let us do what men are wont to do when they are late in setting forth, and wish to make up for lost time by increasing their speed – let us ply the spur ... I shall depart a better man.

If you are convinced there is a path to wisdom, then get yourself going on the path.  Never deviate from the path once you are convinced.  And if you've not achieved the attainment of wisdom before you retire from your active life, then use your new-found time to pursue this noble quest.  You will have departed this life "a better man."

None of us know what awaits us after death.  Perhaps we have lived and will thousands of times as part of the Eternal Recurrence or perhaps we regress or progress into another life based on Buddhist reincarnation.  Or, maybe this is the only life we will live and there is nothing before or after it.  Regardless of your perspective, I think there is a case to be made that we should never give up our quest for wisdom and improving ourselves.  Our allotted time is sufficient; we simply need enough urgency to get going and to keep pursuing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 67 - On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering

On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering

Premise: the good is desirable

Premise: to be courageous under torture is good

Therefore: we should desire torture

More or less, that is the claim Lucilius seems to be making, to which Seneca replies:

there is something in them that is to be desired. I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage. Of course I prefer that war should not occur; but if war does occur, I shall desire that I may nobly endure the wounds, the starvation, and all that the exigency of war brings. Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships.

The concept of "preferred indifferents" emerges strongly in this passage.  The Stoic knows that Fortune or Fate will make us prosperous or poor; it may ravage our body with sickness or grant us long-lasting health and life; it may cause war and famine to sweep over our country or it may grant us peace.  Regardless of these circumstances, we, rational beings, will choose how we react to each event - this is 'up to us' - we choose (or not) to exercise moral virtue.  But, back to the point that Lucilius raises and Seneca addresses.  Ought a Stoic to desire torture?  Seneca would respond: 'no, but she ought to desire to demonstrate excellence of soul if her fate placed torture in her path.'  In this example, 'torture' would be a "non-preferred indifferent."

Sellars quotes Cicero:

All other things, he [Zeno] said, were neither good nor bad, but nevertheless some of them were in accordance with Nature and others contrary to Nature; also among these he counted another interposed or intermediate class of things. He taught that things in accordance with Nature were to be chosen and estimated as having a certain value, and their opposites the opposite, while things that were neither he left in the intermediate class. Th ese he declared to possess no motive force whatever, but among things to be chosen some were to be deemed of more value and others of less: the more valuable he termed “preferred”, the less valuable, “rejected” [i.e. “non-preferred”]. (Acad. 1.36–7) (see Sellars, Stoicism, p. 111).

While a Stoic may voluntarily endure hardships to toughen herself, she does not seek them out per se.  She would prefer life over death; health over illness; peace over war.  But regardless of what Fate sends her way, she will act with virtue in every case.

Many in the ancient world clearly knew that all of us will reap the same, ultimate fate: death.  Therefore, what many sought and preferred, was to die for a cause (as opposed for no cause, or needlessly).  A stark example today would be: would you prefer to die of a heart attack while eating ice cream and cake or would you prefer to die by throwing yourself on a grenade to save your platoon?  One death demonstrates a preference for vice while another demonstrates courage and love of brother.

Do you doubt, then, whether it is best to die glorious and performing some deed of valour? When one endures torture bravely, one is using all the virtues. Endurance may perhaps be the only virtue that is on view and most manifest; but bravery is there too, and endurance and resignation and long-suffering are its branches.

In many cases, Fate throws surprises at us and in a single reaction, we demonstrate an amazing act of virtue - such as taking a bullet for a brother.  Other acts of Fate are slow and the Stoic who demonstrates a deep understanding of cause and effect, knows what awaits him and still makes the rational choice to demonstrate excellence.

There, too, is foresight; for without foresight no plan can be undertaken; it is foresight that advises one to bear as bravely as possible the things one cannot avoid.

Seneca's words from ancient Rome echo still today.  What we witness on social media, in public and on television is an unending stream of examples of people seeking pleasure at all costs and avoiding virtue.  A wise person will pause and reflect on the perspectives of aimless people as well as how a excellent human being appears.

withdraw for a little space from the opinions of the common man. Form a proper conception of the image of virtue, a thing of exceeding beauty and grandeur; this image is not to be worshipped by us with incense or garlands, but with sweat and blood.

Seneca concludes with a couple of examples and admonishes us to amor fati.

I think of our friend Demetrius, who calls an easy existence, untroubled by the attacks of Fortune, a "Dead Sea."  If you have nothing to stir you up and rouse you to action, nothing which will test your resolution by its threats and hostilities; if you recline in unshaken comfort, it is not tranquillity; it is merely a flat calm.

The Stoic Attalus was wont to say: "I should prefer that Fortune keep me in her camp rather than in the lap of luxury. If I am tortured, but bear it bravely, all is well; if I die, but die bravely, it is also well."

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 66 - On Various Aspects of Virtue

On Various Aspects of Virtue

The Stoic motto "live according to Nature" has multiple levels of meaning.  This letter discusses one of those levels

He speaks of a friend, who's body is feeble and weak, but who's spirit and character is great.  He contemplates how Nature (i.e. the Universe / Cosmos / God) proves to us (humanity) that it is the soul - the character - that matters more than the body.

For Nature acted unfairly when she gave him a poor domicile for so rare a soul; or perhaps it was because she wished to prove to us that an absolutely strong and happy mind can lie hidden under any exterior. ... A great man can spring from a hovel; so can a beautiful and great soul from an ugly and insignificant body. For this reason Nature seems to me to breed certain men of this stamp with the idea of proving that virtue springs into birth in any place whatever. ... Nature does a still greater thing, for she produces certain men who, though hampered in their bodies, none the less break through the obstruction.

This last part, when he speaks of certain men who "break through the obstruction" reminds me of Marcus Aurelius speaking of the obstacle being way.  To be clear, the body is a Stoic indifferent.  It is not the Good, as it is a thing that does not depend on the truly unique part of us.  In the example of Seneca's friend, his body is the obstacle and the way for him to demonstrate excellence of soul or character is to prove that one can demonstrate courage, justice, diligence and wisdom regardless of the condition of your body.  I think of Stephen Hawking as a modern example.

The next section is about his conversation with his friend.

how can goods be equal if they are of three kinds?  For certain of them, according to our philosophical tenets, are primary, such as joy, peace, and the welfare of one's country. Others are of the second order, moulded in an unhappy material, such as the endurance of suffering, and self-control during severe illness. We shall pray outright for the goods of the first class; for the second class we shall pray only if the need shall arise. There is still a third variety, as, for example, a modest gait, a calm and honest countenance, and a bearing that suits the man of wisdom.

When he talks of three kinds of goods, I think he's referring to Stoic indifferents.  The first kind would be preferred indifferents.  And when he says "pray" I interpret that to mean more like 'prefer' or 'wish' as opposed to formal prayers.

A Stoic does not act indifferently to Stoic indifferents.  These Stoic indifferents are the material for demonstrating excellence of character.  In all three types of indifferents Seneca mentions, our goal is to rise above them.  Seneca elaborates:

the soul that gazes upon truth, that is skilled in what should be sought and what should be avoided, establishing standards of value not according to opinion, but according to nature, – the soul that penetrates the whole world and directs its contemplating gaze upon all its phenomena, paying strict attention to thoughts and actions, equally great and forceful, superior alike to hardships and blandishments, yielding itself to neither extreme of fortune, rising above all blessings and tribulations, absolutely beautiful, perfectly equipped with grace as well as with strength, healthy and sinewy, unruffled, undismayed, one which no violence can shatter, one which acts of chance can neither exalt nor depress, – a soul like this is virtue itself.

If I were to rephrase briefly, I would say an excellent soul is neither overcome with joy nor defeated by pain, but retains equanimity in all things and strives to see all things and events from the perspective of Nature; of God.

He continues;

For the Supreme Good cannot diminish, nor may virtue retrograde; rather is it transformed, now into one quality and now into another, shaping itself according to the part which it is to play.  Whatever it has touched it brings into likeness with itself, and dyes with its own colour. It adorns our actions, our friendships, and sometimes entire households which it has entered and set in order. Whatever it has handled it forthwith makes lovable, notable, admirable.

I may be wrong and perhaps others will inform me of how to comprehend this passage.  But it seems to me, that Seneca is saying that the "Supreme Good" is Nature; and as we humans are a part of Nature, we exercise what is truly ours - choice and attitude - to understand our part to play and then to play it well.  Nature "touches" us - it impacts us through events and circumstances - we might call it Fate.  And our part is to exercise our virtue.  We shape ourselves according to the part we ought to play.  As Nature proceeds and as we act with virtue, we are dyed with Nature's color - we live according to Nature.

And for humans to be good - to be a part of the Supreme Good - we are to be good ourselves, by exercising moral virtue.  Moral virtue is absolute and cannot be improved.

You will find nothing straighter than the straight, nothing truer than the truth, and nothing more temperate than that which is temperate.  Every virtue is limitless; for limits depend upon definite measurements. Constancy cannot advance further, any more than fidelity, or truthfulness, or loyalty. What can be added to that which is perfect? ... Honour, also, permits of no addition; for it is honourable because of the very qualities which I have mentioned.  What then? Do you think that propriety, justice, lawfulness, do not also belong to the same type, and that they are kept within fixed limits? The ability to increase is proof that a thing is still imperfect.

Seneca invokes the scala naturae again by noting the virtues of plants, which are perishable, and the virtues of humans, which are as enduring as Reason itself, since we have a portion of it within us.

to human virtues only one rule applies. For right reason is single and of but one kind. Nothing is more divine than the divine, or more heavenly than the heavenly.  Mortal things decay, fall, are worn out, grow up, are exhausted, and replenished. Hence, in their case, in view of the uncertainty of their lot, there is inequality; but of things divine the nature is one. Reason, however, is nothing else than a portion of the divine spirit set in a human body.

Seneca paints a picture of human excellence, regardless of circumstances.

the other virtues are also equal as compared with one another: tranquility, simplicity, generosity, constancy, equanimity, endurance. For underlying them all is a single virtue – that which renders the soul straight and unswerving. ... Virtue is not changed by the matter with which it deals; if the matter is hard and stubborn, it does not make the virtue worse; if pleasant and joyous, it does not make it better. Therefore, virtue necessarily remains equal. For, in each case, what is done is done with equal uprightness, with equal wisdom, and with equal honour. Hence the states of goodness involved are equal, and it is impossible for a man to transcend these states of goodness by conducting himself better, either the one man in his joy, or the other amid his suffering.

Retaining equanimity and being constant in any circumstance and event is a difficult proposition.  This is why there are no sages.  This is why previewing the day and then reviewing it at the end helps us contemplate the many different scenarios we face.  The practice of premeditatio malorum also helps us prepare to respond to the many different curve balls life throws at us.

Doing the morally correct thing must be done for the right reasons and it should be done willingly.  Just doing the right thing, but unwillingly, is not a demonstration of excellence.

no act is honourable that is done by an unwilling agent, that is compulsory. Every honourable act is voluntary. Alloy it with reluctance, complaints, cowardice, or fear, and it loses its best characteristic – self-approval. That which is not free cannot be honourable; for fear means slavery.  The honourable is wholly free from anxiety and is calm ...  when a man is about to do something honourable, he should not regard any obstacles as evils, even though he regard them as inconvenient, but he should will to do the deed, and do it willingly.

While a Stoic may prefer the indifferent of joy and dis-prefer the indifferent of pain, when it comes to demonstrating excellence of soul, the good man will do the right thing regardless if joy or pain are involved.

the good man will hasten unhesitatingly to any noble deed; even though he be confronted by the hangman, the torturer, and the stake, he will persist, regarding not what he must suffer, but what he must do; and he will entrust himself as readily to an honourable deed as he would to a good man.

The good man can demonstrate virtue whether he is rich or poor.  Whatever Fortune or Fate has given him, he will make good use of it.

virtue is just as praiseworthy if it dwells in a sound and free body, as in one which is sickly or in bondage. ... For all those things over which Chance holds sway are chattels, – money, person, position; they are weak, shifting, prone to perish, and of uncertain tenure. On the other hand, the works of virtue are free and unsubdued, neither more worthy to be sought when fortune treats them kindly, nor less worthy when any adversity weighs upon them.

The next section (24-27) is a bit obscure, but to me it seems Seneca is simply saying that virtuous (excellent) acts of moral behavior are equal, regardless of the "accessories" that surround the individual.  These "accessories" would be nothing more than indifferents.  You admire a good person because they are morally good; and you do not differentiate your love for the poor, weak good man and the wealthy, healthy good man.  Good is good.  He compares this equality to a loving parent.  A parent loves all her children.  If, however, a child faces hardships, there may be more care or help given to them.

Virtue, too, does not necessarily love more deeply those of her works which she beholds in trouble and under heavy burdens, but, like good parents, she gives them more of her fostering care.

Returning to the "good is good" concept; Seneca makes a finer point, which somewhat hits on the "preferred indifferents" aspects of Stoicism, when he says the first example of virtue is "desirable" and the second is "worthy of admiration."

there is an equality between feeling joy with self-control and suffering pain with self-control. The joy in the one case does not surpass in the other the steadfastness of soul that gulps down the groan when the victim is in the clutches of the torturer; goods of the first kind are desirable, while those of the second are worthy of admiration; and in each case they are none the less equal.

Philosophy helps us aim higher than the pursuit of indifferents.  What most people chase and admire is foolishness and brings nothing but "empty joy."  Also, we often fear that which is irrational.  Those who are educated in these two very important aspects of life can find a path to live rationally knowing not to chase one and avoid the other.  Many other people use these two facts to manipulate others; either to pursue indifferents or to instill fear into them in order to sell a solution to address that fear.  To avoid not being played by this sort of person, open your eyes to the reality of the situation and be rational.

those things which are thoughtlessly praised, and are goods in the opinion of the mob merely puff us up with empty joy. And again, those things which are feared as if they were evils merely inspire trepidation in men's minds, for the mind is disturbed by the semblance of danger, just as animals are disturbed. Hence it is without reason that both these things distract and sting the spirit; the one is not worthy of joy, nor the other of fear.

Seneca plays the preferred indifferents pretty strongly.

certain goods which reason regards as primary, to which she addresses herself purposely; these are, for example, victory, good children, and the welfare of one's country. 

I would agree with him about "good children" and "welfare of one's country", but I'm not so sure about the "victory" one.  I tend to think that preferred indifferents ought to be beneficial for all people in the world.  We all want our children to be good; good children is good for the world.  The same would be true for the welfare of the country - we want people to have food, to generally be healthy and be afforded an opportunity to live a good life.  As to "victory" this would imply someone or some other people lost.  Therefore, how could this be beneficial for all?

He makes a finer point on this topic.  While we prefer some indifferents, we still nonetheless can demonstrate excellence in the face of adversity.

being wounded, wasting away over a fire, being afflicted with bad health, – such things are contrary to nature; but it is in accordance with nature for a man to preserve an indomitable soul amid such distresses.

Later on he says that he would actually prefer the harsher hardships.

if any goods could be greater than others, I should prefer those which seem harsh to those which are mild and alluring, and should pronounce them greater. For it is more of an accomplishment to break one's way through difficulties than to keep joy within bounds.  It requires the same use of reason, I am fully aware, for a man to endure prosperity well and also to endure misfortune bravely. 

He ends by alluding to some story of Mucius, who willed his maimed hand to be held over some fire, defying his enemy.  And his enemy, fearing that the fame of Mucius would be greater, ordered that the fire be removed.  Thus Mucius became victorious over his enemy.

This was a very long, rambling letter and was somewhat difficult to follow.  It took me a few days to read it and try to understand what Seneca was trying to convey.  I hope this was useful in some way for anyone who comes across this post.