Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 80 - On Worldly Deceptions

On Worldly Deceptions

Because the people in Seneca's life are off enjoying the games and boxing, Seneca has time to himself, uninterrupted.  He then observes:

my thoughts may march safely on, – and that is all the more necessary for one who goes independently and follows out his own path. Do I then follow no predecessors? Yes, but I allow myself to discover something new, to alter, to reject. I am not a slave to them, although I give them my approval.

Said differently, he indeed follows predecessors, but he also reflects on what has been discussed and he feels the freedom to agree, reject or alter it.  He simply asserts his independent thought.  I admit I've suffered from a "going-along mindset" for much of my life.  It feels that I spend most of my time reviewing what has been discussed, said or thought, and then I agree, reject or add a nuance.  I don't think I'll ever come up with some novel philosophical idea.  And even if I do, the chances are likely that it's simply a matter of having not yet discovered who has previously thought it!

He next ponders the amount of time and effort people spend on their bodies, but don't dedicate as much time and effort on the mind.  The premise is that humans' unique nature is the rational.  We share the physical with beasts, but they do not share the rational with us.  Therefore, if we are to live according to our unique nature, we ought to spend our time in the rational area of our lives.  Seneca writes:

How many men, I say to myself, train their bodies, and how few train their minds!  What crowds flock to the games, – spurious as they are and arranged merely for pastime, – and what a solitude reigns where the good arts are taught! How feather-brained are the athletes whose muscles and shoulders we admire!

Epictetus notes in Enchiridion 41,

It is the mark of a crude disposition to spend most of one's time on bodily functions such as exercise, eating, drinking, defecating, and copulating.  These are things to be done just incidentally.  All your attention should be on your mind.

How many people are willing to train and torture the body for a few minutes of fame in the arena.  Ought we not to spend more time training our minds to withstand the "blows of Fortune"?

if this can be done, how much more easily might the mind be toughened so that it could receive the blows of Fortune and not be conquered, so that it might struggle to its feet again after it has been laid low, after it has been trampled under foot? ... Yonder athletes must have copious food, copious drink, copious quantities of oil, and long training besides; but you can acquire virtue without equipment and without expense. All that goes to make you a good man lies within yourself.

All that is needed to make progress is to wish for freedom from Fortune.  And the first areas to overcome are freedom from death, and poverty.

shall you not be eager to attain liberty at any price, seeing that you claim it as your birthright? ... freedom is possessed neither by those who have bought it, nor by those who have sold it. You must give this good to yourself, and seek it from yourself. ... First of all, free yourself from the fear of death, for death puts the yoke about our necks; then free yourself from the fear of poverty.

You may look on those who have much wealth and think them happy.  But you do not know if they truly have freedom or not.  Don't be so hasty to fall for the trap in thinking wealth brings happiness and freedom.

in every case their happiness is put on like the actor's mask. Tear it off, and you will scorn them. ... if you judge a man, do you judge him when he is wrapped in a disguise? ... If you wish to see what he amounts to, and to know his full worth, take off his diadem; much evil lurks beneath it. But why do I speak of others? If you wish to set a value on yourself, put away your money, your estates, your honours, and look into your own soul.

The only thing that is up to you, is your soul.  You cannot accurately judge yourself by using the standard of health, wealth, status or fame.  Your lucid judgement and discerning assessment of events, things, people and circumstances and how you react to these is what is up to you.  This is never so simple, and can only be ascertained through much thought and objectivity - seeing things from the perspective of Nature.  Do not let such worldly deceptions deceive you.  Always look to wisdom to guide you.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 79 - On the Rewards of Scientific Discovery

On the Rewards of Scientific Discovery

The first third of the letter is centered around Lucilius' trip in and around Sicily, along with the sights and land and sea marks in that area.  Lucilius writes about poem about Mt. Aetna, a topic of which many previous writers have tackled.  And due to the fact that so many have written about Mt. Aetna, Seneca observes:

It makes a great deal of difference whether you approach a subject that has been exhausted, or one where the ground has merely been broken; in the latter case, the topic grows day by day, and what is already discovered does not hinder new discoveries. Besides, he who writes last has the best of the bargain; he finds already at hand words which, when marshalled in a different way, show a new face. And he is not pilfering them, as if they belonged to someone else, when he uses them, for they are common property.

He's absolutely right.  On topics which have been discussed and written about for so many years and centuries, even millennia, it is quite difficult to add to the subject.  So much so, that many of these topics are now "common property."  I feel this way about philosophy.  And at this time in my life, I am embarking on a grand journey to delve a bit deeper to explore the many varying philosophies and aspects of philosophies (pursuing B.A. in philosophy).  And on a related topic of the principal of charity and debate, I read in this article, the quote: "First, we listen and only then do we respond."  I feel that I should hardly add anything to the grand debate because I have not fully listened!  And to tidy up this thought, I will simply say, that the reason I engage in discussion and writing about the topic of philosophy is because I wish to learn, and in discussion, inquiry and writing, I learn.

Seneca next pivots to the topic of wisdom and this concept of one either being a sage or a fool.  Either you have wisdom (i.e. you've reached the top of a summit) or you don't, but are progressing (you are still hiking to the summit).

Wisdom has this advantage, among others, – that no man can be outdone by another, except during the climb. But when you have arrived at the top, it is a draw; there is no room for further ascent, the game is over. Can the sun add to his size? Can the moon advance beyond her usual fulness? The seas do not increase in bulk. The universe keeps the same character, the same limits.

Then he makes an interesting observation about gifts.  Perhaps Nature has given us these unique gifts, but the path to wisdom is still open for all.

Men who have attained wisdom will therefore be equal and on the same footing. Each of them will possess his own peculiar gifts: one will be more affable, another more facile, another more ready of speech, a fourth more eloquent; but as regards the quality under discussion, – the element that produces happiness, – it is equal in them all. 

Returning to the timeless and unmovable concept of virtue, Seneca notes:

virtue will not be brought down to a lower plane either by flames or by ruins. Hers is the only greatness that knows no lowering; there can be for her no further rising or sinking. Her stature, like that of the stars in the heavens, is fixed. Let us therefore strive to raise ourselves to this altitude.

We attain to virtue - we ascend her summit.  The outcome we seek is the summit.  But if you are distracted by competition with other hikers on the mountain, you are missing the point.  While you may be higher up (or lower) than others, that is not the goal.

goodness does not mean merely being better than the lowest. Who that could catch but a mere glimpse of the daylight would boast his powers of vision? One who sees the sun shining through a mist may be contented meanwhile that he has escaped darkness, but he does not yet enjoy the blessing of light.  Our souls will not have reason to rejoice in their lot until, freed from this darkness in which they grope, they have not merely glimpsed the brightness with feeble vision, but have absorbed the full light of day and have been restored to their place in the sky, – until, indeed, they have regained the place which they held at the allotment of their birth. The soul is summoned upward by its very origin. And it will reach that goal even before it is released from its prison below, as soon as it has cast off sin and, in purity and lightness, has leaped up into celestial realms of thought.

My son and I climbed Mt. Elbert in Colorado last year.  It was our first 14K foot mountain to climb.  Since we are just day-hikers, we chose the gentle giant - we didn't want any technical issues - but it is a notable mountain to climb as it is the highest peak in Colorado.  The views were spectacular and rewarding as we slowly made our way up it's side.  But having lived at sea-level for over 20 years, the climb up was difficult.  We stopped many times and with each stop, the views and sense of accomplishment became clearer.  Towards the top, as the incline became quite steep, we wondered if we ought to turn around.  But we pressed on, keeping an eye on any incoming storms.  Many others, on the trail, encouraged us to press on - that the view at the top was worth it.  We plodded on.  And when we did get to the top, the view was spectacular and the sense of accomplishment was thrilling.  We snapped some pictures and then raced back down to avoid an incoming storm.

At the bottom of the mountain, we felt victorious for having climbed it without incident or injury.  We gave each other a big hug in the parking lot - as a father - this would be my last hike with my son for a while as he would head off to the Marines two months later.

To tie this back to Seneca - while we ascended a bit up the mountain and while the views were excellent, we could not appreciate the full, unimpeded view from the summit.  We would never enjoy that full sense of achievement and accomplishment until the ascent was complete.  The ascent to wisdom is the same.  Many of us will only ever be prokoptons for the duration of our life and only enjoying limited views on this massive mountain.

The last third of Letter 79 deals with the fact that many people are blind to virtue and only see it many years later.  Seneca says, "Fame is the shadow of virtue."

When I first read that, my brain froze up a bit.  Fame is an indifferent; why should Seneca care about it as related to virtue.  But as I read that again as well as the rest of the letter, it became more evident that he was simply saying something synonymous with the idea of "truth will out!"  A similar idea I've heard others say is "history will be the judge of me."  This notion stems from the idea that many people today can't see that the decisions being made are indeed the right decisions.  Seneca references many historical figures, including Cato.  Perhaps the sentiment of the day was that many supported Ceasar, but history shows that Cato was right!

And how long did our state remain in ignorance of Cato! They rejected him, and did not know his worth until they had lost him ... how many there are whose progress toward virtue has come to light only after their death!

Later on, he takes a long-winded approach to saying that history is the ultimate judge of us all.  While we may be blind today, given sufficient time and retrospective thought, we will see the follies of our ways.

Virtue is never lost to view; and yet to have been lost to view is no loss. There will come a day which will reveal her, though hidden away or suppressed by the spite of her contemporaries. That man is born merely for a few, who thinks only of the people of his own generation. Many thousands of years and many thousands of peoples will come after you; it is to these that you should have regard. Malice may have imposed silence upon the mouths of all who were alive in your day; but there will come men who will judge you without prejudice and without favour.

I don't think he is saying that we should live to be famous in the history books.  But he's saying that given a sufficient amount of time, if the people of the future look back on your life, will they regard you as wise?  I guess it depends on the state of mind of those in the future!

Regardless, we should live according to Nature, who is virtuous.  We should look to the unmovable standard and align our life accordingly.  Be loyal to her alone.

Virtue has never failed to reward a man, both during his life and after his death, provided he has followed her loyally, provided he has not decked himself out or painted himself up, but has been always the same, whether he appeared before men's eyes after being announced, or suddenly and without preparation. Pretence accomplishes nothing. Few are deceived by a mask that is easily drawn over the face. Truth is the same in every part. Things which deceive us have no real substance. Lies are thin stuff; they are transparent, if you examine them with care.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 78 - On the Healing Power of the Mind

On the Healing Power of the Mind

Lucilius and Seneca suffer from catarrh, which the buildup of mucus in the back of the nose, throat, or sinuses. Doctors sometimes refer to catarrh as postnasal drip.

Apparently, Seneca had it so bad, he

entertained the impulse of ending [his] life then and there; but the thought of [his] kind old father kept [him] back. For [he] reflected, not how bravely [he] had the power to die, but how little power [his father] had to bear bravely the loss of [him]. And so [he] commanded [himself]to live.

Next comes a quote which I have seen quoted many times:

For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.

The rest of the letter contains Seneca's advice for getting over disease and dealing with pain.  The main point of it all, is that the study of the soul and mind and philosophy will go a long way to helping the sufferer of pain.

these very aids to my peace of mind were as efficacious as medicine. Honourable consolation results in a cure; and whatever has uplifted the soul helps the body also. My studies were my salvation. I place it to the credit of philosophy that I recovered and regained my strength. I owe my life to philosophy.
He also mentions friendship as a form of relief of suffering.  And as to the specific ailment of the catarrh, he advises walking, reading aloud, and a proper diet.  But for biggest aid and cure for disease, pain and the entire problem of life, he recommends philosophy - learning how to die well.
my counsel to you is this, – and it is a cure, not merely of this disease of yours, but of your whole life, – "Despise death." There is no sorrow in the world, when we have escaped from the fear of death.  There are these three serious elements in every disease: fear of death, bodily pain, and interruption of pleasures
If we can scorn death and never fear it, we will be able to face suffering and pain and be able to endure the lack of pleasures.  More specifically, he addresses the management of pain.  Either it is endurable, in which can we can endure in between breaks in the pain; or it is severe and acute, in which case either we die or the acuteness will not last long.
The suffering, however, is rendered endurable by interruptions; for the strain of extreme pain must come to an end.  No man can suffer both severely and for a long time; Nature, who loves us most tenderly, has so constituted us as to make pain either endurable or short.
Later on, he notes that when we put ourselves through self-inflicted suffering, we are able to better endure pain and diseases when they come.  A person acquainted with pain will not be fearful of it's onset.  In a way, he is able to separate his mind from his body.
The reason, however, why the inexperienced are impatient when their bodies suffer is, that they have not accustomed themselves to be contented in spirit. They have been closely associated with the body. Therefore a high-minded and sensible man divorces soul from body, and dwells much with the better or divine part, and only as far as he must with this complaining and frail portion.
And when pain does come into our life, we would do well to not complain about it.  Complaining does not make the pain go away and only serves to add mental suffering to the situation.  While it may seem extreme, Seneca's advice works.  If you think nothing of a trifle of pain or even of 'ambition, luxury, greed,' you will find the grip of those things will slacken.  But by drawing attention to them, you increase the sensitivity to them.
One can endure the suffering which disease entails, if one has come to regard its results with scorn.  But do not of your own accord make your troubles heavier to bear and burden yourself with complaining. Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; but if, on the other hand, you begin to encourage yourself and say, "It is nothing, – a trifling matter at most; keep a stout heart and it will soon cease"; then in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.
The same too can be said of past physical and mental suffering.
What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy? Besides, every one adds much to his own ills, and tells lies to himself.
Enduring pain and overcoming it is one way to rise above Fate and Fortune.  We can think of these events like an enemy attacking our position.  If we don't give in, we will be rewarded with the knowledge that our character has proven itself excellent.
if you hold your ground and make up your mind to push against it, it will be forced back. ... the reward is not a garland or a palm or a trumpeter who calls for silence at the proclamation of our names, but rather virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time, if fortune has once been utterly vanquished in any combat.
Another remedy he recommends is to look to think of other things and other people.  Recall the good, brave deeds in your own past; recall what brave people have done to overcome suffering.  One example of this, which I've found useful in situations where I am prone to complain, is to think of Anne Frank.  Whenever I catch myself complaining about something, I picture Anne, with arms folded, tapping her foot and impatiently looking at me, as if to say, "you think your problems are tough?"
to turn the mind aside to thoughts of other things and thus to depart from pain. Call to mind what honourable or brave deeds you have done; consider the good side of your own life. Run over in your memory those things which you have particularly admired. Then think of all the brave men who have conquered pain: of him who continued to read his book as he allowed the cutting out of varicose veins; of him who did not cease to smile, though that very smile so enraged his torturers that they tried upon him every instrument of their cruelty.
In recalling other people who have endured suffering, Seneca notes people who never uttered a moan or even broke out in a smile under the torturer's hands!

Before pain comes into our life, we must try to become accustomed to it.  We ought to organize our mind and soul through meditation.  Thereby, we are able to attain self-control and demonstrate an excellent character even on our sick-bed.
if your soul be habitually in practice, you will plead and teach, listen and learn, investigate and meditate. What more is necessary? Do you think that you are doing nothing if you possess self-control in your illness? You will be showing that a disease can be overcome, or at any rate endured.  There is, I assure you, a place for virtue even upon a bed of sickness. ... a man can display bravery even when wrapped in his bed-clothes. You have something to do: wrestle bravely with disease.
As we meditate and
roam through the universe, the truth can never pall (lose strength or potency); it will be the untruths that will cloy (be distasteful or displeasing).
We will come to know the truth that
honourable things do not depend on time for their growth; but any life must seem short to those who measure its length by pleasures which are empty and for that reason unbounded.
He closes:
"A single day among the learned lasts longer than the longest life of the ignorant."  Meanwhile, hold fast to this thought, and grip it close: yield not to adversity; trust not to prosperity; keep before your eyes the full scope of Fortune's power, as if she would surely do whatever is in her power to do. That which has been long expected comes more gently.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 77 - On Taking One's Own Life

On Taking One's Own Life


This post deals with and discusses suicide.

If you are in a good spot mentally speaking, then feel free read this post with all the candidness that philosophy has to offer.

But if you have suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide, please ask for professional help.  Below are phone numbers for immediate help, if you are based in the United States of America.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (for the transgender community)

TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (for LGBTQ youth)

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

If you are not based in the USA, please search on the internet for sources of help in your country, before reading this post.


To be a bit clearer, Seneca's 77th letter really deals with euthanasia rather than suicide in general.

The object of the letter is Tullius Marcellinus, but before he begins discussing him, Seneca observes the hustle and bustle of people in the excitement of the ship which has just docked.  

While everybody was bustling about and hurrying to the water-front, I felt great pleasure in my laziness, because, although I was soon to receive letters from my friends, I was in no hurry to know how my affairs were progressing abroad, or what news the letters were bringing; for some time now I have had no losses, nor gains either. Even if I were not an old man, I could not have helped feeling pleasure at this; but as it is, my pleasure was far greater. For, however small my possessions might be, I should still have left over more travelling-money than journey to travel, especially since this journey upon which we have set out is one which need not be followed to the end.

Seneca is pleased with himself because he has not been caught up in the excitement of the incoming ship and pivots this reflection into the fact that he thinks, metaphorically, he still has ample time left in his journey of life.  He makes the point very much clearer when he states that the length or end of the journey matters not so much as the manner in which you leave it.

An expedition will be incomplete if one stops half-way, or anywhere on this side of one's destination; but life is not incomplete if it is honourable. At whatever point you leave off living, provided you leave off nobly, your life is a whole.

In other words, a man of 20 years can live just as nobly as a man of 90 years.  The length does not matter so much.  What does matter is the fashion of leaving.  Therefore, a boy of 20 years old, who jumps on a grenade is much more honorable than the couch potato who dies of a heart attack at age 50.  Equally honorable is the man who labors for 40 years teaching ungrateful middle school students, in order to provide for his family, and dies on the day he retires, while it would be dishonorable of a man of 20 years who drinks to excess and dies in a drug overdose.

The object of the letter is one

Tullius Marcellinus ... [who] fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying.

He called his friends together to give him advice.  One of his friends was a Stoic.

[the] Stoic friend, a rare man, and, ... a man of courage and vigour, admonished him best of all. ... [He said]: "Do not torment yourself, my dear Marcellinus, as if the question which you are weighing were a matter of importance. It is not an important matter to live; all your slaves live, and so do all animals; but it is important to die honourably, sensibly, bravely. Reflect how long you have been doing the same thing: food, sleep, lust, – this is one's daily round. The desire to die may be felt, not only by the sensible man or the brave or unhappy man, but even by the man who is merely surfeited."

Marcellinus' slaves were reluctant to help him in his death.  So the Stoic friend advised him

to distribute gifts to those who had attended him throughout his whole life, when that life was finished, just as, when a banquet is finished, the remaining portion is divided among the attendants who stand about the table. ... so he distributed little sums among his sorrowing slaves, and comforted them besides.

He fasted, then made a steam tent, as it were, and sat in a hot bath and had hot water poured over him until he passed out and then passed away.

Death becomes us all.  If you are someone who desperately wishes to cling so tightly to life, recall Seneca's words:

Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you.

You are a blip in an unfathomable ocean of time and space.  Do not cling to something so insignificant.

Do not pray for something that is impossible, namely to escape death.

Give over thinking that your prayers can bend Divine decrees from their predestined end.  These decrees are unalterable and fixed; they are governed by a mighty and everlasting compulsion.

Returning to the concept of an honorable death, Seneca recounts the story of the Spartan boy who was taken captive.

The story of the Spartan lad has been preserved: taken captive while still a stripling, he kept crying in his Doric dialect, "I will not be a slave!" and he made good his word; for the very first time he was ordered to perform a menial and degrading service, – and the command was to fetch a chamber-pot, – he dashed out his brains against the wall.

Do not forget that we are all free from the bonds of life.  Do not fear death.

Unhappy fellow, you are a slave to men, you are a slave to your business, you are a slave to life. For life, if courage to die be lacking, is slavery.

And while you live, ponder deeply on what is up to you - on what your purpose is.  Do not let your purpose be so lowly as an animal.  Do not be a robot who works all day, to earn money, to spend it on things and food, to process said food, to deposit it in a hole, to be flushed and then to repeat the whole process again.  You are not a food processor.  You are a rational being.  Find meaning; live purposely; carpe diem.

It makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand measures pass through your bladder; you are nothing but a wine-strainer.  You are a connoisseur in the flavour of the oyster and of the mullet; your luxury has not left you anything untasted for the years that are to come; and yet these are the things from which you are torn away unwillingly.

And if you are the type of person who is duty bound and must keep on living to fulfill your duties, recall that dying is a duty too and that to live excellently (your duty) also means choosing to die excellently (also your duty).

"I wish to live, for I am engaged in many honourable pursuits. I am loth to leave life's duties, which I am fulfilling with loyalty and zeal." Surely you are aware that dying is also one of life's duties?

His letter ends,

It is with life as it is with a play, – it matters not how long the action is spun out, but how good the acting is. It makes no difference at what point you stop. Stop whenever you choose; only see to it that the closing period is well turned.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 76 - On Learning Wisdom in Old Age

On Learning Wisdom in Old Age

Seneca attended philosophy lectures in his advanced years.  How timely this letter comes to me.  Just this week, I have mapped out the path I plan to take in order to pursue a B.A. in Philosophy in my mid-40's after having secured a B.S. and MBA twenty years ago.  My courses begin August 2, 2021 and I aim to have my degree by early 2025.  The moonshot goal is to then pursue an M.A. in Philosophy; perhaps finishing that degree around 2028, and then continue to work in my career for a few more years and then perhaps to retire and pursue a dream of teaching philosophy at a community college.

Some people might be a bit surprised by someone studying philosophy in their later years, but Seneca's responses are wise.

what is more foolish than refusing to learn, simply because one has not been learning for a long time? ... Men of all ages are admitted to this class-room. ...  You should keep learning as long as you are ignorant, – even to the end of your life ... "As long as you live, keep learning how to live."

He notes there are many in classes learning how to be a good flute and piper player, but very few are in attendance on the subjects of "What is a good man?" and "How to be a good man."  He notes that

the majority think that even these few [people attending philosophy lectures] are engaged in no good business; they have the name of being empty-headed idlers. [and he hopes he may] be blessed with that kind of mockery; for one should listen in an unruffled spirit to the railings of the ignorant.

Indifferents and preferred indifferents will come and go.  But that which is up to us needs to be learned, and reinforced in order to live well.

Money will come of its own accord; titles will be given to you; influence and authority will perhaps be thrust upon you; but virtue will not fall upon you by chance. Neither is knowledge thereof to be won by light effort or small toil; but toiling is worth while when one is about to win all goods at a single stroke. For there is but a single good, – namely, that which is honourable.

The remainder of the letter covers the topic of the Good, which he has discussed in previous letters.  He does make a few additional, finer points on the topic in this letter.

Everything is estimated by the standard of its own good. The vine is valued for its productiveness and the flavour of its wine, the stag for his speed. We ask, with regard to beasts of burden, how sturdy of back they are; for their only use is to bear burdens. If a dog is to find the trail of a wild beast, keenness of scent is of first importance; if to catch his quarry, swiftness of foot; if to attack and harry it, courage. In each thing that quality should be best for which the thing is brought into being and by which it is judged.  And what quality is best in man? It is reason; by virtue of reason he surpasses the animals, and is surpassed only by the gods.

Stoics will say "live according to Nature."  What is the human's unique Nature, which she does not share with any other being?  It is her rational virtue or excellence.  Seneca will then build on this important concept.

Reason is the human's unique feature.  While we share many other features with plants and animals, we possess reason "which is peculiarly [our] own."  And this feature alone will lead to our happiness.  He writes,

What then is peculiar to man? Reason. When this is right and has reached perfection, man's felicity is complete. ...  if a man has brought his reason to perfection, he is praiseworthy and has reached the end suited to his nature. This perfect reason is called virtue, and is likewise that which is honourable.

On this feature and basis ought we to judge if a person is good or bad.  And it is only on this basis that the good resides.  To judge a man good or bad based on health, riches, genes, possessions misses the mark.  A person may or may not have these things and still be judged a good person.  And equally true is the fact that a bad person may or may not possess all these things.

Therefore, that attribute of man whereby he is approved or disapproved is his chief and only good.  You do not doubt whether this is a good; you merely doubt whether it is the sole good. If a man possess all other things, such as health, riches, pedigree, a crowded reception-hall, but is confessedly bad, you will disapprove of him. Likewise, if a man possess none of the things which I have mentioned, and lacks money, or an escort of clients, or rank and a line of grandfathers and great-grandfathers, but is confessedly good, you will approve of him. Hence, this is man's one peculiar good, and the possessor of it is to be praised even if he lacks other things; but he who does not possess it, though he possess everything else in abundance, is condemned and rejected. ... Each thing is praised in regard to that attribute which is taken as its standard, in regard to that which is its peculiar quality.

Seneca reiterates what makes a person good.

He is good, however, if his reason is well-ordered and right and adapted to that which his nature has willed.  It is this that is called virtue; this is what we mean by "honourable."

In this statement, we can see the tripartite division, with "well-ordered" aligned to the discipline of assent or logic, "right" aligned to the discipline of action or ethics and "adapted" to the discipline of desire or physics.

He later writes "every good is in the soul" which is another way of saying the good is up to us; it is something that we are entirely responsible for choosing or not.  It is in this space which our equanimity, contentment and happiness resides.  Pursuit of indifferents will not lead to happiness.  Trying to avoid our fate or lot in life will not lead to happiness.  If we take this route, we cheat ourselves.

He continues,

All the actions of life, taken as a whole, are controlled by the consideration of what is honourable or base ... A good man will do what he thinks it will be honourable for him to do, even if it involves toil; he will do it even if it involves harm to him; he will do it even if it involves peril; again, he will not do that which will be base, even if it brings him money, or pleasure, or power.

Excellence of character leads to equanimity, enduring joy and a good life.

how much more can be accomplished by virtue, which does not act impulsively or suddenly, but uniformly and with a strength that is lasting!

And this is achieved only from within your soul.  It cannot be achieved via externals.

it will never be possible for any virtue to be won and held, if there is anything outside itself which virtue must take into consideration.

Seneca echoes the strong Stoic sentiment and implied trust in Nature or the Cosmos.  Many moderns today have a hard time accepting this.  But it is difficult to separate this important aspect of Stoic philosophy without having the entire framework collapse.  If a person has a hard time thinking about gods, he should consider if he understands that the Stoic god is not the same as the Christian, Muslim, Jewish or even oriental based religious gods.

Any opinion, however, which is at variance with truth, is wrong.  A good man, you will admit, must have the highest sense of duty toward the gods. Hence he will endure with an unruffled spirit whatever happens to him; for he will know that it has happened as a result of the divine law, by which the whole creation moves. This being so, there will be for him one good, and only one, namely, that which is honourable; for one of its dictates is that we shall obey the gods and not blaze forth in anger at sudden misfortunes or deplore our lot, but rather patiently accept fate and obey its commands. 

He further explains the pursuit of the good with an example about how someone can demonstrate excellence of soul.

ask yourself whether, at the call of duty, you would be willing to die for your country, and buy the safety of all your fellow-citizens at the price of your own; whether you would offer your neck not only with patience, but also with gladness.

When I read this part of the letter, I noted that the assumption would have to be that the country aspires to the good as well.  I'm not sure I'd be willing to die for a tyrant, but rather for the betterment and ideals of my country.  I think Seneca is alluding to Cato, who fought for the ideals of the Republic, rather than giving in to the tyranny of Caesar.

The thought experiment further proceeds with regard to how some people might prevent you from dying for your country and your response might reveal if you are focused on the good or not.  Some might say,

"Your deed will speedily be forgotten," or "Your fellow-citizens will offer you scant thanks."

But the wise man

will answer: "All these matters lie outside my task. My thoughts are on the deed itself. I know that this is honourable. Therefore, whithersoever I am led and summoned by honour, I will go."

Focus on what is up to you - your soul - your character.  All externals mean nothing.  When judging something, limit the quality to the object being judged.

A dwarf is not tall, though he stand upon a mountain-top; a colossal statue will still be tall, though you place it in a well.

So when you observe people, try to limit your judgement based on the thing that is up to him.  We make a false judgement when we judge people by what they wear or what they possess.

This is the error under which we labour; this is the reason why we are imposed upon: we value no man at what he is, but add to the man himself the trappings in which he is clothed.

Rather, we are to

Consider his soul, its quality and its stature, and thus learn whether its greatness is borrowed, or its own.

Therefore, a practicing Stoic ought to dwell on how he will react various situations.  More specifically, he will practice negative visualization or premeditatio malorum.  Seneca writes,

I have always threatened myself with them, and have prepared myself as a man to meet man's destiny." If an evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes. ... the wise man accustoms himself to coming trouble, lightening by long reflection the evils which others lighten by long endurance. We sometimes hear the inexperienced say: "I knew that this was in store for me." But the wise man knows that all things are in store for him. Whatever happens, he says: "I knew it."

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 75 - On the Diseases of the Soul

On the Diseases of the Soul

Two main ideas are addressed in this letter.

1. how to conduct philosophical discourse

2. three classes of prokoptons

Seneca briefly discusses that the purpose of discourse, which is to heal the soul.  It is not to prove how eloquent one can be.  While it doesn't hurt to be eloquent in philosophical discourse, eloquence is not the primary purpose.

Seneca hits on a very important point, one which is especially relevant in 2021 - speaking up; saying what is on your mind.

let us say what we feel, and feel what we say; let speech harmonize with life.  That man has fulfilled his promise who is the same person both when you see him and when you hear him.  We shall not fail to see what sort of man he is and how large a man he is, if only he is one and the same.

"Let speech harmonize with life."  I love that so much it's worth repeating.  How can we become better than we are if we can't enjoy the safety of open and free speech and honest dialogue?  I've just finished reading "The Fearless Organization" by Amy Edmondson in which she advocated for managers and leaders to provide a culture which supports candor.  Indeed, we all need to be temperate in our speech - we ought not to speak lies and actively deceive - and we should not use rhetoric to inflame the mob.  But we ought to practice courage and speak our minds and raise concerns and awareness of important issues.  Philosophy, which deals with matters of the soul, deserves the candid discourse which requires people to speak what the feel and feel what they speak.

The task is large and important and will require not only discourse, but practice and action.

You are required to cure a disease that is chronic and serious, – one which affects the general weal. You have as serious a business on hand as a physician has during a plague. Are you concerned about words? Rejoice this instant if you can cope with things. When shall you learn all that there is to learn? When shall you so plant in your mind that which you have learned, that it cannot escape? When shall you put it all into practice? For it is not sufficient merely to commit these things to memory, like other matters; they must be practically tested. He is not happy who only knows them, but he who does them.

There is a significant difference between a sage and a fool.  But there are varying degrees of fools, especially those who are making progress (prokopton).  Seneca distinguishes with three classes.

Class One - people who have

laid aside all passions and vices, who have learned what things are to be embraced; but their assurance is not yet tested. ... having escaped the diseases of the mind, but not yet the passions.

He notes the difference between disease and passion.

Disease represents

hardened and chronic vices, such as greed and ambition; they have enfolded the mind in too close a grip, and have begun to be permanent evils thereof. ... a persistent perversion of the judgment, so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or ... too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all, or to value highly things which ought to be valued but slightly or valued not at all.

Passion, on the other hand, is 

objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement; [which] have come so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

Class Two - people who have 

laid aside both the greatest ills of the mind and its passions, but yet are not in assured possession of immunity.

Class Three - people who are

beyond the reach of many of the vices and particularly of the great vices, but not beyond the reach of all. They have escaped avarice, for example, but still feel anger; they no longer are troubled by lust, but are still troubled by ambition; they no longer have desire, but they still have fear. And just because they fear, although they are strong enough to withstand certain things, there are certain things to which they yield; they scorn death, but are in terror of pain.

The task is urgent and while I read Seneca's letter, I am forced to admit I agree with his assessment.  We make progress, but we have no great sense of urgency.

We hasten towards virtue while hampered by vices. I am ashamed to say it; but we worship that which is honourable only in so far as we have time to spare.  But what a rich reward awaits us if only we break off the affairs which forestall us and the evils that cling to us with utter tenacity!  Then neither desire nor fear shall rout us. Undisturbed by fears, unspoiled by pleasures, we shall be afraid neither of death nor of the gods; we shall know that death is no evil and that the gods are not powers of evil.

I try to infuse philosophy into all my life, but it does feel like I only address it as I "have time to spare."  I seem to approach it on an 'as-needed' basis.  I hear of 'bad' news about my performance assessment and I go into a mental tailspin.  Then I delve into Stoic text and try to rouse myself out of the tailspin.  It would seem it would be better if I never went into that tailspin to begin with!  But I can't expect to be a sage after only practicing for a mere few years.  I suspect this work will take another 40 to 50 years and even then, I won't accomplish the task before I die.

Will I ever reach Seneca's description of the ideal outcome?  I'll try.

There await us, if ever we escape from these low dregs to that sublime and lofty height, peace of mind and, when all error has been driven out, perfect liberty. You ask what this freedom is? It means not fearing either men or gods; it means not craving wickedness or excess; it means possessing supreme power over oneself And it is a priceless good to be master of oneself.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 74 - On Virtue as a Refuge from Worldly Distractions

On Virtue as a Refuge from Worldly Distractions

The good is free and obtainable for all.  It can be found within.  It is independent of external events.  It is we rational beings who choose to embrace it or deny it.  Seneca writes,

he who has in every case defined the good by the honourable, is happy with an inward happiness.

For those who choose not to embrace this wisdom, Seneca describes the mental state they will be in because of their perceptions of external events.

One man is saddened when his children die; another is anxious when they become ill; a third is embittered when they do something disgraceful, or suffer a taint in their reputation. One man, you will observe, is tortured by passion for his neighbour's wife, another by passion for his own. You will find men who are completely upset by failure to win an election, and others who are actually plagued by the offices which they have won.  But the largest throng of unhappy men among the host of mortals are those whom the expectation of death, which threatens them on every hand, drives to despair.

Review the states of emotion: sad, anxious, embittered, tortured, upset, plagued, unhappy, despair.

And why do they feel this way?  Because they place high value in things that are not up to them.  Their expectations are not level with reality.

If (and that is a big, important "if"), you don't place your values, happiness and calm in externals, then you may begin to live an excellent, virtuous life.  But as long as you couple your happiness with externals, your happiness or sadness will not be up to you and it will ebb and flow with Fate.

Whoever has largely surrendered himself to the power of Fortune has made for himself a huge web of disquietude, from which he cannot get free; if one would win a way to safety, there is but one road, – to despise externals and to be contented with that which is honourable.

Seneca sees a similarity in the practice of doles (i.e. welfare or free money or benefits which are distributed) and a person tying their emotions and happiness to Fate.  When the bread and coins are being tossed, the crowds will fight and trample each other to get doles.  If you don't wish to be caught up in a fight or trampled, it's best to leave the area before the doles are tossed!

The most sensible man, therefore, as soon as he sees the dole being brought in, runs from the theatre; for he knows that one pays a high price for small favours. No one will grapple with him on the way out, or strike him as he departs; the quarrelling takes place where the prizes are.  Similarly with the gifts which Fortune tosses down to us; wretches that we are, we become excited, we are torn asunder

You "pay a high price" in terms of your mental quietude and emotions when you associate your soul and character to externals.  You no longer are choosing what is up to you; the externals are choosing for you.  In a word, the price you pay is servitude.

The answer to this predicament?  To leave the doles and externals to the crowds.

Let us therefore withdraw from a game like this, and give way to the greedy rabble; let them gaze after such "goods," which hang suspended above them, and be themselves still more in suspense.

Furthermore, "all wishing [for externals or indifferents] on our part must cease."

Virtue and excellence of soul do not need indifferents.

virtue needs nothing.  Because it is pleased with what it has, and does not lust after that which it has not. Whatever is enough is abundant in the eyes of virtue.

He continues,

one who desires to exhibit [duty and loyalty] must endure much that the world calls evil; we must sacrifice many things to which we are addicted, thinking them to be goods.

He uses the word "addicted" and perhaps that is a strong word to use.  We can possess many of the things he is descrying, but we ought hold the proper perspective.  Indeed, many of these things could be "preferred indifferents."  But while we may prefer them, we must never forget that they are external to us.  We must hold in check our desires and keep them temperate.  If our desires rise to the level of addiction, then we stray into vice.  The Cynics, (who Stoics such as Epictetus looked up to), made a hard line with indifferents.  They would never agree with the idea of 'preferred indifferents.'  But the Stoics moderated a bit and acknowledged that some externals indeed enhance our living in agreement with Nature.  The nuance here is that one may still be a sage and live with excellence of character and be happy while stilling having preferred indifferents taken from him.  The Cynics set out to prove none of these preferred indifferents mattered (e.g. Diogenes the Cynic).

If we desire to live with the gods, then we should live like them - out of reach of indifferents.

God has no enjoyment of the things which are given to us.  For lust pertains not to God, nor do elegant banquets, nor wealth, nor any of the things that allure mankind and lead him on through the influence of degrading pleasure. 

Seneca notes the delineation of the body and the soul.  If we are to reach the Good, we must focus on the rational and not the physical.

Let us limit the Supreme Good to the soul; it loses its meaning if it is taken from the best part of us and applied to the worst, that is, if it is transferred to the senses; for the senses are more active in dumb beasts. The sum total of our happiness must not be placed in the flesh; the true goods are those which reason bestows, substantial and eternal.

Seneca makes the point clear about preferred indifferents.

Other things are goods according to opinion, and though they are called by the same name as the true goods, the essence of goodness is not in them. Let us therefore call them "advantages," and, to use our technical term, "preferred" things.  Let us, however, recognize that they are our chattels, not parts of ourselves; and let us have them in our possession, but take heed to remember that they are outside ourselves. Even though they are in our possession, they are to be reckoned as things subordinate and poor, the possession of which gives no man a right to plume himself. For what is more foolish than being self-complacent about something which one has not accomplished by one's own efforts?

What can we truly call our own?  Our own will, attitude and character.  All else, including preferred indifferents are to be considered subordinate.

Think of preferred indifferents as true externals and as not a part of us.  We should be ready to part with them and they should be so independent that there is nothing of them which could stick to us.

Let everything of this nature be added to us, and not stick fast to us, so that, if it is withdrawn, it may come away without tearing off any part of us. Let us use these things, but not boast of them, and let us use them sparingly.

Wealth and luxury should be handled with great caution, should a Stoic so choose to embrace them.  Seneca warns,

foresight must be brought into play, to insist upon a limit or upon frugality in the use of these things, since license overthrows and destroys its own abundance. That which has no limit has never endured, unless reason, which sets limits, has held it in check. The fate of many cities will prove the truth of this; their sway has ceased at the very prime because they were given to luxury, and excess has ruined all that had been won by virtue.

Ego, decadence and ease have been the downfall of many nations and cities.  In my lifetime alone, I've witnessed California and Michigan go from powerful, wealthy states in the Union, to impoverished and bordering on appearing like a third world country.  One sign of this fall is San Francisco's feces map.  As a kid growing up out west, San Francisco was the crown jewel of California.  Now that city is to be avoided like the plague.  The decadence and lack of discipline and virtue are the cause of these long, hard falls.

While it is relatively easy to swear off preferred indifferents such as wealth and leisure, what about family?  Seneca addresses this claim by setting the stage.

Men say to us:  "You are mistaken if you maintain that nothing is a good except that which is honourable; a defence like this will not make you safe from Fortune and free from her assaults. For you maintain that dutiful children, and a well-governed country, and good parents, are to be reckoned as goods; but you cannot see these dear objects in danger and be yourself at ease. Your calm will be disturbed by a siege conducted against your country, by the death of your children, or by the enslaving of your parents." (emphasis added).

Can you be a good Stoic if you are disturbed by a foreign invasion of your country, the death of your children and the imprisonment of your elderly parents?  What he describes here sounds an awful lot like what many people endured in World War 2.

This is where it can be quite difficult to practice and apply Stoicism.  Could I get to the point of being calm in the face of such Fate?  I suppose.  Would it entail me doing nothing about it?  No.  While I would be forced to accept the fate, part of my accepting it would include doing something to cure the injustice of tyranny.  If I lack calm and rationality because I'm in such a tizzy over these externals being taken from me, then I probably won't be in a good state of mind to do something about it.  But if I practice negative visualization (country invaded, death of children, imprisonment of elderly parents), perhaps I will be able to keep my emotions in check and plot a course of action that would right the wrong, if these events came to be.

Seneca's response may seem a bit cold-hearted, but the point remains valid.  Focus on what is up to you and arete remains unharmed.  You retain your equanimity.

What does it matter if running water is cut off and flows away, as long as the fountain from which it has flowed is unharmed? ... As long as your virtue is unharmed, you will not feel the loss of anything that has been withdrawn from you.

He compares virtue to a circle.  Whether it is large or small, it is still a circle.

Whether you draw a larger or a smaller circle, its size affects its area, not its shape.

It's the shape that matters, not so much the magnitude.

And as you retain your equanimity, you are prepared for action.

It is ever a dishonour for a man to be troubled and fretted, to be numbed when there is any call for activity. For that which is honourable is free from care and untrammelled, is unafraid, and stands girt for action.

The Brits summed up this mindset: Keep Calm and Carry On!

Is a Stoic emotionless?  No.

the sage will retain the firm belief that none of these things [emotions] is evil, or important enough to make a healthy mind break down.  Whatever shall remain to be done virtue can do with courage and readiness.

As for time - future and past - that is not up to us.  Therefore, why let it disturb you?

what is greater madness than to be tortured by the future and not to save your strength for the actual suffering, but to invite and bring on wretchedness? If you cannot be rid of it, you ought at least to postpone it.  Will you not understand that no man should be tormented by the future?  ... In the same way, souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records. Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 73 - On Philosophers and Kings

On Philosophers and Kings

It seems there is an accusation or belief that philosophers are "stubborn and rebellious, scorners of magistrates or kings or of those who control the administration of public affairs."  But Seneca contends it is the opposite; that philosophers ought to appreciate kings and public officials, who make the city and country a place where it is possible for philosophers to study and practice their theories.  He states,

those who are greatly profited, as regards their purpose of right living, by the security of the State, must needs cherish as a father the author of this good; much more so, at any rate, than those restless persons who are always in the public eye.

The assumption here, from what I understand, is that kings and public officials are not tyrants and have done an adequate job at securing some degree of peace and prosperity for most of their citizens.  Otherwise, I can't fathom how philosophers would or could extend gratitude to them if they were tyrants or dictators.

He does mention the ungrateful and covetous people, who perhaps are the types of people who eventually turn into tyrants.

there is no greater evil in covetousness than its ingratitude. ...  That is the trouble with every sort of ambition; it does not look back. Nor is it ambition alone that is fickle, but also every sort of craving, because it always begins where it ought to end.

But the good men in public life, who know the difficulties of governing, they more fully appreciate those who remain in public life and who continue to work to secure peace and prosperity for the people.

that other man, upright and pure, who has left the senate and the bar and all affairs of state, that he may retire to nobler affairs, cherishes those who have made it possible for him to do this in security ... the sage honours these men, also, under whose guardianship he can put his good theories into practice. ... the benefits of this peace, which extends to all, are more deeply appreciated by those who make good use of it.

Seneca seems to take a practical perspective and appreciates the work public officials do.  Just as the sun shines on all, as does the rain fall on all, what matters is our individual attitude.  We ought to acknowledge this fact and realize it is not our individual wishes which have made these things so.  Yet nonetheless, we can still show gratitude.

I owe a great debt to the sun and to the moon; and yet they do not rise for me alone. I am personally beholden to the seasons and to the god who controls them, although in no respect have they been apportioned for my benefit. ... But our philosopher considers nothing more truly his own than that which he shares in partnership with all mankind. ... the great and true goods are not divided in such a manner that each has but a slight interest; they belong in their entirety to each individual.

Seneca continues the letter with a reminder of focusing on what is up to us, which does not require division and sharing with others.

These goods, however, are indivisible, – I mean peace and liberty, – and they belong in their entirety to all men just as much as they belong to each individual.

And then he continues with his gratitude towards those who govern.

the philosopher thinks of the person who makes it possible for him to use and enjoy these things ... he gives thanks to the helmsman of his state. This is what philosophy teaches most of all, – honourably to avow the debt of benefits received, and honourably to pay them.

Next, Seneca briefly returns to the topic of virtue and excellence.  Virtue is independent of time.  Seneca uses the example of Zeus (Nature) as well as two wise men, one who lives briefly and one who lives longer, to make his point.

In what respect is Jupiter superior to our good man? His goodness lasts longer; but the wise man does not set a lower value upon himself, just because his virtues are limited by a briefer span. Or take two wise men; he who has died at a greater age is not happier than he whose virtue has been limited to fewer years: similarly, a god has no advantage over a wise man in point of happiness, even though he has such an advantage in point of years. That virtue is not greater which lasts longer.

The way to virtue is via knowledge and moral ethics.  Seneca quotes Sextius.

"This is 'the way to the stars'; this is the way, by observing thrift, self-restraint, and courage!"

Seneca closes the letter in a way that is similar to the parable of the ground and seeds, which Jesus taught.  It seems that both analogies focus on the good nature of the seed, but the different way that the seed is received is what matters if the seed grows or not.  In Jesus' parable, the soil represents our unique choice as to whether the seed takes root or not.  Similarly, in Seneca's analogy, the way the husbandman receives the seed determines if the roots (the good) take hold or not.

Here is the link to Jesus' parable and below is the passage from Seneca.

Divine seeds are scattered throughout our mortal bodies; if a good husbandman receives them, they spring up in the likeness of their source and of a parity with those from which they came. If, however, the husbandman be bad, like a barren or marshy soil, he kills the seeds, and causes tares to grow up instead of wheat.

To be more clear, from a Stoic perspective - each of us has divinity within ("divine seeds"), which is pneuma.  What we choose to do with that divinity is up to us.  We can either give in to vice or we can demonstrate excellence of character by exercising moral, ethical excellence, by rationally and actively choosing to live and act this way.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 72 - On Business as the Enemy of Philosophy

On Business as the Enemy of Philosophy

The hard work of setting a life course of action and living must never be delayed.  Not even the matters of the day and business ought to get in the way of pursuing the love of wisdom.

Seneca has taken time to learn and apply the lessons of philosophy, but every so often, he must review what he has learned so he has his principles at the ready - like a boxer whose hands are always ready to fight.

my mind needs to be unrolled, and whatever has been stored away there ought to be examined from time to time, so that it may be ready for use when occasion demands.

Even when our day is packed with things to do, we must make time to keep up the study and application of philosophy.  Don't procrastinate the important work of philosophy.

the study of philosophy is not to be postponed until you have leisure; everything else is to be neglected in order that we may attend to philosophy, for no amount of time is long enough for it ... We must resist the affairs which occupy our time; they must not be untangled, but rather put out of the way. Indeed, there is no time that is unsuitable for helpful studies; and yet many a man fails to study amid the very circumstances which make study necessary.

The task is urgent and we have to reach escape velocity to overcome the gravity of the daily business which tries to suck us back to the mundane.

We must resist the affairs which occupy our time; they must not be untangled, but rather put out of the way. Indeed, there is no time that is unsuitable for helpful studies; and yet many a man fails to study amid the very circumstances which make study necessary.

The very problems we may complain about, can be resolved by the study and application of philosophy.  Therefore, if we are to fix ourselves, we must not put off the work that will address the root causes of our ailments.  If you are saying, "I don't have time to study philosophy and apply it because I have too many other concerns and work to do," then you are falling for the trap and will be stuck in a loop called the rat race of life.  Like a hamster who runs and spins on a wheel endlessly and goes nowhere.

He then returns to the standard of the wise man and describes his equanimity and unassailable fortress.

the joy of a wise man, on the other hand, is a woven fabric, rent by no chance happening and by no change of fortune; at all times and in all places he is at peace. For his joy depends on nothing external and looks for no boon from man or fortune. His happiness is something within himself; it would depart from his soul if it entered in from the outside; it is born there.  Sometimes an external happening reminds him of his mortality, but it is a light blow, and merely grazes the surface of his skin.  Some trouble, I repeat, may touch him like a breath of wind, but that Supreme Good of his is unshaken.

The description above sounds similar to Marcus' description of his inner citadel.

The aim and object of philosophy is to heal one's mind.  He describes what a healthy mind looks like.

the mind is content with its own self; if it has confidence in itself; if it understands that all those things for which men pray, all the benefits which are bestowed and sought for, are of no importance in relation to a life of happiness; under such conditions it is sound. For anything that can be added to is imperfect; anything that can suffer loss is not lasting; but let the man whose happiness is to be lasting, rejoice in what is truly his own. 

And while the sage does not come along very often, similar to the regeneration of the phoenix, the rest of us can still strive and make some progress to wisdom.  We are 

those who toy with wisdom; they have not indeed touched it, but yet are in sight of it, and have it, so to speak, within striking distance. They are not dashed about, nor do they drift back either; they are not on dry land, but are already in port.

And until we reach sage hood or until our death, we

we should not give ourselves up to matters which occupy our time ... [we should] resist [these matters] in their early stages. It is better that they shall never begin than that they shall be made to cease.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 71 - On the Supreme Good

On the Supreme Good

Advice should be unique and as timely as possible.

For advice conforms to circumstances; and our circumstances are carried along, or rather whirled along. Accordingly, advice should be produced at short notice; and even this is too late; it should "grow while we work,"

A coach will take the same approach, by observing the student and see the gaps between the standard and what the student lacks.  If the coach can give the feedback in the moment, the student will learn better and more quickly.

A great many flounder in life (including me) because we have been programmed by our parents, friends, teachers, clergy leaders and others.  And these people, perhaps, have been floundering too, guessing as they go along.  Many of us have no choice but to learn as we live.  Better would be to figure out the Supreme Good first and then endeavor to achieve it.

As often as you wish to know what is to be avoided or what is to be sought, consider its relation to the Supreme Good, to the purpose of your whole life. For whatever we do ought to be in harmony with this; no man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose of his life.

Calvin was on to something when he quipped to his teacher! (source)

Seneca further states

The artist may have his colours all prepared, but he cannot produce a likeness unless he has already made up his mind what he wishes to paint.  The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole.

If we begin with the end in mind (live according to Nature), our mistakes may be fewer, en route to our art of living well.

He references the example of the archer and the sailor.

The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill. Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

And what is the Supreme Good?

the Supreme Good is that which is honourable.  Besides (and you may be still more surprised at this), that which is honourable is the only good; all other goods are alloyed and debased.  If you once convince yourself of this, and if you come to love virtue devotedly.

He continues a little later in the letter:

there is nothing good except that which is honourable, and all hardships will have a just title to the name of "goods," when once virtue has made them honourable.  Many think that we Stoics are holding out expectations greater than our human lot admits of; and they have a right to think so. For they have regard to the body only. But let them turn back to the soul, and they will soon measure man by the standard of God.

The sole good is our virtuous, excellent, rational, character, which should be noble, wise, honorable, courageous, just and temperate regardless of fate, fortune or circumstances.

He quotes Socrates, who say, "if only virtue dwells with you, you will suffer nothing."

For my part, I love the word: equanimity.  It evokes the idea of not ever being disturbed nor overjoyed by events.  It brings to mind the idea of rationally choosing the wise response and attitude to any given circumstance or event.  It's choosing the wise response to a cancer diagnosis or a promotion.  You neither succumb to despair nor are overcome with joy, respectively.

Seneca writes:

it is by the same virtue that evil fortune is overcome and good fortune is controlled. Virtue, however, cannot be increased or decreased; its stature is uniform.

After providing examples from Cato's life, he notes,

Cato will bear with an equally stout heart anything that thwarts him of his victory, as he bore that which thwarted him of his praetorship. The day whereon he failed of election, he spent in play; the night wherein he intended to die, he spent in reading.  He regarded in the same light both the loss of his praetorship and the loss of his life; he had convinced himself that he ought to endure anything which might happen. 

And despite seeing his beloved Republic fall to a tyrant, he wisely considered that the stars and the earth too will fall someday.  Change is constant, as Seneca observes.

For what is free from the risk of change? Neither earth, nor sky, nor the whole fabric of our universe, though it be controlled by the hand of God. It will not always preserve its present order; it will be thrown from its course in days to come.  All things move in accord with their appointed times; they are destined to be born, to grow, and to be destroyed. The stars which you see moving above us, and this seemingly immovable earth to which we cling and on which we are set, will be consumed and will cease to exist. There is nothing that does not have its old age; the intervals are merely unequal at which Nature sends forth all these things towards the same goal.

He quotes Cato again, calling him wise.

"The whole race of man, both that which is and that which is to be, is condemned to die. Of all the cities that at any time have held sway over the world, and of all that have been the splendid ornaments of empires not their own, men shall some day ask where they were, and they shall be swept away by destructions of various kinds; some shall be ruined by wars, others shall be wasted away by inactivity and by the kind of peace which ends in sloth, or by that vice which is fraught with destruction even for mighty dynasties, – luxury. All these fertile plains shall be buried out of sight by a sudden overflowing of the sea, or a slipping of the soil, as it settles to lower levels, shall draw them suddenly into a yawning chasm. Why then should I be angry or feel sorrow, if I precede the general destruction by a tiny interval of time?"

Returning to describing the Supreme Good, he further describes it.

Just as truth does not grow, so neither does virtue grow ... virtue [is] high-spirited and exalted ... Wisdom will bring the conviction that there is but one good – that which is honourable; that this can neither be shortened nor extended, any more than a carpenter's rule, with which straight lines are tested, can be bent. Any change in the rule means spoiling the straight line.  Applying, therefore, this same figure to virtue, we shall say: Virtue also is straight, and admits of no bending.

Therefore, virtue can be applied to any circumstance and you will see if a man measures up to it or fails.  And because so few demonstrate arete, we can be sure to "reserve [our] wonderment for cases where a man is lifted up when all others sink, and keeps his footing when all others are prostrate."

The Stoic sage is one learns and lives according to knowledge and right reason all the time.  The sage truly lives according to Nature.  The Stoic sage

stands erect under any load. Nothing can subdue him; nothing that must be endured annoys him. For he does not complain that he has been struck by that which can strike any man. ... [he is a person] whose virtue is complete, loves himself most of all when his bravery has been submitted to the severest test, and when he not only, endures but welcomes that which all other men regard with fear, if it is the price which he must pay for the performance of a duty which honour imposes, and he greatly prefers to have men say of him: "how much more noble!" rather than "how much more lucky!"

While many of us are mere prokoptons striving to improve, we should do well to remember that we will not attain sage hood in one leap, if ever.  It takes multiple attempts at learning and practicing to approach Stoic sage hood.

Just as wool takes up certain colours at once, while there are others which it will not absorb unless it is soaked and steeped in them many times; so other systems of doctrine can be immediately applied by men's minds after once being accepted, but this system of which I speak, unless it has gone deep and has sunk in for a long time, and has not merely coloured but thoroughly permeated the soul, does not fulfil any of its promises. 

Improvement may come, but so too will setbacks.  The key is to not give up - to continue to strive.

That which is short of perfection must necessarily be unsteady, at one time progressing, at another slipping or growing faint; and it will surely slip back unless it keeps struggling ahead; for if a man slackens at all in zeal and faithful application, he must retrograde. No one can resume his progress at the point where he left off.  Therefore let us press on and persevere. There remains much more of the road than we have put behind us; but the greater part of progress is the desire to progress.

We must strive to be in control of our absolute freedom and therefore our own time.  We cannot delay in letting others decide our attitude and character.  Only then, will we be able to fully use our time allotted to us by Nature.

Let us see to it that all time belongs to us. This, however, cannot be unless first of all our own selves begin to belong to us.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 70 - On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable

On the Proper Time to Slip the Cable

This post deals with and discusses suicide.

If you are in a good spot mentally speaking, then feel free read this post with all the candidness that philosophy has to offer.

But if you have suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide, please ask for professional help.  Below are phone numbers for immediate help, if you are based in the United States of America.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (for the transgender community)

TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (for LGBTQ youth)

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

If you are not based in the USA, please search on the internet for sources of help in your country, before reading this post.


I've contemplated taking my life.  In 2014, I was perhaps at the closest point to seriously taking it.  But as I considered the impact on my children and wife, I decided I needed help and therefore, I sought a therapist who helped me see a clearer path.  Things and life were not as dark as I was making them out to be in my mind.  I didn't have any problems that were worth dying to avoid.

Around that same time, perhaps in 2013 or 2014, I began to drink coffee and found it to be a wonderful antidote to contemplating suicide so often.  Later, I learned of a quote that has been attributed to Albert Camus which goes: "Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?"  My new found love of coffee coupled with that quote resonated with me.  It's an absurd way to reframe life's challenges and problems to the point that if I ever went to that dark place, I could ask myself that question and almost all the time, I would prefer to simply go have a cup of coffee.  It became my internal rallying cry in the years 2015-2017.

I continued to see a therapist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for about 4 months in 2014, after which I learned of the connection between CBT and Stoicism and the rest is history.  I hardly ever contemplate suicide these days, but I do contemplate my own death.  For the Stoics, death (suicide) was always open.  Seneca gets into it a bit here in the 70th letter from a Stoic.

Just a bit more commentary about suicide before delving into the letter.  I was listening to a Victor Davis Hanson podcast last week and he discussed this ancient concept of luxury and decadence (link to podcast, go to minute 45:01) and it got me thinking about how we, in this modern era and particularly in the west, have become decadent.  And, I think several years back, I was prone to consider that life was bad, when in actuality, it really wasn't that bad!  In a sense, I had become decadent.  Temporally speaking, our society has had it quite easy - air conditioning, cars, indoor plumbing, heated water at the turn of the tap, massive amounts of data and information in our pocket at all times and ample time to sit in leisure and comfort.  Just today, the jobs report for the United States came out, and one news story noted:

However, that drop in the jobless rate also came alongside an unexpected drop in the labor force participation rate to 61.6% from the 61.7% in May, suggesting a smaller share of Americans out of work returned to the labor force to look for or take new jobs.

This indicates that anxiety to work and provide for families and people is less urgent.  Stated differently, people don't feel the need to work, perhaps because of unemployment benefits and the greater application of Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Again - what is my point?  To show that to live and survive is not that difficult compared to many people living in 3rd world countries today as well as compared to people who lived decades and centuries ago.  For me personally, it shows my excuses and complaints were and are small and I really didn't and don't have such a great grievance to justify contemplating taking my life.  This theme will emerge a bit in Seneca's letter.

He begins the letter by comparing life with a voyage.  Some reach the destination slowly; others quickly.

if a man has reached this harbour in his early years, he has no more right to complain than a sailor who has made a quick voyage. For some sailors, as you know, are tricked and held back by sluggish winds, and grow weary and sick of the slow-moving calm; while others are carried quickly home by steady gales.  You may consider that the same thing happens to us: life has carried some men with the greatest rapidity to the harbour, the harbour they were bound to reach even if they tarried on the way, while others it has fretted and harassed.

He then gets into the quality of life, which is what wisdom seeks.  It's not so much about quantity or length.

mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.  He will mark in what place, with whom, and how he is to conduct his existence, and what he is about to do. He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free.

If you lead a rational life, you will contemplate this idea: that a life worth living, is also worth living well.  And once you've determined it's worth living, then your task is to live it well and even to end it well.  I've heard a similar sentiment about one's career.  Several people and managers at work say that as long as their job is interesting, they show up to work.  They realize that some days are just horrible, long and disastrous.  But they know that not all days are like that.  They also think about where they ought to draw the line of continuing to show up at work or to resign or retire.  One manager said that as long as he has 3 good days, he can accept a couple of bad days a week.  But as soon as it becomes 3 and then 4 bad days, he'll know when to call it quits.  It seems that Seneca is saying something similar with regard to living.

Seneca even offers an example of living ill (the opposite of living well).

This person was thrown into a cage by his tyrant, and fed there like some wild animal. And when a certain man advised him to end his life by fasting, he replied: "A man may hope for anything while he has life."  This may be true; but life is not to be purchased at any price. No matter how great or how well-assured certain rewards may be I shall not strive to attain them at the price of a shameful confession of weakness.

In other words, just because you can live doesn't not mean you ought to.  Living well is the goal of a philosopher and a good human.

Socrates continued to live well (rather than take his own life) and to prove a point (teach) his friends and the Athenians.

Socrates might have ended his life by fasting; he might have died by starvation rather than by poison. But instead of this he spent thirty days in prison awaiting death, not with the idea "everything may happen," or "so long an interval has room for many a hope" but in order that he might show himself submissive to the laws and make the last moments of Socrates an edification to his friends.

In living and in choosing death, we should do both rationally.

Do not be mindless about living or dying.  But have a purpose.  Seneca writes:

Every man ought to make his life acceptable to others besides himself, but his death to himself alone. The best form of death is the one we like.  Men are foolish who reflect thus: "One person will say that my conduct was not brave enough; another, that I was too headstrong; a third, that a particular kind of death would have betokened more spirit." What you should really reflect is: "I have under consideration a purpose with which the talk of men has no concern!"

A rational being will seek and know his purpose, though it is not an easy task.  A wise person, therefore, will not simply default into the thinking of: "I'll let Nature decide when I die."  Rather, the wise person will know why he lives and when he should die.  If he complains about living, then perhaps he does not know his reason for living.  But Nature has given every one of us the choice to die or keep on living.  Seneca echoes the idea often written by Marcus Aurelius.

This is the one reason why we cannot complain of life: it keeps no one against his will. Humanity is well situated, because no man is unhappy except by his own fault. Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place whence you came.

If you desire to hold on to life as long as possible, then pivot your thinking that your body is similar to a home: you can't live there forever.

Live in it as if you were about to leave it. Keep thinking of the fact that some day you will be deprived of this tenure; then you will be more brave against the necessity of departing.

While fortune may not test us on other matters and therefore we must practice them on our own (poverty, hardships, etc), there is one thing we must prepare for yet can't practice: our death.  Therefore, we ought to contemplate death often.

Seneca next goes into various examples of people who were put in horrible circumstances, and were prevented from killing themselves at every turn.  Yet, they sill managed!  Seneca cites these examples to prove that the door to leave life is, indeed, open to all.  He cites gladiators who shoved a wood stick tipped with a sponge down their throats, and who broke their necks with the spokes of a cart wheel while it was moving and one who used a spear to kill himself, by shoving it down his throat.  Again, the point of which is to prove that death is open to us all and that "the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery."

And, if death is open to the lowest of people (gladiators), then why should it not be available to rational people as well.

If such a spirit is possessed by abandoned and dangerous men, shall it not be possessed also by those who have trained themselves to meet such contingencies by long meditation, and by reason, the mistress of all things? It is reason which teaches us that fate has various ways of approach, but the same end, and that it makes no difference at what point the inevitable event begins.  Reason, too, advises us to die, if we may, according to our taste; if this cannot be, she advises us to die according to our ability, and to seize upon whatever means shall offer itself for doing violence to ourselves.

 In sum, the takeaways are:

- seek help if you are suicidal

- stay alive to find your purpose

- live with a purpose

- live rationally

- contemplate death - it is all our fates

- as far as you can, rationally choose your death