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.

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