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."

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