Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 109 - On the Fellowship of Wise Men

On the Fellowship of Wise Men

The question at hand and the topic of the letter is: can a wise man help another wise man.  In Seneca's view, the answer is 'yes' for these reasons:

Each needs someone with whom he may make comparisons and investigations.


The wise man also needs to have his virtues kept in action; and as he prompts himself to do things, so is he prompted by another wise man.


He can quicken his impulses, and point out to him opportunities for honourable action. Besides, he can develop some of his own ideas; he can impart what he has discovered. For even in the case of the wise man something will always remain to discover, something towards which his mind may make new ventures.


will bring joy to the other, he will strengthen his faith, and from the contemplation of their mutual tranquillity the delight of both will be increased. Moreover, they will communicate to each other a knowledge of certain facts; for the wise man is not all-knowing.


the wise man cannot maintain his mental standard without intercourse with friends of his own kind – with whom he may share his goodness. 10. Moreover, there is a sort of mutual friendship among all the virtues.


in order to prompt perfect reason, there is need of perfect reason.


the wise man can also be useful by discussing honourable things in common, and by contributing his thoughts and ideas.  Moreover, it is in accordance with Nature to show affection for our friends, and to rejoice in their advancement.


Now virtue advises us to arrange the present well, to take thought regarding the future, to deliberate and apply our minds; and one who takes a friend into council with him, can more easily apply his mind and think out his problem.

Seneca closes the letter by musing that this sort of discussion (can the wise help the wise), is all simply "mental gymanstics."  Seneca wants to discuss how to go about acting more like a wise person.

What good does this do me? Make me more brave now, more just, more restrained! I have not yet the opportunity to make use of my training ...  teach me now what it is necessary for me to know!

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 108 - On the Approaches to Philosophy

On the Approaches to Philosophy

The big idea of this letter is that we ought to learn philosophy to apply it, not to simply learn it.  While we may be eager to learn at the onset, we ought to ensure that not only do we learn, but we constantly practice and apply.

this eagerness to learn, with which I see you are aflame, should be regulated, so that it may not get in its own way.  Things are not to be gathered at random; nor should they be greedily attacked

And a sound, stable mind is required as you enter this journey.

Only be of a sound mind, and then you will be able to hold all that you wish.

A teacher of philosophy should both demonstrate and teach; and ensure the students do likewise.

The same purpose should possess both master and scholar – an ambition in the one case to promote, and in the other to progress.

Seneca warns that some students will not make progress.  Their determination and motivation is not whole and they only seek to learn in leisure.  He calls these people "squatters."

This class, as you will see, constitutes a large part of the listeners, who regard the philosopher's lecture-room merely as a sort of lounging-place for their leisure. They do not set about to lay aside any faults there, or to receive a rule of life, by which they may test their characters.

The genuine student, however, takes these matters seriously.

But the true hearer is ravished and stirred by the beauty of the subject matter, not by the jingle of empty words. When a bold word has been uttered in defiance of death, or a saucy fling in defiance of Fortune, we take delight in acting straightway upon that which we have heard.

In the quote above, there is another insight.  Note the different types of externals to which Seneca refers.  Much of what Seneca writes about falls under the category of dis-preferred externals (e.g. death, ignominy, illness, poverty, exile, etc.).  But there is another type of external, those which are preferred.  How often do we contemplate these happening to us and we prepare for them accordingly.  These would be wealth, fame, strong health and success.  We should not let our equanimity be disturbed by these either.  We should not get heady or prideful or fall for the trap that these things are 'up to us.'  We should be prepared to meet these just as much as we should prepare to meet with the dis-preferred.  In other words, we should not be distracted by Fortune; rather we should throw "a saucy fling in defiance" at such good luck.

Rare is the student who is successful.

only a few can carry home the mental attitude with which they were inspired.

But we have it in us - we have the ability and capacity to grow philosophically.  We just need to be taught or 'stimulated' to grow.

Nature has laid the foundations and planted the seeds of virtue in us all. And we are all born to these general privileges; hence, when the stimulus is added, the good spirit is stirred as if it were freed from bonds.

One of the abilities of a good philosopher is having the ability to craft words to have great effect.  Good teachers can do this for others as well as himself.  A prokopton also learns and practices this form of self-instruction in the form of hypomnemata.  This is precisely what Marcus Aurelius was doing when he wrote the Meditations.

when such things are uttered by a philosopher, when he introduces verses among his wholesome precepts, that he may thus make those verses sink more effectively into the mind of the neophyte!

Of course, the prokopton needs initiation before he can practice.  Therefore, much learning, reading and writing needs to come first, before the short and pithy precepts can have effect.  Seneca writes,

We talk much about despising money, and we give advice on this subject in the lengthiest of speeches, that mankind may believe true riches to exist in the mind and not in one's bank account, and that the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man; but our minds are struck more effectively when a verse like this is repeated:

He needs but little who desires but little.


He hath his wish, whose wish includeth naught; Save that which is enough.

And one sharp remark is not enough.  We have to keep peppering away to "lay on still harder!"

When you see them thus disposed, strike home, keep at them, and charge them with this duty, dropping all double meanings, syllogisms, hair-splitting, and the other side-shows of ineffective smartness. Preach against greed, preach against high living; and when you notice that you have made progress and impressed the minds of your hearers, lay on still harder.

Seneca then talks a bit about his teacher - Attalus - and how he taught and what things stuck with Seneca.

when he began to uphold poverty, and to show what a useless and dangerous burden was everything that passed the measure of our need, I often desired to leave his lecture-room a poor man. Whenever he castigated our pleasure-seeking lives, and extolled personal purity, moderation in diet, and a mind free from unnecessary, not to speak of unlawful, pleasures, the desire came upon me to limit my food and drink.

He lists the ways he has resolved to keep certain practices.

later, when I returned to the duties of a citizen, I did indeed keep a few of these good resolutions. That is why I have forsaken oysters and mushrooms for ever: since they are not really food, but are relishes to bully the sated stomach into further eating, as is the fancy of gourmands and those who stuff themselves beyond their powers of digestion: down with it quickly, and up with it quickly!  That is why I have also throughout my life avoided perfumes; because the best scent for the person is no scent at all.  That is why my stomach is unacquainted with wine. That is why throughout my life I have shunned the bath, and have believed that to emaciate the body and sweat it into thinness is at once unprofitable and effeminate. Other resolutions have been broken, but after all in such a way that, in cases where I ceased to practice abstinence, I have observed a limit which is indeed next door to abstinence; perhaps it is even a little more difficult, because it is easier for the will to cut off certain things utterly than to use them with restraint.

Later he writes about the habit of abstaining from meat, which Pythagoras and Sextius admonished for different reasons.  After explaining these things, Seneca states how he too has come to live this way.

He also notes his habit of sleeping with a hard pillow.

Next Seneca talks about how "time flies" and that we are in a race with it.  We ought to use our youth to learn, while we are still "pliable."

in every case our best days are the first to be snatched away; why, then, do we hesitate to bestir ourselves so that we may be able to keep pace with this swiftest of all swift things?


we can bend to nobler purposes minds that are ready and still pliable; because this is the time for work, the time for keeping our minds busied in study and in exercising our bodies with useful effort; for that which remains is more sluggish and lacking in spirit – nearer the end.  Let us therefore strive with all courage, omitting attractions by the way; let us struggle with a single purpose


Let every day, as soon as it comes, be welcome as being the choicest, and let it be made our own possession.

He closes the letter with the thought that philosophy can lead to a happy life.  As we learn it, we must apply it in order to achieve that happiness.

all study of philosophy and all reading should be applied to the idea of living the happy life


we should seek precepts which will help us, utterances of courage and spirit which may at once be turned into facts. We should so learn them that words may become deeds.  And I hold that no man has treated mankind worse than he who has studied philosophy as if it were some marketable trade, who lives in a different manner from that which he advises.


 A teacher like that can help me no more than a sea-sick pilot can be efficient in a storm. He must hold the tiller when the waves are tossing him; he must wrestle, as it were, with the sea; he must furl his sails when the storm rages; what good is a frightened and vomiting steersman to me?


One must steer, not talk.


I shall show you how men can prove their words to be their own: it is by doing what they have been talking about. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 107 - On Obedience to the Universal Will

On Obedience to the Universal Will

The big ideas:

  • amor fati
  • your fate (what actually happens to you) is the material from which you demonstrate excellence of human character or virtue or arete
  • if you did not have an opportunity to demonstrate excellence, then how could you practice and improve at being an excellent human being?  what is a painter without a canvas?  what is a sculptor without the clay?
  • get on with it!  prepare for events and be ready for them
  • premeditatio malorum is how you prepare for your fate
This letter is a reality check and a tune-up for your practice of premeditatio malorum.  All of these cases involve externals; they are indifferents which come from the cosmos, events and other people.  Thinking and anticipating them helps you to not be caught off-guard when they happen.  You will be more accepting of the events as they happen, which frees you from the burden of anxiety, fear, complaining, overjoy, ecstasy, and pride.  And instead of spending time being consumed by these emotions, you can wisely reflect on a virtuous course of action: how you will respond to your fate.

Most of Letter 107 will focus on the dis-preferred indifferents; things which we generally wish to avoid.  But, there is a whole other side of externals which we rarely prepare for: preferred indifferents.  How often do we put our equanimity at risk when a preferred indifferent comes into our life?  It's something to think about.

Here is a list of all the dis-preferred indifferents Seneca notes in this letter:

  • slaves run away (perhaps a modern example would be employees or people for hire don't show up to do a job, and leave you in the lurch)
  • friends lie and deceive you
  • being robbed, blackmailed, betrayed, attacked, poisoned, slandered
  • cold winters, hot summers or unseasonable weather
  • dealing with wild beasts
  • floods and fires, damaging winds
  • death
And here are some stand-out quotes from this letter:

It is as nonsensical to be put out by such events as to complain of being spattered in the street or at getting befouled in the mud. The programme of life is the same as that of a bathing establishment, a crowd, or a journey: sometimes things will be thrown at you, and sometimes they will strike you by accident. Life is not a dainty business.


you will despise them, if you often take thought and anticipate the future. 4. Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practised how to meet them.


We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.


no matter what trouble you mention, it has happened to many.


We should not manifest surprise at any sort of condition into which we are born, and which should be lamented by no one, simply because it is equally ordained for all.


Be sure to prescribe for your mind this sense of equity; we should pay without complaint the tax of our mortality.


And we cannot change this order of things; but what we can do is to acquire stout hearts, worthy of good men, thereby courageously enduring chance and placing ourselves in harmony with Nature.


Eternity consists of opposites.  It is to this law that our souls must adjust themselves, this they should follow, this they should obey. Whatever happens, assume that it was bound to happen, and do not be willing to rail at Nature. That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure, and to attend uncomplainingly upon the God under whose guidance everything progresses


we should welcome our orders with energy and vigour, nor should we cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven.


let Fate find us ready and alert. Here is your great soul – the man who has given himself over to Fate

Friday, September 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 106 - On the Corporeality of Virtue

On the Corporeality of Virtue

This is an 'academic' type letter in which Seneca outlines the argument that virtue is a body or corporeal.  There is nothing new or significant, in my opinion, about this letter.  For those interested (who are reading this letter), I would direct you to a couple of links.

See my summary of John Sellars chapter on Stoic Physics.  It discusses this at a good level as to what the argument was and why the Stoics took the position they did.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the entry on Stoic Physics is good too.

One other thing I will note from this letter - his introduction.  He writes,

My tardiness in answering your letter was not due to press of business. Do not listen to that sort of excuse; I am at liberty, and so is anyone else who wishes to be at liberty. No man is at the mercy of affairs. He gets entangled in them of his own accord, and then flatters himself that being busy is a proof of happiness.

This is an important observation he makes.  How often do we make excuses for things; and blame the excuse on something beyond our control, when in fact, it was up to us?  Indeed, blame 'busyness' for why you did not do something, but you were still 'at liberty' to stop the busyness and do whatever might be more important.

It may seem like a minor quibble, but it's worth a self-reflection.  Our choices make us who we are.  The tangled web of events are complicated, but be sure to not entangle what is 'up to you' in things that are 'not up to you.'  Take responsibility for what is 'up to you' and be precise when casting blame to a certain cause.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 105 - On Facing the World with Confidence

On Facing the World with Confidence

Seneca begins the letter with,

I shall now tell you certain things to which you should pay attention in order to live more safely.

That word 'safely' is interesting.  If a Stoic is concerned about safety (physical and rational), I would balk at that.  Safety is a bit of an external or indifferent.  But then, I observe the title of the letter and perhaps Seneca means 'safely' in terms of living confidently - being secure in one's own philosophy; at least that is how I'm reading this.

Next he takes on the root causes of humanities problems; what motivates people to seek the destruction of others?

Reflect on the things which goad man into destroying man: you will find that they are hope, envy, hatred, fear, and contempt.

Hope and envy, somewhat, go hand in hand.  Because one person lacks something (AND they think that they need it), envy stirs within them and they hope to get what others have.

How do you safely avoid these people?

you can avoid the envious hopes of the wicked so long as you have nothing which can stir the evil desires of others, and so long as you possess nothing remarkable. For people crave even little things, if these catch the attention or are of rare occurrence.

Seneca says one way to prevent envy is to simply not possess things which may cause it.  This sounds like a resounding endorsement for minimalism.

Another way to avoid the envy of others is to simply keep quiet about your status and possessions.

You will escape envy if you do not force yourself upon the public view, if you do not boast your possessions, if you understand how to enjoy things privately.

As for avoiding the hatred of others, he writes,

Hatred comes either from running foul of others: and this can be avoided by never provoking anyone; or else it is uncalled for: and common-sense will keep you safe from it. Yet it has been dangerous to many; some people have been hated without having had an enemy.

Either never provoke someone, or perhaps choose a path of de-escalation.

You can prevent others' fears of you by being of

a moderate fortune and an easy disposition.

And then there is the matter of avoiding others' contempt for you.  The best thing to do is to keep still and talk little of yourself with others.

Nothing, however, will help you so much as keeping still – talking very little with others, and as much as may be with yourself.

You could apply all these little tactics to be able to live safely and confidently.  Alternatively, you could do one thing: do no wrong.

The most important contribution to peace of mind is never to do wrong. Those who lack self-control lead disturbed and tumultuous lives. ... A wrongdoer sometimes has the luck to escape notice but never the assurance thereof.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 104 - On Care of Health and Peace of Mind

On Care of Health and Peace of Mind

Seneca travels to cure his ailing body.  This gives him an opportunity to reflect on people who travel yet remain discontent.

Regarding old age and the preservation of life, he writes,

the good man should not live as long as it pleases him, but as long as he ought. ... It gives proof of a great heart to return to life for the sake of others ... the greatest advantage of old age is the opportunity to be more negligent regarding self-preservation and to use life more adventurously.

Regarding travel,

Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: "It serves you right! You travelled in your own company!"

Living philosophically allows you to enjoy your travels.  If you are not content with yourself, it does not matter where you are.  Philosophy teaches you to have the good personality.

If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place but another personality.

If you would be content, enjoy what is in the present.  But do not cling.

Regard everything that pleases you as if it were a flourishing plant; make the most of it while it is in leaf, for different plants at different seasons must fall and die.

The act of travelling or going on vacation does not solve root cause issues.

Travelling cannot give us judgment, or shake off our errors; it merely holds our attention for a moment by a certain novelty, as children pause to wonder at something unfamiliar.

The time spent learning and applying philosophy will go a long way to relieve you of your discontent.

We ought rather to spend our time in study, and to cultivate those who are masters of wisdom, learning something which has been investigated, but not settled. ...  as long as you are ignorant of what you should avoid or seek, or of what is necessary or superfluous, or of what is right or wrong, you will not be travelling, but merely wandering. 

Wherever you go, your ailments will follow unless you apply remedies to them.

That from which you are running, is within you. Accordingly, reform your own self, get the burden off your own shoulders, and keep within safe limits the cravings which ought to be removed.  ...  If you would be stripped of your faults leave far behind you the patterns of the faults.

Nature would have us live according to Nature.  Therefore, she has blessed us with the necessary tools to pursue this goal.  It is a lofty goal; one with which many disagree - aligning your will with 'the soul of the universe' - but not the Stoics.

Nature has brought us forth brave of spirit, and, as she has implanted in certain animals a spirit of ferocity, in others craft, in others terror, so she has gifted us with an aspiring and lofty spirit, which prompts us to seek a life of the greatest honour, and not of the greatest security, that most resembles the soul of the universe.

Reflect on the causes of your fears and anxieties.  Reflect that it is your judgement that is the cause.  These things which you think you fear, are not really frightening.

Shapes dread to look upon, of toil or death are not in the least dreadful, if one is able to look upon them with unflinching gaze, and is able to pierce the shadows.

History has given us sages to look towards as examples of equanimity.  Whatever happened to them, they remained unperturbed.

Take the time to read Seneca's reflection on Socrates.  This is what we are to aim for by living philosophically.  I've italicized that parts which stand out to me, as I read this passage.

a long-suffering old man, who was sea-tossed amid every hardship and yet was unconquered both by poverty (which his troubles at home made more burdensome) and by toil, including the drudgery of military service. He was much tried at home, whether we think of his wife, a woman of rough manners and shrewish tongue, or of the children whose intractability showed them to be more like their mother than their father.  And if you consider the facts, he lived either in time of war, or under tyrants, or under a democracy, which is more cruel than wars and tyrants. The war lasted for twenty-seven years; then the state became the victim of the Thirty Tyrants, of whom many were his personal enemies. At the last came that climax of condemnation under the gravest of charges: they accused him of disturbing the state religion and corrupting the youth, for they declared that he had influenced the youth to defy the gods, to defy the council, and to defy the state in general. Next came the prison, and the cup of poison. But all these measures changed the soul of Socrates so little that they did not even change his features. What wonderful and rare distinction! He maintained this attitude up to the very end, and no man ever saw Socrates too much elated or too much depressed. Amid all the disturbance of Fortune, he was undisturbed.

Seneca then reflects on Cato.

His whole life was passed either in civil warfare, or under a political regime which was soon to breed civil war. ... No one ever saw Cato change, no matter how often the state changed: he kept himself the same in all circumstances – in the praetorship, in defeat, under accusation, in his province, on the platform, in the army, in death.


And this is the vote which he casts concerning them both: "If Caesar wins, I slay myself; if Pompey, I go into exile." What was there for a man to fear who, whether in defeat or in victory, had assigned to himself a doom which might have been assigned to him by his enemies in their utmost rage? So he died by his own decision.  You see that man can endure toil: Cato, on foot, led an army through African deserts. You see that thirst can be endured: he marched over sun-baked hills, dragging the remains of a beaten army and with no train of supplies, undergoing lack of water and wearing a heavy suit of armour; always the last to drink of the few springs which they chanced to find. You see that honour, and dishonour too, can be despised: for they report that on the very day when Cato was defeated at the elections, he played a game of ball. You see also that man can be free from fear of those above him in rank: for Cato attacked Caesar and Pompey simultaneously, at a time when none dared fall foul of the one without endeavouring to oblige the other. You see that death can be scorned as well as exile: Cato inflicted exile upon himself and finally death, and war all the while.

What are we to do?  Reject pleasures, and spurn wealth.  "If you set a high value on liberty, you must set a low value on everything else."

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 103 - On the Dangers of Association with our Fellow-Men

On the Dangers of Association with our Fellow-Men

Seneca warns of dangers - not of accidents, but of other people.

Of accidents, he says to "shun those troubles."

But of those which come from other people, he says, "it is from his fellow-man that a man's everyday danger comes. Equip yourself against that; watch that with an attentive eye."

While storms may forewarn us of dangers to come, "damage from man is instantaneous."

What is this damage from other people he speaks of?  The footnote on the wiki page of this letter points to Letter 7, which addresses the dangers of mixing with crowds or what is popular.  I would be more precise and call this "desire infection."  Simply observe what is popular with teens and kids and even adults, and observe how they succumb to social media and marketing, then you will understand "desire infection."

Just this past week, we learned Facebook and Instagram have been well aware of the negative impacts on teenagers their platforms are.  As we discussed this with our teenage daughter, she fully comprehends and observes how this game works.  Social media influencers will make it appear that they achieved their looks by doing a certain workout, when in fact, often we do not see the hard work (or money or plastic surgery) they put in to gain a certain look.  Teenagers see this and try what the social media influencer is suggesting, but when the teen inevitable fails, she loses self-esteem and has a poorer self-image.

Joshua Becker ( has long documented ways for adults to break the cycle suggestion, marketing, advertising, purchasing, cluttering, and then minimalization.  The best way to break this cycle is to never give into the suggestions to begin with!

Seneca could have easily been speaking to the tech giants of social media as well as marketing, when he said,

You are wrong to trust the countenances of those you meet. They have the aspect of men, but the souls of brutes.

As you think on the dangers we may face at the hands of these people, we ought to reflect on our own duty: "Try, in your dealings with others, to harm not, in order that you be not harmed."

Furthermore, we should be human; and kind to others.

You should rejoice with all in their joys and sympathize with them in their troubles, remembering what you should offer and what you should withhold.

Lastly, study philosophy and live it!  Let philosophy make you better, but never use it to shame others!

this very philosophy must never be vaunted by you; for philosophy when employed with insolence and arrogance has been perilous to many. Let her strip off your faults, rather than assist you to decry the faults of others. Let her not hold aloof from the customs of mankind, nor make it her business to condemn whatever she herself does not do. A man may be wise without parade and without arousing enmity.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 102 - On the Intimations of Our Immortality

On the Intimations of Our Immortality

Many fear dying as well as dying as a 'nobody.'  Therefore, to alleviate this fear, they will either pursue fame or becoming a legend, or they may seek a path to immortality, or, perhaps they don't see how these two paths are possible, if so, then they pivot to telling themselves a story that they will resurrect and become immortal in heaven.  Even Seneca seems to take this final path as we will read in the letter.

Seneca addresses the above human problems.

The first half of the letter gets into the minutia of the difference between glory and renown.  While glory "depends upon the judgments of the many, ... renown [depends] on the judgments of good men."

Earlier, Seneca writes,

we believe that nothing is a good, if it be composed of things that are distinct. For a single good should be checked and controlled by a single soul; and the essential quality of each single good should be single.

Good men will all say the same thing about other good men.  In this way, the good is 'controlled' singly.  But glory and fame depend on the varied opinions of many, and therefore is not good.

All this seems a bit obscure and I didn't have much patience to detangle all the nuances which Seneca argues.  Half way through the letter, he admits this type of discussion is all 'petty quibbles.'

But it should not be our purpose to discuss things cleverly and to drag Philosophy down from her majesty to such petty quibbles.

He then pivots and gets into what Hadot calls 'spiritual exercises' which lead us to live with the gods and to think nothing of fame and death (externals and indiffernts).

Seneca writes,

Tell me rather how closely in accord with nature it is to let one's mind reach out into the boundless universe!


The soul's homeland is the whole space that encircles the, height and breadth of the firmament, the whole rounded dome within which lie land and sea, within which the upper air that sunders the human from the divine also unites them, and where all the sentinel stars are taking their turn on duty.


"All the years," says the soul, "are mine; no epoch is closed to great minds; all Time is open for the progress of thought.

Letting your soul imaginatively explore time and space, is a spiritual exercise.  It has the effect of diminishing our fears and anxieties surrounding the pursuit of fame and immortality.  If we contemplate the Whole sufficiently, we will reason that we are a part of an enormous, complex Whole, which is the Stoic God.  Fame and death are nothing when view from the perspective of the Whole.  Why would we waste our most rare and precious resource (time), on worrying over such matters?

If you are still hung up on the idea of no immortality, then contemplate how your soul will become part of the eternal Whole.  Just as it was difficult, at first, for us as newborns, so too will our death be difficult, but later we adjust and settle into our new state.

These delays of mortal existence are a prelude to the longer and better life. As the mother's womb holds us for ten months, making us ready, not for the womb itself, but for the existence into which we seem to be sent forth when at last we are fitted to draw breath and live in the open; just so, throughout the years extending between infancy and old age, we are making ourselves ready for another birth.

We must never lose sight of the reality of our situation.  We were born with nothing and we die with even less.

Survey everything that lies about you, as if it were luggage in a guest-chamber: you must travel on. Nature strips you as bare at your departure as at your entrance.  You may take away no more than you brought in; what is more, you must throw away the major portion of that which you brought with you into life: you will be stripped of the very skin which covers you – that which has been your last protection; you will be stripped of the flesh, and lose the blood which is suffused and circulated through your body; you will be stripped of bones and sinews, the framework of these transitory and feeble parts.

And if we are forced, in the end, to let go of all this, what stops us from preparing now for that day?  Nothing!   We should prepare for and be comfortable with our own death.

let go your already useless limbs with resignation and dispense with that body in which you have dwelt for so long. It will be torn asunder, buried out of sight, and wasted away. Why be downcast? This is what ordinarily happens: when we are born, the afterbirth always perishes. Why love such a thing as if it were your own possession? It was merely your covering. The day will come which will tear you forth and lead you away from the company of the foul and noisome womb.  Withdraw from it now too as much as you can, and withdraw from pleasure, except such as may be bound up with essential and important things; estrange yourself from it even now, and ponder on something nobler and loftier.

Having thought of your own death, move on to consider grander and nobler things: the Whole.  Nature.  And as you do so, your fears and anxieties will diminish.

Picture to yourself how great is the glow when all the stars mingle their fires; no shadows will disturb the clear sky. The whole expanse of heaven will shine evenly.


Such thoughts permit nothing mean to settle in the soul, nothing low, nothing cruel. They maintain that the gods are witnesses of everything. They order us to meet the gods' approval, to prepare ourselves to join them at some future time, and to plan for immortality. He that has grasped this idea shrinks from no attacking army, is not terrified by the trumpet-blast, and is intimidated by no threats.  How should it not be that a man feels no fear, if he looks forward to death?

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 101 - On the Futility of Planning Ahead

On the Futility of Planning Ahead

This is a somewhat timely letter to read.  I was just talking to my wife about this subject.  I venture to guess that most people are highly motivated to suck the marrow out of life by pursuit of health, fame, career, wife, husband, children, family, and fortune.  And to be clear - none of these are bad per se; rather they are indifferents.  But the majority of people don't view them as indifferents; rather they view them as goods to pursue.  And in their pursuit of them, they forget to contemplate their death.

what a nothing we are, and [time reminds] us with some fresh evidence that we have forgotten our weakness; then, as we plan for eternity, [time compels] us to look over our shoulders at Death.

Seneca then recounts a man who was good at making money and keeping it and who "lived most simply, careful of health and wealth."

But then, he 

was suddenly seized with an acute attack of quinsy, and, with the breath clogged tightly in his swollen throat, barely lived until daybreak. So within a very few hours after the time when he had been performing all the duties of a sound and healthy man, he passed away.

This is life.

Now, back to what my wife and I were talking about.  Having done a lot of contemplating of my own death, as well as practicing the view from above, I find myself able to very, very quickly pivot from being concerned or anxious or fearful of some aspect of life, and pivot towards acceptance of my fate and even my death.  For example, I might have a bit of motivation for progressing in my career, but after a spell of bad days and even a poor performance ranking, instead of becoming upset, I very quickly realize these outcomes were not up to me and that ultimately I am a miniscule speck in the vast expanse of the cosmos and that I soon will be dust in that chasm of space and void.

This thinking has the intended effect of not letting circumstances upset me.  But, at times, I don't quite stop there and I spin into this cycle of thinking that since nothing really matters in time and space, why should I try to have motivation at all?  But this way of thinking is folly too.  Therefore, I have to 'tap the breaks' a bit and recall the aim of life - demonstration of excellence of character.

And even when some of my motivation wanes in pursuit of arete, there is this notion of: "I have lived!"  This comes from Montaigne and I found it while reading Hadot.  Montaigne "imagines a person who had done nothing all day long, and he responds, 'What, you have done nothing, but have you not lived!  Is that not the most illustrious of your preoccupations!'" (see The Present Alone is our Happiness, p. 125).  "I have lived!"  Life is tough and simply having lived is sometimes enough - it is a valid way to survive.  Don't remain stuck there, but grant yourself the acceptance when you need it.

Between these two poles: existence and non-existence I must find the balance.  The practices of memento mori and 'view from above' keep me grounded in reality.  But I cannot live at that pole.  And the reminder to carpe diem and to 'suck-the-marrow-out-of-life' can lead to a life of overblown expectations.  Therefore, keeping these two in tension becomes my task.  Personally, I drift very easily toward memento mori and therefore, I have to exert a bit more effort to steer my motivations back toward carpe diem.  I call this memento vivere.

To me, it seems in this 101st letter from Seneca, he is addressing the majority of people who are constantly clawing their way towards what they think is the good, while ignoring the present moment.  We need to go about with our lives, but with our eyes wide open.

how foolish it is to set out one's life, when one is not even owner of the morrow! ... everything is doubtful, even for those who are prosperous.

We must live for the present moment; not in a hedonistic sense, but in a fulfilling, satisfied, wise sense.  As if our life were a work of art and each day we are putting the finishing touches on it.

Therefore, let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's account every day.  The greatest flaw in life is that it is always imperfect, and that a certain part of it is postponed. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time.

Have we paid the dues owed to our soul?  Have we reconciled our divine nature with the Whole?  If so, then we can say,

I have paid my soul its due, when a soundly-balanced mind knows that a day differs not a whit from eternity – whatever days or problems the future may bring – then the soul looks forth from lofty heights and laughs heartily to itself when it thinks upon the ceaseless succession of the ages.

Each day becomes a life unto itself,

whose daily life has been a rounded whole, is easy in his mind; but those who live for hope alone find that the immediate future always slips from their grasp and that greed steals along in its place, and the fear of death, a curse which lays a curse upon everything else.


The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Is Philosophy a Luxury? by Pierre Hadot

This is part 12 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

"In general, nonphilosophers consider philosophy to be an abstruse language, an abstract discourse, which a small group of specialists, the only ones able to understand it, develops endlessly on the subject of questions that are incomprehensible and bereft of interest.  It is an occupation reserved for a few privileged people who, thanks to money or to a fortunate concourse of circumstances, have the luxury to engage in it: in other words, a luxury" (p. 186).

He notes that, like art or poetry, philosophy is not a useless luxury.  Rather, it frees us "from utilitarian urgency."  "And it is true that leisure is necessary for this, as leisure is necessary for painting and for composing music and poetry" (p. 187).

"It is precisely the role of philosophy to reveal to men the usefulness or the useless, or, if you will, to teach them to distinguish between two meanings of the word useless.  There is what is useful for a given particular goal: heating, or electricity, or transportation, and there is what is useful to human beings qua human beings, qua thinking beings.  The discourse of philosophy is 'useful' in the latter sense, but it is a luxury if one considers as useful only what serves for particular and material ends" (p. 187).

"What is ultimately the most useful for human beings qua human beings?  Is it discourse on language, or on being and non-being?  Isn't it, rather, to learn how to live a human life?" (p. 188).

"The philosopher was not especially a professor or a writer, but a person who has made a certain choice of life, who has adopted a style of life ... the choice of life was expressed in dogmas" (p. 188).

"Proposing to people the art of living as a human being, they addressed all human beings: slaves, women, and foreigners.  They were missionary and sought to convert the masses" (p. 189).

"But worries, necessities, and the banalities of daily life prevent us from acceding to this conscious life of all its possibilities.  How can one harmoniously unite daily life with philosophical consciousness?  It can only be a fragile conquest, always threatened.  'All that is beautiful,' said Spinoza at the end of Ethics, 'is as difficult as it is rare.'"  And how could the billions of human beings crushed by poverty and suffering achieve this consciousness?  Might not being a philosopher also mean to suffer from this isolation, this privilege, always bearing in mind this drama of the human condition?" (p. 190).

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - What is Ethics? by Pierre Hadot

This is part 11 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Regarding the quest to be your best self -

At the end of the Timaeus, Plato speaks of the most excellent part of ourselves, which we must place in agreement with the harmony of the All.  I was struck, moreover, particularly when commenting on the Manual of Epictetus, to see how the notion of going toward the best, or turning toward the best (p. 176).


one might say that it is a quest for a higher state or level of the self (p. 176).


All Epictetus' labor consists precisely in trying to make the disciple aware of the fact that we must begin, above all, by sticking with things as they are, that is, with an objective representation ... One very often find lived logic in Marcus Aurelius, but also in Epictetus.  It means becoming aware of destiny, for Stoic philosophy, or else of becoming aware of physical realities, for the Epicureans (p. 177).


duties of everyday life ... duty of taking the common good into account (p. 177).


there is no separation between everyday life and philosophy (p. 179).


One might then speak of silent ethics.  In fact, I have always tended to understand that at the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein considers that his reader has learned enough to leave philosophy behind and enter into wisdom, since wisdom is silent (p. 181).


Bergson: 'Philosophy is not the construction of a system, but the resolution, taken once and for all, to look naively within oneself and around oneself' (p. 181).


There is no end to philosophy, and it always oscillate between two poles: discourse, and decision about a way of life (p. 181).


Nietzsche also says, in a very interesting way, that one must not be afraid of taking a Stoic recipe and then, according to the needs of life, an Epicurean recipe (p. 183).

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - The Present Alone is Our Happiness by Pierre Hadot

This is part 10 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Regarding which attitudes and spiritual exercises Hadot prefers and practices - 

meditation on death ... give, as it were, absolute value to every instant of life ... The thought of death thus led me to this exercise of concentration on the present (p. 162).

Regarding the balance between concentration the present and action and orientation to the future -

implies a double liberation: from the weight of the past, and from fear of the future ... concentration on the present is a concentration on what we can really do (p. 163).

Goethe's Faust II says, "Then the spirit look neither forward nor backward.  The present alone is our happiness."  Hadot is asked "how can one say that the present alone is our happiness?"

He cites a portion of the poem in response, "Do you want to mold yourself a pretty life?  Do not let the past worry you, get angry as little as possible, rejoice in the present, rejoice without ceasing, hate no one, and abandon the future to God" (p. 164).


it consists in knowing how to recognize the infinite value of every moment.  In fact, this is very difficult, but it is good to regain awareness of the wealth of the present instant as much as possible (p. 165).


Ordinarily our life is always incomplete, in the strongest sense of the term, because we project all our hopes, all our aspirations, all our attention into the future, telling ourselves that we will be happy once we have attained this or that goals.  We are afraid as long as the goal is not attained, but if we attain it, already it no longer interests us and we continue to run after something else.  We do not live, we hope to live, we are waiting to live (p. 166).

How do we overcome this?

an action that is well done [is] done for itself, with attention and consciousness. ... we can tell ourselves, I am here, alive, and that's enough ... we can even add, Here I am, in an immense and wonderful world.  It is this present instant, Marcus Aurelius said, that puts us into contact with the whole cosmos.  At every instant I can think of the indescribable cosmic event of which I am a part ... wonder before the world (p. 166).

Regarding the look from above -

the existence of a look from above is indeed attested among the Greeks and the Romans (p. 167).


this exercise consists in imaginatively traversing the immensity of space, and in accompanying the movement of the stars (p. 167).


The contemporary period has achieved flight in space.  And those who have lived this experience underwent an unforgettable shock, and reported ideas and sentiments analogous to what was felt by those who had lived it merely as a spiritual exercise (p. 168).


aim for objectivity, the impartiality, of the historian and the scholar, but it is also to detach oneself from oneself, in order to open oneself to a universal perspective ... detach oneself from his egotistical point of view ... leave behind a unilateral view of things, to put onself in the place of others.

He quotes Einstein, again, about the human being as a part of the whole (see quote here).

in order to know the authentic value of a human, one must ask to what degree and to what end he has freed himself from himself. ... an awareness of the duty to put oneself in the service of the human community (p. 169).


Socrates, in Plato's Apology, insists a great deal on the fact that he neglects all his personal interests to occupy himself only with others (p. 172).

Regarding wonder and the splendor of existence - 

[seeing the world] for the first time is to get rid of the conventional and routine vision we have of things, to rediscover a raw, naïve vision of reality, to take note of the splendor of the world (p. 173)


He quotes Seneca, "it often happens to me to look at is as if I were looking at it for the first time" (p. 173).


A true connoisseur of nature must also love its repugnant aspects.  In all the works of nature, he said, there is something wonderful (p. 173).


Certain human beings, sometimes, very simple and 'ordinary' ones, as Montaigne remarked, have this courage, and thus gain access to the philosophical life.  Even when they suffer and find themselves in a desperate situation, they sometimes manage to consider existence as something splendid (p. 174).


One does not produce this sacred quiver at will, but on the rare occasions that it takes hold of one, one must not attempt to get away from it, because one must have the courage to confront the inexpressible mystery of existence (p. 174).

Friday, September 10, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Unacceptable? by Pierre Hadot

This is part 9 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Regarding how to communicate suggestions for a way of living, he says,

the method of indirect communication.  If one says directly, do this or do that, one dictates a conduct with a tone of false certainty.  But thanks to the description of the spiritual experience lived by another, one can give a glimpse of and suggest a spiritual attitude; one allows a call to be heard that the reader has the freedom to accept or refuse (p. 148).

Regarding memento mori

The exercise of death is in fact an exercise of life (p. 149).


to train for dying is in no way to torture one's body; it is 'to train for dying to one's individuality, to one's passions, to see things from the perspective of universality and objectivity ... this does not imply repulsion with regard to the flesh (p. 149).

Regarding the Christian connection to ancient philosophy

the Christians, wanting to seem like a philosophy, generally adopted Platonic philosophy, sometimes tinged with Stoicism (p. 152).

Regarding becoming invulnerable

philosophy is a mode of life ... does not mean that one must slavishly adopt all the attitudes (p. 153).


Socrates sincerely loved his children, but he also accepted the order of the world, the will of the gods (p. 153).


passions [are] a profound upheaval of intelligence, of insanity ... false judgement ... passions are false judgements ... make [people] lose their head, and [become] incapable of acting (p. 154).


the virtues imply respect for the other, whereas the passion of pity basically implies contempt for the other ... one must not allow oneself to be induced into the passion of pity, which disrupts the soul and obscures reason (p. 154).

Regarding desires

All the misfortune of our current civilization is indeed the exasperation of the desire for profit, in all the classes of society, for that matter, but especially in the ruling class.  Common mortals can have simpler desires: work, happiness at home, health (p. 156).


To be happy, therefore, one must diminish as much as possible the causes of suffering, that is, desires.  [Epicurus] wanted to heal the misfortunes of humans, and therefore recommended renouncing desires that are very difficult to satisfy, in order to try to be content with the desires that are easer to satisfy ... to eat, to drink, to clothe oneself (p. 157)

Regarding Providence

in the Stoics, one must represent providence not as a divine will interested in all the particular cases, but as on original impulse that instigates the movement of the universe, and the links between cause and effect that constitute destiny (p. 157).

Regarding "anthropological regularities" (e.g. criminal injustices, massacres, provoked famines, misery of the billions)

the Stoics considered there was no evil except in human will.  Thus, for them, what you can anthropological regularities do not belong to the order of the world, and thus, when they speak of collaborating in the work of the Whole, that meant for them recognizing themselves as a part of the universe; a part that, through its existence, contributes in its own way to the general movement of the universe.  It is not that one should consent to everything that is a moral evil, such as injustice and the exploitation of humans by humans, but one should combat it (p. 159)


But if action against evil fails, the Stoic is in this case obliged to recognize reality such as it is ... If he is absolutely reduced to powerlessness, he must not revolt uselessly against destiny, but believe that universal Nature and Reason, which here seem to suffer a defeat, since evil seems to be victorious, will be capable of turning what obstructs their path to their favor.  To believe this is to believe in the final triumph of Reason in the World (p. 159).

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - From Socrates to Foucault: A Long Tradition by Pierre Hadot

This is part 8 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

The modern day problem of philosophy is a matter of getting it out of the books and into our way of life.  Hadot quotes Merleau-Ponty:

Philosophy put into books no longer accosts people.  What is unusual and almost unbearable in it has hidden itself in the decent life of the great systems (p. 121).


if Socrates was a philosopher, it was by walking with his friends, eating with them, discussing with them, going like them to war, and finally drinking the hemlock, not by teaching from the height of a podium.  Thus he showed that everyday life makes it possible to do philosophy (p. 121).


Socrates' greatness was to be able to play with children, and to consider that this was time well spent.  Montaigne admires Socrates' capacity to adapt to all circumstances of life, to war and to peace, to abundance and to famine, to ecstasy and to play ... [this example] gives humble and simple folks the courage to live and to die, without need for all the philosophers' discourses.  Socrates lives a human life fully and simply (p. 122).


When Socrates says, 'We owe a cock to Asclepius' it "suggests that Socrates wants to make a sacrifice of gratitude to the god of medicine, for having cured him of life.  Could it be that life, existence, is an illness? ... is not that life in itself is an illness, but that the life of the body is an illness, and that the only true life is the life of the soul (p. 122-123).

Hadot notes that Montaigne is the one "who best understood the essence of Socrates" (p. 124).

Montaigne "opposed well-made heads to head that are well-filled."  He imagines a person who had done nothing all day long, and he responds, "What, you have done nothing, but have you not lived!  Is that not the most illustrious of your preoccupations!"  Hadot continues, "Nietzsche echoes him in this respect, in his claim that human institutions aim at preventing human beings from sensing their lives.  One finds in this passage from Montaigne the recognition of the infinite value of life itself, of existence; this reverses all habitual values, and especially the pervasive idea that what counts above all is to do something, whereas for Montaigne what is more important is to be" (p. 125).

Regarding clarity, Hadot states, "Sometimes one also has the impression that it is a game for the philosopher, who, as we were saying, always has a natural inclination to listen to himself talk and to watch himself write" (p. 130).

Hadot does not prefer the notion of the existentialists about the notion of the absurdity of life.  He finds it "repulsive" and goes on to say, "As soon as God is dead there is no longer any justification of existence; therefore existence is absurd.  Personally, I do not perceive it absurd.  I prefer Merleau-Ponty's position ... 'The world and reason do not pose a problem; one might say that they are mysterious, but this mystery defines them.  There can be no question of dissipating it by some solution; it falls short of solutions.  Real philosophy is to learn to see the world again."

Hadot continues, "Astonishment, wonder before an inexplicable outpouring: I agree - but why nausea?" (p. 131).

Spiritual exercises are often language games, in which one tells oneself a phrase to provoke an effect, whether on others, or on oneself (p. 135).


The Stoics would have rejected this idea of an ethics of pleasure.  They were careful to distinguish pleasure and joy: joy, for them - joy, and not pleasure - was to be found not simply in the self, but in the best part of the self.  Seneca find joy no in Seneca, but in Seneca identified with universal Reason.  One rises from one level of the self to another, transcendent level (p. 136).


For me, what counts is above all the effort to pass from one perspective to another (p. 137).


It seems to me that seeing things in a universal perspective necessarily lead to recognizing certain permanent values: respect for the human person, respect for life, respect for the gift of language, to mention only a few (p. 139).

Regarding philosophies in other cultures, he says, "Now I have changed my mind somewhat, by observing undeniable analogies between Chinese thought and Greek philosophy.  I have spoken about the attitude of indifference toward things, a sort of Stoic attitude; one might also add the notion of instant illumination.  I explain to myself these analogies, not in terms of historical relations, but by the fact that analogous spiritual attitudes can be found in different cultures" (p. 144).

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Philosophy as Life and as Quest for Wisdom by Pierre Hadot

This is part 7 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Regarding 'living philosophically' as a choice and in every day life ... a few quotes.

The Stoics of the Scaevola family were, moreover, the only ones to apply themselves the laws decreed against luxury.  Thus, in everyday life they had an austerity, a moral rigor that the others lacked (p. 98).


The Stoics were regarded as excessively austere people (p. 99).


Platonism was the movement toward separation of the soul and the body, detachment from the body, and even a tendency to transcend reasoning ... the Neoplatonists [had] the idea that life should be a life of thought, a life of the mind (p. 99).


in Antiquity the philosopher was always regarded somewhat like Socrates himself: he is not 'in his place'; he is atopos.  He cannot be put in a particular place, in a special class.  He is unclassifiable (p. 100).


Nothing is more opposed to the cult of profit, which is progressively destroying humanity, than this Stoic morality that requires of everyone absolute loyalty, transparency, and disinterestedness (p. 101).


It is the problem of the philosopher who should, theoretically speaking, separate himself from the world, but in fact must return to it and lead the everyday life of others. ... Socrates was a philosopher not because he taught from a pulpit, but because he chatted with his friends and joked with them; he also used to go to the agora, and after all this he had an exemplary death.  Thus Socrates' real philsophy is the practice of everyday life (p. 101).

There there is this question posed to Hadot: Can one mix the Stoic attitude with the Epicurean attitude, as did, for example, Goethe, Rousseau, or Thoreau?

"Kant declares that the exercise of virtue must be practiced with Stoic energy and Epicurean joie de vivre."  Of Rousseau, he says, "one finds both the pleasure of existing, and the awareness of being a part of nature."  In Goethe, Hadot notes "half Stoic and half Epicurean."  And of Nietzsche, he says, "one must not be frightened of adopting a Stoic attitude after having benefited from an Epicurean recipe" (p. 102).

Regarding choosing a philosophy, Hadot notes one must try it to be able to learn. He supplies an analogy - riding a bike in the dark, and the light on the bike (which illuminates the path), is connected to the turning of the pedals.  In order to see, you must pedal!

Philosophy is an exercise of awareness.  As stated many times before, it is an exercise of preparing for death.

one had to pass from the empirical and lower self destined to die, to the transcendental self ... one had to detach oneself from sensible life (p. 105).


It is a matter of becoming aware that the moment one is still living has infinite value.  Because death may interrupt it, it must be lived in an extremely intense manner as long as death has not arrived (p. 105).


This is Horace's well-known carpe-diem: harvest today without thinking of tomorrow (p. 105).


one must live every day as though one had completed one's life, and hence with the satisfaction of telling oneself in the evening, 'I have lived' ... one tells oneself that one already has had everything in a single instant of existence.  It is always a matter of becoming aware of the value of existence (p. 105-106).

He is asked if spiritual exercises are a form of egoism.

First, spiritual exercises are intended to let one disengage oneself from egoism. ... detach themselves from the partial and biased self, and to elevate themselves to the level of the superior self.


as soon as one attempts to subject himself to reason, one is almost necessarily obliged to renounce egoism (p. 107).


The second argument ... ancient philosophers have a very strong concern for others ... take care of others, to make them decide to have concern for themselves. ... the care of the self consists in becoming aware of what one really is, that is, finally, of our identity with reason, and even, among the Stoics, with reason considered as God.  Thus, philosophers have always had concern for others (p. 107).


discipline of action contains a very important element, which is the concern for the common good (p. 108).


"Live for others if you want to live for yourself" (Seneca) ... self-transformation consists precisely in being attentive to others (p. 108).

To practice philosophy means to practice living.  He speaks of an ellipse with two poles - "a pole of discourse and a pole of action" (p. 110).

He is asked how does one explain the recession of the practice of spiritual exercises after Antiquity?

I think that the triumph of Christianity played a very large role in this recession.  Confronted by pagan philosophers, revealed Christian theology replaced philosophy as early as the end of Antiquity, and absorbed both ancient philosophy and ancient philosophical life.

Philosophy must be action oriented.

The passage from discourse to life is a tightrope to walk that it is hard to make up one's mind to try.  I will allow myself to cite Kant: 'When you are finally going to begin to live virtuously, said Plato to an old man who was telling him that he was attending lessons on virtue.  You cannot always keep speculating, but you must finally think of passing into action.  But today we consider one who lives in conformity with what he teaches to be a fanatic' (p. 116)

Hadot identified the qualities of the sage.

The first is his love for mankind. ... A second characteristic ... is the audacity of his cosmic wisdom ... a third trait, finally: he is free, without fear, with an inner peace analogous to that of the gods.

Note the three disciplines in the above ... action, desire and assent.

Hadot also quotes Georges Friedmann who said, "the modern sage (if he existed) today would not turn away from the cesspool of men" (p. 118).

the concern to act well without being misled by hatred, anger, or pity, that will oblige one to conquer peace of mind (p. 119).

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Philosophy 101 - Week 6 - Ethics and Moral Philosophy

While listening to the audio book version of The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, one phrase caught my attention and has remained with me ever since.  The phrase was, "Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child" (Lukianoff).  Implied in this bit of advice is an ethical framework for navigating the world and preparing oneself for the multifaceted experiences and interactions.  This ethical mindset places the locus of control in the individual, rather the environment.

Our situation in this existence is not singular; meaning, as individuals, we are not the only person on a planet with unlimited resources.  Rather, existence is such, that we live on a planet with billions of other people and therefore, our actions can and often do impact others.  We cannot demand the world conform to our desires and aversions in order to achieve the summum bonum or the ultimate good.

Regarding the definition of the ultimate good, one author wrote, "Aristotle claims that all the things that are ends in themselves also contribute to a wider end, an end that is the greatest good of all" (Athanassoulis).

Furthermore, the ethical framework ought to provide a lifetime motivation for the individual, so he has a reason to want to continue to adhere to the framework for the duration of his life - it must have a catalyst and a sustaining force.

The virtue ethics of ancient Greek schools sought to marry the multi-fold aspects of living, while attempting to persuade the individual to live a certain way, which would not only promote the common welfare of the social structure, but also that of the individual.  One author observes this connection.  The Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean "Schools of philosophy associated happiness not so much with feeling a certain way about how one’s life was going, but rather with the behaviour resulting from one’s cultivation of an excellent or virtuous character. This crucial linkage by these Schools of happiness with virtue is called eudaimonism, and is based on the principal Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia. Binding the pursuit of happiness with the cultivation of an excellent or virtuous character framed within an overarching philosophical view of reality was central to the development of the Graeco-Christian apophatic tradition" (Cook).

By cultivating one's character to be virtuous, one can achieve happiness and flourishing for himself, while also being a benefit to those around him.  The person would not only be concerned about how to live well as an individual, but also how to live well as a father, employee, neighbor, or citizen.

One failing of this ethical framework is the requisite education and rigor needed to learn and pursue a virtuous life.  Because of humanity's primal urges for survival, many of our motivations and desires stem from our non-rational human instincts, and less educated people, who come from less 'lucky' circumstances are never afforded the opportunity to learn how to flourish.  To put it differently, we could ask "is it fair to praise the virtuous (and blame the vicious) for something that was outside of their control? (Athanassoulis).  This leaves open the possibility that virtue ethics is subject to moral luck.

If, however, humanity is able to devise a large-scale method for promoting the framework of virtue ethics, then perhaps moral luck is minimized, and as it flourishes, the framework and way of living becomes self-sustaining on the grand social scale.


Athanassoulis, Nafsika. “Virtue Ethics | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Cook, Brendan. Pursuing Eudaimonia : Re-appropriating the Greek Philosophical Foundations of the Christian Apophatic Tradition, Cambridge Scholars Publisher, 2012.

Lukianoff, Greg. CODDLING of the AMERICAN MIND : How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation For... Failure. S.L., Penguin Books, 2019.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Philosophical Discourse as Spiritual Exercise by Pierre Hadot

This is part 6 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

For those who have read other Hadot books, the quotes from this chapter will sound quite familiar.  He discusses the genesis of the idea and phrase "spiritual exercises."

He notes books from Paul Rabbow and Jean-Pierre Vernant who spoke of spiritual exercises as based on ideas from Saint Ignatius and Empedocles.

He defines spiritual exercises "as voluntary, personal practices intended to bring about a transformation of the individual, a transformation of the self" (p. 87).

These exercises prepare the individual "for the difficulties of life ... to be able to bear the blows of fate, sickness, poverty, and exile" (p. 87).  And ultimately, "to do philosophy is to train to die" as he cites the Phaedo. (p. 88).

Furthermore, these theories and practices are developed into "instructional discourse" and "inner discourse that orients our actions" (p. 88).

Repeating maxims, engaging in dialogue and question and answer, leads one to learn "how to reason" and "allow the object of investigation to become, as Aristotle would say, perfectly familiar and connatural, that is, ultimately to interiorize knowledge perfectly" (p. 89).

The listener of maxims and dialogues must "make an inner effort at the same time" or else the theoretical learning goes to waste.

"The Greek philosophers did not aim, above all, to provide a systematic theory of reality, but to teach their disciples a method with which to orient themselves in both thought and in life" (p. 90).

"In fact, this effort at systematization was meant to allow the disciple to have at hand the fundamental dogmas that guide action, and to acquire the unshakable certainty given by the impression of logical rigor and coherence" (p. 90).

"The intent is often to make the disciples practice a spiritual exercise - mnemotechnic, as it were - intended to provide a better assimilation of the dogmas that determine a mode of life, and to enable them to possess these dogmas within themselves with certainty" (p. 90).

He cites Plato who said, "These dialogues aim not to inform but to form."  More precisely "for the mind, to teach it to recognize problems and methods of reasoning" (p. 91).

"For the Greeks, what counts is the education of the body and the mind" (p. 91).

"Philosophy was the effective, concrete, lived exercise: the practice of logic, of ethics, and of physics.  Real logic is not the pure theory of logic, but lived logic, the act of thinking in a correct way, of exercising one's thinking in a correct way in every day life.  There is thus a lived logic, which the Stoics would say consists in criticizing representations, that is, the images that came from the outside world - to avoid rushing to say that a given thing that happens is evil or good, but to reflect, to criticize the representation" (p. 94).

The same is said of ethics - "ethics lived in life with other people" and the same is said of physics - "a certain attitude toward the cosmos ... seeing things as they are - not from an anthropomorphic and egotistic point of view, but from the perspective of the cosmos and of nature" (p. 94).

Shortly later he says lived physics "consists in becoming aware of the fact that we are a part of the whole, and must accept the necessary unfolding of this Whole with which we identify, because we are one of its parts."  And the related exercise of "contemplating the universe, in its splendor, recognizing the beauty of the most humble things" (p. 95).

While we may glide through life, unaware of all that surrounds us, to practice "real philosophy is to learn to see the world again" and thus this exercise becomes a "transformation of perception."  We can begin to look anew and "perceive things as strange" and free ourselves "from habit and banality."  We thus "transcend our biased and partial point of view, to bring us to see things and our personal existence in a cosmic and universal perspective, to resituate [ourselves] within the immense event of the universe" and view "the unfathomable mystery of existence" - this is "cosmic consciousness" (p. 96-97).

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Unitary Experience and Philosophical Life by Pierre Hadot

This is part 5 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Hadot, early in his life, pursued a deeply spiritual and mystic life.  He mentions Pascal's experience, which had such a profound effect on Pascal, he sewed a 'memorial' into his coat pocket.  It seems Hadot pursued a similar experience.

I felt the desire to have analogous experiences.  In my eyes, this was the highest point a human life could attain.  I naively believed myself capable of reaching it, as every Christian does, for that matter (p. 75)

Hadot's admission resonates with me.  I recall times from my teenage years, as well as in my 20's and 30's having a desire to see God or at least be visited by Jesus Christ as a way of receiving the Second Comforter (see also this link).

Later in his life, he was disabused of this notion.

The prior of the Carmelite monastery of Avon, not far from Fontainbleau, where I went on a retreat, helped me understand that the desire for direct contact with God was a mistake, and that it was impossible to omit Jesus Christ.  One can wonder, moreover, whether the Christian message is ultimately compatible with mysticism, because mystical experience, as I was saying, is supposed to afford direct contact with God, whereas in Christianity, Christ is the indispensable mediator.  But this is not the occasion to tackle this difficult problem.  In any case, I did not have even the slightest mystical experience (p. 76).

His pivot toward Plotinus began.  He mentions Maritain's book and learning of Plotinus' mysticism and "discovered the existence of a purely philosophical mysticism" (p. 76).

This philosophical mysticism becomes a lesson in the proper and universal perspective.

When one says that the human self life according to the Intellect or the Spirit, or identifies with it, this means it has a perfect transparency in its relation to itself, that it transcends the individual aspects of the self, to attain the level of universality and interiority (p.77).

Regarding mystical experiences via drugs, he says,

they are artificial experiences ... not based on an effective transformation of the individual in the framework of a moral and ascetic preparation ... [drugs] are rather destructive experiences.

Whereas the experiences he has in mind are 

a greater sensitivity to nature, to the universe, and to existence ... feeling of a presence or a fusion with something else ... often expressed in terms borrowed from the vocabulary of love (p. 78).

Hadot is asked, "It seems as though philosophical preparations - ascetic, moral, intellectual - have become just as important for you as unitary experience.  Even if this experience is never produced, the behaviors that prepare for it have value.  What is the relation between the possibility of a unitary experience and the overall necessity of a philosophical life?"

He replies, speaking of Plotinus,

I believe that, for him, if philosophical life in fact prepares one for an eventual mystical experience, this philosophical life has value in itself.  All things considered, Plotinus' mystical experiences were extremely rare.  Porphyry tells us that the rest of the time - that is, almost all the time - he tried 'to be present to himself and to others,' which ultimately is an excellent definition of what every philosophical life should be.

If we now consider the problem in general, we must also say that ecstatic experiences, of whatever kind, are not an integral part of a philosophical life.  If they occur, in one form or another, it is true that they can open perspectives on the mystery of existence for the philosopher, but they cannot be an end in itself, and seeking to provoke them would be useless (p. 81-82).

Thus, another pivot for Hadot - from an ecstatic mystical experience, to in-the-present-moment mystical experiences.  He cites Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who discovers a watering can beneath a tree during one evening, and upon looking in it, discovers an insect crisscrossing the water.  He observes,

all this assemblage of insignificant things communicated the presence of the infinite to me so strongly that a chill ran through me from the roots of my hair to the base of my heels (p. 82-83).

Hadot observes that daily life can be a mystical experience and quotes Seneca: "Man is a sacred thing for a man."  He then insists,

a call not to slavishly reproduce the Plotinian experience, but simply to welcome the mysterious, the ineffable, and the transcendent in human experience with courage (p. 83).

Perhaps the goal of a mystical experience is losing the self in order to see the self as a part of the Universe.

At the moment of ecstasy, the self leaves its limits behind and dilates itself into infinity.  This is both a loss and a gain, the self's accession to a higher mode of being.  One might say that the highest point the self can attain is the point at which one has the impression of losing oneself in something that totally transcends it (p. 84).

What is the true self?  Hadot mentions three levels, plus one: the sensible consciousness (indistinguishable from the body); the rational consciousness (awareness of the soul; discursive reflection); and then spiritual consciousness (it has always been Spirit or Intellect); the plus one level would be the mystical experience of the One - a state of absolute unity and simplicity (p. 85).

He is asked about this quote from Paul Claudel, who said, "Someone within me who is even more myself than me."

Hadot responds that this someone is from a Christian perspective and not from a Plotinian mysticism.  Claudel's idea is that the Creator is more ourselves than we are "because he is at the origin of the self" (p. 85).  Hadot clarifies "the Plotinian One is not personal."

The last question from the chapter discusses the true self - how it is "both inside and outside; it is a continual search for the best part of oneself, which is a self-transcendence as well as a recognition of the fact that one part of ourselves is our true self.  This is the case in Stoicism, in Aristotle, and in Plotinus."

Hadot responds,

What constitutes the essence of the human is thus something that transcends its. ... Marcus Aurelius speaks of the daimon, in inner divinity that is ultimately none other than reason, and is both ourselves and above ourselves.  When the philosopher attempts to attain wisdom, he tends toward this state, in which he would be perfectly identical to the true self, which is the ideal self.

Generally speaking, I personally tend to conceive of the fundamental philosophical choice, and hence the effort toward wisdom, as the transcending of the partial, biased, egocentric, egoist self, in order to attain the level of a higher self.  This self sees all things from a perspective of universality and totality, becoming aware of itself as part of the cosmos and encompassing, then, the totality of things.

He quotes Anne Cheng,

Every form of spirituality begins by 'letting go,' a renunciation of the limited and limiting self.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 100 - On the Writings of Fabianus

On the Writings of Fabianus

There isn't much to comment on the 100th moral letter from Seneca.  There are a few things to consider in terms of writing well.  But beyond that, there's not much else.

Here are a few quotes I highlighted as I read it.

the man was building up character rather than words, and was writing those words for the mind rather than for the ear.


A meticulous manner of writing does not suit the philosopher; if he is timid as to words, when will he ever be brave and steadfast, when will he ever really show his worth?  Fabianus's style was not careless, it was assured.


calm and adjusted to his peaceful and well-ordered mind


look, please, at the whole work, how well-ordered it is.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Philosophy 101 - Week 5 - Philosophy and Religion

Evaluate the Teleological argument for God’s existence and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses as an empirical argument.

The word 'Teleological' stems from the Greek word 'telos' which means 'end' or 'purpose' or 'goal.'  The Teleological argument for God seeks to prove God's existence by observing natural and man-made creations which serve a purpose or outcome.  By showing evidence of a purpose, proponents of the Teleological argument wish to persuade others that God designed and created the world and universe.

For example, it would appear that termites are created for the purpose of decomposition of organic material, which decomposed material produces dirt with enriching qualities which purpose is for the growing of new organic material.  One can observe the causes and effects of many environmental systems in the world; each entity fulfilling its purpose.  The proponent of the Teleological argument will attribute the design of each entity, to God.

Another example, as formulated by William Paley, uses the analogy of a watch found in a field.  The discoverer of the complex nature of the watch could reasonably infer it was intelligently designed for a purpose and if this argument could be made for the watch, then why not for the rest of the complex ecosystems and nature of the world and universe, or even the complex nature of the human eye?  The discoverer of the watch could note, "For this reason, and for no other; namely, that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, if a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it" (Himma).

One strength of the Teleological argument is the plethora of evidence of complexity of diverse systems and entities.  We can point to order in the universe as well as complexity of animals, humans and even whole ecosystems as evidence of design.  As an argument, it is quite convincing, especially given that the most intelligent species on the planet (humans) cannot reproduce something with equal complexity, on the scale of the world.

However, this argument begins to fail when one considers evolution and natural selection as explanations for complexity.  "Darwin argued that more complex biological organisms evolved gradually over millions of years from simpler organisms through a process of natural selection" (Himma).  As these mutations occurred from different parts of the world and in differing environments, one can easily see the evidence of a multifaceted complexity as the explanation instead of these entities springing from a single designer.

Another strength of the argument is based on the idea the universe has been finely tuned for our existence.  "For example, life would not be possible if the force of the big bang explosion had differed by one part in 10^60; the universe would have either collapsed on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form" (Himma).  The odds of this occuring are truly astronomical!

But we can apply some skepticism to refute this argument, with the notion that simply due to the fact of extreme odds, does not mean it cannot happen.  Indeed it can happen, but that does not force us to ascribe the reason for it happening, to God.  Because a lottery winner won, does that mean they won by design?  No!


Himma, K., n.d. Design Arguments for the Existence of God | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online] Available at: <>