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. 

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