Sunday, October 3, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 111 - On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

The intent of philosophy is flourishing - eudaimonia - in which the Stoics claim that one's personal virtue, reasoning and actions are aligned with Nature.  If the philosophy is not lived, and instead simply held in a theoretical paradigm, then did you really learn anything?

In this vein, Seneca attacks the practice of sophismata - he calls them mental gymnastics.  Speaking of sophismata or mental gymnastics, he writes,

If a man has surrendered himself to them, he weaves many a tricky subtlety, but makes no progress toward real living; he does not thereby become braver, or more restrained, or loftier of spirit.

But one who applies what he has learned is the one making progress.

He, however, who has practised philosophy to effect his own cure, becomes high-souled, full of confidence, invincible, and greater as you draw near him.

He goes on,

our true philosopher, true by his acts and not by his tricks. He stands in a high place, worthy of admiration, lofty, and really great.


He is therefore above earthly things, equal to himself under all conditions, – whether the current of life runs free, or whether he is tossed and travels on troubled and desperate seas; but this steadfastness cannot be gained through such hair-splittings as I have just mentioned.

If you are going to play these mental games, Seneca advises to

let it be at a time when you wish to do nothing.

He further cautions that if you practice sophismata, be sure to not get caught up in thinking that since you can work out these puzzlers, you think you are wise.

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