Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 118 - On the Vanity of Place-Seeking

On the Vanity of Place-Seeking

Have you ever seen someone do something for mere status?  In a way, we are all seeking status - we want to be relevant; admired; a cut above the rest.  And we are willing to sacrifice our character for the sake of status.

Examples of status seeking are: pursuing a promotion, buying a product that the vast majority cannot afford and which one does not necessarily need, name-dropping (i.e. telling others you know a senator or the VP or CEO of some company), bragging about one's fame or education or other achievement.  This desire to seem relevant and to have influence is what drives us to seek and acquire status.

Seneca advises we don't seek status if we are indeed pursuing equanimity.

This, my dear Lucilius, is a noble thing, this brings peace and freedom – to canvass for nothing, and to pass by all the elections of Fortune.

To seek nothing in terms of status, is noble.  He later continues:

I say, to stand idle and look on at this Vanity Fair without either buying or selling?  How much greater joy does one feel who looks without concern, not merely upon the election of a praetor or of a consul, but upon that great struggle in which some are seeking yearly honours, and others permanent power, and others the triumph and the prosperous outcome of war, and others riches, or marriage and offspring, or the welfare of themselves and their relatives! What a great-souled action it is to be the only person who is canvassing for nothing, offering prayers.

Those who seek and constantly pursue status, will never find contentment.  As soon as they've achieved something, it's on to the next thing.

the restless multitudes of men, who, in order to attain something ruinous, struggle on through evil to evil

Contentment; equanimity; happiness do not come about via status seeking.

Happiness is ...  a lowly thing; for that reason it never gluts a man's desire.

Where does the status seeking end?  It doesn't!  It is a never-ending ladder and as soon as you get to one step, you will realize there is another.  And if you think you've reached the top, all too soon you will realize there is something else which you do not have.

that which you regard as the top is merely a rung on the ladder.

Even those who pursue and chase endlessly, will eventually wake up and realize it was all a sham.

after having won their wish, and suffered much, they find them evil, or empty, or less important than they had expected.

This was the whole point of the movie Citizen Kane.  A life of pursuits, fame, status and accolades ends up with the main character simply wanting to return to a the time he was happy with this snow sled Rosebud.

Are we to be monks, then, and sit around all day and meditate in contentment?  If you are a Stoic, the answer is: no.  Rather, engage with the world of indiffernts, while at the same time, focusing on the virtues of your character.  What virtue can you practice in your pursuits?  Your career, schooling, day-to-day living is all material for demonstrating excellence of character.  We are to use and engage with these indifferents honorably.  Doing so is the Good.

there are certain things which are neither good nor bad – as military or diplomatic service, or the pronouncing of legal decisions. When such pursuits have been honourably conducted, they begin to be good, and they change over from the "indifferent" class into the Good. The Good results from partnership with the honourable.

For someone to become good, it can take an entire lifetime.  Seneca seems to allude to the fact that the pinnacle of achieving wisdom is recognizing that one's unique will has come in alignment with the Cosmos - that one truly lives in agreement with Nature.  This would be the mind recognizing it is a part and in one with the Whole or infinite.

Some things, through development, put off their former shape and are altered into a new figure.  When the mind has for a long time developed some idea, and in the attempt to grasp its magnitude has become weary, that thing begins to be called "infinite."

I'll end with a quote I came across in a Facebook group recently.  I'm hoping to get this book sometime in the future and read it - seems interesting!

It is...possible to imagine a man whose knowledge and understanding is co-extensive with the complete structure of the Universe, the "objective content" (the lektón) of his systems of cognitions being identical with the objective content of an ideal account of Nature. The mind of such a man certainly still has its centre or focus in his own body, but the process of adaptation (oikeiosis), of fitting himself into the Whole, has gone beyond his own body, beyond his family or nation, to become all-inclusive: he is, in a sense, God. He is really living consistently with himself and with Nature, having "knowledge of whatever happens by nature", because he is Nature. Such a man is good, because his mind is identical with the only thing that can be called good. His state of mind is virtue, that strength which is a "tension capable of [always] judging and acting [correctly]". He is truly happy, because he is all a human being can be. He is independent (autarkes), as God is independent, because he needs nothing, and there is nothing outside him to affect him or contain him. Since his mind has become good by becoming completely fused with Nature, he cannot will anything to be different from what it is, as it would be self-contradictory for the good to want to be not good. Therefore he is also free, since for him what is desirable is what is real.

Johnny Christensen, An Essay on the Unity of Stoic Philosophy, p. 68-69

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