Saturday, July 31, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 89 - On the Parts of Philosophy

On the Parts of Philosophy

Studying the parts of philosophy help to comprehend the whole.  But in so doing, be mindful not to break it down into too many parts as well as trying to bite off more than you can comprehend.

Modern Stoicism is mainly studied with three break-downs: physics, logic and ethics.  In this letter, Seneca references the three divisions as moral, natural, and rational.  I can't help but see

  • moral related to ethics 
  • natural related to physics
  • rational related to logic
I'll get into these a bit more, but let's jump back to the beginning of the letter.

Why study philosophy in parts?

studying the parts we can be brought more easily to understand the whole.

However, we must not divide it too much.

useful that philosophy should be divided, but not chopped into bits. ... the parts, as I have remarked, must not be countless in number and diminutive in size. For over-analysis is faulty in precisely the same way as no analysis at all.

Is there a difference between wisdom and philosophy?  Wisdom is the aim; philosophy is the process.

Wisdom is the perfect good of the human mind; philosophy is the love of wisdom, and the endeavour to attain it. ... Philosophy does the going, and wisdom is the goal.

The two cannot be separated.

Certain of our school, however, although philosophy meant to them "the study of virtue," and though virtue was the object sought and philosophy the seeker, have maintained nevertheless that the two cannot be sundered. ... the path by which one reaches virtue leads by way of virtue herself; philosophy and virtue cling closely together.

He then briefly elaborates on the various divisions of philosophy and what their study entails.

Moral

He states that the moral division is further divided into three parts.  As I read his notes on this, it does seem that the moral division deals with proper duties and actions.

First, we have the speculative part, which assigns to each thing its particular function and weighs the worth of each; it is highest in point of utility. For what is so indispensable as giving to everything its proper value? The second has to do with impulse, the third with actions.  For the first duty is to determine severally what things are worth; the second, to conceive with regard to them a regulated and ordered impulse; the third, to make your impulse and your actions harmonize, so that under all these conditions you may be consistent with yourself.

Natural

The natural division is also further divided and indeed seems roughly correlated to the study of [meta]physics.  The two main divisions of the natural division are,

bodily and non-bodily.  Each is divided into its own grades of importance, so to speak. The topic concerning bodies deals, first, with these two grades: the creative and the created; and the created things are the elements. Now this very topic of the elements, as some writers hold, is integral; as others hold, it is divided into matter, the cause which moves all things, and the elements.

Rational

The last division deals with learning and logic and mostly aligns with reading and writing.

Now all speech is either continuous, or split up between questioner and answerer. It has been agreed upon that the former should be called rhetoric, and the latter dialectic. Rhetoric deals with words, and meanings, and arrangement. Dialectic is divided into two parts: words and their meanings, that is, into things which are said, and the words in which they are said. Then comes a subdivision of each – and it is of vast extent.

He concludes the letter to Lucilius, with an exhortation that no matter how he studies philosophy, he puts what he learns into practice.

promptly relate to conduct all that you have read.  It is your conduct that you must hold in check; you must rouse what is languid in you, bind fast what has become relaxed, conquer what is obstinate, persecute your appetites, and the appetites of mankind, as much as you can; and to those who say: "How long will this unending talk go on?" answer with the words: "I ought to be asking you 'How long will these unending sins of yours go on?'"

Seneca then goes on to ask prompting questions with the intent of laying down vices and passions.  He lambasts greed in owning land, many and spacious villas and estates, embracing luxury, as well as having insatiable appetites.  Here are a couple which stood out to me.

What profit to you are your many bed-chambers? You sleep in one. No place is yours where you yourselves are not.

...

How slight a portion of all those shell-fish, imported from so far, slips down that insatiable gullet? Poor wretches, do you not know that your appetites are bigger than your bellies?

Regardless of how you study philosophy, direct your learning back to wise living.

everything you hear or read, is to be applied to conduct, and to the alleviation of passion's fury. Study, not in order to add anything to your knowledge, but to make your knowledge better.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 88 - On Liberal and Vocational Studies

On Liberal and Vocational Studies

The too-long-didn't-read (TLDR) of this letter is Seneca making the point that the study of wisdom and leading a wise life ought to be preeminent.  While the vocational learning may lead us to leading a wise life, it is less important.

Towards the beginning of the letter he writes of liberal and vocational studies:

Such studies are profit-bringing occupations, useful only in so far as they give the mind a preparation and do not engage it permanently. ... they are our apprenticeship, not our real work.

Said differently, the studies which lead to a living (e.g. a career or job) are simply a means to an end.  The end and primary focus ought to be the study of philosophy.

But there is only one really liberal study, – that which gives a man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other studies are puny and puerile.

...

Certain persons have made up their minds that the point at issue with regard to the liberal studies is whether they make men good ... But which of these paves the way to virtue? ... what is there in all this that rids one of fear, roots out desire, or bridles the passions?

This is the sum-total of the letter.  The rest of it delves into various examples and rifts of the same tune.

Whether you study Homer, Hesiod, Hecuba, Helen, Achilles, Patroclus, Ulysses (Odysseus), music, math, business, real estate, farming, astronomy, medicine, carpentry or physics, nothing is as important is the study of living and dying well - which is philosophy.

In each of the examples above, he contrasts the learning of subjects with the learning of philosophy.  If, you learn something about one of the above subjects and can also apply that lesson to the study and learning of philosophy, perhaps there is use.  But all learning ought to be focused on wise living.

Below are various examples or questions which put the focus of learning on philosophy.

What, in your opinion, I say, would be the point in trying to determine the respective ages of Achilles and Patroclus?  Do you raise the question, "Through what regions did Ulysses stray?" instead of trying to prevent ourselves from going astray at all times?

...

Show me rather, by the example of Ulysses, how I am to love my country, my wife, my father, and how, even after suffering shipwreck, I am to sail toward these ends, honourable as they are.  Why try to discover whether Penelope was a pattern of purity, or whether she had the laugh on her contemporaries? Or whether she suspected that the man in her presence was Ulysses, before she knew it was he? Teach me rather what purity is, and how great a good we have in it, and whether it is situated in the body or in the soul.

And instead of going one by one, contrasting vocational questions with philosophical questions, I'll simply note the questions which philosophy attempts to answer.

[how to] bring my soul into harmony with itself, and let not my purposes be out of tune ... how, in the midst of adversity, I may keep from uttering a doleful note ... how to lay out what is enough for a man to own. ... how useless property is to any man who would find it the greatest misfortune if he should be required to reckon out, by his own wits, the amount of his holdings ...  how to share it with my brother? ...  how to lose [my lands] with a light heart ... how great [the mind] is, or how puny! You know what a straight line is; but how does it benefit you if you do not know what is straight in this life of ours?

...

I await the future in its entirety; and if there is any abatement in its severity, I make the most of it. If the morrow treats me kindly, it is a sort of deception; but it does not deceive me even at that. For just as I know that all things can happen, so I know, too, that they will not happen in every case. I am ready for favourable events in every case, but I am prepared for evil.

Liberal or vocational studies do have value and Seneca notes them.

"do the liberal studies contribute nothing to our welfare?" Very much in other respects, but nothing at all as regards virtue. For even these arts of which I have spoken, though admittedly of a low grade – depending as they do upon handiwork – contribute greatly toward the equipment of life, but nevertheless have nothing to do with virtue. And if you inquire, "Why, then, do we educate our children in the liberal studies?"  it is not because they can bestow virtue, but because they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue. Just as that "primary course,"  as the ancients called it, in grammar, which gave boys their elementary training, does not teach them the liberal arts, but prepares the ground for their early acquisition of these arts, so the liberal arts do not conduct the soul all the way to virtue, but merely set it going in that direction.

In sum, vocational studies and living prepare us to study the virtuous life - a philosophical life.

Philosophy alone delves into the question of the good.

There is but one thing that brings the soul to perfection – the unalterable knowledge of good and evil. But there is no other art which investigates good and evil.

And the good is found in excellence of soul and character.  And what leads to this excellence?  Moral virtues.  He spends some words discussing some important virtues.

Bravery is a scorner of things which inspire fear; it looks down upon, challenges, and crushes the powers of terror and all that would drive our freedom under the yoke.

...

Loyalty is the holiest good in the human heart.

...

Temperance controls our desires; some it hates and routs, others it regulates and restores to a healthy measure, nor does it ever approach our desires for their own sake. Temperance knows that the best measure of the appetites is not what you want to take, but what you ought to take.

Kindliness forbids you to be over-bearing towards your associates, and it forbids you to be grasping.

...

[philosophy teaches] teach simplicity, moderation and self-restraint, thrift and economy, and that kindliness which spares a neighbour's life as if it were one's own and knows that it is not for man to make wasteful use of his fellow-man.

...

Wisdom is a large and spacious thing. It needs plenty of free room. One must learn about things divine and human, the past and the future, the ephemeral and the eternal; and one must learn about Time.

Because there is so much to learn and practice in the art of living well, we ought to minimize the superfluous to be able to focus on the most important and only allow the essential study of vocational arts into our life.

And in order that these manifold and mighty subjects may have free entertainment in your soul, you must remove therefrom all superfluous things. Virtue will not surrender herself to these narrow bounds of ours; a great subject needs wide space in which to move. Let all other things be driven out, and let the breast be emptied to receive virtue.  "But it is a pleasure to be acquainted with many arts." Therefore let us keep only as much of them as is essential.

He opines on the people who desire to chase endless studies of vocational practices.

This desire to know more than is sufficient is a sort of intemperance.  Why? Because this unseemly pursuit of the liberal arts makes men troublesome, wordy, tactless, self-satisfied bores, who fail to learn the essentials just because they have learned the non-essentials.

Our mortal time is limited and everything which we do or study ought to be considered through the lens of limited time.  Therefore, prioritize the important over the unimportant.

Have I so far forgotten that useful saw "Save your time"? Must I know these things? And what may I choose not to know? ...  Apply the measure to the years of your life; they have no room for all these things.

He next takes aim at useless studies under the domain of philosophy.

I have been speaking so far of liberal studies; but think how much superfluous and unpractical matter the philosophers contain! Of their own accord they also have descended to establishing nice divisions of syllables, to determining the true meaning of conjunctions and prepositions; they have been envious of the scholars, envious of the mathematicians. They have taken over into their own art all the superfluities of these other arts; the result is that they know more about careful speaking than about careful living.

He takes so much umbrage with the study of these fluffy topics, he places them in a new category: non-knowledge.

The Pyrrhonean, Megarian, Eretrian, and Academic schools are all engaged in practically the same task; they have introduced a new knowledge, non-knowledge.

Speaking of these various philosophy schools, he wonders if it's better to sit in the dark or to have our eyes gouged out.

It is better, of course, to know useless things than to know nothing. One set of philosophers offers no light by which I may direct my gaze toward the truth; the other digs out my very eyes and leaves me blind. ... The whole universe is then a vain or deceptive shadow. I cannot readily say whether I am more vexed at those who would have it that we know nothing, or with those who would not leave us even this privilege.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 87 - Some Arguments in Favour of the Simple Life

Some Arguments in Favour of the Simple Life

There are a number of syllogisms and Peripatetic responses to them in this letter.  This is another long-winded, somewhat meandering letter Seneca writes, in order to draw out minute distinctions to support the idea of living a simple life.  I'm going to attempt to summarize this, with some supporting quotes.

I'll frame the letter with some straight-forward questions, which I think take the direct route as to the purpose of this letter.

Do you need riches in order to be good?  The short answer is: no.

Can you pursue riches and still be good? The short answer is: yes; but there are perils along the way.

Are riches evil?  The short answer is: no.

Can riches cause evil?  The short answer is: maybe.

Riches and wealth are Stoic indifferents.  They fall under the category of "not up to us."  True, one may pursue riches and gain them and still be virtuous; but they can also be taken away through Fate and Fortune.  Regardless if we pursue and attain them or if they fall by chance, into our lot, how we demonstrate excellence of character remains "up to us" while the acquisition or removal of wealth is "not up to us."

But, if you are going to pursue wealth, keep in mind that it does not bestow virtue (arete) on you and in the pursuit, you will encounter temptations of committing evils and may be swayed from a virtuous path.

Now to the quotes and some commentary.

"I was shipwrecked before I got aboard." ... the journey showed me this: how much we possess that is superfluous; and how easily we can make up our minds to do away with things whose loss, whenever it is necessary to part with them, we do not feel.

Seneca packed light for his journey and it made him realize how little we need.

the soul is never greater than when it has laid aside all extraneous things, and has secured peace for itself by fearing nothing, and riches by craving no riches.

The fewer things we are in need of, the closer to the gods we move; for the gods need nothing.  This is what the Cynic philosophers hoped to prove.  But so few people could get on board with that lifestyle, the Stoics eased the thinking back a bit and introduced the idea of preferred indifferents.  Many, through the years, have demonstrated how little we need.  Diogenes the Cynic and Henry David Thoreau come to mind.

I have not yet the courage openly to acknowledge my thriftiness. Even yet I am bothered by what other travellers think of me.

This is rich, coming from Seneca.  Should I insert an facepalm or shaking-my-head emoji here?

after you have mentioned all these facts, he is poor. And why? He is in debt.

Not all that glitters is gold.  Do not be so mystified at other people's wealth.  While they may be glitzy on the outside, you better reserve judgement until you see their debts.  Some people can manage debt quite well, to leverage their way to wealth.  But this takes skill and discipline.  Others fall into the traps of debt and then plead for a bail-out.

Next are the syllogisms.

"That which is good makes men good. For example, that which is good in the art of music makes the musician. But chance events do not make a good man; therefore, chance events are not goods."

The unique skill found entirely within the individual is the good.  Through willpower, dedication and discipline, one may become good at a certain skill.  Indeed, they will have to use instruments and tools, but these are incidental to the will.  Under the category of incidentals are chance events.

Seneca clarifies this syllogism:

We define the good in the art of music in two ways: first, that by which the performance of the musician is assisted, and second, that by which his art is assisted. ... he is an artist even without [instruments].

Next syllogism:

"That which can fall to the lot of any man, no matter how base or despised he may be, is not a good. But wealth falls to the lot of the pander and the trainer of gladiators; therefore wealth is not a good."

In sum, chance events are indifferents and therefore not a good.  The good is wholly "up to us."

Seneca adds:

It is virtue that uplifts man and places him superior to what mortals hold dear; virtue neither craves overmuch nor fears to excess that which is called good or that which is called bad. ... what it is that produces the wise man? That which produces a god.  You must grant that the wise man has in an element of godliness, heavenliness, grandeur. The good does not come to every one, nor does it allow any random person to possess it.

Next syllogism:

"Good does not result from evil. But riches result from greed; therefore, riches are not a good."

Good can only result from the will; from within the soul.  If you are going to pursue riches, the reason is important.  If the reason is greed, then you have fallen into vice.  Therefore, getting precise and specific as to the reason for the pursuit of indifferents, matters.

Things which grow correspond to their seed; and goods cannot depart from their class. As that which is honourable does not grow from that which is base, so neither does good grow from evil. For the honourable and the good are identical.

Next syllogism:

"That which, while we are desiring to attain it, involves us in many evils, is not a good. But while we are desiring to attain riches, we become involved in many evils; therefore, riches are not a good,"

The intent of this syllogism is to throw caution at anyone who is pursuing riches.  Seneca later writes:

Riches injure no one; it is a man's own folly, or his neighbour's wickedness, that harms him in each case, just as a sword by itself does not slay; it is merely the weapon used by the slayer. ... Posidonius is better: he holds that riches are a cause of evil, not because, of themselves, they do any evil, but because they goad men on so that they are ready to do evil.

Going back to intent, we need to be crystal clear as to why we would pursue riches.  Riches are indifferent, but it is the use of indifferents which determines excellence or mediocrity of soul.

Next syllogism:

"Things which bestow upon the soul no greatness or confidence or freedom from care are not goods. But riches and health and similar conditions do none of these things; therefore, riches and health are not goods."

 "Things which bestow upon the soul no greatness or confidence or freedom from care, but on the other hand create in it arrogance, vanity, and insolence, are evils. But things which are the gift of Fortune drive us into these evil ways. Therefore these things are not goods." 

It is clear, riches are not goods; they are indifferents.  What is good?

A thing is not good if it contains more benefit than injury, but only if it contains nothing but benefit ... The good, however, can be predicated of the wise man alone.

In sum, it may be easier to check our desires and intent, than to try to justify specious pursuits of riches via rationalization.

it were better to support this law by our conduct and to subdue our desires by direct assault rather than to circumvent them by logic.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 86 - On Scipio's Villa

On Scipio's Villa

There is not much to commentate for this letter.  It is a rather simple exercise which Seneca practices, contemplating the voluntary exile of Scipio and how some people grow accustomed to luxury.  Below are the few highlights from the letter.

he showed moderation and a sense of duty to a marvellous extent.

admire this magnanimity, which led him to withdraw into voluntary exile

For he was accustomed to keep himself busy and to cultivate the soil with his own hands, as the good old Romans were wont to do.

What a vast number of statues, of columns that support nothing, but are built for decoration, merely in order to spend money! And what masses of water that fall crashing from level to level! We have become so luxurious that we will have nothing but precious stones to walk upon.

he taught me that a tree can be transplanted, no matter how far gone in years.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 85 - On Some Vain Syllogisms

On Some Vain Syllogisms

It seems Lucilius is looking for proofs in the forms of syllogisms, to support the Stoic claim that living a virtuous life leads to a happy life.  While reluctant to do so, Seneca does offer a few arguments to support the main claim.

I was satisfied to give you a sort of taste of the views held by the men of our school, who desire to prove that virtue is of itself sufficiently capable of rounding out the happy life. But now you bid me include the entire bulk either of our own syllogisms or of those which have been devised by other schools for the purpose of belittling us. If I shall be willing to do this, the result will be a book, instead of a letter. And I declare again and again that I take no pleasure in such proofs.

The first one he tackles is this:

"He that possesses prudence is also self-restrained; he that possesses self-restraint is also unwavering; he that is unwavering is unperturbed; he that is unperturbed is free from sadness; he that is free from sadness is happy. Therefore, the prudent man is happy, and prudence is sufficient to constitute the happy life."

The Peripatetics do not argue for the abolishment of passions, but rather for the moderation of them.  Seneca disagrees and argues against the notion of simply trying to be better than the least common denominator.  He argues for in favor of striving towards sage hood.

how petty is the superiority which we attribute to the wise man, if he is merely braver than the most craven, happier than the most dejected, more self-controlled than the most unbridled, and greater than the lowliest! ... This is speed estimated by its own standard, not the kind which wins praise by comparison with that which is slowest.  Would you call a man well who has a light case of fever? No, for good health does not mean moderate illness.

He later states,

I am not referring to the gradual weeding out of evils in a good man, but to the complete absence of evils; there should be in him no evils at all, not even any small ones.

As I read Seneca's argument on this, I am reminded of the sentiment of aiming for the stars when you wish to go to the moon.

The aim for a practicing Stoic and one who is making progress, is to be a sage.  And while very few may be considered a sage, it nonetheless is a worthy goal.

He then makes a number of arguments for putting down passions and vices urgently and with focus, rather than making little progress across multiple passions and vices.

a throng of such, even though they be moderate, can affect him more than the violence of one powerful passion. ... We could deal better with a person who possessed one full-fledged vice, than with one who possessed all the vices, but none of them in extreme form.

And once you break the habit and over-come passions and vice, you must never let them in again.

Tigers and lions never put off their wildness; they sometimes moderate it, and then, when you are least prepared, their softened fierceness is roused to madness. Vices are never genuinely tamed.  Again, if reason prevails, the passions will not even get a start ... it is easier to stop them in the beginning than to control them when they gather force. This half-way ground is accordingly misleading and useless; it is to be regarded just as the declaration that we ought to be "moderately" insane, or "moderately" ill.

Therefore, work to remove them wholly, and then keep them out.

You can more easily remove than control them. ...  it is easier to keep a thing out than to keep it under after you have let it in.

This idea leads to the next syllogism:

"If a man has self-control and wisdom, he is indeed at peace as regards the attitude and habit of his mind, but not as regards the outcome. For, as far as his habit of mind is concerned, he is not perturbed, or saddened, or afraid; but there are many extraneous causes which strike him and bring perturbation upon him."

This is a recognition of external or "extraneous" causes which may bring fear to the doorstep of his inner citadel.  If the man never allows them (fear, passions) into his mind, he retains self-control and wisdom.

Taking this approach to happiness, a man may retain self-control, temperance and courage, regardless of what lands on his doorstep.  And if this is true, then he may be content and happy with life and what is up to him.

since the happy life contains in itself a good that is perfect and cannot be excelled, if a man has this good, life is completely happy.  Now if the life of the gods contains nothing greater or better, and the happy life is divine, then there is no further height to which a man can be raised.  Also, if the happy life is in want of nothing, then every happy life is perfect ... the Supreme Good does not admit of increase ... so the happy life cannot be increased either.

He then clarifies a notion, in which many do err.  If you always want something else, how can you be happy?

the more prudent he is, the more he will strive after the best, and he will desire to attain it by every possible means. But how can one be happy who is still able, or rather who is still bound, to crave something else?

He rectifies the erroneous thinking:

men do not understand that the happy life is a unit; for it is its essence, and not its extent, that establishes such a life on the noblest plane. Hence there is complete equality between the life that is long and the life that is short, between that which is spread out and that which is confined, between that whose influence is felt in many places and in many directions, and that which is restricted to one interest. Those who reckon life by number, or by measure, or by parts, rob it of its distinctive quality.

This is a profound concept and one which Pierre Hadot discusses in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life.  Hadot quotes Nietzsche (p. 235):

Let us assume we say "Yes!" to one single, unique moment: we have thus said yes, not only to ourselves, but to the whole of existence.  For nothing is isolated, neither in ourselves nor in things.  And if, even once, our soul has vibrated and resounded like a string with happiness, all eternity was necessary to created the conditions for this one event; and all eternity has been approved, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

Seneca gets more specific about happiness:

Now, in the happy life, what is the distinctive quality? It is its fulness. ... Satiety.

Think about this - do you want to strive towards a limitless list of desires, pursuing a life by checking off desires one by one?  Where does it end? Will you ever be happy?  Or could you be highly discriminating in your pursuit of the most important desire and pursue it?  If you had one desire which brought happiness or an infinite list of desires which may bring happiness, which would you choose?

The answer, as I understand it, is to place your desires on pursuing an excellent character, so as to be beyond the grasp of Fortune and indifferents.  Regardless of having health or illness, wealth or poverty, life or death, you could attain satisfaction and happiness based on your attitude and virtuous soul - this is what Stoicism proposes.

The next syllogism Seneca discusses is this:

"He who is brave is fearless; he who is fearless is free from sadness; he who is free from sadness is happy."

But fearful of what?  Other schools focus on fear of evils and herein we need to unpack what is evil and what is not.

Others may say evils are pain, torture and misfortune.  But to a Stoic sage, evils are not those things.  The sage "believes that the only evil is baseness" or assuming an unvirtuous character.

death, imprisonment, burning, and all the other missiles of Fortune... are not evils.

To the Stoic sage, if you 

Paint him a picture of slavery, lashes, chains, want, mutilation by disease or by torture, – or anything else you may care to mention; he will count all such things as terrors caused by the derangement of the mind. These things are only to be feared by those who are fearful.

He further clarifies what are evils to the Stoic sage.

It is the yielding to those things which are called evils; it is the surrendering of one's liberty into their control, when really we ought to suffer all things in order to preserve this liberty. Liberty is lost unless we despise those things which put the yoke upon our necks. If men knew what bravery was, they would have no doubts as to what a brave man's conduct should be. For bravery is not thoughtless rashness, or love of danger, or the courting of fear-inspiring objects; it is the knowledge which enables us to distinguish between that which is evil and that which is not.

Allowing indifferents to control your state of mind - your happiness - is evil.  It is letting the idea of achieving riches, wealth, fame, glory or letting the idea of trying to avoid poverty, destitution, ignominy, dishonor, control your state of mind.

And to be precise and whole, Seneca also notes this on emotions and feelings.

Yes, he has felt pain; for no human virtue can rid itself of feelings. But he has no fear; unconquered he looks down from a lofty height upon his sufferings.

He continues with the next syllogism, which is related to the preceding point.

"That which is evil does harm; that which does harm makes a man worse. But pain and poverty do not make a man worse; therefore they are not evils."

After using an analogy of a good helmsman or pilot, Seneca concludes the thought with this:

The wise man's purpose in conducting his life is not to accomplish at all hazards what he tries, but to do all things rightly. ... And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent.

And then he writes this excellent passage on right use of a universe full of indifferents:

the wise man is not harmed by poverty, or by pain, or by any other of life's storms. For all his functions are not checked, but only those which pertain to others; he himself is always in action, and is greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom; and this wisdom I have declared already to be, both the good of others, and also his own.  Besides, he is not prevented from helping others, even at the time when constraining circumstances press him down. Because of his poverty he is prevented from showing how the State should be handled; but he teaches, none the less, how poverty should be handled. His work goes on throughout his whole life.  Thus no fortune, no external circumstance, can shut off the wise man from action. For the very thing which engages his attention prevents him from attending to other things. He is ready for either outcome: if it brings goods, he controls them; if evils, he conquers them.  So thoroughly, I mean, has he schooled himself that he makes manifest his virtue in prosperity as well as in adversity, and keeps his eyes on virtue itself, not on the objects with which virtue deals.

We moderns love Marcus Aurelius' quote regarding the 'obstacle is the way', which has been popularized by Ryan Holiday.  But the word "obstacle" causes some to trip up, perhaps.  It implies the traveler is on a path and there is an obstruction in his path and all that the traveler wants to do is continue on the path.  To slightly alter the analogy, we need to get into the attitude and head of the traveler.  Instead of thinking "all the traveler wants to do is continue on the path", we change her attitude to "I wish to show the world how well I travel on this path, whatever it throws in my path."  Now, instead of an obstacle in the way, that big rock is an opportunity for her to show and demonstrate her ability to rock climb.  Now, no matter what is on the path, or if there is sunshine or rain, she demonstrates skill and excellence of attitude, in all circumstances.

In my opinion, the clue to realizing you do not have the correct mindset is to recognize when you are complaining.  The sage does not complain about exile, poverty, illness or death.  Nor is he overjoyed (or complaining) when he has health, wealth, fame and is alive.  The word - the goal - to strive for is equanimity.

Seneca concludes:

So the wise man will develop virtue, if he may, in the midst of wealth, or, if not, in poverty; if possible, in his own country – if not, in exile; if possible, as a commander – if not, as a common soldier; if possible, in sound health – if not, enfeebled. Whatever fortune he finds, he will accomplish therefrom something noteworthy. ...  the wise man is a skilled hand at taming evils. Pain, want, disgrace, imprisonment, exile, – these are universally to be feared; but when they encounter the wise man, they are tamed.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 84 - On Gathering Ideas

On Gathering Ideas

In the aim of loving wisdom, we must expose ourselves to many ideas, make some of them our own and add to those that need enhancing.  And in that quest for wisdom, we must read and write.  Seneca correctly observes:

I have not stopped my reading in the slightest degree. And reading, I hold, is indispensable – primarily, to keep me from being satisfied with myself alone, and besides, after I have learned what others have found out by their studies, to enable me to pass judgment on their discoveries and reflect upon discoveries that remain to be made. Reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it when it is wearied with study; nevertheless, this refreshment is not obtained without study.  We ought not to confine ourselves either to writing or to reading; the one, continuous writing, will cast a gloom over our strength, and exhaust it; the other will make our strength flabby and watery. It is better to have recourse to them alternately, and to blend one with the other, so that the fruits of one's reading may be reduced to concrete form by the pen.

I've written a bit more extensively on the topics of reading and writing as methods of learning and gaining wisdom (see Applied Stoicism essay on Education).

Seneca sees natural processes, such as bees making honey, as analogous to how humans can gather various ideas from many sources (flowers / books) to produce good ideas (i.e. honey).

Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation, – whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

As a side note, I recommend this video for learning the amazing process of how bees make honey, and how they work and socialize.

Seneca applies the analogy to humans and how we ought to learn.

We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate ...  blend those several flavours into one delicious compound.

We are not merely to learn and copy, but to comprehend, assume the mindset and improve upon it where we can.

we should see to it that whatever we have absorbed should not be allowed to remain unchanged, or it will be no part of us.  We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power.

And while at times we may mimic others, we should strive to add our unique perspective on it, so as to not be identical.

Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

We add our unique perspective to the chorus of those who have added previously, and it is blended into a harmony.

how many voices there are in a chorus? Yet out of the many only one voice results.

And our mind should similarly be like the chorus - to take in many voices and blend them into one.

I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one.

He concludes with a plea to not pursue indifferents for the sake of them, but rather to use them well - to demonstrate wisdom; to demonstrate an excellent soul.  Don't focus on the low (indifferents), but focus on the high - take the view from above - as you approach indifferents.  While others will regard the indifferents as "the goal" of life, you will see that those things are a means to an end.  The end is wisdom - the wise use of indifferents - not possession of indifferents.

direct your course hither to wisdom, and seek her ways, which are ways of surpassing peace and plenty. Whatever seems conspicuous in the affairs of men – however petty it may really be and prominent only by contrast with the lowest objects – is nevertheless approached by a difficult and toilsome pathway. It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness; but if you desire to scale this peak, which lies far above the range of Fortune, you will indeed look down from above upon all that men regard as most lofty, but none the less you can proceed to the top over level ground. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 83 - On Drunkenness

On Drunkenness

The letter starts of emphasizing the importance of conducting self-retrospectives, so that we may learn from our past.

Seneca advocates transparency and constant introspection.

we should live, – as if we lived in plain sight of all men; and it is thus that we should think, – as if there were someone who could look into our inmost souls; and there is one who can so look. For what avails it that something is hidden from man? Nothing is shut off from the sight of God. He is witness of our souls, and he comes into the very midst of our thoughts – comes into them. ...

I shall keep watching myself continually, and – a most useful habit – shall review each day. For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future always depend on the past.

Then he delves into the topic of drunkenness.

I've never been drunk and I don't understand the desire for people who drink until they are drunk.  In high school, I generally avoided the crowd that smoked weed and drank.  While I was living in Guatemala, I saw plenty of drunks.  Two examples stand out - one repulsive, the other graphic and tragic.

The first was of a man who was attempting to walk home, but who was so slammed, he passed out in the middle of the dirt walking path, just before a foot bridge.  He was lucky enough to have avoided smashing his head on something hard enough to split his head open.  But, after he passed out, he wet himself and vomited.

The second was of a man who was so smashed, he could not hold onto the metal bar while standing in the back of a truck (jalon).  Therefore, he stumbled backwards, out of the back of the truck, hit the ground and cracked open his head and bled out before help could arrive.

As for Seneca, he makes a good argument, simply stating that the sage will not get drunk.

the sage ... always stops short of drunkenness.

He continues,

if you wish to prove that a good man ought not to get drunk, why work it out by logic? Show how base it is to pour down more liquor than one can carry, and not to know the capacity of one's own stomach; show how often the drunkard does things which make him blush when he is sober; state that drunkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed.

The rest of the letter are the many examples of how drunkenness usually brings out the worst vices in us. 

If you or a loved one suffers from alcohol addiction, seek help.  Here's one resource to consider.

https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/treatment-alcohol-problems-finding-and-getting-help

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 82 - On the Natural Fear of Death

On the Natural Fear of Death

The letter begins with a question.

"Whom then of the gods," you ask, "have you found as your voucher?"

The footnote of this letter provides a bit more context with regard to the term 'voucher'.  It states:

One who incurs liability by taking upon himself the debt of another. It is part of the process known as intercessio.

Having been raised Christian, I immediately recognized the concept of someone taking on the sins (debts) of another.  In Christian theology, the one to takes on the sins of others is Christ - some would call him god.

Seneca explains that the Stoic voucher - or god - is

A god ... who deceives no one, – a soul in love with that which is upright and good.

Men deceive, but god does not.  God has no need of deception, but men, who want to manipulate and control others, deceive.

Stoic philosophy would have us steer clear of luxury and decadence.  Seneca states as much.

Proceed as you have begun, and settle yourself in this way of living, not luxuriously, but calmly.  I prefer to be in trouble rather than in luxury; and you had better interpret the term "in trouble" as popular usage is wont to interpret it: living a "hard," "rough," "toilsome" life.

But ought we to pursue a life full of slavery, toil and dread?  Neither luxury nor drudgery are the wise course of action.  We are to prepare for toughening and when Fortune sends trials our way, we are prepared to act virtuously toward them.  But as for luxury and decadence - shun them.

If you do have free time, then study philosophy in order to more perfectly practice it.

gird yourself about with philosophy, an impregnable wall. Though it be assaulted by many engines, Fortune can find no passage into it. The soul stands on unassailable ground, if it has abandoned external things; it is independent in its own fortress; and every weapon that is hurled falls short of the mark.

He continues,

Let us then recoil from her as far as we are able. This will be possible for us only through knowledge of self and of the world of Nature.

Note above, the reference to the three disciplines: knowledge of self, as related to the discipline of assent; knowledge of the world, as related to the discipline of action; and knowledge of Nature, as related to the discipline of desire.

The ultimate preparation and toughening is the preparation for death.

strength of heart, however, will come from constant study, provided that you practise, not with the tongue but with the soul, and provided that you prepare yourself to meet death.

Learn philosophy, then practice it.  Practice it by contemplating death so as to not fear it at all.

Death falls under the category of indifferent.  And just like all other indifferents, we are to use them in order to exercise our excellence.  For we all die, but to die with excellence is 'up to us.'

I classify as "indifferent," – that is, neither good nor evil – sickness, pain, poverty, exile, death.  None of these things is intrinsically glorious; but nothing can be glorious apart from them.

Note Seneca's observation in the last sentence.  We are not to ignore and shun indifferents.  Rather, they are the medium though which we demonstrate excellence.  Indifferents hold no intrinsic value.  What is of value is our use of indifferents in order to demonstrate our excellence of character (or not).

He provides examples:

For it is not poverty that we praise, it is the man whom poverty cannot humble or bend. Nor is it exile that we praise, it is the man who withdraws into exile in the spirit in which he would have sent another into exile. It is not pain that we praise, it is the man whom pain has not coerced. One praises not death, but the man whose soul death takes away before it can confound it.

Both Cato and Brutus died.  But one exercised excellence and the other disgrace.

the death which in Cato's case is glorious, is in the case of Brutus forthwith base and disgraceful.

Seneca offers more examples of indifferents and correct (or incorrect) use of them.

thus it is with the things which we call indifferent and "middle," like riches, strength, beauty, titles, kingship, and their opposites, – death, exile, ill-health, pain, and all such evils, the fear of which upsets us to a greater or less extent; it is the wickedness or the virtue that bestows the name of good or evil.

Preparing for one's death cannot be actually practiced.  Therefore, we must use all other manner of thought experiments to prepare for death; this is the practice of memento mori - or constantly recalling that we are mortal and that we must always keep this fact in the forefront of our minds - in order to meet death with neither fear nor trepidation, so that we can rationally choose the manner and attitude in which we will die.

The soul must be hardened by long practice, so that it may learn to endure the sight and the approach of death.

We must do everything willingly, or else it will count for naught.  True virtue is choosing the wise course of action for the correct reasons.  When it comes to true philosophy, the sage is one who willingly complies with Fate and Fortune for the right reasons.  This is why noble lies are of no use.  We must face reality and Nature without a veil.  Preachers, teachers and leaders who intend to deceive in order to trick people into the right course of action, do many a disservice.

nothing glorious can result from unwillingness and cowardice; virtue does nothing under compulsion.  Besides, no deed that a man does is honourable unless he has devoted himself thereto and attended to it with all his heart. ... virtue accomplishes its plans only when the spirit is in harmony with itself.

Because so many fear death and wish to cline to life, convincing people to prepare for death is difficult.  This is hard mental work.  But if one puts in the time and effort to prepare for death and to shun it, our excellence will be equal to the heroes of Sparta - the 300.

I point out to you the Lacedaemonians in position at the very pass of Thermopylae! They have no hope of victory, no hope of returning. The place where they stand is to be their tomb. ... Leonidas: how bravely did he address his men! He said: "Fellow-soldiers, let us to our breakfast, knowing that we shall sup in Hades!" ...  It is not the Three Hundred, – it is all mankind that should be relieved of the fear of death.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 81 - On Benefits

On Benefits

This letter relates to gratitude and ingratitude, and it delves into the social ledger of giving and receiving.  As is the usual case with Seneca, he writes a lot to make a point.  I'll try to summarize the gist of each paragraph and point.

The whole topic begins when Lucilius complains about meeting an ungrateful person.  Seneca wishes to teach Lucilius that on the topic of gratitude, it is not so much about checking debits and credits in a social ledger as it is about embracing and expressing the attitude of gratitude.  Seneca quips:

caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

Stated differently, he instructs Lucilius that if he focuses on whether someone repays him (in the form of gratitude or benefits) or not, then he may exercise greater "caution" or reservation, so as to not harm his ego.  But in so doing, Lucilius would only harm himself.  Gratitude is not about squaring a debt or incurring a credit (although many people do think this way), rather gratitude is an inward disposition - an attitude one assumes and embraces - to his own benefit.

Seneca is of the opinion it is always better to assume a gracious attitude regardless of what others' response is.  Therefore, it is better to always be gracious and to never have gratitude returned than to never be gracious in the first place.  Being gracious is good for the person, even when the other person does not reciprocate.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again ...  In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

An excellent, rational human always chooses virtue regardless of others' response.  But if you live your life according to the social ledger, you may soon find yourself quite a hermit and a nobody.

If one were compelled to drop everything that caused trouble, life would soon grow dull amid sluggish idleness; but in your case this very condition may prompt you to become more charitable. For when the outcome of any undertaking is unsure, you must try again and again, in order to succeed ultimately.

Ultimate success means the individual Stoic acts as a potential catalyst of igniting the fire of love throughout the Cosmos.  While this may largely be unsuccessful in an individual's lifetime, the good thing to do is to try, try again!

Seneca then asks an interesting ethical question.

"Whether he who has helped us has squared the account and has freed us from our debt, if he has done us harm later."

Restated differently, the question asks if another person who has previously helped us, but then later does us harm - are we obligated to return the good favor they previously bestowed, since they have now harmed us?

Seneca analyzes the situation, but in the end, simply notes that the good man will give maximum benefit of the doubt to the person who has helped and then injured.

The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Again, to restate his point: if someone has helped us and we, in a sense, 'owe them' for the favor, and this same someone later injures us, if we are good, then we will be grateful for the benefit that someone has given us and we will minimize the harm of that injury.  In modern vernacular, we give them the most benefit of the doubt - we try to be generous of our opinion of them when they helped us, and we discount the injury as much as possible when they harm us.

Seneca continues,

"But surely," you say, "it is the part of justice to render to each that which is his due, – thanks in return for a benefit, and retribution, or at any rate ill-will, in return for an injury!" This, I say, will be true when it is one man who has inflicted the injury, and a different man who has conferred the benefit; for if it is the same man, the force of the injury is nullified by the benefit conferred.

In his opinion, if it is the same person who both helps and then injures, then we should give the best benefit of the doubt.  But if the injury is by one person and the help is by a different, then perhaps a tit-for-tat strategy is more justified.  Although, for my own part, I think we ought to give others the benefit of the doubt even if they have only injured us and have not helped us.  I would implement a tit-for-tat if I were repeatedly injured by the same person over a long period of time.

He continues,

The wise man will inquire in his own mind into all the circumstances: how much he has received, from whom, when, where, how. And so we declare that none but the wise man knows how to make return for a favour; moreover, none but the wise man knows how to confer a benefit, – that man, I mean, who enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving. ... In this balancing of benefits and injuries, the good man will, to be sure, judge with the highest degree of fairness, but he will incline towards the side of the benefit; he will turn more readily in this direction. ...  the good man will be easy-going in striking a balance; he will allow too much to be set against his credit. He will be unwilling to pay a benefit by balancing the injury against it. The side towards which he will lean, the tendency which he will exhibit, is the desire to be under obligations for the favour, and the desire to make return therefor. 

Again - the principal is revealed: give the benefit of doubt; assume the best of intentions in others.

If we are wise, we will assume an attitude of gratitude in all circumstances.

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible.  For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself ...  I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me. ... your being grateful is more conducive to your own good than to your neighbour's good ... you have had a great experience which is the outcome of an utterly happy condition of soul, – to have felt gratitude.

The opposite is also true.  An ungrateful person only harms himself.

The ungrateful man tortures and torments himself; he hates the gifts which he has accepted, because he must make a return for them, and he tries to belittle their value, but he really enlarges and exaggerates the injuries which he has received. And what is more wretched than a man who forgets his benefits and clings to his injuries?

Returning to more fully describing what 'giving the benefit if the doubt' means:

He despises the wrongs done him; he forgets them, not accidentally, but voluntarily.  He does not put a wrong construction upon everything, or seek for someone whom he may hold responsible for each happening; he rather ascribes even the sins of men to chance. He will not misinterpret a word or a look; he makes light of all mishaps by interpreting them in a generous way.  He does not remember an injury rather than a service. As far as possible, he lets his memory rest upon the earlier and the better deed ... the spirit of kindliness always tries to bend every doubtful case toward the better interpretation

In sum, the grateful person does not walk around with a chip on his shoulder, daring any and all to knock it off!

Where does gratitude find its root?  How does one gain, instill and embrace gratitude?

no man can be grateful unless he has learned to scorn the things which drive the common herd to distraction; if you wish to make return for a favour, you must be willing to go into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or – and this will frequently happen, – even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders. It is no slight price that a man must pay for being grateful.

This passage hearkens to the spiritual exercise of negative visualization or premeditatio malorum.  To feel gratitude, subtract things from your life.  Ponder your own exile, your own ill health, your own poverty and even your potential ill-repute.  Practice thinking about experiencing these things and how they are nothing to be feared - how they are not up to you.  And when you return to the present, you will note how much you have and you will feel gratitude.  As you think of these things, your greed will diminish.

Do you ask what it is that makes us forget benefits received? It is our extreme greed for receiving others. We consider not what we have obtained, but what we are to seek.

We give in to hedonic adaptation.  And when we become used to all these things, we take them for granted and when they are taken away, we feel offended.  We ought to reflect that we have been infected with the 'common herd's' desires.  Therefore, we ought to despise what the majority pursues.

those things possess no grandeur wherewith to enthrall our minds, except the fact that we have become accustomed to marvel at them. For they are not praised because they ought to be desired, but they are desired because they have been praised; and when the error of individuals has once created error on the part of the public, then the public error goes on creating error on the part of individuals.

He concludes with the point, that regardless of the many opinions in the world, gratitude is common among all people.

Amid all this diversity of opinion all men will yet with one voice, as the saying is, vote "aye" to the proposition that thanks should be returned to those who have deserved well of us.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 80 - On Worldly Deceptions

On Worldly Deceptions

Because the people in Seneca's life are off enjoying the games and boxing, Seneca has time to himself, uninterrupted.  He then observes:

my thoughts may march safely on, – and that is all the more necessary for one who goes independently and follows out his own path. Do I then follow no predecessors? Yes, but I allow myself to discover something new, to alter, to reject. I am not a slave to them, although I give them my approval.

Said differently, he indeed follows predecessors, but he also reflects on what has been discussed and he feels the freedom to agree, reject or alter it.  He simply asserts his independent thought.  I admit I've suffered from a "going-along mindset" for much of my life.  It feels that I spend most of my time reviewing what has been discussed, said or thought, and then I agree, reject or add a nuance.  I don't think I'll ever come up with some novel philosophical idea.  And even if I do, the chances are likely that it's simply a matter of having not yet discovered who has previously thought it!

He next ponders the amount of time and effort people spend on their bodies, but don't dedicate as much time and effort on the mind.  The premise is that humans' unique nature is the rational.  We share the physical with beasts, but they do not share the rational with us.  Therefore, if we are to live according to our unique nature, we ought to spend our time in the rational area of our lives.  Seneca writes:

How many men, I say to myself, train their bodies, and how few train their minds!  What crowds flock to the games, – spurious as they are and arranged merely for pastime, – and what a solitude reigns where the good arts are taught! How feather-brained are the athletes whose muscles and shoulders we admire!

Epictetus notes in Enchiridion 41,

It is the mark of a crude disposition to spend most of one's time on bodily functions such as exercise, eating, drinking, defecating, and copulating.  These are things to be done just incidentally.  All your attention should be on your mind.

How many people are willing to train and torture the body for a few minutes of fame in the arena.  Ought we not to spend more time training our minds to withstand the "blows of Fortune"?

if this can be done, how much more easily might the mind be toughened so that it could receive the blows of Fortune and not be conquered, so that it might struggle to its feet again after it has been laid low, after it has been trampled under foot? ... Yonder athletes must have copious food, copious drink, copious quantities of oil, and long training besides; but you can acquire virtue without equipment and without expense. All that goes to make you a good man lies within yourself.

All that is needed to make progress is to wish for freedom from Fortune.  And the first areas to overcome are freedom from death, and poverty.

shall you not be eager to attain liberty at any price, seeing that you claim it as your birthright? ... freedom is possessed neither by those who have bought it, nor by those who have sold it. You must give this good to yourself, and seek it from yourself. ... First of all, free yourself from the fear of death, for death puts the yoke about our necks; then free yourself from the fear of poverty.

You may look on those who have much wealth and think them happy.  But you do not know if they truly have freedom or not.  Don't be so hasty to fall for the trap in thinking wealth brings happiness and freedom.

in every case their happiness is put on like the actor's mask. Tear it off, and you will scorn them. ... if you judge a man, do you judge him when he is wrapped in a disguise? ... If you wish to see what he amounts to, and to know his full worth, take off his diadem; much evil lurks beneath it. But why do I speak of others? If you wish to set a value on yourself, put away your money, your estates, your honours, and look into your own soul.

The only thing that is up to you, is your soul.  You cannot accurately judge yourself by using the standard of health, wealth, status or fame.  Your lucid judgement and discerning assessment of events, things, people and circumstances and how you react to these is what is up to you.  This is never so simple, and can only be ascertained through much thought and objectivity - seeing things from the perspective of Nature.  Do not let such worldly deceptions deceive you.  Always look to wisdom to guide you.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 79 - On the Rewards of Scientific Discovery

On the Rewards of Scientific Discovery

The first third of the letter is centered around Lucilius' trip in and around Sicily, along with the sights and land and sea marks in that area.  Lucilius writes about poem about Mt. Aetna, a topic of which many previous writers have tackled.  And due to the fact that so many have written about Mt. Aetna, Seneca observes:

It makes a great deal of difference whether you approach a subject that has been exhausted, or one where the ground has merely been broken; in the latter case, the topic grows day by day, and what is already discovered does not hinder new discoveries. Besides, he who writes last has the best of the bargain; he finds already at hand words which, when marshalled in a different way, show a new face. And he is not pilfering them, as if they belonged to someone else, when he uses them, for they are common property.

He's absolutely right.  On topics which have been discussed and written about for so many years and centuries, even millennia, it is quite difficult to add to the subject.  So much so, that many of these topics are now "common property."  I feel this way about philosophy.  And at this time in my life, I am embarking on a grand journey to delve a bit deeper to explore the many varying philosophies and aspects of philosophies (pursuing B.A. in philosophy).  And on a related topic of the principal of charity and debate, I read in this article, the quote: "First, we listen and only then do we respond."  I feel that I should hardly add anything to the grand debate because I have not fully listened!  And to tidy up this thought, I will simply say, that the reason I engage in discussion and writing about the topic of philosophy is because I wish to learn, and in discussion, inquiry and writing, I learn.

Seneca next pivots to the topic of wisdom and this concept of one either being a sage or a fool.  Either you have wisdom (i.e. you've reached the top of a summit) or you don't, but are progressing (you are still hiking to the summit).

Wisdom has this advantage, among others, – that no man can be outdone by another, except during the climb. But when you have arrived at the top, it is a draw; there is no room for further ascent, the game is over. Can the sun add to his size? Can the moon advance beyond her usual fulness? The seas do not increase in bulk. The universe keeps the same character, the same limits.

Then he makes an interesting observation about gifts.  Perhaps Nature has given us these unique gifts, but the path to wisdom is still open for all.

Men who have attained wisdom will therefore be equal and on the same footing. Each of them will possess his own peculiar gifts: one will be more affable, another more facile, another more ready of speech, a fourth more eloquent; but as regards the quality under discussion, – the element that produces happiness, – it is equal in them all. 

Returning to the timeless and unmovable concept of virtue, Seneca notes:

virtue will not be brought down to a lower plane either by flames or by ruins. Hers is the only greatness that knows no lowering; there can be for her no further rising or sinking. Her stature, like that of the stars in the heavens, is fixed. Let us therefore strive to raise ourselves to this altitude.

We attain to virtue - we ascend her summit.  The outcome we seek is the summit.  But if you are distracted by competition with other hikers on the mountain, you are missing the point.  While you may be higher up (or lower) than others, that is not the goal.

goodness does not mean merely being better than the lowest. Who that could catch but a mere glimpse of the daylight would boast his powers of vision? One who sees the sun shining through a mist may be contented meanwhile that he has escaped darkness, but he does not yet enjoy the blessing of light.  Our souls will not have reason to rejoice in their lot until, freed from this darkness in which they grope, they have not merely glimpsed the brightness with feeble vision, but have absorbed the full light of day and have been restored to their place in the sky, – until, indeed, they have regained the place which they held at the allotment of their birth. The soul is summoned upward by its very origin. And it will reach that goal even before it is released from its prison below, as soon as it has cast off sin and, in purity and lightness, has leaped up into celestial realms of thought.

My son and I climbed Mt. Elbert in Colorado last year.  It was our first 14K foot mountain to climb.  Since we are just day-hikers, we chose the gentle giant - we didn't want any technical issues - but it is a notable mountain to climb as it is the highest peak in Colorado.  The views were spectacular and rewarding as we slowly made our way up it's side.  But having lived at sea-level for over 20 years, the climb up was difficult.  We stopped many times and with each stop, the views and sense of accomplishment became clearer.  Towards the top, as the incline became quite steep, we wondered if we ought to turn around.  But we pressed on, keeping an eye on any incoming storms.  Many others, on the trail, encouraged us to press on - that the view at the top was worth it.  We plodded on.  And when we did get to the top, the view was spectacular and the sense of accomplishment was thrilling.  We snapped some pictures and then raced back down to avoid an incoming storm.

At the bottom of the mountain, we felt victorious for having climbed it without incident or injury.  We gave each other a big hug in the parking lot - as a father - this would be my last hike with my son for a while as he would head off to the Marines two months later.

To tie this back to Seneca - while we ascended a bit up the mountain and while the views were excellent, we could not appreciate the full, unimpeded view from the summit.  We would never enjoy that full sense of achievement and accomplishment until the ascent was complete.  The ascent to wisdom is the same.  Many of us will only ever be prokoptons for the duration of our life and only enjoying limited views on this massive mountain.

The last third of Letter 79 deals with the fact that many people are blind to virtue and only see it many years later.  Seneca says, "Fame is the shadow of virtue."

When I first read that, my brain froze up a bit.  Fame is an indifferent; why should Seneca care about it as related to virtue.  But as I read that again as well as the rest of the letter, it became more evident that he was simply saying something synonymous with the idea of "truth will out!"  A similar idea I've heard others say is "history will be the judge of me."  This notion stems from the idea that many people today can't see that the decisions being made are indeed the right decisions.  Seneca references many historical figures, including Cato.  Perhaps the sentiment of the day was that many supported Ceasar, but history shows that Cato was right!

And how long did our state remain in ignorance of Cato! They rejected him, and did not know his worth until they had lost him ... how many there are whose progress toward virtue has come to light only after their death!

Later on, he takes a long-winded approach to saying that history is the ultimate judge of us all.  While we may be blind today, given sufficient time and retrospective thought, we will see the follies of our ways.

Virtue is never lost to view; and yet to have been lost to view is no loss. There will come a day which will reveal her, though hidden away or suppressed by the spite of her contemporaries. That man is born merely for a few, who thinks only of the people of his own generation. Many thousands of years and many thousands of peoples will come after you; it is to these that you should have regard. Malice may have imposed silence upon the mouths of all who were alive in your day; but there will come men who will judge you without prejudice and without favour.

I don't think he is saying that we should live to be famous in the history books.  But he's saying that given a sufficient amount of time, if the people of the future look back on your life, will they regard you as wise?  I guess it depends on the state of mind of those in the future!

Regardless, we should live according to Nature, who is virtuous.  We should look to the unmovable standard and align our life accordingly.  Be loyal to her alone.

Virtue has never failed to reward a man, both during his life and after his death, provided he has followed her loyally, provided he has not decked himself out or painted himself up, but has been always the same, whether he appeared before men's eyes after being announced, or suddenly and without preparation. Pretence accomplishes nothing. Few are deceived by a mask that is easily drawn over the face. Truth is the same in every part. Things which deceive us have no real substance. Lies are thin stuff; they are transparent, if you examine them with care.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 78 - On the Healing Power of the Mind

On the Healing Power of the Mind

Lucilius and Seneca suffer from catarrh, which the buildup of mucus in the back of the nose, throat, or sinuses. Doctors sometimes refer to catarrh as postnasal drip.

Apparently, Seneca had it so bad, he

entertained the impulse of ending [his] life then and there; but the thought of [his] kind old father kept [him] back. For [he] reflected, not how bravely [he] had the power to die, but how little power [his father] had to bear bravely the loss of [him]. And so [he] commanded [himself]to live.

Next comes a quote which I have seen quoted many times:

For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.

The rest of the letter contains Seneca's advice for getting over disease and dealing with pain.  The main point of it all, is that the study of the soul and mind and philosophy will go a long way to helping the sufferer of pain.

these very aids to my peace of mind were as efficacious as medicine. Honourable consolation results in a cure; and whatever has uplifted the soul helps the body also. My studies were my salvation. I place it to the credit of philosophy that I recovered and regained my strength. I owe my life to philosophy.
He also mentions friendship as a form of relief of suffering.  And as to the specific ailment of the catarrh, he advises walking, reading aloud, and a proper diet.  But for biggest aid and cure for disease, pain and the entire problem of life, he recommends philosophy - learning how to die well.
my counsel to you is this, – and it is a cure, not merely of this disease of yours, but of your whole life, – "Despise death." There is no sorrow in the world, when we have escaped from the fear of death.  There are these three serious elements in every disease: fear of death, bodily pain, and interruption of pleasures
If we can scorn death and never fear it, we will be able to face suffering and pain and be able to endure the lack of pleasures.  More specifically, he addresses the management of pain.  Either it is endurable, in which can we can endure in between breaks in the pain; or it is severe and acute, in which case either we die or the acuteness will not last long.
The suffering, however, is rendered endurable by interruptions; for the strain of extreme pain must come to an end.  No man can suffer both severely and for a long time; Nature, who loves us most tenderly, has so constituted us as to make pain either endurable or short.
Later on, he notes that when we put ourselves through self-inflicted suffering, we are able to better endure pain and diseases when they come.  A person acquainted with pain will not be fearful of it's onset.  In a way, he is able to separate his mind from his body.
The reason, however, why the inexperienced are impatient when their bodies suffer is, that they have not accustomed themselves to be contented in spirit. They have been closely associated with the body. Therefore a high-minded and sensible man divorces soul from body, and dwells much with the better or divine part, and only as far as he must with this complaining and frail portion.
And when pain does come into our life, we would do well to not complain about it.  Complaining does not make the pain go away and only serves to add mental suffering to the situation.  While it may seem extreme, Seneca's advice works.  If you think nothing of a trifle of pain or even of 'ambition, luxury, greed,' you will find the grip of those things will slacken.  But by drawing attention to them, you increase the sensitivity to them.
One can endure the suffering which disease entails, if one has come to regard its results with scorn.  But do not of your own accord make your troubles heavier to bear and burden yourself with complaining. Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; but if, on the other hand, you begin to encourage yourself and say, "It is nothing, – a trifling matter at most; keep a stout heart and it will soon cease"; then in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer.
The same too can be said of past physical and mental suffering.
What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings, and in being unhappy, just because once you were unhappy? Besides, every one adds much to his own ills, and tells lies to himself.
Enduring pain and overcoming it is one way to rise above Fate and Fortune.  We can think of these events like an enemy attacking our position.  If we don't give in, we will be rewarded with the knowledge that our character has proven itself excellent.
if you hold your ground and make up your mind to push against it, it will be forced back. ... the reward is not a garland or a palm or a trumpeter who calls for silence at the proclamation of our names, but rather virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time, if fortune has once been utterly vanquished in any combat.
Another remedy he recommends is to look to think of other things and other people.  Recall the good, brave deeds in your own past; recall what brave people have done to overcome suffering.  One example of this, which I've found useful in situations where I am prone to complain, is to think of Anne Frank.  Whenever I catch myself complaining about something, I picture Anne, with arms folded, tapping her foot and impatiently looking at me, as if to say, "you think your problems are tough?"
to turn the mind aside to thoughts of other things and thus to depart from pain. Call to mind what honourable or brave deeds you have done; consider the good side of your own life. Run over in your memory those things which you have particularly admired. Then think of all the brave men who have conquered pain: of him who continued to read his book as he allowed the cutting out of varicose veins; of him who did not cease to smile, though that very smile so enraged his torturers that they tried upon him every instrument of their cruelty.
In recalling other people who have endured suffering, Seneca notes people who never uttered a moan or even broke out in a smile under the torturer's hands!

Before pain comes into our life, we must try to become accustomed to it.  We ought to organize our mind and soul through meditation.  Thereby, we are able to attain self-control and demonstrate an excellent character even on our sick-bed.
if your soul be habitually in practice, you will plead and teach, listen and learn, investigate and meditate. What more is necessary? Do you think that you are doing nothing if you possess self-control in your illness? You will be showing that a disease can be overcome, or at any rate endured.  There is, I assure you, a place for virtue even upon a bed of sickness. ... a man can display bravery even when wrapped in his bed-clothes. You have something to do: wrestle bravely with disease.
As we meditate and
roam through the universe, the truth can never pall (lose strength or potency); it will be the untruths that will cloy (be distasteful or displeasing).
We will come to know the truth that
honourable things do not depend on time for their growth; but any life must seem short to those who measure its length by pleasures which are empty and for that reason unbounded.
He closes:
"A single day among the learned lasts longer than the longest life of the ignorant."  Meanwhile, hold fast to this thought, and grip it close: yield not to adversity; trust not to prosperity; keep before your eyes the full scope of Fortune's power, as if she would surely do whatever is in her power to do. That which has been long expected comes more gently.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 77 - On Taking One's Own Life

On Taking One's Own Life

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This post deals with and discusses suicide.

If you are in a good spot mentally speaking, then feel free read this post with all the candidness that philosophy has to offer.

But if you have suicidal thoughts or are considering suicide, please ask for professional help.  Below are phone numbers for immediate help, if you are based in the United States of America.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 (for the transgender community)

TrevorLifeline: 1-866-488-7386 (for LGBTQ youth)

Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, Press 1

If you are not based in the USA, please search on the internet for sources of help in your country, before reading this post.

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To be a bit clearer, Seneca's 77th letter really deals with euthanasia rather than suicide in general.

The object of the letter is Tullius Marcellinus, but before he begins discussing him, Seneca observes the hustle and bustle of people in the excitement of the ship which has just docked.  

While everybody was bustling about and hurrying to the water-front, I felt great pleasure in my laziness, because, although I was soon to receive letters from my friends, I was in no hurry to know how my affairs were progressing abroad, or what news the letters were bringing; for some time now I have had no losses, nor gains either. Even if I were not an old man, I could not have helped feeling pleasure at this; but as it is, my pleasure was far greater. For, however small my possessions might be, I should still have left over more travelling-money than journey to travel, especially since this journey upon which we have set out is one which need not be followed to the end.

Seneca is pleased with himself because he has not been caught up in the excitement of the incoming ship and pivots this reflection into the fact that he thinks, metaphorically, he still has ample time left in his journey of life.  He makes the point very much clearer when he states that the length or end of the journey matters not so much as the manner in which you leave it.

An expedition will be incomplete if one stops half-way, or anywhere on this side of one's destination; but life is not incomplete if it is honourable. At whatever point you leave off living, provided you leave off nobly, your life is a whole.

In other words, a man of 20 years can live just as nobly as a man of 90 years.  The length does not matter so much.  What does matter is the fashion of leaving.  Therefore, a boy of 20 years old, who jumps on a grenade is much more honorable than the couch potato who dies of a heart attack at age 50.  Equally honorable is the man who labors for 40 years teaching ungrateful middle school students, in order to provide for his family, and dies on the day he retires, while it would be dishonorable of a man of 20 years who drinks to excess and dies in a drug overdose.

The object of the letter is one

Tullius Marcellinus ... [who] fell ill of a disease which was by no means hopeless; but it was protracted and troublesome, and it demanded much attention; hence he began to think about dying.

He called his friends together to give him advice.  One of his friends was a Stoic.

[the] Stoic friend, a rare man, and, ... a man of courage and vigour, admonished him best of all. ... [He said]: "Do not torment yourself, my dear Marcellinus, as if the question which you are weighing were a matter of importance. It is not an important matter to live; all your slaves live, and so do all animals; but it is important to die honourably, sensibly, bravely. Reflect how long you have been doing the same thing: food, sleep, lust, – this is one's daily round. The desire to die may be felt, not only by the sensible man or the brave or unhappy man, but even by the man who is merely surfeited."

Marcellinus' slaves were reluctant to help him in his death.  So the Stoic friend advised him

to distribute gifts to those who had attended him throughout his whole life, when that life was finished, just as, when a banquet is finished, the remaining portion is divided among the attendants who stand about the table. ... so he distributed little sums among his sorrowing slaves, and comforted them besides.

He fasted, then made a steam tent, as it were, and sat in a hot bath and had hot water poured over him until he passed out and then passed away.

Death becomes us all.  If you are someone who desperately wishes to cling so tightly to life, recall Seneca's words:

Would you not think him an utter fool who wept because he was not alive a thousand years ago? And is he not just as much of a fool who weeps because he will not be alive a thousand years from now? It is all the same; you will not be, and you were not. Neither of these periods of time belongs to you.

You are a blip in an unfathomable ocean of time and space.  Do not cling to something so insignificant.

Do not pray for something that is impossible, namely to escape death.

Give over thinking that your prayers can bend Divine decrees from their predestined end.  These decrees are unalterable and fixed; they are governed by a mighty and everlasting compulsion.

Returning to the concept of an honorable death, Seneca recounts the story of the Spartan boy who was taken captive.

The story of the Spartan lad has been preserved: taken captive while still a stripling, he kept crying in his Doric dialect, "I will not be a slave!" and he made good his word; for the very first time he was ordered to perform a menial and degrading service, – and the command was to fetch a chamber-pot, – he dashed out his brains against the wall.

Do not forget that we are all free from the bonds of life.  Do not fear death.

Unhappy fellow, you are a slave to men, you are a slave to your business, you are a slave to life. For life, if courage to die be lacking, is slavery.

And while you live, ponder deeply on what is up to you - on what your purpose is.  Do not let your purpose be so lowly as an animal.  Do not be a robot who works all day, to earn money, to spend it on things and food, to process said food, to deposit it in a hole, to be flushed and then to repeat the whole process again.  You are not a food processor.  You are a rational being.  Find meaning; live purposely; carpe diem.

It makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand measures pass through your bladder; you are nothing but a wine-strainer.  You are a connoisseur in the flavour of the oyster and of the mullet; your luxury has not left you anything untasted for the years that are to come; and yet these are the things from which you are torn away unwillingly.

And if you are the type of person who is duty bound and must keep on living to fulfill your duties, recall that dying is a duty too and that to live excellently (your duty) also means choosing to die excellently (also your duty).

"I wish to live, for I am engaged in many honourable pursuits. I am loth to leave life's duties, which I am fulfilling with loyalty and zeal." Surely you are aware that dying is also one of life's duties?

His letter ends,

It is with life as it is with a play, – it matters not how long the action is spun out, but how good the acting is. It makes no difference at what point you stop. Stop whenever you choose; only see to it that the closing period is well turned.