Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 43 - On the Relativity of Fame

On the Relativity of Fame

There is only one passing phrase discussing, directly, the relativity of fame: 

For greatness is not absolute; comparison increases it or lessens it. A ship which looms large in the river seems tiny when on the ocean. A rudder which is large for one vessel, is small for another.

It is a good reminder, whether addressing the topic of fame, skill, riches, health or any number of indifferents, to remember that they are all mostly relative.  If you think you possess a bit of an indifferent, the odds are overwhelming that someone has more than you and someone has less than you.  The reason why you should keep this thought in your head is so that you are reminded that whatever it is you have, doesn't really mean anything; rather it just is.  No need to get all worked up that you have less than someone else an no need to be anxious that you don't have more than someone else.

Spend your time and concern and care on your soul.  To be clear, you do need to interact and use indifferents wisely.  But they should not be your primary concern.  Provide food, shelter, clothing, education and so forth for yourself and your family.  But do so wisely; not extravagantly nor sloppily.

As for fame - focus on being an influence for good in your circle.  If your circle continues to widen (more fame and influence), use it wisely.  This is where much of modern society flounders, as many use their fame for petty, ignorant and useless things.

The last part of the letter is somewhat related to fame (being seen or not), but deals more with judging a person's character and where a person's feels guilty or not by allowing others to peer into his life.

I shall mention a fact by which you may weigh the worth of a man's character: you will scarcely find anyone who can live with his door wide open.  It is our conscience, not our pride, that has put doorkeepers at our doors; we live in such a fashion that being suddenly disclosed to view is equivalent to being caught in the act. What profits it, however, to hide ourselves away, and to avoid the eyes and ears of men?  A good conscience welcomes the crowd, but a bad conscience, even in solitude, is disturbed and troubled. If your deeds are honourable, let everybody know them; if base, what matters it that no one knows them, as long as you yourself know them? How wretched you are if you despise such a witness!

The spirit of this last part seems to be saying: let others see your life; if your actions are noble, then no need to hide behind closed doors.  But if your actions are foolish, it doesn't matter that others see them, only that you recognize them yourself and are willing to submit to correction.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 42 - On Values

On Values

This letter resonates deeply with me.  I'm in my mid-40's as I write this commentary.  Over half my career is behind me.  Many people experience what is called a mid-life crisis at this age.  I think it stems from the fact that one feels the pressing weight of time beginning to bear down on them.  And if they've not achieved their goals which they've set for themselves while they were in their 20's, they begin to feel they have a chance to start over and accomplish them.  Some wish to re-gain their youthful vigor through exercise regimens, plastic surgery or new friends, while others strive to preserve what they already gained.  Regardless the approach, the one common denominator is time.  The older one gets, the more acutely aware he is of this precious commodity.  Seneca discusses time and other important values, which too many of us trade cheaply.

But before we get to that, Seneca starts off the letter by warning Lucilius of people who say they are good men.  This is a red flag.  He observes:

it is impossible in so short a time for one either to become good or be known as such. ...  if he knew what it meant to be "a good man," he would not yet believe himself such ... In the case of many men, their vices, being powerless, escape notice ... These men simply lack the means whereby they may unfold their wickedness.

Therefore, be weary of people who say they are good and to 'follow me.'  The truly good man is exceptionally rare.  I presume Seneca is referring to the sage, and that sages are as rare as the phoenix.

For one of the first class perhaps springs into existence, like the phoenix, only once in five hundred years. And it is not surprising, either, that greatness develops only at long intervals; Fortune often brings into being commonplace powers, which are born to please the mob; but she holds up for our approval that which is extraordinary by the very fact that she makes it rare.

In the second half of the letter, Seneca analyzes value.  Have you thought about this?  What do we value and how do we value it?

Just the other night, the world observed Saturn and Jupiter align almost perfectly, making the appearance of a 'new star.'  Honestly, it wasn't much to behold if you are used to seeing the night sky - all the celestial bodies are simply glittering lights in the dark sky.  But because these two planets had not aligned like this for 800 years, people were awash with anxiety to see it.  If you missed it, and you're fairly young, don't worry; you'll see them this close in the year 2080.

But what about with regard to the indifferents we pursue in life?  Are there hidden costs?  Do we not see the other values lost when we pursue them?

with regard to the objects which we pursue, and for which we strive with great effort, we should note this truth; either there is nothing desirable in them, or the undesirable is preponderant. Some objects are superfluous; others are not worth the price we pay for them. But we do not see this clearly, and we regard things as free gifts when they really cost us very dear.

Don't think of 'buying' only in terms of hard cash.  Rather, think of the aspects of your very self that you spend in pursuit of objects.

we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.

This is where I worry most at my age.  It feels as though I'm constantly analyzing the cost-benefit analysis of all my activities.  Am I really getting benefit out of this activity?  Is this work useful and a wise expenditure of time?  Am I wasting away myself in a certain pursuit?

There was a time, when I was younger, when I would never leave a meeting until it ended.  But now, when I think of all the work I have to accomplish and the time wasted by people blathering on about nothing important, I feel the sting of time slipping out of my hands.  Sometimes I do quietly leave a meeting and never regret it.  But I also feel the sting of broken relationships.  These are largely built on time; simply talking and getting familiar with each other.  Therefore, I have to find a balance.

I think the key point Seneca is trying to make, is for each of us to consider our time, anxiety, danger, honor and freedom when we are deciding how to live.  I've focused a lot on time, as I think it is the most precious.  But we can also consider freedom, which is closely related to time.

Consider a person who moves upwards through the corporate ranks and acquires wealth, expensive cars, prestige, a large home, a vacation home and so forth.  At some point, they have really acquired golden handcuffs.  At some point, they lose real freedom.  They don't have much say in the matter of how they spend their time.  Their choices are limited and they are no better off than a slave.

Have you ever seen the couple who has so much wealth, that the children expect it to be given to them?  The children's growth is stunted as they've been given everything.  The parents begin to resent their children who won't stand on their own, as the kids hold out their hands for more.  The whole relationship is a sad state of affairs.

I believe there is a medium that many can achieve.  We don't have to be paupers or slaves.  But we also don't have to be executives.  We can also help our kids holistically by striving for wisdom, rather than ease.

Seneca offers some advice when deciding if our very selves are worth the expense.  We should be stingy with our time as if we were stingy with our money if a "huckster" approached us trying to sell us something.

Let us therefore act, in all our plans and conduct, just as we are accustomed to act whenever we approach a huckster who has certain wares for sale; let us see how much we must pay for that which we crave. Very often the things that cost nothing cost us the most heavily; I can show you many objects the quest and acquisition of which have wrested freedom from our hands. We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.

The same goes for things that we may lose!  If we lose money, or home, or other possessions, we should also not spend our anxiety or time by wringing our hands over a loss.  There is always a silver lining to look for, if you but look.  If you lose money, then you will have less worry; if you lose influence, you will have less envy.

Look about you and note the things that drive us mad, which we lose with a flood of tears; you will perceive that it is not the loss that troubles us with reference to these things, but a notion of loss. No one feels that they have been lost, but his mind tells him that it has been so. He that owns himself has lost nothing. But how few men are blessed with ownership of self!

Friday, December 18, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 41 - On the god within us

On the god within us

Like Socrates, the ancient Stoics believed in a daimon which acted as a guiding spirit for each person - each person has a unique daimon which guides them in life and in death.  Whether this is what Seneca is referring to in this letter or not, is not clear.  Stoic physics teach that there is pneuma in everything in the universe - that this is the creative fire which makes the Stoic god God.  So whether Seneca is referring specifically to one's daimon or whether he is simply referring to the fact that pneuma (god) dwells within us, the key idea remains the same: we owe our rationality and the ability to become good, to the cosmos which gave rise to us.

Therefore, no need to pray to a statue or in a temple to "attain sound understanding."  Rather, look within.

God is near you, he is with you, he is within you.  This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian.

This next part of the letter seems a little controversial, at least to me.

Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior to fortune unless God helps him to rise?

What are we to think of this?  It seems that it could be construed a number of ways.  It could simply mean that we humans cannot be good if we did not exist and the cosmos / Nature / god gave rise to us, therefore we could never be good without god's help.  Or it could mean that despite our best efforts and whether we are conscious of god's help or not, no matter what we do, we could not become good without a daimon or perhaps our rationality, guiding us.  I think there is much we can do and learn on our own.  At the very least, we can have a grateful attitude for our existence.  On the other hand, we could seek to understand Nature and god and learn how our daimon can guide us to the best life that we could have.

In the next part of the letter, Seneca's reverence for Nature waxes poetic.  For people who love the outdoors, it is hard to not envision the beauty Seneca writes of.

If ever you have come upon a grove that is full of ancient trees which have grown to an unusual height, shutting out a view of the sky by a veil of pleached and intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, and your marvel at the thick unbroken shade in the midst of the open spaces, will prove to you the presence of deity. Or if a cave, made by the deep crumbling of the rocks, holds up a mountain on its arch, a place not built with hands but hollowed out into such spaciousness by natural causes, your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of the existence of God. We worship the sources of mighty rivers; we erect altars at places where great streams burst suddenly from hidden sources; we adore springs of hot water as divine, and consecrate certain pools because of their dark waters or their immeasurable depth.

As I read the above passage, I can't help but think of the times I've spent hiking Mt. Elbert or Mt. Timpanogos with my son, or walking my dog in the cool autumn forest near my home, or seeing deer graze along the path.  Regarding the cave - I know this hallowedness of which he speaks, as do countless others.  Having visited many caves in both North and Central America as well as Malaysia, there is an awe when one enters such a massive, natural structure.  Simply looking into the dark sky with no city lights around, will cause you to lose your breath beneath the vastness of space.

Seneca also stands of awe of people who have exercised tremendous virtue, to which (again) he ascribes to god.  The things to note in the following passage are the qualities of character found in such a person.  These are the same a good person should emulate.

When a soul rises superior to other souls, when it is under control, when it passes through every experience as if it were of small account, when it smiles at our fears and at our prayers, it is stirred by a force from heaven.

Such a person, according to Seneca, comes from god, like rays come from the sun.

Just as the rays of the sun do indeed touch the earth, but still abide at the source from which they are sent; even so the great and hallowed soul, which has come down in order that we may have a nearer knowledge of divinity, does indeed associate with us, but still cleaves to its origin.

Where can the good be found?  From within you and me.  Your good comes from your soul.  Mine stems from my soul.  This is the only thing over which we have control.  All else is not under our control.  The only way to become good is entirely within our control, regardless of whatever happens.

Does a gold ring make a person good?  No.  Does a million dollar home make a person good?  No.  Does a fit body make a person good?  No.  Does a title or do accolades make a person good?  No.

Seneca asks if a gold bit makes a horse better than others horses; no it does not.  Does a golden mane make a lion great?  No it does not.  What makes a horse great is its speed and strength.  What makes a lion great is its wild ferocity.

A golden bit does not make a better horse. The lion with gilded mane, in process of being trained and forced by weariness to endure the decoration, is sent into the arena in quite a different way from the wild lion whose spirit is unbroken; the latter, indeed, bold in his attack, as nature wished him to be, impressive because of his wild appearance, – and it is his glory that none can look upon him without fear, – is favoured in preference to the other lion, that languid and gilded brute.

What makes a human good?  Arete.  The ability to exercise the right virtues for the right reasons at the right time.

And if you are going to praise a human, do not praise them for some indifferent they possess.  Praise them for the virtue they exercise; praise them for having a good character; for choosing wisely.

Praise the quality in him which cannot be given or snatched away, that which is the peculiar property of the man. Do you ask what this is? It is soul, and reason brought to perfection in the soul. For man is a reasoning animal. Therefore, man's highest good is attained, if he has fulfilled the good for which nature designed him at birth.

And he ought to be especially praised when the majority claim that the good is found in riches, health, fame and other perishables.

to live in accordance with his own nature. But this is turned into a hard task by the general madness of mankind; we push one another into vice. And how can a man be recalled to salvation, when he has none to restrain him, and all mankind to urge him on?

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 40 - On the Proper Style for a Philosopher's Discourse

On the Proper Style for a Philosopher's Discourse

This is a longish letter, which takes its time to simply state, "be slow of speech."

I couldn't help but think of the clip from Interstellar where Cooper tells Case to slow down!

When I was younger I was prone to haste.  Today, I still fall into the same mindset occasionally - wanting to get it done and move on to the next task.  While haste may be the correct way to go about some menial, mindless tasks, other projects should not be approached in the same way.  Philosophy is one of those projects which should not be approached or engaged with haste.

For the philosopher, his life and his speech should be well-composed and unhurried.

his speech, like his life, should be composed; and nothing that rushes headlong and is hurried is well ordered.

It should not be like the life and speech of a used car salesman or someone selling you something for $19.95 on TV.  Seneca called these types "mountbacks" which is another word for charlatan or quack.

forceful manner of speech, rapid and copious, is more suited to a mountebank than to a man who is discussing and teaching an important and serious subject.

As a philosopher, your job is to pursue the Truth.  This pursuit needs to be apparent for all, and not propped up.  Truth stands on its own and has no need for sleight of hand.

speech that deals with the truth should be unadorned and plain. This popular style has nothing to do with the truth; its aim is to impress the common herd, to ravish heedless ears by its speed; it does not offer itself for discussion, but snatches itself away from discussion.

Another reason to not use haste when discussing philosophy is so that the hearer and learned can digest what is being taught.  What good does it do the student who gulps it down so quickly, they cause themselves to vomit it back up?  The medicine has to stay in the body for the remedy to be effective.

Remedies do not avail unless they remain in the system.

The doctor has to remain with the patient to be able to help them.  A quick and dirty prognostication may do more harm than good.

What physician can heal his patient on a flying visit? 

A few more quotes from Seneca:

philosophy should carefully place her words, not fling them out, and should proceed step by step.

he should not quicken his pace and heap up words to an extent greater than the ear can endure.

But words, even if they came to you readily and flowed without any exertion on your part, yet would have to be kept under control.

In sum: slow down; absorb; be thoughtful; think; contemplate.  Don't be hasty with wisdom.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 39 - On Noble Aspirations

On Noble Aspirations

Before you were born, people were "working for your benefit."  Have you ever contemplated that idea?  We are born and injected with the philosophy (for better or for worse) of our parents and those who help to raise us.  We have no say in the matter of how they were raised philosophically.  For all we know, their philosophy in which they were raised or came to believe, is misguided and focused on the wrong things.  Some people are fortunate enough to have parents come to a correct understanding of what is good, and subsequently teach their children.  The rest of us simply stumble along and grasp at straws in the dark.

But perhaps the answer to this problem can be found in the writings and ideas of those who have spent a lifetime thinking, discussing and debating this important question.  This is what Seneca means, I think.  If a person's soul becomes "roused" enough to seek for what is the good, then there are opportunities to learn.

Pick up the list of the philosophers; that very act will compel you to wake up, when you see how many men have been working for your benefit. You will desire eagerly to be one of them yourself. For this is the most excellent quality that the noble soul has within itself, that it can be roused to honourable things.

No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean; the vision of great achievement summons him and uplifts him.


But happy is the man who has given it this impulse toward better things! He will place himself beyond the jurisdiction of chance; he will wisely control prosperity; he will lessen adversity, and will despise what others hold in admiration.

There is the answer - begin to learn from the philosophers!  Start reading and contemplating their writings.  Talk to others about it.  Write about it; then repeat.  And once you begin to learn, you will also learn to live wisely.

You begin to learn what is important; what belongs to you and what does not.  You will learn learn what virtue and vice really mean; what has utility and what does not.

This last section of his letter, to me, sounds a bit more Epicurean than Stoic.

Utility measures our needs; but by what standard can you check the superfluous? It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures, and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensable. And so they are the slaves of their pleasures instead of enjoying them; they even love their own ills, – and that is the worst ill of all! Then it is that the height of unhappiness is reached, when men are not only attracted, but even pleased, by shameful things, and when there is no longer any room for a cure, now that those things which once were vices have become habits.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 38 - On Quiet Conversation

On Quiet Conversation

A short letter with some key points about effectively learning.

The goal: teaching others.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways: a formal lecture or presentation where many can listen but few can engage in dialogue.  Reading & writing letters, which is very asynchronous and takes times.  Then there is one-on-one mentorship and dialogue, or quiet conversation, as the letter is entitled.

Seneca says,

when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation.

And further, he writes,

we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words.


Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it has once found favourable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. Reason grows in the same way; it is not large to the outward view, but increases as it does its work.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 37 - On Allegiance to Virtue

On Allegiance to Virtue

This is an unusual letter.  Has Lucilius made an oath to philosophy?  Seneca states at the beginning of the letter:

You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a sound understanding.

He further elaborates that the oath is the same one as a gladiator.

The words of this most honourable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit: "Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword."

Then Seneca confidently states that while a gladiator has the option to beg for pity from the crowd, the Stoic does not enjoy the same luxury.  The Stoic must face daily life and death with equanimity:

The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born.

The path to freedom and other benefits is philosophy.

Betake yourself therefore to philosophy if you would be safe, untroubled, happy, in fine, if you wish to be, – and that is most important, – free.

Free from what?  Passions.  Philosophy will teach you to be free from passions instead of being driven by them.

These passions, which are heavy taskmasters, sometimes ruling by turns, and sometimes together, can be banished from you by wisdom, which is the only real freedom. There is but one path leading thither, and it is a straight path; you will not go astray. Proceed with steady step, and if you would have all things under your control, put yourself under the control of reason.

Many people give into their passions and do not lead a life of reason.  As they are driven more and more by their passions, they become lost.  Until, one day, they wake up and ask themselves, 'how?'

It is disgraceful ... to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: "How did I get into this condition?"

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 36 - On the Value of Retirement

On the Value of Retirement

Key ideas from this letter

  • a Stoic will value indifferents differently from most other people
  • how a Stoic manages, uses and thinks of indifferents is how he demonstrates his character
  • death is not the end, but merely an interruption / eternal recurrence
It seems that this man to whom Seneca is referring, is contemplating retirement and some of his associates are reproaching him and goading to not retire.  Seneca seems to think that the man considering retirement is choosing wisely.

Seneca commentates a bit about the indifferent of wealth and fortune:

Prosperity is a turbulent thing; it torments itself. It stirs the brain in more ways than one, goading men on to various aims, – some to power, and others to high living. Some it puffs up; others it slackens and wholly enervates.

If you give your desires wholly over to acquiring fortune, then you will suffer the follies he lists above.  Wisdom is knowing how to use indifferents well and not be affected by them, but to retain equanimity regardless if you acquire wealth or not.

And because this man chooses retirement over acquiring more wealth, less wise people accuse him of being "a trifler and a sluggard."  Perhaps this man has chosen wisely because "he continues to cherish virtue and to absorb thoroughly the studies which make for culture."  And perhaps he learned this wisdom while young and now he can spend his retirement in continued pursuit of virtue.

the young man must store up, the old man must use.

Seneca explains more clearly, further in the letter, the wise course of action.

Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. Let him so regulate his character that in perfect peace he may bring to perfection that spirit within him which feels neither loss nor gain, but remains in the same attitude, no matter how things fall out. A spirit like this, if it is heaped with worldly goods, rises superior to its wealth; if, on the other hand, chance has stripped him of a part of his wealth, or even all, it is not impaired.

The latter part of the letter hits on themes of memento mori and the eternal recurrence.

I say, let him learn that which is helpful against all weapons, against every kind of foe, – contempt of death ...

In death there is nothing harmful ...

And death, which we fear and shrink from, merely interrupts life, but does not steal it away; the time will return when we shall be restored to the light of day ... everything which seems to perish merely changes. Since you are destined to return, you ought to depart with a tranquil mind. Mark how the round of the universe repeats its course.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 35 - On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

On the Friendship of Kindred Minds

How beneficial for Seneca and Lucilius to have such an intimate friend who both listens and coaches you to strive to be a better Stoic!  Seneca's care seems to be very deep.

A true friend deeply cares and helps you; and it's stronger than love.  A true friend learns how to truly love.

Friendship, accordingly, is always helpful, but love sometimes even does harm. Try to perfect yourself, if for no other reason, in order that you may learn how to love.

The ending part of the letter provides a bit more insight about how one makes progress.  If you begin to feel a steadiness in your life and you are not tossed and turned at every emotion or change of circumstance, then you are making progress.

A shifting of the will indicates that the mind is at sea, heading in various directions, according to the course of the wind. But that which is settled and solid does not wander from its place. This is the blessed lot of the completely wise man, and also, to a certain extent, of him who is progressing and has made some headway.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 34 - On a Promising Pupil

On a Promising Pupil

One who is making progress in Stoicism is called a prokopton.  In this letter, Seneca is pleased that his pupil is making progress.

How do you know if you are making progress in Stoicism?

I would say someone is making progress who is first, convinced of the wisdom of Stoicism, second, who wants to put it into practice and third, who ensures his inner dialogue is wise and sound, and that his actions align with his inner dialogue.

the larger part of goodness is the will to become good. You know what I mean by a good man? One who is complete, finished, – whom no constraint or need can render bad.  I see such a person in you, if only you go steadily on and bend to your task, and see to it that all your actions and words harmonize and correspond with each other and are stamped in the same mould.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 33 - On the Futility of Learning Maxims

On the Futility of Learning Maxims

The key ideas of this letter are:

  • Stoic philosophy is a whole
  • Reading and memorizing is not enough; you must embody the philosophy and teach it
  • Truth was never discovered by constant following
A Philosophy in Whole

There are a number of analogies in explaining how logic, physics and ethics are tied together in Stoicism.  While not my favorite, the egg analogy is great in one one key aspect: indivisibility.

The garden and body analogies could be divided, where the fence could exist independent of the dirt and fruit.  You could still have a garden without a fence.  But you can't really have an egg, without the shell or without the yolk or without the whites.  All three are required in order for the egg to be called an egg.

Seneca notes that the early founders of Stoicism built the philosophy to be all-encompassing and rich.  It is not a 'chicken-soup-for-the-soul' philosophy.

they did not interest themselves in choice extracts; the whole texture of their work is full of strength.

Nor did the founders and progenitors of Stoicism want to showcase "the good parts" and hide the "bad / embarrassing parts."  There is no bait and switch in Stoic philosophy.  All of it is useful and beneficial for humans.

we have no "show-window goods," nor do we deceive the purchaser in such a way that, if he enters our shop, he will find nothing except that which is displayed in the window. We allow the purchasers themselves to get their samples from anywhere they please.

When the philosophy is all equally good, it is hard to pick out certain aspects of it and focus solely on them.

Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.

Kill the Buddha

At some point, you have to stand on your own two feet.  There is a Buddhist koen which goes, "if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him."  The key idea is to focus on your learning and seeking new paths to wisdom - to be able to think independently.  If you are constantly reliant on Zeno, Cleanthes, Aurelius, Epictetus, Seneca, Hadot, Becker, Irving, Long, Wiegardt, Holiday, Robertson, Gill, Sellers or Pigliucci, then you will never truly learn.  For sure, follow the beaten path.  But how will you know there is not a more efficient path to wisdom?

Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.

For me, this is a challenge.  There is so much wisdom from the ancients and the moderns.  I feel as though for every one book on Stoicism that I finish reading, there are two or three more published!  And then there are times when I write something and think I've hit on a novel idea or see something in a new light or different perspective, only to discover through reading, that the idea has already been shared.

I don't know when it will be (and maybe it's a long, slow process) but at some point I hope to be able to stand on my own philosophical feet.  For now, I feel I'm still a novice.  Therefore, when I read the following passage from Seneca, I can't help but feel a bit of urgency.

disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a note-book knowledge. "This is what Zeno said." But what have you yourself said? "This is the opinion of Cleanthes." But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man's orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock.  For this reason I hold that there is nothing of eminence in all such men as these, who never create anything themselves, but always lurk in the shadow of others, playing the role of interpreters, never daring to put once into practice what they have been so long in learning. They have exercised their memories on other men's material. But it is one thing to remember, another to know.

So, for now, I'm learning as much as I can and figuring out how to put it into practice.  And maybe, some day, I'll have a creative thought which will benefit the world in someway.  But, today, I'll play the part of the prokopton as well as guide to those near me.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Essay on Refuting Musonius Rufus (Never to File a Lawsuit)

 Originally written August 2020

Musonius Rufus Would Never File a Lawsuit for Assault

Musonius Rufus argues “he would never file a lawsuit against anyone for assault” 1 and that by pressing charges, a philosopher would demonstrate he is disturbed, upset, or feeling revengeful by the assault.

His argument could be framed with the following:

1) If a Stoic is assaulted, then he will retain his equanimity.

A Stoic is assaulted.

Therefore, a Stoic retains his equanimity.

2) If a Stoic files a lawsuit, then he loses his equanimity.

A Stoic files a lawsuit.

Therefore, a Stoic loses his equanimity.

This essay will briefly explore a key assumption in Rufus’ argument and then refute it by showing a Stoic may, in some cases, file a lawsuit, while simultaneously retaining his equanimity.  This will be demonstrated by exploring the possibility that a Stoic would not file a lawsuit out of a sense of having been offended, but rather would file a lawsuit out of a sense of duty to justice and social oikeiôsis, with the intent to help society by educating the person who has carried out the assault.

Musonius Rufus’ Assumption

Musonius’ argument seems to be strictly based on the premise that if you file a lawsuit, then this equates to feeling injured or insulted.  If, however, he were to limit his recommendation that a Stoic would take jeering, beating, being spat upon and outright assaults with perfect indifference, then his point would be entirely defensible from a Stoic perspective.  But in his argument, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that since a person is filing a lawsuit, then that person must be doing so out of revenge or spite or being insulted.  He says, “Indeed, plotting how to bite back someone who bites and to return evil against the one who first did evil is characteristic of a beasts, not a man.” 1 But how do we know the reasons for someone filing a lawsuit?  Musonius seems to be mind-reading and assuming as to why a person is filing a lawsuit.  Per Musonius’ logic, the only reason a person would file a lawsuit is so that they can plot how to bite back.

However, he opens the door related to two other Stoic duties: upholding justice and educating others, which are valid Stoic reasons as to why a person could file a lawsuit.  He says, “A beast is not able to comprehend that many of the wrongs done to people are done out of ignorance and lack of understanding.  A person who gains this comprehension immediately stops doing wrong.” 1

If a Stoic can find a way to educate the person who has assaulted him, ought he to try?  And if this education leads to upholding justice (the assaulter “immediately stops doing wrong”), is it not the Stoic’s duty to pursue and uphold justice, no matter what form it takes and who the victim is?

And if we can prove that filing a lawsuit would lead the assaulter out of ignorance and into understanding, and if the Stoic can file said lawsuit with perfect indifference and with the sole intention of upholding justice and educating the assaulter, then we can show that at least in some circumstances, Rufus ought to ignore his own argument.

This essay will next explore the path to upholding justice and educating the ignorant, via filing a lawsuit with indifference.

Virtue is the Sole Good – A Duty to Uphold Justice

Without having to delve into a deep philosophical, divine discussion around justice, for the sake of this argument, I propose the concept of justice is based on the aim of humans living in harmony with each other.

Humans can live in harmony based on laws and rights and justice as defined from a commonly accepted dictionary: 2

the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments

the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity

the quality of being just, impartial, or fair

the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action

conformity to this principle or ideal

Included in the above definition is an implication of action.  For as many laws that are agreed upon, those laws ultimately mean nothing unless they are enforced.

A society without laws, is beholden to tyrants and anarchists, in which case there is no justice.  Similarly, a society with laws, but with no law enforcement, would also soon devolve into a society with no justice.  For this reason, the French philosopher Pascal Blaise noted, “Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical.” 3

If a Stoic, whose aim is to live a life of virtue, agrees that virtue is the sole good; and as part of living a life according to virtue, the Stoic subscribes to living by and in support of justice, then one could say it is the Stoic’s duty to support and uphold the laws of society.

Therefore, if a society deems that physical assault against an innocent person is against law and justice, then a Stoic’s duty would be to uphold the law regardless of who is involved.  If upholding the law includes the prosecution of or the filing of a lawsuit against the perpetrator, then a Stoic’s duty would include such action.

Failing to support such action would erode justice and encourage law-breaking by society’s members.  As more laws are ignored, the harmony of society breaks down and anarchy and tyranny rise.

Consider what a Stoic ought to do if he witnessed a rape or an assault.  Would a good Stoic ignore this?  Or would he intervene to uphold the law for the sake of justice?

One bleak example of people failing to uphold justice is found in the tragic story of Kitty Genovese.  After finishing her shift at a bar, she returned to her neighborhood, in the early morning hours of March 13, 1964.  After parking her car, she walked toward her residence, and then was attacked by Winston Moseley, who stabbed her twice, with a hunting knife.  She cried out for help, after which a neighbor yelled out the window, and Moseley ran off.  She continued to cry for help as she tried to return to her apartment.  But no definitive action was taken by neighbors, many of whom thought the cries and yells were domestic fights or drunken quarrels.  Mosely, seeing that no one was aiding Genovese, returned, murdered, and raped her. 4

Genovese’ story shocked New York City and the United States – shocked at how many neighbors failed to definitively act to not only uphold justice, but to render aid to a victim of an injustice.  This outrage lead to several psychology studies, which named this behavior the Bystander Effect.  One psychologist bleakly noted,

In his book, Rosenthal asked a series of behavioral scientists to explain why people do or do not help a victim and, sadly, he found none could offer an evidence-based answer. How ironic that this same question was answered separately by a non-scientist. When the killer was apprehended, and Chief of Detectives Albert Seedman asked him how he dared to attack a woman in front of so many witnesses, the psychopath calmly replied, 'I knew they wouldn't do anything, people never do’ 5

For justice to be upheld, action must be taken, based on established legal and moral laws.  If a Stoic’s duty is to uphold justice, then he must uphold laws where injustices have been committed against others and even himself.

To put a theoretical emphasis on this point, assume Genovese survived the assault and was a Stoic.  If she took Musonius’ teaching seriously, she would not file a lawsuit.  Moseley would supposedly not be held accountable for his assault and would perceive that people “wouldn’t do anything.”  He would potentially never be corrected and could go on to commit more assaults.  Affirming and upholding justice is a Stoic’s duty and a commitment to maintaining a harmonious society, regardless if he is the victim or not.

Next, this essay will explain how upholding justice, in some cases, begins the process of educating others and how filing a lawsuit may be the catalyst for moral growth.

Social Oikeiôsis

Stoic ethics is based on the idea of oikeiôsis which is “the basic desire or drive in all animals (including human beings) for self-preservation.” 6 Furthermore, Stoics put a premium on rational self-preservation over physical self-preservation.  By focusing on one’s rational nature, one begins to live according to nature.

Stoic ethics further elaborate on the concept of social oikeiosis wherein the Stoic widens his “circle of concern” and care for others – including desiring that others, too, are preserved both physically and rationally. 6 Ultimately, the Stoic views all humans as fellow citizens of the cosmos.  And as the Stoic develops the view of his place in the cosmos, he begins to see how others too, may live under a common, rational set of laws.  And if those laws are broken, then it does not preserve a rational society.  On this basis, Marcus Aurelius notes “What does not benefit the hive does not benefit the bee either.” 7

As an example, we may assume that war does not benefit or preserve humanity, therefore war does not benefit or preserve the human.  From this starting point, we can walk it down to a minute level.  Nuclear war, regional conflicts, border skirmishes, riots, mobs, and plundering do not benefit humanity nor the human.  Going even further down the spectrum, we can argue that widespread abuses, assaults, and bullying, also do not benefit humanity and therefore do not benefit the human.

Therefore, in the intermediate circles of concerns for others, a Stoic’s duty is to act rationally and think of ways to preserve those who need it.  One way to accomplish this is through education.  A Stoic’s ethics ask him to consider ways to care for the human and for humanity through education.

Consider this argument:

If a Stoic always educates others, then he will help educate a person who assaults him.

If he helps educate a person who assaults him, then the assaulter may become a better citizen.

Therefore, if a Stoic always educates others, then a person who assaults him may become a better citizen.

If it can be demonstrated that filing a lawsuit becomes the catalyst for the moral education of the assaulter, then a Stoic should file a lawsuit against the assaulter.  The assaulter not only becomes enlightened himself but could then be a person who upholds justice and goes on to help others, which benefits society.

Social Oikeiôsis – Care for the One

Instigating wars, conflicts, assaults, and bullying for immoral reasons is not good for the rational soul.  The highest good or summum bonum of philosophy, including Stoicism, is eudaimonia – which generally translates into happiness or even well-being or flourishing. 6 For Stoics, arete is the sole good and all vice is to be avoided to achieve eudaimonia.  Therefore, people will not achieve eudaimonia by creating conflict for immoral reasons.  As a result, a Stoic would never engage in such behavior.  And as a Stoic widens his circle of concern (social oikeiôsis), he would make efforts to teach and educate others to also not engage in such behaviors, so that they too can attain the summum bonum.

Therefore, if a Stoic knew, that someone’s life could be turned around or turned away from a life of instigating assaults, and if that path included filing a lawsuit against that person, he ought to do so.

Seneca offers a wise approach for educating others.  While some people are very receptive to moral education, others are not.  For those who assault a Stoic and perhaps are receptive to a moral education, all that may be needed is to talk to them and to help them see a better way.  There would be no need to file a lawsuit for assault.  However, for those not very receptive, it would take concentrated effort and a stronger catalyst.  Seneca states:

Amid this upset condition of morals, something stronger than usual is needed, – something which will shake off these chronic ills; in order to root out a deep-seated belief in wrong ideas, conduct must be regulated by doctrines. It is only when we add precepts, consolation, and encouragement to these, that they can prevail; by themselves they are ineffective.

"But what, then," people say, "have not certain persons won their way to excellence without complicated training? Have they not made great progress by obeying bare precepts alone?" Very true; but their temperaments were propitious, and they snatched salvation as it were by the way. For just as the immortal gods did not learn virtue having been born with virtue complete, and containing in their nature the essence of goodness – even so certain men are fitted with unusual qualities and reach without a long apprenticeship that which is ordinarily a matter of teaching, welcoming honourable things as soon as they hear them. Hence come the choice minds which seize quickly upon virtue, or else produce it from within themselves. But your dull, sluggish fellow, who is hampered by his evil habits, must have this soul-rust incessantly rubbed off.

It will therefore be of no avail to give precepts unless you first remove the conditions that are likely to stand in the way of precepts; 8

For some, such as repeat offenders or those who may not be mentally fit, filing a lawsuit could help with treating this “soul-rust.”

As an example of a lawsuit beginning the reform process, consider the abuses committed by Catholic priests.  For years, despite knowing that the abuse needed to stop, many continued to perpetrate and hide the assaults and abuses carried out by Catholic priests.  Over the course of ten years, the leaders of the Archdiocese of Boston tacitly admitted moral injustices by hiding the abuses through “private negotiations that never brought the parties near a courthouse.” 9  As the church quietly settled these assaults, the injustices continued and many priests who would have otherwise began to receive a more profound moral education, continued in their ways of error.  It was only after the Boston Globe newspaper shed greater light on the abuses, which ultimately lead to the full uncovering of the assaults, which lead to lawsuits, which lead to actual reform in both the individual priests and the Catholic church.  One article succinctly describes the moment when lawsuits became the catalyst for reform:

By the end of January, the documentary damage was essentially done. But by then, the first of hundreds of victims had begun contacting the paper with their stories. A further spate of civil lawsuits against the archdiocese followed, and the Globe reporters' hard work was finally crowned when an exasperated judge ordered the archdiocese to make public every single private church file kept on every Boston priest ever accused of sexual abuse. 10

What should a Stoic do if he were assaulted by a Catholic priest?  From a social oikeiôsis point of view, the Stoic ought to ignore Musonius Rufus’ advice.  Instead, he ought to consider if filing a lawsuit would prevent future abuses committed by the priests – for the sake of the well-being of the priest.  Given priest would be in a Stoic’s circle of concern, and if the Stoic would want the priest to achieve eudaimonia, and if the lawsuit would definitively be the catalyst for moral reform and education for the priest, then the Stoic must file the lawsuit.

Indeed, a philosopher may keep his equanimity by not filing a lawsuit for revenge, but rather he would do so with the intent to help the perpetrator begin the process of moral education.  Furthermore, the Stoic would not only be caring for the one, but he would be also caring for the many.

Social Oikeiôsis – Care for the Many

In the 2003 film The Matrix Reloaded, agent Smith has gone rogue after being severed from the matrix.  In a memorable scene, we observe his ambitious plan to replicate himself hundreds of times, by shoving his hand into the chest of bystanders, who then morph into a copy of agent Smith. 11 How efficient it would be to expand our circle of concern for others if a Stoic sage could simply copy her wisdom onto others so violently and swiftly!  As comical as that idea may seem, the end goal is somewhat similar.  Stoics want to spread wisdom through education and care for others; and by caring for the one, they care for the many either directly or indirectly.

Continuing with the example of the Catholic priest abuse, and asking the question if a lawsuit should be filed or not; it is not a stretch to think how filing a lawsuit not only would be the catalyst for moral education for the abuser, but the lawsuit would also prevent further injustices for many future, potential victims.

Consider the data on the number of abuses from the year 1970 to the year 2019.  Abuses continued for decades until the scandal was blown wide open leading to many public lawsuits.  Close to 2,000 abuses were documented in the years 1970-1974 and then dropping to about 120 after the Boston Globe investigation blew things open.  In the ensuing years, after the lawsuits became public, the number of allegations has dropped to 2 in the year 2019. 12


One could reasonably argue, that had the lawsuits not been filed, hundreds of victims would have been abused and assaulted in the last decade.  To bring this point back to what a Stoic should do after having been assaulted, if he were to follow Musonius’ advice to never file a lawsuit, then the Stoic would have failed in his duty to social oikeiôsis and circle of concern for others.  Therefore, if a Stoic is assaulted, they must not only face the abuse with equanimity, but must also consider what actions he could take considering his duty to those in his circle of concern.  If a lawsuit will prevent further injustices to many, then the Stoic ought to file a lawsuit.


In sum, this essay has attacked Rufus’ assumption that simply because a person has filed a lawsuit, that does not equate nor imply the person is intending to “bite back” at their assaulter.  Furthermore, the essay has attempted to refute Musonius’ argument by showing a Stoic may, in some cases, file a lawsuit, while simultaneously retaining his equanimity.  First by showing that a Stoic would not file a lawsuit out of a sense of having been offended, but rather out of a sense of duty to justice.  Secondly, a Stoic could also file a lawsuit out of a duty to social oikeiôsis, with the intent to help not only the individual, but also society through the means of educating the person who has carried out the assault.


1 Rufus, C. Musonius, Cynthia Ann Kent King, and William Braxton Irvine. Essay. In Musonius Rufus: Lectures & Sayings, 50-51. United States: Createspace, 2011.

2 “Justice.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed August 30, 2020.

3 Pascal, Blaise, and M. Kaufmann. Essay. In Blaise Pascal Thoughts: Selected and Translated, 56.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

4 “Murder of Kitty Genovese.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, August 23, 2020.

5 Takooshian, Harold. “The 1964 Kitty Genovese Tragedy: What Have We Learned?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, March 24, 2014.

6 Sellars, John. Essay. In Stoicism, 108, 123, 131. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

7 Aurelius, Marcus, Martin Hammond, and Diskin Clay. “Book 6, 54.” Essay. In Meditations. London: Penguin Classics, 2014.

8 “Moral Letters to Lucilius/Letter 95.” Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 95, v. 34-38  Wikisource, the free online library. Accessed August 30, 2020

9 Carroll, Matt, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Michae Rezendes. “Scores of Priests Involved in Sex Abuse Cases - The Boston Globe.” Edited by Stephen Kurkjian and Walter V Robinson. The Boston Globe, May 30, 2012.

10 Henley, Jon. “How the Boston Globe Exposed the Abuse Scandal That Rocked the Catholic Church.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 21, 2010.

11 Silver, Joel (Producer), & The Wachowskis (Directors). (2003). The Matrix Reloaded [Motion Picture], United States, Warner Bros. Pictures

12 “Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.” Accessed August 30, 2020.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Essay on David Hume reductio ad absurdum Argument

Originally written August 2020

The Creation and the Creator

The context of this essay revolves around if the world (perfect or not) was created by a perfect or imperfect God.  Scottish Philosopher, David Hume, argues the world was not created by a perfect God.  He advances this claim with an analogy by comparing the world to a ship, which was created by a carpenter who finally succeeded by mimicking superior craftsmen, through repeated failures, attempts and successes.

Presented in the reductio ad absurdum form of argument, Hume claims:

To prove: the world does not have a creator in the way a ship does.

Assume the opposite: The world does have a creator in the way a ship does.

Argue that from the assumption we would have to conclude: an imperfect world must have been created by an imperfect god.

Show that this is false (morally or practically unacceptable): God cannot be imperfect.

Conclude: The world does not have a creator in the way a ship does.

This essay will first question the validity of Hume’s analogy and then respond to Hume’s premise that the world is imperfect.  If the analogy is not valid, then the argument breaks down.  Also, if it can be demonstrated that the world is indeed not imperfect, then Hume’s argument can be further refuted.  The essay will also elaborate on the Stoic concept of God, in response to the idea of perfection and imperfection.

Hume’s Analogy Not Quite Valid

Hume’s creator of the ship analogy is as follows:

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiple trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving. 1

Hume’s creator of the ship analogy fails in a few ways.

First, a ship is an inorganic object which floats on water.  Earth, on the other hand, is organic, teeming with life inside an atmosphere.  The earth exists in the vacuum of space instead of a body of water or a dry dock.

Secondly, the degree of complexity between ship and a planet is wide and the required maintenance of each varies.  The actual mechanisms to manipulate the ship are simple compared to those of the earth.  A ship merely needs a rudder and an engine, from something as simple as a sail or a motor.  After that, the ship requires a captain and crew to steer it and maintain it (removing barnacles, replacing rotten wood, etc.).  The earth, however, has a core, layers of earth, complex life support systems in the land, water, and layers of atmosphere, to maintain its viability to sustain life.  And despite its complexity, the earth requires no intervention of a crew for on-going maintenance and repairs.  A simple ship would crash and rot without a crew.  The complex earth needs no crew to persist.

Thirdly, the purpose of a ship and the purpose of the world are different.  The goal of a ship may range from being a pleasure boat for people to explore exotic islands or it may be to transport thousands of passengers across the world to another continent or it may be designed to carry munitions in a war, to fire them on an enemy.  Broadly speaking, a ship’s purpose is for transport of people and things over water – its purpose and scope is finite.  The world, in contrast, may have a multivariate purpose, some of which may be deeply philosophical.  But it is evident, the world is not strictly a means of transportation.  There is no port from which the world has departed nor to which it will return – there is no evidence to support this idea.  And there is no clearly defined goal and universally understood mission or purpose of the world – it is not finite.

The other part of Hume’s analogy compares the creator of the ship to God.  This part of the analogy does not quite seem relevant to the scope of argument.

When most people who believe in a God, think of the concept of God, they will “go up the chain” as a matter of speaking, as far as possible.  Even the deeply seated philosophical question of “who created me” hits at the very essence of the question.  Of course, we know that my biological mother and father created me – that is how I literally came into existence.  But we want to go further, to the point of asking, who created the first human.  And even then, we may not know if whoever created the first human is indeed God or not.  Perhaps Hume was trying to limit his analogy to the scope of a creator of a ship, but in fact, he should have found an analogy that assumes a broader scope, such as one that asks the question of who designed the creator of the ship, or who is the original architect of the design of ships.  The goal would be to get to the ultimate fount of creation, instead of focusing on an intermediary.  In sum, the scope of his analogy is too limited.

His creator of the ship analogy falls apart on a few levels.  Comparing the ship to the world does not equate.  And the creator, in the analogy, is too limited in scope.

Even if we were to grant that Hume’s analogy is valid, it still fails on the point of God creating an imperfect world.  The concept of perfection versus imperfection must be addressed from a Stoic perspective.

Refuting the Idea of Perfection Versus Imperfection – a Stoic Response

The Stoic God is everywhere and is everything.  Nature is God, to the Stoics.  Everything flows from Nature, including the world.  As such, Nature is greater than the notion of perfection and imperfection.

The idea of perfection (or a superior standard), is a difficult definition to pin down, in time and space.  Things are in a constant state of change regarding time and space.  Humans have created the idea of perfection (or a superior standard), which simply means any standard they think should exist is perfect.  Without evidence of perfection, or a standard to refer to, the idea of perfection and imperfection, does not exist; rather it only exists in our minds.

As opposed to this dichotomous thinking (perfect vs imperfect), we have evidence of a hierarchy of tension in objects in the cosmos.  At the foundational level of tension are things that have no consciousness and are always acted on.  Next would be things that have consciousness but may act on other things.  At higher levels would be things that are conscious and usually act on other things.  At the highest level resides the Stoic God: Nature, which is conscious and acts on everything.  From Nature flows all things, both conscious and unconscious, both things that are acted on, and things that act.

In sum, if there is only one fount, from which all the universe, and the cosmos and everything in the cosmos, flows, then everything within the cosmos has continually changed, and simply exists now, and is in a constant state of change in the future, due to things acting on other things.  Therefore, as the universe is in a constant state of flux, if such an idea of perfection existed, it would only exist in the now.  More succinctly stated: Nature is.

The Stoic God

Marcus Aurelius explains the Stoic view of God in one concise verse:

Think always of the universe as one living creature, comprising one substance and one soul: how all is absorbed into this one consciousness; how a single impulse governs all its actions; how all things collaborate in all that happens; the very web and mesh of it all. 2

Stoic physics describe God as a philosophical God, “a living being” who is “rational, animate and intelligent.” 3  The basis for arriving at this conclusion comes from the logic that since humans are rational, animate and intelligent, therefore the cosmos cannot give rise to something which it does not possess.  Zeno stated, “that which employs reason is better than that which does not.  Now nothing is superior to the cosmos; therefore the cosmos employs reason.” 4

Beyond Nature is only void.  Consequently, there is nothing with which to compare Nature.  Nature simply exists and is “governed by reason” and exists as “the best possible organization … as there is only one possible organization.” 5

Perfection vs. Imperfection

Traditional Christians and Skeptics suggest that God is either perfect or imperfect.  Hume outlines this argument through the voices of Philo, Cleanthes and Demea.

The Christian argument might focus on the perfection of God with God’s intent to design the world preceding the creation of it.  On the other hand, the Skeptic might argue that the world was a lesser production than the creator intended.

But were this world ever so perfect a production, it must still remain uncertain, whether all the excellences can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea must we form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful machine? And what surprise must we feel, when we find him a stupid mechanic, who imitated others, and copied an art, which, through a long succession of ages, after multiple trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberations, and controversies, had been gradually improving. 1

The Stoic view might respond to the debate between Philo, Cleanthes and Demea that this is dichotomous thinking.  How do we know what a perfect world is?  By what standard can we point that our world is the final result, stemming from a long string of mishaps and misfires?  It would seem the Skeptic is not skeptical enough!

To a Stoic, things, including our world, simply are.  There is no notion of perfect or imperfect.  Whereas the average person might question why brambles and bitter cucumbers were made and point to such things as evidence of an imperfect world, a Stoic, such as Marcus Aurelius, demonstrates the correct way of contemplating these things.

A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go round them. That is all you need, without going on to ask, 'So why are these things in the world anyway?' That question would be laughable to a student of nature, just as any carpenter or cobbler would laugh at you if you objected to the sight of shavings or off-cuts from their work on the shop floor. Yet they have somewhere to throw their rubbish, whereas the nature of the Whole has nothing outside itself. The marvel of its craft is that it sets its own confines and recycles into itself all within them which seems to be decaying, growing old, or losing its use: and then creates afresh from this same material. This way it requires no substance other than its own, and has no need for a rubbish-dump. So it is complete in its own space, its own material, and its own craftsmanship. 6

To reiterate, the Stoic response to the claim that the world is either perfect or imperfect, is to say that it is neither; rather, “it is complete in its own space.”

Marcus further emphasizes this point by demonstrating the philosophy of unity of the Whole.  Nature, and everything in it, is one whole and complete in its own space.

Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy; none of its parts are unconnected. They are composed harmoniously, and together they compose the world.

One world, made up of all things.

One divinity, present in them all.

One substance and one law—the logos that all rational beings share.

And one truth . . .

If this is indeed the culmination of one process, beings who share the same birth, the same logos. 7

In sum, Stoic physics explain the concept that everything is encompassed in Nature (God).  Things within may need to discard shavings, as evidenced in the metaphor of the carpenter.  But for Nature as a Whole, there is nowhere to place such things to be discarded.  Instead, Nature is able to self-regulate and use everything to its advantage.

The concept of self-regulation can be further explained through the concept of the hierarchy of tension of pneuma of things in the cosmos.

The Hierarchy of Tension

Stoic physics explain differing levels of tension or tonos of things in Nature.  At the low end is simple cohesion (hexis).  Things such as rock would have cohesion.  Moving up the hierarchy of tension is nature (phusis).  Things that have this level of tension would be classified as alive.  The next level up is soul (psuche).  Things with this level of tension would be animals that possess the power of perception, movement and reproduction.  And still higher would be the tension of rational soul (logike psuche).  Things with this level of tension would be adult human beings. 8

Taking this hierarchy one step further, we know that which is higher than the rational soul would be the rational Cosmos.  While the adult human being possesses a rational soul, she is still only “a fragment of matter that constitutes the cosmic body” of Nature.  From this basis of reasoning, we arrive at the conclusion that from Nature, all things flow, both things that are acted upon and things that act. 9

Observing this cosmic perspective of things and events, therefore, helps us to avoid the entire debate of things being perfect versus imperfect, or even good versus evil.

If we accept the premise that all things flow from Nature and that Nature (God) is rational, then we can assume that Nature has accounted for all and is able to self-regulate.

Therefore, as rational beings, we can observe the movement of the stars and the changes of the earth and the life cycle of the animals.  These things naturally manage themselves, without the need of oversight.  A weed grows, it dies, it replenishes the earth and enriches the soil.  If a person chooses to see a weed as an imperfection, then that person has not widened his aperture to the right level of perspective.  He should try to look at the weed in a broader, more cosmic perspective, and he may begin to not see the weed as imperfect, but as a necessary part of Nature’s way of self-regulation.


The essay has attempted to first, refute the validity of Hume’s creator of the ship analogy, by claiming that a ship does not equate to the world, nor does the scope of the creator quite arise to the scope of God.

The essay went on to also question the premise of God creating an imperfect world, by attacking the notion of perfect versus imperfect.  In so doing, it explained the macro framework of Stoic physics, including the Stoic God.  The Stoic God, which is Nature, encompasses things which have differing levels of tension, from simple cohesion such as in stones, all the way up to the fully rational, self-regulating organism of Nature itself.

Within Nature, some people have assumed the wrong perspective regarding perfection or imperfection.  If a person thinks our world is either perfectly made or not, then he has not considered the grand perspective of Nature, wherein all things are managed and in a constant state of change.  If he takes the correct perspective, he will appreciate that, to God (Nature) “all things are fair and good and just” and that it is “people [who] hold some things wrong and some right.” 10


1 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part V 

2 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4, 40

3 John Sellars, Stoicism p. 93, 95

4 Sellars, Stoicism p. 93

5 Sellars, Stoicism p. 99  

6 Aurelius, Meditations 8, 50

7 Aurelius, Meditations 7, 9

8 Sellars, Stoicism p. 91

9 Sellars Stoicism p. 104-105

10 Heraclitus, DK B102, from Porphyry, Notes on Homer, on Iliad 4.4

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 32 - On Progress

On Progress

There are a few good bits of advice and things to learn from this brief letter.

As mentioned in the previous letter about siren songs, Seneca reminds Lucilius to be mindful of those he chooses to associate with.

refrain from associating with men of different stamp and different aims. And I am indeed confident that you cannot be warped, that you will stick to your purpose, even though the crowd may surround and seek to distract you.

Focus is needed to make progress.  As my current assignment at work deals with coaching our teams on agile, one of my favorite quotes, which we've turned into a sticker, is "start finishing and stop starting."  We get so distracted by new things and ideas and initiatives.  What we need more of is focus to finish what we've set our minds to.

And much harm is done even by one who holds you back, especially since life is so short; and we make it still shorter by our unsteadiness, by making ever fresh beginnings at life, now one and immediately another. We break up life into little bits, and fritter it away.

Start finishing your quest to philosophy and stop with new distractions.  Life is short and when it comes to learning and applying your human craft, you have no time to lose.  Death is on your heels; like an enemy chasing after you.  The immediate goal is to "round out your life before death comes, and then await in peace the remaining portion of your time."

Learn to be content with little and give more to those in need - both materially and philosophically.

He makes an interesting comment about how Lucilius' parents prayed for many blessings on him.  And in some warped paradigm, Seneca thinks that Lucilius' parents' prayers have "plundered" the blessings from others.  "Whatever they make over to you must be removed from someone else."

I suppose if there were scarcity of some resource and if Lucilius' parents had such sway over the gods as to ask for said scarce resource that it be given to Lucilius and not another, then I guess the vice here is greed.  But that only makes sense if the resource is scarce and his parents controlled the gods.

The more important lesson here, I think, is that his parents didn't know what good to pray for, for their son.  Rather than praying for a scarce resource to be given to their son (and subsequently taken away from another), if they were to pray that their son be more just or have more courage or wisdom, I can't see how by granting their son with more virtue, the act takes away from others!  In sum, if you are going to pray, don't make it a Santa Clause wish-list of indifferents.  Pray for something the gods give (and have already given) in abundance: virtue.

The amazing things about the good is that once you learn it and truly grasp it (think of a fist tightly grasping something), you have it immediately.  The work is in the learning and being truly convinced.

I pray that you may get such control over yourself that your mind, now shaken by wandering thoughts, may at last come to rest and be steadfast, that it may be content with itself and, having attained an understanding of what things are truly good, – and they are in our possession as soon as we have this knowledge, – that it may have no need of added years.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 31 - On Siren Songs

On Siren Songs

Fads, trends, populism, crowd favorites - I've tried to be leery of what the majority desires.  If only the majority were in favor of justice for all, temperance, courage and wisdom, then perhaps I would willingly go along with the crowd.  But usually what the crowd desires is not wise, but foolish.  They will choose the well-worn, popular path.  For this reason, I think, Seneca approves of the "impulse which prompted" Lucilius to "[tread under feet] that which is approved by the crowd.

The phrase "tread under feet" seems to mean to ignore, or oppress or put down.  Therefore, Seneca approves of the idea of going against the crowd, as long as that means one is living philosophically.

He compares the desires of the crowd to a siren song.  Odysseus had to plug the ears of his men so they would not hear the siren song, lest they succumbed to it and dash their ships into the rock.  Similarly, we must plug our ears to the calls of the crowd, which are everywhere!

the song, however, which you have to fear, echoes round you not from a single headland, but from every quarter of the world. Sail, therefore, not past one region which you mistrust because of its treacherous delights, but past every city. Be deaf to those who love you most of all; they pray for bad things with good intentions. And, if you would be happy, entreat the gods that none of their fond desires for you may be brought to pass. What they wish to have heaped upon you are not really good things; there is only one good, the cause and the support of a happy life, – trust in oneself.

Seneca warns that we must be deaf even "to those who love you most all."  What an odd thing to say.  I presume that what he means is that those who love us most, may not have embraced philosophy, and therefore, when they pray for you, they are praying that you become famous, rich, handsome, healthy or some sort of indifferent.  Or they may be praying that you don't die or become ill or fall on so-called misfortune.  Therefore, Seneca says that if you really want to be happy, plead with the gods that your loved ones' prayers are not answered.

I'm not so sure how sound this advice from Seneca is.  I'm not so sure a practicing Stoic would forbid his loved ones to pray for such things, nor would he go out of his way to pray to the gods to not answer the prayers of his loved ones.  At best, a practicing Stoic may be completely nonplussed by such prayers and would not worry if those things came (or not) into his life.  He would view them as indifferents regardless if they came (or not) due to prayers from a loved one or otherwise.

The next part of the letter delves into the subject of work; and I assume he means the subject of gainful employment.  Work, itself, is an indifferent.  Therefore, work can be infused with either virtue or vice.  A practicing Stoic, then would attempt to make his work noble.

Make yourself happy through your own efforts; you can do this, if once you comprehend that whatever is blended with virtue is good, and that whatever is joined to vice is bad. Just as nothing gleams if it has no light blended with it, and nothing is black unless it contains darkness or draws to itself something of dimness, and as nothing is hot without the aid of fire, and nothing cold without air; so it is the association of virtue and vice that makes things honourable or base.

Knowledge of how to make good use of things (indifferents) is the art of philosophy.  The good, therefore, is knowledge.  And evil is lack of knowledge.  Your human craft is to gain knowledge about how to be a good human.

Just as a carpenter learns to work with wood and there are varying degrees of craftsmanship in different carpenters due to knowledge and practice (as well as lack of knowledge and practice), so too we can apply this analogy to what it means to be a good human being.  A good human will seek justice for all (not only justice for some, and not at the expense of others' justice).  A good human being will be disciplined and temperate in eating, entertainment, learning and working.  A good human being will demonstrate courage and honesty.  A good human being learns and demonstrates wisdom.  The medium for the carpenter is wood.  The medium for a human being is work and life.

in order that virtue may be perfect, there should be an even temperament and a scheme of life that is consistent with itself throughout; and this result cannot be attained without knowledge of things, and without the art which enables us to understand things human and things divine. That is the greatest good. If you seize this good, you begin to be the associate of the gods, and not their suppliant.

The 'art' he refers to is philosophy.  If we learn and practice this art, we become equal with the gods.  It does not matter our lot in life, the choice we have is our response to our lot and circumstances in life.  Is our soul worthy to the challenge?  Will you take the path less travelled or will you follow the crowd?

The unique part of *you* has a choice, regardless of circumstances.

What we have to seek for, then, is that which does not each day pass more and more under the control of some power which cannot be withstood. And what is this? It is the soul, – but the soul that is upright, good, and great. What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in a human body? A soul like this may descend into a Roman knight just as well as into a freedman's son or a slave. For what is a Roman knight, or a freedman's son, or a slave? They are mere titles, born of ambition or of wrong. One may leap to heaven from the very slums. Only rise

"And mould thyself to kinship with thy God."

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 30 - On Conquering the Conqueror

On Conquering the Conqueror

Another letter on death.  This letter gets into the specifics of someone who is really old and therefore really near death.

I'm not going to commentate much on this letter, other than copy a few quotes from it and make a remark.

Seneca says,

Philosophy bestows this boon upon us; it makes us joyful in the very sight of death, strong and brave no matter in what state the body may be, cheerful and never failing though the body fail us.

This quote is a rift on Socrates who said that philosophy is nothing but preparation for death.

Seneca admires the subject of this letter (the man named Aufidius Bassus).  Bassus' courage is so great, he can observe and contemplate his own death as if it were simply the death of another. 

[He] contemplates his own end with the courage and countenance which you would regard as undue indifference in a man who so contemplated another's.

There is this gem, embedded in the letter, which serves as a good reminder of what is not good and evil.  We may think that the tumultuous ocean is bad and unsafe because we could drown in it.  But that is not necessarily the right perspective.

the sea has cast ashore unharmed those whom it had engulfed, by the same force through which it drew them down.

Seneca thinks that the nearer one is to death, the more courage they must muster.

I hold that one is braver at the very moment of death than when one is approaching death. ... an end that is near at hand, and is bound to come, calls for tenacious courage of soul; this is a rarer thing, and none but the wise man can manifest it.

Facing death - truly, deeply contemplating it - is something we must all face.  The longer we avoid facing death, the more slavish we can become.  For once you face death and not fear it, then you can truly begin to live.

He who does not wish to die cannot have wished to live. For life is granted to us with the reservation that we shall die; to this end our path leads. Therefore, how foolish it is to fear it, since men simply await that which is sure, but fear only that which is uncertain!  Death has its fixed rule, – equitable and unavoidable.

Seneca admires those who are comfortable with death and let it happen as fate happens.  Those who rush head-long into danger, hoping for death (loathing their life) seem to be less respectable.

those have more weight with me who approach death without any loathing for life, letting death in, so to speak, and not pulling it towards them.

Lastly, and precisely, "We do not fear death; we fear the thought of death. For death itself is always the same distance from us."

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 29 - On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus

On the Critical Condition of Marcellinus

It seems that Marcellinus is a common friend or acquaintance of Seneca and Lucilius, and his character isn't the best.  Seneca and Lucilius seem to be trying to do something to help him improve his character.

He doesn't want to go near Seneca for fear he will "hear the truth."  And Seneca is fine with that!  Seneca is of the opinion that "one must not talk to a man unless he is willing to listen."  He compares this to talking to a deaf person - it's useless.  Seneca is in the camp of teaching only those who are willing to listen and change.  He won't waste his breath on someone unwilling to improve.

The other camp is the like the salesman, who takes a talk-to-everyone approach.  They think words are free and by "[scattering] this advice by the handful ... It is impossible that one who tries often should not sometime succeed."  Seneca does not approve of this approach.  The thinking goes: if you are always talking and hit the mark a few times, then it cheapens your words.

To use an archer analogy - who would you prefer?  The archer who takes 100 shots and kills a handful?  Or an archer who hits consistently every time he fires?

Seneca also thinks teaching wisdom and living wisely is an art.  And if you are not discriminating in your art, can it really be called art?  Where is the intentional, rational choice if all you do is throw words and teachings mindlessly and indiscriminately?

I can see the appeal to both.  If you are appealing to the masses, then taking an all-the-above approach and casting a wide net might gain some followers of philosophy.  But the quality may be low.  On the other hand, being prudent with teaching and appealing only to people who are going to take it seriously, has a higher success rate.

Back to Marcellinus specifically.  He is so vigorous in his lack of living philosophically, that he is a danger even to those who would want to help him.  Like a powerful person flailing in the water, he could pull his rescuer under water and two people drown instead of one.

But Seneca puts up with him and hopes to at least check and slow down Marcellinus' vices if not to turn him altogether to philosophy.

His quote from Epicurus: "I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know, they do not approve, and what they approve, I do not know."

The only commentary I'll share on this quote is to share another quote (source):

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.