Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 11 - On the Blush of Modesty

On the Blush of Modesty

Seneca mentions several physical reactions people may have in certain situations; such as when they are speaking publicly.  These reactions may range from sweating to stammering to blushing.  He contends, that no matter what a person may try, they can never overcome these types of physical reactions.

The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into a perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.  I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it.

He later remarks that little can be done to remove these habits.

Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them.

In the spirit of sharing and transparency, I too fall under this category of which Seneca speaks.  In today's terms, we would call it social anxiety.  During high school, I usually never got nervous in public speaking forums or in social situations, such as parties or small group meetings, even with strangers.  But sometime in college, social anxiety began to get the best of me.  One of the earliest times I recall breaking into a sweat, was during a public speaking class I was taking.  I thought it was rare and a one-off.  But as I was presented with more opportunities to speak in public, I would feel my face get flush and I would break into a sweat.

On another occasion, I was teaching small class and I invited another teacher in the room to do a demo and I felt the heat of anxiety set in.  In this case, it was winter time, the classroom heater was on, and I was wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt and tie.  Once I broke a sweat, I got more anxious and it became incredibly uncomfortable.

Over the years, I've learned to deal with it.  Preparation is very important for me.  If I can prepare mentally and practically, then I will feel more confident and the chances of a sweating-attack diminish.  Also, if I know ahead of time, that I have a big presentation, then I will be sure I don't drink much liquid.  This lessens the chance of my brow sweat-spigot turning on!  And on the occasion that I do break into a sweat, I be sure to have something with me, with which I can fan myself.  If there are others near me, I will simply comment that I feel hot, and with fanning, the sweat, and heat pass and things return to normal.

I've since learned that there are some genetic factors to this.  Some of my siblings have mentioned to me that they too suffer from the same condition.  This lends support to Seneca's idea, that as hard as you try, Nature will simply win every time.  You can't fight Nature.

Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.

Seneca's final remark, in this letter, relates to the practice of having a moral guide (a person) in your mind all the time. This someone should be a person whom you respect and look to as a good example.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.
Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Indeed, looking to others as an example helps a person a lot, in terms of being steady.  Christians often teach their children the concept of "what would Jesus do?" to guide them when parents and teachers are not around to correct them.  It would seem this is another Stoic idea that Christians have adopted.  Regardless, the idea is valid and useful.  The entire book 1 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations an an exercise of looking to people who provide good examples.  Marcus was very fond of his mentors and often wrote of them so that they could be in his mind all the time.  We would all do well to think of examples of other people and carry them with us, in our minds.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 10 - On Living to Oneself

On Living to Oneself

This is a simple, short letter, but one that needs a bit of unpacking.

This first part of the letter, in which Seneca states, "avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual," speaks of balance.  There is a time when the individual should avoid the many - the crowds.  There is a time for when the individual should avoid the few.  And there is a time for when the individual should avoid solitude.

The concept that Seneca is trying to share here, is one of caution and learning.  If someone is uneducated, then spending time by himself will not help him improve.  Therefore, it would be prudent for him to find a mentor or teacher.  If someone is newly educated, but needs practice, it would be prudent for him to avoid the uneducated crowds, and perhaps spend more time with peers who are also learning.  I think this is what Seneca is trying to convey.

He recommends to Lucilius, that he should be OK spending time with himself.  Upon hearing Lucilius speak, Seneca thought to himself,
These words did not come from the edge of the lips; these utterances have a solid foundation. This man is not one of the many; he has regard for his real welfare.
Seneca seems to judge Lucilius as well-grounded and well educated, and therefore, Lucilius can trust himself to be with himself as he introspects.

The latter part of the letter delves into prayers to the gods.  If you are a praying sort of person, then the evaluation of your prayers ought to be conducted.  Are you praying to receive indifferents?  Or are you praying for something that the gods have already granted you?  Seneca offers this advice, "pray for a sound mind and for good health, first of soul and then of body."

His closing quote also deals with desires and prayer.
Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.
This passage reminds me of the quote from Crates of Thebes - practice being in need of only a few things.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 9 - On Philosophy and Friendship

On Philosophy and Friendship

In sum, the Stoic sage is self-content.  He or she can derive eudaimonia with or without friends - there is no need, for the sage, to achieve eudaimonia by looking towards externals to grant them.  Now, with that stated, the Stoic would prefer to have friends and be a friend.

To begin, Seneca discusses a nuance between the Epicureans and the Stoics.  I'm still trying to digest it to ensure I fully understand it.  But here is the passage:
There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea, – that the wise man is self-sufficient
I understand Seneca to mean that the Stoic sage feels emotions, but learns to deal with them with a rational response.  While the Epicurean sage achieves a state of experiencing no emotions.

Seneca goes on to note that while the Stoic sage is self-content, even without friends, he still would prefer to have friends.  He compares this to other losses a Stoic might experience and how he would react.
If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them.
This passage reminds me of a phrase I recently heard while listening to the audio book The Coddling of the American Mind by Haidt and Lukianoff.  As a father or mother, the proper parenting mindset to have is to prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.  In this mindset, the child represents the human will and attitude, and the road is symbolic of the world and everything in it.  If you want to achieve eudaimonia then you can achieve it with Stoic philosophy.  But if you think you'll achieve eudaimonia by trying to change the world to your expectations and will,  you will fail.

So in the event that you are unjustly accused or exiled or get cancer or you lose a friend or child to death, you can adapt yourself to the circumstance instead of getting stuck in a mental trap of thinking that circumstances and the universe should conform to your preconceived expectations.

And bringing the topic back to friendship, Seneca makes the excellent point that even in the event you lose a friend, there is much to be said in the pleasure it brings to acquire new friends.  Just as the Stoic learns and masters the art of achieving eudaimonia, so too can he learn and master the art of making new friends.
Now there is great pleasure, not only in maintaining old and established friendships, but also in beginning and acquiring new ones. 
He also makes the observation that it is the process of making new friends that is fulfilling and he supports this with the idea that parents love to be parents when they are actively parenting.  And when the child is fully grown, the opportunities of parenting are less and they may miss those times when they were raising their children.
In the case of our children, their young manhood yields the more abundant fruits, but their infancy was sweeter.
On the topic of practicing friendship, Seneca notes that this is the area where the Stoic has the opportunity to demonstrate virtue.  A Stoic will look for a friend in order to have opportunities to practice virtue.  While some people will want friends, so that when they are in a bind, their friends can help them out, Stoics will want friends so that when their friends are in a bind, the Stoic has opportunities to practice virtue.
The wise man, I say, self-sufficient though he be, nevertheless desires friends if only for the purpose of practising friendship, in order that his noble qualities may not lie dormant. Not, however, for the purpose mentioned by Epicurus in the letter quoted above: "That there may be someone to sit by him when he is ill, to help him when he is in prison or in want;" but that he may have someone by whose sick-bed he himself may sit, someone a prisoner in hostile hands whom he himself may set free. He who regards himself only, and enters upon friendships for this reason, reckons wrongly.
He notes that friendship which starts on the premise of reward and payment, such friendship will most likely end as such.
He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays. A man will be attracted by some reward offered in exchange for his friendship, if he be attracted by aught in friendship other than friendship itself.
Seneca then gets more into the details of the nuance of self-sufficiency and friends.  In so explaining, he notes the Stoic concept of Eternal Recurrence and the conflagration and cycles of the Cosmos (Nature).
Therefore, although he is self-sufficient, yet he has need of friends. He craves as many friends as possible, not, however, that he may live happily; for he will live happily even without friends. The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune. 
People may say: "But what sort of existence will the wise man have, if he be left friendless when thrown into prison, or when stranded in some foreign nation, or when delayed on a long voyage, or when cast upon a lonely shore?" His life will be like that of Jupiter, who, amid the dissolution of the world, when the gods are confounded together and Nature rests for a space from her work, can retire into himself and give himself over to his own thoughts.
It is part of our nature to want sociability.  To deny such would be to deny our very nature.  But is it a requirement to be in the constant presence of friends, essential to achieving eudaimonia?  The Stoic response is: no.  Even God/Nature/the Cosmos goes through periods of solitary time in contemplation.  A practicing Stoic, too, would choose to spend time alone, in contemplation.  Just as today's modern stoics take cold showers and fast, to practice hardship, so too the Stoic should incorporate time alone into her routine.

Stilbo offers the right perspective and demonstrates true equanimity regardless of fate.
after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius, called Sacker of Cities because of the destruction he brought upon them, in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: "I have all my goods with me!"  There is a brave and stout-hearted man for you! The enemy conquered, but Stilbo conquered his conqueror. "I have lost nothing!" Aye, he forced Demetrius to wonder whether he himself had conquered after all. "My goods are all with me!" In other words, he deemed nothing that might be taken from him to be a good.
I'm not sure how I could endure the same fate as Stilbo.  This is a premeditatio malorum exercise I'll have to contemplate.  And it is this kind of exercise Epictetus wants us to practice too.  We may need to start small - with a favorite coffee mug - and then work our way up to a circumstance similar to what Stilbo actually faced.

It is awe-inspiring to see such fortitude in Stilbo.  Seneca writes in admiration:
We marvel at certain animals because they can pass through fire and suffer no bodily harm; but how much more marvellous is a man who has marched forth unhurt and unscathed through fire and sword and devastation! Do you understand now how much easier it is to conquer a whole tribe than to conquer one man? This saying of Stilbo makes common ground with Stoicism; the Stoic also can carry his goods unimpaired through cities that have been burned to ashes; for he is self-sufficient. Such are the bounds which he sets to his own happiness.
Three quotes, to wrap up this letter.  Three quotes to contemplate in your solitude today.

"Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the whole world." 

"A man may rule the world and still be unhappy, if he does not feel that he is supremely happy."

"Folly is ever troubled with weariness of itself."

And an alternate translation of the same quote above ... "All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself."

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 8 - On the Philosopher's Seclusion

On the Philosopher's Seclusion

In the previous letter, Seneca advocates avoiding crowds.  Lucilius seems to mistake this for absolute seclusion - like a Stoic monk (a bit of an oxymoron).  While Seneca may be working in retirement, his work is more of an influence for future generations; for those who would tread the path he has trod.  Therefore his work is more in the written form, than in an active work setting.  Those of us who rub shoulders with coworkers, fellow citizens, neighbors and children, still have a Stoic duty to help in many other ways, besides the verbal and written form.

Seneca defends himself by making the point that his work is thought-work.
I never spend a day in idleness; I appropriate even a part of the night for study. I do not allow time for sleep but yield to it when I must, and when my eyes are wearied with waking and ready to fall shut, I keep them at their task.
Two thoughts come to me as I reflect on this passage.  One, how many of us spend large parts of our day in idleness?  How many times have I told myself "I need a break" and then flip to social media or TV to waste away my time?  Perhaps a bit too much.

And two, the thought of the famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, where he said, "there will be sleeping enough in the grave."

Seneca continues with his argument that his work is for those who come after him.
I am working for later generations, writing down some ideas that may be of assistance to them. There are certain wholesome counsels, which may be compared to prescriptions of useful drugs; these I am putting into writing; for I have found them helpful in ministering to my own sores, which, if not wholly cured, have at any rate ceased to spread.
A couple of his counsels are then shared in this letter.

First, he reminds us that things like chance and fortune are out of our control and we need to not give weight to these things.  A Stoic must always view these things as indifferents; a Stoic must not let these things sway his proper perspective about life.

Secondly, he gives some advice about possessions and the things are go in and around the body.
Hold fast, then, to this sound and wholesome rule of life; that you indulge the body only so far as is needful for good health. The body should be treated more rigorously, that it may not be disobedient to the mind. Eat merely to relieve your hunger; drink merely to quench your thirst; dress merely to keep out the cold; house yourself merely as a protection against personal discomfort.
The only focus of the Stoic should be the spirit / soul.
reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.
And a different translation of the same passage:
Reflect that nothing merits admiration except the spirit, the impressiveness of which prevents it from being impressed by anything.
His final point, before he concludes with sharing some quotes, deals with focusing on the greater good - the inner work that must be done by every individual.
Believe me, those who seem to be busied with nothing are busied with the greater tasks; they are dealing at the same time with things mortal and things immortal.
As per his custom, he concludes with a quote; this one from Epicurus, along with some commentary from Seneca.
"If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy." The man who submits and surrenders himself to her is not kept waiting; he is emancipated on the spot. For the very service of Philosophy is freedom.
What is this freedom Philosophy offers?  Freedom from the burdens of possessions, the body, fame, passions, others' opinions and oppression.  More succinctly, it is freedom from desires and aversions.

For more on the treatment of this idea, I refer the reader to Epictetus, Discourses 4.1 and my commentary on it.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 7 - On Crowds

On Crowds

At the time of this writing, it is July 2, 2020.  The COVID-19 pandemic continues to roll on.  People are told to socially distance themselves (six feet apart) and wear masks so as to limit the spread of the virus, which seems to bring death mostly to the elderly and people with pre-existing breathing and health conditions.

Seneca, by contrast, instructs Lucilius to socially distance himself from crowds for moral reasons.  Being in crowds (or the 'general population' as my old supervisor would often say), leads to not only exposure to germs and viruses, but also moral decay.  Now before people get out their pitch-forks to say that there is nothing wrong with crowds, Seneca puts a finer point on this topic by admitting his own weakness.
I shall admit my own weakness, at any rate; for I never bring back home the same character that I took abroad with me.
He continues with the specifics, as to why he chooses to avoid crowds:
To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger.
It has been my personal experience, that every time I go a professional sporting event, or a carnival or state fair, or something similar to the Consumer Electronics Show, the sole purpose of the event is to show off something new, unique, pleasurable or entertaining.  And furthermore, the intent of said 'shows' is to get you (the consumer) to buy something or to buy more.  They will try to convince you that you will be 'better' or 'sexier' or 'richer' or 'happier.'  I've never seen one of these typical events or crowds offer the consumer more honesty or virtue.  Their usual aim is to instill more vice.  I would suggest that we also avoid on-line crowds in terms of social media.  The aims and ends of these platforms are similar to shows and events: to install more vice.
vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure
In the next part of the letter, Seneca delves into the analysis of the games in the arena, where men and beasts tear each other apart.  His point is that a bit of the spectator's soul dies every time they view such violence.
what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? ... The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob.
While there are seemingly two ends of the spectrum regarding the crowd, in classic philosophic fashion, Seneca cuts a path right down the middle in pursuit of wisdom.
You must either imitate or loathe the world.  But both courses are to be avoided; you should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.
So, we should avoid the crowds, but not shun them, nor hate them.  We should share and teach wisdom and prudence with those who would listen.  Some may listen and you can have a positive impact on them.  But it will take time.  Know that the time and effort you put in to studying philosophy and trying to teach others, is never wasted.  At the very least, you will have benefited from the study.
But you need not fear that you have wasted your efforts; it was for yourself that you learned them.
He closes, as always, with some quotes.  This time, Lucilius gets three!
One man means as much to me as a multitude, and a multitude only as much as one man.
I am content with few, content with one, content with none at all [regarding reaching an audience of students]
I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.
Seneca concludes:
Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.
In sum: if and when more waves of pandemics hit our countries and world, and you are supposed to self-quarantine, grab a philosophy book, read it, find a mentor, install Zoom and begin the process of learning.  Avoid crowds to not only avoid getting ill, but also to prevent moral decay!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 6 - On Sharing Knowledge

On Sharing Knowledge

My current assignment at work is to help a group of roughly 200 employees transform from a traditional management-style approach to work, to an agile mindset approach to work.  In all the conversations I've had with many people about an agile transformation, the hallmarks that always stand out are:

1) the team is there to please the customer
2) the team needs to continuously inspect and adapt the way it works

So, when I come across letters from Seneca that convey a similar sentiment, it pleases me.

The overlapping themes are: improvement and mindfulness of that improvement.  Similarly, it is about recognizing the need to be better, and then installing a feedback mechanism (in the form of introspection and a mentor/coach) to ensure the continuity of progress.

Seneca starts off this letter discussing his transformation as well as his ability to recognize his self-transformation.  And then he readily acknowledges that he still has work to do.
I feel, my dear Lucilius, that I am being not only reformed, but transformed. I do not yet, however, assure myself, or indulge the hope, that there are no elements left in me which need to be changed. Of course there are many that should be made more compact, or made thinner, or be brought into greater prominence. And indeed this very fact is proof that my spirit is altered into something better, – that it can see its own faults, of which it was previously ignorant.
He then pivots into a key ingredient in a person's transformation: having someone to improve with or learn from; in a word: a mentor.

Seneca wishes to share not only wisdom with his friend, but also setbacks or troubles.
I am glad to learn in order that I may teach. Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.
He does note that the only thing better than a mentorship via correspondence, is to actually live with the mentor.  This is how Cleanthes learned from Zeno; and how all the sages arrived at their station in life.
Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word ... Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared in his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules.  Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof.
Seneca concludes with a quote about how a person may know if they are making progress: "'I have begun to be a friend to myself.' That was indeed a great benefit; such a person can never be alone. You may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind."