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.

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