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*  Cynics 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* Cynic 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."

* Sep 24, 2020 - Thanks to a Instagram follower, he helped to make a correction on this post.  the other school: the wikisource makes it clear that the other school is the Cynics.  The Penguin 2004 edition reads "The difference here between the Epicurean and our own school..." which makes it read that Seneca is comparing the Epicureans and the Stoics, when in fact he is comparing the Epicureans/Stoics and the Cynics.  I've revised the post accordingly.

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