Friday, August 21, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 15 - On Brawn and Brains

 On Brawn and Brains

Several years ago, I learned what the name of the shoe company really meant: asics

a - anima

s - sana

i - in

c - copore

s - sano

This is Latin for, sound mind, in a sound body.  That has stayed with me for a long time.  And I think that is ultimately what Seneca is trying to convey in Letter 15.

There is a happy medium between advancing the mind and maintaining a healthy body.  One can tip the scales in one direction and spend an inordinate amount of time in the weight room.  Vice versa, one can spend too much time with his nose in a book.  The golden mean would suggest treating the body with its due diligence, while persisting in growing in wisdom, neither at the expense of the other.

Seneca expresses this idea, when he wrote:

Without philosophy the mind is sickly, and the body, too, though it may be very powerful, is strong only as that of a madman or a lunatic is strong.

He goes on to explain the mindlessness of heavy eating and drinking, followed by heavy exercise.  The beasts do as much.  But we are not beasts.  We are rational beings and we ought to give the body its due diligence, so as to give ourselves the best time in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

In our post-modern society, many have sacrificed both mind and body.  Going to the mall to shop and spend time with friends was a memorable pass-time in my youth.  But over the years, I can think of a handful of tortures I'd rather endure than spend time at the mall.  Sometimes, in the last few years, the demands of family time and Christmas shopping caused me to sit in contemplation on a bench in the middle of the mall, while my wife was shopping.  During these times, I took a poll of how many obese people walked past me and how many people were walking, head-down, staring into their smart phone.  It was disheartening.  Very, very few were not obese and very few were not staring into a phone.  I wondered if our post-modern society has failed when it comes to educating people on obtaining sound health and sound minds.

What is the right balance?  I guess it depends on the person.  But the Mayo clinic recommends about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, coupled with some resistance training (link).  Once your exercise is complete, get back to the reading, writing and learning.

But whatever you do, come back soon from body to mind. The mind must be exercised both day and night, for it is nourished by moderate labour; and this form of exercise need not be hampered by cold or hot weather, or even by old age. Cultivate that good which improves with the years.

Do you have to be either in a state of exercise or a state of study at all times?  No.

Of course I do not command you to be always bending over your books and your writing materials; the mind must have a change, – but a change of such a kind that it is not unnerved, but merely unbent.

For this reason, I would recommend when you are not exercising, learning or working, you should take up an activity that "unbends" the mind and refreshes it.  This would be a hobby.

In closing, Seneca shares a couple of quotes about living in the present and being content.

"The fool's life is empty of gratitude and full of fears; its course lies wholly toward the future."

for we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago; nor do we reflect how pleasant it is to demand nothing, how noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon Fortune.

If you would thank the gods, and be grateful for your past life, you should contemplate how many men you have outstripped.

As to what the future's uncertain lot has in store, why should I demand of Fortune that she give, rather than demand of myself that I should not crave?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 14 - On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

On the Reasons for Withdrawing from the World

At the heart of this letter, Seneca is giving us all some food for thought, on how to influence society.  While political action may be the swiftest way to influence society, Seneca seems to suggest there are other, wise ways to take action.

The first couple of paragraphs discuss the Stoic view of self-preservation.  We do not live for the body, but we must take care of the body to ensure our survival.

I do not maintain that the body is not to be indulged at all; but I maintain that we must not be slaves to it ... We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live without it ... Virtue is held too cheap by the man who counts his body too dear. We should cherish the body with the greatest care; but we should also be prepared, when reason, self-respect, and duty demand the sacrifice, to deliver it even to the flames.

And when it comes to harming the body, a Stoic would not needlessly open himself to significant self-harm or death, if the Stoic could prevent it.  It is based on this reasoning, that the Stoic would not seek to offend the powerful.  It's as if Seneca is saying "stay in the game; and as long as you're in the game, you have a chance to be useful to society."

So the wise man will never provoke the anger of those in power; nay, he will even turn his course, precisely as he would turn from a storm if he were steering a ship ... he holds his course far from that region notorious for its swirling waters. Our wise man does the same; he shuns a strong man who may be injurious to him, making a point of not seeming to avoid him, because an important part of one's safety lies in not seeking safety openly; for what one avoids, one condemns.

Similarly, a Stoic would avoid the danger of the mob.

Next, he shares the middle ground Cato took.  Cato fought to stay in the game as long as he could.  But when it became clear that there was going to be a tyrant regardless, he chose the wise path.

Philosophy itself, however, should be practised with calmness and moderation. "Very well, then," you retort, "do you regard the philosophy of Marcus Cato as moderate? Cato's voice strove to check a civil war. Cato parted the swords of maddened chieftains. When some fell foul of Pompey and others fell foul of Caesar, Cato defied both parties at once!" Nevertheless, one may well question whether, in those days, a wise man ought to have taken any part in public affairs, and ask: "What do you mean, Marcus Cato? It is not now a question of freedom; long since has freedom gone to rack and ruin. The question is, whether it is Caesar or Pompey who controls the State. Why, Cato, should you take sides in that dispute? It is no business of yours; a tyrant is being selected. What does it concern you who conquers? The better man may win; but the winner is bound to be the worse man." I have referred to Cato's final role. But even in previous years the wise man was not permitted to intervene in such plundering of the state; for what could Cato do but raise his voice and utter unavailing words? At one time he was "hustled" by the mob and spat upon and forcibly removed from the forum and marked for exile; at another, he was taken straight to prison from the senate-chamber.

Indeed, there are many other ways to influence society, besides taking an active political role.

consider those Stoics who, shut out from public life, have withdrawn into privacy for the purpose of improving men's existence and framing laws for the human race without incurring the displeasure of those in power. The wise man will not upset the customs of the people, nor will he invite the attention of the populace by any novel ways of living.

A virtuous life is an examined life, a reasoned life.  The outcome is left to fate.

And finally, the wise man regards the reason for all his actions, but not the results. The beginning is in our own power; fortune decides the issue, but I do not allow her to pass sentence upon myself.

And then there is this parting advice and the management of desire.  This falls squarely in the minimalism ideaology.

"He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most." ... He who craves riches feels fear on their account. ... While he puzzles over increasing his wealth, he forgets how to use it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 13 - On Groundless Fears

On Groundless Fears

Not everyone does it, but there are many who catastrophize things.  We may think the worst is going to happen, that we are going to die young, or our child will be mangled to death in a car wreck, or we'll contract the corona virus while shopping or that our child will be kidnapped while walking to school.

It's exhausting; thinking of all the possible things that could end up happening to us or our loved ones.  But the truth is, we are all dead in the end anyway.  Which is why, I think, the Stoics advocated practicing memento mori.  If you can get comfortable with death, then everything else should be a bit easier to deal with, emotionally speaking, and you can get on with life.

And once you get on with life and start taking your licks, you can begin to be truly tested and learn from adversity.

It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested, – the spirit that will never consent to come under the jurisdiction of things external to ourselves.  This is the touchstone of such a spirit; no prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent's fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary's charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever.

Besides, even if you decide to engage in doubting and fear-mongering about your future and thinking the worst might happen, vastly more often than not, the worst you feared does not come to pass.

There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. ... some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Since I am prone to catastrophizing things, I've made it a habit to note, every day, the worst things that could happen.  Sometimes I write down things that might happen that very day and other times I write down things that may happen at any time or far into the future.  Then at the end of the day, I make sure to ask myself if the catastrophe happened.  So far, the catastrophes I've dreamt of have not happened.

On some of the catastrophes I think if, I will pivot into a premeditatio malorum and assume that they legitimately will happen.  I then let my mind process the emotions and then I begin to think of the wise reaction.  From there, I outline the next few actions I would take.

Often, especially in today's uber-safetyism society, we allow ourselves to be carried away with fear and panic, when it is not warranted.  In the 1990s, when I was in high school, the fear of children being kidnapped was exceptionally high.  I remember when every kid I knew, would often wander my city, on his or her bike, with no adult supervision.  We would be gone for hours and hours, before returning home in time for dinner.  But then that all changed with the introduction of John Walsh's crusade, after his son was kidnapped and murdered.  Every kid who grew up in the 1980s and 90s remembers the pictures of kids on milk cartons.

Eventually, parents everywhere, were uber-cautious about letting their child walk or ride their bike alone.  Kids were told to walk in packs and never to take candy from strangers.  To be sure, all of these are wise practices.  But have parents gone too far?  Have they, for the sake of safety, not allowed their kids to spend hours and hours outside, playing and riding bikes?

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, think we have let safetyism (another form of catastrophizing) run amok.  Consider this passage on kidnapping statistics:

The abduction and murder of a child by a stranger is among the most horrific crimes one can imagine. It is also, thankfully, among the rarest. According to the FBI, almost 90% of children who go missing have either miscommunicated their plans, misunderstood directions, or run away from home or foster care, and 99.8% of the time, missing children come home. The vast majority of those who are abducted are taken by a biological parent who does not have custody; the number abducted by a stranger is a tiny fraction of 1% of children reported missing—roughly one hundred children per year in a nation with more than 70 million minors. And since the 1990s, the rates of all crimes against children have gone down, while the chances of a kidnapped child surviving the ordeal have gone up. (Haidt, Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, in the section entitled "A Parent's Worst Fear")

After I read the above paragraph, I was in a state of shock about how astronomically over-protective and worried I've been with my kids!  There are far many more things to be worried about than having my child be kidnapped.

At the time of this writing (August 2020), America and the world are in the grip of fear about the corona virus.  So much is not known about the virus and people are so fearful of death, that we have effectively shutdown society.  Many wonder if we have over-reacted.  Just yesterday, I pulled the statistics on COVID-19 deaths and found that the vast majority of deaths related to COVID-19, occur in people who have retired.  Well over 95% of the deaths are age 55 and older.  The younger a person is, the death-rate drops off significantly.  Yet, we act as though the virus is killing both the old and young on a grand scale.  We have not heeded the advice of Seneca.

Yes, my dear Lucilius; we agree too quickly with what people say. We do not put to the test those things which cause our fear; we do not examine into them; we blench and retreat just like soldiers who are forced to abandon their camp because of a dust-cloud raised by stampeding cattle, or are thrown into a panic by the spreading of some unauthenticated rumour. ... that which arises from uncertainty is delivered over to guesswork and the irresponsible license of a frightened mind. That is why no fear is so ruinous and so uncontrollable as panic fear. For other fears are groundless, but this fear is witless.

Seneca goes so far as to argue, "life is not worth living, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent."  Many senior citizens I've talked to, have said as much.  Sitting in a locked-down home and city and state and world is no way to live.  While temporary lockdowns may be prudent, the seemingly endless threats of lockdowns and shutting of stores and economies makes monks of us all.  While sad, I was yet impressed with a recent headline of a loving couple who refused to be separated in the twilight of their years.  She contracted corona virus and was quarantined, yet he was told to stay away.  He refused, and spent time with his bride.  He too contracted COVID-19 and they both died.  From a news article, their daughter is quoted, “he knew the risks,” she said. “There wasn’t anything any of us could have done to have talked him out of that. He would have gotten himself there one way or the other to see her. I do believe that.”

Now, lest you think I'm a cold-hearted bastard who cares nothing of life - I agree that we need to socially distance ourselves where appropriate; that we should wear masks where appropriate; that we should follow guidance where and when it is wise.  But we need to be mindful of over-doing the fear and anxiety.

Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted ... We let ourselves drift with every breeze; we are frightened at uncertainties, just as if they were certain. We observe no moderation. The slightest thing turns the scales and throws us forthwith into a panic.

And in closing, Seneca reminds us to get busy living.  It is the foolish man, who in old age is getting ready to live.  The order should be reversed.  The young man should be getting ready to live and then get on living with life.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 12 - On Old Age

On Old Age

Old age does not have to be bitter or lonely.  If one so chooses, one can find contentment in youth, middle age and old age.

Now, Seneca was no sage!  He transparently shares how upset he is upon returning to his country home.  Not only does he complain about the cost of up-keep, but he complains about how stones are falling apart before he is!  He complains about how the trees he planted long ago, no longer have leaves.  And he complains about how old his play-mate is when he finds him standing in the doorway.

If we are to appreciate our life now, as well as in old age, we must practice memento mori.

Death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike.

We ought not go so far as Pacuvius, where he practiced his own funeral burial every day!  But, with that idea in mind, we should reflect that every day could be our last.

Thinking on our death, we appreciate every day we rise.

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: "I have lived!", every morning he arises he receives a bonus.

His closing quote, which he shares in the letter, reminds us that life is opinion.  If we think we are constrained, then we are constrained.  And as such, we have the freedom to think we are not constrained, and if we do, we won't be constrained.

 "It is wrong to live under constraint; but no man is constrained to live under constraint." Of course not. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom; and let us thank God that no man can be kept in life. We may spurn the very constraints that hold us.