Thursday, September 24, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 19 - On Worldliness and Retirement

On Worldliness and Retirement

This is an interesting letter from Seneca and I've been procrastinating writing about it, because I've had a bit of a hard time pulling out Stoic principals.

The topic is retirement.  By this, I suppose he means roughly the same thing that we mean today - to cease, generally speaking, the day-to-day work in which you are employed. 

Not that I would advise you to try to win fame by your retirement; one's retirement should neither be paraded nor concealed. Not concealed, I say, for I shall not go so far in urging you as to expect you to condemn all men as mad and then seek out for yourself a hiding-place and oblivion; rather make this your business, that your retirement be not conspicuous, though it should be obvious.

The golden mean applied in retirement too.  Don't be extravagant; don't make it oblivious.  Find the right approach to retirement when you enter it.

Depending on your personality (extrovert or introvert), you may be saddened to leave all your work acquaintances or you may be relieved.  But none of this is good or bad.  Rather what is in your attitude is that matters most.

Depending on your lifestyle, saving and investment habits, retirement may bring the same sort of life or it may force you to live below your means.  Also, depending on the type of power and authority you had while working, you may have the same or less, when you retire.  All of this is indifferent and quite subject to change when you retire.  Also, if you've not done the proper philosophical contemplation regarding these indifferents, retirement will force you to finally accept the truth.

We hold that there is a succession of causes, from which fate is woven; similarly, you may be sure, there is a succession in our desires; for one begins where its predecessor ends. You have been thrust into an existence which will never of itself put an end to your wretchedness and your slavery. Withdraw your chafed neck from the yoke; it is better that it should be cut off once for all, than galled for ever. If you retreat to privacy, everything will be on a smaller scale, but you will be satisfied abundantly; in your present condition, however, there is no satisfaction in the plenty which is heaped upon you on all sides. Would you rather be poor and sated, or rich and hungry? Prosperity is not only greedy, but it also lies exposed to the greed of others. And as long as nothing satisfies you, you yourself cannot satisfy others.

Seneca seems to admonish the retiree to embrace the lack of abundant money, power and prestige.  While a person may never have done the philosophical work of limiting desire for indifferents while fully employed, perhaps there is hope yet for them in retirement.

That last statement is impactful: "as long as nothing satisfies you, you yourself cannot satisfy others."  Those who never limit their desires can never help another person.  The game of desire is an un-winnable game.  And everyone who plays it, loses.  But the person who limits their desires can win (enjoy eudaimonia) and they can be in a position to help others win too.

A worry of many who wish to retire is: "will I have enough?"  Seneca poses this question in a slightly different way: "how can I take my leave?"  To which he responds with noting that said person, who wishes to retire, already is worrying about their day to day activities.  They are worrying about ensuring new ventures make money and all such manners of toil and stress.  Why should the stress of not having enough money be any different?  You worry when you work; you worry when you retire.  It's all worries!  He uses a different analogy to express this sentiment.  One may worry about being struck by lightening in the valley and and even more so on the peaks of mountains ("There's thunder even on the loftiest peaks.")  In retirement, stay in the valley, "hug the shore."

The ending quote of the letter is another one by Epicurus.

You must reflect carefully beforehand with whom you are to eat and drink, rather than what you are to eat and drink. For a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf.

Giving favors to win friends may be productive, but mind the real cost!  Instead of thinking about what favors to give people, thing more carefully about to whom you will grant favors - consider their character wisely!  Don't become like the man who abounds in fortune, who thinks he has many friends, when in fact they are not friends, but sycophants.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Notes, Comments, Quotes from "Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics" by A.A. Long

 

General Comments from Introduction

  • Hellenistic philosophy begins around the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) and ends with the victory of Octavian over Mark Antony at the battle of Actium (31 B.C.)
  • The major figures of early Hellenistic philosophy all migrated to Athens from elsewhere
  • "Philosophy, so many have said, responded to the unsettled age of the Hellenistic monarchs by turning away from disinterested speculation to the provision of security for the individual.  Stoicism has been described as 'a system put together hastily, violently, to meet a bewildered world'" p. 3
  • "The needs of people in the Hellenistic world for a sense of identity and moral guidance can help explain why Stoicism and Epicureanism rapidly gained adherents at Athens and elsewhere." p. 3
    • I sense that this is also why we are seeing a resurgence of modern interest in ancient Greek philosophy.  The change in science, politics and technology as well as the spread of information of history, has far outpaced the individual philosophies and religions of the post-modern citizen.  People are looking for solid ground on which to stand - to make sense of it all.
  • "Alexander, Diogenes and Aristotle, all died within a year of two of each other (325-322), and this is worth mentioning because it emphasizes the need to take into account of continuity as well as change in the interpretation of Hellenistic philosophy." p. 3
  • "'The reason for discovering philosophy is to allay that which causes disturbance in life'" - Xenocrates ... "the statement harmonizes well with the general aims of Hellenistic philosophy" p. 6
    • Reiterates my comment above about the need to discover a solid philosophy in today's complex world.
  • "philosophy advances by criticism." p. 11
    • Agree!  Having been raised in a religion where criticism of the leaders was very taboo, what a breath of fresh air to be in a position to freely debate philosophy.  We help ourselves and the world by debate and dialogue.
Epicureanism
  • 'live quietly' ... a prescription for attaining traquility; the highest good.  p. 16
  • "He claimed to derive great pleasure from a subsistence diet which cheese would turn into a feast." p. 16
  • "Epicurus has various ways of establishing his hedonism, none of which draws direct support from atoms and void.  In this he differs markedly from the Stoics whose moral theory is intrinsically related to their metaphysics.  But Epicurus thought he could show the validity of hedonism by appeal to immediate experience which, less directly, he held to support atomism." p. 21
    • Another reason, for me, why Stoicism is preferable - it tries to be based in empiricism, not anecdotal data.
  • the concept of 'the swerve' is interesting - never heard of this before!  "The movements of atoms, and therefore any consequences of its movement, are not entirely predictable ... It follows then that an atom, independently of any secondary motion which may result from collisions, has both a unidirectional movement and an unpredictable tendency to deviate from this." p. 38
  • "Lucretius praises Epicurus for delivering mankind from 'the weight of religion'.  He means popular religion, superstitious beliefs in the gods as direct arbiters of human destiny and fears of divine anger as expressed in thunder and lightening." p. 40
  • "There is no purpose which the world as a whole or things in particular are designed to fulfill.  For design is not a feature of the world; it is manifestly imperfect." p. 40
    • Another strong feature that does not align with ancient/traditional Stoicism.  And I sometimes see this same sentiment in some moderns; they would embrace the atoms of Epicureanism.
  • "Nothing disquieted Epicurus more profoundly than the notion that supernatural beings control phenomena or that they can affect human affairs.  That there are gods he did not deny.  But he repeatedly and vociferously rejected the belief that gods are responsible for any natural events." p. 41
    • This was a bit surprising to me.  I did not know Epicurus believed in gods.  He just didn't believe they pulled strings and caused events.
    • And I have to applaud him for this attempt in disabusing people from fear of fallible gods.
    • "Epicurus thought he could remove the source of one basic human anxiety - fear of divine judgement and eternal punishment." p. 42
  • "In his view happiness, whether human or divine, requires for its full realization a life of uninterrupted tranquility or freedom from pain." p. 44
    • based on three assumptions 1) there are gods 2) the gods are sublimely happy and immortal 3) their happiness consists of uninterrupted tranquility
    • all races and people believe in gods; therefore, there are gods
    • gods enjoy existence free of toil; by virtue of their nature, they can preserve their existence; they dwell in no world but in the spaces which separate one world from another. p. 48
      • This sounds like what Cooper experiences in Interstellar; but Cooper isn't exactly free of pain!
    • "Epicurus hoped to show that beliefs in a system of rewards and punishments as recompense for life on earth were mere mythology." p. 49
  • More on the swerve
    • If all movements are causally related; no new movements are created by a swerve in atoms, then there could be no such thing as free will.
    • Free will is a new movement at no fixed time or place
    • But there is such a thing as free will
    • Therefore the atoms sometimes create new beginnings by swerving. p. 58
    • the swerve is some event which "presents itself to consciousness as 'free' will to initiate new movement" p. 59
    • swerves help initiate new action in the pursuit of tranquility p. 60
Scepticism
  • "As the name of a philosophical method or particular school Scepticism originates with Pyrrho.  But long before Pyrrho of course we can find philosophers expressing sceptical attitudes.  The fallibility of sense-perception as a source of knowledge was emphasized in different ways by Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles and Democritus in the Presocratic period." p. 78
  • "The important point for this chapter is that certain problems of knowledge to which Pyrrho drew attention had already been recognized by earlier philosophers. ... Pyrrho's scepticism has its closest conceptual connexion with Protagoras among his predecessors ... Pyrrho's scepticism provides the basis for a penetrating criticism of such theories of knowledge, though there is no evidence that Pyrrho himself attacked Epicurus and Zeno specifically." p. 79
  • Another goal of Scepticism is "freedom from disturbance" p. 79
  • "Anecdotes about Pryyho suggest that he was sympathetic to the Cynic advocacy of a simple life in withdrawal from civic affairs." p. 79
  • "His pupil Timon says that the man who means to be happy must consider these three questions: 1) what things are really like; 2) what attitude we should adopts towards them; 3) what the consequence of such an attitude will be.  According to Timon Pyrrho declared that things are equally indistinguishable, unmeasurable and indeterminable.  For this reason neither our acts of perception nor our judgements are true or false.  Therefore we should not rely on them but be without judgements, inclining neither this way nor that, but be steadfast saying concerning each individual thing that it is no more is that is not, or that it both is and is not, or that it neither is nor is not.  For those who adopt this attitude the consequence will be first a refusal to make assertions and second, freedom from disturbance." p. 80-81
    • This sums up perfectly what I understand of Scepticism.  I agree with some of the assertions, but to live entirely like this, all the time?  I can see why it would create freedom from disturbance, but I don't think a life will flourish, nor would one attain eudaimonia.
  • "There are no necessary truths about empirical objects, and David Hume was probably right to argue that no sufficient reasons can be given for inferring the nature of physical objects from sense-perception." p. 87
  • "Like other Sceptics Carneades exploited differences of opinion between dogmatic schools.  Epicurus, as we have seen, argued that the world's obvious imperfections give clear evidence against its being under control of the gods.  The Stoics argued quite the opposite way: the world is manifestly the work of providences, the supreme example of which is man himself, a rational beings designed by the gods to live a virtuous life.  Carneades held that the sufferings of the virtuous and the flourishing of malefactors prove that the gods are quite indifferent to human affairs." p. 101
    • Loved the contrast in points of view to the three schools on the point of the gods.
Stoicism
  • "Many of the Christian fathers were more deeply affected by Stoicism than they themselves recognized ... the effect of Stoic moral teaching on Western culture has been pervasive.  Sometimes Stoic doctrines have reappeared in the work of major philosophers.  Spinoza, Bishop Butler and Kant were all indebted to the Stoics." p. 107
  • Page 114 notes the debates between the Sceptics and the Stoics in the area of ethics related to the good and the preferred.  The Sceptics were successful in causing the Stoics to modify their ethics.  Later in the chapter, we learn later Stoics focused less on the theoretical sage and focused their efforts on practical ethics.  It would seem the Sceptics had a hand in this long-standing debate.
  • Page 119 - reference to the egg, animal and garden analogies.  I had not heard of the animal analogy: bones/sinews = logic ... fleshy parts = ethics ... soul = physics
  • Chrysippus advocated learning logic first, then ethics and finally physics. p. 120
  • Page 134 ... some interesting ideas on the primary sounds of language; harsh and smooth words corresponding to harsh and smooth things.
  • a good reminder: 'only the present is real' but the present is said to consist of past and future ... Time like lekta has no independent existence but is rather something which rational beings make use of in order to explain the movements of bodies." p. 138
  • "Ancient critics of the Stoics found fault with them for their fussiness about logical form and rigorous analysis.  But it is these qualities which have earned the Stoics the admiration of modern logicians." p. 143
    • personal commentary on myself and differing people.  I prefer 'high level' views and opinions and prefer not to "get into the weeds" but others embrace technicalities.  The more I study philosophy, the more I see the importance of "fussiness" and "rigor" and the need to embrace and have dialogue over technicalities.  It still bothers me a bit, but I'm trying to get use to it!
  • Heraclitus "held that the world is a unity of opposites, a harmony of opposing forces which can be signified by such statements as: 'God is day night, winter summer, war peace'; 'The road up and down is one and the same' ... The Stoics did not make much use of Heraclitus' notion of unity in opposition, though we find traces of this.  But they took from him the concept of the logos which directs all things and which is shared by all men." p. 147
  • "Many Stoic versions of the argument from design are also recorded, all of which seek to show that this is the best of all possible worlds with divine purpose immanent in it and working for the benefit of rational beings." p. 149
  • "Stoic theology is pantheist" p. 150
  • "the human soul as an 'offshoot' of God" p. 150
    • Scott Adams God's Debris ... the god particle
  • "You are peeved because you fail to realize how what is best for you is best for the universe as well as yourself." p. 151
  • Prime Mover / artistic fire "pervades all things and accounts for their persistence and their change." "As advocates of a continuous and purposive universe Aristotle and the Stoics are at one against the Epicureans." p. 152
  • "boldly asserted that justice and all moral qualities are bodies like anything else which exists." p. 153 ... explained by the concept of mixture  ... see page 154-159 and the section on Mixture beginning on p. 159
  • This whole concept of mixture sounds a lot like the idea of the god particle in God's Debris.  And whenever I think of the concept of mixture, I think of the beginning scene in the movie Prometheus where the guy drinks the dark goo stuff and then dissolves and starts the chain of 'active fire' mixing with the passive matter on a planet and then life begins.
  • "The universe itself is a sphere and all its constituents tend to move towards the centre." p. 156
  • "The ultimate constituents of Epicurus' universe are empty space and atoms ... the Stoic universe sets this system on its head.  The movement and properties of individual bodies are a consequence of the dispositions of a single all-pervading dynamics substance." p. 157
  • "pneuma may be compared with the notion of a 'field of force' activating matter." p. 158
  • "Matter and energy are simply different aspects of the same fundamental reality and in all their manifestations obey ineluctable cosmic laws ... There exists a single unified system from one end of the cosmos to the other; in the last analysis, everything is energy [the Stoics would write 'pneumatic force'].  Its spirals are the galaxies, its smaller eddies suns and planets, its softest movement the atom and the gene. Under all forms of matter and manifestations of life there beats the unity of energy according to Einstein's law.  Yet this unified stuff of existence not only twists itself into the incredible variety of material things; it can also produce living patterns of ever greater complexity - from the gas bubble in the original plasma to ... the crowning complexity of the human brain." p. 158
  • "In Stoicism, to be a good and happy man is to be related in a certain way to Nature or God.  The psychological need to relate - to oneself, to one's society, to the world - was sensed acutely by the Stoics.  Like William James, or Jung, or Fromm, they detected an all-inclusive desire to 'feel at home in the universe'. p. 163
    • Another MAJOR theme and difference from other philosophies.  While the Sceptic and Epicurean will doubt everything and go off and eat cheese in a garden, the Stoic wishes to engage with the cosmos and everything therein.
  • "Chance is simple a name for undiscovered causes." "Possibility exists to the extent that, but only to the extent that, men are ignorant of the causal connexion between events." p. 164
  • "divine providence ... a capacity in God or Nature to bring about good works ... The Stoics held that this is the best of all possible worlds; ... harmony is present in the whole ... The psychological and moral implications of this notion are constantly invoke by Marcus Aurelius, and it seems to be a fact that many men have found considerable comfort in the belief that, come what may, their lives contribute to some grand universal scheme." ... this attitude "is not one of bling resignation" ... rather they believe there is creative reason at work in all our lives. p. 165
  • The "test of human power is not freedom to act otherwise but acting deliberately." p. 168
  • "The history of the universe is the harmony of one thing ... Uncreated and imperishable Nature, God, pneuma of universal logos, exercises its activity in a series of eternally recurrent world-cycles.  Beginning and ending as pure fire each world-cycle fulfils the goals of its active principle.  Within each cycle Nature disposes itself in different forms, animal, vegetable and mineral.  To one class of animals, men, Nature gives a share of its own essence, reason, in an imperfect but perfectible form.  Because Nature as a whole is perfect, rational being, all of its acts are ones which should commend themselves to other rational beings." p. 168
  • Regarding moral evil: "nothing is strictly bad except moral weakness." p. 169
    • "As Pope, following Shaftesbury, wrote: 'All discord, harmony not understood, all partial evil, universal good.'  But all the facts cannot be known and therefore the supposed value of much that happens must be taken on trust." p. 170
      • In all my years of studying Stoicism, I've hardly ever encountered the word faith, but when it comes to all the acts of moral evil and violence created by humans over the centuries, my response to the above statement is that Stoics have to trust in the Cosmic Perspective, I tell myself that individual, rational people still make their own choices.  And while it most often will be out of ignorance, it therefore creates all the more urgency for Stoics and other moralists to propagate and share the philosophy of virtue being the sole good.  Just as an individual person may suffer from inner conflict about what to do, so too, perhaps may Nature be having an internal conflict (all of us possessors of god particles in us) and that virtue will win out in the end.
      • "This optimistic attitude towards natural events, no matter how terrible they may seem, is one of the least palatable features of Stoicism.  It is one thing to say that human vision is limited, unable to grasp the full cosmic perspective.  But even at its noblest, in the writings of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, there is something chilling and insensitive about the Stoic's faith that all will turn out well in the end.  They were the only Greek philosophers who tried to find a rationale for everything within their concept of a perfect, all-embracing Nature." p. 170
  • "The soul of man is a portion of the vital, intelligent, warm breath with permeates the entire cosmos.  That which it pervades, in the case of man, is his body where body answers to matter." p. 171
  • 'well-disposed' oikeios... oikeiosis determines an animal's relationship to its environment, but that to which is is primarily well-disposed is itself." p. 172
  • "Reason, the late developer, is a faculty which shapes but does not destroy those faculties that precede its emergence.  In the Stoic view of human development, innate impulses are so transformed by the flowering of reason that they cease to exists as an independent faculty.  They are taken over by reason.  Human nature is so constituted that it develops from something non-rational and animal-like into a structure which is governed throughout by reason.  This conception is of greatest importance in Stoic ethics.  The development of rationality brings with itself a change in the direction of impulse.  New objects of desire take precedence over the satisfaction of basic bodily needs.  Virtue is found to be something which 'belongs to man' in a more fundamental sense than food, drink, shelter and so forth." p. 173-174
    • I can't help but wonder if Nature goes through a similar phase and growth approach, growing from meeting basic needs to fully rational, in which all rational beings, living in Nature, become sages, at which point a new cycle begins.
  • "The Stoics distinguished good men from others by reference to the consistency of their logos. ... absence of consistency with right reason marks us out as 'foolish' or bad men" while progress is increasing in consistency of right reason. p. 177
  • All is good for Nature ... Hymn of Zeus ... "out of disharmony, Zeus creates harmony" p. 181-182
  • "Man is naturally equipped with impulses to virtue or seeds of knowledge, and this equipment is sufficient to direct human reason in the right directions.  But Nature itself does not go further than this.  The achievement of a good character calls for the most arduous efforts from any man and, as we have seen, external influences can (and generally do) prevent him from developing a rational disposition perfectly harmonious with Nature itself.  In order that virtue shall be attainable the potentiality for vice must also be granted.  Nature has established these conditions and given man the status of moral agent by making him a conscious participant in the rational processes of the universe." "As the Stoics look at the world it is better to be viscous and to have the opportunity of virtue than to be denied the latter possibility" p. 182-183
    • Freedom to choose is of the utmost importance for the development of humans.
    • This freedom does not grant people to act passively.  Education and rigorous training are vitally important.
  • Five Stages of Development in Stoic ethics p. 187-192
    • appropriate function of a creature; maintain itself in it natural condition
    • seize hold of the things which accord with Nature and banish those which are the opposite
    • select appropriately; act with appropriate behavior
    • be consistent at selecting appropriately; acting appropriately
    • select consistently and absolutely act appropriately in total agreement with Nature; right action for the right reason
  • "only virtue has absolute or intrinsic worth" p. 192
  • "The Stoics claimed that virtue, the comprehensive goal of human nature, is wholly constitutive of eudaimonia, happiness, welfare or well-being: in order to fare well a man needs nothing by virtue, and as virtue is something absolute, welfare admits of no degrees." p. 197
  • the goodness of intention must be evaluated independent of achievement of a result ... "The virtuous man, having done everything in his power, does not feel pity or regret.  He accepts what happens without reacting emotionally." p. 198
  • "Nature ordains that a man can and should attain well-being solely through what is in his own power.  This means through virtue, the only good. ... virtue is something he can choose irrespective of circumstances." p. 199
  • Virtue definition; p. 199-200
    • a disposition and faculty of the governing principal of the soul, 'or rather: reason itself, consistent, firm and unwavering
    • the goal which Nature has laid down for man
    • pattern of appropriate behavior
    • knowledge or art; "a unitary disposition of the soul which can be analysed into four primary virtues: practical wisdom, justice, moderation, courage ... each of these is defined in terms of knowledge ... i.e. courage is knowledge of things to be endured
  • Virtue attainment; p. 200-205
    • "Only he who has seen 'the good' know precisely what it is.  But we can conjecture what it entails.  To know 'the good' means discovering a principle of conduct which satisfies the general idea of 'accordance with Nature', formed by induction and introspection, and the particular facts of human nature - that man is a rational being with the capacity to understand and participate in the universal activities of Nature."
    • "The antecedents of moral knowledge are 'observation' and 'comparison' of repeated acts."
    • We observe acts of wisdom, justice, temperance and courage in people.  Perhaps they are acts in one sphere of their life, but not in others.  We but recognize the virtues.
    • We observe other people who are more consistent in their acts of virtue and behavior.
    • "This kind of man is 'always consistent with himself in every action, good not through policy but under the direction of a disposition such that he is able not only to act rightly but cannot act without acting rightly.  In him we recognize that virtue has been perfected.'" 
    • To know how to act with virtue in orderliness, propriety, consistency and harmony.
    • "If virtue is to be something supremely worthwhile it deserves every effort on the part of man, and the ideal sage persists as a standard to which we may seek to conform ourselves."
  • Stoic Sage
    • moral expert; know infallibly what should be done in each situation in life and takes every step to do it at the right time and in the right way. p. 205
    • free from all passion; anger, anxiety, cupidity, dread, elation
    • does not regard pleasure as something good, nor pain as something evil p. 206
Later Developments in Hellenistic Philosophy
  • Panaetius
    • His focus was on human nature over universal Nature
    • rejected the idea of eternal recurrence
    • focused on intermediate goals and duties
    • his "readiness to admit 'likeness of virtue' represents a methodological concession which made Stoicism less rigid and more humane." p. 214
    • justice: do no injury to another man; see public interest is maintained
    • the cosmic dimension in his version virtually disappeared
  • Posidonius
    • devoted a great deal of energy to the collection and classification of factual data
    • recommended various irrational procedures for curing emotional disturbance p. 220
    • he showed that a Stoic could advance doctrines of Stoic physics on a very wide front p. 221
  • Antiochus
    • fundamentals according to him; are the criterion of truth and the chief good or object of desire. p. 224
    • virtue will lead to a happy life, but not the happiest life; adding good health, riches, reputation, etc. will make one who has virtue, even happier. p. 225
      • is he really a Stoic then??
  • Cicero
    • "If anyone wonders why I am entrusting these reflections to writing at this stage of my life, I can answer very easily.  With no public activity to occupy me and the political situation making a dictatorship inevitable, I thought that it was an act of patriotism to expound philosophy to my fellow-countrymen, judging it to be greatly to the honor and glory of the state to have such a lofty subject expressed in Latin literature." p. 230
Hellenistic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition
  • "The Stoa continued to exist formally until 529 when Justinian closed the four philosophical schools at Athens." p. 235
  • "But it was the Church which helped above all to keep Stoic ideas in circulation, and Stoicism in its turn had an important influence on Christian Fathers, in association with the still more notable influence on Platonism." p. 235
  • "The answer to scepticism for Augustine was the Christian revelation." p. 237
  • Enchiridion, 1495; first edition of Meditations; Heidelberg, 1558
  • "The philosophical influence of Stoicism, as I have already mentioned (p. 208), is evident in Spinoza and Kant.  Two English philosophers whose work is worth studying from this point of view are the Earl of Shaftesbury and Bishop Butler." p. 241
  • "The sceptic solved the problem of judging between Stoics, Epicureans and others by developing arguments designed to show that certainty and truth were unattainable by any system.  Later, as we have seen with Lactantius and Augustine, Christian thinkers asserted that the only adequate answer to scepticism lay in faith and revelation. ... scepticism was called upon, especially by Catholics, as a means of attacking the other side. ... Montaigne makes use of Pyrrhonism for its original purpose of casting doubt upon every objective criterion of judgement.  He 'defends' Sebond in an oblique way by seeking to show that faith, not rational demonstration, is the basis of the Christian religion.  Certainty is unattainable  ... stripped of human knowledge and all the more ready to accommodate the divine in himself, annihilating his own judgement to make greater room for faith." p. 244-245
    • This whole line of thinking - be sceptical to all human knowledge, so that you can have faith in God - is actively used in my former religion.  I imagine many modern day religions would want skeptics in the pews on Sunday - have the congregants doubt everything, so that they can be re-programmed as good Christians who have faith in a Christian god; or any other religion for that matter.  One leader in my former religion said to people who had doubts about the truth claims of the church, told them, to "doubt your doubts."
  • "The Stoics defended their system on rational grounds, but part of its attraction was aesthetic and emotional.  The idea or ideal of an orderly universe to which men contribute as rational beings is one of its most important legacies to western culture." p. 247

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 18 - On Festivals and Fasting

On Festivals and Fasting

Summer is over; school has begun.  Having circled the sun over 40 times now, I'm used to the excitement that Autumn brings for someone like me who lives in the United States.  Many of my friends, neighbors and acquaintances love the return to school, cooler weather, football and the anticipation of the holidays - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.

One significant theme of these holidays is food.  If you strain your ears around 5pm on the fourth Thursday of November, you can almost hear the simultaneous "pop" of the pants button coming un-done as people push away from the dinner table and shuffle to the couch to watch the football game.  About six weeks after that, if you listen closely, in the early weeks of January, you'll hear the faint "creak" of the scale as overweight people moan in realization that they've over-indulged for the last three months.

Seneca proposes a year-round solution to these problems.

During the course of the year, 

set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?"
...
Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby ... you will understand that a man's peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune;
...

let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard.

...

set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish [a relationship] with poverty.

Fasting or eating well below what is needed strengthens our resolve as well as our body.  Seneca also mentions a certain pleasure from eating below our needs or eating very plain or coarse food.

yet it is the highest kind of pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one's needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

And not only can this be applied to food, but it can also be applied to possessions and wealth.

For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.

If you incorporate these "living minimally" practices through the year, you can approach Saturnalia, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween with serenity.  You neither have to hide away to prevent yourself from overindulging, nor do you have to feel unprepared in partaking of the festivities.  You participate with temperance and demonstrate courage.

It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting; but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way, – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 17 - On Philosophy and Riches

On Philosophy and Riches

How urgent is your quest for wisdom?

This question haunts me.  Am I a product of my time and only leisurely pursue wisdom while I type away all day long at my computer, working for a corporation?  Am I biding my time, checking in on my 401K account every so often, waiting to retire and only then fully focus on my pursuit of wisdom?

Then I read Seneca.

Cast away everything of that sort, if you are wise; nay, rather that you may be wise; strive toward a sound mind at top speed and with your whole strength. If any bond holds you back, untie it, or sever it.

I might reply, "But I need to work now; I have a wife and children to support.  I don't want to be a burden on my children or society, when I am old."

Seneca retorts;

You do not seem, when you say this, to know the strength and power of that good which you are considering. You do indeed grasp the all-important thing, the great benefit which philosophy confers, but you do not yet discern accurately its various functions, nor do you yet know how great is the help we receive from philosophy in everything, everywhere, – how, it not only succours us in the greatest matters but also descends to the smallest.

He divines one of my fears and poses another question.

Doubtless, your object, what you wish to attain by such postponement of your studies, is that poverty may not have to be feared by you. But what if it is something to be desired?

The poorest I've been was when I was living single in Guatemala.  Everything I owned was stored and transported in a couple of suitcases.  I ate tortillas, beans and rice most days and when I wasn't talking and teaching people, I spent much of my time walking the landscape of the Guatemalan lowlands and highlands in Baja and Alta Verapaz.  I may not have been wise at the time, but I was happy.

Now, I have a wife, children, a mortgage, a career and taxes to pay.  I'm not so sure I fear poverty for myself, but perhaps what I fear more is poverty for my wife and children.  Is it morally and ethically acceptable to desire poverty at this time in my life?  Can I expect that my wife and children should want to be philosophers and abandon desires for a home, clothes and material possessions?

I try to have conversations with them about this.  Our intent, as parents, is to teach them well enough, so that they want to enjoy their freedom with no strings attached.  We want them to find a way to enjoy life, independently - to support themselves - and to find their calling in life, whatever it may be.  And in my opinion, part of that learning process could include living in poverty, on their own.  I would hope that they too, would learn poverty is nothing to fear and perhaps they may even desire to live a minimalist life.

Riches have shut off many a man from the attainment of wisdom; poverty is unburdened and free from care. ...  It is easy to fill a few stomachs, when they are well trained and crave nothing else but to be filled. Hunger costs but little; squeamishness costs much. Poverty is contented with fulfilling pressing needs.

For my part, I try (but still mostly fail), to live below my means.  When I can, I try to push the boundaries of what can be excised from my life.  The year 2017 gave us that opportunity, when we lost much to the flood.  We rapidly pivoted to a lifestyle of bare need.  What we fail to remember, though, is flood or not, it is in our power to live this way all the time.

Even the rich man copies her [wisdom] ways when he is in his senses. If you wish to have leisure for your mind, either be a poor man, or resemble a poor man. Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: "I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy."

Seneca continues,

"I wish to acquire something to live on." Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly. There is no reason why poverty should call us away from philosophy, – no, nor even actual want.

And so, I try to learn and live philosophy, while I work and collect a paycheck.  One of my practices I return to often is the negative visualization of losing my job.  Having spent time with this prospect, I don't fear it.  In fact, I sometimes day dream of it - not unlike a painter who day dreams while staring at a blank canvas, thinking of what he will paint.  I think I would view my time and life without my current job, as an opportunity to learn and grow and paint something new.  But, I must admit, that I'm only in this position because of my prior choices, wherein I studied, graduated from college and worked many years, improving my craft in the corporate world.  For this I am grateful that if I lost my job, forced poverty would not descend on our home so quickly.

How much greater is the promise of the prize of everlasting liberty, and the assurance that we need fear neither God nor man!  Even though we starve, we must reach that goal.

Therefore one should not seek to lay up riches first; one may attain to philosophy, however, even without money for the journey. ... Is philosophy to be the last requisite in life, – a sort of supplement? Nay, your plan should be this: be a philosopher now.

And if poverty calls us quickly, philosophy teaches us to be happy still.  Seneca proposes various reasons to be happy in poverty.

In the first place, you cannot lack them; because nature demands but little, and the wise man suits his needs to nature.

he will do justice to his belly and his shoulders; with free and happy spirit he will laugh at the bustling of rich men, and the flurried ways of those who are hastening after wealth.

And then there is the concluding thought, that whether in riches or poverty, the education of the mind and the pursuit of wisdom are noble  and top-priority goals.  Poverty and wealth are indifferents - that are out of our control.  Our focus is and will always be on what is in our control - and that is the sole good.

"The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles." I do not wonder. For the fault is not in the wealth, but in the mind itself. That which had made poverty a burden to us, has made riches also a burden. Just as it matters little whether you lay a sick man on a wooden or on a golden bed, for whither-soever he be moved he will carry his malady with him; so one need not care whether the diseased mind is bestowed upon riches or upon poverty.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 16 - On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

 On Philosophy, the Guide of Life

Seneca begins the letter with a bold statement.

no man can live a happy life, or even a supportable life, without the study of wisdom; you know also that a happy life is reached when our wisdom is brought to completion, but that life is at least endurable even when our wisdom is only begun.

Said a bit differently, people who don't study philosophy aren't truly happy.  For my part, I fall in the latter camp, where I've only begun to study philosophy, so I can at least endure life.

Living a life of wisdom is like brushing your teeth: it needs to be performed daily and not quickly.  You cannot expect the dentist to give you a pass if you never brush your teeth every day, but then on the morning of the day you go to the dentist, you brush for five minutes expecting to get all the decay off.  No, you must learn and practice it every day.

This idea, however, clear though it is, must be strengthened and implanted more deeply by daily reflection; it is more important for you to keep the resolutions you have already made than to go on and make noble ones.

Seneca also notes that habits kept are habits made.  You must not go on to setting goals of new habits until you've established the ones you've already committed to.

Through daily reflection, you must introspect if you are passing the test or merely passing time.

Examine yourself; scrutinize and observe yourself in divers ways; but mark, before all else, whether it is in philosophy or merely in life itself that you have made progress.

An alternate translation of the above passage notes the subtle difference:

Carry out a searching analysis and close scrutiny of yourself in all sorts of different lights. Consider above all else whether you’ve advanced in philosophy or just in actual years.

I don't often come across the God or atoms debate when I read Seneca.  Marcus alludes to it quite often.  But in this passage, Seneca puts a slightly different perspective on the debate.

Perhaps someone will say: "How can philosophy help me, if Fate exists? Of what avail is philosophy, if God rules the universe? Of what avail is it, if Chance governs everything? For not only is it impossible to change things that are determined, but it is also impossible to plan beforehand against what is undetermined; either God has forestalled my plans, and decided what I am to do, or else Fortune gives no free play to my plans."

In sum, Seneca asks if there is free will, weather God is calling the shots or if everything based on a flip of a coin.  I didn't get any answers from Seneca, other than some consolation.

She [philosophy] will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.

To me, he saying "it's all in your attitude."  If you think God's calling the shots, then follow your fate.  If you think the coin determines your fate, then endure it well.

Seneca closes with a quote from Epicurus.

"If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich."  Nature's wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless.

Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature. 

Very little is required to live a fulfilled life.  But if your wants are insatiable (living according to opinion or what the neighbors just bought), then you'll never be satisfied.