Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Classical Argument Construction - abolish gender based sports at highest competitive levels

This is a blog post for my Critical Thinking class I am taking this semester.  The assignment was to construct an argument using either Classical, Rogerian, or Toulmin types of arguments.  I chose classical.


Competitive (e.g. for acclaim or money) gender-based sports should be abolished.  In recent years, the lines between gender have blurred, at least to the public's eyes.  Most of the outrage can be seen when a person who is perceived to be a woman, might actually be more aligned genetically to be a man due to higher levels of testosterone.

Statement of Background

One catalyst event, which brought wide-spread attention to this issue was the 2016 Olympics 800m women's' event.  The gold medal winner was Caster Semenya.  Attention followed her because of the events which lead up to the 2016 Olympics.  In 2009, at the world track and field championships, she won the event by an impressive margin (2 seconds) after which she was accused, by another runner, of being a man.   After the accusation, she "was barred from competition and subjected to sex tests. She returned months later" after "the general secretary of the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s world governing body, said, 'She is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent'" (Longman).

The Semenya issue drove clarity in guidelines for competition events for women.  In 2011, the International Association of Athletics Federations, working with International Olympic Committee Medical Commission established rules for the amount of testosterone a person recognized as a woman by law, can have in her body (“IAAF to Introduce Eligibility Rules for Females with Hyperandrogenism| News”).  Subsequently, some female athletes are subjected to tests to verify if they are qualified to compete as a women.


As the lines blur more and more, and as society begins to deal with similar issues at all levels of competition in sports, perhaps it is time to rethink how competitive categories are established.  As a first step, gender based sports, at the highest competitive levels (i.e. professional, paid, Olympic) should be abolished and new categories established.

One proposal is to follow in the footsteps of Paralympics sports, to recategorize competitive groups "based on functional ability rather than medical conditions" such as the amount of testosterone in the body (Kerr).  This shifts the competitive rules away from lightening rod topics of sex and gender (i.e. medical based), towards a more objectively based criteria.


Whereas most sports are based on a selective classification (i.e. gender), the Paralympics have moved towards a functional based classification system, thus avoiding problems such as the one faced by Semenya and other hyper androgenous female athletes.  In a functional based system, "the main factors that determine class are … how much the impairment of a person impacts upon sports performance" as well as movements of the body (Tweedy, Kerr).

In the case of running and sprinting, the categorization would move from gender based to muscle mass classification.  The highest category for runners could have a range, from a minimum amount of muscle mass and fast twitch fibers to an unlimited amount.  The next category's upper limit of the range would be just below the minimum range of the top category to some lower limit (Kerr).


However, the norms of society are quite strong, and many people are quite used to gender based sports, mostly for the aspects of fairness in play.  This position is not stating that gender based sports at all levels be abolished, but only at the highest levels.  As more spectators and society view the proposed functional based categories, they will adapt and become comfortable with an alternative way to compete.  Some lower levels of competition (e.g. college, high school) may begin adopting this method, especially in open and co-ed leagues.  Change takes time and the very best can lead the way into a more objective based competition system.

Works Cited

“IAAF to Introduce Eligibility Rules for Females with Hyperandrogenism| News.” www.worldathletics.org, 12 Apr. 2011, www.worldathletics.org/news/iaaf-news/iaaf-to-introduce-eligibility-rules-for-femal-1. Accessed 11 Nov. 2021.

Kerr, Roslyn. “Why It Might Be Time to Eradicate Sex Segregation in Sports.” The Conversation, 14 Jan. 2018, theconversation.com/why-it-might-be-time-to-eradicate-sex-segregation-in-sports-89305.

LONGMAN, JERÉ. "Understanding the Controversy Over Caster Semenya. "ProQuest, Aug 18, 2016, https://www.proquest.com/blogs-podcasts-websites/understanding-controversy-over-caster-semenya/docview/1812349822/se-2?accountid=8289.

Tweedy, S. M., and Y. C. Vanlandewijck. "International Paralympic Committee Position Stand-Background and Scientific Principles of Classification in Paralympic Sport." British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 45, no. 4, 2011, pp. 259. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/international-paralympic-committee-position-stand/docview/1779237454/se-2?accountid=8289, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2009.065060.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 124 - On the True Good as Attained by Reason

On the True Good as Attained by Reason

The topic of this letter is "whether the Good is grasped by the senses or by the understanding; and the corollary thereto is that it does not exist in dumb animals or little children."

In sum, the Good can only be grasped and understood by reason.  Animals and little children (and to some extent, non-adults), cannot attain the Good.  This is related to my previous post on letter 123, where I stated "to completely grow and progress into the full bloom of a rational, human adult (logikē psuchē, see Sellars 104-105)."  Animals do not even possess the capacity to reach the cohesion state of logikē psuchē.  But children at least have the capacity to reach that cohesion state.

Sellars writes,

A rational human being, then, will contain pneuma at all four levels of tension. She will have pneuma as hexis giving cohesion to her bones, for instance; pneuma as phusis by virtue of being alive in the most basic biological sense; pneuma as psuchē giving her the animal faculties of impression and impulse; and pneuma as logikē psuchē giving her the rational power of judgement that can intervene between receiving impressions and acting on impulses.

Seneca notes that Stoics associate the Good with the rational mind and not the senses or pleasure.

Those who rate pleasure as the supreme ideal hold that the Good is a matter of the senses; but we Stoics maintain that it is a matter of the understanding, and we assign it to the mind.


we condemn men who are slaves to their appetites and their lusts, and we scorn men who, through fear of pain, will dare no manly deed.

The Stoics maintain that eudaimonia is obtained only through reason.

Reason, however, is surely the governing element in such a matter as this; as reason has made the decision concerning the happy life, and concerning virtue and honour also, so she has made the decision with regard to good and evil.

And eudaimonia is attained only according to Nature and that humans are born the the capacity to reach it.

we define as "happy" those things that are in accord with Nature. And that which is in accord with Nature is obvious and can be seen at once – just as easily as that which is complete. That which is according to Nature, that which is given us as a gift immediately at our birth, is, I maintain, not a Good, but the beginning of a Good.

Reason can only be attained and understood by rational humans.  It cannot be attained by animals or children.

In that which does not possess reason, the Good will never exist. In that which is not yet endowed with reason, the Good cannot be existent at the time.


the Good cannot be discovered in any random person, or at any random age

Like wheat, the purpose of adult humans cannot be achieved until it is in full bloom.

There is a certain Good of wheat: it is not yet existent, however, in the swelling stalk, nor when the soft ear is pushing itself out of the husk, but only when summer days and its appointed maturity have ripened the wheat. Just as Nature in general does not produce her Good until she is brought to perfection, even so man's Good does not exist in man until both reason and man are perfected.

The Good is:

a free mind, an upright mind, subjecting other things to itself and itself to nothing


a matter of the understanding


a clear and flawless mind, which rivals that of God, raised far above mortal concerns, and counting nothing of its own to be outside itself. You are a reasoning animal. What Good, then, lies within you? Perfect reason.

How can you know when you have attained eudaimonia?

Only consider yourself happy when all your joys are born of reason, and when – having marked all the objects which men clutch at, or pray for, or watch over – you find nothing which you will desire; mind, I do not say prefer.

And Seneca offers this rule of thumb for know when you have reached that point.

"You will come to your own when you shall understand that those whom the world calls fortunate are really the most unfortunate of all."


Sellars, John. Stoicism. Berkeley, University Of California Press, 2006.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 123 - On the Conflict between Pleasure and Virtue

On the Conflict between Pleasure and Virtue

In my studies of Stoicism, I've learned the summum bonum is eudaimonia - this is the why of philosophy.  And eudaimonia is the state of having a good soul, or if you earnestly believe the Stoics, it means to align your own part of divinity (your daimon) with the Whole - the Cosmos - Nature, hence the motto live according to Nature (Long, 197; Sellars, 122-123).  Or to put it even more bluntly, to align with, choose with, desire with and will with God (Stephens, 59).

And, in my opinion, the goal is not only to achieve eudaimonia once for a brief moment, but to be able to achieve a constant state of flourishing and excellence - to completely grow and progress into the full bloom of a rational, human adult (logikē psuchē, see Sellars 104-105).

The Stoics will say that avoidance of pain, toil and trials and the pursuit of pleasures and ease are not up to us.  And therefore, if we try to avoid the former and pursue the latter in hopes of achieving eudaimonia, we will end up disappointed and fail in our quest.

But, if we place our desires on the pursuit of exercising moral virtues (and this is entirely up to us), then we have a shot at finding and retaining lasting equanimity, serenity and eudaimonia.

Therefore, all that the Stoics try to teach us, is too focus only on what is up to us and to not get caught up in the avoidance of things (pain, toil, trial) not up to us and the pursuit of things (fame, status, wealth, pleasures) not up to us.  These indifferents are mere materials or mediums for us to exercise what is entirely ours: our will; our volition; our character; our morals.

In this spirit, Seneca attempts to explain how, regardless of circumstances, we can find a way to act with moral conviction.  And he will rail against those whose philosophy is to pursue pleasure and ease, not to make himself feel better or to make others feel bad, but on the contrary - to help people understand the reality of the situation, and to help them find an alternative to folly and disappointment.

nothing is heavy if one accepts it with a light heart, and that nothing need provoke one's anger if one does not add to one's pile of troubles by getting angry.

If your expectations do not match reality, your expectations may need an adjustment.  And your attitude of the situation can be immediately adjusted.  If you find some circumstance to be "heavy" you can simply choose to change your attitude about it.  If something upsets you and you are angry, recognize that by being angry, you are piling on more trouble.

I must not eat until hunger bids me; so I shall wait and shall not eat until I can either get good bread or else cease to be squeamish about it.  It is necessary that one grow accustomed to slender fare

The antidote to gluttony is to delay eating until necessary.  When you complain about the food, wait even longer until the coarse bread becomes rich.

To have whatsoever he wishes is in no man's power; it is in his power not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him.

Folly begins when you find yourself always wishing.  Wishing and desiring for things not up to you will lead to disappointment.  But cheerful acceptance is something you can do something about.

Every circumstance is a test of your character and resolve.  Complaining and anxiety are symptoms of an internal misalignment.  Reflect on these and improve.

viewing one's own troubles not only fairly but calmly, not flying into fits of temper or wordy wranglings, supplying one's own needs by not craving something which was really due, and reflecting that our habits may be unsatisfied, but never our own real selves.

We must be leery of desire infection from others.

how much do we acquire simply because our neighbours have acquired such things, or because most men possess them!   Many of our troubles may be explained from the fact that we live according to a pattern, and, instead of arranging our lives according to reason, are led astray by convention.  There are things which, if done by the few, we should refuse to imitate; yet when the majority have begun to do them, we follow along

Seneca goes so far as to advocate shunning certain people because of their "bad habits."

You should avoid conversation with all such persons: they are the sort that communicate and engraft their bad habits from one to another. We used to think that the very worst variety of these men were those who vaunted their words; but there are certain men who vaunt their wickedness. Their talk is very harmful; for even though it is not at once convincing, yet they leave the seeds of trouble in the soul

I would temper Seneca's advice.  If you are just beginning to practice a philosophical life and if you are trying to drink and eat less, for example, then you should probably not talk much with people who would have you join them at the bar or buffet every week.  A bit more distance from them would be in order.  However, if you have established, good habits, then there is no need for avoiding such people.  Rather, you could be an anchor and boon to them, in helping them see a better way.

Seneca would warn us to avoid such people, because we might catch their tune in our head and soon, we would not be able to get it out of our mind.  Thereafter, we would begin to be persuaded by such devious philosophies such as this:

"Virtue, Philosophy, Justice – this is a jargon of empty words. The only way to be happy is to do yourself well. To eat, drink, and spend your money is the only real life, the only way to remind yourself that you are mortal. Our days flow on, and life – which we cannot restore – hastens away from us. Why hesitate to come to our senses? This life of ours will not always admit pleasures; meantime, while it can do so, while it clamours for them, what profit lies in imposing thereupon frugality? Therefore get ahead of death, and let anything that death will filch from you be squandered now upon yourself. You have no mistress, no favourite slave to make your mistress envious; you are sober when you make your daily appearance in public; you dine as if you had to show your account-book to 'Papa'; but that is not living, it is merely going shares in someone else's existence.  And what madness it is to be looking out for the interests of your heir, and to deny yourself everything, with the result that you turn friends into enemies by the vast amount of the fortune you intend to leave! For the more the heir is to get from you, the more he will rejoice in your taking-off! All those sour fellows who criticize other men's lives in a spirit of priggishness and are real enemies to their own lives, playing schoolmaster to the world – you should not consider them as worth a farthing, nor should you hesitate to prefer good living to a good reputation."

These are siren voices; and we ought to take precautions in order to avoid their messages becoming our philosophy.  And be wary of those who profess to be Stoics, but in reality, they are not.

let us retreat from the objects that allure, and rouse ourselves to meet the objects that attack.


only those men bring ruin to our ears, who praise pleasure, who inspire us with fear of pain – that element which is in itself provocative of fear; I believe that we are also in injured by those who masquerade under the disguise of the Stoic school and at the same time urge us on into vice.

The sage is wise and knowledgeable in both intent and actions.

No man is good by chance. Virtue is something which must be learned.

Philosophy fights vice.

philosophy ought not to try to explain away vice.


Long, Anthony A. Hellenistic Philosophy : Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. London, Duckworth, 1986.

Sellars, John. Stoicism. Berkeley, University Of California Press, 2006.

Stephens, William O. Stoic Ethics : Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom. London ; Oxford ; New York ; New Delhi ; Sydney Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 122 - On Darkness as a Veil for Wickedness

On Darkness as a Veil for Wickedness

Seneca does not support various ways of living because, he argues, these ways are not according to Nature.

Here is the list:

  • sleeping in well into the morning or afternoon
  • staying up all night
  • basking in wine and perfumes
  • being idle; becoming fat, lackadaisical and flabby
  • indulging in pleasure
  • drinking alcohol on an empty stomach to feel the effects more strongly
  • cross-dressing
  • craving food out of season; wanting flowers in winter
  • putting toilets over the sea
  • not swimming unless the water is heated
  • desiring notoriety, peculiarity and luxury
  • wanting to be the center of gossip and attention
The root of his argument is that people are not content with the simple life.  They wish to make things complicated and they are focused on overcoming the mundaneness of living and they wish to be noticed.

To a modern reader, and to the aspiring modern Stoic, I would suggest we not get hung up on the specific examples, but reflect on the intent and principal of what Seneca is trying to convey.

He proposes there are ways of living according to Nature, but it is humans who wish to go around Nature or even oppose it, who are indulging in vice.

[They who] desire all things in opposition to the ways of Nature, they end by entirely abandoning the ways of Nature.

And he writes that living according to Nature is simple and straight-forward, but there are some who are "squeamish" at this plainness.

The method of maintaining righteousness is simple; the method of maintaining wickedness is complicated, and has infinite opportunity to swerve. And the same holds true of character; if you follow nature, character is easy to manage, free, and with very slight shades of difference; but the sort of person I have mentioned possesses badly warped character, out of harmony with all things, including himself.  The chief cause, however, of this disease seems to me to be a squeamish revolt from the normal existence.

He ties living simply with having a good character.  A good character will focus solely on the virtues and duty.  Whereas, the bad character will wish to avoid duty and will want to pursue something novel, new, fanciful and fleeting.

I'll conclude with one more quote from the letter.  This one reflects the Stoic pursuit to understand Nature as it is, and then to follow it.  But to not follow Nature as it functions, is to turn to vice.

All vices rebel against Nature; they all abandon the appointed order. It is the motto of luxury to enjoy what is unusual, and not only to depart from that which is right, but to leave it as far behind as possible, and finally even take a stand in opposition thereto.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 121 - On Instinct in Animals

On Instinct in Animals

The theme of this letter is oikeiôsis.  William O. Stephens has a fine explanation of this concept in this Stoic Ethics entry, under the section Theory of Appropriation.

Seneca, in this letter, is exploring the question "what is best suited for man" or in other words, what is appropriate for man?

He delves into the concept of oikeiôsis by observing the nature of self-preservation in animals.  Understanding this, will help the Stoic student understand what is the unique nature of a fully grown, human adult.

The big point of this letter is to prove that there is something inborn and inherent to all animals, which helps them to want to survive and exist.  And this is not learned, but is something entwined with existence from the day the animal is born.  And that thing is the instinct to exist; to live; to survive.

The instinct pushes beyond the experience of pain.

The proof that it is not fear of pain which prompts them thus, is, that even when pain checks them they struggle to carry out their natural motions.  Thus the child who is trying to stand and is becoming used to carry his own weight, on beginning to test his strength, falls and rises again and again with tears until through painful effort he has trained himself to the demands of nature.

And, there are some things about our nature that we simply know or feel, yet cannot fully explain.

Nature is easier to understand than to explain; hence, the child of whom we were speaking does not understand what "constitution" is, but understands its own constitution.


We also know that we possess souls, but we do not know the essence, the place, the quality, or the source, of the soul.


Everyone of us understands that there is something which stirs his impulses, but he does not know what it is. He knows that he has a sense of striving, although he does not know what it is or its source.

The human has his or her own instincts and appropriations based on the stages of growth.  It takes a lot of work to develop into a full human being and it's probable that some humans, despite their age, never fully blossom.  But, the human does go through stages and has the tools suited to him or her in order to grow into their next stage.  Seneca uses teeth as an example.

But each age has its own constitution, different in the case of the child, the boy, and the old man; they are all adapted to the constitution wherein they find themselves. The child is toothless, and he is fitted to this condition. Then his teeth grow, and he is fitted to that condition also.


The periods of infancy, boyhood, youth, and old age, are different; but I, who have been infant, boy, and youth, am still the same

He then summarizes the point.

For even if there is in store for him any higher phase into which he must be changed, the state in which he is born is also according to nature.  First of all, the living being is adapted to itself, for there must be a pattern to which all other things may be referred. I seek pleasure; for whom? For myself. I am therefore looking out for myself. I shrink from pain; on behalf of whom? Myself. Therefore, I am looking out for myself. Since I gauge all my actions with reference to my own welfare, I am looking out for myself before all else. This quality exists in all living beings – not engrafted but inborn.

He further explores other animals who have inborn instincts for survival.

Why should the hen show no fear of the peacock or the goose, and yet run from the hawk, which is a so much smaller animal not even familiar to the hen? Why should young chickens fear a cat and not a dog? These fowls clearly have a presentiment of harm – one not based on actual experiments; for they avoid a thing before they can possibly have experience of it.


Hence indeed it is evident that these animals have not reached such a condition through experience; it is because of an inborn desire for self-preservation.


each animal at the same time consults its own safety, seeking that which helps it, and shrinks from that which will harm it. Impulses towards useful objects, and revulsion from the opposite, are according to nature; without any reflection to prompt the idea, and without any advice, whatever Nature has prescribed, is done.

He concludes with a bit more evidence about how some insects perform their seemingly incredible arts, which they are born with.  The bees can make honeycomb cells and the spiders can make immaculate webs - "This art is born, not taught."

We are born with an inherent instruction book to prompt us to take care of ourselves.

Nature has communicated nothing except the duty of taking care of themselves and the skill to do so; that is why living and learning begin at the same time.


This is the first equipment that Nature granted them for the maintenance of their existence – the quality of adaptability and self-love. They could not survive except by desiring to do so.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 120 - More about Virtue

More about Virtue

Seneca explains how it is that humanity was able to deduce the Good and then he spends quite a bit of the letter providing examples of the sage and what it is we should be striving for.

He briefly re-states that he sees little difference between the Good and being honorable.

only the honourable can be good; also, the honourable is necessarily good. I hold it superfluous to add the distinction between these two qualities, inasmuch as I have mentioned it so many times.  But I shall say this one thing – that we regard nothing as good which can be put to wrong use by any person. And you see for yourself to what wrong uses many men put their riches, their high position, or their physical powers.

We came to learn of the Good by observation.  We observed the body and applied similar reasoning to the mind.

We understood what bodily health was: and from this basis we deduced the existence of a certain mental health also. We knew, too, bodily strength, and from this basis we inferred the existence of mental sturdiness. Kindly deeds, humane deeds, brave deeds, had at times amazed us; so we began to admire them as if they were perfect.

Being disposed to recognize greatness, we observed what was great about the characteristics of certain people.

Nature bids us amplify praiseworthy things: everyone exalts renown beyond the truth. And thus from such deeds we deduced the conception of some great good.

He provides an example;:

Fabricius rejected King Pyrrhus's gold, deeming it greater than a king's crown to be able to scorn a king's money.  Fabricius also, when the royal physician promised to give his master poison, warned Pyrrhus to beware of a plot. The selfsame man had the resolution to refuse either to be won over by gold or to win by poison. So we admired the hero, who could not be moved by the promises of the king or against the king, who held fast to a noble ideal.

Deeds of people, as we have observed them, reveal the Good.

But we have to be quite discerning when it comes to identifying excellence of soul.

vices which are next-door to virtues; and even that which is lost and debased can resemble that which is upright.

For example,

Carelessness looks like ease, and rashness like bravery.  This resemblance has forced us to watch carefully and to distinguish between things which are by outward appearance closely connected, but which actually are very much at odds with one another.

Then he details, in many ways, what the wise human looks like:

we have marked another man who is kind to his friends and restrained towards his enemies, who carries on his political and his personal business with scrupulous devotion, not lacking in longsuffering where there is anything that must be endured, and not lacking in prudence when action is to be taken. We have marked him giving with lavish hand when it was his duty to make a payment, and, when he had to toil, striving resolutely and lightening his bodily weariness by his resolution. Besides, he has always been the same, consistent in all his actions, not only sound in his judgment but trained by habit to such an extent that he not only can act rightly, but cannot help acting rightly. We have formed the conception that in such a man perfect virtue exists.

We have separated this perfect virtue into its several parts. The desires had to be reined in, fear to be suppressed, proper actions to be arranged, debts to be paid; we therefore included self-restraint, bravery, prudence, and justice – assigning to each quality its special function. How then have we formed the conception of virtue? Virtue has been manifested to us by this man's order, propriety, steadfastness, absolute harmony of action, and a greatness of soul that rises superior to everything. Thence has been derived our conception of the happy life, which flows along with steady course, completely under its own control.  How then did we discover this fact? I will tell you: that perfect man, who has attained virtue, never cursed his luck, and never received the results of chance with dejection; he believed that he was citizen and soldier of the universe, accepting his tasks as if they were his orders. Whatever happened, he did not spurn it, as if it were evil and borne in upon him by hazard; he accepted it as if it were assigned to be his duty. "Whatever this may be," he says, "it is my lot; it is rough and it is hard, but I must work diligently at the task."

Necessarily, therefore, the man has shown himself great who has never grieved in evil days and never bewailed his destiny; he has given a clear conception of himself to many men; he has shone forth like a light in the darkness and has turned towards himself the thoughts of all men, because he was gentle and calm and equally compliant with the orders of man and of God.  He possessed perfection of soul, developed to its highest capabilities, inferior only to the mind of God – from whom a part flows down even into this heart of a mortal. But this heart is never more divine than when it reflects upon its mortality, and understands that man was born for the purpose of fulfilling his life, and that the body is not a permanent dwelling, but a sort of inn (with a brief sojourn at that) which is to be left behind when one perceives that one is a burden to the host.  The greatest proof, as I maintain, my dear Lucilius, that the soul proceeds from loftier heights, is if it judges its present situation lowly and narrow, and is not afraid to depart. For he who remembers whence he has come knows whither he is to depart.

We are merely passing though this life, borrowing the things which should be indifferent to us - our body, possessions, husband, wife, children, career, etc.  What we are to demonstrate is duty and honorable use of these indifferents and circumstances.  We ought not to get hung up on mortality, but "we [are to] set eternity before our eyes."  Therefore,

the noble soul, knowing its better nature, while taking care to conduct itself honourably and seriously at the post of duty where it is placed, counts none of these extraneous objects as its own, but uses them as if they were a loan, like a foreign visitor hastening on his way.

The noble soul is steadfast, constant.  "It is indeed consistency that abides; false things do not last."

Whereas, "The greatest proof of an evil mind is unsteadiness, and continued wavering between pretence of virtue and love of vice."

it is a great role – to play the role of one man. But nobody can be one person except the wise man; the rest of us often shift our masks.


force yourself to maintain to the very end of life's drama the character which you assumed at the beginning. See to it that men be able to praise you; if not, let them at least identify you.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 119 - On Nature as our Best Provider

On Nature as our Best Provider

The theme of this letter is: enough; Nature provides with with enough.  People, though, introduce excess.

Seneca writes variations on this them.

it does not matter whether you crave nothing, or whether you possess something. The important principle in either case is the same – freedom from worry.


If I am hungry, I must eat. Nature does not care whether the bread is the coarse kind or the finest wheat; she does not desire the stomach to be entertained, but to be filled.


Look to the end, in all matters, and then you will cast away superfluous things. Hunger calls me; let me stretch forth my hand to that which is nearest; my very hunger has made attractive in my eyes whatever I can grasp. A starving man despises nothing.


The wise man is the keenest seeker for the riches of nature.


Would you rather have much, or enough? He who has much desires more – a proof that he has not yet acquired enough; but he who has enough has attained that which never fell to the rich man's lot – a stopping-point.

Lack of contentment is a vice.  It leads to gluttony, luxury and decadence and leads further to others' resentment.

Enough is never too little, and not-enough is never too much.


But that which is enough for nature, is not enough for man.  There have been found persons who crave something more after obtaining everything


He ... who has arranged his affairs according to nature's demands, is free from the fear, as well as from the sensation, of poverty.


Wealth ... blinds and attracts the mob.


measure all things by the demands of Nature; for these demands can be satisfied


The Builder of the universe, who laid down for us the laws of life, provided that we should exist in well-being, but not in luxury. Everything conducive to our well-being is prepared and ready to our hands; but what luxury requires can never be got together except with wretchedness and anxiety.


whatever we want because of sheer necessity we accept without squeamishness.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 118 - On the Vanity of Place-Seeking

On the Vanity of Place-Seeking

Have you ever seen someone do something for mere status?  In a way, we are all seeking status - we want to be relevant; admired; a cut above the rest.  And we are willing to sacrifice our character for the sake of status.

Examples of status seeking are: pursuing a promotion, buying a product that the vast majority cannot afford and which one does not necessarily need, name-dropping (i.e. telling others you know a senator or the VP or CEO of some company), bragging about one's fame or education or other achievement.  This desire to seem relevant and to have influence is what drives us to seek and acquire status.

Seneca advises we don't seek status if we are indeed pursuing equanimity.

This, my dear Lucilius, is a noble thing, this brings peace and freedom – to canvass for nothing, and to pass by all the elections of Fortune.

To seek nothing in terms of status, is noble.  He later continues:

I say, to stand idle and look on at this Vanity Fair without either buying or selling?  How much greater joy does one feel who looks without concern, not merely upon the election of a praetor or of a consul, but upon that great struggle in which some are seeking yearly honours, and others permanent power, and others the triumph and the prosperous outcome of war, and others riches, or marriage and offspring, or the welfare of themselves and their relatives! What a great-souled action it is to be the only person who is canvassing for nothing, offering prayers.

Those who seek and constantly pursue status, will never find contentment.  As soon as they've achieved something, it's on to the next thing.

the restless multitudes of men, who, in order to attain something ruinous, struggle on through evil to evil

Contentment; equanimity; happiness do not come about via status seeking.

Happiness is ...  a lowly thing; for that reason it never gluts a man's desire.

Where does the status seeking end?  It doesn't!  It is a never-ending ladder and as soon as you get to one step, you will realize there is another.  And if you think you've reached the top, all too soon you will realize there is something else which you do not have.

that which you regard as the top is merely a rung on the ladder.

Even those who pursue and chase endlessly, will eventually wake up and realize it was all a sham.

after having won their wish, and suffered much, they find them evil, or empty, or less important than they had expected.

This was the whole point of the movie Citizen Kane.  A life of pursuits, fame, status and accolades ends up with the main character simply wanting to return to a the time he was happy with this snow sled Rosebud.

Are we to be monks, then, and sit around all day and meditate in contentment?  If you are a Stoic, the answer is: no.  Rather, engage with the world of indiffernts, while at the same time, focusing on the virtues of your character.  What virtue can you practice in your pursuits?  Your career, schooling, day-to-day living is all material for demonstrating excellence of character.  We are to use and engage with these indifferents honorably.  Doing so is the Good.

there are certain things which are neither good nor bad – as military or diplomatic service, or the pronouncing of legal decisions. When such pursuits have been honourably conducted, they begin to be good, and they change over from the "indifferent" class into the Good. The Good results from partnership with the honourable.

For someone to become good, it can take an entire lifetime.  Seneca seems to allude to the fact that the pinnacle of achieving wisdom is recognizing that one's unique will has come in alignment with the Cosmos - that one truly lives in agreement with Nature.  This would be the mind recognizing it is a part and in one with the Whole or infinite.

Some things, through development, put off their former shape and are altered into a new figure.  When the mind has for a long time developed some idea, and in the attempt to grasp its magnitude has become weary, that thing begins to be called "infinite."

I'll end with a quote I came across in a Facebook group recently.  I'm hoping to get this book sometime in the future and read it - seems interesting!

It is...possible to imagine a man whose knowledge and understanding is co-extensive with the complete structure of the Universe, the "objective content" (the lektón) of his systems of cognitions being identical with the objective content of an ideal account of Nature. The mind of such a man certainly still has its centre or focus in his own body, but the process of adaptation (oikeiosis), of fitting himself into the Whole, has gone beyond his own body, beyond his family or nation, to become all-inclusive: he is, in a sense, God. He is really living consistently with himself and with Nature, having "knowledge of whatever happens by nature", because he is Nature. Such a man is good, because his mind is identical with the only thing that can be called good. His state of mind is virtue, that strength which is a "tension capable of [always] judging and acting [correctly]". He is truly happy, because he is all a human being can be. He is independent (autarkes), as God is independent, because he needs nothing, and there is nothing outside him to affect him or contain him. Since his mind has become good by becoming completely fused with Nature, he cannot will anything to be different from what it is, as it would be self-contradictory for the good to want to be not good. Therefore he is also free, since for him what is desirable is what is real.

Johnny Christensen, An Essay on the Unity of Stoic Philosophy, p. 68-69

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 117 - On Real Ethics as Superior to Syllogistic Subtleties

On Real Ethics as Superior to Syllogistic Subtleties

The question in this letter is: "whether the Stoic belief is true: that wisdom is a Good, but that being wise is not a Good."

He summarizes the Stoic school position:

They (the Stoics) declare that wisdom is a Good; it therefore follows that one must also call wisdom corporeal. But they do not think that being wise can be rated on the same basis. For it is incorporeal and accessory to something else, in other words, wisdom; hence it is in no respect active or helpful.

He then uses the remainder of the letter to disagree and provide ideas supporting his position and to hold the stance that talking about such inane quibbles mean nothing and are a waste of time and energy.

Here are various quotes of him expressing distaste for discussing this difference.

wasting words on a subject that is perfectly clear.


How will it profit me to know whether wisdom is one thing, and being wise another?


Fortune has set before you so many problems – which you have not yet solved – and are you still splitting hairs? How foolish it is to practise strokes after you have heard the signal for the fight! Away with all these dummy-weapons; you need armour for a fight to the finish.


Let us rush past all this clever nonsense, and hurry on to that which will bring us real assistance.


are you taking time for matters which serve merely for mental entertainment?


Nature has not given us such a generous and free-handed space of time that we can have the leisure to waste any of it.


so short and swift, that carries us away in its flight, of what avail is it to spend the greater part on useless things?

What he finds of value is practical use of philosophy.  Understanding what wisdom is, and then being wise, are productive uses of time and energy.  But focusing on minutiae about whether being wise is a Good or not, is a waste of brain cells.

Practical knowledge and use is focused on applying remedies.

show me the way by which I may attain those ends.  Tell me what to avoid, what to seek, by what studies to strengthen my tottering mind, how I may rebuff the waves that strike me abeam and drive me from my course, by what means I may be able to cope with all my evils, and by what means I can be rid of the calamities that have plunged in upon me and those into which I myself have plunged. Teach me how to bear the burden of sorrow without a groan on my part, and how to bear prosperity without making others groan; also, how to avoid waiting for the ultimate and inevitable end, and to beat a retreat of my own free will, when it seems proper to me to do so.


Tell me by what means sadness and fear may be kept from disturbing my soul, by what means I may shift off this burden of hidden cravings. Do something!


Make me braver, make me calmer, make me the equal of Fortune, make me her superior.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 116 - On Self-Control

On Self-Control

To topic of this letter whether it "is better to have moderate emotions, or none at all."  Seneca notes two views on the topic of emotions.  The Stoics "reject the emotions" and "the Peripatetics keep them in check."

Seneca imagines someone who argues,

it is natural for me to suffer when I am bereaved of a friend; grant some privileges to tears which have the right to flow! It is also natural to be affected by men's opinions and to be cast down when they are unfavourable; so why should you not allow me such an honourable aversion to bad opinion?

While Seneca agrees that emotions do come from Nature in order to "make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes" we should nonetheless acknowledge that "this very interest, when overindulged, becomes a vice."

Vices start with good reason and with some modestly, but then can grow into a vice.

There is no vice which lacks some plea; there is no vice that at the start is not modest and easily entreated; but afterwards the trouble spreads more widely. If you allow it to begin, you cannot make sure of its ceasing.

Therefore, Seneca advocates for cutting them off before they get a foothold.

resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart.

While a wise man can control himself and his emotions, we who are not yet wise should not trust ourselves to think we can control them so easily.  He quotes Panaetius:

you and I, who are as yet far removed from wisdom, should not trust ourselves to fall into a state that is disordered, uncontrolled, enslaved to another ... Let us not expose this unstable spirit to the temptations of drink, or beauty, or flattery, or anything that coaxes and allures.

Panaetius was referring to the emotion of love but Seneca observes this advice may be applied to all emotions.  He advises strong caution when it comes to dealing with emotions.

let us step back from slippery places; even on dry ground it is hard enough to take a sturdy stand.

Seneca then takes on the claim that the Stoic philosophy is too hard!  One may argue,

Your promises are too great, and your counsels too hard. We are mere manikins, unable to deny ourselves everything. We shall sorrow, but not to any great extent; we shall feel desires, but in moderation; we shall give way to anger, but we shall be appeased.

He thinks humans are perfectly capable of keeping motions in check, but instead our love of our vices is so strong we make excuses for ourselves.

And do you know why we have not the power to attain this Stoic ideal? It is because we refuse to believe in our power. Nay, of a surety, there is something else which plays a part: it is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. 


The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 115 - On the Superficial Blessings

On the Superficial Blessings

The superficial blessings, of which Seneca discusses are riches and power.  The rub of the letter appears towards the end, where he notes that we should consider the prayer of those who possess riches and power.  If we could be a fly on the wall of those who possess such things, when we hear them pray, then we would know that these "blessings" are indeed superficial.  The gist of the letter is: be careful what you ask and prayer for.

The beginning of the letter discusses one of the important aspects of writing.  We write to impress upon our minds.

You should seek what to write, rather than how to write it – and even that not for the purpose of writing but of feeling it, that you may thus make what you have felt more your own and, as it were, set a seal on it.

He returns to the topic of 'style' and calls certain styles defects.

Style is the garb of thought: if it be trimmed, or dyed, or treated, it shows that there are defects and a certain amount of flaws in the mind.

Then he tries to paint a picture of a virtuous soul and how if we saw such a soul, we would be enamored by them, rather than by riches and power.  Note the various virtues in the passage below (I've italicized them).

If we had the privilege of looking into a good man's soul, oh what a fair, holy, magnificent, gracious, and shining face should we behold – radiant on the one side with justice and temperance, on another with bravery and wisdom! And, besides these, thriftiness, moderation, endurance, refinement, affability, and – though hard to believe – love of one's fellow-men, that Good which is so rare in man, all these would be shedding their own glory over that soul. There, too, forethought combined with elegance and, resulting from these, a most excellent greatness of soul (the noblest of all these virtues) – indeed what charm, O ye heavens, what authority and dignity would they contribute!

Later he lists things which cut off our vision of virtue, namely the body, poverty, lowliness, disgrace, unloveliness, the gleam of riches.

We need to become fully grown, rational adults.  We should consider what pleases children, as there is an analog in fully grown adults too.

how contemptible are the things we admire – like children who regard every toy as a thing of value, who cherish necklaces bought at the price of a mere penny as more dear than their parents or than their brothers. And what, then, as Aristo says, is the difference between ourselves and these children, except that we elders go crazy over paintings and sculpture, and that our folly costs us dearer? Children are pleased by the smooth and variegated pebbles which they pick up on the beach, while we take delight in tall columns of veined marble brought either from Egyptian sands or from African deserts

Then too, is status - how much we are driven to gain status among others.  Much of the high status in Seneca's time as well as our own, is mere falsities; it's all rot underneath.

all the famous men whom you see strutting about with head in air, have nothing but a gold-leaf prosperity. Look beneath, and you will know how much evil lies under that thin coating of titles.  Note that very commodity which holds the attention of so many magistrates and so many judges, and which creates both magistrates and judges – that money, I say, which ever since it began to be regarded with respect, has caused the ruin of the true honour of things; we become alternately merchants and merchandise, and we ask, not what a thing truly is, but what it costs; we fulfil duties if it pays, or neglect them if it pays, and we follow an honourable course as long as it encourages our expectations, ready to veer across to the opposite course if crooked conduct shall promise more.

Money, riches, power, fame - these give people status.  We are a culture obsessed with gaining it.  We grab at money and wish to 'go viral' in order to gain a position of status off which to influence others.  We fail to focus on becoming a better virtuous person.  We fall into the trap of thinking that by gaining status we help ourselves and others, when in fact we perpetuate the problem of producing "style" on the outward, while we rot on the inside.

Most likely, our parents, or teachers, or co-workers or friends trained us to think this way.  The culture of "prosperity" rolls forward and an entire nation, which argues over virtually everything, will agree on this one thing.  It will take an exceptional effort to overcome the desire infection.

Our parents have instilled into us a respect for gold and silver; in our early years the craving has been implanted, settling deep within us and growing with our growth. Then too the whole nation, though at odds on every other subject, agrees upon this; this is what they regard, this is what they ask for their children, this is what they dedicate to the gods when they wish to show their gratitude – as if it were the greatest of all man's possessions! And finally, public opinion has come to such a pass that poverty is a hissing and a reproach, despised by the rich and loathed by the poor.

He quotes Ovid and this one part stood out to me:

All ask how great my riches are, but none
Whether my soul is good.

Seneca continues,

What tears and toil does money wring from us! Greed is wretched in that which it craves and wretched in that which it wins! Think besides of the daily worry which afflicts every possessor in proportion to the measure of his gain!


though Fortune may leave our property intact, whatever we cannot gain in addition, is sheer loss!

And here is the part of the letter where Seneca asks us to consider the whole perspective of those who chase greed.  If we could peer into their souls, me may not then desire riches and power.

Do you think that there is any more pitiable lot in life than to possess misery and hatred also? Would that those who are bound to crave wealth could compare notes with the rich man! Would that those who are bound to seek political office could confer with ambitious men who have reached the most sought-after honours! They would then surely alter their prayers, seeing that these grandees are always gaping after new gain, condemning what is already behind them. For there is no one in the world who is contented with his prosperity, even if it comes to him on the run. Men complain about their plans and the outcome of their plans; they always prefer what they have failed to win.

What is the cure for greed and this desire infection?  Philosophy.

philosophy can settle this problem for you, and afford you, to my mind, the greatest boon that exists – absence of regret for your own conduct.


Let words proceed as they please, provided only your soul keeps its own sure order, provided your soul is great and holds unruffled to its ideals, pleased with itself on account of the very things which displease others, a soul that makes life the test of its progress, and believes that its knowledge is in exact proportion to its freedom from desire and its freedom from fear.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 114 - On Style as a Mirror of Character

On Style as a Mirror of Character

The gist of this letter is found towards the end of the middle.  While Seneca spends a lot of time talking about style of speech and other styles, his point is that the outward stems from the inward.  A sound soul leads to a sound body and style.

take care of the soul; for from the soul issue our thoughts, from the soul our words, from the soul our dispositions, our expressions, and our very gait.  When the soul is sound and strong, the style too is vigorous, energetic, manly; but if the soul lose its balance, down comes all the rest in ruins.

Early in the letter, he cites a Greek proverb and then expounds a bit more on it.

"Man's speech is just like his life."  Exactly as each individual man's actions seem to speak, so people's style of speaking often reproduces the general character of the time, if the morale of the public has relaxed and has given itself over to effeminacy. Wantonness in speech is proof of public luxury, if it is popular and fashionable, and not confined to one or two individual instances.  A man's ability cannot possibly be of one sort and his soul of another. If his soul be wholesome, well-ordered, serious, and restrained, his ability also is sound and sober. Conversely, when the one degenerates, the other is also contaminated.

Does this apply to all?  I've seen some people who seem to not have a well-ordered gait or even fit body or style of speech, but upon talking with them, they seem to be wise and virtuous.  Conversely, I've seen people who are able to speak very well and their outward appearance and style seems to be fit and ordered, but upon talking to them, they only had appearance and not substance.

Is Seneca's analysis a hard and fast rule?  Perhaps not.  He does have a point, that if you take care of the soul and strive to keep it ordered, logical, virtuous and resilient, then perhaps the style will follow.

Sometimes, as individuals, we have to overcome the sentiment of the time.  When culture and all around us has focused on the wrong things for so long, we have to strive, even harder as individuals, to rise above the polluted air and breath the fresh, clean air.

This fault is due sometimes to the man, and sometimes to his epoch.  When prosperity has spread luxury far and wide, men begin by paying closer attention to their personal appearance.

Take care of our own soul first.  Appearances will follow.  Don't focus on your appearance and style, rather focus on what is virtuous, what is good.  Strive for courage, wisdom, and temperance.

Here are a few more quotes from the letter which stood out to me.

Just as luxurious banquets and elaborate dress are indications of disease in the state, similarly a lax style, if it be popular, shows that the mind (which is the source of the word) has lost its balance. Indeed you ought not to wonder that corrupt speech is welcomed not merely by the more squalid mob but also by our more cultured throng.


The soul is our king. If it be safe, the other functions remain on duty and serve with obedience; but the slightest lack of equilibrium in the soul causes them to waver along with it. And when the soul has yielded to pleasure, its functions and actions grow weak, and any undertaking comes from a nerveless and unsteady source.


We should be sensible, and our wants more reasonable, if each of us were to take stock of himself, and to measure his bodily needs also, and understand how little he can consume, and for how short a time! But nothing will give you so much help toward moderation as the frequent thought that life is short and uncertain here below; whatever you are doing, have regard to death.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 113 - On the Vitality of the Soul and Its Attributes

On the Vitality of the Soul and Its Attributes

The letter answers the question: are virtues living things?  In sum, Seneca replies they are not; the soul is a living thing, which possesses virtues.  He discusses this somewhat extensively, and then ends the letter with some thoughts on bravery and discipline.

Seneca doesn't think talking about this question is a good use of time, but nonetheless answers it.

You wish me to write to you my opinion concerning this question, which has been mooted by our school – whether justice, courage, foresight, and the other virtues, are living things.  By such niceties as this, my beloved Lucilius, we have made people think that we sharpen our wits on useless objects, and waste our leisure time in discussions that will be unprofitable.

He gets directly to the answer.

The soul, men are agreed, is a living thing ... But virtue is nothing else than a soul in a certain condition; therefore it is a living thing. Again, virtue is active, and no action can take place without impulse. And if a thing has impulse, it must be a living thing.

The soul is a living thing with impulses.  Virtue is active and prompts us to have an impulse, which we then act on.

We may have multiple virtues (or vices) in our soul, but we are still one living soul.  Just like the hydra has many heads, it is still one soul.

each separate head fighting and destroying independently. And yet there is no separate living thing to each head; it is the head of a living thing, and the hydra itself is one single living thing.

Later in the letter, Seneca repeats and succinctly states his answer to the main question.

Every living thing acts of itself; but virtue does nothing of itself; it must act in conjunction with man. All living things either are gifted with reason, like men and gods, or else are irrational, like beasts and cattle. Virtues, in any case, are rational; and yet they are neither men nor gods; therefore they are not living things.

To conclude the letter, he makes the very important point that use of knowledge is what matters; not discussing and nitpicking.  He focuses on the virtue of bravery to make this point.

Teach me, not whether Bravery be a living thing, but prove that no living thing is happy without bravery, that is, unless it has grown strong to oppose hazards and has overcome all the strokes of chance by rehearsing and anticipating their attack.

What is bravery?

It is the impregnable fortress for our mortal weakness; when a man has surrounded himself therewith, he can hold out free from anxiety during life's siege.

He quotes Posidonius:

"There are never any occasions when you need think yourself safe because you wield the weapons of Fortune; fight with your own! Fortune does not furnish arms against herself; hence men equipped against their foes are unarmed against Fortune herself."

Then he focuses on Alexander the Great, who conquered nations, but could not conquer himself and ended up killing his own friends.

he, the conqueror of so many kings and nations, was laid low by anger and grief! For he had made it his aim to win control over everything except his emotions.

Seneca writes a few, excellent reminders, which we all would do well to repeat to ourselves often.

Self-Command is the greatest command of all.


I must be just without reward.


May I take pleasure in devoting myself of my own free will to uphold this noblest of virtues.


Those who wish their virtue to be advertised are not striving for virtue but for renown.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 112 - On Reforming Hardened Sinners

On Reforming Hardened Sinners

According to Seneca, some people are very difficult to reform.

Now this person, concerning whom you have sent me your message in writing, has no strength; for he has pampered his vices.   He has at one and the same time become flabby and hardened. He cannot receive reason, nor can he nourish it.


Luxury has merely upset his stomach; he will soon become reconciled to it again.


Men love and hate their vices at the same time. It will be the proper season to pass judgment on him when he has given us a guarantee that he really hates luxury; as it is now, luxury and he are merely not on speaking terms.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 111 - On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

The intent of philosophy is flourishing - eudaimonia - in which the Stoics claim that one's personal virtue, reasoning and actions are aligned with Nature.  If the philosophy is not lived, and instead simply held in a theoretical paradigm, then did you really learn anything?

In this vein, Seneca attacks the practice of sophismata - he calls them mental gymnastics.  Speaking of sophismata or mental gymnastics, he writes,

If a man has surrendered himself to them, he weaves many a tricky subtlety, but makes no progress toward real living; he does not thereby become braver, or more restrained, or loftier of spirit.

But one who applies what he has learned is the one making progress.

He, however, who has practised philosophy to effect his own cure, becomes high-souled, full of confidence, invincible, and greater as you draw near him.

He goes on,

our true philosopher, true by his acts and not by his tricks. He stands in a high place, worthy of admiration, lofty, and really great.


He is therefore above earthly things, equal to himself under all conditions, – whether the current of life runs free, or whether he is tossed and travels on troubled and desperate seas; but this steadfastness cannot be gained through such hair-splittings as I have just mentioned.

If you are going to play these mental games, Seneca advises to

let it be at a time when you wish to do nothing.

He further cautions that if you practice sophismata, be sure to not get caught up in thinking that since you can work out these puzzlers, you think you are wise.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 110 - On True and False Riches

On True and False Riches

In Seneca's time, many believed a personal god or protector accompanied each person.

the present the belief of certain persons – that a god is assigned to each one of us as a sort of attendant – not a god of regular rank, but one of a lower grade – one of those whom Ovid calls "plebeian gods."

This is not unlike the Stoic view of deity.  The Stoics believe that there is a bit of god in each of us - our own daimon.  Marcus refers to the daimon often and this is where the word eudaimonia comes from - to have a good god-soul within us; to align our unique part of us with the Whole or Nature.

Seneca makes the point that regardless if you have a bit of god in you or not (and we are therefore neglected), he observes, 

you can curse a man with no heavier curse than to pray that he may be at enmity with himself.

If we are at enmity with ourselves, then we deny our very existence!

He then pivots to the observation that 'evils' do not really turn out to be evils, especially if we take the perspective of the view from above - seeing things from the perspective of God or Nature.

evils are more likely to help us than to harm us. For how often has so-called affliction been the source and the beginning of happiness!

Our lives may be built up over many years; we may enjoy decades of health and savings and prosperity.  But then along comes some misfortune.  We may become ill or lose a job.  How often do we see people reinvent themselves and start anew?  Was the illness or job loss really a misfortune?

But let us also never forget that regardless of the 'highs' and 'lows' of life, the very end for everyone ends up the same.  When compared to our final state (death), all 'lows' and 'downs' in life (e.g. illness, job less, exile, etc.) are nothing.

But this very fall has in it nothing evil, if you consider the end, after which nature lays no man lower.

Wise people consider the Whole.  The wise aim for equanimity - neither tormented by the fears of 'lows' nor overcome with joy by the 'highs.'

measure all things according to the state of man; restrict at the same time both your joys and your fears.

Wise people also remember that externals are nothing to us.  They do not depend on us.  Therefore, we should never get worked up about them!

All these things which stir us and keep us a-flutter, are empty things.

Referring to externals, Seneca observes,

how fleeting, how unsure, and how harmless are the things which we fear.

What is the antidote to succumbing to externals?  To learn what is truly good and evil: our moral choice.  We can learn this.

we acquire by knowledge this familiarity with things divine and human, if we not only flood ourselves but steep ourselves therein, if a man reviews the same principles even though he understands them and applies them again and again to himself, if he has investigated what is good, what is evil, and what has falsely been so entitled; and, finally, if he has investigated honour and baseness, and Providence.

Furthermore, we may frequently take flight and return often to the view from above; and ignore what the majority incorrectly deem as good: riches, fame, status.

The range of the human intelligence is not confined within these limits; it may also explore outside the universe – its destination and its source, and the ruin towards which all nature hastens so rapidly. We have withdrawn the soul from this divine contemplation and dragged it into mean and lowly tasks, so that it might be a slave to greed, so that it might forsake the universe and its confines, and, under the command of masters who try all possible schemes, pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up therefrom – discontented with that which was freely offered to it.

When Seneca admonishes us to 'explore outside the universe' it sound very familiar to Marcus:

Further, the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole. It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future" (Meditations 11.1.2).

Hadot often speaks of this practice of 'taking flight' and traversing the Cosmos.  See this entry on my blog.

Returning to the Seneca quote above, he also notes that greed is the cause for humanity to turn away from the heavens and towards the earth - to dig for gold, silver and minerals.  Our greed drives us to 'pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up' as we are 'discontented with that which is freely offered.'  Seneca says something similar in Letter 94.  In this letter he adds,

we have brought to light the materials for our destruction, against the will of Nature, who hid them from us. We have bound over our souls to pleasure, whose service is the source of all evil; we have surrendered ourselves to self-seeking and reputation, and to other aims which are equally idle and useless.

Our goal; and what is freely ours, is

to see clearly for yourself what is necessary and what is superfluous.  What is necessary will meet you everywhere; what is superfluous has always to be hunted-out – and with great endeavour.

We ought to despise greed, gluttony and luxury.  These are all for show.  These are externals and truly are not a part of us nor 'up to us.'  To acquire, to eat to excess, to bask in riches are merely activities of display, but do not demonstrate actual human excellence.

Seneca closes with a quote from Attalus, who speaks of a procession of wealth by an empire, of which a few parts I've copied below.

What else is this, I said to myself, than a stirring-up of man's cravings, which are in themselves provocative of lust? What is the meaning of all this display of money? Did we gather merely to learn what greed was? For my own part I left the place with less craving than I had when I entered. I came to despise riches, not because of their uselessness, but because of their pettiness


the riches seemed to me to be as useless to the possessors as they were to the onlookers.


It is all show; such things are displayed, not possessed; while they please they pass away. 18. Turn thyself rather to the true riches. Learn to be content with little


Do you ask what is the cure for want? It is to make hunger satisfy hunger


freedom comes, not to him over whom Fortune has slight power, but to him over whom she has no power at all. This is what I mean: you must crave nothing, if you would vie with Jupiter; for Jupiter craves nothing.

Think often of these things.

If you are willing to think often of these things, you will strive not to seem happy, but to be happy, and, in addition, to seem happy to yourself rather than to others. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 109 - On the Fellowship of Wise Men

On the Fellowship of Wise Men

The question at hand and the topic of the letter is: can a wise man help another wise man.  In Seneca's view, the answer is 'yes' for these reasons:

Each needs someone with whom he may make comparisons and investigations.


The wise man also needs to have his virtues kept in action; and as he prompts himself to do things, so is he prompted by another wise man.


He can quicken his impulses, and point out to him opportunities for honourable action. Besides, he can develop some of his own ideas; he can impart what he has discovered. For even in the case of the wise man something will always remain to discover, something towards which his mind may make new ventures.


will bring joy to the other, he will strengthen his faith, and from the contemplation of their mutual tranquillity the delight of both will be increased. Moreover, they will communicate to each other a knowledge of certain facts; for the wise man is not all-knowing.


the wise man cannot maintain his mental standard without intercourse with friends of his own kind – with whom he may share his goodness. 10. Moreover, there is a sort of mutual friendship among all the virtues.


in order to prompt perfect reason, there is need of perfect reason.


the wise man can also be useful by discussing honourable things in common, and by contributing his thoughts and ideas.  Moreover, it is in accordance with Nature to show affection for our friends, and to rejoice in their advancement.


Now virtue advises us to arrange the present well, to take thought regarding the future, to deliberate and apply our minds; and one who takes a friend into council with him, can more easily apply his mind and think out his problem.

Seneca closes the letter by musing that this sort of discussion (can the wise help the wise), is all simply "mental gymanstics."  Seneca wants to discuss how to go about acting more like a wise person.

What good does this do me? Make me more brave now, more just, more restrained! I have not yet the opportunity to make use of my training ...  teach me now what it is necessary for me to know!

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 108 - On the Approaches to Philosophy

On the Approaches to Philosophy

The big idea of this letter is that we ought to learn philosophy to apply it, not to simply learn it.  While we may be eager to learn at the onset, we ought to ensure that not only do we learn, but we constantly practice and apply.

this eagerness to learn, with which I see you are aflame, should be regulated, so that it may not get in its own way.  Things are not to be gathered at random; nor should they be greedily attacked

And a sound, stable mind is required as you enter this journey.

Only be of a sound mind, and then you will be able to hold all that you wish.

A teacher of philosophy should both demonstrate and teach; and ensure the students do likewise.

The same purpose should possess both master and scholar – an ambition in the one case to promote, and in the other to progress.

Seneca warns that some students will not make progress.  Their determination and motivation is not whole and they only seek to learn in leisure.  He calls these people "squatters."

This class, as you will see, constitutes a large part of the listeners, who regard the philosopher's lecture-room merely as a sort of lounging-place for their leisure. They do not set about to lay aside any faults there, or to receive a rule of life, by which they may test their characters.

The genuine student, however, takes these matters seriously.

But the true hearer is ravished and stirred by the beauty of the subject matter, not by the jingle of empty words. When a bold word has been uttered in defiance of death, or a saucy fling in defiance of Fortune, we take delight in acting straightway upon that which we have heard.

In the quote above, there is another insight.  Note the different types of externals to which Seneca refers.  Much of what Seneca writes about falls under the category of dis-preferred externals (e.g. death, ignominy, illness, poverty, exile, etc.).  But there is another type of external, those which are preferred.  How often do we contemplate these happening to us and we prepare for them accordingly.  These would be wealth, fame, strong health and success.  We should not let our equanimity be disturbed by these either.  We should not get heady or prideful or fall for the trap that these things are 'up to us.'  We should be prepared to meet these just as much as we should prepare to meet with the dis-preferred.  In other words, we should not be distracted by Fortune; rather we should throw "a saucy fling in defiance" at such good luck.

Rare is the student who is successful.

only a few can carry home the mental attitude with which they were inspired.

But we have it in us - we have the ability and capacity to grow philosophically.  We just need to be taught or 'stimulated' to grow.

Nature has laid the foundations and planted the seeds of virtue in us all. And we are all born to these general privileges; hence, when the stimulus is added, the good spirit is stirred as if it were freed from bonds.

One of the abilities of a good philosopher is having the ability to craft words to have great effect.  Good teachers can do this for others as well as himself.  A prokopton also learns and practices this form of self-instruction in the form of hypomnemata.  This is precisely what Marcus Aurelius was doing when he wrote the Meditations.

when such things are uttered by a philosopher, when he introduces verses among his wholesome precepts, that he may thus make those verses sink more effectively into the mind of the neophyte!

Of course, the prokopton needs initiation before he can practice.  Therefore, much learning, reading and writing needs to come first, before the short and pithy precepts can have effect.  Seneca writes,

We talk much about despising money, and we give advice on this subject in the lengthiest of speeches, that mankind may believe true riches to exist in the mind and not in one's bank account, and that the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man; but our minds are struck more effectively when a verse like this is repeated:

He needs but little who desires but little.


He hath his wish, whose wish includeth naught; Save that which is enough.

And one sharp remark is not enough.  We have to keep peppering away to "lay on still harder!"

When you see them thus disposed, strike home, keep at them, and charge them with this duty, dropping all double meanings, syllogisms, hair-splitting, and the other side-shows of ineffective smartness. Preach against greed, preach against high living; and when you notice that you have made progress and impressed the minds of your hearers, lay on still harder.

Seneca then talks a bit about his teacher - Attalus - and how he taught and what things stuck with Seneca.

when he began to uphold poverty, and to show what a useless and dangerous burden was everything that passed the measure of our need, I often desired to leave his lecture-room a poor man. Whenever he castigated our pleasure-seeking lives, and extolled personal purity, moderation in diet, and a mind free from unnecessary, not to speak of unlawful, pleasures, the desire came upon me to limit my food and drink.

He lists the ways he has resolved to keep certain practices.

later, when I returned to the duties of a citizen, I did indeed keep a few of these good resolutions. That is why I have forsaken oysters and mushrooms for ever: since they are not really food, but are relishes to bully the sated stomach into further eating, as is the fancy of gourmands and those who stuff themselves beyond their powers of digestion: down with it quickly, and up with it quickly!  That is why I have also throughout my life avoided perfumes; because the best scent for the person is no scent at all.  That is why my stomach is unacquainted with wine. That is why throughout my life I have shunned the bath, and have believed that to emaciate the body and sweat it into thinness is at once unprofitable and effeminate. Other resolutions have been broken, but after all in such a way that, in cases where I ceased to practice abstinence, I have observed a limit which is indeed next door to abstinence; perhaps it is even a little more difficult, because it is easier for the will to cut off certain things utterly than to use them with restraint.

Later he writes about the habit of abstaining from meat, which Pythagoras and Sextius admonished for different reasons.  After explaining these things, Seneca states how he too has come to live this way.

He also notes his habit of sleeping with a hard pillow.

Next Seneca talks about how "time flies" and that we are in a race with it.  We ought to use our youth to learn, while we are still "pliable."

in every case our best days are the first to be snatched away; why, then, do we hesitate to bestir ourselves so that we may be able to keep pace with this swiftest of all swift things?


we can bend to nobler purposes minds that are ready and still pliable; because this is the time for work, the time for keeping our minds busied in study and in exercising our bodies with useful effort; for that which remains is more sluggish and lacking in spirit – nearer the end.  Let us therefore strive with all courage, omitting attractions by the way; let us struggle with a single purpose


Let every day, as soon as it comes, be welcome as being the choicest, and let it be made our own possession.

He closes the letter with the thought that philosophy can lead to a happy life.  As we learn it, we must apply it in order to achieve that happiness.

all study of philosophy and all reading should be applied to the idea of living the happy life


we should seek precepts which will help us, utterances of courage and spirit which may at once be turned into facts. We should so learn them that words may become deeds.  And I hold that no man has treated mankind worse than he who has studied philosophy as if it were some marketable trade, who lives in a different manner from that which he advises.


 A teacher like that can help me no more than a sea-sick pilot can be efficient in a storm. He must hold the tiller when the waves are tossing him; he must wrestle, as it were, with the sea; he must furl his sails when the storm rages; what good is a frightened and vomiting steersman to me?


One must steer, not talk.


I shall show you how men can prove their words to be their own: it is by doing what they have been talking about. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 107 - On Obedience to the Universal Will

On Obedience to the Universal Will

The big ideas:

  • amor fati
  • your fate (what actually happens to you) is the material from which you demonstrate excellence of human character or virtue or arete
  • if you did not have an opportunity to demonstrate excellence, then how could you practice and improve at being an excellent human being?  what is a painter without a canvas?  what is a sculptor without the clay?
  • get on with it!  prepare for events and be ready for them
  • premeditatio malorum is how you prepare for your fate
This letter is a reality check and a tune-up for your practice of premeditatio malorum.  All of these cases involve externals; they are indifferents which come from the cosmos, events and other people.  Thinking and anticipating them helps you to not be caught off-guard when they happen.  You will be more accepting of the events as they happen, which frees you from the burden of anxiety, fear, complaining, overjoy, ecstasy, and pride.  And instead of spending time being consumed by these emotions, you can wisely reflect on a virtuous course of action: how you will respond to your fate.

Most of Letter 107 will focus on the dis-preferred indifferents; things which we generally wish to avoid.  But, there is a whole other side of externals which we rarely prepare for: preferred indifferents.  How often do we put our equanimity at risk when a preferred indifferent comes into our life?  It's something to think about.

Here is a list of all the dis-preferred indifferents Seneca notes in this letter:

  • slaves run away (perhaps a modern example would be employees or people for hire don't show up to do a job, and leave you in the lurch)
  • friends lie and deceive you
  • being robbed, blackmailed, betrayed, attacked, poisoned, slandered
  • cold winters, hot summers or unseasonable weather
  • dealing with wild beasts
  • floods and fires, damaging winds
  • death
And here are some stand-out quotes from this letter:

It is as nonsensical to be put out by such events as to complain of being spattered in the street or at getting befouled in the mud. The programme of life is the same as that of a bathing establishment, a crowd, or a journey: sometimes things will be thrown at you, and sometimes they will strike you by accident. Life is not a dainty business.


you will despise them, if you often take thought and anticipate the future. 4. Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practised how to meet them.


We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.


no matter what trouble you mention, it has happened to many.


We should not manifest surprise at any sort of condition into which we are born, and which should be lamented by no one, simply because it is equally ordained for all.


Be sure to prescribe for your mind this sense of equity; we should pay without complaint the tax of our mortality.


And we cannot change this order of things; but what we can do is to acquire stout hearts, worthy of good men, thereby courageously enduring chance and placing ourselves in harmony with Nature.


Eternity consists of opposites.  It is to this law that our souls must adjust themselves, this they should follow, this they should obey. Whatever happens, assume that it was bound to happen, and do not be willing to rail at Nature. That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure, and to attend uncomplainingly upon the God under whose guidance everything progresses


we should welcome our orders with energy and vigour, nor should we cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven.


let Fate find us ready and alert. Here is your great soul – the man who has given himself over to Fate