Friday, January 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 49 - On the Shortness of Life

On the Shortness of Life

Just last night, my wife and I were watching an episode from The Crown which had such an insightful scene.  The princess Alice and her brother Lord Mountbatten share a quiet moment in her bedroom - both of them very elderly having lived full lives and now both are contemplating their lots in life.  Lord Mountbatten had recently tried to start a coup of the government and was told to stop by the Queen.  He who commanded armies and lived a life for his country and who was trying to help his country again, was told to stop, by his niece.  Princess Alice tells him that around the age of 70, she realized she was only a participant in life, to which he replies that he's discovered that himself!  But here are these two royals, one who lived the royal life and the other as a nun, and at the end of their long lives, they realize that indeed, much is out of their control.  But they still fought and did their best for what they thought was right.

Another thought struck me as I watched this scene again - it was like watching two children talk in contemplation after the return from a long day of play and they chat and laugh and then go to bed.  Life can seem long, but it can also seem short, when you watch two elderly people talk and you realize that you could be watching your grandparents talk or they could be your parents and one day, they will be you!

Seneca writes:

Infinitely swift is the flight of time, as those see more clearly who are looking backwards.

Everything slips into the same abyss.

The time which we spend in living is but a point, nay, even less than a point.

We must always be keen about time.  It slips from our hands every second and it never stops.  We can either waste it or use it; it cannot be saved.  Seneca is angered by those who waste their time.

I am all the more angry that some men claim the major portion of this time for superfluous things, – time which, no matter how carefully it is guarded, cannot suffice even for necessary things.

Even if we guard our time and use it as wisely as possible, the amount of time we have still won't be enough for "necessary things."  For this reason, one should, as soon as possible, educate himself on philosophy and understand what his philosophy is and then get on with it.  Seneca does not approve of the dialecticians who "believe that they are themselves engaged upon serious business" but in fact are engaging in foolishness.  He does admit,

one must cast a glance at dialectic; but it ought to be a mere glance, a sort of greeting from the threshold, merely that one may not be deceived, or judge these pursuits to contain any hidden matters of great worth.

Later on he advises that we solve problems that are worth solving.  It is better to not solve a foolish problem.

Why do you torment yourself and lose weight over some problem which it is more clever to have scorned than to solve?

I believe a modern concept of this idea is: pick your battles.  You and I need to be like soldiers where the enemy (time) is pressing us from the rear.  Drop the useless, the superfluous, the un-wise and foolish, the low-value, the clutter, the mindlessness, the minutiae, the trash and junk, the lies and fake news of the day.  Spend your time wisely and usefully.  At the very least, think about what you want to accomplish with your time and then spend it accordingly.

Seneca rants about the dialecticians a bit.  He would rather they spend time helping him solve serious problems rather than "tricks constructed after the model of this piece of sheer silliness."  He would prefer they solve problems such as dealing with troubles, hardships and death.

teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life's length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. Say to me when I lie down to sleep: "You may not wake again!" And when I have waked: "You may not go to sleep again!" Say to me when I go forth from my house: "You may not return!" And when I return: "You may never go forth again!"  You are mistaken if you think that only on an ocean voyage there is a very slight space between life and death. No, the distance between is just as narrow everywhere. It is not everywhere that death shows himself so near at hand; yet everywhere he is as near at hand.

Rid me of these shadowy terrors; then you will more easily deliver to me the instruction for which I have prepared myself.  At our birth nature made us teachable, and gave us reason, not perfect, but capable of being perfected.  Discuss for me justice, duty, thrift, and that twofold purity, both the purity which abstains from another's person, and that which takes care of one's own self.

The time we have is enough.  What we need to focus on is the wise use of it.  We must realize much is out of our control and we should focus our moral choice and good on that which is beneficial for us and others.  We should look to Nature and live accordingly.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 48 - On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher

On Quibbling as Unworthy of the Philosopher

The first part of the letter addresses some advice.  Seneca seems to say that in some cases, more deliberation should be taken before giving out advice, because a hasty reply might exacerbate the problem.

since more deliberation is necessary in settling than in propounding a problem!

He then discusses how a true friend takes on his friend's problems.

I am not your friend unless whatever is at issue concerning you is my concern also. Friendship produces between us a partnership in all our interests.

And later he writes,

you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.  This fellowship, maintained with scrupulous care, which makes us mingle as men with our fellow-men and holds that the human race have certain rights in common, is also of great help in cherishing the more intimate fellowship which is based on friendship, concerning which I began to speak above. For he that has much in common with a fellow-man will have all things in common with a friend.

For anyone who thinks a Stoic is a lone wolf who wants to disengage with people and society, they should consider the above passage from Seneca.  Stoics are social; our ethics are based on the Hierocles Concentric Circles of Cosmopolitanism which focuses on concern and care for oneself and then for those nearest him, then next nearest to him, until he has care and concern for all those who live in the cosmos.

Seneca then gets into the "quibble" (defined as an evasion of or shift from the point or a minor objection or criticism) about the "subtle dialecticians."  Seneca would prefer

those subtle dialecticians of yours advise me how I ought to help a friend, or how a fellow-man, rather than tell me in how many ways the word "friend" is used, and how many meanings the word "man" possesses.

In other words, the aim of dialectic is to advise the wise approach of action with regard to friends, rather than talking about the meaning of the word friend.  As Epictetus teaches - show me, don't tell me; or embody your philosophy, don't merely talk of it.  Seneca provides other examples of foolish syllogisms which waste time and energy.

The seriousness of the problems our friends and humanity face are not to be played with by such foolish syllogisms.

Would you really know what philosophy offers to humanity? Philosophy offers counsel. Death calls away one man, and poverty chafes another; a third is worried either by his neighbour's wealth or by his own. So-and-so is afraid of bad luck; another desires to get away from his own good fortune. Some are ill-treated by men, others by the gods.  Why, then, do you frame for me such games as these? It is no occasion for jest; you are retained as counsel for unhappy mankind. You have promised to help those in peril by sea, those in captivity, the sick and the needy, and those whose heads are under the poised axe. Whither are you straying? What are you doing?

One feels the deep sense of obligation of trying to help others in distress and anxiety after reading the above passage.  "You are retained as counsel for unhappy mankind."  It is indeed a challenge to convince others that their fears, worries and anxieties stem from their own false value judgements.  

Death is nothing to fear - we Stoics practice remembering our own deaths every day.

People wring their hands about poverty - we Stoics practice by living with little means and sleeping on the ground to prove that it is nothing to fear; we fast and eat little to know that we can survive living minimally.

Others stew over the possessions, homes, boats, cars, 401K accounts and vast sums of money our neighbors' have, while we have relatively little - we Stoics know that this is an indifferent to our moral well-being and that a life worth living does not depend on vast sums of wealth.

Some get depressed about their lot in life, thinking that they have bad luck - we Stoics know that we can take any obstacle and use it to prove our will and moral good is the only good.

Still others feel they are cuffed with golden chains or can never have a private moment from their political, managerial or famous roles - we Stoics know a good life can be lived in a palace or on a street.

Some people feel they are rebuffed, discriminated against or pushed aside by other people or by Fate - we Stoics know that much is out of our control and that the only thing in our control is our will to act nobly with courage, wisdom and justice; we know that injustice cannot be fixed with more injustice.

By embodying our philosophy we can help others remedy their ills.  We can talk and show others there is a way out of the ills society largely brings on itself.  Syllogisms will not help them.

Help him, and take the noose from about his neck. Men are stretching out imploring hands to you on all sides; lives ruined and in danger of ruin are begging for some assistance; men's hopes, men's resources, depend upon you. They ask that you deliver them from all their restlessness, that you reveal to them, scattered and wandering as they are, the clear light of truth.  Tell them what nature has made necessary, and what superfluous; tell them how simple are the laws that she has laid down, how pleasant and unimpeded life is for those who follow these laws, but how bitter and perplexed it is for those who have put their trust in opinion rather than in nature.

This life does not have to be complex and technical.  It can be made simple and clear.  In sum, "Frankness, and simplicity beseem true goodness."

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 47 - On Master and Slave

On Master and Slave

History is strewn with examples of slavery, indentured servants and other forms of servitude.  While many snap to America when they think of slavery, it's wise to remember this was not the only form practiced in humanity's history.  In fact the practice still survives today, in 2021, as practiced by government of China (Communist Party of China); see here and here for recent reports or search for "Muslim Uyghurs China" to see many other harrowing reports.

The Romans during Seneca's time were not exempt from this moral failing.  It seems that Seneca at least recognized the need to be as kind as possible if one were to own slaves or have servants.  In this context, Seneca writes this letter to Lucilius.

So what are we to learn from this letter, if we live in a society where slavery is outlawed?  Can we glean something applicable to us?  There are a few things from the letter we can consider.

Treat everyone as humans, comrades, friends and fellow slaves (see first paragraph of letter).

Masters and those who lord over us, in some cases, are slaves to their own passions.

The master eats more than he can hold, and with monstrous greed loads his belly until it is stretched and at length ceases to do the work of a belly; so that he is at greater pains to discharge all the food than he was to stuff it down.

We all come from the same genetic root; we are all brothers and sisters.

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.

If you ever find yourself looking down upon someone else, for example, a homeless person or someone who suffers from addiction, stop and consider that your lot may become like theirs' some day.  Therefore, treat everyone with kindness and service.  Treat others as you would want to be treated.

But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters. And as often as you reflect how much power you have over a slave, remember that your master has just as much power over you.  "But I have no master," you say. You are still young; perhaps you will have one. 

Your character and attitude is in your control; but your fate largely is not.

Each man acquires his character for himself, but accident assigns his duties.

If there are those in your circle of influence who need education, strive to educate and mentor them.  We are all striving to help each other.  Too many today close themselves off from society; they build up walls and post security guards around their mansions and send their children to private schools.  If we are to elevate society as a whole, we must not segregate.  I fear we are rapidly segregating and losing the ability to learn from others as well as to help others.

if there is any slavish quality in them as the result of their low associations, it will be shaken off by intercourse with men of gentler breeding.

Be a mentor.

Good material often stands idle for want of an artist.

Don't judge a person by looks or title only.

doubly a fool who values a man from his clothes or from his rank.

Contemplate who your own master is.  We are all slaves in one form or fashion; and many times we possess the key to unlock the chains and free ourselves, but often we choose not to.

Show me a man who is not a slave; one is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear. I will name you an ex-consul who is slave to an old hag, a millionaire who is slave to a serving-maid; I will show you youths of the noblest birth in serfdom to pantomime players! No servitude is more disgraceful than that which is self-imposed.

Mark what angers you; there you will find your master.

That which annoys us does not necessarily injure us; but we are driven into wild rage by our luxurious lives, so that whatever does not answer our whims arouses our anger.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 46 - On a New Book by Lucilius

On a New Book by Lucilius

There isn't much to comment on this letter.  Seneca receives a book by Lucilius and he enjoys it so much, he reads it from start to finish.

However, I'll take time to make some observations about this letter.

First - there is an in-depth, on-going conversation between Lucilius and Seneca, in the form of these letters.  This is a Stoic practice - that of discussion, learning, asking.

Second - in addition to the letter writing, there appears to be more formal writing in the form of a book, to which Seneca is referring.  This is also a Stoic practice - writing.  We see this in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations as well as this book that Lucilius wrote.  Seneca also was a prolific writer.

Why writing?  Good writing involves thinking.  It helps you organize your thoughts, put them on paper, and spell them out.  But after that, you are not done.  You must read it, check assumptions and logic.  Is it accurate?  Truthful?  Honest?  If not, then it's back to revising.  The entire process helps your inner dialogue and self-critical analysis.

From the letter, note this tid-bit from Seneca:

Your subject also contributed something; for this reason you should choose productive topics, which will lay hold of the mind and arouse it.

The topic of writing is for the mind, which then leads to lived actions, which then leads to introspection and analysis which should lead to further education and correction which should lead to improved action and behavior.  This is how writing can be productive and "arouse" the mind.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 45 - On Sophistical Argumentation

On Sophistical Argumentation

It would appear that Lucilius wants a wider variety of books to read and that the supply is "scant" where he is located.  He then seems to suggest to Seneca that he write more to send to him.  Seneca cautiously advises Lucilius to remember that he too (Seneca) is still learning.

whatever the quality of my works may be, read them as if I were still seeking, and were not aware of, the truth, and were seeking it obstinately, too.

Seneca notes that much of his knowledge is attributed to "great men," but he also notes that these "great men" have also left "problems whose solution is still to be sought."  He continues,

They lost much time in quibbling about words and in sophistical argumentation; all that sort of thing exercises the wit to no purpose. We tie knots and bind up words in double meanings, and then try to untie them.

We don't have time to stew.  Our time should be kept focused on matters at hand; on duty.

We should rather proceed with our whole souls towards the point where it is our duty to take heed lest things, as well as words, deceive us.

The point is that we should get to the heart of the matter - understanding what is good and evil; ensuring that we are following the path to virtue and not to vice and ensuring that we do not fool ourselves into thinking we are virtuous when in fact we are full of vice.

Why, pray, do you discriminate between similar words, when nobody is ever deceived by them except during the discussion? It is things that lead us astray: it is between things that you must discriminate. We embrace evil instead of good; we pray for something opposite to that which we have prayed for in the past. Our prayers clash with our prayers, our plans with our plans ... Vices creep into our hearts under the name of virtues, rashness lurks beneath the appellation of bravery, moderation is called sluggishness, and the coward is regarded as prudent; there is great danger if we go astray in these matters. So stamp them with special labels.

Virtue - excellence of soul - arete leads to eudaimonia - a good spirit.  Here is wisdom if you can teach and learn what a happy man is.

he whose possessions are all in his soul, who is upright and exalted, who spurns inconstancy, who sees no man with whom he wishes to change places, who rates men only at their value as men, who takes Nature for his teacher, conforming to her laws and living as she commands, whom no violence can deprive of his possessions, who turns evil into good, is unerring in judgment, unshaken, unafraid, who may be moved by force but never moved to distraction, whom Fortune when she hurls at him with all her might the deadliest missile in her armoury, may graze, though rarely, but never wound. For Fortune's other missiles, with which she vanquishes mankind in general, rebound from such a one, like hail which rattles on the roof with no harm to the dweller therein, and then melts away.

On this aim should the Stoic place his gaze.  And it requires constant attention and focus.  Therefore, the Stoic does not have time for "the superfluous" - they must live now and stop "preparing to live."

transfer your efforts to making it clear to all men that the search for the superfluous means a great outlay of time, and that many have gone through life merely accumulating the instruments of life? Consider individuals, survey men in general; there is none whose life does not look forward to the morrow.  "What harm is there in this," you ask? Infinite harm; for such persons do not live, but are preparing to live. They postpone everything.

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 44 - On Philosophy and Pedigrees

On Philosophy and Pedigrees

Lucilius complains in a letter, to which Seneca responds.  What does Lucilius complain about?  He complains "saying that nature in the first place, and fortune in the second, have treated [him] too scurvily."

What is the Stoic response to someone who is complaining about his lot in life?  What do we tell someone who says they were born with the odds stacked against them; that they didn't have the advantages and privileges of their peers?

Seneca says, "you have it in your power to separate yourself from the crowd and rise to the highest human happiness!"

He says, "a noble mind is free to all men."

He says, "Philosophy neither rejects nor selects anyone; its light shines for all."

Advantage does not bestow a good flowing spirit and happiness to the person.

Privilege does not grant someone virtue or arete.

Lack of advantage and privilege, likewise, does not grant, nor take away a good flowing spirit, happiness or virtue.

A hall full of smoke-begrimed busts does not make the nobleman. No past life has been lived to lend us glory, and that which has existed before us is not ours; the soul alone renders us noble, and it may rise superior to Fortune out of any earlier condition, no matter what that condition has been.

Seneca continues with advice for gaining contentment, regardless of circumstances.

by your own efforts come to be the only free man amid a throng of gentlemen ... You should look, not to the source from which these things come, but to the goal towards which they tend.

First, recognize that you have the power to be a free person, regardless of your status in life.

Second, the past does not matter in this quest.  No matter how many injustices implemented to correct an injustice from the past, your circumstance will be the same.  Therefore, don't look to the past to fix yourself.  Rather, look towards your aim.  What are you striving for?  Most likely, you are striving for happiness.

Problems begin when people misunderstand how to go about attaining happiness.  Many seek happiness in acquiring things that don't truly matter and they misuse them.  They think that their means of living (health, wealth, possessions) will bring them happiness.  In fact, it is the wise use of indifferents which demonstrates an excellent character, is what brings a person happiness.

they regard the means for producing happiness as happiness itself, and, while seeking happiness, they are really fleeing from it. For although the sum and substance of the happy life is unalloyed freedom from care, and though the secret of such freedom is unshaken confidence, yet men gather together that which causes worry, and, while travelling life's treacherous road, not only have burdens to bear, but even draw burdens to themselves; hence they recede farther and farther from the achievement of that which they seek, and the more effort they expend, the more they hinder themselves and are set back.