Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 67 - On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering

On Ill-Health and Endurance of Suffering

Premise: the good is desirable

Premise: to be courageous under torture is good

Therefore: we should desire torture

More or less, that is the claim Lucilius seems to be making, to which Seneca replies:

there is something in them that is to be desired. I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage. Of course I prefer that war should not occur; but if war does occur, I shall desire that I may nobly endure the wounds, the starvation, and all that the exigency of war brings. Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships.

The concept of "preferred indifferents" emerges strongly in this passage.  The Stoic knows that Fortune or Fate will make us prosperous or poor; it may ravage our body with sickness or grant us long-lasting health and life; it may cause war and famine to sweep over our country or it may grant us peace.  Regardless of these circumstances, we, rational beings, will choose how we react to each event - this is 'up to us' - we choose (or not) to exercise moral virtue.  But, back to the point that Lucilius raises and Seneca addresses.  Ought a Stoic to desire torture?  Seneca would respond: 'no, but she ought to desire to demonstrate excellence of soul if her fate placed torture in her path.'  In this example, 'torture' would be a "non-preferred indifferent."

Sellars quotes Cicero:

All other things, he [Zeno] said, were neither good nor bad, but nevertheless some of them were in accordance with Nature and others contrary to Nature; also among these he counted another interposed or intermediate class of things. He taught that things in accordance with Nature were to be chosen and estimated as having a certain value, and their opposites the opposite, while things that were neither he left in the intermediate class. Th ese he declared to possess no motive force whatever, but among things to be chosen some were to be deemed of more value and others of less: the more valuable he termed “preferred”, the less valuable, “rejected” [i.e. “non-preferred”]. (Acad. 1.36–7) (see Sellars, Stoicism, p. 111).

While a Stoic may voluntarily endure hardships to toughen herself, she does not seek them out per se.  She would prefer life over death; health over illness; peace over war.  But regardless of what Fate sends her way, she will act with virtue in every case.

Many in the ancient world clearly knew that all of us will reap the same, ultimate fate: death.  Therefore, what many sought and preferred, was to die for a cause (as opposed for no cause, or needlessly).  A stark example today would be: would you prefer to die of a heart attack while eating ice cream and cake or would you prefer to die by throwing yourself on a grenade to save your platoon?  One death demonstrates a preference for vice while another demonstrates courage and love of brother.

Do you doubt, then, whether it is best to die glorious and performing some deed of valour? When one endures torture bravely, one is using all the virtues. Endurance may perhaps be the only virtue that is on view and most manifest; but bravery is there too, and endurance and resignation and long-suffering are its branches.

In many cases, Fate throws surprises at us and in a single reaction, we demonstrate an amazing act of virtue - such as taking a bullet for a brother.  Other acts of Fate are slow and the Stoic who demonstrates a deep understanding of cause and effect, knows what awaits him and still makes the rational choice to demonstrate excellence.

There, too, is foresight; for without foresight no plan can be undertaken; it is foresight that advises one to bear as bravely as possible the things one cannot avoid.

Seneca's words from ancient Rome echo still today.  What we witness on social media, in public and on television is an unending stream of examples of people seeking pleasure at all costs and avoiding virtue.  A wise person will pause and reflect on the perspectives of aimless people as well as how a excellent human being appears.

withdraw for a little space from the opinions of the common man. Form a proper conception of the image of virtue, a thing of exceeding beauty and grandeur; this image is not to be worshipped by us with incense or garlands, but with sweat and blood.

Seneca concludes with a couple of examples and admonishes us to amor fati.

I think of our friend Demetrius, who calls an easy existence, untroubled by the attacks of Fortune, a "Dead Sea."  If you have nothing to stir you up and rouse you to action, nothing which will test your resolution by its threats and hostilities; if you recline in unshaken comfort, it is not tranquillity; it is merely a flat calm.

The Stoic Attalus was wont to say: "I should prefer that Fortune keep me in her camp rather than in the lap of luxury. If I am tortured, but bear it bravely, all is well; if I die, but die bravely, it is also well."

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