Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 74 - On Virtue as a Refuge from Worldly Distractions

On Virtue as a Refuge from Worldly Distractions

The good is free and obtainable for all.  It can be found within.  It is independent of external events.  It is we rational beings who choose to embrace it or deny it.  Seneca writes,

he who has in every case defined the good by the honourable, is happy with an inward happiness.

For those who choose not to embrace this wisdom, Seneca describes the mental state they will be in because of their perceptions of external events.

One man is saddened when his children die; another is anxious when they become ill; a third is embittered when they do something disgraceful, or suffer a taint in their reputation. One man, you will observe, is tortured by passion for his neighbour's wife, another by passion for his own. You will find men who are completely upset by failure to win an election, and others who are actually plagued by the offices which they have won.  But the largest throng of unhappy men among the host of mortals are those whom the expectation of death, which threatens them on every hand, drives to despair.

Review the states of emotion: sad, anxious, embittered, tortured, upset, plagued, unhappy, despair.

And why do they feel this way?  Because they place high value in things that are not up to them.  Their expectations are not level with reality.

If (and that is a big, important "if"), you don't place your values, happiness and calm in externals, then you may begin to live an excellent, virtuous life.  But as long as you couple your happiness with externals, your happiness or sadness will not be up to you and it will ebb and flow with Fate.

Whoever has largely surrendered himself to the power of Fortune has made for himself a huge web of disquietude, from which he cannot get free; if one would win a way to safety, there is but one road, – to despise externals and to be contented with that which is honourable.

Seneca sees a similarity in the practice of doles (i.e. welfare or free money or benefits which are distributed) and a person tying their emotions and happiness to Fate.  When the bread and coins are being tossed, the crowds will fight and trample each other to get doles.  If you don't wish to be caught up in a fight or trampled, it's best to leave the area before the doles are tossed!

The most sensible man, therefore, as soon as he sees the dole being brought in, runs from the theatre; for he knows that one pays a high price for small favours. No one will grapple with him on the way out, or strike him as he departs; the quarrelling takes place where the prizes are.  Similarly with the gifts which Fortune tosses down to us; wretches that we are, we become excited, we are torn asunder

You "pay a high price" in terms of your mental quietude and emotions when you associate your soul and character to externals.  You no longer are choosing what is up to you; the externals are choosing for you.  In a word, the price you pay is servitude.

The answer to this predicament?  To leave the doles and externals to the crowds.

Let us therefore withdraw from a game like this, and give way to the greedy rabble; let them gaze after such "goods," which hang suspended above them, and be themselves still more in suspense.

Furthermore, "all wishing [for externals or indifferents] on our part must cease."

Virtue and excellence of soul do not need indifferents.

virtue needs nothing.  Because it is pleased with what it has, and does not lust after that which it has not. Whatever is enough is abundant in the eyes of virtue.

He continues,

one who desires to exhibit [duty and loyalty] must endure much that the world calls evil; we must sacrifice many things to which we are addicted, thinking them to be goods.

He uses the word "addicted" and perhaps that is a strong word to use.  We can possess many of the things he is descrying, but we ought hold the proper perspective.  Indeed, many of these things could be "preferred indifferents."  But while we may prefer them, we must never forget that they are external to us.  We must hold in check our desires and keep them temperate.  If our desires rise to the level of addiction, then we stray into vice.  The Cynics, (who Stoics such as Epictetus looked up to), made a hard line with indifferents.  They would never agree with the idea of 'preferred indifferents.'  But the Stoics moderated a bit and acknowledged that some externals indeed enhance our living in agreement with Nature.  The nuance here is that one may still be a sage and live with excellence of character and be happy while stilling having preferred indifferents taken from him.  The Cynics set out to prove none of these preferred indifferents mattered (e.g. Diogenes the Cynic).

If we desire to live with the gods, then we should live like them - out of reach of indifferents.

God has no enjoyment of the things which are given to us.  For lust pertains not to God, nor do elegant banquets, nor wealth, nor any of the things that allure mankind and lead him on through the influence of degrading pleasure. 

Seneca notes the delineation of the body and the soul.  If we are to reach the Good, we must focus on the rational and not the physical.

Let us limit the Supreme Good to the soul; it loses its meaning if it is taken from the best part of us and applied to the worst, that is, if it is transferred to the senses; for the senses are more active in dumb beasts. The sum total of our happiness must not be placed in the flesh; the true goods are those which reason bestows, substantial and eternal.

Seneca makes the point clear about preferred indifferents.

Other things are goods according to opinion, and though they are called by the same name as the true goods, the essence of goodness is not in them. Let us therefore call them "advantages," and, to use our technical term, "preferred" things.  Let us, however, recognize that they are our chattels, not parts of ourselves; and let us have them in our possession, but take heed to remember that they are outside ourselves. Even though they are in our possession, they are to be reckoned as things subordinate and poor, the possession of which gives no man a right to plume himself. For what is more foolish than being self-complacent about something which one has not accomplished by one's own efforts?

What can we truly call our own?  Our own will, attitude and character.  All else, including preferred indifferents are to be considered subordinate.

Think of preferred indifferents as true externals and as not a part of us.  We should be ready to part with them and they should be so independent that there is nothing of them which could stick to us.

Let everything of this nature be added to us, and not stick fast to us, so that, if it is withdrawn, it may come away without tearing off any part of us. Let us use these things, but not boast of them, and let us use them sparingly.

Wealth and luxury should be handled with great caution, should a Stoic so choose to embrace them.  Seneca warns,

foresight must be brought into play, to insist upon a limit or upon frugality in the use of these things, since license overthrows and destroys its own abundance. That which has no limit has never endured, unless reason, which sets limits, has held it in check. The fate of many cities will prove the truth of this; their sway has ceased at the very prime because they were given to luxury, and excess has ruined all that had been won by virtue.

Ego, decadence and ease have been the downfall of many nations and cities.  In my lifetime alone, I've witnessed California and Michigan go from powerful, wealthy states in the Union, to impoverished and bordering on appearing like a third world country.  One sign of this fall is San Francisco's feces map.  As a kid growing up out west, San Francisco was the crown jewel of California.  Now that city is to be avoided like the plague.  The decadence and lack of discipline and virtue are the cause of these long, hard falls.

While it is relatively easy to swear off preferred indifferents such as wealth and leisure, what about family?  Seneca addresses this claim by setting the stage.

Men say to us:  "You are mistaken if you maintain that nothing is a good except that which is honourable; a defence like this will not make you safe from Fortune and free from her assaults. For you maintain that dutiful children, and a well-governed country, and good parents, are to be reckoned as goods; but you cannot see these dear objects in danger and be yourself at ease. Your calm will be disturbed by a siege conducted against your country, by the death of your children, or by the enslaving of your parents." (emphasis added).

Can you be a good Stoic if you are disturbed by a foreign invasion of your country, the death of your children and the imprisonment of your elderly parents?  What he describes here sounds an awful lot like what many people endured in World War 2.

This is where it can be quite difficult to practice and apply Stoicism.  Could I get to the point of being calm in the face of such Fate?  I suppose.  Would it entail me doing nothing about it?  No.  While I would be forced to accept the fate, part of my accepting it would include doing something to cure the injustice of tyranny.  If I lack calm and rationality because I'm in such a tizzy over these externals being taken from me, then I probably won't be in a good state of mind to do something about it.  But if I practice negative visualization (country invaded, death of children, imprisonment of elderly parents), perhaps I will be able to keep my emotions in check and plot a course of action that would right the wrong, if these events came to be.

Seneca's response may seem a bit cold-hearted, but the point remains valid.  Focus on what is up to you and arete remains unharmed.  You retain your equanimity.

What does it matter if running water is cut off and flows away, as long as the fountain from which it has flowed is unharmed? ... As long as your virtue is unharmed, you will not feel the loss of anything that has been withdrawn from you.

He compares virtue to a circle.  Whether it is large or small, it is still a circle.

Whether you draw a larger or a smaller circle, its size affects its area, not its shape.

It's the shape that matters, not so much the magnitude.

And as you retain your equanimity, you are prepared for action.

It is ever a dishonour for a man to be troubled and fretted, to be numbed when there is any call for activity. For that which is honourable is free from care and untrammelled, is unafraid, and stands girt for action.

The Brits summed up this mindset: Keep Calm and Carry On!

Is a Stoic emotionless?  No.

the sage will retain the firm belief that none of these things [emotions] is evil, or important enough to make a healthy mind break down.  Whatever shall remain to be done virtue can do with courage and readiness.

As for time - future and past - that is not up to us.  Therefore, why let it disturb you?

what is greater madness than to be tortured by the future and not to save your strength for the actual suffering, but to invite and bring on wretchedness? If you cannot be rid of it, you ought at least to postpone it.  Will you not understand that no man should be tormented by the future?  ... In the same way, souls that enjoy being sick and that seize upon excuses for sorrow are saddened by events long past and effaced from the records. Past and future are both absent; we feel neither of them. But there can be no pain except as the result of what you feel.

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