Saturday, July 31, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 89 - On the Parts of Philosophy

On the Parts of Philosophy

Studying the parts of philosophy help to comprehend the whole.  But in so doing, be mindful not to break it down into too many parts as well as trying to bite off more than you can comprehend.

Modern Stoicism is mainly studied with three break-downs: physics, logic and ethics.  In this letter, Seneca references the three divisions as moral, natural, and rational.  I can't help but see

  • moral related to ethics 
  • natural related to physics
  • rational related to logic
I'll get into these a bit more, but let's jump back to the beginning of the letter.

Why study philosophy in parts?

studying the parts we can be brought more easily to understand the whole.

However, we must not divide it too much.

useful that philosophy should be divided, but not chopped into bits. ... the parts, as I have remarked, must not be countless in number and diminutive in size. For over-analysis is faulty in precisely the same way as no analysis at all.

Is there a difference between wisdom and philosophy?  Wisdom is the aim; philosophy is the process.

Wisdom is the perfect good of the human mind; philosophy is the love of wisdom, and the endeavour to attain it. ... Philosophy does the going, and wisdom is the goal.

The two cannot be separated.

Certain of our school, however, although philosophy meant to them "the study of virtue," and though virtue was the object sought and philosophy the seeker, have maintained nevertheless that the two cannot be sundered. ... the path by which one reaches virtue leads by way of virtue herself; philosophy and virtue cling closely together.

He then briefly elaborates on the various divisions of philosophy and what their study entails.


He states that the moral division is further divided into three parts.  As I read his notes on this, it does seem that the moral division deals with proper duties and actions.

First, we have the speculative part, which assigns to each thing its particular function and weighs the worth of each; it is highest in point of utility. For what is so indispensable as giving to everything its proper value? The second has to do with impulse, the third with actions.  For the first duty is to determine severally what things are worth; the second, to conceive with regard to them a regulated and ordered impulse; the third, to make your impulse and your actions harmonize, so that under all these conditions you may be consistent with yourself.


The natural division is also further divided and indeed seems roughly correlated to the study of [meta]physics.  The two main divisions of the natural division are,

bodily and non-bodily.  Each is divided into its own grades of importance, so to speak. The topic concerning bodies deals, first, with these two grades: the creative and the created; and the created things are the elements. Now this very topic of the elements, as some writers hold, is integral; as others hold, it is divided into matter, the cause which moves all things, and the elements.


The last division deals with learning and logic and mostly aligns with reading and writing.

Now all speech is either continuous, or split up between questioner and answerer. It has been agreed upon that the former should be called rhetoric, and the latter dialectic. Rhetoric deals with words, and meanings, and arrangement. Dialectic is divided into two parts: words and their meanings, that is, into things which are said, and the words in which they are said. Then comes a subdivision of each – and it is of vast extent.

He concludes the letter to Lucilius, with an exhortation that no matter how he studies philosophy, he puts what he learns into practice.

promptly relate to conduct all that you have read.  It is your conduct that you must hold in check; you must rouse what is languid in you, bind fast what has become relaxed, conquer what is obstinate, persecute your appetites, and the appetites of mankind, as much as you can; and to those who say: "How long will this unending talk go on?" answer with the words: "I ought to be asking you 'How long will these unending sins of yours go on?'"

Seneca then goes on to ask prompting questions with the intent of laying down vices and passions.  He lambasts greed in owning land, many and spacious villas and estates, embracing luxury, as well as having insatiable appetites.  Here are a couple which stood out to me.

What profit to you are your many bed-chambers? You sleep in one. No place is yours where you yourselves are not.


How slight a portion of all those shell-fish, imported from so far, slips down that insatiable gullet? Poor wretches, do you not know that your appetites are bigger than your bellies?

Regardless of how you study philosophy, direct your learning back to wise living.

everything you hear or read, is to be applied to conduct, and to the alleviation of passion's fury. Study, not in order to add anything to your knowledge, but to make your knowledge better.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 88 - On Liberal and Vocational Studies

On Liberal and Vocational Studies

The too-long-didn't-read (TLDR) of this letter is Seneca making the point that the study of wisdom and leading a wise life ought to be preeminent.  While the vocational learning may lead us to leading a wise life, it is less important.

Towards the beginning of the letter he writes of liberal and vocational studies:

Such studies are profit-bringing occupations, useful only in so far as they give the mind a preparation and do not engage it permanently. ... they are our apprenticeship, not our real work.

Said differently, the studies which lead to a living (e.g. a career or job) are simply a means to an end.  The end and primary focus ought to be the study of philosophy.

But there is only one really liberal study, – that which gives a man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other studies are puny and puerile.


Certain persons have made up their minds that the point at issue with regard to the liberal studies is whether they make men good ... But which of these paves the way to virtue? ... what is there in all this that rids one of fear, roots out desire, or bridles the passions?

This is the sum-total of the letter.  The rest of it delves into various examples and rifts of the same tune.

Whether you study Homer, Hesiod, Hecuba, Helen, Achilles, Patroclus, Ulysses (Odysseus), music, math, business, real estate, farming, astronomy, medicine, carpentry or physics, nothing is as important is the study of living and dying well - which is philosophy.

In each of the examples above, he contrasts the learning of subjects with the learning of philosophy.  If, you learn something about one of the above subjects and can also apply that lesson to the study and learning of philosophy, perhaps there is use.  But all learning ought to be focused on wise living.

Below are various examples or questions which put the focus of learning on philosophy.

What, in your opinion, I say, would be the point in trying to determine the respective ages of Achilles and Patroclus?  Do you raise the question, "Through what regions did Ulysses stray?" instead of trying to prevent ourselves from going astray at all times?


Show me rather, by the example of Ulysses, how I am to love my country, my wife, my father, and how, even after suffering shipwreck, I am to sail toward these ends, honourable as they are.  Why try to discover whether Penelope was a pattern of purity, or whether she had the laugh on her contemporaries? Or whether she suspected that the man in her presence was Ulysses, before she knew it was he? Teach me rather what purity is, and how great a good we have in it, and whether it is situated in the body or in the soul.

And instead of going one by one, contrasting vocational questions with philosophical questions, I'll simply note the questions which philosophy attempts to answer.

[how to] bring my soul into harmony with itself, and let not my purposes be out of tune ... how, in the midst of adversity, I may keep from uttering a doleful note ... how to lay out what is enough for a man to own. ... how useless property is to any man who would find it the greatest misfortune if he should be required to reckon out, by his own wits, the amount of his holdings ...  how to share it with my brother? ...  how to lose [my lands] with a light heart ... how great [the mind] is, or how puny! You know what a straight line is; but how does it benefit you if you do not know what is straight in this life of ours?


I await the future in its entirety; and if there is any abatement in its severity, I make the most of it. If the morrow treats me kindly, it is a sort of deception; but it does not deceive me even at that. For just as I know that all things can happen, so I know, too, that they will not happen in every case. I am ready for favourable events in every case, but I am prepared for evil.

Liberal or vocational studies do have value and Seneca notes them.

"do the liberal studies contribute nothing to our welfare?" Very much in other respects, but nothing at all as regards virtue. For even these arts of which I have spoken, though admittedly of a low grade – depending as they do upon handiwork – contribute greatly toward the equipment of life, but nevertheless have nothing to do with virtue. And if you inquire, "Why, then, do we educate our children in the liberal studies?"  it is not because they can bestow virtue, but because they prepare the soul for the reception of virtue. Just as that "primary course,"  as the ancients called it, in grammar, which gave boys their elementary training, does not teach them the liberal arts, but prepares the ground for their early acquisition of these arts, so the liberal arts do not conduct the soul all the way to virtue, but merely set it going in that direction.

In sum, vocational studies and living prepare us to study the virtuous life - a philosophical life.

Philosophy alone delves into the question of the good.

There is but one thing that brings the soul to perfection – the unalterable knowledge of good and evil. But there is no other art which investigates good and evil.

And the good is found in excellence of soul and character.  And what leads to this excellence?  Moral virtues.  He spends some words discussing some important virtues.

Bravery is a scorner of things which inspire fear; it looks down upon, challenges, and crushes the powers of terror and all that would drive our freedom under the yoke.


Loyalty is the holiest good in the human heart.


Temperance controls our desires; some it hates and routs, others it regulates and restores to a healthy measure, nor does it ever approach our desires for their own sake. Temperance knows that the best measure of the appetites is not what you want to take, but what you ought to take.

Kindliness forbids you to be over-bearing towards your associates, and it forbids you to be grasping.


[philosophy teaches] teach simplicity, moderation and self-restraint, thrift and economy, and that kindliness which spares a neighbour's life as if it were one's own and knows that it is not for man to make wasteful use of his fellow-man.


Wisdom is a large and spacious thing. It needs plenty of free room. One must learn about things divine and human, the past and the future, the ephemeral and the eternal; and one must learn about Time.

Because there is so much to learn and practice in the art of living well, we ought to minimize the superfluous to be able to focus on the most important and only allow the essential study of vocational arts into our life.

And in order that these manifold and mighty subjects may have free entertainment in your soul, you must remove therefrom all superfluous things. Virtue will not surrender herself to these narrow bounds of ours; a great subject needs wide space in which to move. Let all other things be driven out, and let the breast be emptied to receive virtue.  "But it is a pleasure to be acquainted with many arts." Therefore let us keep only as much of them as is essential.

He opines on the people who desire to chase endless studies of vocational practices.

This desire to know more than is sufficient is a sort of intemperance.  Why? Because this unseemly pursuit of the liberal arts makes men troublesome, wordy, tactless, self-satisfied bores, who fail to learn the essentials just because they have learned the non-essentials.

Our mortal time is limited and everything which we do or study ought to be considered through the lens of limited time.  Therefore, prioritize the important over the unimportant.

Have I so far forgotten that useful saw "Save your time"? Must I know these things? And what may I choose not to know? ...  Apply the measure to the years of your life; they have no room for all these things.

He next takes aim at useless studies under the domain of philosophy.

I have been speaking so far of liberal studies; but think how much superfluous and unpractical matter the philosophers contain! Of their own accord they also have descended to establishing nice divisions of syllables, to determining the true meaning of conjunctions and prepositions; they have been envious of the scholars, envious of the mathematicians. They have taken over into their own art all the superfluities of these other arts; the result is that they know more about careful speaking than about careful living.

He takes so much umbrage with the study of these fluffy topics, he places them in a new category: non-knowledge.

The Pyrrhonean, Megarian, Eretrian, and Academic schools are all engaged in practically the same task; they have introduced a new knowledge, non-knowledge.

Speaking of these various philosophy schools, he wonders if it's better to sit in the dark or to have our eyes gouged out.

It is better, of course, to know useless things than to know nothing. One set of philosophers offers no light by which I may direct my gaze toward the truth; the other digs out my very eyes and leaves me blind. ... The whole universe is then a vain or deceptive shadow. I cannot readily say whether I am more vexed at those who would have it that we know nothing, or with those who would not leave us even this privilege.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 87 - Some Arguments in Favour of the Simple Life

Some Arguments in Favour of the Simple Life

There are a number of syllogisms and Peripatetic responses to them in this letter.  This is another long-winded, somewhat meandering letter Seneca writes, in order to draw out minute distinctions to support the idea of living a simple life.  I'm going to attempt to summarize this, with some supporting quotes.

I'll frame the letter with some straight-forward questions, which I think take the direct route as to the purpose of this letter.

Do you need riches in order to be good?  The short answer is: no.

Can you pursue riches and still be good? The short answer is: yes; but there are perils along the way.

Are riches evil?  The short answer is: no.

Can riches cause evil?  The short answer is: maybe.

Riches and wealth are Stoic indifferents.  They fall under the category of "not up to us."  True, one may pursue riches and gain them and still be virtuous; but they can also be taken away through Fate and Fortune.  Regardless if we pursue and attain them or if they fall by chance, into our lot, how we demonstrate excellence of character remains "up to us" while the acquisition or removal of wealth is "not up to us."

But, if you are going to pursue wealth, keep in mind that it does not bestow virtue (arete) on you and in the pursuit, you will encounter temptations of committing evils and may be swayed from a virtuous path.

Now to the quotes and some commentary.

"I was shipwrecked before I got aboard." ... the journey showed me this: how much we possess that is superfluous; and how easily we can make up our minds to do away with things whose loss, whenever it is necessary to part with them, we do not feel.

Seneca packed light for his journey and it made him realize how little we need.

the soul is never greater than when it has laid aside all extraneous things, and has secured peace for itself by fearing nothing, and riches by craving no riches.

The fewer things we are in need of, the closer to the gods we move; for the gods need nothing.  This is what the Cynic philosophers hoped to prove.  But so few people could get on board with that lifestyle, the Stoics eased the thinking back a bit and introduced the idea of preferred indifferents.  Many, through the years, have demonstrated how little we need.  Diogenes the Cynic and Henry David Thoreau come to mind.

I have not yet the courage openly to acknowledge my thriftiness. Even yet I am bothered by what other travellers think of me.

This is rich, coming from Seneca.  Should I insert an facepalm or shaking-my-head emoji here?

after you have mentioned all these facts, he is poor. And why? He is in debt.

Not all that glitters is gold.  Do not be so mystified at other people's wealth.  While they may be glitzy on the outside, you better reserve judgement until you see their debts.  Some people can manage debt quite well, to leverage their way to wealth.  But this takes skill and discipline.  Others fall into the traps of debt and then plead for a bail-out.

Next are the syllogisms.

"That which is good makes men good. For example, that which is good in the art of music makes the musician. But chance events do not make a good man; therefore, chance events are not goods."

The unique skill found entirely within the individual is the good.  Through willpower, dedication and discipline, one may become good at a certain skill.  Indeed, they will have to use instruments and tools, but these are incidental to the will.  Under the category of incidentals are chance events.

Seneca clarifies this syllogism:

We define the good in the art of music in two ways: first, that by which the performance of the musician is assisted, and second, that by which his art is assisted. ... he is an artist even without [instruments].

Next syllogism:

"That which can fall to the lot of any man, no matter how base or despised he may be, is not a good. But wealth falls to the lot of the pander and the trainer of gladiators; therefore wealth is not a good."

In sum, chance events are indifferents and therefore not a good.  The good is wholly "up to us."

Seneca adds:

It is virtue that uplifts man and places him superior to what mortals hold dear; virtue neither craves overmuch nor fears to excess that which is called good or that which is called bad. ... what it is that produces the wise man? That which produces a god.  You must grant that the wise man has in an element of godliness, heavenliness, grandeur. The good does not come to every one, nor does it allow any random person to possess it.

Next syllogism:

"Good does not result from evil. But riches result from greed; therefore, riches are not a good."

Good can only result from the will; from within the soul.  If you are going to pursue riches, the reason is important.  If the reason is greed, then you have fallen into vice.  Therefore, getting precise and specific as to the reason for the pursuit of indifferents, matters.

Things which grow correspond to their seed; and goods cannot depart from their class. As that which is honourable does not grow from that which is base, so neither does good grow from evil. For the honourable and the good are identical.

Next syllogism:

"That which, while we are desiring to attain it, involves us in many evils, is not a good. But while we are desiring to attain riches, we become involved in many evils; therefore, riches are not a good,"

The intent of this syllogism is to throw caution at anyone who is pursuing riches.  Seneca later writes:

Riches injure no one; it is a man's own folly, or his neighbour's wickedness, that harms him in each case, just as a sword by itself does not slay; it is merely the weapon used by the slayer. ... Posidonius is better: he holds that riches are a cause of evil, not because, of themselves, they do any evil, but because they goad men on so that they are ready to do evil.

Going back to intent, we need to be crystal clear as to why we would pursue riches.  Riches are indifferent, but it is the use of indifferents which determines excellence or mediocrity of soul.

Next syllogism:

"Things which bestow upon the soul no greatness or confidence or freedom from care are not goods. But riches and health and similar conditions do none of these things; therefore, riches and health are not goods."

 "Things which bestow upon the soul no greatness or confidence or freedom from care, but on the other hand create in it arrogance, vanity, and insolence, are evils. But things which are the gift of Fortune drive us into these evil ways. Therefore these things are not goods." 

It is clear, riches are not goods; they are indifferents.  What is good?

A thing is not good if it contains more benefit than injury, but only if it contains nothing but benefit ... The good, however, can be predicated of the wise man alone.

In sum, it may be easier to check our desires and intent, than to try to justify specious pursuits of riches via rationalization.

it were better to support this law by our conduct and to subdue our desires by direct assault rather than to circumvent them by logic.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 86 - On Scipio's Villa

On Scipio's Villa

There is not much to commentate for this letter.  It is a rather simple exercise which Seneca practices, contemplating the voluntary exile of Scipio and how some people grow accustomed to luxury.  Below are the few highlights from the letter.

he showed moderation and a sense of duty to a marvellous extent.

admire this magnanimity, which led him to withdraw into voluntary exile

For he was accustomed to keep himself busy and to cultivate the soil with his own hands, as the good old Romans were wont to do.

What a vast number of statues, of columns that support nothing, but are built for decoration, merely in order to spend money! And what masses of water that fall crashing from level to level! We have become so luxurious that we will have nothing but precious stones to walk upon.

he taught me that a tree can be transplanted, no matter how far gone in years.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 85 - On Some Vain Syllogisms

On Some Vain Syllogisms

It seems Lucilius is looking for proofs in the forms of syllogisms, to support the Stoic claim that living a virtuous life leads to a happy life.  While reluctant to do so, Seneca does offer a few arguments to support the main claim.

I was satisfied to give you a sort of taste of the views held by the men of our school, who desire to prove that virtue is of itself sufficiently capable of rounding out the happy life. But now you bid me include the entire bulk either of our own syllogisms or of those which have been devised by other schools for the purpose of belittling us. If I shall be willing to do this, the result will be a book, instead of a letter. And I declare again and again that I take no pleasure in such proofs.

The first one he tackles is this:

"He that possesses prudence is also self-restrained; he that possesses self-restraint is also unwavering; he that is unwavering is unperturbed; he that is unperturbed is free from sadness; he that is free from sadness is happy. Therefore, the prudent man is happy, and prudence is sufficient to constitute the happy life."

The Peripatetics do not argue for the abolishment of passions, but rather for the moderation of them.  Seneca disagrees and argues against the notion of simply trying to be better than the least common denominator.  He argues for in favor of striving towards sage hood.

how petty is the superiority which we attribute to the wise man, if he is merely braver than the most craven, happier than the most dejected, more self-controlled than the most unbridled, and greater than the lowliest! ... This is speed estimated by its own standard, not the kind which wins praise by comparison with that which is slowest.  Would you call a man well who has a light case of fever? No, for good health does not mean moderate illness.

He later states,

I am not referring to the gradual weeding out of evils in a good man, but to the complete absence of evils; there should be in him no evils at all, not even any small ones.

As I read Seneca's argument on this, I am reminded of the sentiment of aiming for the stars when you wish to go to the moon.

The aim for a practicing Stoic and one who is making progress, is to be a sage.  And while very few may be considered a sage, it nonetheless is a worthy goal.

He then makes a number of arguments for putting down passions and vices urgently and with focus, rather than making little progress across multiple passions and vices.

a throng of such, even though they be moderate, can affect him more than the violence of one powerful passion. ... We could deal better with a person who possessed one full-fledged vice, than with one who possessed all the vices, but none of them in extreme form.

And once you break the habit and over-come passions and vice, you must never let them in again.

Tigers and lions never put off their wildness; they sometimes moderate it, and then, when you are least prepared, their softened fierceness is roused to madness. Vices are never genuinely tamed.  Again, if reason prevails, the passions will not even get a start ... it is easier to stop them in the beginning than to control them when they gather force. This half-way ground is accordingly misleading and useless; it is to be regarded just as the declaration that we ought to be "moderately" insane, or "moderately" ill.

Therefore, work to remove them wholly, and then keep them out.

You can more easily remove than control them. ...  it is easier to keep a thing out than to keep it under after you have let it in.

This idea leads to the next syllogism:

"If a man has self-control and wisdom, he is indeed at peace as regards the attitude and habit of his mind, but not as regards the outcome. For, as far as his habit of mind is concerned, he is not perturbed, or saddened, or afraid; but there are many extraneous causes which strike him and bring perturbation upon him."

This is a recognition of external or "extraneous" causes which may bring fear to the doorstep of his inner citadel.  If the man never allows them (fear, passions) into his mind, he retains self-control and wisdom.

Taking this approach to happiness, a man may retain self-control, temperance and courage, regardless of what lands on his doorstep.  And if this is true, then he may be content and happy with life and what is up to him.

since the happy life contains in itself a good that is perfect and cannot be excelled, if a man has this good, life is completely happy.  Now if the life of the gods contains nothing greater or better, and the happy life is divine, then there is no further height to which a man can be raised.  Also, if the happy life is in want of nothing, then every happy life is perfect ... the Supreme Good does not admit of increase ... so the happy life cannot be increased either.

He then clarifies a notion, in which many do err.  If you always want something else, how can you be happy?

the more prudent he is, the more he will strive after the best, and he will desire to attain it by every possible means. But how can one be happy who is still able, or rather who is still bound, to crave something else?

He rectifies the erroneous thinking:

men do not understand that the happy life is a unit; for it is its essence, and not its extent, that establishes such a life on the noblest plane. Hence there is complete equality between the life that is long and the life that is short, between that which is spread out and that which is confined, between that whose influence is felt in many places and in many directions, and that which is restricted to one interest. Those who reckon life by number, or by measure, or by parts, rob it of its distinctive quality.

This is a profound concept and one which Pierre Hadot discusses in his book Philosophy as a Way of Life.  Hadot quotes Nietzsche (p. 235):

Let us assume we say "Yes!" to one single, unique moment: we have thus said yes, not only to ourselves, but to the whole of existence.  For nothing is isolated, neither in ourselves nor in things.  And if, even once, our soul has vibrated and resounded like a string with happiness, all eternity was necessary to created the conditions for this one event; and all eternity has been approved, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.

Seneca gets more specific about happiness:

Now, in the happy life, what is the distinctive quality? It is its fulness. ... Satiety.

Think about this - do you want to strive towards a limitless list of desires, pursuing a life by checking off desires one by one?  Where does it end? Will you ever be happy?  Or could you be highly discriminating in your pursuit of the most important desire and pursue it?  If you had one desire which brought happiness or an infinite list of desires which may bring happiness, which would you choose?

The answer, as I understand it, is to place your desires on pursuing an excellent character, so as to be beyond the grasp of Fortune and indifferents.  Regardless of having health or illness, wealth or poverty, life or death, you could attain satisfaction and happiness based on your attitude and virtuous soul - this is what Stoicism proposes.

The next syllogism Seneca discusses is this:

"He who is brave is fearless; he who is fearless is free from sadness; he who is free from sadness is happy."

But fearful of what?  Other schools focus on fear of evils and herein we need to unpack what is evil and what is not.

Others may say evils are pain, torture and misfortune.  But to a Stoic sage, evils are not those things.  The sage "believes that the only evil is baseness" or assuming an unvirtuous character.

death, imprisonment, burning, and all the other missiles of Fortune... are not evils.

To the Stoic sage, if you 

Paint him a picture of slavery, lashes, chains, want, mutilation by disease or by torture, – or anything else you may care to mention; he will count all such things as terrors caused by the derangement of the mind. These things are only to be feared by those who are fearful.

He further clarifies what are evils to the Stoic sage.

It is the yielding to those things which are called evils; it is the surrendering of one's liberty into their control, when really we ought to suffer all things in order to preserve this liberty. Liberty is lost unless we despise those things which put the yoke upon our necks. If men knew what bravery was, they would have no doubts as to what a brave man's conduct should be. For bravery is not thoughtless rashness, or love of danger, or the courting of fear-inspiring objects; it is the knowledge which enables us to distinguish between that which is evil and that which is not.

Allowing indifferents to control your state of mind - your happiness - is evil.  It is letting the idea of achieving riches, wealth, fame, glory or letting the idea of trying to avoid poverty, destitution, ignominy, dishonor, control your state of mind.

And to be precise and whole, Seneca also notes this on emotions and feelings.

Yes, he has felt pain; for no human virtue can rid itself of feelings. But he has no fear; unconquered he looks down from a lofty height upon his sufferings.

He continues with the next syllogism, which is related to the preceding point.

"That which is evil does harm; that which does harm makes a man worse. But pain and poverty do not make a man worse; therefore they are not evils."

After using an analogy of a good helmsman or pilot, Seneca concludes the thought with this:

The wise man's purpose in conducting his life is not to accomplish at all hazards what he tries, but to do all things rightly. ... And the more he is hampered by the stress of fortune, so much the more does his knowledge become apparent.

And then he writes this excellent passage on right use of a universe full of indifferents:

the wise man is not harmed by poverty, or by pain, or by any other of life's storms. For all his functions are not checked, but only those which pertain to others; he himself is always in action, and is greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way. For then he is actually engaged in the business of wisdom; and this wisdom I have declared already to be, both the good of others, and also his own.  Besides, he is not prevented from helping others, even at the time when constraining circumstances press him down. Because of his poverty he is prevented from showing how the State should be handled; but he teaches, none the less, how poverty should be handled. His work goes on throughout his whole life.  Thus no fortune, no external circumstance, can shut off the wise man from action. For the very thing which engages his attention prevents him from attending to other things. He is ready for either outcome: if it brings goods, he controls them; if evils, he conquers them.  So thoroughly, I mean, has he schooled himself that he makes manifest his virtue in prosperity as well as in adversity, and keeps his eyes on virtue itself, not on the objects with which virtue deals.

We moderns love Marcus Aurelius' quote regarding the 'obstacle is the way', which has been popularized by Ryan Holiday.  But the word "obstacle" causes some to trip up, perhaps.  It implies the traveler is on a path and there is an obstruction in his path and all that the traveler wants to do is continue on the path.  To slightly alter the analogy, we need to get into the attitude and head of the traveler.  Instead of thinking "all the traveler wants to do is continue on the path", we change her attitude to "I wish to show the world how well I travel on this path, whatever it throws in my path."  Now, instead of an obstacle in the way, that big rock is an opportunity for her to show and demonstrate her ability to rock climb.  Now, no matter what is on the path, or if there is sunshine or rain, she demonstrates skill and excellence of attitude, in all circumstances.

In my opinion, the clue to realizing you do not have the correct mindset is to recognize when you are complaining.  The sage does not complain about exile, poverty, illness or death.  Nor is he overjoyed (or complaining) when he has health, wealth, fame and is alive.  The word - the goal - to strive for is equanimity.

Seneca concludes:

So the wise man will develop virtue, if he may, in the midst of wealth, or, if not, in poverty; if possible, in his own country – if not, in exile; if possible, as a commander – if not, as a common soldier; if possible, in sound health – if not, enfeebled. Whatever fortune he finds, he will accomplish therefrom something noteworthy. ...  the wise man is a skilled hand at taming evils. Pain, want, disgrace, imprisonment, exile, – these are universally to be feared; but when they encounter the wise man, they are tamed.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 84 - On Gathering Ideas

On Gathering Ideas

In the aim of loving wisdom, we must expose ourselves to many ideas, make some of them our own and add to those that need enhancing.  And in that quest for wisdom, we must read and write.  Seneca correctly observes:

I have not stopped my reading in the slightest degree. And reading, I hold, is indispensable – primarily, to keep me from being satisfied with myself alone, and besides, after I have learned what others have found out by their studies, to enable me to pass judgment on their discoveries and reflect upon discoveries that remain to be made. Reading nourishes the mind and refreshes it when it is wearied with study; nevertheless, this refreshment is not obtained without study.  We ought not to confine ourselves either to writing or to reading; the one, continuous writing, will cast a gloom over our strength, and exhaust it; the other will make our strength flabby and watery. It is better to have recourse to them alternately, and to blend one with the other, so that the fruits of one's reading may be reduced to concrete form by the pen.

I've written a bit more extensively on the topics of reading and writing as methods of learning and gaining wisdom (see Applied Stoicism essay on Education).

Seneca sees natural processes, such as bees making honey, as analogous to how humans can gather various ideas from many sources (flowers / books) to produce good ideas (i.e. honey).

Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation, – whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

As a side note, I recommend this video for learning the amazing process of how bees make honey, and how they work and socialize.

Seneca applies the analogy to humans and how we ought to learn.

We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate ...  blend those several flavours into one delicious compound.

We are not merely to learn and copy, but to comprehend, assume the mindset and improve upon it where we can.

we should see to it that whatever we have absorbed should not be allowed to remain unchanged, or it will be no part of us.  We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power.

And while at times we may mimic others, we should strive to add our unique perspective on it, so as to not be identical.

Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

We add our unique perspective to the chorus of those who have added previously, and it is blended into a harmony.

how many voices there are in a chorus? Yet out of the many only one voice results.

And our mind should similarly be like the chorus - to take in many voices and blend them into one.

I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one.

He concludes with a plea to not pursue indifferents for the sake of them, but rather to use them well - to demonstrate wisdom; to demonstrate an excellent soul.  Don't focus on the low (indifferents), but focus on the high - take the view from above - as you approach indifferents.  While others will regard the indifferents as "the goal" of life, you will see that those things are a means to an end.  The end is wisdom - the wise use of indifferents - not possession of indifferents.

direct your course hither to wisdom, and seek her ways, which are ways of surpassing peace and plenty. Whatever seems conspicuous in the affairs of men – however petty it may really be and prominent only by contrast with the lowest objects – is nevertheless approached by a difficult and toilsome pathway. It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness; but if you desire to scale this peak, which lies far above the range of Fortune, you will indeed look down from above upon all that men regard as most lofty, but none the less you can proceed to the top over level ground. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 83 - On Drunkenness

On Drunkenness

The letter starts of emphasizing the importance of conducting self-retrospectives, so that we may learn from our past.

Seneca advocates transparency and constant introspection.

we should live, – as if we lived in plain sight of all men; and it is thus that we should think, – as if there were someone who could look into our inmost souls; and there is one who can so look. For what avails it that something is hidden from man? Nothing is shut off from the sight of God. He is witness of our souls, and he comes into the very midst of our thoughts – comes into them. ...

I shall keep watching myself continually, and – a most useful habit – shall review each day. For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future always depend on the past.

Then he delves into the topic of drunkenness.

I've never been drunk and I don't understand the desire for people who drink until they are drunk.  In high school, I generally avoided the crowd that smoked weed and drank.  While I was living in Guatemala, I saw plenty of drunks.  Two examples stand out - one repulsive, the other graphic and tragic.

The first was of a man who was attempting to walk home, but who was so slammed, he passed out in the middle of the dirt walking path, just before a foot bridge.  He was lucky enough to have avoided smashing his head on something hard enough to split his head open.  But, after he passed out, he wet himself and vomited.

The second was of a man who was so smashed, he could not hold onto the metal bar while standing in the back of a truck (jalon).  Therefore, he stumbled backwards, out of the back of the truck, hit the ground and cracked open his head and bled out before help could arrive.

As for Seneca, he makes a good argument, simply stating that the sage will not get drunk.

the sage ... always stops short of drunkenness.

He continues,

if you wish to prove that a good man ought not to get drunk, why work it out by logic? Show how base it is to pour down more liquor than one can carry, and not to know the capacity of one's own stomach; show how often the drunkard does things which make him blush when he is sober; state that drunkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed.

The rest of the letter are the many examples of how drunkenness usually brings out the worst vices in us. 

If you or a loved one suffers from alcohol addiction, seek help.  Here's one resource to consider.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 82 - On the Natural Fear of Death

On the Natural Fear of Death

The letter begins with a question.

"Whom then of the gods," you ask, "have you found as your voucher?"

The footnote of this letter provides a bit more context with regard to the term 'voucher'.  It states:

One who incurs liability by taking upon himself the debt of another. It is part of the process known as intercessio.

Having been raised Christian, I immediately recognized the concept of someone taking on the sins (debts) of another.  In Christian theology, the one to takes on the sins of others is Christ - some would call him god.

Seneca explains that the Stoic voucher - or god - is

A god ... who deceives no one, – a soul in love with that which is upright and good.

Men deceive, but god does not.  God has no need of deception, but men, who want to manipulate and control others, deceive.

Stoic philosophy would have us steer clear of luxury and decadence.  Seneca states as much.

Proceed as you have begun, and settle yourself in this way of living, not luxuriously, but calmly.  I prefer to be in trouble rather than in luxury; and you had better interpret the term "in trouble" as popular usage is wont to interpret it: living a "hard," "rough," "toilsome" life.

But ought we to pursue a life full of slavery, toil and dread?  Neither luxury nor drudgery are the wise course of action.  We are to prepare for toughening and when Fortune sends trials our way, we are prepared to act virtuously toward them.  But as for luxury and decadence - shun them.

If you do have free time, then study philosophy in order to more perfectly practice it.

gird yourself about with philosophy, an impregnable wall. Though it be assaulted by many engines, Fortune can find no passage into it. The soul stands on unassailable ground, if it has abandoned external things; it is independent in its own fortress; and every weapon that is hurled falls short of the mark.

He continues,

Let us then recoil from her as far as we are able. This will be possible for us only through knowledge of self and of the world of Nature.

Note above, the reference to the three disciplines: knowledge of self, as related to the discipline of assent; knowledge of the world, as related to the discipline of action; and knowledge of Nature, as related to the discipline of desire.

The ultimate preparation and toughening is the preparation for death.

strength of heart, however, will come from constant study, provided that you practise, not with the tongue but with the soul, and provided that you prepare yourself to meet death.

Learn philosophy, then practice it.  Practice it by contemplating death so as to not fear it at all.

Death falls under the category of indifferent.  And just like all other indifferents, we are to use them in order to exercise our excellence.  For we all die, but to die with excellence is 'up to us.'

I classify as "indifferent," – that is, neither good nor evil – sickness, pain, poverty, exile, death.  None of these things is intrinsically glorious; but nothing can be glorious apart from them.

Note Seneca's observation in the last sentence.  We are not to ignore and shun indifferents.  Rather, they are the medium though which we demonstrate excellence.  Indifferents hold no intrinsic value.  What is of value is our use of indifferents in order to demonstrate our excellence of character (or not).

He provides examples:

For it is not poverty that we praise, it is the man whom poverty cannot humble or bend. Nor is it exile that we praise, it is the man who withdraws into exile in the spirit in which he would have sent another into exile. It is not pain that we praise, it is the man whom pain has not coerced. One praises not death, but the man whose soul death takes away before it can confound it.

Both Cato and Brutus died.  But one exercised excellence and the other disgrace.

the death which in Cato's case is glorious, is in the case of Brutus forthwith base and disgraceful.

Seneca offers more examples of indifferents and correct (or incorrect) use of them.

thus it is with the things which we call indifferent and "middle," like riches, strength, beauty, titles, kingship, and their opposites, – death, exile, ill-health, pain, and all such evils, the fear of which upsets us to a greater or less extent; it is the wickedness or the virtue that bestows the name of good or evil.

Preparing for one's death cannot be actually practiced.  Therefore, we must use all other manner of thought experiments to prepare for death; this is the practice of memento mori - or constantly recalling that we are mortal and that we must always keep this fact in the forefront of our minds - in order to meet death with neither fear nor trepidation, so that we can rationally choose the manner and attitude in which we will die.

The soul must be hardened by long practice, so that it may learn to endure the sight and the approach of death.

We must do everything willingly, or else it will count for naught.  True virtue is choosing the wise course of action for the correct reasons.  When it comes to true philosophy, the sage is one who willingly complies with Fate and Fortune for the right reasons.  This is why noble lies are of no use.  We must face reality and Nature without a veil.  Preachers, teachers and leaders who intend to deceive in order to trick people into the right course of action, do many a disservice.

nothing glorious can result from unwillingness and cowardice; virtue does nothing under compulsion.  Besides, no deed that a man does is honourable unless he has devoted himself thereto and attended to it with all his heart. ... virtue accomplishes its plans only when the spirit is in harmony with itself.

Because so many fear death and wish to cline to life, convincing people to prepare for death is difficult.  This is hard mental work.  But if one puts in the time and effort to prepare for death and to shun it, our excellence will be equal to the heroes of Sparta - the 300.

I point out to you the Lacedaemonians in position at the very pass of Thermopylae! They have no hope of victory, no hope of returning. The place where they stand is to be their tomb. ... Leonidas: how bravely did he address his men! He said: "Fellow-soldiers, let us to our breakfast, knowing that we shall sup in Hades!" ...  It is not the Three Hundred, – it is all mankind that should be relieved of the fear of death.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 81 - On Benefits

On Benefits

This letter relates to gratitude and ingratitude, and it delves into the social ledger of giving and receiving.  As is the usual case with Seneca, he writes a lot to make a point.  I'll try to summarize the gist of each paragraph and point.

The whole topic begins when Lucilius complains about meeting an ungrateful person.  Seneca wishes to teach Lucilius that on the topic of gratitude, it is not so much about checking debits and credits in a social ledger as it is about embracing and expressing the attitude of gratitude.  Seneca quips:

caution can effect nothing but to make you ungenerous. For if you wish to avoid such a danger, you will not confer benefits; and so, that benefits may not be lost with another man, they will be lost to yourself.

Stated differently, he instructs Lucilius that if he focuses on whether someone repays him (in the form of gratitude or benefits) or not, then he may exercise greater "caution" or reservation, so as to not harm his ego.  But in so doing, Lucilius would only harm himself.  Gratitude is not about squaring a debt or incurring a credit (although many people do think this way), rather gratitude is an inward disposition - an attitude one assumes and embraces - to his own benefit.

Seneca is of the opinion it is always better to assume a gracious attitude regardless of what others' response is.  Therefore, it is better to always be gracious and to never have gratitude returned than to never be gracious in the first place.  Being gracious is good for the person, even when the other person does not reciprocate.

It is better, however, to get no return than to confer no benefits. Even after a poor crop one should sow again ...  In order to discover one grateful person, it is worth while to make trial of many ungrateful ones.

An excellent, rational human always chooses virtue regardless of others' response.  But if you live your life according to the social ledger, you may soon find yourself quite a hermit and a nobody.

If one were compelled to drop everything that caused trouble, life would soon grow dull amid sluggish idleness; but in your case this very condition may prompt you to become more charitable. For when the outcome of any undertaking is unsure, you must try again and again, in order to succeed ultimately.

Ultimate success means the individual Stoic acts as a potential catalyst of igniting the fire of love throughout the Cosmos.  While this may largely be unsuccessful in an individual's lifetime, the good thing to do is to try, try again!

Seneca then asks an interesting ethical question.

"Whether he who has helped us has squared the account and has freed us from our debt, if he has done us harm later."

Restated differently, the question asks if another person who has previously helped us, but then later does us harm - are we obligated to return the good favor they previously bestowed, since they have now harmed us?

Seneca analyzes the situation, but in the end, simply notes that the good man will give maximum benefit of the doubt to the person who has helped and then injured.

The good man so arranges the two sides of his ledger that he voluntarily cheats himself by adding to the benefit and subtracting from the injury.

Again, to restate his point: if someone has helped us and we, in a sense, 'owe them' for the favor, and this same someone later injures us, if we are good, then we will be grateful for the benefit that someone has given us and we will minimize the harm of that injury.  In modern vernacular, we give them the most benefit of the doubt - we try to be generous of our opinion of them when they helped us, and we discount the injury as much as possible when they harm us.

Seneca continues,

"But surely," you say, "it is the part of justice to render to each that which is his due, – thanks in return for a benefit, and retribution, or at any rate ill-will, in return for an injury!" This, I say, will be true when it is one man who has inflicted the injury, and a different man who has conferred the benefit; for if it is the same man, the force of the injury is nullified by the benefit conferred.

In his opinion, if it is the same person who both helps and then injures, then we should give the best benefit of the doubt.  But if the injury is by one person and the help is by a different, then perhaps a tit-for-tat strategy is more justified.  Although, for my own part, I think we ought to give others the benefit of the doubt even if they have only injured us and have not helped us.  I would implement a tit-for-tat if I were repeatedly injured by the same person over a long period of time.

He continues,

The wise man will inquire in his own mind into all the circumstances: how much he has received, from whom, when, where, how. And so we declare that none but the wise man knows how to make return for a favour; moreover, none but the wise man knows how to confer a benefit, – that man, I mean, who enjoys the giving more than the recipient enjoys the receiving. ... In this balancing of benefits and injuries, the good man will, to be sure, judge with the highest degree of fairness, but he will incline towards the side of the benefit; he will turn more readily in this direction. ...  the good man will be easy-going in striking a balance; he will allow too much to be set against his credit. He will be unwilling to pay a benefit by balancing the injury against it. The side towards which he will lean, the tendency which he will exhibit, is the desire to be under obligations for the favour, and the desire to make return therefor. 

Again - the principal is revealed: give the benefit of doubt; assume the best of intentions in others.

If we are wise, we will assume an attitude of gratitude in all circumstances.

We should try by all means to be as grateful as possible.  For gratitude is a good thing for ourselves, in a sense in which justice, that is commonly supposed to concern other persons, is not; gratitude returns in large measure unto itself. There is not a man who, when he has benefited his neighbour, has not benefited himself ...  I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act; I feel grateful, not because it profits me, but because it pleases me. ... your being grateful is more conducive to your own good than to your neighbour's good ... you have had a great experience which is the outcome of an utterly happy condition of soul, – to have felt gratitude.

The opposite is also true.  An ungrateful person only harms himself.

The ungrateful man tortures and torments himself; he hates the gifts which he has accepted, because he must make a return for them, and he tries to belittle their value, but he really enlarges and exaggerates the injuries which he has received. And what is more wretched than a man who forgets his benefits and clings to his injuries?

Returning to more fully describing what 'giving the benefit if the doubt' means:

He despises the wrongs done him; he forgets them, not accidentally, but voluntarily.  He does not put a wrong construction upon everything, or seek for someone whom he may hold responsible for each happening; he rather ascribes even the sins of men to chance. He will not misinterpret a word or a look; he makes light of all mishaps by interpreting them in a generous way.  He does not remember an injury rather than a service. As far as possible, he lets his memory rest upon the earlier and the better deed ... the spirit of kindliness always tries to bend every doubtful case toward the better interpretation

In sum, the grateful person does not walk around with a chip on his shoulder, daring any and all to knock it off!

Where does gratitude find its root?  How does one gain, instill and embrace gratitude?

no man can be grateful unless he has learned to scorn the things which drive the common herd to distraction; if you wish to make return for a favour, you must be willing to go into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or – and this will frequently happen, – even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders. It is no slight price that a man must pay for being grateful.

This passage hearkens to the spiritual exercise of negative visualization or premeditatio malorum.  To feel gratitude, subtract things from your life.  Ponder your own exile, your own ill health, your own poverty and even your potential ill-repute.  Practice thinking about experiencing these things and how they are nothing to be feared - how they are not up to you.  And when you return to the present, you will note how much you have and you will feel gratitude.  As you think of these things, your greed will diminish.

Do you ask what it is that makes us forget benefits received? It is our extreme greed for receiving others. We consider not what we have obtained, but what we are to seek.

We give in to hedonic adaptation.  And when we become used to all these things, we take them for granted and when they are taken away, we feel offended.  We ought to reflect that we have been infected with the 'common herd's' desires.  Therefore, we ought to despise what the majority pursues.

those things possess no grandeur wherewith to enthrall our minds, except the fact that we have become accustomed to marvel at them. For they are not praised because they ought to be desired, but they are desired because they have been praised; and when the error of individuals has once created error on the part of the public, then the public error goes on creating error on the part of individuals.

He concludes with the point, that regardless of the many opinions in the world, gratitude is common among all people.

Amid all this diversity of opinion all men will yet with one voice, as the saying is, vote "aye" to the proposition that thanks should be returned to those who have deserved well of us.