Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 99 - On Consolation to the Bereaved

On Consolation to the Bereaved

Seneca often writes letters and essays on consolation.  Letter 99 is one of many.  I won't spend a whole lot of time commentating on this letter, but will note the big ideas and then share a few quotes from the letter itself.

Grief should be moderated and wise.  Too much and grieving for the wrong reasons is not wise.

The griever ought to be reminded of taking a broader perspective and if they do, they may be consoled.

Stoics are not emotionless; emotion is acceptable.

Cherish the memory of those lost.

Quotes from the letter, which I found useful:

When a man is stricken and is finding it most difficult to endure a grievous wound, one must humour him for a while; let him satisfy his grief or at any rate work off the first shock; but those who have assumed an indulgence in grief should be rebuked forthwith, and should learn that there are certain follies even in tears.


many men fail to count up how manifold their gains have been, how great their rejoicings. Grief like yours has this among other evils: it is not only useless, but thankless.


a great part of those we have loved, though chance has removed their persons, still abides with us.


People set a narrow limit to their enjoyments if they take pleasure only in the present.


it is idle to grieve if you get no help from grief. In the second place, it is unfair to complain about what has happened to one man but is in store for all. Again, it is foolish to lament one's loss, when there is such a slight interval between the lost and the loser. Hence we should be more resigned in spirit, because we follow closely those whom we have lost.


mark this throng of humanity, all straining toward the same point with briefest intervals between them – even when they seem longest; he whom you count as passed away has simply posted on ahead.  And what is more irrational than to bewail your predecessor


Whoever complains about the death of anyone, is complaining that he was a man. ... he who is privileged to be born, is destined to die.


Yours is not pain; it is a mere sting – and it is you yourself who are turning it into pain.


am I advising you to be hard-hearted, desiring you to keep your countenance unmoved at the very funeral ceremony, and not allowing your soul even to feel the pinch of pain? By no means. 


Tears fall, no matter how we try to check them, and by being shed they ease the soul.  What, then, shall we do? Let us allow them to fall, but let us not command them do so; let us weep according as emotion floods our eyes, but not as much as mere imitation shall demand.


People see a man who bears his grief bravely: they call him undutiful and savage-hearted; they see a man who collapses and clings to his dead: they call him womanish and weak.  Everything, therefore, should be referred to reason.


speak often concerning the departed, and cherish his memory to the extent of your power. 


Indeed, to forget the beloved dead, to bury their memory along with their bodies, to bewail them bounteously and afterwards think of them but scantily – this is the mark of a soul below that of man.


This quality does not befit a man of sense; he should continue to remember, but should cease to mourn.


That which we Stoics advise, is honourable; when emotion has prompted a moderate flow of tears, and has, so to speak, ceased to effervesce, the soul should not be surrendered to grief.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 98 - On the Fickleness of Fortune

On the Fickleness of Fortune

For a Stoic, the summum bonum is a flourishing life or eudaimonia.  "eu" means 'good' or 'well' and "daimon" is 'soul' or 'spirit' (see this link).  According to Stoic physics, each human has a bit of divinity within him and for the human to fully flourish, he must live in accordance with God or Nature.

Pierre Hadot cites Chrysippus in The Inner Citadel,

The definition of the happy life, according to Chrysippus, is that in which everything is done "in accordance with the harmony between the daimon within each one of us and the will of the governor of the universe" (p. 123).

The translation of this can also be found at The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laërtius - see Book VII, Zeno), in which it reads,

Again, this very thing is the virtue of the happy man and the perfect happiness of life when everything is done according to a harmony with the genius of each individual with reference to the will of the universal governor and manager of all things.

This is the basis for the Stoic phrase, 'live according to Nature' or 'live in agreement with Nature.'

Furthermore, the Stoic philosophy maintains that achieving eudaimonia is something which is 'up to us.'  We are not dependent on externals in order to achieve this.  Hence Seneca writes in this letter,

joy which springs wholly from oneself is leal and sound; it increases and attends us to the last; while all other things which provoke the admiration of the crowd are but temporary Goods.

This well-spring of joy or eudaimonia can be found regardless of goods or ills (externals) in our life.  In fact, the externals or indifferents are the material for our use, in order to demonstrate arete which demonstration leads to eudaimonia.

For men make a mistake, my dear Lucilius, if they hold that anything good, or evil either, is bestowed upon us by Fortune; it is simply the raw material of Goods and Ills that she gives to us – the sources of things which, in our keeping, will develop into good or ill. For the soul is more powerful than any sort of Fortune; by its own agency it guides its affairs in either direction, and of its own power it can produce a happy life, or a wretched one (emphasis added).

At a fairly recent local Stoic meetup, we were talking about how Marcus Aurelius viewed wealth.  I forget which passage it was, but the idea conveyed by Marcus was that riches and wealth are indifferents.  One of the attendees wondered if what Marcus was writing about wealth was simply propaganda - basically telling people wealth didn't matter (so why should you pursue it).  I replied that, first, it could not really be propaganda because Meditations was meant for himself and not for others' consumption; and second, that the Stoic view of wealth is simply that of material for good use.  The goal is not to pursue wealth, but the goal is to demonstrate wisdom - wise use - of wealth.  The same can be said of poverty.  Seneca confirms this view when he notes that wealth or poverty are simply 'raw material' for a person to use in order to demonstrate what is uniquely 'up to them.'

Seneca further elaborates,

upright and honest man corrects the wrongs of Fortune, and softens hardship and bitterness because he knows how to endure them; he likewise accepts prosperity with appreciation and moderation, and stands up against trouble with steadiness and courage.

One of the Stoic exercises, which both help him prepare for and endure fortunate and unfortunate events is premeditatio malorum.  I've often wondered if the 'malorum' should be dropped from this phrase.  A Stoic who is comprehensive in his premeditation practice would consider all types of events - ones preferred and dispreferred.  Seneca writes of this practice,

If you are thus poised, nothing will affect you and a man will be thus poised if he reflects on the possible ups and downs in human affairs before he feels their force. ... Be sure to foresee whatever can be foreseen by planning. Observe and avoid, long before it happens, anything that is likely to do you harm. To effect this your best assistance will be a spirit of confidence and a mind strongly resolved to endure all things.

And perhaps most of all, the premeditation we should always consider is the loss of life.

men are so wayward, and so forgetful of their goal and of the point toward which every day jostles them, that they are surprised at losing anything, although some day they are bound to lose everything. ...  We must lose our lives as surely as we lose our property, and this, if we understand the truth, is itself a consolation. Lose it with equanimity; for you must lose your life also.

Other scenarios we ought to reflect on are fire, crucifixion, poison and exile.

The last part of the letter has an interesting tid-bit.  We know that Stoics don't shy away from suicide.  If one's death or suicide is a noble act, then he ought to carry it out.  But when should one carry on living versus dying?

In continuing to live, he deals generously. Some other person might have put an end to these sufferings; but our friend considers it no less base to flee from death than to flee towards death ... if he can no longer be of service to anyone [then he should consider dying].

The man suffering from pain must make the wise choice.

he trust himself in the face of both; he does not suffer with resignation because he hopes for death, nor does he die gladly because he is tired of suffering. Pain he endures, death he awaits.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Interpretation, Objectivity, and Mistakes by Pierre Hadot

This is part 4 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

He describes, simply, the structure behind Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

The disciplines of desire, action and assent (judgement) "consist, respectively, in making one's desires, actions, and judgements conform to reason. ... For Marcus Aurelius, the point is to reactualize and awaken for his own sake the dogmas that must guide life.  The manuscripts entitle Marcus Aurelius' book 'For himself,' and this corresponds perfectly to the author's intention" (p. 63).

Regarding the collision of ideas and philosophy, he says, "One might wonder whether the archaic authors or the founders of the schools were also conditioned by a tradition of preexisting literary genres.  I believe so.  There is never an absolute beginning of history.  Oriental models influenced the first Greek thinkers.  Gerard Naddaf has shown the importance of triadic structure in the writings of the pre-Socratics - genesis of the gods, genesis of humans, and genesis of the city - inherited from Babylonian cosmogonic myths, the literary genre in which the biblical Genesis is situated ... I believe it was Bergson who said that every philosopher thinks in reaction to another thinker" (p. 64).

"Latin Fathers and the Greek Fathers sometimes wanted to illustrate their sermons with beautiful thoughts borrowed from pagans.  Thus they cited Plotinus, but without saying so and often for one single sentence" (p. 65).

Regarding being objective, he said, "Thus, the scholars who have the rare courage to admit they they were mistaken in a particular case, or who try not to let themselves be influenced by their own prejudices, are carrying out a spiritual exercise of detachment from the self.  Let us say that objectivity is a virtue, and one that is very difficult to practice.  One must rid of the partiality of the individual and impassioned self, in order to elevate oneself to the universality of the rational self" (p. 66-67).

Late he says, "there is no point in distorting the meaning of a text to try to adapt it to the demands of modern life, or to the aspirations of the soul, and so on.  The first duty is above all the goal of objectivity" (p. 67).

I liked this particular quote he cites from Nietzsche who notes the "good sentence, too hard for the tooth of time, imperishable in the midst of everything that changes."  I think this would describe a good hypomnemata.

I won't quote anything on this thought, but will note on page 70, he gives an example of living with perfect indifference as appearing in China, by Pyrro and by the Stoics.  The idea of consenting to Destiny can be found in the Stoics, in ancient China and in Hindu thought.  The point is: these practices are universal.

At the end of the chapter, he notes the need to know history if one is to practice and understand philosophy.  "It seems to me that the primary quality of a historian of philosophy, and no doubt of a philosopher, is to have a sense for history" (p. 74).

Friday, August 27, 2021

Philosophy 101 - Week 4 - Metaphysics and Epistemology

Do you believe Locke's primary and secondary qualities adequately explain all of reality?

Locke explains primary qualities as the substance of the thing which "solidity, extension, figure, or mobility" could not be taken from it if it were divided.  The thing, thus retains a quality that can be perceived (Locke).

Secondary qualities due to their substance "produce various sensations in us" such as the ideas of color, taste, sounds and the like (Locke).

"Thus, for example, the primary qualities of this rose include all of its quantifiable features, its mass and momentum, its chemical composition and microscopic structure; these are the features of the thing itself. The secondary qualities of the rose, on the other hand, include the ideas it produces in me, its yellow color, its delicate fragrance; these are the merely the effects of the primary qualities of its corpuscles on my eyes and nose" (Kemerling).

While a useful framework for explaining most of our reality, I do not think it is adequate to explain all of reality.  While Steve might see a red rose on a green leafed plant, Michel, who is color-blind might see the entire plant as one single shade of color.  The two might argue over the primary qualities of the rose (which is the same), but not comprehend the secondary qualities are different due to their lack of knowledge of color-blindness.  The broader reality is that primary qualities may be stable, but secondary qualities may present differently to different people.


Locke, John. “An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, Volume 2 MDCXC, Based on the 2nd Edition, Books 3 and 4.” https://Www.gutenberg.org/Files/10616/10616.Txt, 4 Jan. 2004, www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10616/pg10616.html.

Kemerling G. Locke: Ideas. Philosophypages.com. Published 2011. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/4l.htm

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 97 - On the Degeneracy of the Age

On the Degeneracy of the Age

There are moral vices in any and every era.  Seneca begins the letter with this observation:

You are mistaken, my dear Lucilius, if you think that luxury, neglect of good manners, and other vices of which each man accuses the age in which he lives, are especially characteristic of our own epoch; no, they are the vices of mankind and not of the times.

After describing the various vices through the ages, especially in the era of Cato, Seneca argues that while some may get away with crimes and sins, they will not escape a guilty conscious.  While, generally, I agree with this, we have to recognize legitimate sociopaths.

This bad behavior may subside through fear of punishment, but people will most likely not cease to commit these errors on their own accord.

Such things will be done in the future, as they have been done in the past; and the licentiousness of cities will sometimes abate through discipline and fear, never of itself.

Perhaps on-going education and reminders to people will help, but unless we have some sort of moral framework, people will slip back into pleasure and vice.

We degenerate easily, because we lack neither guides nor associates in our wickedness, and the wickedness goes on of itself, even without guides or associates. The road to vice is not only downhill, but steep; and many men are rendered incorrigible by the fact that, while in all other crafts errors bring shame to good craftsmen and cause vexation to those who go astray, the errors of life are a positive source of pleasure.

He goes on to argue that a good reason to not commit vice is simply for the fact of being able to release yourself of the anxiety of repercussions - the fear of getting caught.  He agrees with Epicurus, who said,

"The reason that it is no advantage to wrong-doers to remain hidden is that even though they have the good fortune they have not the assurance of remaining so."

While this is perhaps not the best reason (if one is trying to 'make progress') to not commit vice, it is a good reason to give to others who are not lovers of wisdom.

For someone who wishes to avoid troubles, fear and anxiety, it's simply best to be good and remain good.  In this way, you easily avoid the feelings of guilt, anxiety and fear stemming from wrong acts.

bad deeds are lashed by the whip of conscience, and that conscience is tortured to the greatest degree because unending anxiety drives and whips it on, and it cannot rely upon the guarantors of its own peace of mind. ... men who hide their sins can never count upon remaining hidden; for their conscience convicts them and reveals them to themselves.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Philosophical Discourse by Pierre Hadot

This is part 3 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

In this chapter, Hadot continues to explain one of his big purposes: to understand historical, philosophical texts in their proper context.  He notes that over time, philosophical writings such as letters, consolations, and hypomnematas to oneself, gradually disappeared and were replaced by "systematic treatises."  The key loss in this change, is philosophy as a mode of life.

He says, "You ask if there has not been a loss from this point of view.  We will return to this question later, but there is the partial but very real loss of the conception of philosophy as a mode of life, as a choice of life, as therapy as well.  We have lost the personal and communal aspect of philosophy.  Moreover, philosophy has progressively entrenched itself in this purely formal path, in the search for novelty in itself at all costs.  The philosopher must be as original as possible, if not by creating a new system, at least by producing a discourse that tries to be highly complicated in order to be original.  The more or less skillful construction of a conceptual edifice has become an end in itself.  Philosophy thus has progressively distanced itself from the concrete life of humans" (p. 56).

It was "Thomas Gataker and Meric Casaubon [who] both saw right away the real literary genre of the works of Marcus Aurelius; they used the Greek work hupomnemata, which designates notes one takes for oneself.  Furthermore, they saw that they were exhortations that Marcus Aurelius made to himself" (p. 57).

This works has lead to the "recovery of the idea that Marcus Aurelius was attempting to awaken in himself the Stoic dogmas that were to govern his life, but that had lost some of their persuasive force; thus it was necessary to attempt to constantly to persuade himself anew.  His goal was to have the Stoic dogmas at hand in an efficient manner - in particular, the three fundamental precepts of Epictetus: never let anything into the mind that is not objective, always take the good of the human community as the end of one's actions, and make one's desires confirm to the rational order of the universe" (p. 57).

Also, these hypomnematas need to be "short and [produce a] striking formula that gives them life again" (p. 58).

Later he states, "the philosophical works of Antiquity were not written to set forth a system, but in order to produce a formative effect" (p. 59).

These are written to "change [one's] mentality and transform his way of seeing things" (p. 59).

Monday, August 23, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Researcher, Teacher, and Philosopher by Pierre Hadot

This is part 2 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

In this chapter, Hadot explains a bit of his journey from his early spiritual experiences toward becoming a researched, teacher and philosopher.

He mentions how he was "attracted to Plotinus' mysticism" which lead him to "a better understanding of the importance of reflection on the notion of nature" (p. 33).

It seems the next stepping stone was in meeting his future wife (ilsetraut Marten), who was "writing a doctorate ... on the theme of 'Seneca and the tradition of spiritual direction in Antiquity'" which he noted "was very close to my own interests, which had been oriented for some time toward the definition of philosophy as a spiritual exercise and way of life" (p. 34).

This was the genesis of the idea of actually living philosophy rather than learning of it as an academic interest.  He said, "I tried to ask myself the questions, What is a philosopher?  Of what do philosophical schools consist?  This is how I was led to conceive of philosophy not as pure theory, but as a way of life" (p. 35).

He read a "book entitled [Guidance of the soul] by Paul Rabbow, which set forth the different possible forms of these practices among the Epicureans and the Stoics, and which also had the merit of marking the continuity that exists between ancient spirituality and Christian spirituality" (p. 36).

He later continues, "Yet Christian spiritual exercises appeared in Christianity only and precisely because of its will, beginning in the second century, to present itself as a philosophy on the model of Greek philosophy, that is, as a mode of life comprising spiritual exercises borrowed from Greek philosophy" (p. 36-37).

Then he observes the positive influence philosophy had on religion.  "From its origins, philosophy developed as a critique of religion: a destructive critique - for example, that of Xenophanes, who said that men made gods in their own image - or a purifying critique - such as that of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and finally the Neoplatonists.  It was a purifying critique in the sense that philosophy finally tends to transform religion into philosophy, either by developing a theology, albeit a purely rational theology, or by using allegory to think about the different divinities in a philosophical way, as did the Stoics, for whom Zeus was fire, Hera air, and so on" (p. 37-38).

The next quote I'll share, should have a bit of the question that was posed to him, included.  In the question, Carlier asks if most religions are simply supplicating gods and includes this tid-bit in the question: "The God of the Bible and the Greek gods let themselves be swayed.  The god of the philosophers does nothing of the kind."  To which Hadot replies, "Yes.  One of the aspects of the philosophers' critical purification indeed consists in denouncing the vanity of prayers of request, and in underscoring their absurdity, because the most contradictory invocations are raised towards the gods, as men ask at the same time for rain and for good weather, for their victory and the defeat of the adversary" (p. 39).  Ancient Greek philosopher would pray to the gods without such requests and this was included an a form of spiritual exercise (e.g. the Hymn to Zeus).

Furthermore, the Stoics would have viewed it as one of their duties to accept the will of the gods, rather than attempting to sway them.

"During the Middle Ages, everything changes, because philosophy is no longer anything by religion's servant" (p. 40).

During Hadot's career, he was nominated and elected to an honor.  He ends up philosophizing about 'elections.'  "An election is very often a matter of luck, of the fortuitous meeting between different interests and different politics ... The fact of having been elected to an institution, however prestigious it may be, in no way proves that the person elected is himself prestigious.  One often speaks of elitist systems, of elitocracies, or of meritocracies" (p. 43).

Later is reflects on exams.  "(a young man's success in a competitive exam, [Balzac said], gives no certainty about the value of the grown man he will become."  He then quotes Father Festugiere, who said, "It is saddening that French students are completely devoid of curiosity.  One sinks into the emptiest routines and watches the essence of the humanities, which is to train minds, disappear" (p. 44).

We are lucky enough to have him asked which books and authors he has read and reread throughout his life.

  • Montaigne
  • Rilke
  • Heidegger
  • Albert Beguin
  • G.W.F Schelling
  • George Lichtenberg
  • Goethe
  • Nietzsche
  • David Lodge
See pages 49-51 for books he notes with the above authors.

Letters from a Stoic 96 - On Facing Hardships

On Facing Hardships

Complain - To express feelings of pain, dissatisfaction, or resentment.

Have you ever deeply analyzed why you complain (assuming you do)?  Have you ever, just once, asked yourself why you complain?

For each of us, I would contend our soul presumed to exist, rather than not exist.  Once we came into existence, this fundamental question must be asked and answered fairly often: do I continue to exist or not?

Assuming the answer is to continue to exist, the next question becomes: should I exist well or not?  This is what philosophy attempts to answer - how to love and live wisely.

We may have set expectations, but those expectations should be challenged and interrogated.

Complaining is an indication that our expectations and reality may be misaligned.  It then becomes an exercise of determining if they can be aligned and how to go about doing so.  All of us need to wrestle with this.

From a Stoic perspective, complaining usually means we are not living in agreement with Nature.  Perhaps our desires and aversions have become too much.  In this vein, Seneca wishes to provide some toughening to Lucilius.

Seneca tries to get at the root of Lucilius' discontent.  The only real evil he is exhibiting is his complaining.

in all the evils to which you refer, there is really only one – the fact that you do chafe and complain ...  I think that for a man there is no misery unless there be something in the universe which he thinks miserable.

Seneca tries to live by the idea of "live in agreement with Nature."

when everything seems to go hard and uphill, I have trained myself not merely to obey God, but to agree with His decisions. I follow Him because my soul wills it, and not because I must.

In this, we can see the sentiment which was first expressed by Zeno in the analogy of a dog being pulled by a cart.

They too [Zeno and Chrysippus] affirmed that everything is fated, with  the following model. When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity, but if it does not want to follow it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they do not want to, they will be compelled in any case to follow what is destined (LS 62A).

The thing 'up to us' is our attitude.  Fate or Nature will drag us along regardless.  But what is 'up to us' is our choice and perspective of the reality of the situation.  Complaining may help drive out, to some extent, whether you can influence some circumstance or not, but to be perpetually complaining would be tantamount to acting like a dog being dragged unwillingly along with the cart.

If you choose to exist, there will be things which you must admit in your life.  With existence, comes poor health.  Seneca calls this a tax.  You could either complain about the tax and still have to pay or, or you can simply pay it and get on with life.  He writes,

It was disease of the bladder that made you apprehensive; downcast letters came from you; you were continually getting worse; I will touch the truth more closely, and say that you feared for your life. But come, did you not know, when you prayed for long life, that this was what you were praying for?

We are not genies in a bottle and get everything we wish for in life.  That would be denying reality as it is.

"I wished to live, and at the same time to be immune from all ills."

Life is a battle.  We are to be tried and tested - to use what is 'up to us' and to demonstrate that unique gift which we have: agency to determine our attitude and excellence of soul (or not).


Long, A. A., & Sedley, D. N. (January 01, 1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Philosophy 101 - Week 3 - Metaphysics and Epistemology, Part 1: What Is Real and How Do We Know?

In Meditation II, Descartes states, "I am; I exist - this is certain." Explain why Descartes claims that his knowledge here about this cannot be doubted?

Descartes, in a very organized fashion, and with the help of a thought experiment in the form of a demon who is actively deceiving him about everything, he decides to reject everything as completely false.  He writes:

"I will suppose, then, that everything I see is fictitious. I will believe that my memory tells me nothing but lies. I have no senses. Body, shape, extension, movement and place are illusions. So what remains true? Perhaps just the one fact that nothing is certain!"

He notes how our senses can deceive us.

"Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once."

He observes how people make reasoning mistakes even when they think they have all the information.

"I sometimes think that others go wrong even when they think they have the most perfect knowledge."

He even notices that a very real dream is indistinguishable from real life!

"Often in my dreams I am convinced of just such familiar events – that I am sitting by the fire in my dressing-gown – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed!"

Despite all the examples he could conceive of being deceived, there was one thing in which he could not disprove, nor could the theoretical deceiving demon cause him to be deceived: the fact that he is thinking - that he exists.  If he can think the thought "I am, I exist" then he must actually exist; even if he exists in order to be deceived.  Said differently, if he doubts he exists, then his very thought that he is doubting his own existence proves that he exists!  On this one fact, he can place his complete certainty.

He writes,

"Thinking? At last I have discovered it – thought! This is the one thing that can’t be separated from me. I am, I exist – that is certain."

He later writes,

"even if I am in a perpetual dream, and even if my creator is doing his best to deceive me? These activities are all aspects of my thinking, and are all inseparable from myself. The fact that it is I who doubt and understand and want is so obvious that I can’t see how to make it any clearer."

In sum, if an entity conceives of the thought, "I exist" then the statement is true and beyond doubt.  Even if the entity were to doubt it existed, then it could still be certain it exists because it is an entity actually doing the doubting and, subsequently, exists!

Having established that an entity exists, it becomes free to begin a deep and complex inquiry into why it exists - what its purpose is.  And that will become the topic for another day.


Descartes, R. (1639). Meditations on First Philosophy. (A. Blunden, Trans., J. Cottingham, Ed.). Cambridge University Press.  https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/descartes/1639/meditations.htm

Friday, August 20, 2021

Notes and What I learned from "The Present Alone is Our Happiness" - Tied to the Apron Strings of the Church by Pierre Hadot

This is part 1 of a 12 post series reviewing the book "The Present Alone is Our Happiness"

Early in the chapter, Hadot is asked if he was a pious child.  He gives an extraordinary account of an experience he had in his adolescence.  And then explains he felt the same feelings multiple times again later in life.

Indeed, I have long had the impression of having been in the world only from the time I became an adolescent.  I will always regret having thrown away - out of Christian humility - my first handwritten notes that were an echo of the birth of my personality, for it is very difficult for me now to rediscover the psychological content of the overwhelming discoveries I made then.  I do remember their context.  One happened on rue Ruinart, on the route I took home to my parents' house every day from the Petit Seminaire.  Night had fallen.  The starts were shining in an immense sky; one could still see them at the time.  Another took place in a room of our house.  In both cases I was filled with an anxiety that was both terrifying and delicious, provoked by the sentiment of the presence of the world, or of the Whole, and of me in that world.  In fact, I was incapable of formulating my experience, but after the fact I felt that it might correspond to questions such as What am I?  Why am I here?  What is this world I am in?  I experienced a sentiment of strangeness, of astonishment, and of wonder at being there.  At the same time I had the sentiment of being immersed in the world, of being a part of it, the world extending from the smallest blade of grass to the stars.  This world was present to me, intensely present.  Much later I would discover that this awareness of my immersion in the world, this impression of belonging to the Whole, was what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic feeling."  I think I have been a philosopher since that time, if by philosophy one understands this awareness of existence, of being-in-the-world.  At the time I did not know how to formulate what I felt, but I felt the need to write, and I remember very clearly that the first text I wrote was a sort of monologue in which Adam discovers his body and the world around him.  From that moment on, I had the feeling of being apart from others, for I could not imagine that my friends, or even my parents or my brothers, could imagine those kinds of things.  It was only much later I realized that many people have analogous experiences, but do not talk about them.

I began to perceive the world in a new way.  The sky, the clouds, the starts, the "evenings of the world," as I would say to myself, fascinated me.  With my back to the window ledge, I looked toward the sky at night with impression of plunging into the starry immensity.  This experience has dominated my entire life.  I experienced it many times again - several times, for example, in front of Lago Maggiore at Ascona; or at the sight of the chain of the Alps from the shore of Lake Geneva at Lausanne, or from Salvan, in the Valais.  In the first place, this experience was for me the discovery of something overwhelming and fascinating that had absolutely no connection to the Christian faith.  It therefore played an important role in my inner development.  Moreover, it considerably influenced my conceptions of philosophy.  I have always conceived of philosophy as a transformation of one's perception of the world.

Hadot then goes on to note, based on Bergson and Heidegger, that there are two levels of the self.  The one that remains at the level of the "they" and "the one that rises to the level of what [Heidegger] calls the 'authentic.'"  He then notes that what is most essential cannot be expressed (pgs. 5-7).

Returning to the "oceanic feeling," he clarifies that to experience it is like "being a wave on a limitless ocean, of being part of a mysterious and infinite reality."  A bit later, he write, "What is crucial is the impression of immersion, of dilation of the self into Another to which the self is not foreign, because it is a part thereof" (p. 8).  I've seen him quote Seneca in this context many times and he does so again in this book  Seneca writes, "toti se inserens mundo" which Hadot translates as "plunging into the totality of the world."  The translation from which I read Seneca's Letters translates it like this: "the soul that penetrates the whole world" (Letters 66.6).  I think I prefer Hadot's translation.

Thus, we can see from very early on, Hadot was influenced by these profound, spiritual experiences, which he later identifies as he studies ancient philosophy.

His accounts of the "oceanic feeling" left me pondering the times I have felt something vaguely similar.  For me, it has been sunshine.  The times I recall from my early childhood have involved spending time in our vegetable garden at our home, picking peas from pea-pods while gazing at the rays of of the 10am sunlight streaming through the white birch trees.  Or when I sat next to my mother in church, and looking to the glass windows of the church building and seeing the rays of light touch the hairs of peoples' heads and the church carpet or the wooden floor of the basketball gym.  In those moments, time seemed to stop and I felt a shiver of connectedness of everything around me and extending, as if through those sun beams, up to the sun itself and beyond to the wider universe.  I felt small and at the same time, unified with the Whole.

On another occasion, while vacationing in the mountains of Colorado in the summer of 2019, our family went outside on a cold night and gazed up.  This time, the feeling was more similar to standing on a tall building and looking down; as if I was going to fall endlessly.  The feeling was so real and breathtaking, that I could not tolerate looking into the vast sky for more than a few minutes.  It was quite similar to what Hadot write about when he references Lucretius who "speaks of the shiver and the divine pleasure that seized him when thinking about infinite spaces" (p. 9).

In all his experiences, the common thread was approaching the idea of "direct contact with God" (p. 11).  But he has since pivoted from the idea when he asked himself the question, "If one considers God to be the Absolute, how can there be contact, and especially identification, between what is relative and what is absolute?" (p. 11).

Another "theological formation" for Hadot, which has lead him to his excellent work has been the fact that "one must take into account the collective mentalities that had influenced the authors of the sacred books.  For me, this was a first stage in my training for the labor of interpretation of texts, to which I have devoted a large part of my life" (p. 12).  Indeed, as I've read a few of his books, he stays true to hi theme of understanding the full historical context of the authors.  For example, Marcus Aurelius was simply not a dour, pessimistic Roman Emperor, but rather, his hypomnemata were a practice, based on a structured thought process stemming from the teachings of Epictetus.

The rest of the chapter did not evoke any strong thoughts in me.  Much of it, from page 12 to 29 was simply him talking about various aspects of his schooling and some of the authors and lecturers he rubbed shoulders with through those early years of his studies.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 95 - On the Usefulness of Basic Principles

On the Usefulness of Basic Principles

Letter 95 is a continuation of letter 94.  In letter 95, he will answer the QUESTION:

Are precepts and advice enough to produce a good man (i.e. dogmas are not essential)?  Or is it the other way around (i.e. precepts and advice are not essential) and dogmas are enough to produce a good man?

Seneca writes at the beginning of letter 95:

inform you by letter whether this department of philosophy which the Greeks call paraenetic, and we Romans call the "preceptorial," is enough to give us perfect wisdom.

In the intro to the letter, he cheekily tells Lucilius, 'be careful what you ask for!'

Seneca, throughout this letter, will make the claim that all the above is needed: doctrines, principals, precepts and advice are all needed; to work together to create the good man.

Below are claims he states and his rebuttals or support for the claims.

minor CLAIM: "The happy life consists in upright conduct; precepts guide one to upright conduct; therefore precepts are sufficient for attaining the happy life."

Seneca argues precepts are not enough.  Sometimes the precept does not lead to right conduct.  Sometimes the person's will is not receptive at all to the precepts.  And then, even if the person agrees with the precept and takes action, but does not do so with knowledge as to why they are taking action, you cannot call this person 'good' in the Stoic / philosophical sense.  Training (answering the why) is needed to have correct knowledge and right conduct are what produce arete or virtue.

minor CLAIM: "if the other arts are content with precepts, wisdom will also be content therewith; for wisdom itself is an art of living. And yet the pilot is made by precepts which tell him thus and so to turn the tiller, set his sails, make use of a fair wind, tack, make the best of shifting and variable breezes – all in the proper manner. Other craftsmen also are drilled by precepts; hence precepts will be able to accomplish the same result in the case of our craftsman in the art of living."

In this claim, the idea is trying to compare other arts such as boating or sailing to the art of life.  In which case, if the sharing of precepts may be sufficient.  But the analogy falls apart, in that hope, fear and greed can influence the application of those arts.  But the art of life will inform you how to rise above even these.

He further notes that it is

more pardonable to err voluntarily rather than by accident; but in the case of wisdom the worst fault is to commit sin wilfully.

I comprehend why, in the case of wisdom, that the worst fault is to commit 'sin' willfully, but I'm not sure how a voluntary error in, say, sailing, be more pardonable than an accidental one.  I would think the accidental one would be more pardonable - not sure I understand this part from Seneca.

The art of living - philosophy - seeks answers to deep questions, whereas the other 'arts' are much more tactical.

In sum, Seneca contends we need theory, precepts and actions - to be able to carry out right actions for right rational reasons.

Because no man can duly perform right actions except one who has been entrusted with reason, which will enable him, in all cases, to fulfil all the categories of duty. These categories he cannot observe unless he receives precepts for every occasion, and not for the present alone. Precepts by themselves are weak and, so to speak, rootless if they be assigned to the parts and not to the whole. It is the doctrines which will strengthen and support us in peace and calm, which will include simultaneously the whole of life and the universe in its completeness.

minor CLAIM: "The old-style wisdom advised only what one should do and avoid; and yet the men of former days were better men by far. When savants have appeared, sages have become rare. For that frank, simple virtue has changed into hidden and crafty knowledge; we are taught how to debate, not how to live."

In response to this claim, Seneca goes off on a bit of a rant about food.  He seems to be using the "declinism bias" where in the old days, people needed little persuasion and therefore only needed precepts and their lives were governed well and therefore the men in former days were better than the men today.  He then compares it to how men are worse off today (physically) than in former times because people have given into luxury.

I think he makes a good point about the complexities of food (i.e. processed) and how they lead to ill health.  But I'm not so sure the argument fully ties back to the claim.

Regardless, when reading his passage about the ails of luxurious eating and all the ill health it produces, I could see the parallels with our day.  Sugars, refined grain (grain in general) and all sorts of ingredients (which cannot be pronounced) are mixed into our foods today.  And therefore, in lux america the population of people with co-morbidities grows.  How many have died needlessly because of malnutrition?  The current pandemic of covid-19 strikes hard at people with poor diet and lungs.

Below are passages which stood out to me.  They mimic what many say today.

medicine had less to do! Men's bodies were still sound and strong; their food was light and not spoiled by art and luxury, whereas when they began to seek dishes not for the sake of removing, but of rousing, the appetite, and devised countless sauces to whet their gluttony, – then what before was nourishment to a hungry man became a burden to the full stomach.


belly growing to a paunch through an ill habit of taking more than it can hold.


Why should I mention the other innumerable diseases, the tortures that result from high living?


it took elaborate courses [of food] to produce elaborate diseases.


What wonder, then, that we can trip up the statement of the greatest and most skilled physician.


This is the interest which we pay on pleasures which we have coveted beyond what is reasonable and right.  You need not wonder that diseases are beyond counting: count the cooks! All intellectual interests are in abeyance; those who follow culture lecture to empty rooms, in out-of-the-way places. The halls of the professor and the philosopher are deserted; but what a crowd there is in the cafés!


How many men are kept busy to humour a single belly!


Do you judge that the corrupted dishes which a man swallows almost burning from the kitchen fire, are quenched in the digestive system without doing harm? How repulsive, then, and how unhealthy are their belchings, and how disgusted men are with themselves when they breathe forth the fumes of yesterday's debauch! You may be sure that their food is not being digested, but is rotting.


as the food itself is complicated, so the resulting diseases are complex, unaccountable, manifold, variegated; medicine has begun to campaign against them in many ways and by many rules of treatment.

Returning to the key thought - he says that back in the day, because people had not been introduced to luxury, they were not in need of dogmas, precepts and advice.  But because of greed, desire for fame and pleasure, people have been swayed too much and it takes much to correct them.

It was once more simple because men's sins were on a smaller scale, and could be cured with but slight trouble.


Men seek pleasure from every source. No vice remains within its limits; luxury is precipitated into greed. We are overwhelmed with forgetfulness of that which is honourable. Nothing that has an attractive value, is base. Man, an object of reverence in the eyes of man, is now slaughtered for jest and sport; and those whom it used to be unholy to train for the purpose of inflicting and enduring wounds, are thrust forth exposed and defenceless; and it is a satisfying spectacle to see a man made a corpse.

And in the midst of decadence, at all levels of society, precepts are ineffective.  Precepts must be married with doctrine.  Deep persuasion are needed to correct the ailments of individuals and society.

Amid this upset condition of morals, something stronger than usual is needed, – something which will shake off these chronic ills; in order to root out a deep-seated belief in wrong ideas, conduct must be regulated by doctrines. It is only when we add precepts, consolation, and encouragement to these, that they can prevail; by themselves they are ineffective.

minor CLAIM: "But what, then, have not certain persons won their way to excellence without complicated training? Have they not made great progress by obeying bare precepts alone?"

Seneca says yes, but!  Where it is true that some make their way to excellence only with precepts, then it was due to the temperament and inherent qualities of the person.

their temperaments were propitious ...  fitted with unusual qualities and reach without a long apprenticeship ... choice minds which seize quickly upon virtue, or else produce it from within themselves.

But for the rest of us, the 'rust' does not rub off so easily and a harder, on-going scrubbing is needed.  Our dull and sluggish natures are "hampered by evil habits, must have this soul-rust incessantly rubbed off."

Therefore, doctrine must be taught; dogmas instilled; and constant precepts heard and applied.  Virtue is doing the right thing for the right reason.

precepts will perhaps help you to do what should be done; but they will not help you to do it in the proper way; and if they do not help you to this end, they do not conduct you to virtue.

Consider the same action, but done for different reasons:

When people sit by the bedsides of their sick friends, we honour their motives.  But when people do this for the purpose of attaining a legacy, they are like vultures waiting for carrion. 

Hence, the instruction as to why we should do what we ought to do is just as important as the action.

there should be deeply implanted a firm belief which will apply to life as a whole: this is what I call a "doctrine." And as this belief is, so will be our acts and our thoughts. As our acts and our thoughts are, so will our lives be. It is not enough, when a man is arranging his existence as a whole, to give him advice about details.

He then gets into the duties to god and people.  In this section is this lovely thought about the connectedness we all have to each other and the Cosmos.

all that you behold, that which comprises both god and man, is one – we are the parts of one great body.  Nature produced us related to one another, since she created us from the same source and to the same end. She engendered in us mutual affection, and made us prone to friendships. She established fairness and justice; according to her ruling, it is more wretched to commit than to suffer injury. Through her orders, let our hands be ready for all that needs to be helped.

We should consider ourselves as stones in an arch; which need each other for support.

Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not mutually support each other, and which is upheld in this very way.

Next, he reminds us that we need to know what indifferents are and how to make use of them.  Precepts are useless, unless we know the doctrine.

The same is applied to the virtues (prudence, bravery and justice).  These things are fixed and we will not find or retain equanimity unless we fix our character to them.

learned the laws of life as a whole and has worked out a proper judgment about everything, and unless he has reduced facts to a standard of truth. Peace of mind is enjoyed only by those who have attained a fixed and unchanging standard of judgment; the rest of mankind continually ebb and flow in their decisions, floating in a condition where they alternately reject things and seek them.

In sum, doctrines, principals, precepts and advice are all needed; to work together.  Like a tree that produces fruit, both roots and branches are needed.  While the branches are evident and readily perceived, they would be nothing without the roots to support the.  And likewise, if there were only a root system, it would remain hidden and never produce branches or fruit.

reason is not satisfied by obvious facts; its higher and nobler function is to deal with hidden things. Hidden things need proof; proof cannot come without doctrines; therefore, doctrines are necessary.  That which leads to a general agreement, and likewise to a perfect one, is an assured belief in certain facts; but if, lacking this assurance, all things are adrift in our minds, then doctrines are indispensable; for they give to our minds the means of unswerving decision.


But let us unite the two. For indeed branches are useless without their roots, and the roots themselves are strengthened by the growths which they have produced. Everyone can understand how useful the hands are; they obviously help us. But the heart, the source of the hands growth and power and motion, is hidden.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 94 - On the Value of Advice

On the Value of Advice

This is quite the epic letter, coming in at over 70 verses.  There is a lot to unpack here, but let me try to summarize the big ideas and themes, then support them with passages from the letter.

I won't claim I fully understand the letter; there are a lot of questions and quibbles throughout.  But from what I can tell, the overarching theme which Seneca supports is: we need dogmas, precepts and constant admonitions (advice) to transform the human.

The quibbles, by and large, are around what is superfluous and what is essential when teaching and living philosophically.

Later in the letter, he gets more specific about the on-going need of help from "a guardian" (v. 55) who advises us constantly, until we are transformed.  The reason we need this guardian is because the world is virtually saturated with bad logic and faults, stemming from the vices of greed, luxury and fame.  In sum, we need help to overcome the inertia of the prevailing sentiment that indifferents are indeed good.

Before moving on, let me try to define a few words which Seneca uses in this letter.  This might help provide clarity when discussing the ideas and themes.

Dogma - foundational ideas, something held as an established opinion or code of tenants.  An example of a Stoic dogma might be: the only good is virtue and action motivated by virtue.

Precepts - these are principals and duties which a Stoic ought to live by; practical, applicable advice designated for a specific individual.

Advice - short-hand rules for living well, such as 'treat others as you would be treated' or the short-hand version 'the golden rule.'

And so, the aim of this letter is determining what the minimal amount of knowledge is needed.  Can one be taught the dogmas alone?  Is that sufficient and the rest is superfluous?  Or is practical advice enough without needing precepts and dogmas?  Or is 'all the above' needed?

It seems to me, that Seneca is saying, 'we need all of it.'  While he didn't invoke any analogies such as the egg or garden, it seems he is saying that Stoicism should be taken in as a whole.  To use the garden analogy, to have the fruit, you need the dirt and the fence.  While those who advocate just for a part (i.e. - you just need dirt, not the fence, and the fruit will follow), are saying that the other stuff is extra, not essential.

To try to keep this organized, I'll note the CLAIMS by people Seneca quotes, and then the RESPONSES Seneca provides, as well as Seneca's framing QUESTIONS.

major CLAIM 1: Precepts and advice are the only "significant part, while the other departments are rejected on the ground that they stray beyond the sphere of practical needs."

major CLAIM 2: Aristo thinks precepts and advice are of "slight import" with Seneca stating, "he holds that it does not sink into the mind, having in it nothing but old wives' precepts, and that the greatest benefit is derived from the actual dogmas of philosophy and from the definition of the Supreme Good."

major CLAIM 3: "Cleanthes holds that [precepts & advice] is indeed useful, but that it is a feeble thing unless it is derived from general principles – that is, unless it is based upon a knowledge of the actual dogmas of philosophy and its main headings."

Seneca breaks down the discussion and problem thus:

QUESTION 1: Are precepts and advice useful or useless?

QUESTION 2: Are precepts and advice enough to produce a good man (i.e. dogmas are not essential)?  Or is it the other way around (i.e. precepts and advice are not essential) and dogmas are enough to produce a good man?

Seneca tackles Aristo first.  Aristo claims precepts and advice are of 'slight import' and therefore superfluous.  Seneca quotes a very large portion of text by Aristo and then responds to it.  I'll take each of Aristo's minor claims and summarize Seneca's response to each one.

minor CLAIM 1 by Aristo - if someone can't see because an object interferes their vision or if someone is ill or poor or starving, it does them no good to give them rules to live by when you ignore the root cause of their ailment.  He advises that the object be removed first so the person can see; to restore the health of the ill person first; to pull them out of poverty first; to feed the hungry person first before giving them rules (precepts and advice) by which they can live well.

only when the cloud is dispersed will it be clear what one's duty is in each case.

The false opinion of the miser will continue to make him a miser and he will never apply precepts and advice about the proper use of money.  Therefore, correct the false opinion.

Seneca's RESPONSE seems to be in agreement, but he does not want to simply stop after the cure has been applied, therefore, Seneca continues to advocate for the use of precepts and advice.

The mind, on the other hand, needs many precepts in order to see what it should do in life; although in eye-treatment also the physician not only accomplishes the cure, but gives advice into the bargain. ...  The physician's art supplements remedies by advice.

minor CLAIM 2 - after Aristo finishes with the analogies, he continues with his argument that if we solve the root, the advice will not be needed.

When by means of such doctrines you have brought the erring man to a sense of his own condition, when he has learned that the happy life is not that which conforms to pleasure, but that which conforms to Nature, when he has fallen deeply in love with virtue as man's sole good and has avoided baseness as man's sole evil, and when he knows that all other things – riches, office, health, strength, dominion – fall in between and are not to be reckoned either among goods or among evils, then he will not need a monitor for every separate action (emphasis added).

Seneca's RESPONSE - he continues to find value in not only addressing the root cause, but giving advice in all stages of the healing.

I admit that precepts alone are not effective in overthrowing the mind's mistaken beliefs; but they do not on that account fail to be of service when they accompany other measures also.

He contends that precepts, advice, consolation, exhortation and counsel "refresh the memory" and help the person see the grand picture of "the whole."  To Seneca, it is not so much an order of operations, as educating the ill person of the grand picture - to point to them the goal of all activities.  He advocates for sound advice for both sick and sound men; "sick men and sound men [have] something in common, concerning which they need continual advice."

He succinctly summarizes the claim and his response.

"Do away with error, and your precepts become unnecessary." That is wrong; for suppose that avarice is slackened, that luxury is confined, that rashness is reined in, and that laziness is pricked by the spur; even after vices are removed, we must continue to learn what we ought to do, and how we ought to do it.

He further refines his point.

Advice is not teaching; it merely engages the attention and rouses us, and concentrates the memory, and keeps it from losing grip. ... you must be continually brought to remember these facts; for they should not be in storage, but ready for use. And whatever is wholesome should be often discussed and often brought before the mind, so that it may be not only familiar to us, but also ready to hand. And remember, too, that in this way what is clear often becomes clearer.

minor CLAIM 3 - if you offer advice and precepts, they must be very clear to remove all doubt and therefore you must use proofs; and in the use of proofs you will have corrected the person fully, so why use precepts and advice when proofs and clarity are all that is needed?  Precepts and advice are superfluous.

are such precepts useful to him who has correct ideas about good and evil, or to one who has them not? The latter will receive no benefit from you; for some idea that clashes with your counsel has already monopolized his attention. He who has made a careful decision as to what should be sought and what should be avoided knows what he ought to do, without a single word from you. Therefore, that whole department of philosophy may be abolished.

Seneca's RESPONSE - he begins his response by writing,

But cannot the influence of the monitor avail even without proofs? It is like the opinions of a legal expert, which hold good even though the reasons for them are not delivered. Moreover, the precepts which are given are of great weight in themselves.

It seems that Seneca is advocating the use of a good teacher (monitor).  All the wisdom and intelligence in the world cannot correct a person unless they have someone who can explain it; hence the use of precepts and advice - which are ideas delivered in layman's terms.  And a savvy teacher, who knows the proofs, can make them applicable to heal the ailed person.

The precepts and advice, in a sense, cut through the need of proofs and directly influence emotion.  Precepts and advice, well-crafted, are like a fan which whips up a spark into a flame.  And the tiny spark is in each person's soul.

Such maxims need no special pleader; they go straight to our emotions, and help us simply because Nature is exercising her proper function.  The soul carries within itself the seed of everything that is honourable, and this seed is stirred to growth by advice, as a spark that is fanned by a gentle breeze develops its natural fire.

As I read both sides of this issues, it does feel like a quibble.  While some people only need to be taught the 'why' with proofs and off they go towards a life of wisdom, others may be less sharp and therefore need to be lead to the source.  I tend to agree with Seneca and think we ought to cast a wide net to catch as many people as possible and if they get hooked by a precept or advice and it leads them to study the proofs, then it was worth it.  But to strictly advocate for only the use of proofs, it seems the filter would cut too many out, too easily.

one man is lively and alert of wit, another sluggish and dull, while certainly some men have more intelligence than others. The strength of the wit is nourished and kept growing by precepts; it adds new points of view to those which are inborn and corrects depraved ideas.

minor CLAIM 4 - avoid the use of precepts and advice altogether and instead, do one of two things.  1) be precise and careful in the curing of the diseased mind - cure it fully and completely (don't do a half-assed job) or 2) before false / bad ideas infect the mind, get in there and fill it fully with good opinions and ideas.

There are two reasons why we go astray: either there is in the soul an evil quality which has been brought about by wrong opinions, or, even if not possessed by false ideas, the soul is prone to falsehood and rapidly corrupted by some outward appearance which attracts it in the wrong direction. For this reason it is our duty either to treat carefully the diseased mind and free it from faults, or to take possession of the mind when it is still unoccupied and yet inclined to what is evil. Both these results can be attained by the main doctrines of philosophy

And unless you do #1 or #2, precepts and advice will only ever prove futile because they won't have the full force and effect of sound doctrine and dogmas, so why even try or advocate for precepts and advice.

The madness itself must be shaken off; otherwise, your words of advice will vanish into thin air.

Seneca's RESPONSE - Try as you might, to be careful and to intervene as soon as possible, all the theory won't get you anywhere unless you practice what you've learned and precepts and advice help you to remember to practice the theory.

for this person has indeed learned to do things which he ought to do; but he does not see with sufficient clearness what these things are. For we are hindered from accomplishing praiseworthy deeds not only by our emotions, but also by want of practice in discovering the demands of a particular situation.

Seneca advocates for 'all of the above' - learn the dogmas, leverage precepts and then practice your duties.

[one may claim] "Cast out all false opinions concerning Good and Evil, but replace them with true opinions; then advice will have no function to perform." Order in the soul can doubtless be established in this way; but these are not the only ways. For although we may infer by proofs just what Good and Evil are, nevertheless precepts have their proper role. Prudence and justice consist of certain duties; and duties are set in order by precepts.  Moreover, judgment as to Good and Evil is itself strengthened by following up our duties, and precepts conduct us to this end. For both are in accord with each other; nor can precepts take the lead unless the duties follow. They observe their natural order; hence precepts clearly come first.

In sum, Seneca would say, study the dogmas --> use precepts to reinforce --> advice for how to act --> act.

The next part of the letter, from verses 35 to 52 are variations on the theme that precepts and advice are indeed useful.  Below are a few highlights.

if we have removed false opinions, insight into practical conduct does not at once follow.


warning, and exhortation, and scolding, and praising; since they are all varieties of advice. It is by such methods that we arrive at a perfect condition of mind.  Nothing is more successful in bringing honourable influences to bear upon the mind, or in straightening out the wavering spirit that is prone to evil, than association with good men.  For the frequent seeing, the frequent hearing of them little by little sinks into the heart and acquires the force of precepts.


Virtue is divided into two parts – into contemplation of truth, and conduct. Training teaches contemplation, and admonition teaches conduct. And right conduct both practises and reveals virtue. But if, when a man is about to act, he is helped by advice, he is also helped by admonition. Therefore, if right conduct is necessary to virtue, and if, moreover, admonition makes clear right conduct, then admonition also is an indispensable thing.


Virtue depends partly upon training and partly upon practice; you must learn first, and then strengthen your learning by action.


the approach to these qualities is slow, and in the meantime in practical matters, the path should be pointed out for the benefit of one who is still short of perfection, but is making progress. Wisdom by her own agency may perhaps show herself this path without the help of admonition; for she has brought the soul to a stage where it can be impelled only in the right direction. Weaker characters, however, need someone to precede them, to say: "Avoid this," or "Do that."  Moreover, if one awaits the time when one can know of oneself what the best line of action is, one will sometimes go astray and by going astray will be hindered from arriving at the point where it is possible to be content with oneself. The soul should accordingly be guided at the very moment when it is becoming able to guide itself.

Beginning with verse 53, Seneca discusses if precepts and advice are sufficient alone to produce a good man (QUESTION 2).

He doesn't answer the question right away and instead writes,

The question next arises whether this part alone is sufficient to make men wise. The problem shall be treated at the proper time; but at present, omitting all arguments, is it not clear that we need someone whom we may call upon as our preceptor in opposition to the precepts of men in general?

In fact, he won't answer the question of if precepts and advice alone are sufficient alone to produce wisdom, until Letter 95.

The remainder of Letter 94, instead, will support Seneca's CLAIM that precepts and advice are useful and needed.

Why are they useful?  Because we live in a world saturated by false goods.

There is no word which reaches our ears without doing us harm; we are injured both by good wishes and by curses. The angry prayers of our enemies instill false fears in us; and the affection of our friends spoils us through their kindly wishes.

And this saturation creates a vicious cycle of infectious desire.

people sprinkle folly among their neighbours, and receive it from them in turn. For this reason, in an individual, you find the vices of nations, because the nation has given them to the individual. Each man, in corrupting others, corrupts himself; he imbibes, and then imparts, badness the result is a vast mass of wickedness, because the worst in every separate person is concentrated in one mass.

How can we stop this cycle?  Guardians, monitors, teachers should point these vices out to help people begin to escape the cycle.

We should, therefore, have a guardian, as it were, to pluck us continually by the ear and dispel rumours and protest against popular enthusiasms. For you are mistaken if you suppose that our faults are inborn in us; they have come from without, have been heaped upon us. Hence, by receiving frequent admonitions, we can reject the opinions which din about our ears. Nature does not ally us with any vice; she produced us in health and freedom.

Nature would have us gaze towards the heavens, rather than dig in the earth for treasure.  In other words, greed plays into this vicious cycle.

She ordained that all these bodies should proceed above our heads; but gold and silver, with the iron which, because of the gold and silver, never brings peace, she has hidden away, as if they were dangerous things to trust to our keeping. It is we ourselves that have dragged them into the light of day to the end that we might fight over them; it is we ourselves who, tearing away the superincumbent earth, have dug out the causes and tools of our own destruction; it is we ourselves who have attributed our own misdeeds to Fortune, and do not blush to regard as the loftiest objects those which once lay in the depths of earth. 

And living in a world full of greed, Seneca writes that it is 

indispensable that we be admonished, that we have some advocate with upright mind, and, amid all the uproar and jangle of falsehood, hear one voice only. But what voice shall this be? Surely a voice which, amid all the tumult of self-seeking, shall whisper wholesome words into the deafened ear.

He then provides examples of greed run rampant - in Alexander the Great who "by a mad desire to lay waste other men's territory" or  Gnaeus Pompeius who "was his mad craving for unreal glory."

They disturbed the world because "they were themselves disturbed."

To disrupt that vicious cycle, 

We must unravel all such cases as are forced before our eyes and crammed into our ears; we must clear out our hearts, for they are full of evil talk. Virtue must be conducted into the place these have seized, – a kind of virtue which may root out falsehood and doctrines which contravene the truth.

Fame and the desire for fame fans the flames of greed.  If people didn't have an audience, how much vice could be quelled?  How much would infectious desire be curtailed?

when witnesses and onlookers are removed, faults which ripen in publicity and display sink into the background.  Who puts on the purple robe for the sake of flaunting it in no man's eyes? Who uses gold plate when he dines alone? ... You can make us cease to crave, if you only make us cease to display. Ambition, luxury, and waywardness need a stage to act upon; you will cure all those ills if you seek retirement.

Because of the vicious cycle of greed and fame spread throughout the world, an advisor, teacher or wise person should use and share precepts and advice with people; to counter the prevailing notion that greed and fame are good.

there should be an adviser standing near us. When men praise great incomes, he should praise the person who can be rich with a slender estate and measures his wealth by the use he makes of it. In the face of those who glorify influence and power, he should of his own volition recommend a leisure devoted to study, and a soul which has left the external and found itself.


This was an exceptionally long letter and it took me quite a bit of time to read it, comprehend it and learn something from it.  Seneca can be quite long-winded.  And, as we see, he hasn't addressed his 2nd question regarding if precepts and advice alone are sufficient for the good man.  The next letter will hopefully tackle that question.  And it appears it takes him just as long to answer it!

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Philosophy 101 - Week 2 - Socratic Method & Wisdom

Based on Plato's dialogue, Apology, (a) in what sense does Socrates claim to be wise? (b) Summarize and evaluate the value of the Socratic Method and Socratic wisdom and whether this method and attitude are valuable for a democratic society such as ours.


During his defense, Socrates recounted the time his friend, Chaerephon, asked the oracle at Delphi if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The oracle replied that no one was wiser than Socrates. Upon hearing this, Socrates thought to himself:

“What can the god be saying? What does his riddle mean? For I’m only too aware that I’ve no claim to being wise in anything either great or small. What can he mean, then, by saying that I’m wisest? Surely he can’t be lying: that isn’t lawful for him” (Apology, 21b).

After much thought, Socrates resolved to determine if the oracle was telling the truth or not. He approached people who were thought to be wise and he examined them. Upon examination, he found them not to be wise and then he tried to show them how they were not wise. But this simply upset them and they would not admit to not being wise. The self-awareness of not knowing is where Socrates has the upper hand in the wisdom department and makes true the oracle's pronouncement that no one is wiser. He claims,

“I’m wiser than that person. For it’s likely that neither of us knows anything fine and good, but he thinks he knows something he doesn’t know, whereas I, since I don’t in fact know, don’t think that I do either. At any rate, it seems that I’m wiser than he in just this one small way: that what I don’t know, I don’t think I know” (Apology, 21d).

During his examination of various people, in an effort to find someone wiser than himself, Socrates used a form of questioning and dialogue which has come to be known as the Socratic Method. His method would sometimes begin with a flattering invitation, in a sense to establish in the other person's mind that they are knowledgeable on a particular subject. Once this is established, Socrates posed a question to the interlocutor, asking for a definition of something. The interlocutor responded with an answer or statement and then the back and forth dialogue began.

At each turn, Socrates either sought clarification, or put forth a premise in an attempt to break the ideas into manageable concepts and ideas, until either they arrived at the essence of the answer or at least they think they've arrived closer to the essence.

The use of the Socratic method, coupled with an attitude of curiosity and probing toward truth, can be very valuable for all who participate in this rich and caring exercise. It's valuable for the questioner, who out of a sense of genuine curiosity, is able to uncover or advance the discovery of profound truths. The questioner seeks clarification so that he and others many benefit from knowledge. Even if truths are not discovered, the questioner helps himself and others arrive at a clearer definition of the problem which is being discussed.

The method and attitude of curiosity are also valuable to the interlocutor who may have assumed too much and is too confident in his position. By engaging in the method and dialogue, the interlocutor is brought to an awareness (whether he cares to admit it or not is another thing) of how little he knows or how his previous thinking may have been faulty or incomplete. If the interlocutor is open to being skeptical about any previous notions he had, he will have greatly benefitted from the line of questioning and dialogue and will become more aware and even more knowledgeable.

Another way the method and attitude benefit both is how they provide a framework for respectful discourse. In a sense, the method assumes good intent, instead of taking a dogmatic, know-it-all approach. The Socratic method invites discussion rather than preaching on one person's part and passive listening on the other's. This discussion gradually, and in an organized fashion, makes mental connections in the minds of the participants and helps them learn, together, more deeply.

The method and attitude are valuable and needed in our democratic society, perhaps now more than ever. In the age of 'soundbites' and tweets, where statements are seemingly one-sided and restricted to 280 characters, people who wish to persuade have to maximize impact and in the process take strong stances. These are then responded to with equally forceful and adamant statements. No where to be seen are questions, curiosity and dialogue. And in some cases, people become so dogmatic in their views, they figuratively wish to plug their ears and yell "la-la-la-la-la!" while remaining protected in their "safe zone."

The authors of The Coddling of the American Mind noted this phenomena in the mid-2010's and asked many questions about this trend in American universities. They wondered,

"What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors?" (Lukianoff).

Further in in the article, they note that what begins in the university, later spills into our political and workplace discourse. "Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship."

Besides many detailed recommendations for parents and educators, the authors advocate for the use of the Socratic method to help our students and young citizens learn how to think instead of what to think. 

"Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding."

Unfortunately, as of the 2020 census, the highest educational level of about 40% of Americans age 25 and over is only a high school degree or less. Another 16% only had partial college credit or no associates degree (Educational Attainment in the United States: 2019). One can assume that of this 56% of the population, a small portion may have learned or heard of the Socratic method, as philosophy and rhetoric courses are not widely required in the curriculum. How we tackle this potential problem is left for another day.


Plato, & Reeve, C. D. C. (2012). A Plato reader: Eight essential dialogues. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Greg Lukianoff, J. H. (2017, July 31). How trigger warnings are hurting mental health on campus. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 93 - On the Quality, as Contrasted with the Length, of Life

On the Quality, as Contrasted with the Length, of Life

The gist of this letter is found in this quote:

We should strive, not to live long, but to live rightly; for to achieve long life you have need of Fate only, but for right living you need the soul.

This is the response to anyone who suggests that someone who has died before their time; and it serves as a reminder to live each day as if it were your last.

Seneca notes,

I have noticed many who deal fairly with their fellow-men, but none who deals fairly with the gods. We rail every day at Fate.

A great many things in life may seem unfair, but we should stop this line of thinking before we jump to that conclusion.  It is we who assume things are unfair, when in fact, this is how the Universe operates.  Is it fair that my home flooded or burned down?  Is it fair that the world is warming up or cooling down too much to my liking?  Is it fair that weeds exist and are in my yard?  Is it fair that my knee locked up, while playing basketball, and I hyper-extended it?  Is it fair that my parent dies at the age of 45 or my Marine son dies in his 20s?

Be mindful of jumping to the conclusion of 'what is fair and what is not.'  The Cosmos is too complex for one person to conclude what is just and what is not.  This topic comes up quite a bit in life.  For my part, I like to recall the story of "The Farmer's Son: Fortune or Misfortune?" as found on my hypomnemata on wisdom.

Seneca continues,

do you consider it fairer that you should obey Nature, or that Nature should obey you? And what difference does it make how soon you depart from a place which you must depart from sooner or later?

He then explains what a good life represents, as opposed to the length of life.

rendered to itself its proper Good ... assumed control over itself ... had fulfilled all the duties of a good citizen, a good friend, a good son.

Life must be measured by the performance of good, rather than the length.  A perfect circle is still perfect regardless of it's diameter.

a life of small compass can be a perfect life. Age ranks among the external things.  How long I am to exist is not mine to decide, but how long I shall go on existing in my present way is in my own control.

A full life is one that has attained wisdom.

It is living until you possess wisdom. He who has attained wisdom has reached, not the furthermost, but the most important, goal.

One who lives wisely has fulfilled the measure of his creation.

for he has paid [Nature] back a better life than he has received. He has set up the pattern of a good man, showing the quality and the greatness of a good man. Had another year been added, it would merely have been like the past.

If a person lives 80 years, and does nothing but eat, sleep, drink, defecate and does hardly anything rational to improve himself or others, he is no better than an animal.  But one who lives a mere two decades, and who exercises rationality and lives morally, ethically to the betterment of himself and in the service of others, we will applaud the latter and forget the former.

Ask yourself why that is.

Death visits each and all; the slayer soon follows the slain.

We all die regardless.  It is how we spend the time allotted to us is what matters.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 92 - On the Happy Life

On the Happy Life

Seneca states that "outward things" (i.e. externals or indifferents) exist for the upkeep of the physical body.

The body needs to be sustained for the soul.

Part of the soul is irrational, while part of it is rational.

The irrational is subject to the rational; but the rational is subject to nothing.  And just as "divine reason is set in supreme command over all things, and is itself subject to none" so too our own reason "is the same, because it is derived from the divine reason."

Given these premises, Seneca concludes, "the happy life depends upon this and this alone: our attainment of perfect reason."  Perfect reason alone will pave the path to excellence of soul and happiness.

whatever the condition of their affairs may be, it keeps men untroubled. And that alone is a good which is never subject to impairment. That man, I declare, is happy whom nothing makes less strong than he is; he keeps to the heights, leaning upon none but himself.

He continues,

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquillity. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached. How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of truth, by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness, and a will that is inoffensive and kindly, that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom.

A couple of rhetorical questions:

what is more base or foolish than to connect the good of a rational soul with things irrational?


why, therefore, do you hesitate to say that all is well with a man just because all is well with his appetite?

These are good philosophical questions.  Think on happiness; contentment and try to hone in on how you can attain them regardless of circumstances.  What can be true, always?

Can someone attain happiness in this life?  Is it up to them or do they have to wait for it to come to them?  Are some people just lucky and therefore happy?  Or do people really have control over their happiness?

The Stoics argue that by achieving excellence of soul and character (arete), someone can also be happy.  And that excellence and happiness are not left up to Fortune, Fate, God or chance.  This is the aim of Seneca's argument in this letter.

The Stoics separate externals and indifferents into a couple of categories: preferred vs. dispreferred.  And Seneca adds,

Of course I shall seek them [preferred indifferents], but not because they are goods, – I shall seek them because they are according to nature and because they will be acquired through the exercise of good judgment on my part. ... it is not my dinner, or my walk, or my dress that are goods, but the deliberate choice which I show in regard to them, as I observe, in each thing I do, a mean that conforms with reason. ... the good is not in the thing selected, but in the quality of the selection. ...  if I have the choice, I shall choose health and strength, but that the good involved will be my judgment regarding these things, and not the things themselves.

Indifferents are the material which allow us to demonstrate our excellence.  We can show our wise use of them, but they do not cause excellence or happiness.  The only cause of our excellence and happiness is our reason - our rational nature.

Excellence of character is like sunlight from the sun.  Things can block it, but nonetheless the light still shines.

The sun, however, is unimpaired even in the midst of obstacles, and, though an object may intervene and cut off our view thereof, the sun sticks to his work and goes on his course.

Excellence of character is not left up to chance.

We meet with one person who maintains that a wise man who has met with bodily misfortune is neither wretched nor happy. But he also is in error, for he is putting the results of chance upon a parity with the virtues.

The wise person recognizes

things which have no power to change his condition for the worse, have not the power, either, to disturb that condition when it is at its best. ... Therefore, one whose life is not changed to misery by all these ills is not dragged by them, either, from his life of happiness.  Then if, as you say, the wise man cannot fall from happiness to wretchedness, he cannot fall into non-happiness. ... virtue is itself of itself sufficient for the happy life.

Excellence of character is entirely 'up to us' and regardless of things 'not up to us' we can choose an excellent attitude, character and perspective.  We realize we are responsible and in control of our perspective.  Death, loss of possessions, exile, good health, promotions and wealth are simply the material to demonstrate the appropriate and honorable attitude, perspective and choice.  By consistently choosing the wise response and perspective, we liberate ourselves from Fortune and Fate and we determine our happiness.  We find ourselves living in the moment; in the perpetual now.

In order to live more happily, he must live more rightly; if he cannot do that, then he cannot live more happily either. Virtue cannot be strained tighter, and therefore neither can the happy life, which depends on virtue. For virtue is so great a good that it is not affected by such insignificant assaults upon it as shortness of life, pain, and the various bodily vexations. For pleasure does not deserve that. virtue should even glance at it.  Now what is the chief thing in virtue? It is the quality of not needing a single day beyond the present

We embrace the perpetual now.  We begin to see perfect reason.  We begin to see things from the perspective of the Cosmos; from Nature.  And our journey in this life becomes one of unification of our reason with right reason.

No man does wrong in attempting to regain the heights from which he once came down. And why should you not believe that something of divinity exists in one who is a part of God? All this universe which encompasses us is one, and it is God; we are associates of God; we are his members. Our soul has capabilities, and is carried thither, if vices do not hold it down. Just as it is the nature of our bodies to stand erect and look upward to the sky, so the soul, which may reach out as far as it will, was framed by nature to this end, that it should desire equality with the gods. And if it makes use of its powers and stretches upward into its proper region it is by no alien path that it struggles toward the heights.  It would be a great task to journey heavenwards; the soul but returns thither

And from this perspective, we see the externals and the body as mere accessories to an end.

just as we do not take thought for the clippings of the hair and the beard, even so that divine soul, when it is about to issue forth from the mortal man, regards the destination of its earthly vessel – whether it be consumed by fire, or shut in by a stone, or buried in the earth, or torn by wild beasts – as being of no more concern to itself than is the afterbirth to a child just born.


the soul fears nothing that may happen to the body after death.