SLRP: XXX. On Conquering The Conqueror

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Seneca,

The part of you letter which really stuck out at me is the observation that men look forward only to that which is sure, and fear that which is uncertain.  Yet death is both of these, and it seems fear gets the better part of it.

I think I’ve mentioned before how today, we hide away death.  It’s clean and sterile.  The even hide the bodies of the dead in the hospital.  Better to not upset the people, that way.

This is a relatively new phenomenon, I expect.  Of course, this changes depending on the place in question, but it’s fair to say most folks were more familiar with death, and at a younger age, than we ourselves are.

Anyone producing their own food, or living far from a doctor would see more death (and life) in four seasons that most of us do in a decade.

I remember when I was fifteen, I saw a dead body for the first time outside of a hospital or funeral home.  It was shocking to me, and had a fairly profound effect.  No one else in my car had seen it; the results of an auto-accident.

But I saw it.  That evening, I was going to a concert, and I barely heard the music, I was thinking about that man on the road.

Death might come knocking at any time, despite our plans and projects.

Your letter today focuses rather on that slow dying process of old age, rather than the abrupt snuffing out; but no one’s time is guaranteed, nor the  manner.

Farewell.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XXIX. On The Critical Condition Of Marcellinus

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Seneca,

The admonition to be wary of the opinion of the crowds is particularly relevant to my time.  We are in the midst of choosing the head of state.  Rightly, by the founding Constitution, the role of President is relatively small:  to sign or veto bills from the Congress, to handle foreign treaties, and when at war to be the Commander in Chief.

Sadly, most Americans view the President as if he is merely sort of elected King!  We seem to clamor after aristocracy and royalty; having replaced that fascination with celebrities and such.

In this instance, there are no good candidates:  I’d settled for good people, but those seem thin on the ground as well.  We have dumb ideas, and evil ideas; then we get the terrifying watchword ‘bi-partisan’ which means something new both evil and stupid.  Occasionally they switch positions, and we’re left with evil ideas and stupid ones.

Suffice it say, I’m inundated with the opinions of the crowd, who seem to be clamoring for Demagogue A or Demagogue B.  We lack statesmen, men and women of character.  We need a Cato.

Farewell.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XXVIII. On Travel As A Cure For Discontent

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Seneca,

“You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate… your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel. “

Oh, how true this is.  I’ve traveled happily in the past, but most of the time I’ve found that my own issues cloud the trip.  I once spent 10 days on a small island in the Adiratic, a goodly portion of it sitting inside, reading.  Probably missed out on the better parts of the trip, as most would judge it.

My first backpacking trip, I spent miserable and wet.  I couldn’t do much about the second, but the first was all me.

“The person you are matters more than the place to which you go…”

Which of course is the crux of the issue.  Today, the society is tied in knots over ‘what’ a person is, with very little care for who the person is.  We fall to the collectivist fallacy, where the arbitrary classification of peoples becomes the dominant factor:  not simply “the individual.”

“ ‘There were thirty tyrants surrounding Socrates, and yet they could not break his spirit’; but what does it matter how many masters a man has? ‘Slavery’ has no plural; and he who has scorned it is free, – no matter amid how large a mob of over-lords he stands. “

Ah, and the return to my changing understanding of freedom.  You letter hits home with me today, here in my exile.  In a strange land, far from kith and kin.  Under some pressure, but the way I handle it is up to me.  The person I am matter more than where I am or what I’m doing here.

It’s the key thing, and it’s up to me.  Thank you for the reminder.

Farewell.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

Non-optional Stoic Practice

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For the last week or so, I’ve had the opportunity to practice poverty.  My bank, unbeknownst to me, issued me a new debit card, and sent it to my permanent address which is about 1300 miles away from where I’m working.  I learned this when my card was declined at a restaurant.

So, for the last week, I’ve been waiting to get that card mailed to me.  In the interim, I’m pretty limited for funds and expenditures.  There’s enough food in the apartment, and enough cash for gas, I’m not ‘needy’ for anything currently. But this particular exercise is non-optional, and that’s changed things.

Even though ‘I have money,’  I can’t get to it from 1300 miles away.

And I’m learning something different than when I “chose” such exercises in the past.  Mainly, my concern about the state is greater.  I’ve noticed I’m quicker to anger over financial matters, and I’m worried about the state of things.

I injured my ankle, and the thought that I’d need to be seen by the doctor caused me some anxiety.  More so than I’m used to having about such things.

It’s clear to me that my progress on some of these issues is less than I would have speculated at a few weeks ago.  Part of the stress, I’m sure, is obligations I’ve chosen, others count on my support.  My ability to fulfill those obligations, however, is limited now by this situation.

It’s a good opportunity to re-evaluate my ‘goods’ and ‘evils.’  It’s an opportunity to separate the rhetoric from the reality.  So, despite the fact that I’ve been distressed, I’m trying to turn the situation into a useful philosophical exercise.

Moral of the story:  not all “practical exercises” are equal.

SLRP: XXVII. On The Good Which Abides

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Seneca,

It’s an interesting thing, that we can teach what we most need to learn.  That through helping others, we help ourselves.  One of the challenges anciently, and probably modernly as well, is if we ourselves are not Sages, how can we discuss and even teach philosophy?  If we don’t have virtue, how can we lecture or write about it.

The answer I’ve read elsewhere is that even if we don’t know the Truth, we can teach something true.  You sometimes see this idea in mythology: a thing doesn’t have to be real to be true.

Philosophy, then, seems similar.  We don’t yet have virtue ourselves, but we can still see that it’s desirable.

Farewell.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

SLRP: XXVI. On Old Age And Death

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Seneca,

“He who has learned to die has unlearned slavery; he is above any external power, or, at any rate, he is beyond it. What terrors have prisons and bonds and bars for him? His way out is clear. There is only one chain which binds us to life, and that is the love of life. The chain may not be cast off, but it may be rubbed away…”

It just so happens that I’ve been lately thinking of death and freedom.  Of Epictetus, and his chained leg.  I was thinking on the death of Cato, and of your own, incidentally.  So you letter comes at a fortuitous time.

I find myself in a good bit of pain the last couple of days, and today it is particularly sharp.  Unlike the previous days, it is near constant, and my leg can barely carry my body’s weight from the strength of it.

So I’m also thinking about indifferents, dispreferred or otherwise.

I was thinking of the Stoic sage, in purely hypothetical context I assure you, and his ‘rational exit’ from the world.  How one might, at some time, determine that to meet nature halfway is an appropriate thing to do.

The Stoics really do seem to stand out on this issue.  Today, in my country, such talk is a bit taboo.  My country has been at war for the better part of two decades now, and we’ve lost more warriors to suicide than we have to combat.  More even than in the attack which pulled us into the conflict in 2001.

Maybe it’s not fair to call the one combat, but not the other.  Maybe they’re just combats of a different stripe.

Philosophy as training for death is a concept which is often shocking to the sensibilities; however I think I’m coming to understand this point differently than I had before.

It sounds grandiose, bold, courageous, and maybe even foolhardy to levy such charges.  But really, it’s a facing down of a primeval fear.  It looks square in the face what most would not even glance at, could they avoid it.

It may even be a pious or holy thing.

Stoicism has challenged by conception of freedom in the past three years.  I’m well steeped in Lockean negative liberties, the fruits of the enlightenment, and the particular brand and stamp of the American conception of natural rights.  This includes, of course, the proper roles of individual, community, society, and government.

Freedom from this perspective is the right to be let alone.  To incur no assault, coercion, or force; as you then do the same to others.  Your rights are inscribed in an indelible circle, extending to such extent only that they are touchig the same circles of your fellow citizens.

It’s a freedom of body, and of mind.  One of lifestyle, and lifeways.

But the freedom of the philosopher is a different sort.  It’s the freedom of the faculty of choice and assent, it’s even more untouchable than that of the classically liberal citizen.

The citizen’s freedom is challenged by foes, criminals, governments, wars, debt, and every other manner of misfortune.  It’s such a tenuous and delicate thing.

The philosopher, rather, is subject to none of these.  No prison, no chain, no illness, no war, no devastation, not even death itself can impress upon him should he choose otherwise.

Your letter has provided more food for thought for my ruminations.

Farewell.


Part of Michel Daw’s Reading Plan of Seneca’s Letters.

Koine etymology

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Got a new book in the mail today.  Stumbled upon these words, and I started speculating a bit.

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The Koine Greek words for consciousness and perception appear to me to be related, συνείδησις and συναίσθησις, respectively.  With a modern pronunciation they’re nearly homophones as well, being one vowel sound and one consonant apart.

That’s really interesting.  I get the feeling there’s some important truth lurking about, there.