The Cynic Epistles Reading Plan

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I have found Michel Daw’s Seneca’s Letters Reading Plan very helpful for making my “to read” list smaller.  In that vein, another Facebook group I’m involved in has decided they wanted to do a Reading Plan for The Cynic Epistles.

So, to help that project along, I created a reading plan for the Epistles.  We’re going to be discussing them in the Cynic Philosophy Facebook Group.

If you’d like to follow along, here’s the page at the blog with the plan and book info:
The Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.

SLRP: XXV. On Reformation

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Seneca,

Today, you give a handful of practices to those who would make progress.  You note the doctrine of the Sage, that we might appoint someone to ‘watch over’ our action, and thereby gain a measure against which we check our own actions.

You give us the retreat within, the Inner Citadel, to protect ourselves from the crowds and multitudes.

You advise us to seek out good company, that we may associate with those whom we would be like.

You also note:

“Let us return to the law of nature; for then riches are laid up for us. The things which we actually need are free for all, or else cheap; nature craves only bread and water. No one is poor according to this standard; when a man has limited his desires within these bounds, he can challenge the happiness of
Jove himself…”

Which is certainly food for thought.  Thank you for the letter.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: XXIV. On Despising Death (Part 2: 14 – 26)

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Seneca,

Your letter on death, that it is not a singular thing but in fact the culmination of a long process is an interesting and true one.  I was thinking this morning about Providence, Fate, determinism, and the cosmos.  Just the little things, right?

I was thinking about determinism and death.  If the cosmos is providentially ordered by the Logos, we are fated to be presented with certain choices.  Chyrsippus well handled the issue of moral culpability, choice, and agency, in my mind, so I won’t re-hash that.  If you’ll permit me to take it for granted that there are some things which are up to us, I’ll do that.

So, we’re fated to be presented with certain choices.  Certain dilemmas and trials.  This is because God, Providence, Nature, the Logos, what have you, determines the wisest and best course for the cosmos.  My test, then, is a test not of my abilities or my endurances per se, but rather a test of my willingness to accept the best for the cosmos.

Can I arrange my will in line with that of Providence?

If we examine the doctrine of Ekpyrosis (Gr: ἐκπύρωσις), then we can take it literally or figuratively.  If literally, then the cosmos will unfold as it has again and again, endlessly.  Until at its culmination it is consumed in the cosmic fire.  Since it is arranged to the best and highest good, we can infer that the same actors, the same choices, and the same situations will arise.  Endlessly.  There is a sort of immortality, then; and we should willingly embrace any hardship including death in the furtherance of virtue.

If we take it figuratively, then we understand that everything will be raised to the level of cosmic fire, the good, the bad, the indifferent.  My choices, then, do not echo into eternity.  The salvation of the Stoic is in the here and now, in virtue.

Both of these are conciliations to the soul.  We should then throw ourselves into any needed hardships, including death, knowing that those tests are ours and they are needed.  Whether it’s the same over and over, or there’s annihilation becomes a moot point, because the result as a motivation for our actions is the same.  We have the opportunity to choose virtue, to choose to bring our will into alignment with the universal logos, the artificial (creative) fire of the cosmos.

If we are working to align ourselves to our highest and best natures (a big if), then there is no need to worry about the choice.  We don’t need to play it safe.  Do the hard thing, when the hard thing is right.

I can easily accept causal determinism, that specific causes yield specific effects.  It is contrary to my normal way of thinking to apply that same criteria to the motivations of rational agents.  Something in me rebels.  For this reason, Chrysippus’ compatiblist stance seems to find the sweet spot.  Me, the self, the ἡγεμονικόν still has the freedom, the choice, to choose correctly.

I don’t yet know that I grok Fate, but slowly, I’m coming to have an appreciation for it.  The measure of death in your letter is a good barometer for that test.

Farewell.


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

Thanks for reading!

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In this past two years, I’ve had over 7,000 readers who have viewed nearly 17,000 posts.  Thank you very much for your interest in Stoicisim, for making me a part of that, and for contributing to the blog.

Here’s a to a few more, eh?  (;
— The MountainStoic

Logic: Sorites Paradox

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Our classic Stoics often spent a good deal of time on Logical problems.  As I wrote yesterday about the question regarding ‘right reason’ (Gr: ὀρθὸς λόγος), the foundation of Stoic epistemology requires that true understanding is possible, via the idea of katalepsis (Gr: κατάληψις).  The idea of the Sage necessitates it, and without the Sage there isn’t a measure for our own knowledge and progress.

One such issue is the “Sorites Paradox,” so named for the Greek word for ‘heap’ which is σωρίτης.  The basic paradox has two forms.

First:
If I place down a single grain of sand, is it a heap?  “No,” you will say.  I will continue placing down grains and asking the question, until at some point you admit, “yes, that’s a heap.”  Then I remove one.  ‘Is this still a heap?’  Thus the paradox, that one grain of sand cannot determine heapness.

Second:
I start with a heap of 10,000 grains of sand, since the absence of one grain cannot unmake a heap (see above), we will recursively remove grains until there is 1, and then 0.  Both of these would necessarily qualify as heaps per the above.  Paradox.  We can even logically go further to negative numbered grains still being heaps if Heap-Number minus 1 always yields a new Heap-Number.

heap

We can see this same problem with baldness, plucking the hairs from the head one-by-one, at what point would we call him bald? The English form of the word “balding” might provide us with a logical escape here, in that he is in the process of becoming bald, but that’s neither here nor there.

attempted_murder

We can also see it in the issues of collective nouns for groups of animals, as shown by this joke image, on the right.  A murder being the collective noun for a group of corvidae, this image presents the question and pun of ‘attempted murder.’

This problem is not localized to quantities of sand, hairs, and crows, as we will see shortly.

Chrysippus’ answer to the heap paradox is recorded in Cicero’s Lucullus/Academic Prior, and amounts to suspending judgment:

“You value the art [of logic], but remember that it gave rise to fallacies like the sorites, which you say is faulty. If it is so, refute it. The plan of Chrysippus to refrain from answering, will avail you nothing. If you refrain because you cannot answer, your knowledge fails you, if you can answer and yet refrain, you are unfair.”

—Cicero, Lucullus/Academic Prior §§ 91—98.

Chrysippus suggests that before the vagueness of the question causes doubt, one should withhold judgment until it’s sure.  This prevents the incongruency between 17 not being a heap, but 18 being one.

However, this is not really a solution, merely a way of avoiding the dialectal trap, as History of Philosophy notes.  In the podcast, the example is given that before one is forced into the logical corner of arguing that 24 is not a heap, and 25 is; we should begin to withhold judgment sometime around 20, before the doubt is clear.  I suspect any argument partner would infer, however, the logical paradox in silence; but Chrysippus was more concerned with protecting the epistemology of the Stoics than he was at winning 6th Grade debate points.

The issue at hand is one of vagueness, and the imprecision that is manifest in human language.  Language is made up of arbitrary symbols, for instance, nothing about the sounds of the English word ‘tree’ ( /t͡ʃɹi:/) contains anything which carries a universal understanding of the conception of ‘tree.’  It’s a symbol, agreed upon by all English speakers, but it is arbitrary.

Some of the solutions to the paradox rely on this trait of human language.  Some, by means of technical resolution, affirm a boundary which is fixed (like 10,000 units makes a heap), and others posit that there are boundaries for heaps, but they are unknowable.  Still more rely on specific types of many-value logics, and similar types of reasoning.

The colloquial phrase, “I know it when I see it” is often disparaged as simplistic understanding or ‘folksy cleverness’, but in fact it relates a truth about vagueness, subjectivity, and the symbols available to us through human language.

It is possible to make a case for the subjectivity of a heap:
Say we have boulders the size of a mini-van.  Five of these would make quite a formidable pile… one we could reasonably describe as a heap.  50 sesame seeds, however, might not be a heap.  What about 500 motes of dust?

That is not my position, however.  Rather, I want to look past the sign of the word ‘heap,’ and try to get at the thing which it symbolizes.

In grammar and linguistics we can discuss ‘mass nouns,’ which are also called no-count nouns.  Liquids tend to fall in this category.  Many languages have a partitive case (sometimes a function of the genitive) which deals with these.  See: English “some tea,” or Russian “чаю.

The core premise of the paradox is that a heap is a certain number of objects grouped together, but this premise is not explicitly stated, and its suppression causes the logical issues seen here.  So, I will bring that out, and state that such a definition is not accurate, and show how a more accurate definition alleviates the paradox.

‘Heap,” I argue, is a similar no-count word as above.  A heap describes the manner of ordering and/or generally parabolic shape of the bodies of the items in question, and in which the specific number of items is not the operative determiner of the disposition.  Example, 10 shirts in the corner of my bedroom are deemed by my girlfriend to be a heap, as in “Can you please clean up that heap of clothes.”  The very same number of shirts, (even the exact same shirts themselves) folded and stored in a stack in the closet, are no longer a heap, it seems.  The operative determiner, then, is the relatively unordered manner of stacking, and the parabolic shape which results.

Remembering that bodies according to the stoics can even be “matter disposed in a certain way,” as in the difference between ‘a hand’ and ‘a fist’, ‘heap’ seems to be one such disposition.  Thus, heaps exist, and do have an objective definition.

The issue which then needs to be explicitly pointed out is the count-requirement of the paradox.  Applying a count-criteria to a no-count problem necessarily creates a paradox, and it’s not that this particular paradox in questions needs a count-resolution, it’s simply an inappropriate question.

Inappropriate questions are easily formulated, such as “How many waters does that bottle hold?”  or “What is the number five’s favorite color?”  These are certainly sayable, and even intelligible utterances.  Yet, they lack any relevance to the universe as we know it.  They have no clear answer, because the type of answer requested doesn’t fit the proposition.

Whether one agrees that heap is a count or no-count word, the paradox provides an interesting avenue of exploration.  The chance to apply Stoic ontology, that of bodies and disposition, to the subject was a fun thought experiment.  I don’t recall ever seeing this position stated before, possibly because relying on definitions is a weak point in propositional logic.  As this is my first attempt to wrestle with a classical paradox, I’ll accept that it’s a baby step.  So far as surety can go with the Sorites Paradox, the thing I’m most sure of is that I ought to fold my shirts before they become a heap in the corner.  (:

 

SLRP: XXIV. On Despising Death (Part 1: 1 – 13)

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Seneca,

“[I]f you would put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen will certainly happen in any event; whatever the trouble may be, measure it in your own mind, and estimate the amount of your fear. You will thus understand that what you fear is either insignificant or short-lived.”

It is interesting to find here the example of the premeditatio malorum, which I think is usually attributed to Marcus.

“Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear… We should strip the mask, not only from men, but from things, and restore to each object its own aspect.”

And here we have the muse of Objective Description, that practice which is often attributed to Marcus.  You’ve laid out, if not the letter of the practice, the spirit of it.

It’s Socrates via Plato who says, “…those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying, and they fear death least of all men.”

This is still an issue I’m wrangling with, and so I won’t do either of us the disservice of speaking overly long on it.  When I first started studying Stoicism in earnest, not as a mere interest or hobby, I don’t think I really grokked the importance of the measure against death, the memento mori.  I read about it, thought about it superficially, but even then it was hard to truly hold in my mind.

The young really do feel immortal.  Whether the realities of the situation are finally starting to settle in, or I’m just becoming more comfortable with the ideas of entropy, I don’t know.  But the memento mori is becoming something new for me which it wasn’t even two years ago.

I would like to read more of Cato, even though your letter suggests maybe Lucillius was fed up with that story.  I’ll try to file that away for future reading.  Thank you for the letter, and I look forward to the second part tomorrow.

Farewell.


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

‘Right reason’ and the Stoic Sage

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I’m reading the Fragments of Zeno and Cleanthes, and I’ve come across a phrase that either I didn’t register before, I’d forgotten, or I skipped somehow. That is ‘right reason’ (Gr: ὀρθὸς λόγος).

One of the binary distinctions that exist in Stoicism is between the actions of the Sage versus that of the the layman or ‘untrained person’ (Gr: ἰδιώτης):

The layman’s actions (even when appropriate) are always insane or mistakes. When they are according to his nature, they are kathēkonta (Gr: καθήκοντα), ‘appropriate actions.’

The Sage’s actions (even if outwardly the same as the above, are katorthōmata (Gr: κατόρθωματα), or ‘perfect actions.’ Only the Sage has ‘perfect actions.’

The Sage comes about this distinction, the ability to make perfect actions, because her actions are focused to the good, and that comes about through ‘right reason’ (Gr: ὀρθὸς λόγος). This concept of ‘right reason’ is interesting to me, and I was wondering if anyone had seen any longer, more in-depth studies on that?

Logos can be a tricky term in Stoic jargon, but in my reading, it’s being used here in the common understanding of “logic, or reason,” and not the capital-L Logos type.

If anyone has any resources on ὀρθὸς λόγος, shoot them my way in the comments, please.