This section of your letter begins by looking at an issue I happened to be thinking of yesterday. The modern philosopher, particularly of the academic stripe, has a certain stereotype. Bookish, patches on the elbows of the jacket, physically weak.
But in looking back Plato, Zeno, and Chrysippus we see boxers, runners, and wrestlers turned philosopher. Socrates is reported to have held his discourses often in gymnasiums. The health of the mind and the health of the body, it seems then, were not held as two distinct things. Today, it seems like one must forego one or the other to pursue its opposite: brains or brawn, take your pick.
This line of thought brought me to consider what we mean by health, of course your letter bends towards health of the soul:
“I shall tell you what I mean by health: if the mind is content with its own self; if it has confidence in itself; if it understands that all those things for which men pray, all the benefits which are bestowed and sought for, are of no importance in relation to a life of happiness; under such conditions it is sound.”
We see a harkening back then to the Dichotomy, where our happiness is placed. What I read here, then, is a call to a healthy προαίρεσις: that faculty which in part determines what is in our exclusive control, and what is not. When the προαίρεσις is operating healthily, it understands what true profit is, and does not look to the things for which men typically pray, but rather what are its own goods.
“Now all that which the crowd gapes after, ebbs and flows. Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.”
The only things we can really own then are the fruits of the προαίρεσις. Just like Musonius coaches us to not have personal suits over injury, since the only things the courts have jurisdiction over are aprohairetic, external things. Fortune can only give or take externals. The προαίρεσις, however, is totally free in its proper domain.
“Assume that a man has good intentions, and has made progress, but is still far from the heights; the result is a series of ups and downs; he is now raised to heaven, now brought down to earth. For those who lack experience and training, there is no limit to the downhill course; such a one falls into the Chaos of Epicurus, – empty and boundless.”
The path of the προκοπτόν is a difficult one. It doesn’t contain clear markers, or the sixteen steps of knowledge, or benchmarks of progress. It’s a lot of ups and downs. We are reminded, with the heavy standard, that every slip trains for the next one.
But there is still a way up, and if we keep feet to path, we’re working in the right direction.
Slowly yet surely…
I’m reading through Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the discussion on Socrates. Usually we turn to Plato for information on Socrates, but Xenophon is another source for this material. I don’t know as much about Socrates as I probably ought, so that’s the impetus for this reading.
Here’s the Perseus text of Xenophon:
It is good to see that the troubles of the modern Stoic are not new in and of themselves. Rather, that the same path, with the same loops, snares, and pits has been trodden by many before. It is in fact all to easy to loose our focus, or even explicitly set it aside, in favor of the banal logistics of life in society.
A friend of mine made a comment, pointing that if our indifferent projects help us fulfill a duty, that is one thing, but if they do not, should they even feature at all?
“But the study of philosophy is not to be postponed until you have leisure; everything else is to be neglected in order that we may attend to philosophy, for no amount of time is long enough for it, even though our lives be prolonged from boyhood to the uttermost bounds of time allotted to man.”
“For health of body is a temporary matter which the physician cannot guarantee, even though he has restored it; nay, he is often roused from his bed to visit the same patient who summoned him before. The mind, however, once healed, is healed for good and all.”
When we talk of the good, it seems a discussion of the Sage necessarily soon follows. The Stoic Sage is an idea I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Of course, as a student, it’s easier (but a mistake) to assume the Stoic Sage is like a figure of other schools of thought, other religions, in Stoic garb. But more and more, I do not see this as the case. For instance, passingly similar figures are usually steeped in some sort of soteriology, or doctrine of salvation. But the Sage does not bring us to salvation of any sort, there is no after-lifely reward for being a good Stoic, unless you could the soul living beyond the body but not past ἐκπύρωσις, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t count that as such.
Then maybe we start thinking of her less as a Messiah, and more of a Superman. But this too seems to fall short.
“What element of evil is there in torture and in the other things which we call hardships? It seems to me that there is this evil, – that the mind sags, and bends, and collapses. But none of these things can happen to the sage; he stands erect under any load. Nothing can subdue him; nothing that must be endured annoys him. For he does not complain that he has been struck by that which can strike any man. He knows his own strength; he knows that he was born to carry burdens.”
The road to progress is long, but we read in Marcus and elsewhere of a “conversion” to philosophy which is mirrored by the suddent onset of Sagacity. But this only comes, as I understand it speculatively, after a long, long time.
“Just as wool takes up certain colours at once, while there are others which it will not absorb unless it is soaked and steeped in them many times; so other systems of doctrine can be immediately applied by men’s minds after once being accepted, but this system of which I speak, unless it has gone deep and has sunk in for a long time, and has not merely coloured but thoroughly permeated the soul, does not fulfil any of its promises.”
The question of the Sage is an interest one, and I always seem to be left with more questions than answers.