SLRP: LXXI. On The Supreme Good (Part 3: 16b – 25)

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Seneca,

The questions of virtue for Stoics is a tough one.  I suspect that’s because (so it seems) the tenor of virtue changed somewhat from the Early to the Late Stoa.  The virtue of the Early Stoa seems more attainable than the god-like perfection of the Late.

“[F]or unless a man is happy, he has not attained the Supreme Good; and the good which is supreme admits of no higher degree, if only virtue exists within this man, and if adversity does not impair his virtue, and if, though the body be injured, the virtue abides unharmed. And it does abide.”

This is proof that the questions we face to day are the same.  There are some Modern Stoics who want to mitigate virtue, who treat indifferents as goods, and expand the Dichotomy of Control to things not rightly in the domain of philosophy.  You, Seneca, hit the nail squarely on the head.  The things that the common folks say are goods, may even be anti-conducive to our progress.  Virtue is the measure, not mere proclivity or pleasure, or any other such thing.

“What,” you say, “do you call reclining at a banquet and submitting to torture equally good?” Does this seem surprising to you? You may be still more surprised at the following, – that reclining at a banquet is an evil, while reclining on the rack is a good, if the former act is done in a shameful, and the latter in an honourable manner. It is not the material that makes these actions good or bad; it is the virtue.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXI. On The Supreme Good (Part 2: 11 – 16a)

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Seneca

Two sections of today’s letter stick out at me:

“He was conquered in spite of it all!” Well, you may include this among Cato’s “failures”; Cato will bear with an equally stout heart anything that thwarts him of his victory, as he bore that which thwarted him of his praetorship. The day whereon he failed of election, he spent in play; the night wherein he intended to die, he spent in reading. He regarded in the same light both the loss of his praetorship and the loss of his life; he had convinced himself that he ought to endure anything which might happen.

“Why should he not suffer, bravely and calmly, a change in the government? For what is free from the risk of change? Neither earth, nor sky, nor the whole fabric of our universe, though it be controlled by the hand of God. It will not always preserve its present order; it will be thrown from its course in days to come.”

I have not read as much about Cato as perhaps I ought to do.  I’ve read selections from Plutarch’s Lives, but not much else.  It seems that you hold him in the highest regard, maybe even a Sage of your own time.  I need to make an effort to look into that.

“Let great souls comply with God’s wishes, and suffer unhesitatingly whatever fate the law of the universe ordains; for the soul at death is either sent forth into a better life, destined to dwell with deity amid greater radiance and calm, or else, at least, without suffering any harm to itself, it will be mingled with nature again, and will return to the universe.”

The is reminiscent of the oft-misunderstood disjunction of Marcus, “either Gods or atoms.”  It is not necessarily and expression of doubt in the divine order, but a reminder that even if our assumptions are wrong, the practice is the same.  That’s a useful comfort.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXI. On The Supreme Good (Part 1: 1 – 10)

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Seneca,

There seems to be two sorts of people, those who know from an early age exactly what they are meant to do, and those who have to find it.  Of the latter sort, there are those who do, and those who do not.

I don’t know what causes this distinction in the first.  And hopefully I figure out what causes it in the second.

For whatever we do ought to be in harmony with this; no man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose of his life. The artist may have his colours all prepared, but he cannot produce a likeness unless he has already made up his mind what he wishes to paint.  The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole. The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill. Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

It’d be a shame for quarter-life crisis to just roll right into the mid-life one.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXX. On The Proper Time (Part 3: 19b – 28)

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Seneca,

I enjoyed the sections today, if such a thing can be said, of common (or I think as you might have meant, “lowly”) who embraced death willingly.  That we need not be a Cato or a Socrates to meet the inevitable on a level footing.

“Reason, too, advises us to die, if we may, according to our taste; if this cannot be, she advises us to die according to our ability, and to seize upon whatever means shall offer itself for doing violence to ourselves. It is criminal to “live by robbery;” but, on the other hand, it is most noble to “die by robbery.” “

This letter had me doing a lot of thinking on the issue, and some reading besides.  I noticed that when I was looking up the specific… methodologies, let’s say, that I found the topic uncomfortable.  I’ve read about the general practice of suicide, and of a “voluntary exist” as it were.  I didn’t any of these things stressful.  I’d even written some about it.  No problems.

Yet, when I was looking at the brass tacks of the issue, I discovered a deep-seated discomfort,  the result of which was to a slightly sick feeling to the stomach, even a back pain.  This took me quite by surprise, and it did not seem so far off to ponder the how as the what, but the former resulted in my judgments which yielded discomfort.

All of that being said, the thing that I am no considering is that for the past two years I’ve been doing memento mori incorrectly.  Well, not the whole time, but much of it.  At the outset, the thought of my own eventual death was disquieting.  Now, there’s a sufficient callous built up so that such is not the case.  However, I know see how shallowly I was attempting to swim, a mere splashing on the stairs.

Maybe the Buddhists are closer to correct with their meditations on death, of sitting in a charnel house, or cemetery and watching a body decompose.  That seems pretty morbid, there might be some happy medium there, I’ll have to ponder that a bit more.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXX. On The Proper Time (Part 2: 10 – 19a)

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Seneca,

One of the things which the mob occasionally grasps hold of is Stoicism’s position on suicide.  It’s a difficult thing to handle for our culture today.  Suicide is seen either as a selfish and indulgent act, or the result of severe mental illness, and therefore a tragedy.

It might be that Stoicism is one of the last rational schools on the subject.  We have some irrational schools of thought on the issue, however, from suicide cults, UFOs cults, and The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

The East has preserved this, especially in traditions like Jainism.  The final ethical vow of the Jains is one which I can see Zeno approving of.  Generally, the report is that Zeno died after a fall, but I’ve seen in a few places that he may have fasted until death.  If that’s the case, then I can see a reasonable analogue.

While you, Seneca, note that the manner is basically irrelevant, citing Cato’s sword, or poision, or even hanging, it seems to me that if the ideal sort of ‘rational exit’ were possible, it would be this one:  the removing of food and water until the body dies.

“Every man ought to make his life acceptable to others besides himself, but his death to himself alone.

Keep thinking of the fact that some day you will be deprived of this tenure; then you will be more brave against the necessity of departing.”

Stoicism’s memento mori is a hard thing for the average fellow to grok, but it’s one I’ve come to appreciate more and more in my studies.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXX. On The Proper Time (Part 1: 1 – 9)

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Seneca,

The metaphor of sailors and voyages is a good one.  It’s often hard to see how one could admit that a short life is just as valuable as a long one.  Especially if the life in questions ends so quickly as to make the attainment of virtue unlikely.  That seems to be one of the challenges our school faces.

I’m thinking indeed of the death of children.  We do, of course, see examples of children bravely facing down debilitating and even terminal illnesses.  One cannot but wonder though if this because they don’t quite understand what’s happening, or is the same sort (or a higher) of bravery one faces later in life under similar circumstance?

One of classic “Stoic paradoxes” are that attaining virtue for a moment is just as great as having it for a long time.  We see others say that the Sage would never backslide, but those two statements seem in contradiction such that they can’t both be true unless it’s possible for one to be virtuous a little and not a Sage.  But that would fly in the face of other Stoic doctrines, like the unity of virtue.  Ah well, that’s question for others, I think.

I can easily accept the voyage metaphor.  Especially when we come to accept that the only evil is our own moral evil.  Then, the sorts of things which are sometimes called “natural evils”  (a term the Stoics would take umbrage with), like illness, death, natural disasters, etc. are more akin to inclement weather on the voyage than the moral evils we are combating in ourselves.

If that’s the case, then maybe the childhood illness are like a rogue wave that sweeps a sailor overboard, and quickly pulls him out to sea?  We might toss him a life-preserver, but the storm is surely stronger than the ship and its crew in the matter of disposing of their bodies and possessions.  We, the crew, however have it in us to use our προαίρεσις well an in accordance with nature.  Not even the meanest storm can touch that unless we will it so.

Thank you for the food for thought this morning.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXIX. On Rest And Restlessness (Part 1: 1 – 7)

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Seneca,

It’s funny to me, most of the time when we’re reading your Letters, Seneca, they’re abridged, or it’s merely a selection of them.  There is a decided selection bias in those Letters, as I’ve seen.  Letters like the one of today are rarely included.

“… the remedies which are most helpful are those which are not interrupted. a You should not allow your quiet, or the oblivion to which you have consigned your former life, to be broken into. Give your eyes time to unlearn what they have seen, and your ears to grow accustomed to more wholesome words. Whenever you stir abroad you will meet, even as you pass from one place to another, things that will bring back your old cravings.”

How can one read these, and not see a decidedly ascetic, renounced tone to the practice of Stoicism?  Letters like these are not outliers, but well in the standard of the School.  Some like to point out Musonius and Epictetus as outliers, but it’s clearly not the case.

Training, and for the reasons you’ve stated here, are absolutely required of a Stoic practicing in accord with the school.

“Vices tempt you by the rewards which they offer; but in the life of which I speak, you must live without being paid. Scarcely will a whole life-time suffice to bring our vices into subjection and to make them accept the yoke, swollen as they are by long-continued indulgence; and still less, if we cut into our brief span by any  interruptions. Even constant care and attention can scarcely bring any one undertaking to full completion.”

Thank you for the letter.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXVIII. On Wisdom And Retirement (Part 2: 10 – 14)

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Seneca,

Your presupposed interlocutor’s question about retirement and the tenets of Epicureanism mirror concerns of my own.  We spoke previously about how we handle both the mandate to be a citizen of the world and personal retirement, or renunciation.

It’s still an issue I’m working over.  Previously, we discussed a retirement’s utility to training, and then to return to the world having instilled in ourselves the tenets of the school.  But in this letter, esp. as in the context of the twilight of life, it seems there is no return?

Either way, more food for thought.

Farewell.


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