Clearly, the reading plans have biased the frequency somewhat. Interesting to look at the frequency of words and topics, though.
As you by now know, the ideas of retreat of have been on my mind now for months. That’s an understatement, really. It’s something I’ve been pondering off and on again for years. Previously, the retreat was hidden in an urge to travel. Of course, no problems are solved by travel, as you yourself have noted, as you take your problems with you.
Instead, the idea of retreat is to ply a special sort of attention to the maladies of the soul.
“If I were to show you a swollen foot, or an inflamed hand, or some shrivelled sinews in a withered leg, you would permit me to lie quiet in one place and to apply lotions to the diseased member.b But my trouble is greater than any of these, and I cannot show it to you. The abscess, or ulcer, is deep within my breast.”
I’m looking forward to the rest of your letter.
The three categories of goods, if we can dispense for the third which is not a proper good, is useful here. We might rephrase the categories:
Type A: Goods we want regardless of circumstance
– Wisdom, courage, justice, fortitude, etc.
Type B: Goods we want in specific circumstances
– Endurance under torture, self-control under illness, bravery and lack of perturbation in the face of death, etc.
Of course, it can be said the Type B are merely applications of A. This may need to be restructured. The point being, that while torture itself is not something to be wished for, should we stubble to it, we should hope to have the courage, bravery, honor, and equanimity of spirit that the good man would have under such a condition.
I remember reading a blog sometime ago, about a fellow who was a practicing Stoic. He had been practicing for some number of years, and he was told he might have a medical issue which would take from him the sight of one eye.
He mentioned that not only was he calm in the face of this news, a piece of him was moved at the opportunity to express virtue under this new test, this circumstance of blindness in one eye.
I’m not at all entirely sure that’s the most proper outlook for one making progress, it seems to run into this injunction on proper training from Epictetus:
“We ought not to train ourselves in unnatural or extraordinary actions, for in that case we who claim to be philosophers shall be no better than mountebanks. For it is difficult to walk on a tight-rope, and not only difficult but dangerous as well…”
Seneca, you yourself also seem to tend away from this form of extreme practice. It’ certainly something to think about.
Within Stoicism, one would be hard pressed to find an issue more confusing to and confused by the newcomer or average person than preferred and dispreferred indifferents (Gr: προηγμένα and ἀπροηγμένα ). The indifferents (Gr: ἀδιάφορα) are all things which do not have a moral quality. Since a good or evil must by Chrysippus’ definition affect happiness, anything which is not clearly virtue or vice is indifferent.
The common misconception, however, is of a more Platonist or Peripatetic bent. Indeed, you’ll see many moderns state that mere proclivity is the test, and a serpentine sense of hedonism slips into Stoic virtue. This is , of course, a wrong interpretation. However, the charge that preferred indifferents brings in a weakening of virtue is not a new one. I’m alleging that folks are misinterpreting the doctrine, however, others alleged (to Zeno as it were) that in fact that was the case from the get go.
“Ariston the Bald, of Chios, who was also called the Siren, declared the end of action to be a life of perfect indifference to everything which is neither virtue nor vice ; recognizing no distinction whatever in things indifferent, but treating them all alike.”
— Diogenes Laeritus, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book VII, Chapter 2
Aristo of Chios studied under the Academy and the Stoa, he was a contemporary of Zeno, and his Stoicism and a decidedly Cynic bent (although this is a criticism levied against Zeno as well). He disavowed the value of logic and physics in philosophy (the modern atheist Stoics might be able to hop on board there, I’d disagree), and he also claimed the doctrine of preferred and dispreferred indifferents was inappropriate, and harkened back to the Cynics’ stance that only virtue is a good, and all indifferents are equally indifferent. I’m more sympathetic to this position than I used to be.
“Aristo of Chios denied that health and everything similar to it is a preferred indifferent. For to call it a preferred indifferent is equivalent to judging it a good, and different practically in name alone. For without exception things indifferent as between virtue and vice have no difference at all, nor are some of them preferred by nature while others are dispreferred, but in the face of the different circumstances of the occasions, neither those said to be preferred prove to be unconditionally preferred, nor are those said to be dispreferred of necessity dispreferred. For if healthy men had to serve a tyrant and be destroyed for this reason, while the sick had to be released from the service and, therewith also, from destruction, the wise man would rather choose sickness in this circumstance than health.”
— Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors, 11. 64-7.
Aristo eventually had his own school, but was relegated to the sidelines of history as Zeno’s doctrines were accepted as the Stoic position. However, despite that, this position has continued to come up as a minority position in Stoic thought since then.
The “Stoic Heresy” of Aristo just refuses to die.
As we saw this week in Seneca’s letter on virtue, as soon a we begin categorizing goods and indifferents (preferred) we begin to make some indifferents like goods, and include them where they rightly ought not to be.
The misconception of the doctrien of preferred indifferents allows for an environment in which self-delusion is easy. That’s a dangerous position. Now, maybe a Sage could prefer some indifferent things to others: but Sages we ain’t.
Indeed, the actions and projects of the prokoptontes are necessarily very different than that of the Sage, who requires no more training since she has attained that which we are seeking.
Even then, Aristo would say that the Sage is unaffected by preference in the matter of indifferents. The more and more I chew over this position, the more I’m sure it has serious merit and more importantly serious consequences for modern practicing Stoics.
We’re going to take a break now that we’ve reached the end of the Heraclitus Epistles. We’re going to be waiting for Phil to return from his hike of the length of New Zealand. He’s about six weeks from the end of the south island last time we spoke.
So, we’ll get back to this in a bit. Thanks for following along.
Even here in the last part of your letter we find a trace of Aristo’s position, that there are no preferred nor dispreferred indifferents: merely indifferents.
If in one situation we might “prefer” the harder, then the preference isn’t a natural one, as the standard Stoic position states. It’s not merely health, wealth, and high birth: but we might prefer that which trains our souls: the harder.
I intend to write an essay here before too long on Aristo’s position. He was a contemporary of Zeno, and his position was subsumed in the standard Zenoian one.
But maybe, he was right.
IX. To the Same (p. 211)
This one seems more to our interests:
“But, in fact, no one will transgress if he will not go unnoticed when he has transgressed.”
Indeed, the idea of Cynic shamelessness, which even Stoics like Cato and Zeno practiced, is an attempt to show that what is commonly viewed as shameful is not, but what is truly shameful is vice.
Early on in my “from the outside” study of Cynicism, I found the practice of shamelessness distasteful. I think some of it is maybe a bit grander than it needs to be, but the way Cato did it but where dark when light purple was fashionable, or going barefoot instead of being shod.
Seneca said in his letters:
“Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.”
— Letter 10.
This seems like a good lens to view shamelessness.
This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.
“To explain my thought briefly, the material with which a good is concerned is sometimes contrary to nature, but a good itself never is contrary, since no good is without reason, and reason is in accordance with nature.”
The fact that by defintion, indifferents are not goods, but the manner in which we handle indifferents can be is often overlooked. This is the basis of the ascetic training of Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus. It’s well worth remembering.
It seems as if you are setting up three categories of goods, primary, secondary, and tertiary. It’s important to note, as you’ve said, that the primary ones are not more virtuous than the secondary, it’s maybe better to call them Type A, B, and C then primary.
– good children,
– the welfare of one’s country.
these become manifest only in adversity,
– equanimity in enduring severe illness or exile.
Type C: Certain goods are indifferent; these are no more according to nature than contrary to nature,
– a discreet gait
– sedate posture in a chair.
I’m going to assume these are descriptive categories, and not prescriptive types. In fact, I’d only want to call Types A and B goods per se. I’m pretty sure Type C misses the mark for Stoic criteria for goods. I’m sure certain folks, or parts of society, would call Type C goods, but a philosopher should not, as you note: they’re indifferents.
The issue might be one of terminology, the common use of good and the philosophical. Despite the already jargony nature of Stoic discourse, it might be better to use the Greek for these words: ἀγαθός (agathos) — good or καλός (kalos) — beautiful, good.
VIII. To the Same (p. 207)
Just a continued praise of Hermodorus.
This is part of the Cynic Epistles Reading Plan.