SLRP: LXXXVII. In Favour Of The Simple Life (Part 1: 1-8)

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Seneca,

“My false embarrassment about the truth still holds out, you see; and whenever we meet a more sumptuous party I blush in spite of myself – proof that this conduct which I approve and applaud has not yet gained a firm and steadfast dwelling-place within me. So my progress is still insufficient. I have not yet the courage openly to acknowledge my thriftiness. Even yet I am bothered by what other travellers think of me.”

Ah, so my question yesterday is in part answered. Today, self-awareness is so rare as to practically be a superpower, so it does my heart good to see it here.

More and more these days, my mind bends to thoughts as you’ve expressed here. This goes with my confession of yesterday, that my inability… or unwillingness is more apt, to firmly adopt this mode that seems conducive to the good life.  I have more thinking and soul-searching to do here.

I like the idea of the travelling cart, in your case for hire. It’s an appropriate metaphor, I think, for philosophy and life.

You’re used to riding in a fine litter, and now rent the rattle-trap cart of a farmer. In life, our carts may be of one sort or another, they may change. We may start out in the farmer’s cart or the purple and gold bedecked litter. We may end in the same or the opposite. We pass fellow travelers, some heading in the direction we are, some headed elsewhere.
It would be silly to judge the progress of the journey by any other test other than proximity to the destination, but on your road and ours travelers are often more concerned with which kind of carts they see.

A few years ago, I had a nicer car. It was very fancy. It had on it from the previous owner a set of brakes which functioned just fine. The stopped the car, and had a goodly number of thousands of miles of driving left in them. But the squeaked when I slowed. See, the fancy car normally was equipped with a silent, ceramic brake pad. However, the previous owner had replaced these, presumably when they were worn, with a cheaper semi-metallic pad, which while it did a fine job, no matter the conditioning, squeaked when the car braked.

For a while, this bothered me. I was driving this fancy car with squeaky breaks, what would people think? It was a loudish sound, so it’s not like I could pretend other people didn’t notice. And they did. They’d look, make a face, make judgments. It seemed their judgments were about me!

I could have replaced them, covered up this shame with a vanity, paid to have the brakes no longer squeak. But I chose the squeaky but functional brakes as an exercise in Cynic-like shamelessness. Why should I worry about brakes that squeak? “You have brakes which squeak. Anything else? No, nothing else. It is nothing to me.”

This exercise worked, and a short time later, when I was in an accident which totaled the car and I acquired a much less fancy one, I parted with it easier than I might have otherwise.

Pseudo-tangent aside, we have both given up the fancier car(t) for one of utility, and I hope you continue to ride in yours. I think you’ll find it to your benefit. I look forward to the rest of your thoughts on simpler lives next week.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVI. On Scipio’s Villa (Part 2: 11 – 21)

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Seneca,

“It is stated by those who have reported to us the old-time ways of Rome that the Romans washed only their arms and legs daily – because those were the members which gathered dirt in their daily toil – and bathed all over only once a week. Here someone will retort: “Yes; pretty dirty fellows they evidently were! How they must have smelled!” But they smelled of the camp, the farm, and heroism”

Every generation thinks of themselves as “modern.”  But for the last 2.5 million years we’ve all been, as anthropologists say, “anatomically modern humans.”  But we look, with self-pleased disdain at those ‘ancients’ and the short, brutish lives.  Pretty dirty fellows.  It’s funny to see the opinion was as prevalent in your time as it is in mine.

Now, “Stoicism needs to be updated,” “if the ancients knew what we know now, surely they’d agree with us.”  Pretty dirty fellows.

“Now that spick-and-span bathing establishments have been devised, men are really fouler than of yore.  What says Horatius Flaccus, when he wishes to describe a scoundrel, one who is notorious for his extreme luxury? He says. “Buccillus smells of perfume.” “

Seneca, it’s a good think you have broad shoulders, man, because we heap an awful lot on you.  I can’t recall another classical Stoic who gets labeled as hypocrite as often as you do.  I’m sure you’re devastated to hear it. </s>  But in that vein, I ask myself while you’re enjoying this little vacation in the earthy hut you extol so highly, if you think back upon your eventual return to the trappings and property of one of the wealthiest men in the ancient world:  your house.

Do you miss it, or do you feel the future stings of the cry of the hypocrite?

I feel them as well, as the overweight Stoic writing about asceticism I seem to lack the self-discipline to stick to myself.  Possibly, this feeling is a form a ἀἰδώς or maybe there’s a better word for it.  I suspect this isn’t the word, actually:  ἀἰδώς is something the good man feels to keep him from straying.  We who have strayed have maybe some other feeling, calling us back to the path.

Perhaps, then, this feeling is what pushed you to the home of such a heroic figure?  Perhaps it’s a pilgrimage of sorts?  If so, I wish for you to find there what I would want to find for myself in the halls of a hallowed hero were I to stay in such a place.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVI. On Scipio’s Villa (Part 1: 1 – 10)

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Seneca,

“I write to you after doing reverence to his spirit and to an altar which I am inclined to think is the tomb of that great warrior..”

There is spiritual tinge to you letters which are often overlooked.  I recall a passage of another letter, where you talk of keeping statutes of the philosophers, and reverencing their birthdays.  That sounds to me a nice tradition.  I may have to think and then act on that.

“I have inspected the house, which is constructed of hewn stone; the wall which encloses a forest; the towers also, buttressed out on both sides for the purpose of defending the house; the well, concealed among buildings and shrubbery, large enough to keep a whole army supplied; and the small bath, buried in darkness according to the old style, for our ancestors did not think that one could have a hot bath except in darkness…

We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles from Alexandria are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, if their borders are not faced over on all sides with difficult patterns, arranged in many colours like paintings; if our vaulted ceilings are not buried in glass; if our swimming-pools are not lined with Thasian marble, once a rare and wonderful sight in any temple pools into which we let down our bodies after they have been drained weak by abundant perspiration; and finally, if the water has not poured from silver spigots. We think ourselves poor and mean if our walls are not resplendent with large and costly mirrors; if our marbles from Alexandria are not set off by mosaics of Numidian stone, if their borders are not faced over on all sides with difficult patterns, arranged in many colours like paintings; if our vaulted ceilings are not buried in glass; if our swimming-pools are not lined with Thasian marble, once a rare and wonderful sight in any temple pools into which we let down our bodies after they have been drained weak by abundant perspiration; and finally, if the water has not poured from silver spigots.”

I friend of mine told me of a question which they asked someone close to them, “how poor could you stand to be?”  I’ve been thinking of this since it was asked of me, and how this relates to the philosophical life.

Zeno is reported to have live under serious austerities and rigor.  Diogenes, of course, the Cynic par excellence made do with the absolute minimum a man can.

It can be difficult when we look back, even a few generations, to “simpler times,” not to paint the lives of our forebears with too romantic a brush.  It’s easy to imagine some simple, bucolic ideal.  The call of the cabin retreat, and the like.  I am guilty of this quite often I think.

But a lesson can be learned from accurate portraits of former times:  the core requirements of life are really quite narrowly defined.  And, as the Cynics note, relatively easily procured.  It is only in the frivolities, extras, and luxurious that we beggar ourselves of time and energy while ostensibly fending off the beggar’s condition itself.

But a philosophical re-evaluation of the issues is warranted.  How poor could you stand to be?

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXV. On Some Vain Syllogisms (Part 5: 33 – 41)

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Seneca,

” … [The Sage] is always in action, and is greatest in performance at the very time when fortune has blocked his way.”

It can be easy to delude one’s self about equanimity when life is calm and easy.  Quite another thing when it is tempestuous.  But it is on the stormy seas that the pilot excels.

The ship and sailing metaphors in the letter have me remembering Zeno today, how his ship crashed and he lost all his worldly goods.  In that “tragedy” of commerce, however, he gained so much.  He gained the pathway to wisdom, and the light of philosophy.

Maybe it takes a shipwreck to get most of us paying attention to such things as in which we are now interested.

“[Like the trainer is of lions, tigers, and elephants,] the wise man is a skilled hand at taming evils. Pain, want, disgrace, imprisonment, exile, – these are universally to be feared; but when they encounter the wise man, they are tamed.”

This paragraph is poetic and I quite like the imagery of it, but it might also shade things in a less-than-ideal hue for the philosopher.  The Sage has no need of taming these wild beasts of things, for she recognizes that they are in fact not vicious (philosophical pun thoroughly intended) at all.

I find myself thinking on the Sage more and more lately.  In the beginning of my study of Stoicism, I was a touch put off my the use of the Sage as a tool.  Probably some baggage from the system in which I was raised, but it has lately fallen by the wayside.

Either way, this was an interesting read.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXV. On Some Vain Syllogisms (Part 4: 28 – 32)

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Seneca,

“That which is evil does harm; that which does harm makes a man worse. But pain and poverty do not make a man worse; therefore they are not evils.” 

The Stoic perspective is a difficult one.  This can be seen in the confusion with contemporary folks who even identify as Stoics.  There is often an undercurrent of “Yeah, yeah, virtue is the only good, but let’s talk about [insert social outreach goal, here].”

The idea that it is okay for us to be focused so much on our internal state, on the quality of our thoughts, on our souls is off-putting for the West post-Protestant Reformation.  “Good works!” is the battle cry even in the most secular of states, where its role as the  path to salvation has been entirely occluded.

No, sorry.  We Stoics are, or ought to be, worried more about being ourselves a good person, than any social endeavor.  A hard line to hold, it seems.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should just toss the whole social and political sphere aside, not at all.  But that’s focus is secondary.  The Sage will be involved in someway in the political and social life of the community.  But what that looks like is not strictly defined.  Socrates and Diogenes were both involved in the communities in which they live, but in many ways from an outside perspective.

Thank you for the letter, and I look forward to this rest.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXV. On Some Vain Syllogisms (Part 3: 19b – 27)

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Seneca,

“Liberty is lost unless we despise those things which put the yoke on our necks.”

My conception of freedom has changed significantly in the last half decade.  I read a quote by Frank Herbert, author of Dune, and it goes something like “Seek freedom and become capitve of your desires.  Seek self-discipline and find your liberty.”

I didn’t understand that as a teenager, but I’m beginning to.  

The brave man is fearless because he recognizes the things to which he may be subjected are not true evils.  Vice is slavery, and the yoke it places on us is heavy indeed.

ἄσκησις has been colored by the Christian interpretation, and by the mortifiers of the flesh of India.  But the Hellenistic sense is far different.  The goal of both Christian and Indian asceticism is a denial of the self, a stripping away until nothing is left but an experience of the divine.

Frank Herbert seems like he may have understood the Hellenistic sense.  We train not to deny the self, but to secure it.

I see mentioned often “the ego is clearly bad, what does Stoicism have to say about this?” in the groups.  Of course never defining the term.

Epictetus shows something that most like a Cartesian dualism, referring to “a little body,” “scrap of flesh,” “corpse bearing a soul,” etc.  While the Ancients seemed to have some disagreement on the import of the body, they surely did not adopt a “no-self” perspective.

Epictetus effectively identifies the self with the προαίρεσις.  To abandon that would be to deny what makes us human, it would be a gross impiety.  So it is a categorical mistake to see Stoic training as destroying their self.

Thank you for the letter.  Until next week…

Farewell.


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