Review: “Stoicism and the Statehouse” by Pat McGeehan

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STOICISM AND THE STATEHOUSE
Pat McGeehan.​

A friend of mine, and legislator in the West Virginia House of Delegates has written a book on Stoicism in public life.  Unlike the Garden of the Epicureans, the Stoa advised its proponents to take an active role in the polis.  Pat’s political perspective comes through often in the book, as one would expect of a work of this nature.

Stoicism and the Statehouse starts off with a meeting that I’m incredibly envious of, a meeting with VADM James Stockdale, USN, Ret.  Pat’s appreciation of Stoicism is colored heavily by his and his family’s military service and sacrifices.  James Stockdale is amazing model for modern Stoics, especially those who are in public service such representative government, military, law enforcement, etc.  As an aside, for those interested in Stockdale, here are two PDF files of some of his work which are available without cost to the reader.  [Link 1, Link 2, ].  Also, his book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot is available from Amazon.

The middle half of Stoicism and the Statehouse, is the life of Cato the Younger, retold. It seems clear that Cato is a role model for Pat, and that the life of the eminent Stoic philosopher and public servant has featured heavily in Pat’s own legislative career.  This section does a good job at hitting the high points of the life of Cato, and mirrors well the retelling in Plutarch. For those who are unfamiliar with Cato, this is a useful section.

The last third of the book is a distillation of stoic lessons from Epictetus, Musonius, and Marcus which Pat relates to the job and obligations of a legislator.  This is really the crux of the book, in my opinion, and its main strength.  There are many places to get hagiographies of great figures, and the nuts and bolts of Stoicism.  Accounts and lessons of daily Stoic practice are a bit thin on the ground.

Often times, we see Stoicism discussed in broad generalities, and we do not always see it discussed in the nitty-gritty details everyday life. While the specifics of a legislator’s day may not mirror everyone’s, many of the same challenges will be familiar.  The topics range from finding one’s first principles and sticking to them, avoiding quid pro quo, keeping firmly to the modes and decisions for eventual long-term goals, to being ready to accept (with Cynic shamelessness) the critiques of others which are invalid philosophically.

The reader, now been familiar with some of Cato’s life, sees how his habit of walking barefoot, wearing a lowly philosopher’s cloak, standing up and speaking truth to power, all bear relation to the teachings of the Stoa on their way to the individual lives of practitioners.

I will note that I disagree with a few word choices and translations, and there’s a claim or two that I’ve never seen made elsewhere.  But overall I can’t think of any other book on Stoicism which has quite the same focus as this one, and I hope that is the beginning of a trend..  Hearing the stories of contemporary Stoics who are engaged in the activities of modern life and are endeavoring to maintain philosophical equilibrium is something that we have not seen too much of other than in Stockdale’s writings, aside from a few marketers and business folks.

The horrors of a prisoner-of-war camp seemed almost cinematically hyperbolic when compared to the frustrations of the modern workplace, the obligations and roles of modern social life.  In many ways, these nearly superhuman feats of the soul like Stockdale’s can feel as distant to us as the lives of the Hellenistic philosophers themselves do.  It’s hard to grok the trials and struggles that those who came before us have endured.  Yet, it’s these most extreme cases where Stoic practice seems like it’s needed the most.  We do not get there without applying it in the small, daily cases, however.  Which is why books such as this are important.

In Pat’s book, we see such focus on philosophy in practice for a modern context.  It’s an interesting perspective on the practice of philosophy that may not be readily apparent to most modern practitioners, but it’s decidedly in the historical vein of the School. The Stoics have been the Muse behind many political and philosophical figures in history, and to see that legacy carried forward in the 21st century is appreciated.  Marcus notes that it’s possible to live well even in a palace.  Living well in the legislature seems an even greater challenge.

While certainly not a survey text for newcomers, and avoiding to get lost in the weeds of Stoic physics, theology, and the other ancillary details that I tend to be interested in: this book is an interesting vignette on ethics and practice in the modern polis.

You can get it here, from Amazon.com, if this is an area which interests you.

SLRP: LXXXVIII. On Studies (Part 2: 9-15)

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Seneca,

“Now I will transfer my attention to the musician. You, sir, are teaching me how the treble and the bass are in accord with one another, and how, though the strings produce different notes, the result is a harmony; rather bring my soul into harmony with itself, and let not my purposes be out of tune. You are showing me what the doleful keys are; show me rather how, in the midst of adversity, I may keep from uttering a doleful note.”

As someone who has been learning two musical instruments, I can appreciate this metaphor.  I don’t know much music theory, and can’t read music, so I’ve been learning aurally, and by playing with others.  It’s not been easy for me to do, but I enjoy it, and it’s teaching patience, concerted and longitudinal effort, and more besides.  Music seems like a fine indifferent hobby for the philosopher.

It’s interesting that you seem also to see the value in the music for one inclined to introspecting, and to contrast that with the practical skills which get put to use in the world.  Bean counting doesn’t not seem to be in high esteem for you.

I look forward to your next letter.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVIII. On Studies (Part 1: 1-8)

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Seneca,

“But there is only one really liberal study, – that which gives a man his liberty. It is the study of wisdom, and that is lofty, brave, and great-souled. All other studies are puny and puerile. You surely do not believe that there is good in any of the subjects whose teachers are, as you see, men of the most ignoble and base stamp? We ought not to be learning such things; we should have done with learning them.”

This reminds me for the section of the Discourses which discusses that there is only one knowledge which has knowledge of itself, comparing grammar, music, etc. to logic/philosophy.  This seems a natural extension of that line of reasoning.

This is one thing which has been on my mind significantly the past few months: right livelihood.  Musonius suggests working the earth, Epictetus the same as well as teaching classes or advising rulers.  That seems to be the limited field going so far back as the early Stoa.

“We have no leisure to hear lectures on the question whether he was sea-tost between Italy and Sicily, or outside our known world (indeed, so long a wandering could not possibly have taken place within its narrow bounds); we ourselves encounter storms of the spirit, which toss us daily, and our depravity drives us into all the ills which troubled Ulysses.”

A wonderful vignette.

The body has certain requirements, and they are but sparse.  It required water, food, sleep, warmth, shelter.  The mind my also require companionship and exercise of some sort.  The soul requires virtue.  The mixture of these, to serve them all requires little on the former, and time and effort on the last.

Right livelihood, then, should meet several criteria (both positive and negative) to my mind:

  • To produce enough to support one’s self and one’s dependents minimally (not luxuriously).
  • To not be involved in any morally repugnant, or even morally dubious thing.
  • To leave one with enough time to focus on philosophy and one’s social roles.
  • To be directed to some useful end.

These are probably not the same criteria most folks use when choosing, or stumbling into, a career.  And it really casts one’s choices in a different light, as well as highly restricts them.

I suspect the most difficult issue is the second one, as this may not be apparent from the outside looking in.  But this criterion would suggest we must leave as soon as possible any employment which caused us to violate our principles.

Food for thought.  Thank you for the letter.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVII. In Favour Of The Simple Life (Part 5: 35-41)

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Seneca,

I was a bit surprised at the turn of the letter.  I was expecting maybe something more along the lines of Walden, I suppose.  I do still wonder, the early parts are a practical polemic against wealth, while the latter ameliorates that somewhat with the idea that it’s not the stuff that’s the problem, but how men use it.  Still the temptation is greater, it seems, when the means are present for much indulgence.

The question of “not-possessing” is brought up, you mention that in line 40.  I went and found the original Latin letter, hoping to find the Greek word you’re thinking of.  Sadly, it’s merely the description of the concept in the Latin, no Greek to be found.

One of the features of Greek which I think ties back into the simple life (I promise this is coming back on topic) is seen in some alpha-privative words.  These states which seek a lack.  I’m talking about these “negative” words, beginning with the letter alpha, which describe conditions that are natural in their poverty of something. ἀταραξία comes to mind, this ‘unperturbedness,’ freedom from distress. Of course, ἀπάθεια, freedom from distress/passion.

This condition of preference for a lack is not easily relayed in English, but it is an useful metaphor for the simple life, I think.  We seek not to gain more, but to remove until we have just enough to build with.  The good life, in part, is a smooth flow which requires minimal fluff to it.  It seeks a lack.

This touches on a common misunderstanding with ascetic training.  It’s not a self-flagellation, or puritanical denial of the flesh, but a removal extra to allow the real building.  When a structure is to be erected, whether it be a monument, house, cabin, or temple the first thing to do is clear the ground.

Thank you for the letter.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVII. In Favour Of The Simple Life (Part 4: 26-34)

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Seneca,

“Certain of our school oppose this statement as follows: “Let us suppose that money taken from any source whatsoever is a good; even though it is taken by an act of sacrilege, the money does not on that account derive its origin from sacrilege. You may get my meaning through the following illustration: In the same jar there is a piece of gold and there is a serpent. If you take the gold from the jar, it is not just because the serpent is there too, I say, that the jar yields me the gold – because it contains the serpent as well, – but it yields the gold in spite of containing the serpent also. Similarly, gain results from sacrilege, not just because sacrilege is a base and accursed act, but because it contains gain also. As the serpent in the jar is an evil, and not the gold which lies there, beside the serpent; so in an act of sacrilege it is the crime, not the profit, that is evil.” But I differ from these men; for the conditions in each case are not at all the same. In the one instance I can take the gold without the serpent, in the other I cannot make the profit without committing the sacrilege. The gain in the latter case does not lie side by side with the crime; it is blended with the crime.”

Oh hey, look.  That seems almost like a proto-libertarian stance.

“Moreover,” the objector says, “you grant that riches are of some use. You reckon them among the advantages; and yet on this basis they cannot even be an advantage, for it is through the pursuit of riches that we suffer much disadvantage.””

This seems to be a Cynic-inspired challenge to the preferred and dispreferred indifferent things.  Or Aristo’s heterodox position.  One which more and more, I tend to agree.

“Things which bestow upon the soul no greatness or confidence or freedom from care are not goods. But riches and health and similar conditions do none of these things; therefore, riches and health are not goods.”

“”Things which bestow upon the soul no greatness or confidence or freedom from care, but on the other hand create in it arrogance, vanity, and insolence, are evils.”

I apologize for the brevity of these last two letters, I’ve injured my wrist, and my ability to type is accordingly restricted.

Farewell.


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