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.

SLRP: LXXXV. On Some Vain Syllogisms (Part 2: 13 – 19a)

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Seneca,

“But what folly it is, when the beginnings of certain things are situated outside our control, to believe that their endings are within our control! How have I the power to bring something to a close, when I have not had the power to check it at the beginning? For it is easier to keep a thing out than to keep it under after you have let it in.”

This is an interesting thought.  My first take on it, is that while we do not choose the impression which are presented to the mind, we might also be presented with a mood, impressions or beliefs which “stick around.”  I’ve tried to treat moods like weather, something not in my control, and my first reading of the above is similar.

However, upon further review, the last sentence sticks out more to me.  Rather than simply accepting that an internal state is what it is, should we seek to change or alter them at the outset, we might be better off than trying to undo a long established habit.

“[A]nger, once admitted into the mind, will alter the earlier habit of a mind that was formerly free from anger.”

Ah, indeed.  I’ve seen this in my life.  It is easy to fall into the habit of angry thoughts, jealous thoughts, and ingratitude.  Our character is constantly effected by the quality of our thoughts, as Marcus says, dyed in them.

We color the soul with each assent.  And whether we assent intentionally or not, assent we do.  We are constantly training ourselves in some fashion.

Children are an excellent case in point:  they are always learning, even if their parents are not intending to teach.  Does the example set by them teach self-control, courage, wisdom, gentleness of disposition, freedom, and magnanimity?  Or does it rather teach vindictiveness, judgmental superiority, cruelty, and worse?

In this same way, the ψυχή is taught by our assents.

What are we teaching ourselves today?

 

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXV. On Some Vain Syllogisms (Part 1: 1 – 12)

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Seneca,

“But how petty is the superiority which we attribute to the wise man, if he is merely braver than the most craven, happier than the most dejected, more self-controlled than the most unbridled, and greater than the lowliest! Would Ladas boast his swiftness in running by comparing himself with the halt and the weak?”

For many moderns, the binary nature of Stoicism is problematic.  We have the Stoic paradoxes (meaning against the popular conception) that only the Sage is wise, happy, free, sane.  It is in fact this black and white nature which I think is appealing.

If the goal of our practice is worthy of it, it should be a worthy goal.  Who desires to be the best of the worst?  The Sage as an exemplar is necessarily above the reach of the average person, as Epictetus notes, we aspire to be the purple.

“[It] makes no difference how great the passion is; no matter what its size may be, it knows no obedience, and does not welcome advice.

This is another reason why the chipping away at the importance of virtue, wisdom, and reason is an issue with modern Stoicism.  As soon as we begin to water down the doctrine to be more palatable to the masses, we lose something important.

When we start to rearrange the priorities of philosophical practice, and permitting these moderating influences, we lose the whole thing.

We are doing nothing less than training the moral will.  And the little slight, the little allowance, the little lie to the self now is the seed to toxic vintage.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXIV. On Gathering Ideas (Part 2: 8b – 13)

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Seneca,

I would have my mind of such a quality as this; it should be equipped with many arts, many precepts, and patterns of conduct taken from many epochs of history; but all should blend harmoniously into one. “How,” you ask, “can this be accomplished?” By constant effort, and by doing nothing without the approval of reason.

This presents an image of a sort of eclecticism, picking up bits from here and there, assembling them into one synthetic whole.  I’m not sure that I can agree, on the face.  However, with the qualifier of reason as the test, it may very well end up less scattered than it might first appear.

And if you are willing to hear her voice, she will say to you: “Abandon those pursuits which heretofore have caused you to run hither and thither. Abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to the possessor. Abandon the pleasures of the body and of the mind; they only soften and weaken you. Abandon your quest for office; it is a swollen, idle, and empty thing, a thing that has no goal, as anxious to see no one outstrip it as to see no one at its heels. It is afflicted with envy, and in truth with a twofold envy; and you see how wretched a man’s plight is if he who is the object of envy feels envy also.”

A clear call to renounce the indifferent things.  It’s a hard line to take, and there are many voices in our time, as there were in yours, that such a thing is one of the greatest follies.

But this perennial challenge seems to echo across time, cultures, peoples, and every aspect of human life.  There must be something there for those that answer this call.

We often wonder what the cost of truth is.  Philosophy is not a “come as you are” club, it demands you change.  It demands that you make yourself worth of Truth.  Here, the cost is clearly laid out.

How many will pay it?

Farewell.


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

Cynic παρρησία isn’t always welcomed.

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Phil Somers, posted in one of the Stoicism fb groups with a caustic but pertinent critique of consumerist Philosophy.  

He has this to say:

“So I have been slow to realise the fact that Stoicism is just a commodity that can be exploited. I used to believe it was this noble philosophy, but now I see it is so much more. So here is a preview of my new e-Book on Stoicism. Pricing to be announced shortly…”

 Some folks took umbrage with his post, but as is often the case, Phil has an ability to cut through the surface of the issue and strike at its heart. 

Deciding to make money from philosophy is not something one does lightly if they’re doing it with a full heart, and I think most are.  It’s a narrow edge to walk.  The best way, I suppose, would be to put out whatever you’re doing and if remuneration happens, it happens.

A danger exists if sales becomes an end, or a goal.  If the desire to bring in dollars shapes the discourse, then we can wonder quite far from the path.  Of course lots of money can be made by saying “use this philosophy to get money, sex, and prestige.” It is probably significantly harder to make money saying, “virtue is the sole good, the results of your action have no moral worth only your intent does, give up worldly desires, and align yourself consonant with nature.”

That’s a much harder sell.

Even philosophers have to eat, and most of us don’t live in a ceramic jar.  Musonius talks about right livelihood, and other Stoics have as well.  Teaching classes is an endorsed career  for a philosopher, and selling books seems decidedly in that vein. 

I took Phil’s reminder to keep the goals of Philosophy in mind, stay humble, and hold yourself to a high standard. The Stoics and Cynics are sibling schools, and the παρρησία of our closest relative can only make us better philosophers.

Thanks, Phil.