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

Standard

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.

SLRP: LXXXVII. In Favour Of The Simple Life (Part 3: 18b-25)

Standard

Seneca,

“Why, then, is the wise man great? Because he has a great soul. Accordingly, it is true that that which falls to the lot even of the most despicable person is not a good.”

It seems a little funny how frequently the Stoics have to refute the Aristotelian position, that some goods stuff is required for the good.  It is, of course, because such thing present themselves to us a good.  And folks cannot generally tell the difference.

“For petty sacrilege is punished, but sacrilege on a grand scale is honoured by a triumphal procession.”

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVII. In Favour Of The Simple Life (Part 2: 9-18a)

Standard

Seneca,

“That which can fall to the lot of any man, no matter how base or despised he may be, is not a good [ed: or an evil].”

The Stoic conception of good and evil is difficult to grok at first for many westerners.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the modern idea of evil doesn’t exist at all within Stoic thought.  Let me explain.  When the question of “Good and Evil” is brought up, a litany of occurrences are often offered as example:  childhood cancers, famine, war, privation, and want.  The modern points to these things and says, “see all this evil stuff happens, therefore the universe can’t be Providentially ordered, or else Providence is mean.”

Death, sickness, poverty, loss, exile.  All of these can affect any one of us, earned or otherwise.  Therefore, as they lie outside the will, they cannot be an evil.  Every creature that lives must die (so far as we know, excepting maybe orchids, lobsters, and a few tiny critters, perhaps).  How then can death be an evil?

For the Stoic, these things are not evil.  The Greek word that we’re translating here is κακόν, the opposite of virtue.  So, shoehorning the modern idea of evil into it is inappropriate at best, and misleading at worst.  The only thing that can be evil are the subject’s own moral choices.  Full stop.

So what about the great evils of human history?  There are many to choose from.  For every person who contributed to them, it was an evil that very likely defined the entirety of their existence.  The Stoics would even go so far as to say it wasn’t evil even for the victims.  Both ends of this are hard to wrap one’s head around, I think.  And I think a hangup here is reasonable for someone learning to think in a different way about what’s moral, just, right, etc.

The Roman Stoics seems to discuss what’s admirable and honorable as indicative of the Good more so than their Greek predecessors.  I think this can be a useful tool for seeing in the specific circumstances where the good and evil lie.  In some human catastrophe, is it admirable to be the one following an order to harm innocents, or be the one who may die in the attempt to smuggle them out?  Pretty easy question.  Is it more admirable to die standing on one’s feet, facing down a murderous regime, or to acquiesce, and look the other way?  Again, seems easy.

Maybe, with benefit of history, and the nearly hyperbolic nature of such great evils, the right path is clear.  Maybe it’s harder when it’s small.  Is it more admirable to hold one’s peace when dealing with a belligerent person, or to correct them?  Is it more honorable to ignore an incendiary Facebook comment, or correct the record so a learner is not misinformed?

Ah, that seems a bit trickier.  Arguments might be reasonably formed either way.  Like many things, the broad stroke seem clear, and the details maybe a bit murkier.  And it’s these questions that we’re likely to face regularly.  Most generations don’t have to choose to participate, stand by, or resist human tragedies.  We do, however, have to face down the ingrate, the belligerent, the backbiter, the gossip, the ruffian, etc.  We do constantly have to look at our own motivations, and the times we fall short.

We may falsely assent to a worldly good or evil, and as a result be short with those closest to us.  We may then fall short in our duties to those people, and build a habit training ourselves towards vicious ends.  That’s a risk that we see every day.

Farewell.


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

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

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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.