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.

SLRP: LXXXIV. On Gathering Ideas (Part 1: 1 – 8a)

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Seneca,

[M]y passion for literature makes me lazy and careless about my body…

You and me both.  This first part of the letter explicitly states something I’ve come to know, but hadn’t distilled so concisely.  Through writing, we form and organize those things we’ve taken in, and this leads to a synthesising and framing of the information in a new and more useful way.

It is often when I sit down to write, either for myself alone or for the blog, that I find ideas have coalesced and grown in new directions.

When I sit at the keyboard to explain a topic or facet, my understanding deepens.  We learn as we teach, and even when the student is our own self, this holds true.

I look forward to the rest of the letter.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: 1.LXXXIII. On Drunkenness (Part 2: 8 – 19a)

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Seneca,

[D]runkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed. Prolong the drunkard’s condition to several days; will you have any doubt about his madness? Even as it is, the madness is no less; it merely lasts a shorter time.

The thrust of your letter thus far, is that while philosophy does not require teetotalism, however this would not be to counter purposes, it does require moderation.  There seems to be a but of a conflict with what we’re reported of Zeno, that at one time he said the good man does not get drunk, and at another that even the beans are improved by soaking.

Maybe we expect a but much from Zeno.  Either way, the question of intentionally altering human consciousness, specifically for recreation or relaxing, is certain one which philosophy ought to be able to answer.

I agree with you, that when we look at the very early Stoics, while their conclusions often seem to me to be correct, their arguments are often lacking.

Drunkenness kindles and discloses every kind of vice, and removes the sense of shame that veils our evil undertakings. For more men abstain from forbidden actions because they are ashamed of sinning than because their inclinations are good.

It just so happens that this week I was discussing αἰδώς with a group of Stoics.  We were discussing its English translation, which is often rendered as ‘shame.”  I provided “shamefast,” which often gets incorrect reported as ‘shame faced,’  and we came to the understanding that it is the pre-emptive feeling (a good passion) which alerts the good person to a possible future moral failing.  It is a moral self-respect which a good person has which does not permit him or her to do a certain morally corrupt thing.

Here, Seneca, you seem to look down on this pre-emptive sort of avoiding evil, but I’m not sure that you’re correct here.  Indeed, especially as those of us training, this kind of feeling is useful measurement device.

How often do the Stoics admonish us to live as if all our deeds were public, as if all our thoughts were commonly available to others.  The purpose of recollecting to ourselves in the evening is to being the habit and thought that our actions, no matter how secret, will get exposed if only to ourselves before bed.

I think the argument that the person who does not exercise the due control over appetites, over food and drink, indeed does wrong.  This is a useful reminder for many of us moderns.

I thank you for the letter, and look forward to tomorrow’s.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXIII. On Drunkenness (Part 1: 1 – 7)

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Seneca,

“At any rate, it is thus that we should live, – as if we lived in plain sight of all men; and it is thus that we should think, – as if there were someone who could look into our inmost souls; and there is one who can so look. For what avails it that something is hidden from man? Nothing is shut off from the sight of God. He is witness of our souls, and he comes into the very midst of our thoughts – comes into them, I say, as one who may at any time depart.”

I have not been doing a very good job at doing the morning and evening review.  I will take your letter as an invitation to begin the practice again.  I think I will change the manner somewhat, however.

Previously, I would do so quietly and internally while waiting for sleep.  I also tried handwriting out in a journal using a three-fold set of questions:

  • That which I did well the day.
  • That which I did ill the day.
  • That which I have left undone.

Yet, I think this too narrow a focus, and doesn’t provide for the kind of introspection and review that the exercise required.  Henceforth, I will think I type out my review, beginning with a diary-like accounting of the day, and then finishing by way of summary with my three points above.

Thank you for the timely reminder.  Although the purpose of today’s letter has yet to be uncovered, this was a needed sentiment.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXII. On The Natural Fear Of Death (Part 3: 19 – 24)

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Seneca,

You cannot “still braver go,” if you are persuaded that those things are the real evils. Root out this idea from your soul; otherwise your apprehensions will remain undecided and will thus check the impulse to action.

This is the most poignant reminder in today’s letter.  The purpose of our training is not in mere logical exercises or tricks, but to root out false beliefs, and in their place leave assents to true propositions according to nature.

It’s an interesting idea that the Sage might not have to be brave to face a death such as the Spartans saw at Thermopylae, but since his beliefs are founded on correct assents, he knows death is no evil, and this experiences no fear which needs to be combated with bravery.

Thank you for the reminder and food for thought.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: 5.LXXXIII. On Drunkenness (Part 3: 19b – 27)

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Seneca,

When the strength of wine has become too great and has gained control over the mind, every lurking evil comes forth from its hiding-place. Drunkenness does not create vice, it merely brings it into view…

It has long been my contention that intoxication of this sort does not bring about new evils.  It simply rearranges priorities.  As you note, the lustful man does not hide his vice, nor does the cruel man but become more cruel.  Alcohol and the like seem not to create new evils, but only bring them to the surface.

There are, perhaps, other more rare vices which do seem to change the quality of the person, if not with a single use but through prolonged exposure.  The heartily addicted sometime seem this way.

It is still due to ignorance that mean do evil:

[T]hat what men call pleasures are punishments as soon as they have exceeded due bounds

All are deprived of truth against their will.  It is through a misunderstanding good and evil that folks seek escape or (incorrect) therapy for their passions.  You will sometimes see it claimed that addiction is moral problem, not a criminal one.

I generally agree with this sentiment, but would take a Stoic turn.  It’s not that person needs to be saved to change their behavior, but that they must instead learn to distinguish between what’s good and evil, and what’s up to us and what’s not.  In short, they must learn to diaresize, and master the προαίρεσις.  It’s not a moral failing, but a moral blindness.

Farewell.


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

Seneca Reading plan, redux!

Aside

About this time last year, I packed up my earthly belongings and hauled them about 1300 miles across the country.  In that moving, my Seneca reading plan fell by the wayside.  I’ll be picking it back up from where I left off, in week 27 of the reading plan.

So, those sorts of posts may become more frequent.

In a side note, I’m also doing some more reading on Stoic ἄσκησις, so expect some thoughts and posts in that vein.

SLRP: LXXXII. On The Natural Fear Of Death (Part 2: 8 – 18)

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Seneca,

I think this is one of my favorite sections of your Letters thus far.  It addresses several interesting topics, first being the importance of practice and study.

“This strength of heart, however, will come from constant study, provided that you practise, not with the tongue but with the soul, and provided that you prepare yourself to meet death.”

You brought up a point which is one I noted several months ago, that sometimes the arguments of the Old Stoa are … less than convincing.  Specifically, I’m thinking of some of Zeno’s arguments as reported by other sources.  It reaffirmed that opinion of mine, to see that you too shared this opinion.

“Our master Zeno uses a syllogism like this: “No evil is glorious; but death is glorious; therefore death is no evil.” A cure, Zeno! I have been freed from fear; henceforth I shall not hesitate to bare my neck on the scaffold. Will you not utter sterner words instead of rousing a dying man to laughter?”

It’s important to note, that although this particular argument might not be convincing, as you note his interlocutor successfully refutes by turning it about, it doesn’t mean that the idea is wrong or untrue.

There are other arguments that Zeno makes, that despite his argument being unconvincing seems to me to have a true conclusion.

The next part that stands out to me is the explanation of how the manner in which we treat an indifferent is not itself indifferent.

This careful division, of the context in which virtuous choice occurs, and the choice itself is poignant.

“For it is not poverty that we praise, it is the man whom poverty cannot humble or bend. Nor is it exile that we praise, it is the man who withdraws into exile in the spirit in which he would have sent another into exile. It is not pain that we praise, it is the man whom pain has not coerced. One praises not death, but the man whose soul death takes away before it can confound it.”

A reminder, then that each intention contains the possibility for virtue.

“Everything, if you add virtue, assumes a glory which it did not possess before.”

This is, following, is an important note.  What trouble might arise if we put off this practice, suddenly to find ourselves face-to-face with death without having done the training?

“Therefore, although death is something indifferent, it is nevertheless not a thing which we can easily ignore. The soul must be hardened by long practice, so that it may learn to endure the sight and the approach of death.”

 

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXII. On The Natural Fear Of Death (Part 1: 1 – 7)

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Seneca,

I’m wondering if there’s a nuance that I’ve missed before now, between Fortune and Fate.  This polemic against Fortune seems as suited to a Cynic discourse against Fate.  I suppose the snide among us might say, “There is a difference, you can tell, you know, because of the spelling.”

“[G]ird yourself about with philosophy, an impregnable wall. Though it be assaulted by many engines, Fortune can find no passage into it.”

We have the (later dubbed) amor fati component of the Stoic worldview, and if Fortune and Fate are used interchangeably, this kind of charge seems to be a contradiction.

Instead, if we look at it as Fortune being the fickle nature of externals in relation to ourselves, and Fate being the divine order, that apparent contradiction vanishes.

“The soul stands on unassailable ground, if it has abandoned external things; it is independent in its own fortress; and every weapon that is hurled falls short of the mark.”

This seems to be the case, then.  The Stoic instructed by you, Seneca, accepts whatever Fate brings, and attempts to set aside the things on which fickle Fortune preys.

Fate versus Fortune will be interested fodder for the day.

Farewell.


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