SLRP: LXXXVIII. On Studies (Part 6: 38b-46)

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Seneca,

“Have I so far forgotten that useful saw “Save your time”? Must I know these things? And what may I choose not to know?”

This brings to mind something I wrote a while back on “amistics.”  The idea of intentionally “choosing not to”something is one which I’ve been chewing on for some time now.  It touches on amistics, on right livelihood of the other day, on the philosopher’s cloak (I and II), on The Rule of Musonius: in short, the whole of living intentionally with virtue as the focus.

I don’t have firm conclusions yet, but I feel some hedging around the horizon…

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVIII. On Studies (Part 5: 31-38a)

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Seneca,

“One must learn about things divine and human, the past and the future, the ephemeral and the eternal; and one must learn about Time.”

It’s easy to forget in the midst of a letter such as this that we’re all supposed to set aside Stoic physics as an unnecessary anachronism of a primitive past.  What arrogance that is.

I do not think, dear Seneca, that I shall go as far as to expel all of these studies from the life of the one making progress, but a certain focusing in seems useful.  We do have a limited (and an unknown limit at that) amount of time in this life, and many things call us away from focusing on virtue and progress.

I look forward to tomorrow’s letter.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVIII. On Studies (Part 4: 24-30)

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Seneca,

“Now philosophy asks no favours from any other source; it builds everything on its own soil; but the science of numbers is, so to speak, a structure built on another man’s land – it builds on everything on alien soil; It accepts first principles, and by their favour arrives at further conclusions. If it could march unassisted to the truth, if it were able to understand the nature of the universe, I should say that it would offer much assistance to our minds; for the mind grows by contact with things heavenly and draws into itself something from on high. There is but one thing that brings the soul to perfection – the unalterable knowledge of good and evil. But there is no other art which investigates good and evil.”

I read often in modern Stoic forums that this or that piece of our school needs to be “updated” or modernized or entirely cast aside.  Many of those folks, ironically those who decry the religious nature of Stoicism, have turned a method for description (science) into a religion itself.

They believe so much, rather than using it as the tool it is.  They even have a priesthood who with holy artifacts beyond the ken the average person bring down TRUTH to them.  They misconstrue the falsification of hypotheses for the discovery of truth.

Here, you discuss about math a similar utility.  I wonder if you’d be surprised to find out that selections of your writings are held up by these same folks as evidence of the atheism in ancient philosophy?  I wonder if they read Natural Questions, and these Letters, and see your references to God and Providence.

Your final question of the section, do these studies produce loyalty, kindness, courage, bravery and more?  That seems to be a decided no.

Farewell.


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

SLRP: LXXXVIII. On Studies (Part 3: 16-23)

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Seneca,

“For what good does it do us to guide a horse and control his speed with the curb, and then find that our own passions, utterly uncurbed, bolt with us? Or to beat many opponents in wrestling or boxing, and then to find that we ourselves are beaten by anger?.”

Ah ha, this is an interesting question.  If the former is sought for its own sake, I agree with you, that it’s not worthwhile.  It’s worth noting, however, that humans are a mixture of πνεῦμα and σῶμα (in the common sense, not the ontological).  Musonius and Epictetus both recommend a mixture of trainings to effect the self.

Musonius’ distinction of two kinds of training is not seen in Epictetus, where he focuses on the Three Τόποι, but the ideas are not contradictory or mutually exclusive.  We might learn many useful things wrestling, a parallel which Marcus, too, would appreciate.

Thank you for the letter.

Farewell.


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

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.