ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν

Standard

There’s been a trend with many some modern Stoic writers, and with commenters and various blogs and groups, that the main focus of ancient philosophy, specifically of Stoicism, can be shifted from virtue and wisdom, to Justice. I’ve even seen it explicitly stated that we can get rid of the other three cardinal virtues and focus solely on Justice.

This is a strange perspective, one couched in the typical morality of the modern world, and I think that you’ll see that it is not based in the Stoic school. If we look at Stoic thought and exercises we will see that we have two tools for acting justly in the world: οἰκείωσις, and using social roles as a way to determine appropriate actions.

However, we have many exercises, tools, and prescriptions for, as Hadot calls them, spiritual exercises. All of these amount to ἐπιμέλεια ἑαυτὸν, or as Foucault translates as “care of the self.” This disparity alone should tell us that the place of importance is shifted in one direction.  Indeed, those outward actions, of roles/duties are merely descriptors of things the Sage does.  It’s just a nice benefit to virtue, not the end of it.

It should be a non-controversial statement, that Stoics are more concerned with the intent of the thing, then the consequences of a thing. The Dichotomy of Control clearly is a tool allowing us, nay, mandating us to pick and choose between what is up to us and what is not up to us. The consequences of our actions in a cosmos which is rigorously, mechanistically, causally controlled and Providentially ordered is clearly not up to us. The internal project, the intent, the work of the προαίρεσις is. Our social roles are not goods in and of themselves. Our duties are not goods. They are expressions of the good which is within, of virtue. Stoic ethics/morality is self-centered. By this, I mean focused on the self. From Socrates, through the Cynics, to the Stoics and beyond the focus has been on the inward turning of the individual.

Epictetus orders us to “turn back to yourselves” (ἐπιστρέψατε αὐτοὶ) (Disc. III.23.39). Marcus reminds himself to “turn your thoughts on yourself”(εἰς ἑαυτὸν ἐπιστρέφου) (Meditations IX.42).  We see this sort of language over and over again in the Stoic canon.

Rather, then seeing Stoicism as one more branding for popular social action or someone’s political agenda; we should look at it, as the Ancients did.  We should see it as an order for care of the self: to work on ourselves, to secure individual virtue. This trend has existed throughout Western Civilization, even though it is almost always subsumed by collectivist structures. For example, we see it in Christianity, we have both the good works mandate, and the admonition to remove the plank from our own eyes, before touching the speck in our neighbors. So too do we see Stoicism. The commandment of γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself), is sometimes reorganized as ‘recognize thy self,’ (Scalenghe) and is a reminder to realign ourselves to the rational divinity of the soul. We are instructed to seek personal virtue and through that we benefit others. So while we bring people one Circle closer in Hierocles’ ordering of the cosmos, we are still ever working on ourselves and to better ourselves.

The call of ancient philosophy is not one of  “come as you are,”  but to recognize your own nature, change what needs to be changed about you, and strive towards the human excellence that you were formed by nature to be worthy of possessing.  The cost may be high, however.  It may be our current way of life, our livelihood, our beliefs, and more besides.  This facet is entirely lost in modern, academic philosophy where the only thing required to learn a specific set of patterns to get closer to truth.  The Ancients require that you change, not merely learn.  The call, then, of the Stoics is while we have duties and obligation in the world polis, the primary focus is on progressing toward virtue. It’s important not to lose sight of that amidst worldly concerns.

Stoicism tells us to work on ourselves to make a difference in our community. Rather than giving the community a partisan, a voter, or one more outraged and offended voice, it is within our power to give them a good person, a good family member, a good citizen.

Your virtue is the best thing you can do for your community.

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

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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

Standard

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)

Standard

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.