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Sunday, March 18, 2018

9: An Artist At Friend-Making

     In the ninth letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca discusses one of the disputes between the Stoic school of philosophy (he considers himself to be a Stoic) and their rivals the Epicureans on the issue of whether or not the wise person is self-sufficient. Seneca writes:
          "Our position [that of the Stoics] is different from theirs [the Epicureans] in that our wise person conquers all adversities, but still feels them; theirs does not even feel them. That the sage is self-sufficient is a point held in common between us; yet even though he is content with himself, he still wishes to have a friend, a neighbor, a companion. ... He is self-sufficient, not in that that he wants to be without a friend, but in that he is able to -- by which I mean that he bears the loss with equanimity. But in truth he will never be without a friend, for it rests with him how quickly he gets a replacement. Just as Phidias [a famous sculptor in ancient Athens], if he should lose one of his statues, would immediately make another, so this artist at friend-making will substitute another in place of the one who is lost."
     My late friend Brian Lingle was an artist at friend-making. Brian died suddenly around this time three years ago. At his funeral, our mutual friend John gave a moving (and humorous) eulogy, in which he remarked that many of Brian's friends considered him to be their best friend. In my own case, I went through a major depressive episode around the turn of the millennium, which included one week in the hospital and one month off from work. For a year after that -- and perhaps longer -- Brian would drive to my house every Saturday or Sunday morning (regardless of the Chicago weather) in his barely-functioning old car, so that we could go for a run together along the shores of Lake Michigan. His concern for me, which he showed in actions more than in words, was a major factor in my recovery.
     In my reading of Seneca, despite the passage of two thousand years between us, I find myself in agreement with much of what he had to say. But on at least one point I disagree with him: although I have other friends, and hope to make more, I will never find a substitute for Brian.

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 9, 3-5, page 40. 


Sunday, March 11, 2018

8: Discovering The Right Path Late In Life

     There are not often explicit transitions between Seneca's letters, but his eighth letter to Lucilius does have such a transition. In the seventh letter, Seneca advised his friend to avoid crowds with phrases like "Direct your goods inward" and "Retreat into yourself". At the beginning of Letter 8, Seneca reports Lucilius' reaction to Letter 7, asking if Seneca's approach is inconsistent with the Stoic teaching to live an active life. Seneca responds:
          "Well, do you think this is inaction that I am urging upon you? Here is the reason that I have hidden myself away and closed the doors: to benefit the greater number. Not one of my days is spent in leisure, and I claim a part of the nights for study. I have no time for sleep, until it overcomes me; my eyes are exhausted and drooping with late hours, but I keep them to the task. I have withdrawn not only from society but from business, and especially from my own business. The work that I am doing is for posterity: it is they who can benefit from what I write. I am committing to the page some helpful admonitions, like recipes for useful salves. I have found these effective on my own sores, which, even if not completely healed, have ceased to spread. The right path, which I myself discovered late in life when weary from wandering, I now point out to others."
     I have no illusions about writing for posterity; however, on a personal level, I do believe that I have recently turned onto a better path. For much of my 29-year career, I seemed to alternate between "individual contributor" jobs and "manager" positions. The management jobs usually paid more, but I found them to be more stressful and less interesting. My current role as a contract attorney is in the individual contributor mode, and -- among other advantages -- I find that I have the mental energy to continue blogging (albeit mostly on the weekends).
     Speaking of blogging (and of discovering the right path) Real Delia is about finding oneself in adulthood, and I highly recommend it. Full disclosure, Delia Lloyd is my cousin, but don't hold that against her!

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 8, 1-3, pages 37-38; see also Letter 7, 8, page 36. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

7: The Un-Wisdom Of Crowds

     I want to begin by apologizing to my readers for the unusual length of time between posts. My job search -- discussed in my 12/11/17 post ("Philosophers And Bathroom Attendants") -- is finally over, at least for the time being. I recently started a position as a contract lawyer, reviewing documents in a large antitrust case. In order to prepare myself for this project, which may last six months, I had to brush up on the basics of the rules of evidence (particularly relevancy and privileges), which I had not focused on since law school.
     But now back to Seneca. In the seventh letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca relates a recent experience that deeply disturbed him. Apparently, he decided to the see the noontime show at an arena -- the Colosseum would not open until 80 AD/CE, 15 years after Seneca's death -- hoping for amusement. Instead, he found carnage. It seems that criminals were given lethal weapons and then ordered to fight to the death for the crowd's pleasure. Unlike gladiators, who typically fought with helmets and shields, the prisoners had no protective gear. As more blood flowed, the spectators became more excited and more blood-thirsty. Seneca told Lucilius:
          "Do you ask what you should avoid more than anything else? A crowd. It is not yet safe for you to trust yourself to one. ... [C]ontact with the many is harmful to us. Every single person urges some fault upon us, or imparts one to us, or contaminates us without our even realizing it. Without doubt, the larger the group we associate with, the greater the danger. Nothing, though, is as destructive to good character as occupying a seat in some public spectacle, for then the pleasure of the sight lets the faults slip in more easily. What do you suppose I mean? Do I come home greedier, more power-hungry, more self-indulgent? Worse than that! I become more cruel and inhumane, just because I have been among humans." 
     Seneca was not the first or the only classical Western thinker who had a low regard for the masses. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato -- to cite but one example -- never forgave the Athenians for voting to convict and then sentence to death his teacher Socrates in 399 BC/BCE. Seneca closes the letter with the following advice for Lucilius: "Direct your goods inward."

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 7, 1-3, pages 34-35; see also 12, page 37. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

6: Personal Progress, East And West

     In his sixth letter to Lucilius, Seneca mentions the Stoic notion of progress to his friend:
          "You cannot imagine how much progress I see myself making every day. 'What remedies are these that have done so much for you?' you say. 'Send them to me too!' Indeed, I am longing to shower you with all of them. What gives me pleasure in learning something is that I can teach it. Nothing will ever please me, not even what is remarkably beneficial, if I have learned it for myself only. If wisdom were given to me with this proviso, that I should keep it shut up in myself and never express it to anyone else, I should refuse it: no good is enjoyable to possess without a companion. So I will send you the books themselves; and I will annotate them too, so that you need not expend much effort hunting through them for the profitable bits, but can get right away to the things that I endorse and am impressed with."
     Seneca discusses progress toward wisdom further in Letter 75, noting that there are three categories of persons making progress. Some Stoics say that the first group of progressors have eliminated their mental infirmities but not their emotions. The second type have put aside the worst of the emotions, but have not yet achieved tranquility and are liable to backsliding. The third kind of progressors has gone beyond many serious faults (like greed, lust, and desire) but not all faults (like anger, ambition, and fear). Seneca tells Lucilius that he believes they both have made it, or will make it, into the third species. The Stoic goal is to become a wise person, or sage; such people are not troubled by anxiety, not defiled by pleasure, and fear neither the gods nor death. However, few humans have ever achieved this status (a notable example of a sage, for the ancient Stoics, was the Athenian philosopher Socrates).
   An interesting parallel (at least to me) can be drawn with the Theravada Buddhism of the Pali Canon. According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the Buddha's disciples can be divided into four classes. The "stream-enterer" has eliminated doubt and certain other fetters. The "once-returner" has not eliminated additional fetters, but has weakened hatred and delusion and lust. The "non-returner" has eliminated lust and ill will. The goal of the Theravada Buddhist is to become an "arahant" who has eliminated the desire for existence -- along with conceit, restlessness, and ignorance -- and will not undergo any future rebirths in any realms.
     Whether or not Seneca believed in reincarnation or immortality is a subject for a future post.

     Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Boston,Wisdom Publications, 2005), pages 373-384.
     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 6, 3-5 , pages 33-34; see also Letter 75, 8-18, pages 237-239. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

4/5: Living According To Nature

     As noted in my 12/30/17 post, in his fourth letter to Lucilius, Seneca quotes Epicurus' maxim that "Poverty is great wealth when it adjusts to nature's law". In Letter 5, Seneca goes on to flesh out his view of the Stoic concept of nature for Lucilius in good-humored (or perhaps sarcastic) fashion:
          "Our aim is to live in accordance with nature, is it not? This is contrary to nature: tormenting one's body, swearing off simple matters of grooming, affecting a squalid appearance, partaking of foods that are not merely inexpensive but rancid and coarse. A hankering after delicacies is a sign of self-indulgence; by the same token, avoidance of those comforts that are quite ordinary and easy to obtain is an indication of insanity. Philosophy demands self-restraint, not self-abnegation -- and even self-restraint can comb its hair. The limit I suggest is this: our habits should mingle the ideal with the ordinary in due proportion, our way of life should be one that everyone can admire without finding it unrecognizable."
     Here Seneca seems to be making an argument in favor of moderation ("... our habits should mingle the ideal with the ordinary in due proportion ...") which is the founding principle of this blog. The passage also brings to mind Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, discussed in my post of  10/19/17. As readers may recall, in Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle defined virtues as the mean between excess and deficiency. Regarding temperance, for example, he said it was destroyed by excess (licentiousness) and deficiency (insensibility) but preserved by the mean.
     In closing, it is worth noting that Seneca authored a separate treatise called "Natural Questions" -- also included in the University of Chicago's recent series of translations of his complete works into English -- which I hope to read some day.

     Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics, London, 2004; original translation by Thomson, revised by Tredennick, introduction by Barnes), Book II, page 34, pages 40-49; see also Appendix 1.
     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 5, 4-5, page 32. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

3: Seneca Was SO Judgmental

     Many of Seneca's letters to Lucilius discuss friendship. For instance, in Letter 3, Seneca expresses his concern to Lucilius that the latter has made friends with a person who he did not trust completely. However, according to Seneca:
          "Consider every question with a friend; but first, consider the friend. After you make a friend, you should trust him -- but before you make a friend, you should make a judgment. People who love someone and then judge that person are mixing up their responsibilities: they should judge first, then love, as Theophrastus advised. Take time to consider whether or not to receive a person into your friendship; but once you have decided to do so, receive him with all your heart, and speak with him as candidly as with yourself."
     Rightly or wrongly, judging another person -- the quality of being judgmental -- is no longer favored in the modern West. To cite but one example, consider the North American fitness chain that advertises itself as a "judgement-free zone" and informs potential members that "the world judges; we don't." However, I think there may be a mean between Seneca's "judge first" policy and the "never judge" motto of the fitness chain. 
     The Stoic thinker Epictetus was born about 10 years before Seneca's death in 65 AD/CE. Epictetus, who was a slave before he became a teacher of philosophy, expressed a more flexible view of the faculty of judgment in his Discourses:
          "The raw material of the good man is his mind -- his goal being to respond to impressions the way nature intended. As a general rule, nature designed the mind to assent to what is true, dissent from what is false[,] and suspend judgement in doubtful cases."
     Following Epictetus, I would argue that the better course is to give a potential friend the benefit of the doubt -- that is, to suspend judgment -- until all the evidence is in, before admitting him or her into your friendship, rather than making what might be a hasty decision about such an important matter.
     In closing, and before I forget, Happy New Year!

     Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, translated and edited by Robert Dobbin (Penguin Classics, London, 2008), Discourses, Book III, 1-2, page 146.
     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 3, 2, page 28. 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2: Virtue Or Pleasure?

     In my most recent post on Seneca's first letter, I observed how the quality of his writing makes him a pleasure to read. But in the second letter to Lucilius, Seneca advises his friend to be mindful in reading selections, urging him to focus on quality versus quantity:
          "Be careful, though, about your reading in many authors and every type of book. It may be that there is something wayward and unstable in it. You must stay with a limited number of writers and be fed by them if you mean to derive anything that will dwell reliably with you. One who is everywhere is nowhere."
For whatever it's worth, I have found this to be true in my own experience.
     Interestingly, Seneca closes the second letter with a quote from Epicurus ("Cheerful poverty is an honorable thing"). Among other reasons, this is interesting because Seneca was a self-proclaimed Stoic, whereas Epicurus was the founder of a rival school of philosophy that bears his name. For the Stoics, according to Seneca, virtue -- defined as perfected reason -- was the sole good. The Stoic school of philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the third century BC/BCE.
     Also in that century (and also in Athens) Epicurus of Samos founded the school of philosophy that bears his name. According to Epicurus, "pleasure ... is our primary native good".  Although Epicurus argued for "a simple rather than a lavish way of life", even in his own time, critics accused him of promoting hedonism; however, he attempted to clarify that:
          "The pleasant life is not the product of one drinking party after another or of sexual intercourse ... or of the sea food and other delicacies afforded by a luxurious table. On the contrary, it is the result of sober thinking ... ."
     It is noteworthy that -- while the Stoics and Epicureans disagreed about the nature of the greatest good -- this did not prevent Seneca from citing Epicurus when they were in agreement. The quote above on poverty seems to be favorable, as does Seneca's quotation of Epicurus in Letter 4 ("Poverty is great wealth when it adjusts to nature's law"). In fact, near the end of Letter 2, Seneca jokes with Lucilius that he crosses into the Epicurean camp as a spy rather than as a deserter.

     Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus at 129, page 158, from The Art of Happiness, Translated with Commentary by George K. Strodach and Forward by Daniel Klein (Penguin Classics, London, 2012); see also 131 at page 159 and 132 at page 160. 
     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 2, 2 and 5, pages 26 and 27; see Letter 76, 10 and 21, pages 241 and 243; see also Letter 4, 10, page 30.

9: An Artist At Friend-Making

     In the ninth letter to his friend Lucilius, Seneca discusses one of the disputes between the Stoic school of philosophy (he considers h...