28 April 2014

Avoiding Our Own Wickedness

It is absurd not to flee our own wickedness, which is possible, but to flee the wickedness of others, which is impossible.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7:71

The Greek word for "flee" (φευγειν) in the above passage is perhaps better translated here as "shun," "eschew," or even "attempt to avoid." It is of course advisable to avoid whenever possible the wickedness of other people. Throughout the extant works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius there are frequent exhortations to avoid wrongdoers (especially crowds of wrongdoers) and to surround oneself with virtuous individuals. But avoiding altogether the wickedness of others is ultimately impossible and a futile preoccupation. Daily we are going to come across wicked people or their influence. We may even be the random victims of insult and violence (or worse) at the hands of such people.
     Truly, the wickedness of others is unavoidable. Our own wickedness, however, is entirely avoidable. The former does not belong to us, but the latter does. In other words, the first is not within our sphere of control, but the other is, and completely so. What madness it would be to fret over another man's sins but not over our own! Not only is it "absurd," it will certainly cause nothing but unnecessary pain. 
     If virtue is our goal, we must always flee from evil of all kinds, and this flight must be first and foremost away from our own vice.  

2 September 2013

Life Is Not A Good, But The Use Of Life Can Be

Life is an indifferent thing, but the use of life is not.                                                           Epictetus 2:6

     The Stoic considers the act of living to be a matter of indifference; that is to say, life is unimportant in and of itself.
     This is a difficult teaching for anyone to accept who is not familiar with classical virtue ethics. Yet with a little reflection we find this teaching must be true. If it were not so, men would not choose to die for the sake of virtues like courage, duty, loyalty, and justice. Virtue, then, ranks higher in the scale of importance than life. Life alone is a satisfactory end for bacteria and worms, and even for the larger animals, but Man is more than a beast. We possess Reason, and this Reason judges Virtue to be our satisfactory end. Surely what we share in common with the gods, Reason and Virtue, is of more worth than what we share in common with beasts, mere life.
     Stoicism rightly goes beyond most other schools of virtue ethics in declaring Virtue to be not only a higher good than life and the myriad other things men call "good", but the sole good. If there are many goods, they will be in conflict with each other. By striving after two goals, you obtain neither fully. More importantly, life, luxury, possessions, and all the other lesser so-called "goods" can be used for evil. How can something that can be used for evil, for Vice, be counted as a good? (And what irreverence towards the true Good to utilize the term so carelessly!) They are tools at best, used well or used poorly, but with no intrinsic value in themselves. 
     Our lives are nothing. Our use of them is everything. Let us use our lives well.              

3 August 2013

Become A Good Man!

No longer discuss only what kind of man the Good Man must be, but become one!
                                                 - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10:16

     It is all too easy for a would be Stoic (or adherent of any philosophical/religious school, for that matter) to become embroiled in debates, both with others and with his own self, about the precise nature of the idealized Good Man at the expense of working to become good himself. In our current age - where philosophy, in many circles, has been reduced to an intellectual competition of wit instead of a humble pursuit of wisdom and good living - this folly is, unfortunately, normative. 
     The Stoic school has very clear and distinct ideas about what makes for a Good Man. Seneca's De Constantia ("On Firmness") perhaps provides some of the best extant orthodox Stoic descriptions of this kind of man. But neither Seneca, nor Epictetus, nor, obviously, Marcus Aurelius, would have given prominence to the discussion of what constitutes the Good Man over the exercise of becoming that man.
     What individual Virtues were was not a matter of debate for the various schools of virtue ethics in antiquity. The basics - such as bravery, temperance, justice, etc - were common to all schools. These are, in fact, universally accepted as values in just about every society that has every existed. An intellectual defence of such Virtues is certainly a welcome contribution, but the consensus of the human race itself should be evidence enough of their intrinsic value.
     Virtue will become a habit before it becomes a trait (of this the Stoics were in agreement with most every classical school). Let us develop good habits, then become good men, and only then engage in arguments about good men!    

19 July 2013

Another Man's Sin

"My brother ought not to have treated me so."  No; but it is for him to look to that.  As for me, no matter how he behaves, I shall observe all my relations to him as I ought."

                                               Epictetus, Discourses 3:10 (Oldfather translation) 

     The most annoying words that I seemed to hear constantly from Mrs. Countess, my second grade teacher, were, "Two wrongs don't make a right." Those words meant, to my childish disappointment, that I should not punch my fellow classmates in the nose every time I felt as though I had been done wrong by one of them. (And Mrs. Countess was quite right, of course!)
     The ancient Stoics taught that much of the supposed injuries we receive from one another are often only imagined offences, and that, furthermore, we ultimately can only injure our own selves through Vice. But they went further than that, and (like Mrs. Countess) insisted that, while Virtue demands that we must (dispassionately) pursue justice, we must not return wrong for wrong. Another person's injustice is no justification for our own. 
     Nature has assigned to us all particular roles corresponding to our station in life. The brother, the son, the wife, the husband, the ruler, the subject, the citizen, etc., all have their own individualized functions. Certainly people will often fail in these roles, even doing what is entirely contrary to them, and Epictetus admits as much in the above quotation. But Epictetus reminded his students that what another person does is beyond the sphere of our control, and therefore a "thing indifferent." We must be concerned only with our own moral purpose, not the moral purpose of another. And morality consists of performing our own duties well.
     Your father is neglectful. What of it? This does not prevent you from being a good (adult) son. Your husband is a difficult man; but what is stopping you from being a dutiful and faithful wife? Your neighbour is unpatriotic, unneighbourly, and quite possibly a crook; why does this mean that you have to be a bad citizen? Another pedestrian or driver is rude and abrasive; does this stop you from behaving with proper politeness and decorum while in public? The people around you are licentious and lustful like animals; but you can still be chaste and temperate as a man.  
     If we are to be Stoics, let us let another man's sin rest with him, while we concentrate on our own.   

16 July 2013

Wanting To Live But Not To Die?

He who does not wish to die cannot have wished to live. For life is granted to us with the reservation that we shall die; to this end our path leads.

                                      Seneca, Epistle 30 (Gummere translation)

     It is a strange thing - perhaps even a sign of a kind of madness - to expect or wish for something that cannot be. No man is so unstable as to be offended when one plus one equals two instead of three; or to lament that gravity causes an apple to fall downwards from a tree and not upwards; or to expect a rain cloud to produce sunshine. These are things that must be, ordained by the very Universe itself. 
    How foolish, then, that a mortal would wish to live forever! He torments himself, desiring the impossible, while neglecting the possible - to live life nobly while life still remains to him. This one thing should be his desire.   

10 July 2013

Deny Admittance To The Passions

It is easier to exclude harmful Passions than to rule over them, and to deny them admittance than to moderate them after they have been admitted.                                                         Seneca, On Anger

     It is a mistake to think we are able to control our Passions after we have been foolish enough to indulge in them. Seneca writes, "As one who is cast headlong from a cliff has no control over his body... so it is with the mind if it plunges into Anger, Love, or the other Passions." The very weight of the Vice sends the mind tumbling downward, mixed up with Vice as though inside an ever-growing snowball rolling down a hill, increasing in size and speed as it goes, and picking up more Passions along the way. The lover, once having indulged in Love is later afflicted by it, and, as his immune system has been weakened, he becomes susceptible to all the other ailments associated with that disease, Lust, Jealously, Idleness, Intemperance, and Neglectfulness of duty. The angry man, besides suffering like an insane man under that most hideous of Vices, invites also Cruelty, Malice and Injustice. Indulge Fear and you run the risk of becoming a coward, and the coward is incapable of any honourable action.
     One might object, "But what of Reason? Does not the Stoic school teach that Reason is mightier than the Passions? Shouldn't Reason, then, be able to control them?" Reason is indeed more powerful than Vice, and can always conquer the Passions - but not while she consorts with them! To win a battle, an army fights against, not alongside, the enemy. And it certainly does not invite the foe to become part of its command structure. Yet this is precisely what one does when he attempts to use his reasoning faculty while simultaneously welcoming any of the Passions. Reason will not be able to conquer those Passions, but she will become their slave. 
     If we would be free, we must block the Passions at the front gates. They are not harmless visitors. No matter what friendly or pleasurable disguise they might wear, their intention is to enslave us.                 

6 July 2013

The Morally Necessary Trumps The Physically Necessary

A thing is not necessarily a good simply because it is necessary. We degrade the meaning of the term "good" when we apply this title to bread, barely, and the other commodities without which life cannot be sustained. The Good is in every case necessary; but what is necessary [for mere life], is not in every case good, since certain very paltry things are indeed necessary. Nobody is so ignorant of the nobility of the title "good" so as to demote it to the status of trivial utilities.  
                                                    Seneca, Epistle 45

     Mere survival is not the purpose of the Stoic's life. Life is not an end in and of itself. It cannot be. Bacteria lives. Pigs who lounge in their own filth and dogs that eat their own vomit live. The criminal and the murderer, the libertine and lustful, the selfish and angry, the coward and the impious - these also live. It is not enough for a man simply to live, but to live well. For the Stoic, living well does not consist of living long or being constantly satiated with the things that make for longevity - and much less in base pleasures, comforts and luxury! A life lived well is a life lived nobly, virtuously, piously, free of Vice and Passion. 
     To call food "good" is to have a false notions concerning the Good Life. Do we not sometimes reject  food when Virtue demands it? Sleep, too, is necessary for mere living, but sometimes sleep must be sacrificed for good living. We willingly in certain situations suffer the cold, the heat, and various discomforts for the sake of what is morally right. Many men - brave souls and heroes! - have even sacrificed their lives altogether for the sake of living life well. How can we, then, call anything "good" which we at times easily spurn for the sake of something else? 
     The morally necessary trumps always the physically necessary. Only the Good is truly desirable and only the Virtuous is truly good. These other things, our "bread, barely and other commodities", while they should not be rejected to no purpose, ought to be recognized for what they are: objects that, depending on how they are utilized or esteemed, can be used as much for Vice as for Virtue. We debase the title "good" when we apply such a noble word to what can be used for its opposite.