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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.  

1 July 2013

Pain Doesn't Hurt

Pain is either an evil to the body (and if so, let it be declared so by the body!), or to the soul. But the soul is able to preserve its own clear sky and calm wind, and not accept pain as an evil. For every judgment, choice, desire, and rejection is from within; and nothing foreign can enter therein.  

                                         Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8:28

     Pain does not hurt the Stoic, for he considers it no evil thing. The body of the Stoic, however, feels the sensation of pain like any other man, and feels it deeply when the pain is intense. His body can be torn and mangled, even to the point where he jerks, grimaces and screams in agony, and his body altogether shuts down. But this reaction is a bodily reaction, uncontrollable like a sneeze or blush. Even in the midst of his groans the wise man's soul is uninjured; only what is evil can harm him and only Vice is evil. Indeed, in certain situations, when Virtue demands it, he willing chooses to undergo bodily pain over bodily comfort in order to avoid that which can truly harm him - the same way that a patient will choose to allow a painful surgery for the sake of his overall health.
     And by what power does he remain uninjured by physical pain? By his powers of judgment, choice, desire and rejection or aversion. He judges the pain to be no evil and chooses to accept this judgement; he desires only what is virtuous and avoids only what is vicious, and pain fits into neither category. As he posits his happiness in Virtue alone, he can be happy even in agony, which is, for him, an opportunity for Fortitude.    

23 June 2013

I Can Lose Nothing

Therefore the wise man will lose nothing which he is able to regard as a loss; for the only possession he has is virtue, and of this he can never be robbed.
                                                - Seneca, On Firmness (Basore translation)

     Can something that we cannot guard, that can be snatched away from us at any moment, truly be considered our own? Can a supposed possession be "possessed" by us if we no longer have it? To call something our own, it must be fully, not partially, ours. We must be able to protect to always, and possess it always. If not, it is like a thing on loan.
     The wise man loses nothing.  Nothing can be stolen or even slip away from him.  His possessions are permanently his own.  And this is so because the wise man has a proper understanding of what his possessions are.
     There are things under our control and there are things not under our control.  And the things that are under our control, by definition, are always under our control. 
     The wise man is wise precisely because he has recognized that this thing under his control is Virtue, and Virtue alone. And what a glorious array of possessions Virtue contains! How rich the wise man is in goods! Courage, Temperance, Justice, Wisdom, and a whole host of other treasures are his for as long as he chooses to possess them. Neither Man, nor Fate, nor Chance, nor even God can take away what is his. 
     The wise man will lose nothing, because he can lose nothing.

     

17 June 2013

Happiness vs Responsibilities?

I do desire to be untroubled and free of turmoil, but I also want to be a pious man, a lover of Wisdom, a careful student, knowing my duties towards the gods, towards my parents, towards my brothers, towards my country, and towards strangers. 

                                             - Epictetus, Discourses 2:17

     Like the adherent of most religious and philosophical schools, the Stoic desires to be "untroubled" and "free of turmoil" - that is, to have inner peace and happiness.  Indeed, this is the aim of Stoicism. This state of being, however, is not and cannot be attained through the shunning of (or the denying of) one's natural duties and roles.  Happiness is achieved through Virtue, and Virtue consists of living according to Nature.
     Many of the same people who are initially attracted to Stoicism because of this living-in-accordance-with-Nature slogan are the same who are later repelled by Stoicism when they discover what this slogan means.  Stoicism is not a philosophy of retreat, and it has little to do with the kind of nature worship common in some circles today.  The Stoic does not retire to his garden like the Epicurean; to his cave or monastery like the extreme ascetic; within the recesses of his own mind denying the reality around him like some Far Eastern systems; or to the forest like some of the more radical environmentalists who love trees and squirrels but hate people. 
     Nor does the Stoic embrace the hyper individualism that has been prevalent in some Western countries in recent decades, embracing moral relativism and rejecting the concept of natural duties and roles as artificial and even oppressive.  For the Stoic, Liberty is not the freedom to do whatever one wants; it is to conform one's wants to Nature's demands. It is the Liberty to live virtuously and not to sin. 
     Stoic liberty and the stoic notion of living according to Nature consists of freely living in conformity to our own particular function. Like soldiers, we have been stationed at our post. We are good soldiers when we do not abandon the post that has been assigned to us. And these posts, these functions, are assigned.  They are not of our own choosing any more than we can choose to be a dog instead of a human.  Some of these functions will be universal, as we are all human.  Some will be more particular, as the parent, for example, has clearly different natural responsibilities than the child.
     I am a male, and I will live as a male; a husband, and I shall live as a husband; a father, and I shall live as a father; a son, and I shall live as a son; I am a citizen of a particular country, and I shall be a loyal citizen; I am an inheritor of a particular language, religion and culture, and I shall live as such; and so on. To do otherwise, to futilely and impiously rage against Nature, would be to live unhappily and miserably indeed. 
     Personal happiness and personal responsibilities are never at odds.  The former depends upon the latter. 
     

10 June 2013

First World Problems

While all excess is harmful, the most dangerous is an excess of good fortune.

                                        - Seneca, On Providence

     Generalizations are fraught with difficulties.  Yet after having lived for extended periods in both the developed and under-developed worlds, I have observed enough that I feel sufficiently bold to state what I consider to be a truism:  People, in general, survive poverty better than they survive luxury. 
     What does it mean, in a stoic context, to "survive" something?  It is to endure any given situation unharmed.  Excessive good fortune, for most people, rarely leaves them unscathed.  As Seneca elaborates, it "excites the brain, evokes vain fantasies in the mind, and provokes a confused darkness between falsehood and truth."  It can render the character of a fully grown man little better than that of a spoilt teenaged girl.  Without constant self-vigilance, merely residing in the First World is enough to encourage within us a plethora of imagined woes, an out-of-control sense of entitlement, a desire to quarrel over trifles, sloth, gluttony, licentiousness, laziness, and myriad other flaws.  And when the slightest hardship - which a less "privileged" person might not even recognise as a hardship! - does overtake us, we are defeated by it. 
     Yet it is possible to live well even in a rich nation.  Nor should we impiously abandon the station in which God has placed us.  Many philosophers and religionists, recognizing the dangers of wealth and luxury, have fled from it, renouncing all their possessions to live in hiding in the wilderness.  This is cowardice, not bravery; selfishness, not humility.  As Seneca elsewhere in his writings notes, it is possible for a rich man to use his golden vessels as though they were earthenware, just as a poor man uses earthenware as though it were gold.  Virtue demands that we face and conquer Luxury, that we stand up to good fortune in the same manner as we are brave before misfortune.        

Hiding From Problems

You must change your soul, not the sky... Your vices will follow you wherever you travel to.

                                      Seneca, Epistle 28

     "You can run, but you can't hide" might be an adequate expression if applied to the illness of the human soul.  Travel is not a cure for our condition.  We will be equally sick under a different sky.  The vices which cause our illness, and thus our (imagined) problems, will follow us no matter where we go.  No weekend getaway will remove them, no change of scenery, no migration to another land.
     A good example of this misguided faith in travel as a cure for the soul is manifest in the phenomenon of the ever-growing number of nature worshippers in affluent societies.  These individuals (usually over-privileged, New Left yuppies) believe that they need a camping or kayaking trip so that the trees, waves, birds and squirrels will magically cleanse them somehow;  yet shortly after they return to the city, they are as irritable and miserable as ever.  And why?  Because of their vices.  They are greedy and unsocial.  A comfortable home is not enough for them; they need vast stretches of land.  And this land, for them, must not be contaminated by the presence of other human beings.  Yet in seeking their escape in nature, these sorts of people, according to Stoicism, have misunderstood Nature and live contrary to Her will.  She has fashioned us to be content with little, even with bread and water and a place to lie down (and at times even to go without these things), and to live as the social creatures that we are, in communities amongst other men.  Virtue consists of obeying Her will, and Vice in living contrary to Her.  And it is Vice - and Vice alone - that harms the soul and is the source of our problems.  
     No travel agent, immigration official, or canoe can help us.  Only Virtue can.    

1 June 2013

Bread and Water

The things which we truly need are either free or cheaply obtained. Nature craves only bread and water.                                                  Seneca, Epistle 25

Nature's desires are limited, while our own, through faulty reasoning, are limitless.  Our natural hunger and thirst are satisfied quickly and easily, and, in most circumstances, cheaply.  The true level of one's poverty corresponds to one's own unnatural desires.  If one's desires are many, his poverty will always be great, despite his great affluence.  If they are few, his poverty will be low.  And if one's unnatural desires are completely in check - that is, eradicated completely - he can never be poor in any circumstance.