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.