I just opened a note from an old student back from Germany. Made me want to go see the sites too, even though another recent traveler back from Rome says you don’t discover the real spirit or philosophy of a storied place in its ruins, but in the books and ideas the place provoked. So, let’s go!
It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in CoPhi today, on the Stoics Epictetus, Cicero, and Seneca. Should leave students plenty of time to do some extra research and fill out the meaning and context of these squibs:
‘Being philosophical’ simply means accepting what you can’t change, for instance the inevitable process of growing older and the shortness of life.
‘Stoic’ came from the Stoa, which was a painted porch…
Like the Sceptics, Stoics aimed for a calm state of mind. Even when facing tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, the Stoic should remain unmoved. Our attitude to what happens is within our control even though what happens often isn’t.
Stoics think we are responsible for what we feel and think. We can choose our response to good and bad luck… They believe emotions cloud reasoning and damage judgment.
Epictetus started out as a slave. When he declared that the mind can remain free even when the body is enslaved he was drawing on his own experience.
The brevity of life and the inevitability of aging were topics that particularly interested Cicero and Seneca.
Cicero said old people can spend more time on friendship and conversation. He believed the soul lived forever, so old people shouldn’t worry about dying. [Epicurus already told us they needn't worry in any event.]
For Seneca the problem is not how short our lives are, but rather how badly most of us use what time we have. ["Seneca falls"... "dead stoics society"..."philosopher walks"..."premeditation"..."per aspera"..."self-sufficient"... Seneca on anger (de Botton)]
The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions.
But Nigel Warburton‘s question is on target: at what price? If you’re even half human, like Mr. Spock, you’ll only damage yourself by suppressing your affective side. Calm may not be the greatest good, after all.
Anyway, Roman philosophy is under-rated. The Romans have done a lot for us.
And not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.
We also give a listen today to Alexander Nehemas on friendship. He says the imperative of personal loyalty “can’t be accommodated within the constraints of morality,” and sometimes should be allowed to trump moral values. I’ll be interested to hear of instances in which any of us have perceived a conflict between our values and our friends, and of how we’ve resolved them. Ever had a Huck Finn moment, an “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” resolution of a conflicted conscience?
Well, Huck was no Epicurean. He still credited hell as a plausible possibility. But even an Epicurean can face down the moral equivalent of hell, the misapprobation of one’s nurturing community. No one wants to be cast out of The Garden, but in the end you have to be able to live with yourself before you can be a really good communitarian.
In EEA Hawken’s “Indigene” chapter reminds us that knowing our way around our natural habitat is also a prerequisite of responsible and civilized citizenship. “Living within the biological constraints of the earth may be the most civilized activity a person can pursue, because it enables our successors to do the same.” But we mostly fail on that score, in the industrialized world. We live like Oncelers, not like friends of the earth.
We have little understanding of where our water and food come from, the impacts of our cars and homes, the activities undertaken by others around the globe to support our lifestyle, and the effects we have on the environment and its people.
All right, then, we’ll go to hell too. Unless we wise up, as Huck would say, right quick.