Posts Tagged ‘Huntsville’

Seneca falls

February 17, 2010

You may have thought the old injunction about being your brothers’ keeper was of strictly-Christian origin, but Seneca the Stoic said it too:  No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself. Lucius Annaeus Seneca

That was the best response we could come up with yesterday, in A&S, when we were talking about how we as a community could or should respond to atrocities like Huntsville: attend to the dysfunctional maladaptations of our peers, be willing to get involved, to “intervene” before they act in desperation and violence. If only the Huntsville shooter had studied Seneca on anger... the world does not reliably conform to our desires. And yet, for Seneca, in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate the world’s obstinacy through our own responses, through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia.

It might not be enough, but it does defy the stereotype of Stoics as passive sideline bystanders  without control over external events. We should all do what we can.

Seneca’s also a good guy to have around when you’re faced with a scary medical situation.

And he’s probably a better source (but not a better example!) than Epicurus on death, with his glibly-dismissive attitude: it is “nothing to us, since when we exist death is not yet present, and when it is present, then we do not exist.” Seneca’s smarter to advise treating the end as something, not nothing, and to realize that living in utter denial of death is not really living at all. But neither is an unrelenting, morbid fixation on mortality. As  Jennifer Hecht says, we must acknowledge death and look it square in the eyes. Then, if we’re wise, we’ll turn our backs on the eternal dark and get on with living in the light. Of course that includes celebrating the lives of precious departed loved ones.

Tyrants condemned Socrates and Seneca to death, but nature condemns us all. We need to admit that, so we may then stop fearing it and obsessing about it. That’s not morbid, it’s liberating. It frees us up as well to entertain a wider sense of self than that bounded by our skin– an identity as wide as the cosmos (which is why the Stoics considered themselves cosmopolitans). “Through difficulties to the stars!”

And as Simon Critchley has also already pointed out:

>For Seneca, anxiety is caused by fear for the future… The philosopher enjoys a long life because he does not worry over its shortness. He lives in the present… the only immortality that philosophy can promise is to permit us to inhabit the present without concern for the future.

>For Stoics, like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, the human being is a compound of soul and body. But soul for the Stoics is “divine breath.” At death it is rejoins the “divine macrocosm”– not unlike the Taoist image of soul as a drop re-absorbed by Mother Sea.

Epicurus and Seneca make a good pair, since Monday’s weather’s forced us to double them up. They have their differences, but (recalling last week’s discussion) they have in common a commitment to unperturbed and graceful living that does not fret about events beyond one’s own control. The native human capacity to frame how we think about our experience is crucial for our happiness. In Seneca’s case, even self-inflicted death at the fiat of a crazed emperor was no cause for upset.

Still… wasn’t he way too compliant with the crazy emperor’s orders? Did he preserve his stoic calm at too great a cost? Should he have strained at the leash just a little bit? Pushed back against Fortuna’s wheel? Should it so easy, or so casually decided, to just walk away from life?

Also in our reading today, in Dead Philosophers:

St. Paul, no friend of philosophy but profoundly influential of subsequent Western thought on death and resurrection,  met the same fate as Seneca: death at Nero’s command.

St. Augustine greeted the death of his teenage  son with peace of mind. Having been baptized together a couple of years earlier, “anxiety over our past life fled away from us.” Augustine himself died at age 76, reading and weeping over the psalms of David.

Boethius, another philosopher unjustly condemned to death, imagined an encounter with Philosophia, a 50-foot woman who claims that happiness, goodness, and God are identical. But Boethius never mentions Christianity in his Consolation of Philosophy. He was  cruelly tortured before being bludgeoned to death.

They could all use a little ataraxia, no? Or at least apatheia