Posts Tagged ‘Seneca’

Be a friend & (or?) go to hell

September 12, 2012

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.

Aristotle, skeptics, & stoics

February 15, 2011

We have about 600 years of new philosophy to cover today, from Aristotle to Aurelius. But we’re going to have to take some time, first, to process the absurdity of yesterday’s campus lockdown, prompted by yet another gun incident. We went ahead with class, pretending to a semblance of normalcy while with one eye monitoring email updates from President McPhee. Eventually we learned that the ricochet shooter had been apprehended and we could go about business as usual. Fat chance.  Strange Valentine Day, memorable birthday. [DNJChronicle]

I’d just been musing poetically about the improbable details of my personal end, in grudging recognition of time’s arrow and where it’s dragging us all eventually. But that wasn’t quite serious, until the helicopters started to circle our building. Now, inevitably, some benighted state legislator likely will attempt to resuscitate last year’s stupid proposal to place firearms in my hands and those of my colleagues. Sure, that would have made us all feel better yesterday.

The passage of time itself is what will really make us feel better. Maybe that’s the problem. But it does feel good to vent.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: continue to disregard the printed syllabus until further notice. Today we’re reading O 16-26, next time it’ll be PW 40-49. Also next time, let me know your plans for the midterm: your general topic, as much summary as you can give me in a sentence or two, and whether it’ll be a presentation or an essay.

Main point about Aristotle: if Plato’s the urrationalist, he’s the primordial empiricist. His Lyceum would have been a perfect choice for me (better even than Vandy), with all that peripatetic walking-about.  His syllogism is a powerful instrument, but maybe we don’t want to assume that everything meaningful fits its pattern. That’d be a terrifically informative conclusion, though.

He opposed Plato’s view that Forms (Ideas, Universals, Essences) are transcendent, contending instead that forms are in particular objects, in the very things Plato called shadows. They’re articulated and exhausted by formal, efficient, material, and final causes. The final cause behind everything, the ultimate purpose, goal, or telos, is the notorious philosophers’ god, aka the Unmoved Mover.  Scientists nowadays don’t have much use for that, but they do still invoke efficient causation.

He came close to facing the same charges that did Socrates in, but chose to leave Athens. Do we think the less of him for that? I don’t.

Through no fault of his own, he became the Unquestioned Authority of medieval philosophy. We shouldn’t hold that against him either.

His “metaphysics” is simply “after physics,” just a rung up the abstraction ladder. Nothing too “woo-woo,” in fact it mirrors his body language in “School of Athens“: pace Plato, forms (lower case “f”) are not transcendent and outside our terrestrial “cave,” they’re as particularized and individuated as we are.

His logic is basic and comprehensive. (But is it exhaustive of reality? A meta-metaphysical question, perhaps.)

His emphasis on potentiality also distinguishes him from his teacher Plato: Becoming is more important, certainly more formative, than Being. An acorn is a potential oak. A student is a potential teacher. But it’s important, too, not to see development of this sort as more teleological or purposive than it is. “Goals” are typically the possessions of individuals or cohesive, intelligently-directed groups, not of nature per se.

His Unmoved Mover is an unmoving “Philosopher’s God.” (No wonder so many of us are irreligious. Blame Aristotle, among others.)

His ethics is a constant quest for the middle ground, the mean, splitting the difference between extremes. This works, arguably, for courage, and charity and pleasure-seeking (etc.), but what about honesty?

His politics makes a strong case for the middle class. But why didn’t he challenge slavery? (Does this show that even the most sophisticated philosophy is trapped in its time & place?)

Our text today includes a nice graphic of the library of Alexandria (founded by Aristotle’s most ambitious, but possibly least ethically-reflective student), the sacking of which remains one of the great unwashed stains on our species. It was a great cosmopolitan mecca, and its destruction remains one of our species’ lowest moments.

“Eureka!” That must have been a wonderful moment for Archimedes…

Aristotle’s Lyceum successors were sceptics (our author’s a Brit, hence the “c” in place of my “k”) who renounced the quest for truth. Pyrrho was their most salient and extreme spokesman. (But we’ve just about forgotten his predecessor Chrysippus, thanks to the aforementioned legions of Caesar who burned the library that housed his works.)

Then, the contemptible/contemptuous Diogenes, a dog-like “cynic. (My pooches are insulted by the comparison.)

Rome was grand but mostly not too reflective. They did sponsor some impressive public works, though.

Then came the ill-fated Seneca. [“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“] You can read all about him in de Botton’s Consolations. And, watch this:

Not all emperors were so bad as Nero. Marcus Aurelius was actually quite sane, and humane.

And don’t forget the pleasure-seeking Epicurus [“Back to the Garden“], or the slave Epictetus. We have much still to learn from them both, about freedom from ignorance and superstition, and the free will such freedom makes valuable.

And don’t forget Hecht’s Doubt, full of insight on the Greeks in ch.2 and the Romans in ch.4. Cicero in particular deserves a lot more respect than he’s gotten from other sources.

Epicureans, Stoics, & Skeptics

September 30, 2010

There are three obstacles to happiness, Epicurus said– fear of death, fear of pain, and fear of the gods– but all can be removed easily enough.

Death is no problem because when we are alive we are not dead and when we are dead we don’t know it… Fear of pain is worse than pain itself. Accept the pain, embrace the sting… and you’ve vanquished your worst foe, the one in your head.” (J.M. Hecht)

Strike one, strike two… and since any gods there may happen to be, out there in the empty spaces between the stars, are quite evidently “totally unconcerned with human affairs,” fear strikes out. Be happy.

Seneca‘s end was not so happy, but it was more or less consistent with his life. He did not strain against the leash of perceived necessity. But does he illustrate the limits the of therapeutic acceptance, and cross the line into defeatist resignation? [text… J-L David painting]

Other Stoics are better role-models. Cicero‘s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods) is a neglected classic. Bottom line: “If you want truth, you have to avoid making up anything.”

Marcus Aurelius had a cold unblinking eye for harsh home-truths. He poses a question never more timely than right now, for a celebrity-besotted society like ours:

He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will also die very soon… But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what then is this to thee? And I say not what is it to the dead, but what is it to the living?

Not enough to live for, is what. But the Philosopher-Emperor finds life worth living all the same, for those who cultivate a properly-stoic sensibility. Contented are those who learn to comprehend the universe,

by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every several thing, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution.

Our time is brief, but  so then also is our pain. From this perspective, the trite modern phrase about not sweating the small stuff (because it’s all small) can become meaningful and profound.

The skeptic Sextus Empiricus offers an interesting observation on anthropomorphic God-projection, as Jennifer Hecht summarizes: divine virtues are thought to be “fully realized versions of human virtues.” But “that did not make sense unless God had our weaknesses.”

Weaknesses like impotence, fallibility, and ignorance: whose acknowledgement by us is also our greatest strength. So, says Sextus, your God is too small.

But of course, as a skeptic, he must always add: for all we know.

more dust

June 24, 2010

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not about to pitch my “dusty” digital devices out the window in mimicry of the stoical Thoreau, who was perturbed by what he considered his own over-attentiveness to mere things, ornaments, baubles, distractions. They diverted his focus from more rewarding endeavors, they stole his time, they scattered his force. They would not improve him or raise the quality of his life.

Were we really to apply this standard to the material surplus of our lives in an honest and consistent manner, most of us would find that we could easily do without most of the “stuff” we pile up and haul around and surround ourselves with. We would have to consider the Bhutanese experiment, and begin paying as much attention to Gross National Happiness as we do to Gross Domestic Product. We would not be the same kind of Americans our grandparents were.

My little 16-GB iPod now holds at least 200 books and book excerpts (eBooks and audio books),  from Kindle and Stanza and Project Gutenberg and Audible and Overdrive, most of them “free” but for the expenditure of time and attention– the “dusting” that disgusted old Henry. It has Twitter, the BBC,  the New York Times and The New Yorker and Time Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, the Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, et al.

It has a dictionary and thesaurus and several philosophy reference sources. It has Dragon dictation software to convert my speech to editable, emailable, printable, publishable text. It has an app that does the same to finger-writing.

It has Google Earth, and GPS, and NPR, and TED…

It has apps that tell me where I can get the best Happy Hour deal in town.

It has stuff I’ve forgotten, stuff too cool to ignore at the app store but too much for my poor finite brain to track, day by day.

Oh yeah: it has the Beatles, the Stones, John Prine, and all my other favorite music too.

In brief, it’s a lot cooler than Thoreau’s three pieces of limestone. He would admit that, I’m sure. But it’s still just a thing, and it still monopolizes too much of my attention. I won’t throw it out, but I need to moderate my regard for it.

Most of all, I need to be prepared to let it go. Things crash, things get lost, things in our consumer paradise especially get surpassed and superceded. Things get dusty.

Stoics don’t have to live lives of voluntary poverty, but they do choose to lodge their sense of life’s worth in something more stable and less exterior than things.

A lesson from Seneca (who, btw, is on my iPod):

The wise man can lose nothing. He has everything invested in himself. The wise man is self-sufficient… if he loses a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left.

The wise man is self-sufficient in that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them.

He can do without iPods and iPads and iPhones and Kindles and beach vacations (oily or not). So can she. But they don’t have to. They can learn to tolerate a little dust.

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

“the philosopher walks”

January 20, 2010

That’s from my favorite line so far in Simon Critchley’s surprisingly sprightly Book of Dead Philosophers, which I’m using for the first time as a supplemental text in the Intro classes.  Concluding the introductory section on Socrates he writes:

To be a philosopher, then, is to learn how to die; it is to begin to cultivate the appropriate attitude towards death. As Marcus Aurelius writes, it is one of “the noblest functions of reason to know whether it is time to walk out of the world or not.” Unknowing and uncertain, the philosopher walks.

Walks on, that is, not out. This point calls Socrates’ martyrdom into question, it seems to me. We don’t know what, if anything, awaits the dead: permanent deep sleep, or unending intellectual gabfest with all the great dead spirits who’ve gone before, or who knows? Philosophizing is for the living.

Walking– literal walking– is one of my personal metaphors for living, and one of my favorite pastimes. Not only do the dead tell no tales, they pound no pavements or greenway trails either.

Being a walker gives a philosopher a pragmatic bent. For instance: when Diogenes the Cynic heard someone declare [after encountering Zeno of Elea‘s paradoxes of motion] that there was no such thing as motion, he got up and walked about. The best refutation is sometimes simply to walk.

But we need to acknowledge that our motion is not perpetual. Death is real. That’s how this book differs from the Egyptian or Tibetan books of the dead, which aim to gain an “Enlightened” denial of death. Critchley’s approach is to draw us closer to the philosophers by highlighting our common humanity and mortality. In the process he tells some funny stories and brings the whole subject out into the lovely light of day. 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, larger than we can fathom. As I was saying yesterday in A&S, Carl Sagan put it smartly: our proper loyalty (and identity) belongs to the stars. Their atoms are ours too.

Which brings us to Democritus, “the laughing philosopher” who (legend has it)  lived an incredibly long and healthy life. He might have lived longer, but– noticing in his 109th year (!)  that his mind was beginning to show its age– he “cheerfully committed suicide.”

On the other hand consider Heraclitus, “the weeping philosopher,” who wept for humanity’s irrationality. But how did he treat his own illness? With cow dung. The treatment was unsuccessful.

The lives and deaths of the philosophers are entertaining and instructive, often in unintended ways. How ironic that Heidegger, whom I mentioned in class last week as an example of a philosopher whose biography had been so neglected that his despicable politics went unremarked by generations of professors (including my own), put the feeble case for the very approach that has shielded him against sharper scrutiny:

The personality of a philosopher is of interest only to this extent: he was born at such and such a time, he worked, and died.

And if he hooked up with the Nazis in the interim? Irrelevant, says Herr Doktor Proffessor H. Since that was also the view of most of my teachers, just about every page in this book is full of biographical detail that is new to me. What emerges most clearly is that their big ideas made them no less fallible or prone to error than any of us. So go ahead, everybody, be as philosophical as you please. It’s only human.

specious happiness

November 10, 2009

[NOTE to Happiness students who missed the email memo: we’re not meeting today (I’m “in studio”). Your assignment: read Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, & Seneca* in Part One, & Part Two on pleasure and satisfaction.]

Heading into our course’s last laps with the Cahn/Vitrano anthology Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings

The editors pass along an important reminder in their brief introduction: “there is no single thing that it feels like to achieve eudaimonia [in the Aristotelian sense of happiness-as-flourishing], since everyone’s potential is different… it is not clear who is to be the judge of what one’s full potential is.”

This observation echoes Jennifer Hecht’s myth-busting and reinforces both her and  Sonja Lyubomirsky’s customized approach to “happiness activity”-seeking. If it’s not clear who should judge one’s potential, surely the onus of doing the work of self-discovery and self-realization devolves upon, who else, oneself.

But whether that work is fundamentally, Platonically rational is still an open question. This question came up in discussion Monday: can a “bad” person be happy? Plato wants to say no: undetected bad behavior reinforces the brutish, vicious element in human nature that is at war with the “whole soul”… and its “best nature.”

Plato_Seneca_Aristotle_medievalAristotle harmonizes with Plato to a greater extent with regard to this question than to most others, going so far– too far, if my own experience of philosophers and their temperamental dispositions is any guide– as to to conclude that the reason-intoxicated philosopher will be happier than anyone. Not the most amused, but the most fulfilled.  “Everything that we choose we chose for the sake of something else– except happiness, which is an end.”

Then there’s Epicurus’s famous overstatement: “Death is nothing to us…” Hecht, again, dealt deftly with that one.Epicurus LXXVIIIr

Then Seneca* goes too far: when you adjust your attitude, refine it to a freeze-dried state of Stoic indifference, you lift yourself  to a new high, “not yet free, but still as good as.” Sounds more like freedom as nothing left to lose. Good song, disappointing lifestyle. I’m not buying it.

(Alain de Botton has written many books, all of them about happiness in one form or another. His latest is on work, and success.)

Wayne Davis offers a  “definition of epistemic happification” according to which you need not be happy every time you think a thought that typically makes you happy, so long as you still have a tendency to be happy when you think it.  Not sure I see the profundity here, but it’s clear enough. Is it true? Or non-trivial?

Daniel Haybron addresses another question that came up in class yesterday: “Why Hedonism is False.” He says it’s because hedonism fails to distinguish psychologically deep and (typically) lasting events that impinge on our happiness (the death of a child, for example) from shallow events that can ruin your afternoon (like a flat tire). It reduces happiness to claims about the pleasantness of  experiences. “That my experience is now [un]pleasant says next to nothing about my propensities for the future.”

John Kekes is thinking about tomorrow too. You’re not really happy now unless it’s “reasonable to believe and unreasonable to doubt that this judgement will continue to hold in the future.”

(What would Matthieu Ricard say? Or Wendell Berry?: “We can do nothing for the human future that we will not do for the human present… [he] who works and behaves well today need take no thought for the morrow.”)

Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz is also preoccupied with our relation to the future, and to the past. Most of us “are indifferent to the remote past” and “unconcerned about the distant future, but the importance of tomorrow is equal, if not greater for them, than that of the present day.” He’s right about this, no? The present moment may be specious and impossible to spread out and live in, but give me 48 hours. There’s nothing spurious about the transitory pleasures and momentary satisfactions of a great weekend. Today was hectic, but tomorrow… let’s go to the dog park!

dog park

Ricard, finis

October 8, 2009

MRicardA good place to finish, with Matthieu Ricard: “Remember that there are two kinds of lunatics: those who don’t know that they must die, and those who have forgotten that they’re alive.”

“Lunatic” sounds harsh. Being innocent and forgetful isn’t the same as being a loony, crazed, eccentric, unpredictable, pegged to the phases of the moon, obsessive with names and pets. Is it?

Can be.

Or it could just be the distracted condition of the average media-swilling consumer in our entertainment-besotted pop culture, amusing ourselves to death while booing Simon and snubbing Dave and fretting about who the judges will favor in the “reality” competition.

“Accepting death as a part of life serves as a spur to diligence and saves us from wasting our time on vain distractions.” Front the fact, hear the rattle in your throat, crank up the realometer. But I’m not so sure most of us still crave reality in the raw, the way Thoreau said he did. He seemed sane enough, though plenty eccentric too. I don’t think he named his critter-friends at Walden “Eric,” though he did claim the solitude-easing company of the stars and the raindrops and the “sweet and beneficent society of Nature.”

Ricard endorses Epicurus’s glibly-dismissive attitude towards death: 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 will soon tell us, 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.

But I’m afraid I find Ricard again given to soaring over-statement when he says “life has been slipping away day after day, and if we have not learned to find meaning in its every passing moment, all it has meant to us is wasted time.” Every passing moment? That would be some batting average. Appreciating every moment indiscriminately is not wise, it’s goofy.

Just a final comment, though it would be fun to go back a few chapters and think some more about longevity, “gross national happiness,” brain plasticity, and the experience-defining essence of attentiveness (Ricard again invokes William James on this). This is a richly-suggestive book that I’m sure I’ll  continue to speak with, although I still don’t know how to make my mind as wide as the sky. I’m trying.

My last thought on the Buddhist “path” is a question, trivial perhaps, but a definitive answer might be of the greatest practical utility to me. I just want to know why it’s supposed to be better to sit when you meditate.


September 19, 2009

Went, on my GP’s advice, for a precautionary chest x-ray yesterday morning. It revealed an unwelcome little swirl of  infection in the lower quadrant of my left lung, nothing much to look at but the tech said it raised a flag that could spell pneumonia.

Had that before, a few years ago, when it responded quickly to targeted treatment. And my doc, having seen it before too, was a step ahead and had already started me on the appropriate meds when I arrived for my morning snapshots yesterday. So I had no medical reason to panic, and no contagious fever. That might be why I took in the news with stoic calm and relative indifference, then phoned home to share it, and then hopped in the car and drove to work. All just like normal, on what turned out to be a very good day of classes.

dont-panic-copyOr maybe I didn’t panic because I’ve always been a diligent follower of Douglas Adams’ travel advice.

Or maybe it’s because I had Seneca on my mind, and his praemeditatio:

The wise will start each day with the thought…

Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.

Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.

Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.

How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins?

We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.

Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.

Reckon on everything, expect everything.

Or maybe it’s because I’m one of the lucky winners of the cortical lottery and, being a glass-half-full kind of guy, just always expect things to work out. “Optimists have a high happiness set point, habitually look on the bright side, and easily find silver linings.” (Jon Haidt)  Not sure that’s really me, or (if it is) that it came by way of the genetic lottery. But I do mine for silver.

Or maybe my health care safety net, provided by my employer the state– I work for its  Enormous State University– accounts for my confidence that the  little invasive blip will soon  be  gone, at no crippling expense to our family budget or my emotional equanimity. That’s a confidence I share with a great many state and national politicians who’ve been ranting about the evils of socialism and railing against the the very “public option” we take for granted. I hope the ranters remember that in these unsettled times, state employees like us don’t have the job security or safety net to support long-term confidence in the containment of personal health costs.

Well, whatever the source I’m grateful for the resources that made yesterday’s little bump in the road nothing to rage And I’m amused to discover that my pulmonary consultant from years back was also Younger Daughter’s softball coach. We didn’t recognize one another as doctor-patient, after a single office visit, at the ball-fields. We were wearing different hats there.


September 18, 2009

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 (the Younger), c. 4 B.C.E.– 65 C.E


Jacques-Louis David painted this in 1773, thirteen years before his Death of Socrates. Who knew you could make a career in this genre?

A reviewer of Alain de Botton’s television adaptation of his Consolations of Philosophy chapter on the ancient Roman stoic and martyr Seneca finds unexpected consolation for modern highway commuters:

“(I knew that) Seneca was Nero’s tutor and that he met his end with admirable dignity. But never before have I heard his life and work described so succinctly and sympathetically. On location in Rome, de Botton explained how Seneca’s philosophy was born of its context: a world so riddled with treachery, cruelty and random violence that you woke up fully prepared for the possibility that this day would be your last. What does this have to tell us about road rage? Why, that if you begin each car journey fully expecting to encounter traffic jams and bad driving, then you will be able to greet such horrors with philosophical indifference. But if you don’t, when the inevitable happens, you’re going to end up getting very, very cross.”

Seneca’s stoicism isn’t just consoling, it’s a practical antidote to one of the awful scourges of our time: anger. Don’t be surprised when the world– and its motorists– disappoint. Stoics are the best defensive drivers, implicitly.

Rude drivers would have been the least of Seneca’s aggravations. He had to deal with a cruel and insane emperor, who ultimately ordered the death-by-suicide of his old teacher and friend; and with illness and earthquakes and other natural catastrophes. He’d likely have experienced the volcanic cataclysm at Pompeii, too, if human forces hadn’t claimed him first.

Socrates, we’ve noted, saw his own death as a natural extension of his philosophy. Same for Seneca:

spock logicMr. Spock was [will be?] a kind of Stoic, and Buddhist. His devotion to “pure logic” was a bit thin, but he agreed with Seneca about anger. “Stoics had an almost fanatic faith in reason. They regarded emotions as irrational judgments that make us frustrated and unhappy. Like Buddha they urged: minimize your desires and you will minimize your suffering. Anger is pointless and can only be self-destructive. Love and friendship can be dangerous. The wise form only limited attachments.” Passion for Wisdom

Anger is pointless and
can only be self-
destructive. Love and
friendship can be
The wise form only
limited attachments.

Seneca’s dog analogy. We, too, are never without a leash around our neck… but unlike the dog, we have reason – whichleashed allows us to determine when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality… We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them.

That’s the nub of Seneca’s Stoic philosophy. “He could not escape Nero, and what he could not change, reason asked him to accept… there are forces entirely indifferent to our desires. ‘Our souls must adjust themselves… That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure.'”

Over on the other blog: young William James is beginning to find his own inner stoic. When he succeeds, fortunately it will be the kind not to counsel suicide and the acceptance of the unacceptable.