Posts Tagged ‘Stoics’

Cicero, an honest Stoic

February 1, 2013

I may have come across in CoPhi yesterday as hostile to the Stoics. I’m not hostile, just sometimes impatient with what seems their occasional surrender to circumstance when what’s really demanded is a fight. They’d say that’s an emotional judgment, and that we need to pick our fights with the greatest deliberation. A fight with Nero wasn’t going to save Seneca’s own skin, true enough, and it wasn’t going to look good in the philosophy books alongside a lifetime of counsel against anger and futility.

But lying down and dying at the behest of a crazed despot doesn’t look so good either.

Anyway, I still think Roman philosophy in general gets a bad rap and Cicero in particular is way underrated. He’s also underrepresented in our Little History. Jennifer Hecht rectified that a bit in her Doubt: A History.

Cicero‘s wonderful dialogue with a Skeptic, a Stoic, and an Epicurean,Nature of the Gods, would have been fun to join. “Cotta” says it all: Are you not ashamed as a scientist, as an observer and investigator of nature, to seek your criterion of truth from minds steeped in conventional beliefs? The whole theory is ridiculous… I do not believe these gods of yours exist at all, least of all the uninvolved, uninterested ones like the Epicurean-inspired Disinterested Deist Deity. If this is all that a god is, a being untouched by care or love of human kind, then I wave him good-bye.

Novelists and other artisans of the well-chosen and well-spoken word (like Hecht, a poet and historian as well as a terrific philosopher) have appreciated Cicero more than most of my philosophy colleagues. There’s Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full, for instance, in which Epictetus gets the star treatment.

Robert Harris’s Conspirata was good company last Fall on my daily commute up and down I-24. Simon Jones’s narration is delightful.

And then there’s the Victorian Trollope’s compendious Life of Cicero.

The older I get, the longer my reading list grows. Cicero said that was one of the consolations of aging. He was a wise old consul, and an honest Stoic.

After the loss of his daughter Tullia in childbirth, [Cicero] turned to Stoicism to assuage his grief. But ultimately he could not accept its terms: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?”

But my favorite mention of Cicero in all of literature is still from Emerson:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.”

What the Stoics have done for us

January 31, 2013

It’s a terse and breezy reading assignment in CoPhi today, on the Stoics EpictetusCicero, 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.

The Stoic ideal was to live like a recluse… studying philosophy and get[ting] rid of those troublesome emotions.

[“Seneca falls“… “dead stoics society“…”philosopher walks“…”premeditation“…”per aspera“…”self-sufficient“… Seneca on anger (de Botton)]

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.

And, to be a good communitarian you also have to be a good citizen of the earth. Paul Hawken reminds us that knowing our way around our natural habitat is 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. Blessed Unrest

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not. The Lorax

All right, then, we’ll go to hell too. Unless we wise up, as Huck would say, right quick, and go whole hog for our biotic community, our home and host the world.

Aren’t we all “chock-full” of faith?

January 24, 2012

William James* thought so. And Walter Kaufmann said we heretics can have faith too. Turns out his faith was a lot like mine, and like that of many in my profession: a pluralistic faith in the value of variety, of many voices, of collaboratve learning:

I do not believe in any afterlife any more than the prophets did, but I don’t mind living in a world in which people have different beliefs. Diversity helps to prevent stagnation and smugness; and a teacher should acquaint his students with diversity and prize careful criticism far above agreement. His noblest duty is to lead others to think for themselves. -“Faith of a Heretic” (see also WK’s lectures on existentialism)

But not all faiths are equally meritorious. A rigid, intransigent, unfalsifiable faith too easily becomes a misanthropic dogma. A tentative, grasping, spectatorial faith may be mere wishful sentiment. But faith that motivates works, faith in the future or faith in one’s own abilities or in the capacity for goodness of people who’ve let you down in the past, can be self-actualizing and self-fulfilling if we’re prepared to act on it ourselves and apply what we learn from the consequences. That, anyway, is the faith of a pragmatist, and not just the abstract academic variety of pragmatist but (some of us abstract academics might argue) of pragmatic agents of social change like MLK. Are you skeptical? Good, you should be.

(I love that phrase “chock-full,” it was Jackie Robinson‘s coffee and thus has acquired for me the connotation of fortifying, emboldening plenitude.)

Today in CoPhi we continue our first pass through the Hellenistic Age of ancient Greece, with the Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. They didn’t speak much of faith, but they had a salutary form of it: faith in reality, and faith in the ultimate beneficence of acknowledging it. Their philosophically “dominant mood” was

a clear-eyed resignation to chaos and uncertainty, and a conviction that reality, even painful reality, is preferable to living under false ideas.

Where so many philosophers in the western tradition have recoiled from uncertainty, they found “emancipation” in the embrace of chaotic reality and the repudiation of “ridiculous, infantilizing misconception.”  They were among the first genuine cosmopolitans, and in JMH’s agreeable metaphor they decided to stop trying so hard to escape the forest of natural existence.

Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time. Thus the cosmopolitan doubter looks back on earlier generations with bemused sympathy—they were mistaken—and looks upon believing contemporaries with real pity, as creatures scurrying through the forest, idiotically searching for  a way out of the human condition.

Cynic means dog. “Cynics wanted to live virtuously and calmly, the way the animals do.”  Reminds me of my favorite lines from Whitman.

I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d, I stand and look at them long and long.They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth.

Stoics said “we are here, this is our situation, there is no hidden other situation.” Deal with it.

Epicureans said Take heart! The gods are distracted and uninterested, and anyway they did not make the world, “if they had, it would not be so full of suffering.” And, “we are going to die, but so what? When it is over, it will be over.” And, “the soul is a corporeal thing.” And, “accepting the finality of death makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden” and to stop yearning for another one to come. “Difficult truth is better than wonderful falsehood.” Sorry, Willy James.

In A&P we’ll look again today at any of Goldstein’s God arguments anyone cares to discuss.  I’m especially interested in the Argument from Pragmatism (#32), which is probably at best an argument for the right to believe (and not for the existence of God). In fact, most of the arguments are best construed in that vein. The largest question we can ask about them in the aggregate, then, is the old Clifford question from Will to Believe: is it ever right, anywhere, any time, to believe anything on insufficient evidence? By what right? (SEP)

D has challenging thoughts* on all this, and awaits my reply. I do too. Never know just what I think about WJ’s WtB, at a given moment, ’til I see what I say that day. I’m pretty sure it’s a crummy argument for God’s existence, but am still unresolved as to its ultimate merits in defending personal belief in things unseen. It’s a big, open universe, maybe there’s room in it for variety here too.

*”Appeals to authority are bad, recognition of authorities’ insight, when evident, is good. Is there a reliable criterion of evidence we can all invoke?”

If by ‘reliable’ you mean steadfast expectations based on past experiences, then empirical science has been proven to be the most reliable criterion for event prediction. I don’t think this has to exclude other means of discovery, but we all rely on empirical science every day whether we like it or not. One would be hard pressed to find a theist willing to be blindfolded and rely on divine guidance to traverse a busy intersection… If we both accept [the foregoing statement about ‘authority’] as true and by ‘authorities’ insight’ you mean insight based on scientific theories that are repeatable, falsifiable and backed up empirical data, then, in light of verifiable evidence, ‘authority,’ in this sense, is simply the genesis or author of the theory, which has no bearing on the veracity of the facts…

Sounds right enough. My problem (might it be my salvation?) is that this still sounds right to me too:

I have long defended to my own students the lawfulness of voluntarily adopted faith; but as soon as they have got well imbued with the logical spirit, they have as a rule refused to admit my contention to be lawful philosophically, even though in point of fact they were personally all the time *chock-full of some faith or other themselves.

Faith in the probity of scientific inquiry, for instance, is a faith I happen to share. I am prepared, even, to cross the street on its authority. Seems pretty reliable so far. But it’s not really “faith” in the same sense, is it?

Is there a reconciliation in the offing, between the Jamesian pluralists (am I the only one?) and the hard-core take-no-prisoners atheists? Or at least a spirited and friendly conversation?

Or should we just call the whole thing off, on the authority of whoever left the apocalyptic flyer in my car door last night?

“Jesus Christ is Coming to Take Over! – Your invitation to the take over and escaping death begins by saying yes to Jesus Christ… [Visit our prophecy site on the coming of WW3, the east and west coast tsunamis and mega quake, backed by miracles, signs and wonders at”]

Kinda makes a mockery of my high-blown defense of Jamesian pluralism, doesn’t it? I think I could turn and live with animals…

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.

Memorial Day

May 31, 2010

It is right that we set aside a day to pause and reflect on the terrible cost of war, in soldiers’ lives, and feel deep gratitude for the willingness of idealistic young men and women to sacrifice themselves for a perceived greater good.

But it is not enough to remember them alone. Civilian casualties in war are inevitable and appalling. The entire human cost of armed aggression around the globe needs a day of remembrance too, and we need to insist on an accounting.

The only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry- in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. -Justice Potter Stewart

We need to be less stone-blind to the realities of war, less stoical in our acceptance of the “inevitable.” In some ways it’s hard, but in others it’s way too easy to “suck it up and keep on fighting”– as Nancy Sherman says in the new installment of the Times philosophy blog. We undertake “detachment from certain objects so they cannot affect” us, we hold the brutality and de-humanization of war at arms’ length, we idealize noble ends and whitewash despicable means… and we continue the fight.

The U.S. has been carrying on the present fight for nearly a decade now. Why is this not widely rejected as outrageous and intolerable? Could it be that we’re simply not paying attention, most of us? That we’re lacking Justice Stewart’s “informed and critical public opinion?” Do we need to bring back a draft, to re-focus our attention and hone our critical opinion?

But we do love a parade. Happy Memorial Day. Peace.

dead stoics society

February 10, 2010

Simon Critchley has as eye for the bizarre and unseemly side of philosophy.  In today’s reading we learn that Diogenes abused himself in the marketplace, saying he wished it were as easy to relieve hunger by rubbing his stomach. It’s not too surprising to learn that he never married, but it is dispiriting to think of him as the original poster boy for cosmopolitanism.* Maybe he just meant to abuse public decency laws everywhere in the world… like fellow Cynics Hipparchia (herself a disappointing “first female philosopher” who was bettered by Hypatia**) and Crates. I do like his comment on Plato’s metaphysics: The table and cup I see, but I do not see tableness and cupness.

*Carl Sagan’s notion of what it means to be a cosmopolitan, a citizen of the cosmos, is far more inspiring. We speak for Earth:

Also noted by Critchley:

>There is no more relevant ancient philosopher for our time than Epicurus, who said “when it comes to death we human beings all live in an unwalled city… living well and dying well are one and the same.”

>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.

>Epictetus, an early exponent of self-reliance, said we are “disturbed not by things but by the opinions which we have of things”… If we keep death constantly before our eyes and in our mouths, then our terror of it and our attachment to worldly things will fall away.

>Marcus Aurelius said “live each day as though one’s last”… Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present.

But, crucially: “living in the present” is not the same as not caring about the future. Real cosmopolitans care. We may cultivate an attitude of indifference towards our personal, individual deaths, but the prospective, premature,  self-inflicted death of our species would be something to mourn. It’s also– and this may be un-Stoical– something to deplore and to resist, while we’re still here to do it.

*Sagan also composed the best tribute I’ve seen to Hypatia, who said in a most Saganesque moment: To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.

Sagan’s Cosmos can be found here.

cave philosophy

February 8, 2010

Today’s Passion for Wisdom sections jet us from Plato’s and Aristotle’s Athens past Greek and Roman Stoics and Skeptics to African animists and Meso-American Incas and Aztecs. All pose big imponderable questions: What is real? How real is experience, compared with ideas? What does “reality” mean? Where to begin?

Perhaps with Plato and Aristotle, and the messages implicit in their body language in the famous Raphael painting “School of Athens.” Plato’s gesture bespeaks his two-worlds philosophy, according to which our everyday experience is less real than “Ideas” and “Essences” (or “Forms”) in contrast with Aristotle’s more grounded view that ideas and forms are in the things at our feet.

Then there’s Plato’s cave with its image of some very strange prisoners, on his view much “like ourselves.” On Plato’s telling, Socrates was a cave-dweller who was  willling to return to the cave, to “descend to human affairs,” and was persecuted for doing it. This is an allegory about the search for wisdom, the willingness to be unpopular in its pursuit, and the dangers that befall persons who – like Socrates – personify courage and intellectual integrity. It’s a plea to tolerate and even encourage dissenting voices and different ways of thinking and living. It’s also, as noted, a symbol of Plato’s “two world” metaphysics, about which Socrates typically was agnostic.

And – in modern terms – it’s a warning to resist the allure of the cave and its reassuring but shadowy unreality. Many of our caves, and the flickering images on their walls, are warm and dry and wired. But would Plato think they were an improvement?
Aristotle might not think  much better of our pastimes, but he did not distrust the senses; he used them to observe, collect, and experiment. There is no place and no need for a theory of Forms, a theory of another world.

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. Stoics and skeptics value the feeling of at-homeness above all, and (like Buddhists?) perceive “attachment” as that feeling’s greatest threat. More on this from Simon Critchley next time.

Halfway ’round the world, while the Greeks and Romans were getting themselves memorialized in our cultural histories, reflected in our classic architecture, and inspiring generations of Vulcans et al, the Aztecs and Olmec (who seem to come up in class at every sports season transition… how ’bout ‘dem Saints!) and Navaho and other native Americans were creating their own rich– but because mainly oral, now obscure– traditions. Like their contemporaries on the African continent they became animists and sought soul and spirit everywhere. The voodoo supernaturalism of this perspective can be off-putting to a logically-minded Stoic or Skeptic, but there are other chords in the Meso-American and African worldviews that speak directly to some of our most pressing planetary concerns. We are a part of the Earth, we are dependent on it, and it is dependent on us. We have ecological responsibilities; the world around us, “nature,” is not just a resource… we are nature… nature is essentially spiritual.

Postscript: Thoreau had some thoughts about this reality stuff…

Hecht @home

February 4, 2010

Jennifer Hecht contributes a weekly post to “The Best American Poetry” blog, ranging over all kinds of topics including happiness and atheism. Take a look.

She noted recently, at the passing of People’s Historian Howard Zinn (who inspired both impassioned admiration and criticism), that he blurbed Doubt.

And check out her musings on “poetic atheism“: How strange to find our little thinking and blinking faces amid a universe that is for the most part not alive at all. Believers say,  “If this weirdness is true, why not believe angels,” but adding nonsense is not helpful.

Hecht is one of the breed of kinder, gentler atheists, like Rebecca Goldstein (of whom a reviewer writes: “Whether or not God exists, in moments of transcendent happiness we all feel a love beyond ourselves, beyond anything. [She] doesn’t want to shake your faith or confirm it”).

Neither shaking nor confirming? Sounds agnostic, though it may simply be “doubtful” and pluralistic. In any case, she has a rich and largely-neglected story to tell. The New Atheists stand on the shoulders of giants. Atheism is not new.

About those Greeks…

Hecht really sheds fresh light, in Doubt: a history, on the naturalizing impulse of the pre-Socratic and Hellenic thinkers. For instance, Democritus (the beautiful regularity of the universe was neither created nor maintained by the guiding intelligence of a god), the Cynics (Diogenes‘ advice is that we stop distracting ourselves with accomplishments, accept the meaninglessness of the universe, lie down on a park bench and get some sun while we have the chance) and Stoics (feeling a part of the community of the universe) and Epicureans (there are no ghostly grownups watching our lives and waiting to punish us… we might as well make an art of appreciating pleasure… in this beautiful moment one is alive) and Skeptics (I do not lay it down that honey is sweet but I admit that it appears to be so), with fresh slants on Socrates (among those great minds who actually cultivated doubt in the name of truth) and Plato (whose form of the Good has been illicitly conflated with God for two millennia).

What I like most in her section on Greek doubt (or as I prefer, Greek spirit): the forest metaphor, which offers the most timeless but (in an age of restless spiritual “cherry [*berry?]-picking”) also timely wisdom: The experience of doubt in a heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world is a bit like being lost in a forest… we could stop being lost if we were to just stop trying to get out of the forest. Instead, we could pick some *blueberries, sit beneath a  tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze. The initial horror of being lost utterly disappears when you come to believe fully that there is no town out there, beyond the forest… Hang a sign that says HOME on a tree and you’re done; just try to have a good time.

As Epicurus realized, it is accepting the finality of death that makes it possible to enjoy the pleasures of the garden. This is a very different garden than the one we got kicked out of in the Eden story. This time you have to eat from the tree of knowledge to get in.

That’s James and Sagan redux: at home in the universe, at ease with the human condition.


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.