Roman Calendar

Friday, January 18, 2013

Seneca on the fear of death

     In his third letter to Lucilius, Seneca discusses how silly it is to be afraid of death of all things! Death - the end of all misfortunes - cannot be a misfortune in itself, surely?

"Nullum malum est magnum, quod extremum est. Mors ad te venit; timenda erat, si tecum esse posset, sed necesse est aut non perveniat aut transeat."

"No evil is great which is the last one. Death comes to you - it would be a thing to be feared, if it could somehow stay with you, but it is necessary that either death not come to you, or that it both come and depart."

     Strictly speaking, to the sage, death is not an evil at all. Dying does not involve a moral choice in and of itself (although some choices leading to it might, like choosing to die before your time in some way). But even assuming that it is in some way an evil - e.g., because it can cause physical pain in the process - it must of necessity be a final one. You cannot undergo it again (normally). And if it is final, it brings an end to all other evils, too. Now if death were painful, and you were to continually suffer the pains of death for eternity, that might be considered a bad thing. But when death comes, it comes and leaves. The moment of death - a fraction of an eyeblink - is very short indeed. And if, once it comes, it may never come again . . . well, what then? Is it not silly to fear this one moment in time, that will liberate you from all evils, and which can never come again?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Seneca on Stoic fearlessness

     In his third letter to Lucilius, Seneca urges his friend to consider that the Stoic sage would be fearless, for the only thing that could truly harm him would be to choose to act contrary to Virtue (which the sage, of course, would not do). A man of perfect reason would not fear anything . . . But of course, few to none of us are sages, few to none of us have the perfect reason of a sage, and so therefore . . . we fear . . .

"Adhuc enim non pueritia sed, quod est gravius, puerilitas remanet. Et hoc quidem peior est, quod auctoritatem habemus senum, vitia puerorum, nec puerorum tanatum sed infantum. Illi levia, hi falsa formidant, nos utraque."

"It is not childhood [lit. "boyhood"] that still stays with us, but what is more serious, childishness [lit. "boyishness"]. And this is indeed worse, because we have the authority of adults [lit. "of old men"], the failings of children [lit. "boys"], nay, not even children, but of infants. Children [lit. "boys"] fear trifles, infants fear shadows [lit. "false things"], we [adults] fear both."

     Seneca's point seems to be that we are born without much power of reason, and so as infants we fear everything, and many of the things we fear do not even exist (falsa). As we grow, we develop our power of reason, but as children, we still have much to learn about how to apply our faculties, so we continue to fear trifles. But as adults, with fully developed powers of reason, and having had plenty of opportunities to learn to apply our faculties, we ought to be fearless . . . in a perfect world. However, since few to none of us is endowed with perfect reason (as the mythic Stoic sage), even as adults, most of us continue to fear trifles and shadows we should have long since outgrown. For what is there to fear, as long as the choice of good and evil is ours to make? Choose Virtue, shun Vice, and there is literally nothing to fear.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Seneca on reading many books . . .

     A passage found in Seneca's 2nd letter to Lucilius:

     "Aliquid cotidie adversus paupertatem, aliquid adversus mortem auxilii compara, nec minus adversus ceteras pestes; et cum multa percurreris, unum excerpe, quod illo die concoquas. Hoc ipse quoque facio; ex pluribus, quae legi, aliquid adprehendo."

     "Each day acquire something of help against poverty, something of help against death, no less against other plagues; and when you will have run through many such things, choose one that on that day you will thoroughly digest. This I myself do as well; out of very many things which I read, I claim something for myself."

Sage advice!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Seneca on labels

     One of the oft-repeated maxims of Stoicism is to "remember that you are an actor in a play." In other words, very little of the script of your life is up to you; much of it has been written by a great Playwright (Providence, the Stoics would say, atheists might prefer "fate" or "luck," pagans might say "the gods" or monotheists might say "God," but the facts are the same - most things are not in your control, and never will be). The play is written, the part is assigned, and all that is in your power is to play your part as well as you can. Of course, your understanding of your part is important to this - do not become obsessed with labels. The part you play is being you - it is, in part, up to you to determine exactly what that means.

     On a Stoicism discussion list I follow, someone recently brought up this idea of not over-identifying with labels, but to "remember that you are an actor in a play." You play your part, but should not assume that you are the role that fate assigns - you merely play the part. You have no innate right or tie to a role assigned by Providence, as Providence may take it away from you, just as it was assigned. The person who raised this issue gave many examples of the idea that "I am not the role I play," citing examples of roles and redefining them as acts in which one participates. For my own life, I could give examples like, "I am not a teacher. I am a person who teaches. I am not poor. I am a person who has little money. I am not a Stoic. I am a person who happens to practice Stoicism." And so on . . .

     In my reading of Seneca's letters to Lucilius, I find the statement "Non puto pauperem, cui quantulumcumque superest, sat est." - "I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him." Now, in this quote, Seneca isn't specifically addressing the issue of identifying with labels . . . and yet, it is an integral part of the thinking behind this quote. Because the Stoic does not consider someone to be the apparent role they play - like "poor" - although the person may not have money or possessions, they are not poor if they are content with what they have . . .

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Practicing Stoicism and visiting the E.R.

     As I write this, it is Thursday morning. On Tuesday night, my girlfriend was suffering shortness of breath and pressure in her chest, accompanied by dizziness and (briefly) pain or pressure in her left arm and neck. We called 911, and paramedics responded quickly, but they could not identify a specific problem. They recommended that we go to the hospital. So I insisted on taking her immediately to the hospital - thank the gods that her ex-husband was able to take the kids! Anyway, my girlfriend was admitted to the ER, and they soon decided they were going to need to keep her overnight. There were no beds available in the hospital, so we stayed in the ER. I stayed until 3 AM, then went home to call out of work for the next day. It wasn't until late morning the next day that she got a hospital room. I visited her again Wednesday night, but they still didn't know anything for certain, and were going to keep her overnight (again) for more tests. They still don't know for sure what is going on as of this writing on Thursday morning.

     All of which has provided us with outstanding opportunities to practice our Stoic philosophy. None of these things is really in our control; how we react to these things is in out power, however. We are not perfect sages, and it can be difficult to maintain true Stoic serenity in such trying times. But we're working on it.

Anothing Tim Ferriss Article on Stoicism

Another interesting article by Tim Ferriss involving Stoicism . . .
Food for thought.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Article: 5 Lessons from Cato

Here is an article about Stoicism as represented by Cato of Utica from Tim Ferriss' blog:

Food for thought . . .

Seneca on Saving Time, continued

     Continuing with Seneca's first letter to Lucilius, we read:

     "Fac ergo, mi Lucili, quod facere te scribis, omnes horas complectere. Sic fiet, ut minus ex crasino pendeas, si hodierno manum inieceris. Dum differtur, vita transcurrit. Omnia, Lucili, aliena sunt, tempus tantum notrum est. In huius rei unius fugacis ac lubricae possessionem natura nos misit, ex qua expellit quicumque vult. Et tanta stultitia mortalium est, ut quae minima et vilissima sunt, certe reparabilia, imputari sibi, cum impetravere, patiantur; nemo se iudicet quicquam debere, qui tempus accepit, cum interim hoc unum est, quod ne gratus quidem potest reddere."

     "Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write to me that you are already doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today's task, and you will not need to depend so much on tomorrow's. While we delay, life passes us by. All things are on loan to us, Lucilius, time alone is ours. Nature entrusted us with the possession of this one thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who wishes can take ownership from us. And such is the foolishness of mortals, that they allow to be counted as theirs the smallest and cheapest things, easily replaced, once they have them, but no one judges himself to be in debt when he has received some time, which meanwhile is the one thing that even a grateful recipient cannot repay."

      Time is the one thing that we have - that, and the moral choices we make within time. Our bodies, our possessions, our loved ones - these are all "on loan" from fortune, and must be repaid whenever fortune calls for them. But we cannot be called upon to relinquish our time - we give it up one second at a time, and cannot be made to live life any faster or slower - so we must make the most of every moment. Our choices from moment to moment are the only thing we truly possess.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Seneca on Saving Time

     I recently began to re-read Seneca's Ad Lucilium Epistulae and have been composing new notes on my reading. Here are some words from Seneca:

     "Quaedam tempora eripiuntur nobis, quaedam subducuntur, quaedam effluunt. Turpissima tamen est iactura, quae per neglegentiam fit . . . Maxima pars vitae elabitur male agentibus, magna nihil agentibus, tota vita aliud agentibus. Quem mihi dabis, qui aliquod pretium tempori ponat, qui diem aesitmet, qui intellegat se cotidie mori? In hoc enim fallimur, quod motem prospicimus; magna pars eius iam praeterit. Quicquid aetatis retro est, mors tenet."

     "Some moments are torn away from us, some are gently removed, others simply flow away. The most disgraceful loss of time is that which happens through carelessness . . . The greatest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a great part while we are doing nothing, our whole life while we are doing something else [other than what we ought]. What person will you present to me, who places any value upon his time, who reckons the value of each day, who understands that we are daily dying? For we are mistaken, when we look forward to death' the major part of death has already passed. Whatever time lies behind us, it is in death's hands."

     The Stoics taught serenity, but also responsibility. One cannot simply resign oneself to doing nothing - that would not be virtuous use of our time, and thus it would not be virtuous, nor good, and thus we would not be able to enjoy serenity. Make the best possible use of time. That is the way of Virtue.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Stoic Sentiments in the Argonautica

     From the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (Apollonius of Rhodes) comes this rather Stoic sentiment (Book 1, lines 295-300):

"Mother, please do not take upon yourself too many bitter sorrows in this way, for you will not ward off misfortune with tears, but will add yet further grief to your griefs. For the gods mete out unforeseen woes to mortals, and, although it pains your heart, endure to bear your portion of them."

     Crying over misfortunes - indeed, acknowledging such as misfortunes - is the cause of far worse pain and grief than whatever the original "misfortune" ever was. So did Jason advise his mother as he prepared to set forth in the quest for the Golden Fleece.