Marcus to Malpractice to Montaigne by Mary Braun

A car crosses the midline and kills one of my patients. Perhaps it is the elderly diabetic who I’ve been telling for years to move to assisted living. I’m so sure she’s going to fall and break a hip, living at home alone at 95. I was wrong. I should have warned her against going grocery shopping. It might be the forty year old woman with the weight loss and stomach pain that we never could pin down. She was worried she would die a slow, painful death of pancreatic cancer, which is notoriously difficult to find until it’s quite large. Neither of us need worry. It seems she barely saw her actual death coming. Perhaps it was the mid-twenty year old who finally accepted treatment for his anxiety, the one who now had his first girlfriend, his first job, and would never see further firsts. He was so worried about side effects of the medication that he spent years in his parent’s basement, watching youtube. The med did not affect the other driver’s ability to stay awake. 

Thus, the lesson of memento mori (that one may be plucked from the living without warning at any moment) is daily presented to the primary care doctor. Patients come in with symptoms that I think will kill them that turn out to be minor ailments and no symptoms at all that turn out to be the first warning of their terminal diagnosis. 

Stoicism is rife with reminders of the shortness of life. Epictetus encourages us to remember how transient are those we love (From now on, whenever you take delight in anything, call to mind the opposite impression; what harm is there is saying beneath your breath as you’re kissing your child, ‘Tomorrow you’ll die’?” Discourses, 3.24, 88). Would my elderly diabetic have had a different phone conversation with her grandson on Friday afternoon if she knew she was going to die Saturday morning?

Marcus encouraged us to meditate frequently on our death (And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last Meditations 2.5). Marcus was encouraging himself to think about his death as a way to focus himself on what is important. If she realized that it would be be the last time she sat at her writing desk, my forty year old with belly pain may have been a little more focussed than if she thought she had an endless stream of mornings stretched out in front of her.

In letter 101, Seneca encourages Lucilius to focus on his death as a way to focus on what’s important and reduce his anxiety (Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. One who daily puts the finishing touches to his life is never in want of time. And yet, from this want arise fear and a craving for the future which eats away the mind.) My poor, young anxious man may have enjoyed his life more if he had recognized its potential brevity.

The exercise of reminding myself how close at hand death is works well for me when I consider my personal life, but the result from a professional point of view is opposing. I find Stoicism helps to a point, and then reach to another of the Hellenistic philosophies, Pyrrhonism, for help with the rest.

Personally, when I imagine myself near to death, I am able to see what I really value. Providing high quality, individualized care to complicated, medically fragile people is such a thing. It’s important work, it is a job that suits my particular skills and there is a need for it now. I practice in a way that I am proud of. I treat my patients with dignity, encourage autonomy, independence, and help them make decisions that support their particular values, goals and preferences. I help patients get what they consider good outcomes. When I think about nearing death, the way I have taken care of my patients is one of the things I take comfort in personally.  For my personal goals, I would not change the way I practice if I knew I was near death.

Primary care offers opportunities for courage: I am often forced to tell people things they really don’t want to hear; equanimity: I can remain calm when these patients become angry; wisdom: I can respond wisely to these patients even when it would be easier to respond to their demands. I feel I’m up to the task most days and when I’m not, considering that this may be the last opportunity I have to interact with this particular patient, due to the fleeting nature of both of our lives (or possibly due to their insurance changing) does help me find wisdom I might otherwise not be able to. The memento mori practice helps.

When I consider my practice habits from a professional point of view, however, and recall that I am dying soon, I am tempted to practice differently. In particular, if I knew that I was going to die after a short retirement or, worse yet, in the saddle, I might concentrate on making what seemed to me to be  defensible decisions, rather than decisions that seem best for the particular patient in front of me.

They teach us in med school that the most common time for a doctor to be sued is in the three years after their death. The lawsuit doesn’t matter to the dead doctor, of course, because they’re dead, but it can massively inconvenience their families if their estate gets tied up in court.

They tell us that people who might have been on the fence about suing me while I was alive will sue me after I die. They might think my care was less than ideal, but like me so they didn’t want to hurt my feelings by suing me. Once I’m dead, however, I won’t have any feelings to hurt and they can feel free to sue me. 

Dead doctors are relatively easy marks because not only are we unable to defend ourselves from the grave, but the usual impediments to settling a case are removed. Being dead, I will not care about my reputation. Perhaps there are relevant details that died with me: my medical reasoning or delicate, personal revelations from the patient. I can’t be summoned to present this information. My kind personality will not help me here; the judge will never meet me. They will not be able to see how devoted I was to my patients or get a sense of how hard I tried to do what was best for them.

The lawyer will recommend that my estate settle especially if it’s not a large amount.

When I think about dying soon from this perspective, it makes me feel scattered and causes me to second guess every decision. I worry that each decision is not defensible and will lead to huge inconvenience for my family. 

If I get too far into second guessing, it hampers my ability to make good decisions in the present. Remembering that any of my patients (or even worse, their heirs after they die) may sue me at any moment for any reason distracts me from the important work at hand. The decision that is most defensible is not always the decision that is best for the patient and if I am maximizing my care for being defensible, I am not maximizing my care for my patients’ best interest. Practicing medicine in any way that is not in my patients’ best interest pricks my conscience. Am I acting wisely if I am prioritizing the minimization of my legal exposure down the road? My equanimity is seriously disturbed at this point. Consideration of the proximity of my death has encouraged less, not more, virtuous action, simply as a practical matter. 

Then I return to the personal view. When I consider the fact that I am dying and perhaps sooner than I might think, I want to feel like I’m using my time well. Why am I wasting my precious time being a doctor who practices like there is something more important than individualized, patient centered, exquisitely tailored care? I am distressed. Perhaps I had better retire now. How do I ever make any medical decisions? My worry can get out of control pretty quickly here and I can find myself concentrating on the effect of our medical decisions on me rather than their effects on the patient. Now, I have become the very opposite of the kind of doctor I want to be. 

Once again, Epictetus has some help to offer me: “some things are in our control and some things, not.” The next sentence points out that my actions are under my control. So far, so good. The next: other people’s actions are not under my control. Whether my patient chooses to sue my estate is not under my control. I can act in ways to decrease the chances of it, but if I fail at what I can control in an attempt to control something I cannot control, why exactly would I even be a doctor. 

There are things I can do now to minimize my risk of a future lawsuit, but after I am dead, I cannot control anything. Control of other people after I’m dead is what I’m trying to do. I cannot control other people while I am alive. I doubt I’ll be more effective when I’m dead! Research says that by providing my patients with careful care and making sure they feel heard, I can minimize my risk of lawsuits in the future. This might be considered as the “partially out of my control” arm of the trichotomy of control that Bill Irvine proposes. However, the decisions a patient’s family members might make after my patient’s death are completely out of my control. There is nothing I can do to develop a relationship with someone I have not met. 

To recap, at this point, I am concerned about an outcome that is only partially, if at all, under my control. The ways I can control my behavior to minimize the chances of this outcome are clear. Some of them are acceptable, or even laudable, such as working to develop a good relationship with my patients. Some of them are objectionable, such as ordering test I don’t really think the patient needs in order to protect myself from a potential lawsuit. I can consider how I will feel about my honor and professional judgment if I practice in this way and that helps restrain my actions, but sometimes it is not enough. I may still feel some temptation to practice unwisely.

I think about my death and its consequences for my daughter who is currently a college freshman. I imagine a lawsuit. If my estate were tied up in court, would she have to sit out until it was sorted out? What a disaster for her! This thought leads me away from practicing in the best interest of my patient again. 

Another Hellenistic philosophy, Pyrrhonism, can come to my assistance here. Pyrrhonism asks me to consider what I really know. Do I really know it’s a bad thing for my daughter to have to wait a year or two out of college while my estate gets settled? Do I really know it would be a bad thing for her to have to support herself for a couple of years without the benefit of a college degree or my financial help? Judging the goodness or badness of things that have not come to pass seems quite foolish. 

Montaigne summarized this line of reasoning as a maxim: “What do I know?” In other words, perhaps a lawsuit and inability to pay her college tuition would be difficult for my daughter, but perhaps she would find a scholarship or perhaps she would do something else with the time that would provide her with a better life course. I can’t know ahead of time. I am considering acting today in a way that is against my professional vow of fiduciary beneficence in order to minimize the impact of an outcome that might or might not ever come to pass, which is out of my control and might not even be a bad thing. This seems foolish. 

Stoicism has helped me be a better doctor, but has uncovered, and only partially abated, other areas of anxiety. Pyrrhonism has helped out here. My patients, if they only knew, would thank the ancients for their contribution to their doctor’s equanimity.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients.

The Stoic – November 2019

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership).

The theme of this issue is ‘Stoic Questions Answered’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Flora Bernard, Jonas Salzgeber and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

NOVEMBER 2019 ISSUE CONTENTS

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Stoicism as a Way of Life
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. What Should You Seek? Courage To Face The World
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. What’s Your Job? Being a Good Person
  • KAI WHITING. What Should Be Your Concern? It’s Not All About Yourself.
  • SHARON LEBELL. What Steers Your Life? The Unseen Metaphors
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. How Should You Deal With Your Thoughts? Distance Yourself
  • FLORA BERNARD. What Is Success? Doing What Is Under Your Control

The Human Comedy: Lucian of Samosata, the View from Above, and Stoicism as a Way of Life by Matthew Sharpe

Each year, the Modern Stoicism organization organizes the main Stoicon conference, and helps to promote local Stoicon-X events. Over the last several years, we have developed a tradition here at Stoicism Today of publishing as many of the talks and workshops from Stoicon and Stoicon-Xs as blog posts, in order to allow our readership who were unable to attend these conferences the benefit of those speakers’ expertise. We’re continue this year’s sequence of posts with an excellent talk from Stoicon, provided by Matthew Sharpe, which follows below – Greg Sadler, editor, Stoicism Today

When some years ago I told a close friend that I was interested in Stoicism, she responded with ancient concerns: that Stoicism is about having a “stiff upper lip”.  It has no sense either of the beauty or the comedy of life, turning its followers into emotionless human statues.  In this paper, I’d like to offer a response to my friend, and to the old charge that Stoicism is humorless, so practicing it as a way of life will make you joyless and dour.

 Things aren’t quite that simple.  The great Stoic Epictetus tells us expressly that we are not to become statues, but men and women with private and civic relationships and responsibilities.  And if you are anything like me, you will have found yourself laughing out loud, LOL, again and again as you read his Discourses and dealing out, deadpan, difficult ‘truth bombs’, as my students say.  Seneca in On Tranquility of Mind likewise stresses that “it is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it”.

 So what is the role of humor, at least humor of some types, in Stoicism as a way of life?  And, given that trying to become a Stoic really is a serious affair, what could be the ‘serious’ function of humor within a Stoic life?

In order to throw light on these questions, I want to explore the old link between Stoicism and its more ‘fractious’ cousin, ancient Cynicism.  From Zeno to Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus, Stoics always honored “the way of the dog” (for that is roughly what Cynicism means) as a “shorter”, in some senses more difficult way to virtue, and the two schools remained closely aligned, especially in ethics.  Yet, starting from Diogenes of Sinope, the most famous Cynic, who used to beg before statues to practice patience, masturbate in public without shame, or walk around Athens’ streets with a lamp in broad daylight looking for an honest man, one of the most patent features of Cynical philosophical practice is its openly comical dimension.

 So what I want to do today is look firstly at the work of a Cynic who may not be known to all of you, Lucian of Samosata, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, to help us understand how humor could be invaluable in being a Stoic.  In Lucian’s comedies, we will see (1), many spiritual exercises used by the Stoics, led by the “view from above”, are given hilarious satirical presentations.  The comedy in Lucian’s staging of this spiritual exercise in particular, I will then show (2), helps us catch sight of the comic dimension in Stoicism, and the need for a sense of humor in the Stoic life.

1. Lucian and the view from above

Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180 CE) was trained first as a sculptor, next as a public speaker, before coming here to Athens around 165 CE, receiving a philosophical education, and beginning to write the works for which he remains famous. 

There is overwhelming evidence, including a sympathetic dialogue The Cynic, to support the idea that Lucian was philosophically a Cynic.  Like Diogenes and the Cynic Menippus whom Lucian makes his hero in several comedies, Lucian clearly took his public role to have been to fractiously ‘call out’ the idiotic pretentions of all of the pretenders of his time: from would-be oracles and magi, to orators, tyrants, climbers, and self-professing philosophers.  The Cynics were like ancient ‘situationists’ or ‘life hackers’, as we say in the internet age.  In this capacity, Lucian indeed did not hold back from attacking Stoicism itself in several key texts: notably his Symposium, in which philosophers of all schools are depicted brawling over the most petty things; and in his Lives for Sale, wherein the god Hermes shamelessly auctions off Chrysippus, Plato and other philosophers as commodities to the highest bidders.

Yet it is important to recognise from the start, if we are going to understand Lucian, why he satirises the Stoics and other philosophers of his day.  Because it is very relevant to our gathering here today.  Lucian’s charge is that Stoicism by the end of the 2nd century CE had become unrelated to life.  It had morphed into a kind of “scholastic” pursuit, preoccupied with recondite logical paradoxes like “the Reaper, the Owner—… the Electra and the Masked Man” or the fearsome “Indemonstrable syllogism” (Selected, 326, 328).  Yet, put simply, Lucian wonders how mastery of such subjects relates to wisdom or living the good life.  It is just as if he had already read his Pierre Hadot, or knew about Modern Stoicism.  As Lucian depicts Zeus lamenting in his Icaromenippus:

These ‘philosophers’ have divided themselves into bands, each dwelling in a separate word-maze of its own construction … Then they take to themselves the holy name of Virtue, and with uplifted brows and flowing beards exhibit [only a] deceitful semblance [of wisdom] that hides immoral lives.[1] 

This may sound familiar.

It is in this light that we need to understand the recourse within Lucian’s comical dialogues to spiritual exercises shared by the Stoics, like the view from above—he too is interested in the truly philosophical life.  As you will know, this exercise of the view from above involves imaginatively reviewing one’s life, and one’s concerns, as if from far above—from whence they appear quite differently, and as much less all-consuming, than we usually take them to be.  As Hadot discerned in Philosophy as a Way of Life, this exercise forms the central premise in not one but two of Lucian’s satires: first, the Icaromenippus, in which the Cynic Menippus constructs wings for himself like Icarus, and flies to the moon to discover the truth, after becoming completely disillusioned by the squabblings of competing philosophers; and second, Charon, or the Overseers, in which the god of the underworld, Charon, piles entire mountains on top of each other to look down upon the lives that human beings experience on earth, whose losses they so lament when they come down to Hades.

What reveals itself to Menippus in Icaromenippus is exactly the kind of disordered mélange that Marcus Aurelius’ use of the view from above reveals, for instance in Meditations IX, 30 and XII, 24: “adulteries, murders, treasons, robberies, perjuries, suspicions, and monstrous betrayals … Not to mention the multitude of burglars, litigants, usurers …; oh, it was a fine show!”  Seen from the moon, Greece itself measures about four inches.  The largest landholdings of the richest proprietors are no bigger than an Epicurean atom: hardly worth angsting, killing and dying for in great numbers.  As for human cities, as Seneca and Marcus Aurelius will echo in their versions of the view from above exercise:

you must often have seen a community of ants, some of them a seething mass, some going abroad, others coming back to town … At any rate, what men and cities suggested to me was just so many anthills …

In Charon, when the God of the underworld perches besides Hermes atop the twin peaks of Parnassus over Delphi, a different sequence of human follies unfolds itself beneath them.  Charon, unlike the world-weary Menippus, is wholly new to human affairs.  His naive astonishment, as he looks at our affairs for the first time, highlights how strange­—Stoics say ‘indifferent’many of the pursuits and values people ordinarily take for granted are—especially when viewed from the perspective of human mortality, in which trade Charon works.

First, the two gods make out the Olympic wrestling hero Milon at the height of his fame, blithely unaware how soon death will arrive, and “pin him to the mat without his even realising he was knocked off his feet.”  Next they eavesdrop on the ancient sage Solon’s famous exchange with the proud monarch Croesus’ pride in his legendary riches (so, after fame, money).  This exchange also affords Charon his first glimpse of gold, about which he has heard so much lamenting from the dead in Hades. But he just can’t see what all the fuss is about:

Ch. Oh, so that is gold, that glittering yellow stuff, with just a tinge of red in it. I have often heard of gold, but never saw it before …

Her. Ah, you do not know what it has to answer for; the wars and plots and robberies, the perjuries and murders; for this, men will endure slavery and imprisonment; for this they traffic and sail the seas.

Ch. For this stuff? … What fools men must be, to be enamoured of an object of this sallow complexion; and of such a weight!

Next, Hermes is able to reveal the futures of human beings puffed up with pride at their worldly power (so, after fame and riches, power) and see just how transient and fragile their careers are.  He has recently been chatting with Clotho, the Fate who weaves the invisible fabric of human destinies.  The great King Cyrus, hero of Xenophon, is as blithely unaware as Milon that Tomyris, a Russian girl, will soon murder him; just as the great happiness of Polycrates, ruler of Samos, will very soon end with his bloody death, effected by a lowly servant.  And so on.  “It’s so ridiculously funny,” Charon interjects: “Yet, at this very moment, who would dare to look them in the face?  Such an air of contempt they have for everyone else.”

Finally, the two gods’ preternatural vision reveals very fine, intertwined threads of fate attached to each persons’ heads: all equally fragile, and all able to be severed by death at any time.  “This is terribly funny, Hermes”, Charon repeats.  “You couldn’t possible describe how funny it is and do it all justice,” replies Hermes.  Especially when you consider—as he now directs Charon—just “how well supplied” death is “with messengers and agents” to do his work: “chills, fever, consumption, pneumonia, swords, bandits, hemlock juries, despots …” 

The result of the entire spectacle is that Charon feels moved to shout down to we mortals, like some heavenly Epictetus:

‘Fools,’ I might say, ‘why so much in earnest? Rest from your toils. You will not live for ever.  Nothing of the pomp of this world will endure; nor can any man take anything hence when he dies.  He will go naked out of the world, and his house and his lands and his gold will be another’s, and ever another’s.’[2]

2. Comedy, the view from the Acropolis, and Stoicism

There is a great difference in tone and perspective between a raucous Cynic like Lucian and the serenity of Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.  The latter, we can feel, are close to attaining access to that “inner citadel” or akropolis Marcus describes in Meditations VIII, 48, as a high retreat into which the sage can retreat at a moment’s notice (see IV, 3).  The Cynics can seem, as it were, to be still roughing their way up the side of this acropolis, throwing down bolts of irritated invective at their fellows below, urging them to ‘wake up!’[3] 

Yet the view from above has deeply similar functions for both Cynics and Stoics.  The exercise serves to vividly remind us[4] that ‘externals’ like gold, riches, beauty, fame, and power are truly ‘indifferent’: unnecessary for, and unable to bring us lasting flourishing or serenity, since they properly don’t belong to us, but to Nature.  What Lucian’s stagings of this philosophical exercise in Icaromenippus and Charon make especially clear, however, is that there is something deeply comic about this view from above exercise—or rather, about what this exercise reveals about ordinary human affairs.  We can miss this dimension in Seneca’s or Marcus’ texts.  So, where is it?

Almost all philosophical theories of comedy have noted the role that the disjunction between two perspectives plays in the human sense of humor or the comic.    What we do when we practice the view from above is exactly cultivate a different, second perspective on what we usually take for granted.  This missed promotion, that person’s betrayal, the pettiness and mendacity of colleagues, whatever, can fill our minds, shock, preoccupy, or depress us.  When we adopt the second philosophical perspective in the view from above, though, we remember that such things are not exceptional, novel, unpredictable, and hence potentially traumatic.  They are laughably common, as old as humanity, so that no matter how capacious your historical perspective may be, as Marcus reminds himself:

You will see all these things: people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for some to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring consulship, kingly power (Meds. IV, 32; cf. VIII, 31; XI, 27; X1, 1).

Same ‘stuff’, different day.  Different actors, same scripts.

The comic side of this comes from the contrast between things as they truly are and the perspective of the agents themselves.  Since our particular experiences are ‘first for us’, each of us treats the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as if they were unprecedented, and we the most important player on the world’s stage.   As Hermes observes in Lucian’s Charon, what is so laughable about this is the “ignorance (agnoia) and deceit (apatê)”, including forms of self-deceit, that this usually involves.  Because of our usual failure to step back and see things steadily and whole, we:

look forward to having what they have forever, and so when death’s agents come calling to clap them in irons of fever or consumption and lead them away, they get angry at being hauled off because they never expected to be torn from the world. 

Likewise, as Epictetus will mock, we imagine that the famous, powerful or rich are truly important and happy, that our loved ones, unlike jugs—or even our household jugs—will last forever.  Then stuff happens.  So it goes. 

In a deeply interesting sequence in Charon, Lucian’s gods discern from above a “swarm” of spectral forms hovering around the little humans.  These are the pathê (passions): “hopes, fears, follies, pleasures, greeds, hates, grudges, and such like.”  It is above all our pathê, led by our hopes and fears, and each predicated on the “ignorant” overvaluation of externals, that render us unable to see things as they are, the Cynics agree with their Stoic comrades. 

Perhaps the most famously comic Stoic example of the disjunction between the physical realities of human life, and the enchanting aspects our passionate imaginingsadorn them with comes at Meditations VI, 13.  It is a matter of Marcus’ famous ‘disrobing’ of fine dining, as well as the sexual act:

How important it is to represent to oneself, when it comes to fancy dishes and other such foods: ‘This is the corpse of a fish, this other thing the corpse of a bird or a pig.’  … When it comes to sexual intercourse, we must say, ‘This is the rubbing together of abdomens, accompanied by the spasmodic ejaculation of a sticky liquid.’

‘What a come down!’, someone might exclaim in this age of celebrity chefs-come-orators: ‘who is this killjoy?’  And as for this description of erotic love: ‘way to kill the mood, man!?’  It is as if Marcus, for a minute, had channelled (across the seas of time) John Cleese’s teacher in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, boring his students silly by staging in grotesque details the unerotic mechanics of his own marital bed.

When Lucian in one dialogue defends his introduction of comedy into the elevated genre of the philosophical dialogue, his argument is that philosophers who imagine themselves as elevated sages wrestling with the highest mysteries often “cannot see the things that lie before [their own] feet.”  To enable philosophy and philosophers to again learn to see what is right before their eyes, Lucian explains—this is why he made Comedy the “yokefellow” of philosophy—in doing so also making his own dialogues attractive to many readers “who until then would as soon have thought of picking up a hedgehog as of venturing into the thorny presence of [philosophical] Dialogue.”

Following Lucian, I put it to you, the vital place, or places, for comedy in pursuing Stoicism as a way of life comes from how a sense of irony and humor helps us not to lose sight of what is right before our feet, even as we strive to become sages or sage-like.  The mundane, hard work of trying to make progress, especially when this daily grind is compared to the lofty flights of philosophical theory, could itself well be viewed as intrinsically comic.  It is after all surely a funny thing to do to get up every morning and remind yourself that you will be meeting angry, bitter, envious, jealous, plotting, scheming, dishonest, petty … people.  Likewise, reviewing your day, every evening, and confronting all of your own shortcomings will appear to many non-philosophers as a species of torture, or the patently bizarre. 

In any case, we can certainly imagine a comic poet having fun with these, and almost any Stoic spiritual exercises, like Lucian has fun with the view from above, and from the perspective of mortality.  But a sense of humour is also intrinsic to, and needed within, the practices themselves, or so I think Lucian helps us also to see.  To take on philosophy as a work of ascesis, personal spiritual training, can after all only really work if one remains lucidly self-aware about how wide the gap is between the philosophical ideal, that of being an apathic sage, and the realities of one’s own present conduct and make-up.  Of course, one can always be discouraged, lament, and get hung up on one’s failures to achieve the goal, when one is reminded of this gap: a kind of philosopher’s tragedy, with weeping and the covering of faces.  But here is where humour can intercede.  By giving way to despair, we are after all forgetting the deeply funny Stoic saying that a sage is as rare as a phoenix in Egypt, let alone in the modern ‘burbs.  For there never has been a phoenix in Egypt (spoiler alert), whereas imperfect people are everywhere, as the view from above vividly reminds us.

To make progress, says Marcus, is to be able to fortify one’s inner acropolis, the hegemonikon, against everything beyond one’s control.  But this includes one’s slips and failings.  These belong to the past, and must be at once owned up to, and worked through. 

The ability to see oneself as an imperfect student doing their best, not a hopelessly failed sage, and so to laugh at one’s own shortcomings, is surely essential if one is not to lose one’s faith in the entire project.  Such humbling laughter, as if looking down on oneself from above like a Menippus, Charon, or Marcus Aurelius, is also necessary if one is ever to forgive oneself and others for their vices and imperfections: something which is absolutely vital if we are to move onwards and upwards. 

For it is true, as the great Voltaire scholar Charles Kors once observed, that one never quite looks at things the same way, once one has seen them as comic.  This is surely the insight that lies behind Seneca’s bon mot that no one who can laugh at themselves can be truly laughable.  By contrast, those who cannot laugh at themselves—and at the mundane undersides of all our loftier pretentions—are frequently laughable, when they are not dangerous.  We should beware of philosophers, politicians, even Presidents—why not?—who only know how to laugh at everyone else, for (to parody a biblical saying) ‘they should merit our mirth’.

So, to close at the start: pursuing Stoicism is amongst the most serious thing you can do, if the ancient sense of philosophy as a way of life is at issue.  But we should not confuse being serious with taking ourselves too seriously, lest we become censorious (and a bore) to others and closed to the possibility of real transformation ourselves.  As Seneca reflects in On Tranquillity of Mind:

We must take a higher view of all things, and bear with them more easily: it better becomes a man to scoff at life than to lament over it. Add to this that he who laughs at the human race deserves better of it than he who mourns for it, for the former leaves it some good hopes of improvement, while the latter stupidly weeps over what he has given up all hopes of mending.


[1]  Indeed, he will mock even the famous Stoic paradoxes concerning the Sage as the “only one in the world who’s wise, good, just, brave, the only king, rich man …”: “then he’s the only cook.  And, damn it all, the only tanner, carpenter, and so on,” responds Chrysippus’ bemused prospective buyer (Selected, 325).  In any case, a good man to have around the place.

[2] Human lives, he concludes, are like the bubbles that rise up to the surface in springs, some growing quite large, others disappearing immediately, all dissipating before too long: “for everyone the bubble of life must burst.”

[3] Lucian’s Fisherman will thus end with pseudo-philosophers, hauled up to the Athenian Acropolis on fishing lines hooked with gold, being comically cast down the great rock’s side by the true philosophers as the unworthy pretenders who they are. 

[4] Whose representatives Lucian positions as fighting side by side in the comedic eris or mythomachy between the philosophers in his Symposium.  They are fighting the Peripatetics and Epicureans, with the Platonic philosopher in the middle.

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University, Australia.  He is presently completing a book on the history of the idea of philosophy as a way of life, and is cotranslator of Pierre Hadot’s Selected Essays: Philosophy as Practice (Bloomsbury, 2020-in press).

Stoicism and Scottish Philosophy

Dugald Stewart (1753-1828) was professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS).  He was part of the movement in academic philosophy known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Stewart was also good friends with Scotland’s national bard, the poet Robert Burns. 

Much of intellectual life in eighteenth-century Scotland is marked by the phenomenon nowadays called the “Scottish Enlightenment” – a flourishing exchange of ideas in a quite remarkably tolerant public space… Scotland before the Enlightenment was not devoid of interest in classical antiquity, yet during the eighteenth century one can identify an increased interest in Greek and Latin authors – particularly in the Stoics and Cicero…

Christian Maurer, ‘Stoicism and the Scottish Enlightenment’ in the Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016) edited by John Sellars

Stewart was one of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers most interested in ancient Stoicism and provides a very insightful summary of its doctrines in the following excerpt from his book The Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers of Man (1829), Book 4, Chapter 4, Section 2.  I’ve made light editorial changes to the content, such as updating some anachronistic spellings and reformatting his extensive quotations from other authors, such as James Harris and fellow Scots Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Thanks to Colin Hay of The Scottish Stoics for help preparing the text. – Donald Robertson


Of Happiness. Systems of the Grecian Schools on the Subject.

In opposition to the Epicurean doctrines on the subject of happiness, the Stoics placed the supreme good in rectitude of conduct, without any regard to the event. They did not, however, as has been often supposed, recommend an indifference to external objects, or a life of inactivity and apathy. On the contrary, they taught that nature pointed out to us certain objects of choice and of rejection, and amongst these some to be more chosen and avoided than others; and that virtue consisted in choosing and rejecting objects according to their intrinsic value. They admitted that health was to be preferred to sickness, riches to poverty; the prosperity of our family, of our friends, of our country, to their adversity; and they allowed, nay, they recommended, the most strenuous exertions to accomplish these desirable ends. They only contended these objects should be pursued not as the constituents of our happiness, but because we believe it to be agreeable to nature that we should pursue them; and that, therefore, when we have done our utmost, we should regard the event as indifferent. 

That this is a fair representation of the Stoic doctrine has been fully proved by Mr. James Harris in the very learned and judicious notes on his Dialogue concerning Happiness; a performance which, although not entirely free from Mr. Harris’s peculiarities of thought and style, does him so much honour, both as a writer and a moralist, that we cannot help regretting, while we peruse it, that he should so often have wasted his ingenuity and learning upon scholastic subtleties, equally inapplicable to the pursuits of science, and to the business of life.  Harris observes:

The word παθος [pathos], which we usually render a passion, means, in the Stoic sense, a perturbation, and is always so translated by Cicero; and the epithet απαθης [apathes], when applied to the wise man, does not mean an exemption from passion, but an exemption from that perturbation which is founded on erroneous opinions. The testimony of Epictetus is express to this purpose. I am not, says he, to be apathetic like a statue, but I am withal to observe relations both the natural and adventitious; as the man of religion, as the son, as the brother, as the father, as the citizen. And immediately before he tells us, that a perturbation in no other way ever arises but either when a desire is frustrated, or an aversion falls into that which it should avoid. In which passage it is observable that he does not make either desire, or aversion, παθη [pathe], or perturbations, but only the cause of perturbations when erroneously conducted.

Harris, Dialogue Concerning Happiness

From a great variety of passages, which it is unnecessary for me to transcribe, Harris concludes that “the Stoics, in the character of their virtuous man, included rational desire, aversion, and exultation; included love and parental affection, friendship, and a general benevolence to all mankind; and considered it as a duty arising from our very nature not to neglect the welfare of public society, but to be ever ready, according to our rank, to act as either the magistrate or as the private citizen.” 

Nor did they exclude wealth from among the objects of choice. The Stoic Hecato, in his Treatise of Offices, quoted by Cicero, tells us,

That a wise man, while he abstains from doing anything contrary to the customs, laws, and institutions of his country, ought to attend to his own fortune. For we do not desire to be rich for ourselves only, but for our children, relations, and friends, and especially for the commonwealth, inasmuch as the riches of individuals are the wealth of a state.

Cicero, De Officiis, iii.15

“Nay,” says Cicero, “if the wise man could mend his condition by adding to the amplest possessions the poorest, meanest utensil, he would in no degree condemn it.” [De Finibus, iv.12]

From these quotations it sufficiently appears that the Stoic system, so far from withdrawing men from the duties of life, was eminently favourable to active virtue. Its peculiar and distinguishing tenet was, that our happiness did not depend on the attainment of the objects of our choice, but on the part that we acted; but this principle was inculcated not to damp our exertions, but to lead us to rest our happiness only on circumstances which we ourselves could command. Says Epictetus:

If I am going to sail, I choose the best ship and the best pilot, and I wait for the fairest weather, that my circumstances and duty will allow. Prudence and propriety, the principles which the gods have given me for the direction of my conduct, require this of me, but they require no more; and if, notwithstanding, a storm arises, which neither the strength of the vessel nor the skill of the pilot are likely to with stand, I give myself no trouble, about the consequences. All that I had to do is done already. The directors of my conduct never command me to be miserable, to be anxious, desponding, or afraid. Whether we are to be drowned or come to a harbour is the business of Jupiter, not mine. I leave it entirely to his determination, nor ever break my rest with considering which way he is likely to decide it but receive whatever comes with equal indifference and security.

Epictetus, Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

We may observe further, in favour of this noble system, that the scale of desirable objects which it exhibited was peculiarly calculated to encourage the social virtues. It represented indeed (in common with the theory of Epicurus) self-love as the great spring of human actions; but in the application of this erroneous principle to practice, its doctrines were favourable to the most enlarged, nay, to the most disinterested benevolence. It taught that the prosperity of two was preferable to that of one; that of a city to that of a family; and that of our country to all partial considerations. It was up on this very principle, added to a sublime sentiment of piety, that it founded its chief argument for an entire resignation to the dispensations of Providence. As all events are ordered by perfect wisdom and goodness, the Stoics concluded, that whatever happens is calculated to produce the greatest good possible to the universe in general. As it is agreeable to nature, therefore, that we should prefer the happiness of many to a few, and of all to that of many, they concluded that every event which happens is precisely that which we ourselves would have desired, if we had been acquainted with the whole scheme of the Divine administration.  

In what sense are some things said to be according to our nature, and others contrary to it? It is in that sense in which we consider ourselves as separated and detached from all other things. For thus it may be said to be the nature of the foot to be always clean. But if you consider it as a foot, and not as something detached from the rest of the body, it must behove it sometimes to trample in the dirt, and sometimes to tread upon thorns, and sometimes, too, to be cut off for the sake of the whole body; and if it refuses this, it is no longer a foot. Thus, too, ought we to conceive with respect to ourselves. What are you? A man. If you consider yourself as something separated and detached, it is agreeable to your nature to live to old age, to be rich, to be in health. But if you consider yourself as a man, and as a part of the whole, upon account of that whole it will behove you sometimes to be in sick ness, sometimes to be exposed to the inconveniency of a sea voyage, sometimes to be in want, and at last perhaps to die before your time. Why then do you complain? Don’t you know that by doing so, as the foot ceases to be a foot, so you cease to be a man.

Epictetus

And as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus writes:

Oh world, all things are suitable to me which are suitable to thee. Nothing is too early or too late for me which is seasonable for thee. All is fruit to me which thy seasons bring forth. From thee are all things; in thee are all things; for thee are all things. Shall any man say, O beloved city of Cecrops! and wilt not thou say, O beloved city of God! 

Smith’s translation from Theory of Moral Sentiments

In this tendency of the Stoic philosophy to encourage the active and social virtues, it was most remarkably distinguished from the system of Epicurus. The latter, indeed, seems (as it was first taught) to have been the reverse of that system of sensuality and of libertinism, to which the epithet Epicurean is commonly applied in modern times; but it was at best a system of selfishness and prudent indulgence, which placed happiness in a seclusion from care, and in an indifference to all the concerns of mankind. By the Stoics, on the contrary, virtue was supposed to consist in the affectionate performance of every good office towards their fellow creatures, and in full resignation to Providence for everything independent of their own choice. 

It is remarked by Dr. Adam Ferguson that:

Their different schemes of theology clearly pointed out their opposite plans of morality also. Both admitted the existence of God. But to one the Deity was a retired essence enjoying itself, and far removed from any work of creation and Providence. 

The other considered the Deity as the principle of existence and of order in the universe, from whom all intelligence proceeds, and to whom all intelligence will return; whose power is the irresistible energy of wisdom and of goodness, ever present and ever active; bestowing on man the faculty of reason and the freedom of choice, that he may learn, in acting for the general good, to imitate the Divine nature; and that, in respect of events independent of his will, he may acquiesce in the determination of Providence. 

In conformity with these principles one sect recommended seclusion from all the cares of family or state. The other recommended an active part in all the concerns of our fellow creatures, and the steady exertion of a mind benevolent, courageous, and temperate. Here the sects essentially differed, not in words, as has sometimes been alleged, but in the views which they entertained of a plan for the conduct of human life. The Epicurean was a deserter from the cause of his fellow creatures and might justly be reckoned a traitor to the community of nature, of mankind, and even of his country.

The Stoic enlisted himself as a willing instrument in the hand of God for the good of his fellow creatures. For himself, the cares and attentions which this object required were his pleasures, and the continued exertion of a beneficent affection, his welfare and his prosperity.

Ferguson, Principles of Moral and Political Science

Such was the philosophy of the Stoics; — “a philosophy,” says Mr. Smith, “which affords the noblest lessons of magnanimity, is the best school of heroes and patriots; and to the greater part of whose precepts there can be no other objection but this honourable one, that they teach us to aim at a perfection altogether beyond the reach of human nature.” 

I cannot however help remarking, that this is by no means an objection to their system; for it is the business of the moralist to exhibit a standard far above the reach of our possible attainments. If he did otherwise, he must recommend errors and imperfections. Speaking of eloquence and the fine arts – and the observation holds equally with respect to every other pursuit – Quintilian says:

It has sometimes happened that great things have been accomplished by him who was striving at what was above his power.

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, ii.12

To the same purpose it is well said by Seneca:

It is the mark of a generous spirit to aim at what is lofty; to attempt what is arduous; and ever to keep in view what it is impossible for the most splendid talents to accomplish.

Seneca, De Vita Beata, c.20

The Stoics themselves were sensible of the weakness inseparable from humanity. Cicero, speaking the language of a Stoic, says:

Neither indeed, when the two Decii or the two Scipios are mentioned as brave men, nor when Aristides or Fabricius are denominated just, is an example of fortitude in the former, or of justice in the latter, proposed as exactly conformable to the precepts of wisdom. For none of them were wise in that sense in which we apply the epithet to the wise man. Nor were Cato and Laelius such, although they were honoured with the appellation. No, not even the seven wise men of Greece who have been so widely celebrated, although, from the habitual discharge of middle duties, (ex mediorum officiorum frequentid) all of them bore a certain similitude to the ideal character.

 Cicero, De Officiis, L.iii, c.4

Seneca also mentions it as a general confession of the greatest philosophers, that the doctrine they taught was not “quemadmodum ipsi viverent, sed quemadmodum vivendum est.” [“even as they themselves were living, but as I have to live”] [De Vita Beata, c.18] 

I know that I shall not be Milo, and yet I neglect not my body; nor Croesus, and yet I neglect not my estate; nor in general do we desist from the proper care of anything through despair of arriving at what is supreme.

Epictetus, Discourses, L.i, c.2

In the writings indeed of some of the Stoics, we meet with some absurd and violent paradoxes about the perfect felicity of the wise man on the one hand, and the equality of misery among all those who fall short of this ideal character on the other.

As all the actions of the wise man were perfect, so all those of the man who had not arrived at this supreme wisdom were faulty and equally faulty. As one truth could not be more true, nor one falsehood more false than another, so an honourable action could not be more honourable, nor a shameful one more shameful than another. As in shooting at a mark, the man who had missed it by an inch had equally missed it with him who had done so by an hundred yards, so the man who, in what appears to us the most insignificant action, had acted improperly, and without a sufficient reason, was equally faulty with him who had done so in what appears to us the most important; the man who has killed a cock (for example) improperly, and without a sufficient reason, with him who had murdered his father. 

Mr Smith continues,

It is not, however, by any means probable that these paradoxes formed a part of the original principles of Stoicism, as taught by Zeno and Cleanthes. It is much more probable that they were added to it by their disciple, Chrysippus, whose genius seems to have been more fitted for systematizing the doctrines of his preceptors, and adorning them with the imposing appendages of artificial definitions and divisions, than for imbibing the sublime spirit which they breathed. Such a man may very easily be supposed to have understood too literally some animated and exaggerated expressions of his masters in describing the happiness of the man of perfect virtue, and the unhappiness of whoever fell short of that character.

That these paradoxes were not adopted by the most rational admirers of the Stoic philosophy we have complete evidence; for we find them treating expressly of those imperfect virtues which are attained by inferior proficients in wisdom, and which they did not dignify with the name of rectitudes, but distinguished by the epithets of properfit, and decent

Such virtues are called by Cicero officia, and by Seneca convenientia. They are treated of by Cicero in his Offices and are said to have been the subject of a book (now lost) by Marcus Brutus. 

This apology, however, it must be confessed, will not extend to all the errors of the Stoic school. In particular, it will not extend to the notions it included on the subject of suicide.  But for these errors, if it is impossible to apologize, we may at least account in some measure, by the peculiar circumstances of the times when this philosophy arose, and which infected with the same spirit, though perhaps not in an equal degree, the peaceable and indolent followers of Epicurus. Says Mr. Smith:

During the age in which flourished the founders of all the principal sects of ancient philosophy — during the Peloponnesian war, and for many ages after its conclusion — all the different republics of Greece were at home almost always distracted by the most furious factions, and abroad involved in the most sanguinary wars, in which each sought not merely superiority or dominion, but either completely to extirpate all its enemies, or, what was not less cruel, to reduce them into the vilest of all states — that of domestic slavery. The smallness of the greater part of those states, too, rendered it to each of them no very improbable event, that it might itself fall into that very calamity which it had so frequently inflicted or attempted to inflict on its neighbours.

In this disorderly state of things the most perfect innocence, joined to the highest rank and the greatest services to the public, could give no security to any man, that even at home and among his fellow citizens, he was not, at some time or other, from the prevalence of some hostile and furious faction, to be condemned to the most cruel and ignominious punishment. If he was taken prisoner of war, or if the city of which he was a member was conquered, he was exposed, if possible, to still greater injuries.

As an American savage, therefore, prepares his death song, and considers how he should act when he has fallen into the hands of his enemies, and is by them put to death in the most lingering tortures, and amidst the insults and derisions of all the spectators, so a Grecian patriot or hero could not avoid frequently employing his thoughts in considering what he ought both to suffer and to do in banishment, in captivity, when reduced to slavery, when put to the torture, when brought to the scaffold. It was the business of their philosophers to prepare the death song which the Grecian patriots and heroes might make use of on the proper occasions; and of all the different sects it must, I think, be acknowledged, that the Stoics had prepared by far the most animated and spirited song.

Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments

After all, it is impossible to deny that there is some foundation for a censure which Lord Bacon has some where passed on this celebrated sect. “Certainly,” says he, “the Stoics bestowed too much cost on death, and by their preparations made it more fearful.” At least, I suspect this may be the tendency of some passages in their writings, in such a state of society as that in which we live; but in perusing them we ought always to remember the circumstances of those men to whom they were addressed, and which are so eloquently described in the observations just quoted from Mr. Smith. The practical reflection which Francis Bacon adds to this censure is invaluable and is strictly conformable to the spirit of the Stoic system, although he seems to state it by way of contrast to their principles. He says,

It is as natural to die as to be born; and to a little infant perhaps the one is as painful as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood, who for a time scarce feels the hurt; and therefore, a mind fixed and bent upon somewhat that is good doth best avert the dolors of death

Bacon, Essays

Upon the whole, notwithstanding the imperfections of this system, and the paradoxes which disgrace it in some accounts of it that have descended to our times, it cannot be disputed, that its leading doctrines are agreeable to the purest principles of morality and religion. Indeed, they all terminate in one maxim: That we should not make the attainment of things external an ultimate object but place the business of life in doing our duty and leave the care of our happiness to him who made us. Nor does the whole merit of these doctrines consist in their purity. It is doing them no more than justice to say, that they were more completely systematic in all their parts, and more ingeniously, as well as eloquently, supported, than anything else that remains of ancient philosophy. 

I must not conclude these observations on the Stoic system, without taking notice of the practical effects it produced on the characters of many of its professors. It was the precepts of this school which rendered the supreme power in the hands of Marcus Aurelius a blessing to the human race; and which secured the private happiness and elevated the minds of Helvidius and Thrasea under a tyranny by which their country was oppressed. Nor must it be forgotten, that in the last struggles of Roman liberty, while the school of Epicurus produced Caesar, that of Zeno produced Cato and Brutus. The one sacrificed mankind to himself; the others sacrificed themselves to mankind. 

Hi mores, hsec duri immota Catonis 
Secta fuit, servare modum, finemque tenere, 
Naturamque sequi, patriaeque impendere vitam; 
Nec sibi, sed toti genitum se credere mundo. 

[This was the character and this the unswerving creed
of austere Cato: to observe moderation, to hold to the goal,
to follow nature, to devote his life to his country,
to believe that he was born not for himself but for all the world.]

Lucan, Pharsalia, Lib. ii. 1. 380

The sentiment of President Montesquieu on this subject is well known.

Never, were any principles more worthy of human nature, and more proper to form the good citizen, than those of the Stoics; and if I could for a moment cease to recollect that I am a Christian, I should not be able to hinder myself from ranking the destruction of the sect of Zeno among the misfortunes that have befallen the human race.

A Stoic for All Seasons Series: Seneca Falls by Kevin Vost

“[Philosophy] tells all other occupations: ‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have instead, what I reject.’” -Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, # 53

Lest this subtitle prove deceptive, note well this essay has nothing to do with a Native American nation or a city in New York, and even less with waters cascading over cliffs.  Rather, it represents an invitation to spend your falls, or at least part of this one, in the company of the prolific Stoic philosopher,  Lucius Anneaus Seneca (c. 4 BC – 65 AD).

In my youth, I associated the fall season with a renewed interest and focus on cultivating both mind and body. As a student, it was time to get back to the classrooms, and as a weightlifter, it was time to move from the lighter, faster-paced slimming exercises of summer to the heavy duty growth-spurring barbell heaving of autumn.  While still in my college student days, I discovered in Seneca a thinker who inspired me greatly for building both body and mind. I’ve written about the body part in a previous post, Show Me Your Shoulders: The Stoic Workout. Here, I’ll zoom in on the mind.

I am also using fall metaphorically to refer to the middle season of life as we prepare for our twilight years. Fifteen years ago, at age 43, a line from Seneca’s essay On the Shortness of Life had a profound impact on me: “Nihil minus est hominis occupati quam vivere.” (“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living.”) It convinced me to scale back from a heavy schedule or full-time employment and part-time college teaching.  Within a year of taking additional time for the leisurely study of philosophy I’d write the first of twenty books.

Moving back in time and place to ancient Rome, due to the cruel jealously of Nero, whom Seneca had advised in his first years as emperor, Seneca never made it past the late fall or perhaps early winter of his own life, being ordered to commit suicide before the age of 70.  Still, he wrote poignantly about the advancing years of life in his Letters to Lucilius, as a delightful excerpt will soon show.

The remainder of this article will consist of slightly adapted material from my chapters on Seneca in The Porch and the Cross.  I will start with some of our sliver-tongued Stoic stylist’s musings on the autumn of his own life, and then flesh things out with my summaries of several excerpts from his Letters of Lucilius on the value and beauty of a life guided by philosophy.  All direct quotations come from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Seneca’s Epistles.

 So, I invite you to set Vivaldi’s Autumn playing quietly in the background and spend a bit of this chilly fall with Seneca’s ever warm wisdom.

Seneca on the Autumn of Life

In Letter 12, Seneca tells his friend Lucilius the signs he sees of his own advancing age. He visits his old country estate and finds the old house in a state of dilapidation. This is the house that grew under his own hands, and yet stones of his age are crumbling to pieces! He scolds the caretaker for the state of a row of trees that are gnarled and shriveled and bear no leaves. He tells them they need to have the ground under them loosened and they need to be watered. The caretaker tells him he has done all that, but to not avail, because the trees are simply old. (Seneca lets us in on his secret that he himself had planted those trees!) He then asks the caretaker about the identity of a rickety old slave who comes into view, a man who looks like he’s knocking at death’s door.

The old man himself replies to Seneca: “Don’t you know me, sir? I am Felicio; you used to bring me little images. My father was Philositus the steward, and I am your pet slave.” Seneca says the man is crazy, or has become a boy again, since his teeth are falling out (but he knows that the slave tells the truth!)  

Seneca muses that the old country homestead of his youth revealed to him his age wherever he turned, but he is not despondent. Rather, he urges us to love and to cherish our advancing years. 

Fruits are most welcome when almost over; youth is most charming at its close; the last drink delights the toper, – the glass which souses him and puts the finishing touch on his drunkenness. Each pleasure reserves to the end the greatest delights which it contains. Life is most delightful when it is on the downward slope, but has not yet reached the decline…How comforting it is to have tired out one’s appetites, and to have done with them!

Let’s move on now to see what lessons this second “lame old man” (referencing Epictetus’s self-description) can teach us to make the most of our own years, whether we are still on the upward slope, or have started to slide down the other side!

Letter 16:  How Philosophy Builds the Soul

Here we find a brief paean to philosophy as a guide to life and happiness. Seneca assures Lucilius that no one can lead a happy life without philosophy and even those just beginning in the pursuit of wisdom will find life much more bearable. He advises his friend to continue daily reflection and reminds him that keeping noble resolutions is more important than making them.  By daily perseverance, his studies will soon become an entrenched habit.

Philosophy is not something for which one should seek attention or amusement.  Philosophy is not a matter of words, but of facts. It moulds and constructs the soul; it orders one’s life, guides one’s actions, shows us what we should do and also what we shouldn’t. Philosophy sits at the helm and guides our course through life. Some might ask how philosophy is of any use if Fate exists, if God rules the universe, or if all things are a matter of Chance. Seneca answers that philosophy still prevails. “She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.” Therefore, Seneca exhorts his friend not to allow his spiritual impulse for wisdom to grow weak or cold, but to establish it solidly so that what is now an impulse will become a firm habit of mind.

He ends again with an exhortation to drop all desire for externals and luxuries. Natural desires are limited, but those that spring from false impressions never satisfy and have no limits at all.

Letter 20:  Philosophy not Spoken, but Lived

Philosophy seeks not to make speeches and entertain crowds with high-sounding word play. Philosophy teaches us how to act, not how to talk about acting. It teaches every man that his deeds must match his words and that his inner life and outer life must always be in harmony. Philosophers, in other words, must walk their talk and practice what they preach. This is no easy task and is achieved only through rigorous self-examination.

Observe yourself, says, Seneca. Is your manner of clothing and housing consistent with your philosophy? Are you generous toward yourself and stingy with your family? Do you eat frugal meals, but build a massive, ostentatious house? You should regulate yourself by one and the same norm in all your affairs. You should not be like those who control themselves at home, but then strut about in public. “What is wisdom? Always desiring the same things, and always refusing the same things.”  It goes without saying that what you wish should be right, because if it was not right, it could not always satisfy.

Seneca also recommends a practical exercise to Lucilius to train him in desiring only what is right and in accordance with nature. He says it is not necessary for the philosopher to renounce all his possessions, but it is a good thing to practice voluntary poverty and simplicity at times for a few days, preparing oneself and rehearsing as it were, should true poverty befall one. Indeed, he says it can be a pleasant experience that provides a sense of freedom from the care for unneeded things. This can rouse the soul from its sleep and remind it that nature’s true needs are very few. Seneca ends with a picturesque and humorous description of the way that we all get our start in the world: “No man is born rich. Every man, when he first sees light, is commanded to be content with milk and rags. Such is our beginning, and yet kingdoms are all too small for us! Farewell.”

Letter 23:  The Joys of the Philosophic Life

Seneca assures Lucilius he is not going to write to him about the weather or other trivial matters people write about when they don’t know what to say. No, he will write about the foundation, or rather the pinnacle, of a sound mind, which is not to find joy in useless things or to make our happiness dependent upon externals outside our control.  Indeed, he will exhort his dear friend to set as his goal to learn how to experience the true joy that comes when one frees one’s self from both the hope of external goods and from the fear of things like poverty or death.  “The very soul must be happy and confident, lifted above every circumstance.” This is the promise of philosophy and it is fulfilled when one rejoices only in what comes from the best within oneself.

And what is truly best? Real good “comes from a good conscience, from honourable purposes, from right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path.”  It is only a few who control themselves and their actions by a guiding purpose while the rest are swept along aimlessly by the river of life, some through sluggish waters, and others in violent currents.

Seneca concludes with two related sayings of Epicurus that address the same theme addressed in Letter 13, that of the foolishness of always getting ready to begin to live life. Seneca says a man cannot be prepared to face death if he is just starting to live. We must strive rather to live as though we have already lived long enough by always living in harmony with our guiding purpose.

Letter 31:  Goals Worth the Sweat

Seneca tells Lucilius that he recognizes him now! He sees that he is progressing in philosophy, striving for what is best and trampling under his feet the petty things of which the crowd approves. There is only one good, he reminds him, that cause and support of a happy life is to trust in oneself. This requires that one recognize that busyness, work, and toil are not true goods in and of themselves when they do not serve a noble purpose. One makes oneself happy through one’s own efforts when one’s efforts are blended with virtue. Whatever is blended with virtue is good and whatever is joined to vice is evil. Good is the knowledge of things and evil is the lack of such knowledge.  When a good, noble goal has been identified, a good man will not fear the sweat involved in attaining it, even if it entails an arduous struggle uphill. The knowledge of good and evil in things human and divine will also lead to an even temperament and to a consistent, harmonious life. 

And how is such a goal attained? Nature has provided you with all the necessary tools to rise to the level of God. Your money won’t do that, since God has no property. Your fancy clothes won’t do it either, for God has no wardrobe, nor will your fame and recognition, for no one truly knows God, and many do not honor him. Beauty and strength are useless here as well. They cannot hold up in old age. What we must seek is not things outside our control, governed by Fortune or Chance, but rather we must seek the goods of the human soul. “What else could you call such a soul than a god dwelling as a guest in the human body?”  Such a soul may dwell in a stately Roman knight, but just as well in a slave. Indeed, one may arise from the very slums and shape oneself into kinship with God. This likeness of God cannot be cast in gold or silver, but is molded within our souls.

Letter 39:  On Cultivating Greatness of Soul (& the Dangers of Failing to Do So)

The most noble element within the human soul is its capacity to be roused to seek out honorable things. No man of great talents is pleased with things mean and petty. The vision of great things calls to him and inspires him. Our souls are like flames, always flickering in motion, and the more ardently a soul burns, the greater is its activity. Happy is the man whose soul burns for better things! This man will disregard the things of chance, will control the level of his prosperity, will diminish adversity, and despise the petty things that others admire. The great soul will scorn things commonly seen as great, and will prefer the ordinary when the ordinary is truly useful and the great is truly excessive.

Like a branch that is broken by too heavy a load of fruit is the soul that is ruined by unlimited prosperity and pleasure. Men who yield to excess lusts always suffer in the end. They become unable to live without their vicious pleasures, so that what was once excessive and superfluous is now indispensable to them. They come to love their own vices. They attain the peak of unhappiness when they are not only drawn to, but are pleased and contented by shameful things. At this point they become beyond cure, for their vices have become habitual.

Letter 53:  Philosophical Invincibility

Here Seneca provides another paean to philosophy, and an exhortation to pursue it above all else. Seneca starts his letter with a rather drawn out account of a recent bout of seasickness he experienced on a journey. It had become so bad that when he persuaded the captain to come close to the shore he jumped out into the cold waters in his wooly clothing and crawled over rocks onto the shores. He quips he has concluded that Ulysses himself (Odysseus of Homer’s Odyssey) kept getting stranded on islands not because of Neptune’s (Poseidon’s) ill will, but because of his own seasickness!

The moral of this little story was to show that while physical ailments have a tendency to make themselves known to us with unmistakable force and gusto, when it comes to ailments of the soul, the worse shape one’s soul is in, the less one is aware of it. He compares it to sleep. A person sleeping lightly may experience dreams and even realize that he is asleep and dreaming, while a person in heavy slumber has descended too deep for dreams or for consciousness of the self. A person who does not admit his spiritual failings is still plunged deeply in them. A person can only remember his dreams when he wakes up, as recognizing one’s faults is a sign of health. And what can wake a person up? Philosophy.

Only philosophy can rouse us from the slumbers that blind us to our faults. Seneca implores Lucilius to devote himself entirely to “her.” A sick person will devote his entire time to recovery before he carries out his normal business affairs. So too should we give precedence to the pursuit of wisdom and focus more on curing our souls than on any other business. Philosophy is a demanding mistress. She doesn’t want our odd moments, but demands our attention full-time. Philosophy “tells all other occupations: ‘It’s not my intention to accept whatever time is left over from you; you shall have instead, what I reject.’”

 Seneca bids to give all of one’s time to philosophy, to sit by her side and court her, giving her one’s own mind, and thus advancing oneself beyond other men, “not far behind the gods themselves.”  Indeed, Seneca declares that in a sense a wise man surpasses even a god, since a god is fearless by nature, while a wise man has earned his own fearlessness, achieving despite his human weakness, the serenity of a god.

Seneca ends this letter as follows:

 Philosophy’s power to blunt all the blows of circumstances is beyond belief. Never a single missile lodges in her; she has strong, impenetrable defenses; some blows she breaks the force of, parrying them with the slack of her gown as if they were trivial, others she flings off and hurls back at the sender.

I suggest we heed his wise words and use this fall to strive our way towards such philosophical invincibility to steel ourselves for this season of winter and for the winters of our own lives, if we should live so long.

Kevin Vost is the author of twenty books on psychology, philosophy, theology, and physical fitness, has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee and the University of Illinois at Springfield.

The Unaspiring Stoic by Alison McCone

“It’s like weaving: the weaver does not make the wool, he makes the best use of the wool he’s been given.”  Epictetus

A few years ago, during Stoic Week I was presented with a wonderful gift. The invitation to contribute to the Stoicism Today blog by writing about my experiences of Stoic philosophy. Under my veil of ignorance and cloak of innocence I had wandered into a world of classical beauty and academic prowess. The editor of the blog at that time, Patrick Ussher (a founder member of the Stoicism Today project) published my article despite its lack of university style composition and referencing standards. I hoped it would reach the people outside academia who found refuge in Stoicism as therapy for wellbeing.

My words were attached to a great institution of learning, the University of Exeter, where Stoicism Today (now known as Modern Stoicism) was born. I have since had the opportunity of visiting this beautiful birthplace, navigating the campus down paths and up hills whilst vainly attempting to reach the summit of Cardiac Hill without panting! The Stoicism Today blog was special and some of us were avid followers and contributors, spurring each other on to grow into Stoic skins so we could become more resilient. Some readers were enduring chronic suffering of varying degrees, but it was all equal in relevance to the bearers. Pain as we all know too well is impossible to measure. The gratitude I felt then towards the Stoicism Today/Modern Stoicism collective was also immeasurable. My meanderings and reflections seemed to strike a chord with others in the universe as we danced and wrestled with life’s challenges. Not only was my battered self-esteem replenished, my dwindling faith in human nature was gradually restored.

To say I was smitten by Stoicism is an understatement. I named my car “Marcus” and Epictetus’s Enchiridion was tucked in the door pocket leaving no room for a map. My studies in Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy blended perfectly with Stoicism like a match made in heaven. Despite being brought up with religion in the air, the supply in later years was not great enough to sustain my complete belief in a supreme being.

I risk being tried for anti-Franklian ideation, but I firmly believe Logotherapy is more accessible and comprehendible to those who have faith in a higher power. Like on the 12-step programme rolled out to those suffering from addiction it is sometimes the case that God doesn’t show up centre stage when you most need him. Modern Stoicism opens its doors to theists and non-theists, unlike in ancient times when it seems glaringly obvious that the Stoics believed in a God or Gods. I have always leaned towards thinking that God, or something akin to goodness or love, is everywhere – both within us and in the universe around us like a force. This fits well with the Stoic view that we are all one and connected with nature.

This attachment to the natural world around is complemented by the most important thing in life for a Stoic – to be a person of virtue irrespective of the situation you may find yourself in. Was I good enough?, I wondered. We’ve all done things we are ashamed of. Could I balance the scales so that goodness outweighed badness and hence equalled virtuous? Soul-searching doesn’t come near to describing how much introspection and self-monitoring I engaged in. At times those unfortunates around me who had to endure my relentless crusade thought I had completely lost the plot. I had to dig deep as an aspiring Stoic, clearing beds that had become overgrown with weeds of self-doubt and uninvited shame. Getting to know thyself instead of safely remaining with the selves one has created on the journey to fifty-something requires a great deal of one of Stoicism’s virtues, courage.

Thankfully I had help from Viktor Frankl who believed all humans are drawn towards finding meaning in life. He had identified this characteristic in humans long before he had to draw on every ounce of courage to endure the horror of his incarceration in concentration camps. His wisdom (another Stoic virtue) was not only evidence based, as a result of treating patients with suicidal tendencies, it was empirical due to his experiences in those camps of deprivation where many people became dehumanized.

The journey continued with the help of Donald Robertson’s Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training Course. By searching within myself to find Stoic goodness in the form of virtue I was able to believe in me. Logotherapy helped to re-establish my innate need for meaning and I renewed my faith in people. As a sensitive and easily hurt person I had spent far too long building fortified walls of self-protection and had become locked in a prison of my own construction. I had to take action, just like the Stoics recommend and Massimo Pigliucci provided much guidance in How To Be A Stoic.

Thank goodness Stoicism is a philosophy that can be applied. Good can come from just sitting around philosophizing over a glass or two of wine in Greece but Stoicism comes into its own when practised. Pick up that Stoic fork and stop worrying about what you’re not doing! Moreover, pay no heed to what you think others should be doing! That is their business and I should be minding my own. For the first time in years instead of doing it my way I had to surrender control. What a shock to the system that was! Mrs. Fixit had to go on a long holiday. Viktor Frankl’s voice was telling me “use the defiant nature of the human spirit”!

Instead of cracking up, I cracked open. I had never before realized how much freedom one can gain from taking a stand against oneself. I hadn’t been born again, but my perspective had changed. I could view things differently. Philosophy of any sort is a great tool if put to proper use. Logic can help the psyche to become more rational as it reasons its way in and out of life’s conundrums. Stoic philosophy has helped me to understand and accept my emotions. I got it all wrong at first. Ignorance caused me to falsely believe that Stoics shouldn’t feel emotions deeply.

I thought I should fight them off like Marcus Aurelius fought off adversity in battle. I believed I could armour myself in preparation for any blow of fate. But no, it is better to go with the movement, feel the sway as you enter choppily affected waters, until you feel calm enough to be your most reasonable self. When you are grounded you can make decisions and intentions to move forward. Temperance, one of the other Stoic virtues, springs to mind and can be interpreted as self-regulation in this instance. Wisdom will come to you more easily when you are on an even keel.

Justice, the fourth of the Stoic virtues, is probably the one I struggled with most of all. We don’t live in a just world and there is far too much unnecessary suffering and hurt all around. In the early days I sometimes thought why can’t everyone be logical and rational by adopting the Stoic approach to life? As so humorously highlighted by Tim LeBon at Stoicon 2018, Basil Fawlty beating up his broken-down car with a branch is the antithesis of Stoic behaviour. Why doesn’t he ask Seneca for help to manage his anger? The Basils of this world may benefit from some intervention, but they are free agents capable of making their own choices.

Stoicism is not for everyone. A true Stoic would not attempt to badger or coerce. They would keep their own house in order and want only the very best life for their fellow citizens in the universe. Perhaps the ancient Stoics were a bit imperious, condescending and esoteric. Move over and make way for the modern Stoics who are informed, empathic and ethical beings.

Stoic Week is a wonderful opportunity to begin or rekindle a relationship with this effective approach to living a good life. I shall relish the chance to renew my friendship. I gave up aspiring to be a Stoic and instead take a more measured and gentle approach. Too much self-monitoring and consistent character improvement can be overwhelming for anxious and obsessive beings to control and manage. However, I continually employ Stoic exercises to help me navigate through life and I shall never break the connection I have with this rich philosophy. I am a free spirit who thankfully found my way home after losing my way. My freedom to be in this world is my meaning. To wake up every day and have the ability to love. What more can one wish for? Now, time to get back to my latest read…… ‘Stoicism’ by John Sellars.

“Philosophy tells us that when we mingle the human and the divine in law and justice, we are destined by nature to gain perfection and be regulated and blessed by the same law and justice as the divine. Because our behaviour will be formed by correct doctrine, we will live happily. We will also bring our life to a happy end, like the people who gracefully play a role in a well-written drama.” – Musonius Rufus

“To dance is to live.” – Snoopy

Alison McCone is currently a student, planning to graduate next May with a BA in Philosophy and Psychological Studies, and hoping to go on to a Masters in Philosophy. She is currently writing a Logotherapy thesis devoted to her husband and two sons, family, and friends. She uses resources from Logotheraphy to help others whenever she is needed.

The Stoic – October 2019

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership).

If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, you can click here.

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The October issue of THE STOIC magazine is a special Stoicon issue and has an informative pictorial on the origin and development of modern Stoicism.

OCTOBER 2019 ISSUE CONTENTS

  • THE STOIC ATLAS. Exeter to Athens: Great moments in modern Stoicism: A pictorial
  • SHARON LEBELL. Everyday effort: Walking the walk
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. Everyday equanimity: Playing the game
  • LIZ GLOYN. Living with mortality
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. Everyday living: Going beyond a child’s curiosity
  • MEREDITH KUNZ. Everyday decisions: Seeking the truth
  • KAI WHITING. Everyday lessons: American football fans and the dichotomy of control
  • ELIZABETH AZIDE. Everyday acceptance: Key to thriving
  • FLORA BERNARD. Everyday changes: Nothing happens right away
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Why outcomes are always dichotomous