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Category Archives: Stoicism

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The Spirituality Of Seneca

by December 22, 2018

Seneca Before we go any further, you really ought to click here and read the thing so you have a grasp on what we are talking about.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.

You back? Good! That wasn’t so bad. So, where to start?
Perhaps it is important to note that Stoicism as a philosophy taught, above all else, that we ought to live according to nature. It is this sentiment more than anything else that is the goal of any Stoic follower. And it is this notion that has been repeated again and again, from Zeno to Seneca to Marcus Aurelius. 
But what do we mean by “nature?” We see that Seneca makes reference to altars built upon the sources of great rivers. He recounts how men have worshipped hot geysers and describes with great admiration the power of nature in creating mountain caverns. Seneca tells us that if we were to truly examine nature in all its glory, we would be stirred by religious awe.

And so we see that Seneca is likening the idea of nature to an imposing sort of spirituality. This is perhaps unsurprising because as far as the Stoics were concerned, nature was not only related to God, it was synonymous. 

Seneca the younger
We also must understand that the Stoic tenant “live according to nature” not only refers to the divine nature within the universe, but it suggests that we ought to live according to our true human nature, which Seneca believed to be a potentiality for absolute reason.

A Stoic soul would be one that views the hardships and superficial trivialities of modern society with an aloof detachment. Gazing upon the world and all its desires and fear with absolute indifference. And in this way we see that the Stoic’s soul can be elevated above those who would reject wisdom.
“If you see a man undaunted in danger, untouched by passion, happy in adversity, calm in the raging storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, will you not be moved by veneration?” -Seneca (God Within Man)
Additionally, Seneca tells us that too often we concern ourselves with what we own rather than what we are. It is foolish, stupid even, to praise a man for what he owns. His house, his money, his possessions are merely things around him. They are not within him, they are around him. And so they are not him in any meaningful way. It matters not whether you are a king or a peasant, for it is your inner self, not your possessions, that represents who you really are.
And so, this radiantly perfect being would remain unfettered by danger, unconcerned with passion, and supremely content when faced with adversity. It is from this idea of resigned detachment that we get our modern understanding of the word “stoic.”
Seneca tells us that if we were ever to encounter such an imposing soul, we would be moved to awe and wonder just as we are when we gaze upon a vast ocean or pristine forrest. How can it be that such a grand and lofty spirt be contained within something as fragile as a human body?
Just as the radiance of the sun warms the earth, but originates from a heavenly source, so to does a Stoic soul exist among us, but is prompted by a divine force.
“A soul which is of superior stature and well governed, which deflates the imposing by passing it by and laughs at all our fears and prayers, is impelled by a celestial force. So great a thing cannot stand without a buttress of divinity.” -Seneca (God Within Man)

To further his case, Seneca compares lions submitted to lionthe arena. The first lion is one that has been trained and worn down so as to submit to grooming and pampering.
It enters the arena tame and unimpressive. Then there is another lion who enters the arena whose spirit is unbroken, his mane untrimmed, and his ferocity unfettered.

How very impressive would the second lion be when compared to the quiet and worn down animal? His ferocity would be both terrifying and awe inspiring. As Seneca puts it, “The terror he inspires is the essence of his attraction.”
Seneca means to tell us that it is a far more impressive thing to remain true to your nature, rather than to be beaten down and made tame by superficial desires or trivial fears.
However, it is important that we remember that the nature of a lion and the nature of a human being are very different. A lion is no more a lion than when he is wild and fierce, but a man must remain true to his nature, which is a potentiality for reason.
And so to conclude Seneca’s argument, the perfection of nature is synonymous with God. The potentiality for reason within mankind is also a part of nature and therefore is, at least partially, a part of God. And so we see that God exists within all of mankind.
Seneca concludes his letter by noting that while it would seem obvious that we ought to attain wisdom for the sake of self-betterment, the realities of society often make it difficult.
“General derangement makes this difficult; we shove one another into vice. and how can people be recalled to safety when there is a crowd pushing them and nobody to hold them back?” -Seneca (God Within Man)

Marcus Aurelius
This final sentiment was most likely mentioned as a way of reflecting on the difficulties that the Stoics encountered when attempting to implement their philosophy within society.

Unlike other, earlier philosophies like Cyrenaic Hedonisor Epicureanism  that focused on ethical fulfillment for the individual, Stoicism endeavored to achieve nothing short of a societal revolution.
It would become quite clear, starting within the age of Hellenistic Greece and into the early days of the Roman Empire, that such a revolution would never occur. The Stoics would settle for attempting to teach influential figures their philosophy in hopes that philosophical perfection within an emperor would permeate, even slightly, to the citizens of a society.
Such an endeavor was undertaken with varying success. Marcus Aurelius being the obvious example of a truly Stoic leader while Nero, who was educated by Seneca himself, is often pointed to as a man with whom Stoicism simply didn’t take. 
All this aside, Seneca’s God Within Man remains one of the best illustrations of the cosmology and ethics that was so dearly cherished by the Stoic philosophers. Concise and unambiguous, God Within Man is Seneca at his philosophical best. And it would be in your best interest to really consider what is said.

Seneca and “On The Shortness of Life”

by November 24, 2014

Okay, so we are going to be talking about some pretty heavy stuff today. For starters, we are going to examine the looming prospect of our inevitable demise, our inability to picture time as a limited resource, and our unhealthy obsession with frittering our years away enthralled to our labors.
SenecaSeneca the younger, who is the author of On the Shortness of Life is not one of those philosophers to tackle insubstantial questions. As a stoic, he was committed to nothing short of a societal revolution that would see people abandon their superficial ways and embrace the tenents of stoicism not merely as food for thought, but as a viable way of life.
The problem with societal revolutions is that they can be kind of hard. It is likely then that the stoics, who were nothing if not flexible, decided that the best way to endow stoicism upon the Roman population would be to supplant the philosophy within the minds of Rome’s most notable figures.
It is possible that it was this thought that prompted Seneca to take a position as the tutor, and later an advisor, to a young Emperor Nero. Seneca wrote extensively to the young emperor, attempting to spur him in the direction of philosophy and away from political demagoguery.
Now I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but let’s just all agree that it didn’t really work out. Nero has been called a lot of things, but a “thoughtful, philosophical leader” was never one of them.
But now I am getting away from the subject at hand. We were talking about Seneca’s letter known as On the Shortness of Life or De Brevitate Vitae. The letter is addressed to Seneca’s friend, Paulinus who held the rather important position of supervisor of Rome’s grain supply.
As I mentioned, Seneca touches on a few topics that, at the very least, might make you feel a bit uncomfortable. For starters, Seneca tells us that most people refuse to accept the prospect of death and that we waste our lives on useless endeavors as a way to blind ourselves from the inevitable.
And so I thought it might be a good idea if we started with a joke instead, preferably one about the unavoidable darkness that awaits us all.
A priest stands before his congregation and warns them of the brevity of life and the suddenness of death. He declares to them all, “Before this day is done someone in this very parish might be dead!”
A little old woman in the front row stands up and shouts “Ha!”
“What is so funny?”, asks the priest.
“Well” said the old woman, “I’m not a member of this parish!”

Now that joke is from the book Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Them Pearly Gates, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein, and it accentuates one point very well.

Seneca bust
Most of us, if not all of us, do not accept that we are going to die. Oh sure, we can come to grips with the notion of death in a quasi-objective, 21st century-rationalist sort of way. We have empirically concluded that everybody from Sinatra to Seneca was once alive and now they are dead, so it logically follows that we will die as well.

However, we usually don’t KNOW that we will die. We don’t always BELIEVE that we will die with the same conviction that we believe that the sun will rise tomorrow or that our favorite sports teams will be forever cast into obscurity. Seneca tells us as much when he writes…

“You live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

Seneca argues that we fall into this delusion of believing that we shall live forever. We treat every day as if there would assuredly be another to follow. We view time as if it were an unlimited resource rather than a restricted commodity.
Seneca continues by telling us that we not only refuse to accept our limited time, but that we waste away what little time we do possess. The philosopher declares that we shackle ourselves to our labors, our professions.
Whether we are laborers or emperors, we willingly give parts of ourselves to others or to the faceless masses. And at the end of our days, we might drop dead while calling on a customer or arguing before a court. We will die as if we were children, never having learned how to live.

“How seldom you have enjoyed full use of yourself, how seldom your face wore an in artificial expression, how seldom your mind was unflurried, what accomplishments you have to show for so long a life, how much of your life has been pilfered by others without your being aware of it, how much of it you have lost, how much was dispensed on groundless regret, foolish gladness, greedy desire, polite society-and then realize that your death will be premature.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

In short, Seneca is telling us that we don’t want to be the kind of guy who dies, and upon his gravestone it is written “He always filed his expense reports”.
AugustusAs if to accentuate this point, Seneca begins to speak of Emperor Augusts who was deified by the Roman population, but who would be burdened by the responsibilities of his post. Seneca tells us that Augusts longed for the leisure that might come with old age, and that it was this thought alone that gave solace to his labors.
We then might be sorrowful to think of Augusts on his deathbed and that his final words were “Did I play the part well? Then applaud as I exit”, as if his life were a role he played for the benefit of the audience.
Seneca continues that even Cicero, who is remembered for posterity as one of Rome’s greatest politicians and orators, declares in a letter to his friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus that he feels as if he were “half a prisoner” while lounging in his Tuscan estate.
Perhaps it is because he was so entangled within his duties, so burdened by his commitments and authority, that even while in leisure Cicero felt as if he were a prisoner. And that, at least according to Seneca, is no way to live.
Okay, so we haven’t been discussing the most pleasant topics. So far Seneca has reminded us that we are all going to die and then he accused us of wasting our mortal life on professional endeavors.
So what should we be doing?! Give me a sign, Seneca! I want to live, Clarence!
Well, Seneca is, after all, a stoic philosopher at heart. So he tells us that the way we can learn to truly live is to, obviously, study philosophy! Seneca states rather bluntly that “The only people really at leisure are those who take time for philosophy. They alone really live.”

“Only men who make Zeno and Pythagoras and Democritus and the other high priests of liberal studies their daily familiars, who cultivate Aristotle and Theophrastus, can properly be said to be engaged in the duties of life.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

It is important to remember that philosophy during the time of Seneca was not part of a structured course curriculum at a university. Seneca is not telling us that, if we want to learn to live, then we ought to go enroll in philosophy 101 at our local college.
Instead, we must realize that “philosophy”, at least according to Seneca, was a very conscious and deliberate pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. It is only by endeavoring to uncover true wisdom that we are properly engaged in the duties of life.
This sort of sentiment is to be expected, especially when we remember that Seneca was a stoic philosopher. The Stoics taught that we ought to live according to nature, that humans ought to live according to our human nature. And it is our ability to learn and become wise that is most natural and most pleasant within our lifetime.

“There is nothing that the lapse of time does not dilapidate and exterminate. but the dedications of philosophy are impregnable; age cannot erase their memory or diminish their force.” -Seneca (On the Shortness of Life)

I do have a small objection to this whole pursue-philosophy-or-you-are-not-really-living thing. Keep in mind that the person Seneca is addressing this letter to is responsible for managing the entirety of Rome’s public grain supply. Arguably, this man is the one chiefly responsible for ensuring that citizens are fed and that starvation and famine don’t run wild through the city.

Seneca drawing
And yet, here Seneca is arguing that being shackled to such responsibilities is no way to live ones life. If I had a family to feed back then, I would have been none too happy to hear that Seneca was attempting to incite an existential crisis within the man responsible for feeding an entire society!

Try to imagine if the entire IRS or the FDA collectively through up their hands and said “Screw this stuff, I’m going to go learn philosophy!” Yeah, you bet their would be some consequences.
Still, the heart of Seneca’s message is one I can support. And if you are looking for a bottom line, then here it is- we ought not to fear death, but accept it as an inevitable conclusion to life. Live every day as if it were your last, because it might just be.
Remember to put aside the expense reports and shut your computer every once in a while (a piece of advice that I have a hard time following) and take some time to live, really live your life.
We ought not to languish about our lot in life, but rather take time to cultivate our inner selves. And when we die, and die we will, we should die content with our lives, with ourselves, and with the beauty of our souls.

Living Stress-Free And Stoically

by September 15, 2014

Feeling stressed? Well, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Last year the American Psychological Association conducted a survey of levels of self-reported stress amongst adults in the United States. The results were, unsurprisingly, not so great.
XXXSeventy eight percent of adults surveyed reported that their levels of stress have either increased or remained about the same over the past five years. Sixty one percent of adults say that managing stress is very important, however only 35 percent say they are doing a good job of managing stress. The top reasons people feel stressed were concerns over money, work, and the economy.

If you are looking for advice on the economy, money, bulls, bears, and the global market, then you came to the wrong place. You really ought to go talk to our friends over at The Diary of a Rogue Economist for that sort of thing.
Our business is classical literature and finding ways to live better through an understanding of ancient wisdom.

Let’s move on. Shall we?
Okay, okay, so people are stressed, what’s a philosopher to do? Drink another Red Bull and just power through? Well, you could do that, but let’s find a method that won’t cause inevitable heart failure.
Stoicism! Now that’s the ticket.
What is Stoicism? How did it come about? What are the ins and outs of this complex philosophy? Where did I put my cup of coffee? These are the types of questions that I often ask myself whenever I sit down to write on a topic of philosophy.
And while we could spend hours and hours going over the specifics of Stoicism, I think too much information at once can often lead to an undue amount of stress. That would, obviously, defeat the purpose of our whole investigation.
So let’s settle for an abridged definition of Stoicism and then we will go right into a few stoic lessons that you can apply to your every day life to become just a little less anxious.

What Is Stoicism?

Stoicism is a brand of philosophy that focuses almost exclusively on the areas of ethics, virtues, and the very difficult task of living a good life. Stoicism as a way of life would originate in Greece, as most philosophy does, in the later years of the Hellenistic age and would gain momentum right up to the height of the Roman Empire.

The founder was Zeno of Citium, a Greek philosopher who began his lecturing days not long after the death of Aristotle in 322 BCE. While Zeno was the founder of the Stoicism, he is often eclipsed by some of the more prolific stoic authors of the Roman empire. Among these are Epictetus, Seneca the younger, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism taught, above all else, that we ought to live according to nature. They believed that there was a great design to the universe and that nature was the highest form of perfection. Nothing inconsequential happens within the world, everything is, in one way or another, part of some perfectly constructed plan.
Additionally, living according to nature means that we ought to live according to our human nature. What is our human nature? Well, it is our ability to think rationally and our need to pursue wisdom and understanding. We will be supremely happy when we are living according to our human nature. All other things we might find, wealth and money for instance, will never truly make us live a good life.
Sound good so far? Of course it does. So if you want to live stress free and stoically, you might want to follow these simple rules.

Rule #1 Recognize that which you have control over

Do you want to know who is very good at living a stoic life? Recovering alcoholics have this down pat. If you have ever spent time around recovering alcoholics or, like me, ever worked in a facility for addiction treatment, then you have probably heard the following phrase:
God grand me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
What is interesting about that expression, is that it almost perfectly summarizes our first rule of living a stress free, stoic life. The first thing we have to do is recognize what we have control over and what we do not.
Let’s say you are stuck in traffic, the cars are stacked one on top of the other for miles. Now, you could very easily become disheartened by such a situation. Perhaps the stress could get to you and you could start tearing out your hair. But now let’s ask another question.
XXXDo you really have any control over the traffic?
Of course you do not. There is nothing in your power that you can do. You cannot split the traffic as if you were Moses splitting the Red Sea. You cannot fly out your window and escape I 95. We must recognize that the situation is out of our hands, there is nothing to be done.
We can apply this principle to all sorts of things. Whenever you are in a stressful situation, we must ask if we have any meaningful control. The answer, very often, is no.
We, as individuals, can no more meaningfully effect the economy or world affairs any more than we can effect the rotation of the earth. Believe me, I have friends who are brokers in New York City. They tell me the same thing.
The stoic philosopher, Epictetus said as much as this within his Discourses. The philosopher suggests that much of our anxiety stems from our desire to have things that are not within our power to give.

“A lute player when he is singing by himself has no anxiety, but when he enters the theatre, he is anxious even if he has a good voice and plays well on the lute; for he not only wishes to sing well, but also to obtain applause: but this is not in his power.” -Epictetus (Discourses)

So we are often wracked by anxiety when encountering situations whose outcome we cannot control. Will we ever escape the gridlock heading north out of Miami? Will the lute player receive an applause after playing the lute?
We don’t know. More importantly, we can’t know. All we can do is manage our reactions and maintain our stoic demeanor. Oh, and we could just try to play the lute as best we can. Whatever is meant to happen, will happen.
Rule #2 Recognize real problems from imaginary problems.
Taking another tip from Epictetus, we know that…

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems” -Epictetus

“But what if…” is a rather popular statement for the more anxious among us. “But what if…” give us an excuse to worry over problems that have not arisen yet. It gives us an excuse to stress.

When we consider problems that are very real, that are happening here and now, what do we really have? Perhaps there are actual concerns, but more often than not they are simply concerns of what MIGHT happen rather than what IS happening.

Recovering alcoholics, once again, learn this lesson one way or the other. What is truly a problem for us right now? We might be homeless tomorrow, but we aren’t today. We might not have a penny to our name next week, but for now we are doing alright. All we really have is right now, and right now we are doing okay.
A man in recovery once told me…
I realized eventually that I was just creating problems to get drunk off of. I don’t know where my children are. That will be a problem one day, but it isn’t right now. Even if I could find my children, I wouldn’t know what to say. I would run.
I don’t have any money. But that isn’t a problem right now because I have a roof over my head, a meal on my plate, and I can always get cigarettes. I might be lost and alone tomorrow, but I’m not today.”
So if you want to live stoically, and apparently you do, then you really ought to consider which of your problems are real and which are inventions of an overly anxious mind.
Rule #3 Learn what you can live without
What do you really need? Have you ever thought about that? Insofar as you are a human being, what do you need? Are you more successful as a rational individual if you have a flat screen television? Are you more noble or glorious as a person if there is a Mercedes Benz in your drive way?
In the course of Discourses, Epictetus comments on how he finds it strange that we continue to attach ourselves to more and more things, even when these things very often bring us misery.

“But now when it is in our power to look after one thing [our minds/ rational soul], and to attach ourselves to it, we prefer to look after many things, and to be bound to many things, to the body and to property, and to brother and to friend, and to child and to slave. Since, then, we are bound to many things, we are depressed by them and dragged down.” -Epictetus

Living stoically is not easy. It asks us to surrender many of our desires; chief among these are our desires for luxury and wealth. While we may want these things, our desire for them very often lead to disappointment and sadness. We continuously look toward what we want and refuse to recognize that which we already have.
A philosophy professor explained this idea to me in the following way…

“If you are the type of person who just won’t be happy until you are a millionaire and spend every night partying at Playboy mansion, then you are bound to be disappointed. The Stoics would tell you to wake up! Recognize the good things you already have and set some reasonable goals for yourself.”

Put more succinctly by Marcus Aurelius…

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” -Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)

Rule #4 Cultivate your inner self
Okay, so this has been a rather difficult process for some of us. All we have done so far is talk about things that we should stop doing. Stop worrying about things that are beyond our control. Stop creating problems that may happen in the future. Stop creating unnecessary desires that you think will make you happy.
So what can we actually do?
XXXWell, the Stoics would tell you that you ought to cultivate the one thing that you actually do have control over, your inner self. When it comes right down to it you are not in control over the economy, the world, or even your body. You are, however, in control of the state of your mind and your soul.
If we are most human when we are actively pursuing knowledge or understanding, then we will also be happiest while performing these tasks. Who you are, the only part of you that is of any real consequence, is your inner self. It is the part of you that comes to understand virtue through doing virtuous acts, wisdom through pursing true understanding.
The Stoics believed that a peasant could be happy so long as he was a sage, but a king would be miserable unless he was also a sage. And while the king might have more markers in the game of life, more cards up his sleeve, what is of real importance is how you play, not if you win or not.
And I know that some of these rules are rather difficult for us. It is not an easy thing to let go all of our desires, our woes, our fears just because some philosophers thousands of years ago said that the universe had a plan for us.
Believe me, I know.
Still, if you could follow even one of these rules within your daily life, I think you might find that you become just a little less anxious. And you might soon be on your way to living a stress-free, stoic existence.