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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

21: Bipartisanship Now And Then

     Senator John McCain's recent death and funeral have caused me to reflect upon the idea of bipartisanship. Some of my international readers may not know John McCain's history, apart from his loss in the 2008 American presidential election to Barack Obama. McCain attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduating, he served his country as a military pilot during the Vietnam War. Shot down over what was then North Vietnam, McCain was injured, captured, and spent five years as a prisoner of war. Although McCain was the son and grandson of U.S. Navy Admirals, he refused to use his connections to get himself released ahead of his fellow prisoners. After the war, McCain went on to serve the state of Arizona as a Republican in the U.S. House and then the Senate, the latter for three decades. McCain developed the reputation as a politician who was willing to work across the aisle and was the co-sponsor, among other legislation, of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (popularly known as McCain/Feingold). At McCain's funeral at the National Cathedral, he was eulogized both by former Republican President George W. Bush and by former Democratic President Obama. There is perhaps no more damning indictment of President Donald Trump's character than the fact that McCain and his family did not wish Trump to attend any of the Senator's memorials.
     As noted in my post of 12/30/2017 -- "2: Virtue Or Pleasure?" -- Seneca frequently quotes the philosopher Epicurus in his letters to Lucilius, despite the fact that Epicurus was the founder of a rival philosophical school. Seneca's twenty-first letter includes two quotations from Epicurus, the second of which is on the subject of desire. Apparently, Epicurus once wrote to his follower Idomeneus that if he wished to make their mutual friend Pythocles rich, he should subtract from the former's desires rather than add to his money. Seneca goes on to tell Lucilius:
          "This saying is too clear to need interpretation, and too well phrased to need improvement. My only addition is to remind you not to refer it only to wealth: its import will be the same wherever it is applied. If you want to make Pythocles honorable, what you must do is not add to his accolades but subtract from his desires. If you wish to make Pythocles experience constant pleasure, what you must do is not add to his pleasure but subtract from his desires. If you wish to make Pythocles live a long and complete life, what you must do is not add to his years but subtract from his desires. You need not regard these sayings as belonging to Epicurus: they are public property. I think philosophers should adopt [Roman] senatorial practice. When someone has stated a judgment that pleases me in part, I ask him to divide his opinion, and I follow the part I approve. These splendid sayings of Epicurus ... ."
     My hope is that the passing of John McCain will remind Americans (and others) of the importance of the ancient concept of bipartisanship.

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 21, 7-9, page 77.
     Wikipedia, 9/1/2018,

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

20: Is Life Long Or Short?

     In the twentieth letter to Lucilius, Seneca continues the campaign to encourage his friend to retire from a position as provincial governor: "For it will be to my credit if I manage to extricate you from that place where you are now floundering without hope of escape." As noted in my previous post, one of Seneca's arguments in favor of retirement is that it gives one the leisure time necessary for contemplating the important issues in life.
     Seneca's separate treatise, On The Shortness Of Life, advances another argument in favor of retirement: that time is an immaterial yet precious commodity. The essay is addressed to Pompeius Paulinus, who was the father of Seneca's wife Pompeia Paulina. Apparently, Paulinus was in charge of the Roman grain supply, a stressful job back in the day when famine was an ever-present threat and source of political instability. Seneca begins by telling Paulinus that life is actually long enough for those who devote their days to worthwhile pursuits (like philosophy). However, for those who waste their time, life is indeed short. Seneca devotes a substantial portion of the work to discussing the many activities that he believes preoccupy people, including: pursuing trade on every land and every sea; striving after the wealth of others or complaining about their own; climbing the social ladder; chasing clients (or being chased by them); consorting with prostitutes; drinking to excess; and -- my personal favorite -- speculating about "useless literary questions" (Seneca's example is inquiring into how many rowers Ulysses had aboard his ship in the Odyssey). Those who have spent their careers pursing political ambitions, Seneca notes, often say that when they reach the age of 50 or 60, they will retire and then devote themselves to the pursuit of wisdom. But Seneca observes that there is no guarantee that one will have many years of life left after retirement; the future is uncertain.
     Accordingly, near the end of the essay, Seneca advises Paulinus to retire from his high-pressure occupation sooner rather than later, so that he may spend his remaining time with the likes of Socrates, Epicurus, Zeno, and Aristotle -- "The greater part of your life, and certainly the better part, has been given to the state: take some of your time for yourself as well." Even though I am not retired, as someone who left the public sector after a twenty-nine year career, these words are especially meaningful to me.

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 20, 1, pages 72-73. 
    Seneca, On The Shortness Of Life, translated by Gareth D. Williams, in Hardship & Happiness (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2014) Book 8, 1-4, page 118; Book 13, 1-2, pages 123-124; Book 14, 1-5, pages 125-126; Book 18, 1, page 130.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

19: Leisure Then And Now

     It was around this time last year that I decided to retire from the urban school district where I had been working for the past 22 years, so -- even though I am now freelancing -- the subject of retirement has been on my mind recently.  In the nineteenth letter to Lucilius, Seneca advises his friend to retire from a position as provincial governor:
          "If you can, ease yourself out of that occupation of yours -- and if you can't, then tear yourself away! We have wasted enough time. Old age is upon us: time to start getting our luggage together. Surely no one can object to that. We have lived at sea; let us die in harbor. ... 'How shall I get out?' you say. However you can. Think how many risks you have taken for money, how many labors you have endured to gain fame. You should be just as bold in pursuit of leisure; otherwise you must grow old amid the cares of provincial governorships and then amid responsibilities in the city -- amid the storm, amid waves ever renewed, which you cannot escape even with moderation and quiet living. You want to rest, but what of that? Your success wants otherwise. And you're still letting it grow! The more you achieve, the more you will have to fear." 
     My career has not resulted in much fame or success -- at least not so far -- but two thousand years after Seneca wrote, leisure is something that people still hope for in retirement: resting, spending more time with family and friends, traveling, refocusing on an old hobby or starting a new one. However, Seneca's conception of leisure is different than ours (or at least than most of ours). In his separate treatise On Leisure, Seneca begins by considering the traditional Stoic teaching that one should remain in active service up until the end of life, working for the common good. Yet Seneca argues that -- even later in life -- when someone has completed her official service, she can still devote herself to the contemplation of truth, seek a coherent intellectual basis for life, and practice it. Seneca contends that one can serve the commonwealth with devotion even in leisure, or perhaps even better in leisure, by inquiring into issues such as "... what virtue is, whether it is one or many, and whether a person is made good by nature or by training ... ."

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 19, 1-2, 8, pages 70-71. 
    Seneca, On Leisure, translated by Gareth D. Williams in Hardship & Happiness (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2014) Book 1, 4; Book 2, 1-2; Book 4, 1-2; pages 222-224.

Monday, July 23, 2018

18/87: Is Wealth A Good?

     As noted in my previous post, I cannot agree with Seneca's characterization of poverty as carefree. However, he continues the discussion of poverty and wealth in his eighteenth letter to Lucilius. Even though Seneca was wealthy, and would not forbid Lucilius from possessing riches, he advised his friend that Lucilius could be happy without wealth. This advice seems to be based on the traditional Stoic teaching that wealth is not one of the goods. Jumping forward to Letter 87, Seneca restates for Lucilius -- in the form of syllogisms -- some of the classic Stoic arguments regarding wealth:
          "That which can belong to the vilest and most despicable kinds of people is not a good.   But wealth can belong to the pimp and the manager of gladiators. Therefore wealth is not a good. ...
          That which is good does not come of what is bad. But wealth comes of avarice. Therefore wealth is not a good. ...
          If the pursuit of something brings many bad results, that thing is not a good. Our pursuit of wealth brings many bad results. Therefore wealth is not a good."
      I find Seneca's arguments about wealth to be more persuasive than his contentions about poverty. The fact that Seneca was willing to test his theories in the real world likewise supports their persuasiveness. He begins the eighty-seventh letter by telling Lucilius about a recent trip. Apparently, Seneca traveled in a country wagon pulled by mules, slept on his cloak, and dined on a simple diet of dried figs along with bread. Seneca's credibility -- and one of the qualities in him that I find to be most charming -- is also enhanced by the fact that he is willing to be honest about his own faults. Seneca confessed to Lucilius that he did not like being seen by other travelers in such a simple vehicle, and blushed when those in a more glamorous carriage passed by. Seneca observes that the person "who blushes in a shabby carriage will boast of an expensive one." The frugal habits he admires and approves of are not yet firmly established in him, Seneca admits; he has made only a little progress on the path to wisdom, Seneca says, because he still cares too much about the opinions of others.

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 18, 13, page 69; Letter 87, 15-28, pages 303-305, and 2-5, page 300. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

17: Is Poverty Carefree?

     The seventeenth letter to Lucilius discusses another topic on which I have to agree to disagree with Seneca, at least in part. This letter begins with Seneca chiding his friend Lucilius about the latter's decision -- which he justifies by trepidation about poverty -- to continue in the family business and save money for the future rather than retire and devote himself to the study of philosophy. Seneca writes:
          "Trust me: you should make philosophy your advocate. It will persuade you not to linger over your balance sheet. No doubt your aim, the purpose of all your delay, is to ensure that you need not fear poverty. But what if poverty is actually something to pursue? Many have found riches an obstacle to the philosophical life: poverty is untrammeled, carefree. When the trumpet sounds, the poor know that they are not the ones under attack; when the alarm of fire is raised, they look around for the exit, not for their belongings. When a poor person is about to embark, there is no tumult at the harbor, no bustling throng along the beach, attendants all of a single person; no pack of slaves standing around ... . Hunger is cheap; it is the palate that is expensive. Poverty is content to satisfy the immediate wants. Why, then, do you refuse to take as your companion one whose habits it is sensible for the wealthy to imitate? If you want to have time for your mind, you must either be poor or resemble the poor. Study cannot be beneficial without some time for frugality, and frugality is just voluntary poverty. So away with your excuses!"
     I live about a mile away from one of the largest temporary homeless shelters in Chicago, and the residents there are among the least carefree people I have ever seen; rather, they appear to be suffering from chronic stress (among other maladies). Thus, I cannot agree with Seneca's argument that poverty is carefree. Seneca was born into a prosperous provincial family, and by the time he sat down to write the Letters late in his life, he was probably one of the wealthiest men in the Roman Empire; he seems, therefore, to have had no personal experience with poverty. However, in Seneca's defense, it must be noted that he attributed much of his success to good fortune.
     Like Seneca, President Trump was born into prosperous family; like Seneca, Trump went on to build substantial personal wealth (although we do not know exactly how rich he is, because he will not release his income tax returns). But unlike Seneca, Trump attributes his success to "genius" -- instead of admitting that (after being given a head start in life) he has also been very lucky in business, as well as in politics.

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 17, 2-5, pages 64-65. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

16: Self-Examination

     In the sixteenth letter to Lucilius, Seneca touches upon some of his favorite subjects, including philosophy. Seneca tells Lucilius that he has made progress in wisdom, but advises his friend: "Shake yourself out; check yourself over; look at yourself in different ways. Above all, consider whether the progress you have made has been in philosophy, or in life itself."
     Seneca gives a more complete example of self-examination in his treatise On Anger. As noted in my post of 11/9/17, Seneca argues in this work that anger is an extremely destructive emotion for individual humans in particular and the human race in general. As a way to make sure that anger is eliminated, Seneca has the following guidance for his brother Annaeus Novatus:
          "Your anger will cease and become more controllable if it knows that every day it must come before a judge. Is there anything finer, then, than this habit of scrutinizing the entire day? What sort of sleep follows this self-examination -- how peaceful, how deep and free, when the mind has been either praised or admonished, when the sentinel and secret censor of the self has conducted its inquiry into one's character! I exercise this jurisdiction daily and plead my case before myself. When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit now that's now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I've done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by. For why should I fear any consequence from my mistakes, when I'm able to say, 'See that you don't do it again, but now I forgive you. In that discussion you spoke too aggressively: from now on don't get involved with people who don't know what they're talking about. People who have never learned don't want to learn. You admonished that fellow more candidly than you should, and as a result you didn't correct him, you offended him; in the future consider not just whether what you say is true but whether the person you're talking to can take the truth. A good man delights in being admonished, but all the worst people have the hardest time putting up with correction.'" 
     Seneca goes on to recount other humorous instances where he let anger get the best of him: the bruising remarks of others at a banquet; a rich man's door keeper mistreating his friend; being seated in a place of less distinction than another; and giving someone who spoke ill of his talent a dirty look.
     However, in keeping with Seneca's legal metaphor, I think it makes sense to have a statute of limitations where self-examination is concerned. That is, one should not keep judging and re-judging the same actions and words. I'm not sure what the precise cutoff point should be -- a day, a week, a month? -- but there must be one. In my own case, I have to admit that I probably spend too much time ruminating about past decisions, whether of the previous day or of the previous decade. In keeping with the founding principle of this blog, I need to moderate my tendency to cover the same mental ground over and over again.

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 16, 1-2, page 62.
    Seneca, On Anger, translated by Robert A. Kaster in Anger, Mercy, Revenge (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2010); Book 36, 1-5, pages 91-92.   

Monday, June 18, 2018

15: On A Lighter Note ...

     In looking back on my most recent blog posts, one could fairly accuse me of focusing on the darker side of things. However, in the course of reading Seneca, I have learned that not all of his letters are unrelentingly serious. In the fifteenth letter, for example, Seneca advises his friend Lucilius to focus more attention on mental health rather than on the body's condition. Regarding exercise, Seneca writes:
          "It is foolish, dear Lucilius, and unbefitting an educated man, to busy oneself with exercising the muscles, broadening the shoulders, and strengthening the torso. You may have great success with your training diet and your bodybuilding, but never will you match the strength and weight of a prime ox. Besides, your mind is then weighed down by a more burdensome body, and is less agile as a result. Restrict your body, then, as much as you can, and give more latitude to the mind. Those who are obsessed with such a regimen incur many discomforts. ... Drinking and sweating -- a life full of heartburn! There are ways of exercising that are easy and quick, that give the body a workout without taking up too much time -- for time is what we have to keep track of more than anything: running, and arm movements with various weights, and jumping, either the high jump or the long jump, or the dance jump ... . Choose whichever you like, and make it easy by practice. But whatever you do, return quickly from the body to the mind and exercise that, night and day. A moderate effort is enough to nourish it, and its exercise is such as neither cold nor heat will hamper, nor even old age. Tend to the good that gets better with time. I am not telling you to be always pouring over a book or tablet: the mind should have some respite, but to relax, not to become lax."
     In my own life, I spent a significant amount of time lifting weights during my mid-teens to mid-twenties, with the public reason that it would make me a better athlete, but with the private hope that I would end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his Mr. Olympia days. While I did become somewhat stronger and more muscular, no one would have mistaken me for a professional bodybuilder. In my late twenties through late forties, my main form of exercise was distance running, yet I was never more than a middle-of-the-pack runner, even on my fastest days. Following a leg injury, I had to give up running, and switched to walking; recently, I decided to add some circuit training to increase my heart rate (as my cardiologist advised). Because it seems like the thing my body is best suited for is sitting on the sofa and drinking beer, I think Seneca would agree that the time spent on my blog is time well spent.

     Seneca, Letters on Ethics to Lucilius, Translated with an Introduction and Commentary by Margaret Graver and A.A. Long (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2015), Letter 15, 2-6, page 60. 

21: Bipartisanship Now And Then

     Senator John McCain's recent death and funeral have caused me to reflect upon the idea of bipartisanship. Some of my international ...