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Monday, January 14, 2019

27: What Should We Desire?

     I want to begin by wishing my readers -- all four of them -- a belated Happy New Year. My New Year's Resolution is to write more blog posts in 2019 than I did in 2018, but whether or not I will be able to do so depends in part on the challenges presented by my mother's declining health (mentioned in the previous post).
     There is a sense in which New Year's Resolutions are about desire, because they reflect what we want to achieve or attain or acquire in the next 12 months. In Letter 27 to Lucilius, Seneca has the following to say to his friend regarding desire:
          "Loud and clear I tell myself: 'Count your years, and you will be ashamed to have the same wishes and intentions you had as a child. Give yourself this gift as your day of death approaches: let your faults die before you. Dismiss those turbulent desires that cost you so much: they do harm both ahead of time and after the fact. Just as the worry over criminal acts does not depart, even if they are not discovered at the time, so also with wrongful desires: remorse remains when they themselves are gone. They are not solid, not dependable: even if they do no harm, they are fleeting. Look about, rather, for some good that will remain. There is none but that which the mind discovers for itself from out of itself. Virtue alone yields lasting and untroubled joy. Even if something does get in the way of that joy, it is interrupted only as daylight is by clouds, which pass beneath but do not overcome it.' When will it be your lot to attain that joy? You have not been idle up to now -- but pick up the pace. Much work remains to be done; and you must be the one to put in the attention and toil if you want results. This is not something that can be delegated."  
     My own desires seem to have evolved as I have grown older. When I was younger, for example, pleasures were never far from my mind. Now that I am middle-aged, I spend more time pondering virtue. I would like to believe that this is the result of me becoming wiser with age; however, a cynical person might observe that I am just experiencing one of the inevitable consequences of aging -- as pleasures become less frequent, we desire other things in their place.

     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 27, 2-4, page 95.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

26/49: Rehearsing For Death?

     Since the passing of my mother-in-law Faye, discussed in the previous post, the subject of death has been on my mind. Over the past few months, I have also watched my Aunt Judith deal with the return of her cancer in an aggressive form and with the physical pain that this is bringing her, which she has faced courageously. Last but not least, after recently falling and breaking her hip, undergoing surgery, as well as working with all manner of therapists (occupational, speech, etc.), my mother Patricia has been suffering physically -- and mentally, as advancing Parkinson's Disease increasingly impacts her brain.
     For the Stoics in general, and for Seneca in particular, death was not something to be feared. Rather, in Letter 26 to Lucilius, the older Seneca advises his younger friend to "rehearse for death" (quoting Epicurus again). In the forty-ninth letter, Seneca goes on to flesh out this thought:
          "What am I up to? Death is after me; life is on the retreat. Teach me something I can use against that! Don't let me run from death any longer; don't let life run away from me! Encourage me to face what is difficult; give me the serenity to accept what I cannot avoid. Expand the narrow confines of my remaining time. Teach me that the goodness of a life depends not on how long it is but on how it is used; and that it is possible -- in fact quite common -- for a person to have a long life that is scarcely a life at all. Say to me before I sleep, 'It's possible you will not wake up,' and when I rise, 'It's possible you will never sleep again.' Say to me when I go out, 'It's possible you will not return,' and when I return, 'It's possible you will never leave.' You are wrong if you think that it is only aboard ship that 'life is but an inch away from death.' The interval is the same wherever you go. There death is in full view, but everywhere it is just as close to us." [Emphasis added].          
     By the way, I mentioned in my post of 12/2/17 that Seneca has been acknowledged as the original essayist in Western history. However, the passage above suggests that he could also be described as the author of the Serenity Prayer's first draft.

     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 26, 8-10, page 94; Letter 49, 9-11, pages 143-144.
     Wikipedia, 12/8/18,

Monday, November 26, 2018

28: A Citizen Of The World

     My mother-in-law Faye Striftis Kalesperis passed away earlier this month. Faye spent most of the first three decades of her life in and around the city of Corinth, Greece, and used to boast that she immigrated to America "by TWA, honey" (that is, not on a crowded ship with the hoi polloi). She became a naturalized American citizen and, for more than 20 years, taught the Greek language at a parochial elementary school in the southern Chicago suburbs; the last decade of her life was spent in a Grecian-themed nursing home in the northern Chicago suburbs; the fact that many of the staff spoke Greek must have been a great comfort to her in final years.
     Seneca (like all of the Stoics that I have read) believed that every human being was first and foremost a citizen of the world. In the twenty-eighth letter to Lucilius, for example, Seneca reminds his friend -- "We should live with this conviction: 'I was not born in any one spot; my homeland is this entire world.'" More to the point are the following remarks of Epictetus, a former Greek slave who opened his own school of Stoic philosophy several decades after Seneca's death:
          "If what philosophers say about the kinship of God and man is true, then the only logical step is to do as Socrates did, never replying to the question of where he was from with, 'I am Athenian,' or 'I am from Corinth,' but always, 'I am a citizen of the world.' ... But anyone who knows how the whole universe is administered knows that the first, all-inclusive state is the government composed of God and man. ... So why not call ourselves citizens of the world ... ?"
     Faye was proud of the legacy bequeathed to Western civilization by the ancient Greeks, and she was proud to be a naturalized citizen of the United States. In contemporary American politics, unfortunately, immigration has become a controversial and divisive issue. However, we would do well to remember the cosmopolitan teachings of the Stoics.

     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 28, 4, page 97.
     Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, Translated and Edited by Robert Dobbin (Penguin Classics, London, 2008), Discourses, Book I, 9, 1-6, pages 24-25. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

25: Someone To Watch Over Me (And You)

     I apologize to my regular readers for the unusual length of time between posts, but my elderly mother fell and broke her hip last month; the good news is, her surgery was successful, and she is now in a rehabilitation facility; so my duty to family came first. Speaking of obligations -- note the smooth transition -- in Letter 25 to Lucilius, Seneca reminds him that it is their duty (as friends) to help two mutual friends overcome their faults. Seneca also goes on to provide Lucilius with an antidote for the latter's faults. Once again, Seneca finds a quote from his old frenemy Epicurus to summarize the advice. According to Seneca, the late Greek philosopher once told one of his followers to do everything as if he (Epicurus) were watching him. Seneca writes:
          "Assuredly it is beneficial to set a watch on yourself and to have someone to look up to, someone who you think will make a difference in your plans. To be sure, it is much grander if you live as if some good man were always present and held you in his gaze. But I am satisfied even with this: let everything you do be done as if watched by someone. Solitude encourages every fault in us. Once you have progressed far enough to have some reverence even for yourself, then you may dismiss your tutor; meanwhile, put yourself under the guardianship of men of authority. Let it be Cato, or Scipio, or Laelius, or someone else at whose coming even desperate characters would suppress their faults, while you go about making yourself the person in whose company you would not dare to do wrong. When you have done that, and have begun to have some worth in your own eyes ... ." 
For those -- like me -- who were not Classics majors in college, Cato the Younger was a politician who fought (unsuccessfully) for the survival of the Roman republic in its final years; Scipio Africanus was the general who, by campaigning against Carthage, forced Hannibal to withdraw his army from Italy; and Gaius Laelius was apparently renowned for his wisdom. Fortunately, America history provides no shortage of more recent role models: Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind.
     However, if you are going to select someone to watch over you, I suggest that you choose a dead person. Living legends, unfortunately, always have the possibility of disappointing their admirers, as long as they remain alive.  Take the case of Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Wheaton College, a conservative Christian school in the Chicago suburbs that was also Hastert's alma mater, named a political institute after him when he retired from Congress: the J. Dennis Hastert Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy. But it was later discovered that, prior to beginning his political career, when Hastert had taught and coached the boys' wrestling team at an Illinois high school, he took more than an athletic interest -- to put it politely -- in some of his underage students. Because the statute of limitations on the underlying crimes had expired, Hastert was instead charged with lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (among other felonies). Hastert ended up pleading guilty to other charges and was sentenced to prison. Needless to say, Wheaton College had to rename its Center.

     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 25, 4-6, pages 91-92.
     Wikipedia, 10/23/18,

Monday, October 8, 2018

23: Emptiness, West And East

     The twenty-third letter to Lucilius finds Seneca moving away from the campaign to get his friend to retire from the position of provincial governor. Seneca begins by telling Lucilius that he is not going to write about banalities like how mild the weather has been; instead, Seneca will talk about something that will benefit both of them: an exhortation toward excellence of mind -- "Would you like to know what it is that such excellence is founded upon? It is this: don't rejoice in empty things. ... As for your paltry body, it is true that nothing can be done without it, but think of it as a necessary thing rather than as something great. The pleasures it accumulates are empty, short, and regrettable ... ."
     While the concept of emptiness did not play a major role in Seneca's philosophy, the idea figures prominently in Mahayana Buddhism. Like Theravada Buddhism, which began in ancient India and spread south to what is now Sri Lanka, the Mahayana school began in India but spread north to Tibet and northeast to China. According to Kazuaki Tanahashi, in his excellent The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism, the Heart Sutra is the scripture most often recited by Mahayana Buddhists around the world. The Heart Sutra begins with Avalokitesvara, who was one of the Buddha's senior disciples, answering the question posed by another senior disciple, Sariputra:
          "O, Sariputra, a Noble Son or Daughter who wishes to engage in the profound activities of the Perfection of Wisdom should consider thusly ... Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form, nor is form other than emptiness. Similarly, sensations, conceptions, formations, and consciousness are empty. Sariputra, in that way all phenomenon are emptiness. They have no characteristics. They are not born. They do not cease. There is no defilement. There is no lack of defilement. There is no taking away, and there is no filling. O Sariputra, therefore, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no conception, no formations, no consciousness. There is no eye, no nose, no ear, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no form, no sound, no scent, no taste, no touch, and no phenomenon. There is no visual sphere, and on through to no mental sphere, up to: there being no sphere of mental consciousness either. There is no ignorance, nor is there anything from elimination of ignorance to there being no aging and death, up to: there being no end to aging and death either. ... There is no primordial wisdom, there is no attainment, and there is no non-attainment. ... Because there is no obstruction to the mind, there is no fear. ... " 
     This English translation, by the way, is one of several set forth in an appendix to Tanahashi's work, along with translations from multiple Asian languages. It was translated from Tibetan by Christian P.B. Haskett. Personally, I find this view of emptiness to be fascinating. But I am also troubled by the idea's philosophical -- especially ethical -- implications: if everything is empty, then isn't everything permitted? That is, why not just say or do whatever brings you pleasure, regardless of the impact it has on 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 23, 1, page 82; 6, page 83.
     Kazuaki Tanahashi, The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism (Shambhala, Boston & London, 2014), Appendix 1: Texts for Comparison, pages 225-226.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

22: Tranquility And Politics

     In the twenty-second letter to Lucilius, Seneca continues the campaign to get his friend to retire from an "ambitious [political] career." Toward the end of the letter, Seneca talks about the importance of tranquility. In his separate dialogue On Tranquility Of Mind, Seneca delves more deeply into the relationship between politics and tranquility. The other participant in the dialogue is Annaeus Serenus, a younger relative of Seneca. Serenus begins the dialogue by asking for Seneca's advice in dealing with anxiety. Serenus notes that he entered the political life following the Stoic teaching to be of service to humankind, but that he has found no tranquility in the public sector. If Serenus wishes to attain tranquility, Seneca says:
          "We must perform a self-assessment before all else, because we generally think ourselves able to do more than we actually can: one man is tripped up by confidence in his eloquence, another has demanded more from his inherited property than it could sustain, another has weighed down a weak constitution with strenuous duty. The modesty of some is not suited to public life, which needs a confident gaze, and the arrogance of others does not suit the court; others do not keep their anger under control, and any cause for indignation carries them away into rash words; ... for all such men, retirement is more advantageous than business. A fierce and impatient nature should avoid the provocations of frankness that will bring it harm. ... You must consider whether your nature is more suited to active business or leisured study and meditation, and lean in the direction your power of intellect will carry you. Isocrates laid hands on Ephorus and took him away from public life, believing him to be better suited to composing records of history. In fact, coerced intellects respond badly; when nature resists, effort is wasted. ... I think Democritus was following this principal when he began, 'Whoever wants to live tranquilly should not do much business, private or public.' Surely he was referring to superfluous affairs. For if they are essential, then not just many but countless tasks have to be done both privately and publicly; but when no binding duty summons us, we should check our activities." 
     In my own case, I'm not sure that I had either the immodesty or the "confident gaze" necessary for great success in the public sector. However, since Rahm Emanuel has recently announced that he will not seek a third term as mayor of Chicago, two former bosses (and friends) of mine have entered the mayoral race: Paul Vallas and Gery Chico. Each of them has both the immodesty and the confident gaze -- as well as, most importantly, the talent -- to be a good mayor, so I will have a difficult decision to make early next year.

     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 22, 7, page 80.
    Seneca, On Tranquility Of Mind, translated by Elaine Fantham, in Hardship & Happiness (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2014) Book 6, 2, page 192; Book 7, 2, page 193; Book 13, 1-2, pages 201-202. 

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,

27: What Should We Desire?

     I want to begin by wishing my readers -- all four of them -- a belated Happy New Year. My New Year's Resolution is to write more bl...