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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.
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     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. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Hand Of Fate?

     Regular readers of this blog may recall that I have discovered in the past few months, based on a series of tests, that I have heart-related health issues. I was ultimately referred to a specialist who confirmed last Friday that I have high blood pressure and a low "ejection" -- not "erection" -- fraction, which apparently means that my heart does not pump blood as efficiently as it should. (In addition, I have recently learned, courtesy of the Cook County vital records office, that my paternal grandfather dropped dead at the age of 40 of a heart attack). My cardiologist put me on two prescription medications, which are designed to reduce blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack; she also advised me to cut my sodium intake and exercise more.
     So the concept of fate has been on my mind recently. It is a subject that Seneca wrote about often, although perhaps not as often as he wrote about fortune. One of the most succinct statements of Seneca's thinking on fate is actually from one of his separate discourses -- On Providence, which is also addressed to his friend Lucilius:
          "I am coerced into nothing. I suffer nothing unwillingly. I do not serve god, but rather I agree with him -- all the more so because I know that all things come to pass by a law that is fixed and is decreed for eternity. The fates lead us, and the amount of time that remains for each person was stipulated at our first hour when we were born. Cause hangs on cause. Things both private and public are drawn along in a long order of events. Each thing must be suffered bravely because all things do not simply occur, as we think, but rather they arrive. It was decided long ago what you would have that you could rejoice about, what you would have that you could cry about. And however much the lives of individuals seem to be distinguished by great variety, the total comes to one thing: the things we receive perish, as will we. Why, then, do we get angry? Why do we complain? We were made ready for this. Let nature use its bodies as it wants. We should be joyful and courageous toward all things, and we should consider how nothing perishes that is ours. What belongs to a good man? To offer himself up to fate. It is a magnificent consolation to be carried away with the universe. Whatever it is that has commanded us to live in this way, to die in this way, binds the gods too with the same necessity. Human and divine are carried along equally on a course that cannot be revoked."
     The concept of fate is difficult for modern people (myself included) to accept, perhaps because we want to believe that things happen to us for a reason. However, I can now see how belief in fate could be comforting on one level. After all, it discourages people from ruminating about why things -- particularly unwelcome things -- happen to them and to those close to them.
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     Seneca, On Providence, translated by James Ker in Hardship & Happiness (University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2014), Book 5, 6-9, page 294.    

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

14: What Should The Wise Person Avoid?

     As noted in my post of 3/18/18 ("An Artist At Friend-Making"), I agree with much but not all of the advice that Seneca dispenses in his letters to Lucilius. Another example of a passage that troubles me is the following from the fourteenth letter:
          "Even so, let us avoid not only danger but also discomfort, as much as we can, and retreat into safety, constantly devising ways of keeping away the objects of fear. If I am not mistaken, those objects are of three kinds. We fear poverty; we fear disease; and we fear the violent deeds of those more powerful than ourselves. Among all these, the one that has most impact on us is the threat from another's power, for this arrives with a great deal of noise and activity.  ... Imagine here the jail, the cross, the rack, the hook ... the limbs torn apart by chariots driven in different directions ... and everything else that savagery has devised. ... Let us therefore make an effort to avoid giving offense. At one time it is the populace we have to fear; at another, if the state is ruled in such a way that the senate has charge of most matters, the men of most influence there; at another, individuals in whom is vested the power of the people and over the people. To have all these as friends would require much effort: it is enough if we do not have them as enemies. Thus the wise person will never provoke the anger of those in power, but will steer clear of it, just as one steers clear of a storm at sea. ... The wise person ... avoids the power that will do him harm, being cautious all along not to be seen avoiding it. For this too is part of safety, to be circumspect in pursuing it, since evasive action amounts to condemnation."
     This advice is puzzling for at least two reasons. First, in many of his letters, Seneca holds the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates out as a "role model" (to use a modern phrase) for others to emulate. However, Socrates spent most of his life interrogating fellow Athenians, many of whom were powerful politicians who did not appreciate his relentless questions. Eventually, Socrates was put on trial -- and convicted and sentenced to death -- for repeatedly provoking the anger of  those in power (although technically he was charged with corrupting the young and not believing in the gods of the city).
     Second, Seneca himself had a long and high-profile career in Roman public life, which was full of ups and downs. As old age approached, Seneca attempted to retire to his estates and focus on writing. But in one of the great ironies of classical western history, the Emperor Nero -- who Seneca was recalled from exile to tutor during the former's youth -- ended up sentencing his former teacher to death. Ultimately, Seneca was permitted to commit suicide and decided to take hemlock (the same poison that Socrates had consumed).
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References:
     Plato and Aristophanes, Four Texts on Socrates, Translated with Notes by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1984), pages 16-24, discussing Plato's Apology of Socrates.      
     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 14, 3-8, pages 56-57. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

13: Stoic Advice For The Anxious

     My career transition has been more anxiety-provoking than I had expected. Readers of this blog may recall that I took early retirement last year, after twenty-two years with the same organization (during which time I did have several different jobs, yet twenty-two years is a long time to spend with one employer, especially in the modern economy). As a contract attorney, I have already had three different jobs in only three months. I expect that I will become accustomed to this new reality sooner rather than later, but it has been a major change for a creature of habit such as myself.
     In his thirteenth letter to Lucilius, Seneca addresses his friend's struggle to achieve tranquility:
          "'How am I to know,' you say, 'whether the causes of my anxiety are real or empty?' Here is your measuring stick. We are tormented either by things past, or by things to come, or both. Concerning things present it is easy to make a judgment: if your body is at liberty, and healthy, if you are not in pain from any injury, then we can wait and see what is to come; today is not an issue. 'Still, it is to come.' First, find out whether there is firm evidence that trouble is on the way. For all too often we worry about what we merely suspect. Rumor plays tricks on us ... . Yes, dear Lucilius, we are too quick to give way to opinion. We do not demand evidence of the things that frighten us, or check them out carefully; we quail, and take to our heels, like the army that breaks camp because of a dust cloud kicked up by a herd of cattle, or like people who are terrified by an anonymous item of gossip. In a way, empty causes produce even more trepidation. Real dangers have an inherent limit; anything that arises from uncertainty, though, is given over to conjecture and to unrestrained anxiety. Hence our most pernicious, our most uncontrollable fears are the crazy ones. Our other fears are unreasonable; these are unreasoning. So let us look carefully at the facts." 
     In retrospect, my own fear of being permanently unemployed was unreasoning rather than evidence-based. It did take me six months to find a new job. However, I now realize that I could have cut my search time in half by starting with current technology -- Indeed.com ultimately worked for me -- instead of relying on traditional job hunting methods (such as "networking").
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      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 13, 7-9, pages 53-54. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

98: Fortune And Misfortune

     One of the concepts that comes up most frequently in Seneca's letters to his friend Lucilius is fortune. If one were to make a list of the letters in which the word "fortune" appears and a list of the letters in which it does not occur, I think the first list would be longer than the second. In Letter 98, for example, Seneca writes:
          "All the things that fortune favors become fruitful and pleasant only if those who possess them are also in possession of themselves and not in the power of their property. It is a mistake, Lucilius, to judge fortune responsible for anything that is good or bad for us. Fortune merely gives us the material for good and bad things -- the preliminaries for what will either turn out to be good or bad within us. For the mind is more powerful than every act of fortune: by itself the mind guides its affairs one way or the other, and is the cause of a happy or unhappy life for itself. A bad mind turns everything into bad, even things that have arrived looking excellent. A mind that is upright and sound corrects fortune's wrongs, softens its hardness and roughness with the knowledge of how to endure, receives prosperity with gratitude and moderation, and shows firmness and fortitude in face of adversity. You could be sensible, do everything with good judgment and never exceed your strength, but you will not achieve the good that is sound and beyond threat unless you are secure in dealing with what is insecure."
     In my own case, I have had a brush with misfortune recently (thankfully not a very serious brush, but a brush nonetheless). Regular readers of this blog may recall that I took early retirement last year, and that it was several months before I found another job. Eventually, I accepted a position as a contract attorney on a project that was supposed to last six months. However, after three months, myself and the other 20 or so other lawyers on the project were told -- with less than one day's warning -- that the job was ending early (we were not told why). Following Seneca's advice, I attempted to focus my mind on finding another position, and -- fortunately -- found a new project within about a week. Although this job is expected to last around a month, I hope the episode has taught me the importance of not dwelling upon what many would characterize as "bad luck" (the modern term for misfortune) but rather to be comfortable with insecurity.
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     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 98, 2-3, pages 386-387. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

12: The Pleasures Of Old Age?

     According to Graver and Long, Seneca was in his 60's when he composed the Letters on Ethics; so it is not surprising that the subject of old age comes up frequently in them. For example, in the twelfth letter, Seneca tells Lucilius about a recent visit to one of his villas (apparently, Seneca had three of them, but his wealth is not the focus of this post). When Seneca arrived at his villa near the city, he was distressed about the decaying condition of the building and complained to the property manager. Seneca was also upset about the poor health of the trees on his land, claiming that they were not being properly watered or fertilized. The manager reminded Seneca that the trees were old and -- since he had planted them himself many years ago -- Seneca realized that the same could be said about him.
     Seneca wrote to Lucilius:
          "My suburban villa has done me a service; it has brought my age before me at every turn. Let us embrace old age and love it. It is full of pleasure if you know what use to make of it. Fruit is sweetest just before it spoils, boyhood most attractive as it is departing; when one is devoted to wine, it is the last drink that brings the most pleasure --  the one that puts you under, giving the final push to inebriation. Every pleasure saves its greatest delights for its last moments. The most pleasurable time of life is on the downhill side, but before the drop-off. Even the time that stands at the very brink has its own pleasures, I believe. Or if not, then it has this instead: one no longer feels the need of any. How sweet it is to have worn out one's desires and left them behind! ... Every day, then, should be treated as though it were bringing up the rear, as though it were the consummation and fulfillment of one's life."
     I am 56 years old, soon to be 57, which is considered middle age in most of the modern world (although perhaps it would have been considered old age in ancient Rome). But there are certainly times when I do feel old. For instance, these days I have to remind myself that if I drink more than one glass of wine or -- what is more likely in my case -- one bottle of ale in the evening, then I will have a splitting headache the next morning. Nevertheless, I will try to keep Seneca's advice in mind.
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      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 12, 4-5, page 49, and 8, page 50. 

Monday, April 23, 2018

11: Nature Versus nature

     As mentioned in my post of 1/19/18, one of the fundamental teachings of Stoicism is that its adherents should strive to live "in accordance with nature." However, in his eleventh letter to Lucilius, Seneca uses the word nature in more than one sense. The issue came up in the context of a visit to Seneca by a young friend of Lucilius. Seneca was impressed by this young person's talent and intelligence, and was charmed when he blushed out of modesty:
          "I suspect he is one who will retain this tendency even when he has fully grown up and has rid himself of every fault -- even when he is wise. For natural flaws of body or mind are not removed by any amount of wisdom: what is innate and implanted may be mitigated by treatment but not overcome. ... These things are not eliminated either by training or by any amount of practice; no, nature exerts its force, using these flaws to remind even the strongest of what their nature is. I am sure that blushing is one of these things; for even in the soberest of grown men it still arises, and suddenly too. ... such characteristics are not cast out by any amount of wisdom. If wisdom could erase all defects, it would have nature itself under its charge. All contributions made by the circumstances of one's birth and one's bodily temperament will remain with us after the mind has at length managed in large part to settle itself. None of these can be ordered down, any more than they can be summoned at will."
Seneca also mentions several Roman politicians who struggled with blushing well after their youth was over.
     The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius lived in the century following Seneca's death. In his Meditations, Marcus shows a knack for boiling things down to their essence -- which is probably why he is still being read, almost two thousand years later. According to Marcus: "... don't treat anything as important except doing what your nature demands, and accepting what Nature sends you." So according to the Stoics, each of us has his or her own personal nature (with a small "n"), but we are all subject to Nature (with a capital "N").
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References:
     Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays (The Modern Library, New York, 2003), Book 12, 32, page 169. 
      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 11, 1-4, pages 46-47, and 6, page 47. 

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 cour...