Review: Letters from a Stoic

Review: Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic (a selection)Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs.

One of the most persistent criticisms made of modern philosophy is that it isn’t useful. The critics have a point. Modern philosophy largely concerns itself with a variety of theoretical problems. Even though many of these problems do have practical ramifications, many do not; and regardless, the debates can often get so technical, so heated, and so abstract, that it is difficult to see modern philosophy as the path to wisdom it once professed to be. People don’t have time or patience for logic-chopping; they want useful advice.

Those of this persuasion will be happy to find a forerunner and a sage in Seneca. As the opening quote shows, he conceived philosophy to be, above all, the giving of good advice. Seneca thus finds a perfect vehicle for his thought in the form of the letter. Although this book apparently consists of the private correspondence between Seneca and his friend Lucilius, it is obvious from the first page that these were expressly written for publication and posterity. This book should rather be thought of as a collection of moral essays and exhortations.

Even in translation, Seneca is a master stylist. He is by turns intimate, friendly, self-deprecating, nagging, mundane, and profound. He has an enormous talent for epigram; he can squeeze a lifetime into a line, compress a philosophy into a phrase. He is also remarkably modern in his tolerant, cosmopolitan, and informal attitude. Indeed I often found it difficult to believe that the book was written by a real Roman. Montaigne and Emerson obviously learned a great deal from Seneca; you might even say they ripped him off. The only thing that marks Seneca as ancient is his comparative lack of introspection. While Montaigne and Emerson are mercurial, wracked by self-doubt, driven by contrary tides of emotion, Seneca is calm, self-composed, confident.

Perhaps because of his professed aversion to abstract argument, Seneca is not a systematic thinker. Emerson wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and Seneca apparently would agree, for there are many inconsistencies to be found in these pages. Sometimes God is conceived of as an impersonal order of the universe, and at other times a personal deity; sometimes Lucilius is advised not to take the opinions of friends and family into account, other times to do so. Seneca’s metaphysical arguments are weak and confused affairs; he is not one for disputation. But for all this, there is a core of good sense contained within these pages, which Seneca himself summarizes:

No man is good by chance. Virtue is something which must be learned. Pleasure is low, petty, to be deemed worthless, shared even by dumb animals—the tiniest and meanest of whom fly towards pleasure. Glory is an empty and fleeting thing, lighter than air. Poverty is an evil to no man unless he kick’s against it. Death is not an evil; why need you ask? Death alone is the equal privilege of mankind.

Like Marcus Aurelius, a prominent statesman in troubled times, Seneca is very concerned with how to be happy in spite of circumstances. There is no satisfaction to be had through external goods, like fame and riches, because these cannot be gotten unless fortune is kind, and fortune is notoriously fickle. Even in good times, this can only lead you into an empty, meaningless competition, valuing yourself for something that isn’t really yours, causing you to ceaselessly measure yourself against others. You must rather become content with yourself, taking pleasure in life whether fortune smiles or frowns: “We have reached the heights if we know what it is that we find joy in and if we have not placed our happiness in externals.”

Of course, this is easier said than done, and Seneca does not have a fully worked-out system for reaching this state. He offers, instead, an unsystematic mass of advice. It is here that Seneca is most charming and helpful, for most other philosophers would not deign to offer such workaday recommendations and observations. Here is Seneca on negative thinking:

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry.

It is in these sections, of plain, friendly advice, that I think Seneca is at his best. Certainly not all of his advice is good; every reader will pick and choose what suits them best. But much of Seneca’s advice is timeless, and phrased in deathless prose. Most refreshing is Seneca’s insistence that his advice is for action and not reflection. This is more than slightly ironic, considering that Seneca is often accused of being a hypocrite whose lifestyle was far removed from his doctrines; but, to quote a modern philosopher, “There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching.” So preach on, Seneca.

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Review: A Guide to the Good Life

Review: A Guide to the Good Life

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There will be—or already has been!—a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn, or play hopscotch.

In my review of Feeling Good, a self-help book, I noted the lack of practical philosophies in the modern world. Far from an original insight, I now see that this idea is a relatively common criticism of contemporary education and modern philosophy. The other day, for example, I stumbled upon a YouTube channel, the School of Life, an educational project that tries to teach life lessons rather than academic knowledge. This book, an attempt to revive ancient Stoicism, is part of the same loose movement.

William B. Irvine set himself the task of making Stoicism viable and palatable in today’s world. To put it bluntly, this meant rummaging through the Stoic classics to make a self-help book. Whereas the classic Stoic authors—Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus—dispensed practical advice without much order, Irvine tries to create a systematic practice that any reader can follow.

Irvine’s system consists of several mental exercises, or tricks, that the novice Stoic can use to gain tranquility. The most important of these is negative visualization: take a moment to imagine how things could go wrong, how you could lose what you have—your health, job, or spouse—and how everything you take for granted might never have existed at all. This will counteract what Irvine calls “hedonistic adaptation,” which is when we get used to the good things in our lives and lose the ability to enjoy them. Hedonistic adaptation is the real enemy of tranquility, because it forever enchains us to desire—as soon as one desire is satisfied, we have another one, and the process repeats without us getting any happier.

Another Stoic exercise is the internalization of goals. First, determine the extent to which you can control the outcome of any situation; then, make sure you only worry about that part which you can control, and don’t trouble yourself about the rest. If you are going on a first date, for example, don’t make it your goal to impress the person—since you can’t directly control whether someone likes you or not—but make it your goal to try your best. In the language of self-help, that is, focus on the process and not the product, the effort and not the outcome.

The last major technique can be better described as an attitude rather than an exercise. This is to take a fatalistic attitude towards the past. Since what happened in the past is beyond your power to alter, don’t trouble yourself with “if-onlys” or fill up your mind with regrets. Instead, try to cultivate amor fati, love of fate; learn to appreciate the good in what has happened, rather than think of all the ways it could have been better.

The general attitude that a Stoic wishes to cultivate is a mixture of enjoyment and detachment: the ability to enjoy all of the little pleasures of daily life without becoming so attached to anything that you are incapacitated without it. It is rather like the attitude of a spectator at a play: heartily enjoying the show, while keeping in mind that all the action is staged and not worth getting upset over. With this mentality you could, in theory, be satisfied with anything, and maintain your tranquility under any circumstances.

These, in nutshell form, are the book’s major pieces of advice. The rest of the book is divided into a brief historical sketch of Stoicism, a series of short chapters about applying Stoicism to specific challenges, and a broader cultural criticism from a Stoic perspective. The latter of these was the most interesting—Irvine isn’t a fan of political correctness or of grief counseling. He also has a lot of advice about responding to insults, some of which I thought was obvious, some of which I thought was wrong, and most of which made me wonder: Why is he talking so much about insults? Is poor Irvine getting insulted all the time?

My main criticism of this book is its style. Perhaps because Irvine was trying to appeal to a popular market, the prose is painfully simple, and filled with unnecessary clarifications and wearying redundancies. “Repetitive” is a charitable description. Added to that, I often got the feeling that he was purposefully avoiding delving deeply into any topic, for fear of losing any novice readers, which irked me.

The important question is: Do the techniques work? I have been having some fun imagining my life going horribly wrong: my metro being crushed underground in an earthquake, my computer bursting into flames and blinding me—getting struck by lighting on my walk to work, all of my friends leaving me en masse, and so on. Somehow, this exercise does tend to put me in a cheerful mood. I also agree with Irvine about desire—why hedonism doesn’t produce contentment, why connoisseurship is counterproductive, why it’s wise to accustom oneself to some disappointment and discomfort.

At the very least, this book is an interesting experiment: trying to revive a dead philosophy of life for the twenty-first century. Now, to put Stoicism into practice, I’m going to imagine this review not getting any likes.

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Review: The Discourses of Epictetus

Review: The Discourses of Epictetus

Discourses, Fragments, HandbookDiscourses, Fragments, Handbook by Epictetus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But to begin with, keep well away of what is stronger than you. If a pretty girl is set against a young man who is just making a start on philosophy, that is no fair contest.

Epictetus forms one part of the triad of classic stoic authors, along with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

Born a slave, sent into exile, never rich nor powerful, he certainly had more need of the stoic philosophy than Aurelius, an emperor, or Seneca, a senator. His course of life was closer to that of Socrates. Like Plato’s hero (and unlike Plato himself), Epictetus did not trouble himself with questions of logic, epistemology, or metaphysics. His concern was ethics; his aim was to learn how to live the best possible life. Also like Socrates, he did not write anything down himself. All of “his” works were set to paper by his pupil, Arrian.

In character, too, he is far removed from either Aurelius or Seneca. Aurelius’s voice is intimate and frank; he speaks as a friend. Seneca is sophisticated, suave, and cosmopolitan; he is easy to imagine as a witty dinner guest. Epictetus is like a sassy staff-sergeant. His mode is vituperation; he is a teacher who will mock and chide you into shape. The basic idea of his philosophy could hardly be simpler. His goal is only to instill this idea into your mind so deeply that it reforms your whole character.

What is his philosophy? The basic message is this. The external world is ultimately outside of our control. We cannot determine whether we will be rich or poor, whether our loved ones will die, whether we will be banished, imprisoned, or executed, whether we will be favored or persecuted by the emperor, whether we will get sick, whether other people will like us, or a thousand other things. The outside world—the world outside our minds—will always be able to overpower us, outmaneuver us, and surprise us.

Only the internal world is within our control. This is what Epictetus calls the “realm of choice.” We cannot choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we react to those circumstances. We cannot, for example, prevent ourselves from being robbed; but we can choose not to place value in our jewelry, and so maintain peace of mind in the event of a robbery. Everything, even our lives and our loved ones, only has value because we give it value with our minds. You can laugh at your own executioner if you don’t regard execution as an evil. This power—the power to change our attitude towards the external world—Epictetus regards as the ultimate and quintessential human faculty. This is the power of choice, and constitutes human freedom.

‘He has been taken off to prison.’—What has happened? He has been taken off to prison. But the observation ‘Things have gone badly for him’ is something that each person adds for himself.

He is unwaveringly concerned with the practical rather than the theoretical. This book is full of castigation for philosophy students who consider themselves successful when they can satisfactorily summarize and refute a logical argument. Logic is just a plaything, Epictetus says, and all this argument is entirely besides the point. How will you react when you’re in a ship that’s being tossed about in a storm? How will you react if you’re banished or if your loved one dies? How will you face death? Remember, he says, that books are ultimately just another external good, like money or power, and by prizing them, like any external good, we simply make ourselves victims of circumstances.

Epictetus’s stoicism is more explicitly deistic than Seneca’s or Aurelius’s. He regards all humans as children of God (Zeus), whom he pictures as running every detail of the universe. Thus a large part of his philosophy consists of acting in accordance with God. If you want to live in Rome, but circumstances prevent it, don’t whine and moan, but accept that God has other plans for you. If you go bankrupt and end up a beggar, accept this new role and play your part in the grand design. To reject God’s plan is foolish impiety. It is to overlook all of the blessing bestowed on you—not least life itself—and focus on one small part of the universe that you find unpleasant: “So because of one miserable leg, slave, you’re going to cast reproaches against the universe?” (Epictetus was lame in one leg.)

Although sometimes Epictetus pictures Zeus as a personal god, for the most part it is easy to see his Zeus as merely a personalization of the universe. In any case, Epictetus’s conception of death is entirely materialistic. There is no afterlife; death is the end of existence. But it is only an end from your point of view. The materials of your body will be released and used for other things. Indeed, says Epictetus, we really do not possess anything. Everything—our house, our family, our body itself—is just on a loan from the universe. If Zeus asks for it back, we would be rude to refuse.

Books like these can easily become moralizing and unpleasant; but this one is saved by Epictetus’s rollicking humor and puckish wit. Epictetus is often shown discoursing with a pupil, upbraiding, reprimanding, scolding, chiding, and finally encouraging. His style is distinguished by its relentless use of rhetorical questions. For a philosopher, he can be rather cheeky:

I must die; so must I die groaning too? I must be imprisoned; so must I grieve at that too? I must depart into exile; so can anyone prevent me from setting off with a smile, cheerfully and serenely?

The only thing that makes this book occasionally unpleasant to read is its repetitiveness. The same ideas are put forward in a hundred different ways; the same theme is returned to again and again. There is little plan or order to the sections. There is no grand unifying scheme, merely a succession of chapters haphazardly arranged. I should admit, however, that this repetition can be partly excused by the need of a moralist to firmly instill his principles: “One should know that it isn’t easy for a person to arrive at a firm judgment unless, day after day, he states and hears the same principles, and at the same time applies them to his life.”

There are theoretical troubles, too. I could not entirely agree with his division of the universe into things falling within or without the sphere of choice. Surely it is more accurate to think of a scale, or a gradation, of things more or less within our power. We can minutely influence an election, we can somewhat influence our friends, we can usually control our bodies, and we can almost always control our attitude. Thus, instead of saying “Only worry about things within the sphere of choice,” it would be more accurate to say “Only worry about things insofar as your choices can affect them.” And then, even so, in practice it is so often difficult to tell whether we are fulfilling our duties to the best of our abilities.

This is related to another theoretical weakness. The stoics make much ado about living in harmony with nature (or Zeus). And yet, how can anyone act otherwise? If we are a part of nature, and bound by her laws, how can any of our actions be out of sync with nature? Let’s say, for example, that you get banished from Rome. Epictetus advises you to accept your fate as God’s will and make a new life. To protest your fate would be to act against nature. But what if it’s Zeus’s (or whoever’s) will that you protest? And how can Epictetus know that, by protesting, you won’t be readmitted to the capital? Maybe your protest will be an event in the history of Rome and change the practice of banishment forever?

By this I am led to another potential shortcoming in Epictetus’s system: fatalism. If everyone is entirely responsible for their own peace of mind, and if circumstances play no role in human happiness, then there is no reason to help anybody or to try to improve the world: “If anyone suffers misfortune, remember that he suffers it through his own fault, since God created all human beings to enjoy happiness, to enjoy peace of mind.” Again, in this situation I think Epictetus’s hard division between things outside or within our control blinds him to the dialogue between attitude and circumstances that comprise human life and happiness.

The modern use of the word “stoic”—someone imperturbable, unemotional, unfeeling—is not entirely accurate as regards the original stoics. Seneca was witty, cosmopolitan, and certainly not unfeeling. Yet in Epictetus we see this stereotype borne out more accurately. The majority of these dialogues is concerned with avoiding disturbance and maintaining peace of mind. Epictetus is constantly warning his pupils what not to do, what actions, people, and things to avoid in order to be properly philosophical. Very little is said about the joys of life. Indeed, unlike Seneca, who was a fan of Epicurus, Epictetus repeatedly denounces Epicureans without seeming to understand their doctrine.

These criticisms are minor when I consider that this book is easily one of the greatest books on the art of living that I have yet read. So often Epictetus seems to be speaking directly to me, with frightening relevance. He is not interested in any of my excuses, but shames me into virtue with his sharp-tongued and good-natured scolding. And it is, perhaps, unfair to criticize the theory of a philosophy whose end is practice. For my part, Epictetus is easily the most powerful of the three classic stoic authors, one who I will be sure to return to when life tosses me about.

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Quotes & Commentary #1: Montaigne

Quotes & Commentary #1: Montaigne

“I only quote others to better quote myself.”

—Michel de Montaigne

For many years now, it’s been my habit to write down my favorite quotes from the books I read. These can be passages that are particularly pungent, sentences with a memorable turn of phrase, or an insight that, for whatever reason, resonated with me. This collection of quotes has gradually grown into a sprawling mass, hundreds of pages long.

At present my hoard resembles an attic of precious jewelry, old antique furniture, forgotten knick-knacks, and fading photographs, collecting dust from age and neglect. It is time I put this attic into good order. To do this, I will select a quote I find especially appealing and write a short commentary on it, briefly explaining why I like it, what I think it means, and why I think it’s valuable.

This quote, by Montaigne, is the perfect place to start. On a verbal level, it is arresting because of his phrase “quote myself,” which is intentionally paradoxical. In my experience, this paradox is so true: We learn to express ourselves by imitating others. This is how we learn to speak, sing, paint, and write.

Montaigne did a great deal of quoting in his Essays, most often from ancient authors like Plutarch, Seneca, and Lucretius. Although the effect is sometimes pedantic, by the end you see how Montaigne’s style, tone, and perspective gradually emerges from these influences. He teaches himself how to write by selecting and digesting the writings of others. And this is what I hope to do, too.