Sunday, 15 September 2013

Forward Progress

From the things that you write me and by the reports that I hear, I have good hope for you.                                             Epistle 2

     Seneca has "good hope" for the ethical progress of Lucilius and says as much in order to encourage him to continue on his path. But can we perhaps read a subtle cautionary reminder in his qualifications "from the things that you write" and "from the reports that I hear?"  Genuine progress must be just that: genuine. 
     Moreover, it is still just a "good hope" Seneca holds for his young friend. While Seneca himself famously stated that "to err is human," for the Stoic, there are no degrees of virtue. One is either virtuous, or he is not, for virtue cannot be mixed with vice. In practical terms, however, we are doing well when we are making forward progress. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Conserve What Is Truly Yours

But I would that you conserve what is truly yours and begin to do so at once. For, as our ancestors understood, "It is too late to be frugal when you have reached the dregs of the cast." There is not much left at the bottom, and only the worst of its content remains.
                                   Epistle 1

     what is truly yours - Seneca is writing on the subject of time in this epistle and therefore the clause "what truly is yours" can be read in this context. There is a double-meaning here, however, and, for Seneca's purposes, a more important one. For the Stoic, "what is truly yours" refers to one's moral purpose, one's Virtue, the only thing that truly belongs to a person. Our own time is ours in the sense that we can always choose to spend whatever moments remain to us virtuously. 
     It is imperative that we begin to live virtuously immediately; for time is ours only in the sense of how we use it, not how long it will be. Indulging in Vice and neglecting Virtue and postponing the amendment of our ways until the last possible moment is akin to expecting to find quality wine at the bottom of the barrel. When we neglect and flee from Virtue for too long we run become a barrel that contains nothing left but the dregs of what could have been a fine wine.    

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Whatever Remains Is Enough

What, then, do I mean to say by all this? It is this: I do not consider a man poor if he regards as enough whatever little remains to him.

                             Epistle 1

     Seneca has been using financial metaphors of gain and loss, applying them both to the concept of moral progress or loss and the gaining of or losing of (or wasting of) time. In the most recent post, he had declared that he has been reduced to poverty through no fault of his own; that is, he, as an old man, was being impoverished in terms of an elderly person's diminishing years.
     But this was not a lament or complaint. The principle theme throughout this epistle (and a reoccurring theme in much of Seneca's other writings) has been the correct use of time and the notion that no life is too short if properly used. Just as a man is only as poor as he considers himself to be, no amount of time is too little for a man if it is enough for him.  
     And how is it enough? Because it is time used well. No man, not even if he has lived 120 years, can die contentedly if those years have been squandered in Vice. But Virtue makes a happy and contented man out of even the shortest life.     
     We need not pity the virtuous man who dies young, unexpectedly, or even unjustly; but we must pity the vicious man who lives a long life. As Seneca famously writes elsewhere, "It is not how long you live that matters, but how nobly." The poverty which is truly undesirable is not the lack of wealth or the dearth of years, but the poverty of Virtue. Where there is Virtue, there is no poverty and life is always complete.  

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Seneca's Old Age

But my current situation is the same as what happens to many who are reduced to poverty through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but nobody comes to their rescue.
                                                     Epistle 1

     In the previous post, Seneca in humility admits (through use of financial metaphor) that he is, in a word, not perfect, but he has at least made progress in that he can recognize his moral losses and shortcomings. These losses are of course due to his own failures. There is no contradiction here where Seneca writes that his "current situation is the same as what happens to many who are reduced to poverty through no fault of their own." 
     Seneca, at the time that he was writing these epistles, was a very old man. The overall subject of this epistle is time, and more specifically, the wasting of time versus the proper use of time. Seneca here is simply adding a personal note pertaining to his own situation. He is continuing with the poverty metaphor, but he is applying it now not to his own moral progress, but to the amount of time an old man like himself has left in life. 
     But this is not the mournful complaint of an old man over the shortness of his remaining life. As we shall see in the next post, Seneca is contented in this "poverty." 

Saturday, 6 July 2013

I Confess Frankly, My Friend....

You will ask, perhaps, what I myself do who preach these things to you. I confess frankly: as is the case with a luxuriant but cautious man, my expense account is balanced. I cannot tell you I lose nothing, but whatever I do lose I can tell you how and why the loss occurred. I can give you the cause of my poverty.  
                                   Epistle 1

     There are 124 extant letters of our stoic philosopher Seneca to his friend Lucilius, admonishing him towards Virtue and warning him against Vice (and at times even reproving him). He instructs him, essentially, on how to become wise man, a sage.  
     Yet neither Seneca nor any of the other ancient Stoics whose works have been preserved ever claimed to be a wise man. But like anyone who is at least on the correct path towards Wisdom, Seneca is able to discern what he already possesses and what he still lacks. He cannot say he loses nothing, but when he does lose something, he can say how and why. He recognizes his faults, his "poverty", and he is actively remedying them. 
     But why would Seneca instruct another person on how to live if he has not yet perfected his own advice? Today, if we discover a man's actions are not entirely consistent with his words, we are inclined to label him a hypocrite. But Seneca's is not a case of somebody not practising what he preaches. The Stoic seeks friends whom he can either improve or who can improve him. Lucilius, while having made considerable progress of his own, was still a few paces behind Seneca. Seneca, while not yet perfect himself, was a useful encouragement to his friend. And in helping his friend, he was also furthering his own progress. Elsewhere Seneca famously wrote, qui docet discit, or "he who teaches learns". Just as, for example, a modern day Latin teacher keeps sharp his own knowledge of that ancient language by teaching others, the philosopher rehearses for himself the lessons of his school in the same fashion, training himself as he trains others. (And it is indeed in this spirit that I write these posts; not as one who has already hit the mark, but as one who has made some progress in his aim and needs further practice.) The teacher also becomes accountable to his students in the same way - or even to a greater degree! - as the students are accountable to him. If we ever lose sight of our goal, of Virtue, and have thus momentarily lost that sense of personal shame for our Vices and Passions, perhaps a sense of public shame in the form of the scrutiny of our friends will keep us in check.
     We must remember, however, that if we hope to be useful to our friends or they to be any use to us, then we must understand the limits of our successes and "confess frankly" our weaknesses. This requires a substantial amount of personal self-reflection (that is, honesty with one's own self) before one enters into the friendship. My friend cannot help me if he thinks I am flawless; and I do him no good pretending to be so, thereby providing him with a false model to emulate... He will be emulating not a good but a bad man! 

Monday, 1 July 2013

Time: The Benefit That Can Never Be Repaid

Such is the great foolishness of mortals, that they allow the least important, cheapest and easily replaceable objects to be charged to their accounts after they have received them.  But they never consider themselves to be in debt when they have received time; and yet this is the one thing that even a grateful recipient can never repay.                                              Epistle 1

     In the previous post, Seneca asserted that time - while we have complete control over our own characters in any given moment - is a "fleeting and slippery possession" which can at any instant be snatched away from mortals by death. Therefore we had best take possession of our time now while we have the chance, value it, and use it fittingly.
     Few of us truly value or feel grateful and indebted for this possession. While it is true that certain base men are habitually ungrateful, most of us feel at least a little gratitude for the things we possess and receive.
     A sense of gratitude for benefits received other than time is of course honourable.  Cicero, another Roman philosopher whose ethics were akin to that of the Stoics, wrote that gratitude is the greatest of all Virtues and even the parent of all the other Virtues. Seneca himself wrote a lengthly essay on the subject of the giving and receiving of benefits, and the proper gratitude shown by recipients. Any decent human being will be grateful, either to God or to his fellow man or to both, when a benefit is done for him. Yet even the most grateful of us often forget to be grateful when we have received time, a benefit that, unlike most others done for us, can never be repaid.
     How can we show gratitude for this most precious of benefits? By using it well; that is, to use it virtuously. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Not Promised Tomorrow

All things, my Lucilius, are another's matter; our time alone is our own affair. Nature sent us into this one fleeting and slippery possession, from which anybody who wants to can cast us out.  
                                                                  Epistle 1

   Time is our own in the sense that we can choose to make proper use of it. Seneca argues frequently that life is not short, that it only seems so because we willingly waste time, and that a virtuous life can be lived just as well in a single day as in an hundred years. 
     Another man's use of his own time - even if he chooses to spend it viciously, even seeking my hurt without cause - is his own business, not mine.  Likewise, just about anything else - from the length of my life to the rising and setting of the sun to the rush hour traffic to the weather - are alien to me. How I use the time I have been allotted by Nature is my own affair. Not even the desperate junkie who puts a knife to my throat cannot rob me of my use of time - he cannot force me to spend my last seconds of my life as a coward.  
     Seneca, though, reminds us that Nature has given us a fleeting and slippery possession. That desperate junkie willing to kill for the possible pocket change I have on my person can indeed shorten my time suddenly, as can myriad other factors beyond my control. I had better, then, start living life well now, not later.  I am not promised tomorrow, or even the next second. [See also next post]