Sunday, 19 May 2013

Nobody To Blame But Ourselves

And if you would just pay attention to the cause of our loss of time, you would discover that the greatest part of our life slips away while we are doing evil, or doing nothing at all - practically our entire lives are wasted doing something other than what we should be doing.  
                                 - Epistle 1

     There was an eternity before we were born and there will be an eternity after we die.  Whether we live a hundred years longer or just one more day makes no difference.  The extra years, in the grand scheme of things, is less than a drop in a giant bucket.  How we live  our lives is what matters.  One of Plato's most famous lines, which he placed in the mouth of Socrates, was: "It is not living, but living well which is important."  Plato was not a Stoic, but his well known saying is very much a stoic sentiment.  Our own Seneca the Younger wrote: "It is not how long you live that matters, but how nobly."
     The good news is that nothing and nobody can prevent us from living nobly (or, if necessary, dying nobly).  A virtuous life is always within our grasp, whether that life be for a few hours more or for many decades more.  
     The bad news is that - although most of us have more than a few hours to live and many of us still have many decades left - most of us will waste that time just as we have always squandered our time before this moment.  We waste our time when we forget that Virtue is the only good and Vice is the only evil, and that our character is the only thing that truly belongs to us.  
     Thus, the man that lives for only one day more but lives that day virtuously has lived longer than the man who lives another sixty years but lives viciously.        

Thursday, 16 May 2013


Persuade yourself of what I write: Some moments are torn away from us, some are stolen, some vanish away. But the worst loss of time is due to our own negligence. -Epistle 1                     

     The goal of the ancient stoics was to live according to nature.  Their understanding of what "living according to nature" means, however, was vastly different than what our modern ears might imagine.  We might think it means to shun artificial social conventions; to live in the forest like animals; to reject the city life and make friends with birds and squirrels instead of people; to accept and even embrace our emotions and impulses, even our negative emotions, as natural feelings.  

     Our modern notions of living in accordance with nature could not be further removed from the ancient stoic view of nature.  Our social conventions and the personal roles they entail are not man-made, but part of the fabric of the cosmos.  For a man to fulfill his role as a man, a woman as a woman, a son as a son, a citizen as a citizen, a neighbour as a neighbour, etc - these are not artificial constructs thrust upon us by an equally artificial society, but natural relationships and duties prescribed by Nature herself.  Nature made us social animals, like bees in a hive, each with his or her own part to play (not chosen roles, but ordained roles), living in communities like men, not in the wilderness like beasts.  But the most important distinction between modern and stoic concepts of what constitutes "living in accordance with nature" are their opinions concerning the negative emotions, or the Passions.  Anger, Fear, Intemperance, self-indulgent Depression and all the other horrible Vices are not natural emotions.  They are unnatural feelings brought about by our own poor reasoning and ignorance of the true Good (Virtue) and the true Evil (Vice).  

     "The worst loss of time is due to our own negligence."  And we are negligent when we fail to live according to Nature.  Yet nothing can prevent us from doing so, except our own selves.  Our time is always our own if we choose to make it so.    

Monday, 13 May 2013

Is Life Too Short?

Gather and preserve your time - which up till now has either been carried off, been stolen or has fallen away from you.  

                                   - Epistle 1

     We hear it said often and sometimes say it ourselves that "life is short".  Many people go as far as to claim that "life is too short".
     But a constant theme of Seneca is that life is not too short at all.  In fact, he even writes an entire essay on this subject, entitled On The Shortness of Life (De Brevitate Vitae). Life is not short, he would say.  Our time is abundant, if only we know how to use it.
     Seneca has encouraged his friend to "liberate" himself (see last post). Now he instructs him to "gather and preserve" his time.  In the same manner that the Stoic understands true Freedom to be Freedom from Vice and the Liberty to be virtuous, the Stoic also knows that nothing and nobody can take his time away from him but himself.  
     How is time "carried off" from us?  When we are ruled by our Passions and not by Reason. How is time "stolen" from us? When we allow Vice to snatch moments away from Virtue.  How does time "fall away" from us?  When we become neglectful in our study of philosophy, forgetting that Virtue is the sole good and that we always have time for Her.  

Friday, 10 May 2013

Liberate Yourself for You

Emancipate yourself for yourself.                  - Epistle 1

     What is Liberty?  We talk about it often in our post-Enlightenment world.  Classical liberals might think it means not paying too much tax to the government or having the constitutional freedom to be as fanatically religious or non-religious as they choose to be.  Our modern liberals from the New Left might think it is the ability to scorn our society's time honoured traditions and be as hyper-individualistic (and, paradoxically, egalitarian) as possible.
   But what is Liberty for the stoic?  What does the stoic mean when he urges his student to free or emancipate himself for himself?  
   For the stoic, true Liberty is to be free of the things which are truly evil.  Taxes and religious oppression are not in themselves evil.  A gap between the rich and the poor is not an evil either, nor is having a passport that says you are a female when you feel like you should be a male.  
  True Liberty is freedom from Vice.  Fear, Anger, Sadness (that is, Depression), Foolishness, Intemperance, Impulsiveness, Selfishness - these are the things the Stoic emancipates himself from.  And he does it for himself, for his own sake, because it is the only thing he can do for himself. 
    Once a man has freed himself from vice, he is at liberty to be virtuous.