Stoic Serenity 3.1: “Live Simply” and “Live According to Nature”

If you’ve been following along with a Stoic Serenity blog post per day, you should be writing Power Log #6 this evening. Tomorrow is the last Power Log for the course. Have you noticed any change? I personally haven’t gotten so far as to think through this stuff before an activity, but I have noticed that my responses have changed, and I’m beginning to identify more subtle emotions inside myself.

Seddon encourages us to remember that we are currently in the first steps of making Stoic progress. Yes, you’ve read all the lessons, you’ve done all the assignments. You know the answers to What is good? What is an indifferent? What is in my power? What is not in my power? How do I protect my equanimity while going about my daily affairs? You’ve read Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. But nothing is actually changing! We still go around pursuing what we know by definition are “indifferents,” yet we continue to treat them as if they were just as desired as the Values. Where’s the “Stoic serenity” that was promised? If we’re going through all this work to perfect our characters and live by the Virtues, what’s in it for us? What’s the benefit of it?

Our lesson today consists of:

  1. What’s my reward for being Virtuous?
  2. How should a person “live simply”?
  3. What does “live according to Nature” mean? (a couple of personal anecdotes to demonstrate what Stoic principles might look like in real life. 🙂 )

What’s my reward for being Virtuous?

What’s our reward for seeking Virtue?

If a person acts Virtuously, what does he gain?

What benefit does a person gain from having written the name “Dion” correctly? The benefit of having written it.

Is there no further reward, then?

Do you seek any greater reward for a Virtuous person beyond accomplishing what is virtuous and right?

(Epictetus, Discourses 3.24.51)

“What shall I gain,” you ask, “if I do something good?” The gain of having done it. That is your reward; you are promised nothing else. Consider it an extra if any profit comes your way. The payment for virtuous deeds lies in the deeds themselves.

(Seneca, On Benefits 4.1.3)

Whenever you have done a good deed and another has gained some good from it, why do you seek a third reward in addition? You are acting just like foolish people do, wanting to become known for having done something good, or expecting to be granted something good in return.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.73)

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Eyes are meant for seeing. Feet are meant for walking. Humans are meant for doing Good.

Most importantly, when you condemn somebody for disloyalty or ingratitude, turn your attention to yourself; because the fault is clearly your own. At some point you made a mistake, whether it was trusting that such a man would keep his word; or that when you did a favor, you failed to grant it unconditionally and believed that you would immediately reap your full reward from the very action itself. Tell me, when you’ve done a good thing, what more do you want? Isn’t it enough that by doing the good thing, you have acted according to your own nature? Do you really need to go on to seek a reward simply for acting according to your own nature? It is just as if the eye sought compensation for seeing, or the feet sought payment for walking. For just as these were made to perform a particular function, and, by performing it according to their own constitution, gain in full what is due to them. So likewise, a human being is formed by nature to benefit others. And when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for, and has what is properly his.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.42 [last paragraph])

These previous passages showed us what the Stoics thought of seeking some type of reward for being Virtuous. All three ancient Stoics we’ve studied thus far seem to have clearly agreed: Virtue is in and of itself, Good. It’s both what you do and what you seek. The end.

I see in myself, Lucilius, not just an improvement but a transformation, although I would not be so bold as to assure you, or even hope, that there is nothing left in me needing to be changed. Naturally there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or thinned down or eliminated.

(From Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 6 “On Sharing Knowledge”)

Seneca knew that the process of “transforming” ourselves is a long-term one. It will probably be an ongoing project our entire lifetime.

The perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even the beginnings of wisdom make life bearable.

(From Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter 16 “On Sharing Knowledge”)

Because we’ve only just begun our Stoic walks, it seems we’ll just have to trust that Seneca knew what he was talking about and hang in there for a while until we begin seeing more results.


Live Simply

Below is Seneca’s Letter 5 “On the Philosopher’ Mean”. You can read or listen to it here. As always, I’ve changed the language at some points below in an effort to aid comprehension.

I applaud you and rejoice that you are persistent in your studies, and that despite everything else, you endeavor each day to become a better person. I don’t merely encourage you to continue like this; I actually beg you to. Let me warn you, however, not to act like those who want to gain attention and be noticed rather than focus on improving themselves. Don’t go around seeking compliments over your philosopher’s clothing or your general way of living. Don’t attempt to draw attention to yourself with offensive clothing, unkempt hair, scruffy beard, publicly announcing how you scorn fine china, sleeping on the ground, and any other wicked forms of self-display. Philosophy already receives enough scorn even when it is pursued quietly. So what will it look like when we start to separate ourselves from the customs of society? The transformation will appear inwardly. We ought to be different in all respects on the inside. But our exterior should still conform to society. Don’t wear velvet suits, but don’t wear potato sacks either. We know that there’s truly no need for fine china; but we also should not fool ourselves into thinking that crude and primitive dishes are proof of the simple life. Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the masses, but not a contrary standard. Otherwise, we’ll scare away and repel the very people we are trying to improve. It would also perhaps result in people unwilling to follow our example in anything because they are afraid that they will need to follow our exact example in everything.

The first goal of philosophy is to lead us to feel empathy and compassion with all humans. In other words, we seek to develop sympathy and sociability. We deviate from our promise if we separate ourselves so far from other humans. We must seek to ensure that the means by which we wish to draw respect and approval are not absurd and obnoxious. You know our motto: “Live according to Nature.” But it’s quite contrary to nature to torture the body, to hate elegance that has not been worked for, to be intentionally filthy, to eat food that is not only plain flavor but actually disgusting. Just as it’s a sign of luxury to seek out rare and superfluous material things, so it is a sign of madness if a person goes about avoiding whatever is necessary and can be purchased for a decent price. Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for self-punishment. We are perfectly capable of being both plain and tidy at the same time. This is a method of which I approve: our life should display a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of society. It should be a life that the average person not only can admire, but also understand.

“So should we act like the rest of society then? Should we blend in with the rest of the world?” No! There should be a very great distinction between ourselves and the world. People should be able to look more closely and see that we are not like the common herd. If they visit our home and come to admire something, they should admire our characters rather than our household belongings. It is not that fancy belongings are themselves the problem. Consider this thought: A man is great if he uses clay dishes as if they were fine silver; but a man is equally great if he uses fine silver dishes as if they were simply made of clay. Riches and luxury are not the problem in themselves. In fact, it’s a sign of an unstable mind if a person is not able to tolerate living with riches.

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We humans torture ourselves with both the past and the future.

But I also want to share this with you: I find in the writings of our fellow philosopher Hecato that the limiting of desires also helps to cure fears: “Cease to hope, and you will cease to fear,” he says. But I know what you will think next: “How can things that are so different from each other go side by side?” My dear Lucilius, they seem to be very different from each other, but they are actually united. Just as the same chain links the prisoner to the prison guard, so hope and fear, as different as they are from each other, are also chained together and keep step together; fear follows hope. I’m not surprised that they go together this way; each of them belong to a mind that lives in suspense, a mind that is worried and anxious by looking forward to the future. But the main cause of both these ills is that we don’t adapt and keep ourselves in the present. Instead, we send our thoughts a thousand miles ahead. In this way, foresight, the crown blessing of the human race, becomes corrupted. Animals avoid the dangers which they see standing right in front of them. And when they have escaped from the danger, they are free from care. But we humans torture ourselves with both the future and the past! Many of our blessings end up bringing us misery; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them. But the pure present that we experience in each individual moment is incapable of making anyone miserable. Farewell.

So many gems from this passage!:

  • So what will it look like when we start to separate ourselves from the customs of society? The transformation will appear inwardly.
  • The first goal of philosophy is to lead us to feel empathy and compassion with all humans.
  • Live according to Nature.”
  • Just as it’s a sign of luxury to seek out rare and superfluous material things, so it is a sign of madness if a person goes about avoiding whatever necessary and can be easily purchased for a decent price.
  • Our life should display a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of society.
  • If they visit our home and come to admire something, they should admire our characters rather than our household belongings.
  • A man is great if he uses clay dishes as if they were fine silver; but a man is equally great if he uses fine silver dishes as if they were simply made of clay.
  • We send our thoughts a thousand miles ahead. In this way, foresight, the crown blessing of the human race, becomes corrupted.
  • Animals avoid the dangers which they see standing right in front of them. And when they have escaped from the danger, they are free from care. But we humans torture ourselves both the future and the past!
  • Many of our blessings end up bringing us misery; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them.

I think Seneca spoke fairly clearly in this letter, and so it doesn’t need much further explanation. If the letter could be summed up in a single excerpt, I’d say this:

A man is great if he uses clay dishes as if they were fine silver; but a man is equally great if he uses fine silver dishes as if they were simply made of clay.

What Seneca is saying is that while society has taught us to view material things as valuable, we might fall to the misconception that material things are evil. But both of them are incorrect! Remember our first chapter? Seneca really works the topic inside and out to get the idea across that material things are indifferentThe goal is to not let material things affect the mind. We want to release our minds from being slaves to these things. But if you go around absurdly throwing away regular goods, or even luxurious things, you might be attempting to free your mind from the desire of luxury, but you’ve simply redirected your mind to become the slave of poverty. Do you understand now how these things are truly indifferent?


So if we’re not supposed to go out and buy Ferraris and we’re not supposed to wear potato sacks, what can we actually do to teach ourselves that these things are indifferent?

The way to begin is simple—it doesn’t require acquiring or throwing out anything.

  • Think of an item you own that you really like (and maybe even feel a little protective of). Perhaps its your car, or your new dining table, or a beautiful dish someone brought you back from Greece.
  • Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to smash it in to pieces. 🙂
  • Imagine a scenario in which the beloved object is harmed: someone dinged the side of your car door in the parking lot; the kids accidentally scratched the feet of the dining table with the vacuum; the dish develops a chip.
  • How do you react in the scenario? Do you cry? Does your heart start pounding? Do you yell at the kids? Do you fretfully inspect the damage to see if there’s any chance it can be salvaged?
  • Your reaction indicates how you value the object. Seneca would likely say that your reaction should be, well, a non-reaction.

Don’t cry over spilled milk.

I spent three years working with refugees, often driving them to medical appointments and such during their first 12 weeks in the United States. Some of them had never ridden in a car before, but they admired vehicles. Many of my clients would sit inside my car for the first time and compliment the vehicle. On a couple of occasions, however, when the client would go to get out of the car, they would swing the door open forcefully without regard to whether there was another vehicle parked close by. As soon as they heard the thud of the door making contact with the adjacent vehicle, they looked horrified. Luckily enough, on each occasion, as I went over to check the adjacent vehicle: no damage. On my own vehicle: big huge scratch. My reaction? As they looked on at the car door mortified, I said cheerfully, “It’s ok! Don’t worry about it. Have a good day!”

Am I crazy? Do I think we shouldn’t take care of our belongings? No. But an accident doesn’t equal vice within the person. And things are just things. My car is just a car, and cars are prone to damage. That’s the nature of things. Should I dwell on what just happened? Should I fret and make my stomach churn as I replay the past a thousand times in my head? No. Seneca’s point is that my car itself isn’t bad. But if I’m going to really think it’s important, and therefore lose sleep over it, then it’s causing me harm: I’ve become a slave to my car. But if I get rid of my car and preach that cars are terrible things because they make us worry, well, I haven’t gotten the point then either.

  • Imagine your scenario a second time. But this time, imagine that you handle the situation well. (“Oh well, a thing is just a thing. And the nature of physical objects is that they are prone to physical damage.”)
  • Congratulations. You’ve just participated in negative visualization.

Live According to Nature

Seneca’s final point in the letter also speaks to me:

Many of our blessings end up bringing us misery; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them.

When we buy expensive items, the potential danger to their condition not only makes us fearful, but it can spoil the blessings themselves. Consider this next personal anecdote:

Don’t let your blessings bring you misery.

One day my mother opened up her jewelry box in order to wear her diamond stud earrings. But one of the earrings was missing! “Why would only one be missing?” she lamented. She searched the surrounding floor and methodically looked through her jewelry box. An hour passed, and with a red face full of tears, she cried, “I just feel so bad because Dad bought these for me for an anniversary gift. I know they were really expensive, and it was so nice of him to do for me.”

“Mom,” I said. “Dad didn’t get you those earrings so that you would cry about them in the future. He gave them to you because he wanted them to bring you happiness.”

As you walk away today, the key points to take with you are:

  • We seek to be Virtuous simply because that is our nature.
  • Don’t allow yourself to become a slave to possessions NOR a slave to poverty.—Live simply.
  • Accept the nature of the past, present, and future. Both the future and the past are beyond our control. Don’t let your inability to let go of them ruin your blessings in life.—Live according to Nature.

Your challenge now is to keep these nuggets of wisdom regarding material possessions stored in the back of your mind, ready to spring forward to keep you in check whenever one of your prized possessions ends up damaged somehow.

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