Stoic Serenity 4.5: “Woe is Me” Exercise

Over the course of chapter 4 of Stoic Serenity, we’ve examined the Stoic concepts of matter, God, and Fate. An (extremely) quick review:

matter – that which comprises the Universe. The Stoics were monists, believing that only one type of matter existed in the Universe. (God, Fate, myself, are all part of this matter that pervades the Universe).

God – the single matter, intelligence, reason that pervades the entire Universe. Individual people’s minds are simply “fragments of God.” Evident in everything from reason to nature itself.

Fate – one in the same with God, and therefore, with matter. Everything in the Universe is bound up and interrelated. Seen as a complex web that has been in the process of being spun since eternity, resulting in the current moment of who I am and what my life is like. “Prescribed” for me individually by the Universe.


Runaway Slaves

These are pretty abstract ideas, but hopefully you’ve gotten a grasp of what the ancient Stoics believed in. Before we finish chapter 4, we have a couple of exercises to complete regarding the nature of the Universe. Today we read Letter 107 from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. In it, Lucilius’ slaves have apparently run away, and Lucilius is throwing himself a big pity party. Seneca writes him some words of advice, hopefully to knock some sense back into him.

So your slaves ran away? $h!t happens.

So your slaves ran away? $h!t happens.

Where’s your common sense? Where’s your skill in analyzing things? Where’s that greatness of soul? Are you telling me that you are tormented by a petty problem? So while you were absorbed in your work, your slaves decided to take advantage of the opportunity and run away. Well, if your friends deceived you (by all means, let’s refer to your slaves as “friends,” even though we were mistaken to call them such, so that they may be even more shamed because they have not acted as such “friends”)—if your friends, I repeat, deceived you, all your affairs would lack something. As it is, you are only missing out on men who damaged your plans and considered you a nuisance to your neighbors. None of this is unusual or unexpected. It’s nonsense to be so put off by such events, like complaining about being splattered with street grime or being splashed with mud. The program of life is the same as that of a public bath, a crowd, or a journey: sometimes things will be thrown at you, and sometimes they will strike you by accident. Life is not a dainty business. You have started on a long journey; you are bound to slip, collide, fall, become weary, and cry out: “Oh for Death!” —or in other words, tell lies. One moment you will leave a friend behind you, at another moment you will bury someone, and at another moment, you will be apprehensive. Over these types of stumblings you must travel out this rugged journey of life.

Does anyone wish to die? Prepare your mind to meet everything. Let your mind know that it has reached the heights around which the thunder plays. Let it know that it has arrived where—

Grief and avenging Care have prepared their bed,
And pallid sickness dwells, and drear Old Age.

Avoid-Negative-Imagery

You can’t avoid bad things, but you can prepare your mind to face them. Because you *will* face them.

You must spend your days with such company as this. You cannot avoid them, but you can despise them. And you will despise them if you take time to anticipate the future regularly. Everyone can courageously approach a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and he withstands hardships if he has practiced how to meet such hardships. In contrast, the unprepared are panic-stricken even by petty things. We must see to it that nothing unexpected comes upon us. And because everything is more serious when it is unfamiliar, regular reflection of these things will give you the power to act as someone who is experienced, no matter what evil may come your way.

pedestrians-400811_640

“Woe is me” isn’t going to cut it. Do you know how many people have come and gone on this earth before you? And every single one of them had to deal with this thing called “life.”

“My slaves have run away from me!” Yes, and other men have been robbed, blackmailed, killed, berated, stamped under foot, attacked by poison or by slander. No matter how terrible you think your current lot, it has already happened to many others before you. Let me remind you that there are a million types of missiles which can be hurled at us. Some are planted within us, some are being brandished and are on the way at this very moment. Some missiles which were destined for other people end up grazing us instead. We shouldn’t be surprised at this sort of condition we are born into, and no one should complain about it, simply because everyone has to experience it. Yes, I said everyone; for a person might have experienced even that which he has escaped. And the same law holds true, not of that which all have experienced, but of that which is laid down for all. Be sure to prescribe for your mind this sense of equity; we should pay the tax of our mortality without complaint.

Winter brings on cold weather; therefore we must shiver.
Summer returns with its heat; we must sweat.
Unseasonable weather disturbs our health; and we must become ill.

In certain places we may come across wild animals, or men who are more destructive than any wild beast. Floods and fires will cause us loss. We cannot change this order of things; but what we can do is strengthen our hearts to be worthy of good men, thus we courageously endure chance and place ourselves in harmony with Nature. And Nature moderates this world-kingdom which you see, by her changing seasons: clear weather follows cloudy skies; after a calm comes the storm; the winds blow by turns; day follows night; some heavenly bodies rise while others set. Eternity consists of opposites.

Our souls must adjust themselves to the nature of this law. This is the law they should follow; this is the law they should obey. No matter what happens, assume that it was bound to happen, and don’t allow yourself to become angry with Nature. It is best to simply endure that which you cannot change, and to willingly attend to the God under whose guidance everything progresses; for only a bad soldier grumbles when following his commander. This is why we should welcome our orders with energy and vigor, and we should not cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven.

Let us address Jupiter, the pilot of this world-mass, just as Cleanthes did in those eloquent lines—lines which I shall allow myself to write in Latin, after the example of the eloquent Cicero. If you like the words, then make the most of them. If they displease you, then you will at least understand that I’ve simply been following the practice of Cicero:

A great soul is one that accepts the nature of the Universe. Don’t go against reality by trying to change something that is bigger than you before you even change yourself.

Lead me, Oh Master of the lofty heavens,
My Father, wherever you wish.
I shall not hesitate, but obey with speed.
And though I would not, I shall go and suffer,
In sin and sorry what I might have done
In noble virtue. Yes, Fate leads
The willing soul, but the unwilling soul drags along.

So let us live in this manner, and speak in this manner. Let Fate find us ready and alert. Here is your great soul—the man who has given himself over to Fate. In contrast, the man who struggles and slanders the order of the Universe is weak and corrupt. He would rather reform God than to reform himself. Farewell.


Themes from Seneca’s Letter 107

  • “According to Nature” / “Nature of the Universe”
    • Over these types of stumblings you must travel out this rugged journey of life.
    • No matter how terrible you think your current lot, it has already happened to many others before you. Let me remind you that there are a million types of missiles which can be hurled at us.
    • Our souls must adjust themselves to the nature of this law.
    • We should welcome our orders with energy and vigor, and we should not cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven.
    • Here is your great soul—the man who has given himself over to Fate. In contrast, the man who struggles and slanders the order of the Universe is weak and corrupt.
  • What is in our power?
    • We cannot change this order of things; but what we can do is strengthen our hearts to be worthy of good men
  • Fate
    • we should not cease to follow the natural course of this most beautiful universe, into which all our future sufferings are woven.
    • Here is your great soul—the man who has given himself over to Fate. In contrast, the man who struggles and slanders the order of the Universe is weak and corrupt.
  • Misfortune
    • Sometimes things will be thrown at you, and sometimes they will strike you by accident.
  • Negative Visualization
    • Prepare your mind to meet everything.
    • You will despise them if you take time to anticipate the future regularly. Everyone can courageously approach a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and he withstands hardships if he has practiced how to meet such hardships.

We’ve already discussed these themes. If you need refreshers, or can’t quite see how they tie in to the letter/concept, click on the theme and you will be directed to that theme’s original post earlier in the course.


Assignment!

  • Imagine that you are Lucilius and you’ve just received this letter from Seneca. Write a letter in reply thanking him and clarifying his advice to you. Tell Seneca what you think of the advice and how you will apply it to your life starting today.
  • According to this letter and our previous lessons, how does the Stoic make sure that nothing ever takes him or her by surprise? What is the technique called, what does it entail, and do you think it is effective? How?
  • Towards the end of the letter (fourth-to-last paragraph, beginning with “Our souls must adjust themselves to the nature of this law. This is the law they should follow; this is the law they should obey“), Seneca starts to make a bit of a military metaphor for accepting the nature of the Universe. How does this metaphor work?

It might seem silly, but please do take the time to write out responses to these questions somewhere. Our minds process concepts better when we write ideas out. Instead of putting yourself in the Lucilius’ shoes, you might consider an event that has gone wrong in your own life recently. What do you think Seneca would say to you? What will you do with his advice?

That’s it for today. We’ll complete the final assignment for chapter 4 tomorrow.

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