The Grumpy Stoic

On living the good life…

Seneca: Letter IV–On Death and Tranquility

In letter four Seneca talks about death, our fear of it, and coping with the reality of it. But first, something new and old:

From Victor J. Stenger, God and the Folly of Faith, page 290:

Twenty-five-hundred years ago the Buddha showed how to cope with the existence of suffering and death in the world. The individual must find a way to eliminate his or her ego, to cease being self-absorbed, and to realize that he or she is not the center of the universe. The problem is, this process is very difficult because we all have a consciousness that separates us from every other human in the world. Yet there can be no other way. The fact is that each of us will die, and all the evidence points to our consciousness ceasing upon death. Year by year, science extends human lifetimes, but it will never provide immortality. All we can do is accept that fact and learn to live with it.

I’ve put off writing this piece for a few months. There were other concerns, primarily about getting my home in order, redecorating, repair, cleaning out the detritus of several decades, and so on. And I sidetracked into getting back into an old hobby, amateur radio. And dealing with various health issues.

But during all that time this letter of Seneca’s lurked at the fringe of my mind. Every so often I’d reread it, think about it a bit, wonder why I wasn’t writing it. And as I have done for years I spent time contemplating my own mortality and too-soon-coming death, which was quite enough to put me off writing about the subject.

Perhaps I have made some progress.

Only make progress and you will realize that there are some things we should not fear just because they bring so much fear with them. No suffering is great if it has an end. Death is coming to you: it would have been worth fearing if it could coexist with you. But it must either not reach you, or pass you by.

Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.

He makes a good point. You live or you are dead. You can’t have both. If you are alive today you are not dead today. (I will eschew formal medical and philosophical definitions of death. You’re dead or you’re alive. If you know you’re one or the other, you’re alive.) So there’s not much point in being afraid of death. It’s coming, you’re going. Everyone is going. When you go there will be no you to give a damn. Those who are persuaded of an afterlife believe they will know something, but still, death is an irrelevance: for those, it just gets them where they’ve longed to be. For those of us not persuaded of gods and afterlives, there is nothing, and so we need not care about death.

Seneca points out that you can’t have a ‘carefree life if (you) devote too much concern to prolonging it’. He suggests considering that thought every day so that when the time comes you can die calmly, rather than ‘clutch at and hold on to [life] as someone swept away by the current clutches at thornbushes and jagged objects’.

And there’s this:

Most people are buffeted between fear of death and the agony of living; they don’t want to live and they don’t know how to die.

Living is a struggle for pretty much everyone, but to go through life afraid of dying puts a serious crimp in the part about enjoying life. Seneca suggests giving up the anxiety about death and getting on with making your life as pleasant as you can. And he notes a central tenet of Stoicism when he notes that ‘no good thing helps its possessor unless his mind is ready to lose it’. Life is no good to you if you hold it tightly. Let go. Relax. Death will find you in time no matter what.

That idea reminds me of the great 1995 crime film Heat, with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. DeNiro played the criminal mastermind. One of his guiding survival tenets was to always be prepared to walk away from everything in thirty seconds. The final time he walked away he left his girlfriend and got himself killed by Pacino.

I suppose a more prosaic image might be that of a barnacle. It holds tight to one thing its whole life. Holding on is its life. Holding to that one spot. Many people are like that about life. They miss it because they hold it so tightly.

It is foolish to hold so tightly to such a fragile thing as life. Seneca said ‘that anyone who scorns his life is the master of yours’. A lowly peasant who is willing to give up his life can kill a king. No matter how much power and money you amass, no matter how you try to make your life safe, it can be undone in an instant. An unnoticed nick of the skin lets in a bacterium and you sicken and die. Every day you are subject to a thousand things that can end you, and if not, then old age will take you. If you do get old and you still fear death you won’t enjoy whatever few pleasures may be left you.

Seneca will tell you that ‘you have been on the way to death since you were born’. No matter what, you’ll get there soon enough, so there’s no point in fearing it.

I think I have made my peace with dying. I’m getting there sooner than I might want, but I think I am less afraid of dying than I am of dying with having done so little of what I might have done, what I might have wanted to do. As with my fixing up this house the way I want it, doing away with all the accumulations of useless stuff my mother kept, getting the furniture I want, painting the walls the way I want, and so on, I want only to have the time to enjoy living in this house now. And so with my life. By Seneca’s lights I have only today, today is the rest of my life, so I’ll enjoy living here for the now that I have. It is enough, a thought which Seneca would approve.


Seneca: Letter I

This is Seneca’s first letter, which was not in the Campbell book. The translation is from Elaine Fantham in the Oxford World Classic version. I didn’t have Fantham’s book when I started, thus I am out of order. ‘Twas ever so.

In this letter Seneca responds to Lucilius’s declaration that he is determined to make the best use of his time.

Yes, do just that, dear Lucilius: liberate yourself, and gather and save up the time which until now was being taken from you by force or stealth or simply slipping away unnoticed… some periods of time are snatched from us, some are stolen, and some simply seep away. Yet the most shameful loss is the loss due to carelessness.

He goes on to say that most of life disappears into failure, much in futility, and that all is a distraction. He doesn’t elaborate on what he means by failure and futility and distraction, but I feel he’s suggesting that if we don’t pay attention to our use of time, to what we are doing, then life will simply slip away and we are likely to reach the end of it with the central question in our mind being, “Wha’ hoppen?”

Everything else is beyond our grasp, only time is ours.

And it is slippery and fleeting, akin to holding an oiled eel. Take hold of every hour, Seneca says, and use it well. Get hold of today: you can’t depend on tomorrow. And this: Dum differtur vita transcurrit. In the vernacular, ‘Life is what happens while you’re doing something else.’ To steal from French, the more things change, the more they stay the same: Seneca said his thing two thousand years ago, and it is just as valid today, perhaps more so, given the complications life is so full of in modern times.

But is time really ours? I think we might well say that time happens while we are doing something else (leaving aside the question of whether time exists, humans having confused duration with a needed concept that lacks reality). We can only control what we do, how we act. We start at point A and proceed to point B, and then the clock says an hour has passed. But the clock is simply reading out an arbitrary division of duration. What matters is what we did during that hour, and how we did it. Were we sloppy in our action and thought? Were we focused, making the best use of our minds and bodies for that hour? We can never have that hour back, not even one second of it, and we can not reclaim it later for a redo. Literally every moment of our lives is now or never.

Seneca says ‘we deceive ourselves by looking for death ahead of us, whereas a great part of death has already taken place.’ The years we’ve lived are in death’s hands.

We might expect that after forty or fifty years that thought becomes a reasonable thing. At that point life is half over, more or less. On the other hand, at the age of twenty our life might be almost one hundred percent over because tomorrow a meteor will streak from space and do us in. We just don’t know, and because we don’t know, it doesn’t matter. What we have, all we have, all we can count on, is today, right now, this minute. Knowing that gives a certain urgency to the question, “How do I want to live? What’s the best way for me to live?”

Seneca considers time a great gift. I’m not so sure. We might better think that ‘now’ is the gift. It’s all we’ve got.

Seneca: Letter III–Friendship

In this letter Seneca discusses friendship.

How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many of them could you sit with and talk about your thoughts and worries and deliberations? How many of them could you sit with in silence and be comfortable?

Seneca asks, regarding the quality of friendship, “Why should I keep back anything when I’m with a friend? Why shouldn’t I imagine I’m alone when I’m in his company?”

I’m reminded of the Finns, apparently not a talkative people, for whom it is quite normal to be able to sit for hours with another person and say nothing and feel quite comfortable.

Seneca’s approach to friendship is pragmatic. His basic rule is that you must judge people first, then decide if you want to develop a friendship. Seneca considers ‘friendship’ a serious matter.

But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship.

Seneca notes, “Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself.” That seems a tall order, particularly in the rush today where we pay more attention to distractions than to ourselves.

Seneca’s prescription carries a serious implication. If you are to develop such friendships it becomes necessary to live honestly with yourself, so that there is nothing you would hide even from an enemy.

Even so, Seneca says to avoid the bartender syndrome (though not in so many words). He notes there are people who will tell everything to any person they meet, ‘unburdening themselves of whatever is on their minds into any ear they please’. Having been a bartender, every drinker’s dearest most confidential friend, I can appreciate his thought. He also chides those who confide nothing to their friends, and want not to confide in themselves their own deep secrets. Seneca regards both of these paths as faults.

Balance is what he seeks in friendship. It would seem possible only in true friendship, certainly not in today’s shallow concept promulgated by Facebook and the like. The popular sense of friendship in the public arena is fine as long as we know what it means, and do not mistake it for the real thing.

Most of what passes for friendship these days seems to develop by accident. We become bosom buddies with people who a few days before were strangers. We share some small passion for this, that, or the other and immediately relate to another we discover sharing the same passion. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Too often it seems we become friends before we become acquaintances.

Seneca would have us withhold ourselves and wait until we can form a reasoned judgment of the character of the person, and then decide whether to form a friendship. It sounds all a bit cold, but I suspect that in the long run we would have stronger friends and friendships, perhaps even profound ones.

But it is not just that such a process is unfamiliar to most of us. It is not just that lives lived now are fraught with busyness and distractions that we allow or seek or cannot escape. I think it may also be that most people simply lack the intellectual strength and tools to engage in such a process. After all, if we judge Presidential candidates based on the cut of their hair or the size and shape of their jaw, betting the future of an entire nation on such judgment, we can hardly consider ourselves equipped to judge the character of those we would have as friends. Rather, we let people come and go through our lives, often not understanding why they arrive or why they leave. Thinking and self-reflection seem to be increasingly lost skills. I’m not sure that without them we can have friends.

One can of course object that Seneca’s prescription eliminates the flow of emotion, the rush and flood of feeling that can accompany the onset of friendships. These can be quiet or they can be raging. I think that Seneca appreciates the place of emotion in relationships, else one could not welcome someone ‘heart and soul’ into a friendship. It’s important to not let emotion be the sole or even primary driver. I think that if one starts with emotion it becomes much harder to establish and maintain a lasting relationship, whereas starting from rational faculties perhaps a more honest emotional component can take root.

Our culture mitigates against the sort of thing that Seneca promotes. We want things to happen now. We want to be liked. We want it to happen now. Americans tend not to think in terms of long time. We’re bombarded by advertising that says get it now, do it now, buy it now; that seeks to make us feel guilty if we’re not ‘pretty’ or ‘handsome’, or don’t have the latest gadget or the latest version of the latest gadget. The idea of taking time to assess whether someone would make a good friend, would be someone to trust with the mundane bits of our lives as well as the important parts, the idea of doing that just doesn’t fit into the cultural picture. Besides, we don’t have the time, do we? We have to get to the next thing we’ve been told we have to get to, that we’ve been told is important.

A cynic might say that American life is simply a series of one-night stands with advertiser’s fantasies. The truth might be that American life is closer to a series of two-minute stands.

The good life takes time and thought, and despite all the shiny things the corporate fantasists offer, the one thing they don’t want you to have is time: time to think, time to reflect, time to judge.

Step back. Think. Seek balance. Your friends will last longer.

Seneca: Letter II

There is considerable material available about Seneca’s life and I won’t delve into it other than to say he was a high-ranking Roman who acted in effect as Emperor during the first few years of Nero’s reign, restraining the worst impulses of the young Emperor and doing a good job of governing along with his military counterpart, an army officer called Burrus. Their work was considered by many to be the finest governance of Imperial Rome, until Burrus was murdered and Nero took over. Seneca lived in dangerous times and survived a good long while.

The text I’m using for now is from the Penguin Classics series, titled Seneca: Letters from a Stoic, translated by Robin Campbell, published in 1969, ISBN:978-0140442106. The letters were written in the last year or so of Seneca’s life and were directed to Lucilius Junior, procurator in Sicily, essentially a high ranking civil servant. They are considered more a statement of his beliefs than meant as actual letters in a correspondence.

Campbell includes only 40 of the 124 letters, selecting those he considered most germane and illustrative as he attempted to weed out those that were repetitive. He starts with Letter 2, which I’ll use in this post. Somewhere in the pipeline that delivers books to me is a later translation containing more of the letters.

In this post I’ve copied the whole letter to provide a sense of Seneca’s style. In the future I’ll excerpt and paraphrase.

The letter follows, interspersed with commentary:

Judging from what you tell me and from what I hear, I feel that you show great promise. You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

Much of this letter strikes me as completely relevant to life today in Western technological civilization. Consider that the order of the day seems to be distraction, to distract oneself as much as possible with the latest toys, or with bigger and better toys. Television is the most obvious candidate, and ironically rather than unsettling yourself with one move after another television makes it possible to unsettle yourself without lifting more than a finger to push a button on the remote control. I know. I’ve been there until recently. Four or five months ago I quit television, cancelled the cable, took the batteries out of the remote, and I haven’t looked back. But it isn’t just television.

I see people jogging or running to get their exercise, or working out in the gym, and in their ears sit the ubiquitous earplugs to music devices, and on their faces a blank stare.

I see people with telephones stuck in their ear, or holding them to their ear while driving or shopping or walking about.

And there is also the wealth of distraction available on our computers. The world wide web! The whole world at your fingertips. More than you might ever want to know about anything.

And none of this is enough, it seems. People seem always to want more: the latest, the fastest, the shiniest. And still it’s not enough.

I remember days when I would spend hours watching television, not really enjoying it other than in scattered moments, and yet not wanting to turn it off, not able to take my eyes and my scattered mind away from the images, from the stories, from even the things that made me angry. But at some point it came time to push the button and stop the noise, and in that moment I would feel alone, disconnected, and more, I would feel suddenly connected with myself. It was a disconcerting feeling.

The sounds and sights actually, I think, stopped my brain from functioning normally. Thoughts quite literally did not have time to fully form before being pushed out to make room for a new image, a new sound. And when the box went dead at the end of the day, my brain would quite literally find itself gasping for what passes for breath in its tissues and synapses.

I think it is much the same, to some degree or other, with those who must have music in their ears when running or doing whatever else; and with the phone as constant companion; and with hours spent working the internet. If you turn all those things off in your life, if you do that and sit still in a chair, in silence, alone, you confront what you can never escape, what you can only hide and suppress: yourself. If you cannot spend time with yourself, you can’t learn anything. You can’t reflect on the world, on your place in it, on the wonders of it.

The distractions in Seneca’s time were, I suspect, not as pernicious as ours today, but it was certainly possible to flit from one thing to another, one relationship to another, one home to another, one acquaintance to another, one place to another, in a quest to, consciously or not, avoid one’s own company. I wonder whether if they had television Rome would not have fallen sooner and farther than it did.

I take from what he says here a thought along these lines: If you don’t listen to your thoughts, to yourself, if you don’t make time to do that in a serious way, how can you know who you are, or what is of true value in your life? Nobody can tell you these things.

Be careful, however, that there is no element of discursiveness and desultoriness about this reading you refer to, this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships.

Seneca’s prescription here seems to be to focus, to go deep into a few things rather than skim the surface of many things. He specifies books, but I think his thought is applicable even more so today. We get buried under surfaces presented via modern media, and seldom get depth, and that only whatever depth the media purveyors choose. Horatio Alger said to go west. Seneca is saying go deep.

And the last sentence of that paragraph? It could well apply to venues like Facebook, could it not? To have ten thousand friends and to know no one. More surface. No depth.

The same must needs be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, playing flying visits to them all. Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over it if it being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong. Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing. A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read. And if you say, ‘But I feel like opening different books at different times’, my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.

Oh, that stings!

I have a book obsession. I love having them around me. And I’ve managed to amass at least three thousand, likely more, books. I buy them because I’m interested in the subjects, or I like to have a complete set of something or other, or because a given book is simply so aesthetically pleasing in design and feel. They range from thrillers by Furst, Sandford, and Burke, to the complete works of Aristotle in two hefty volumes in dark blue dust covers. Most of what I have are first edition hardcovers, and I protect the covers with a study cellophane and paper cover called Durafold.

And yes I do like to browse through them, to hold them, to run my fingers over the type, and even to sniff them to smell the ink.

Reading, however, is quite a different matter. When I was young I could easily read three or four novels a week, and often took my shots at substantive works – Don Quixote, for example. My teachers seemed to think I was cheating somehow, reading cribs instead of actual texts. But I never did that. I went after the real thing.

But now I can’t read that much, not even close. My reading synapses have slowed down, I tire considerably more easily, I have to work harder to understand what I’m reading. So the chance of getting through all my books in the time I have left? Zero.

So yes, my books have gotten in my way, nutritionally speaking, and I am guilty of doing what Seneca says not to do, and I will continue to carry on as I have. I will still enjoy the company of books and I will still read and barring accident or mischance, my books will, after I’m gone, find a home in a good public library or a good home in a good home.

I have to add that when I walk into a home where books are absent I feel as if I have walked into a cold storage locker from which all the food has been removed and only barren shelves and flat white walls are left, along with the chill that goes right to the bone.

Recently I refurbished my living room and moved into it well over a thousand books, as well as a couple of wonderful big chairs of rattan from Pier One and some colorful quilting and curtains. I would have no problem dying in that room, surrounded by my books.

So here I am not with Seneca, though some part of me would dearly love to be. I recognize now, and have recognized for years, my own shallowness in this matter, but I am also shallow enough to embrace it. My books are dear to me.

Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day. This is what I do myself; out of the many bits I have been reading I lay hold of one. My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus (yes, I actually make a practice of going over to the enemy’s camp – by way of reconnaissance, not as a deserter!). ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honourable state.’ But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.

Seneca is encouraging the Stoic practice of each night reflecting on the day’s events and trying to learn something from them that will improve your life, your relations with life. It means, of course, making the time to do that rather than just collapsing into bed after a thrilling evening of channel hopping on the television.

His final question, and the answer he gives, would certainly find relevance in today’s world, where everyone seems to want more and more, and the more they gather the less they have of value. But his comment also points at another factor important to Stoics, and that is to find pleasure in what you have while you have it, and not worry after what you do not have, or what others have. He’s asking us to find our own answer to the questions, ‘What is essential?’ and ‘What is enough?’

Which brings us around to turning off the television and the music player and the cellphone and listening to ourselves.


Stoicism: All I Know Now

Here’s roughly what I remember, just off the top of my head, from reading Irvine’s ‘A Guide To The Good Life’ several months ago. I’m not pretending to be totally accurate in recall or description here, just priming the pump, as it were.

Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions. It is not about appearing stoic in the common sense of the word.

It is about living a good life, and maintaining tranquility, about not allowing the events of life to control your life. It’s about enjoying life, about taking joy in living.

For example, if someone close to you dies, if you don’t look at the situation closely you may well be overtaken by grief for far longer than you need be. If you are grieving and wailing and wearing black for any length of time, who are you doing that for? The dead person? He has no idea what you’re doing. He doesn’t exist anymore, in an absolute sense, or if your religious dogma prescribes it, in the place where he has gone he isn’t hearing you. Your grief does him no good, and it does you no good. Rather than living, rather than being here and doing what needs doing, you are wasting your life and you are keeping yourself in a state of upset, or, if you  like, intranquility (okay, I made that word up).

The Stoics propose, essentially, the examined life. Ask what is happening. Ask why it’s happening. Examine your reactions. Learn to make them appropriate to what you need to maintain tranquility and continue to live the good life.

The ‘good life’ doesn’t mean pursuit of the latest flat screen TV. It means living an active intellectual and emotional life in pursuit of living well emotionally and intellectually. Decide what’s good and pursue it, but don’t let the pursuit control you. Whatever you do in life, be in control of it.

But also learn to recognize that there are things you cannot control and that there is no point in fuming about them or trying to control them.

And recognize that there are some things that you can control and you need to recognize what they are and how best to manage them.

And there are some things that you can control in part but not in full. You do what you can.

Which is not to say that it’s all very simple. It isn’t, or everyone would live that way. But the Stoics did develop psychological techniques to help them live well.

One example counsels the fearful Stoic to imagine losing everything. Wealth, home, family, the works. And then think of what you have. You would still be alive. Even if you lose your health, you may still have your mental faculties (of course if you lose those no philosophy on earth can reach you or help you – nothing’s perfect).

The idea of this technique is to be aware of the worst sorts of things that might happen, that you fear, and to consider them in full. Instead of crying ‘Woe is me’ you take stock of what you do have. Enjoy what you have while you have it, and don’t bemoan it when it is gone. Something like Buddhist nonattachment.

Stoics also suggest voluntarily submitting yourself to hardship in order to be better prepared should you face such difficulties.

You might try sleeping on a hard floor for a night or two. Then you’ll know what that feels like and thus be better prepared should a situation arise. Or go without food for a day to learn what hunger feels like and be better prepared for it.

These are just samples of Stoic techniques. The key to them is that they are reality based. They’re about the real world, the here and now, and they’re about handling the most difficult times with equanimity. With balance.

Stoicism is demanding in the sense that any serious philosophy of life is demanding. It requires present moment mindfulness and awareness of self and the world. It discounts the past, which no longer exists, and the future, which does not yet exist and is beyond your control. It doesn’t deny religion – the two can be compatible – nor does it require religion. On the other hand, relying on the supernatural does, in my view, weaken the sense of personal responsibility that Stoicism promotes. Stoicism is not about denying emotion: it’s more about integrating reason and emotion, giving reason the upper hand.

In my discussions here I am coming from the perspective of an atheist, atheism roughly defined as believing that there is no supernatural agency at work in the universe, and that this life is the only one we get. There is no afterlife. There is no god. There is nothing mystical about life, about being alive. We can make our lives, or allow the world to unmake them.

To be clear, I’m not interested in theological discussions about whether a god exists, but discussing the interaction of Stoicism and religion is fine.

My current thinking on an approach is to work through the Roman Stoics chronologically, starting with Seneca (1 – 65 CE), followed by Musonius (20/30 – 101 CE), Epictetus (55 – 135 CE), and Marcus Aurelius (121 –180 CE). After that I will retire to a cave and happily read Harry Potter novels.

In Search of Tranquility

Truth to tell I haven’t decided how to approach what I want to do here yet. The fundamental thrust is that I want to explore Stoicism as a way to live, and perhaps open a dialog with others interested.

I first got interested when I came across a little book by William B. Irvine titled A Guide To The Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy. The title struck me as quite at odds with my conception of Stoicism, or what little conceiving I had done of it. Stoic joy? But weren’t they a cheerless lot, grumpy, emotionless? Turns out it’s not so. Stoics were, and are, in fact, into tranquility, which is a different matter altogether.

First a word on Irvine. He is a Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He is balding, graying, bearded, and wears wire rim glasses, and in his book photo wears a turtleneck shirt. In all, he looks like a professor of philosophy. Or English. Or engineering. Professorial, in any event, though he could as well be a carpenter.

He writes well. His prose is clear, clean, energetic, not at all academic. He is, if you will, an easy read though his subject is meaty. And he is a practicing Stoic.

A central point that he makes at the beginning of the book is that philosophy today bears little resemblance to its ancestral root in Ancient Greece. Philosophers today, at least in academia, may find their careers devoted to parsing the word ‘the’ in sentences variously structured. I exaggerate, but philosophy does float in an arcane atmosphere that bears very little, if at all, on our lived lives. Irvine points out that philosophy back in the days of the Greeks was geared towards how to live life, to live a good life, and it was not theoretical cloud gazing. Those gentlemen came up with techniques and methods, practical things to do to tread successfully through the minefields of the human mind and lived lives. Irvine covers a number of these in his book, and does a good job of explaining Stoicism and showing how it is a valid lifestyle for today.

Irvine’s book by itself will give you a clean and clear understanding of the philosophy. You might not need any other source to decide if it is for you. On the other hand he generously references the classical Stoics – Marcus Aurelius, Musonius, Epictetus, and Seneca. But you need not read them to understand the philosophy.

I, on the other other hand, generally have gone out of my way my entire life to make my life difficult, usually unknowingly. Regarding this blog, I could simply explicate Irvine here and relate what he says to my life. But there’s little point to that. He’s done a nice job. What I have in mind, and yet have not fully decided to do, is to read the ancients (in translation – I’m not a masochist, though I dabble in the two languages at issue), and talk about them here. That is definitely the harder road, and I am assuredly not equipped with the intellectual tools to do that exploration with any ease. Which may be a good reason to attempt it.

Or I could just bunk the whole idea, re-read Irvine, and work the philosophy, thus depriving the world of my brilliant insights and stellar writing. Right.

There are a couple of obstacles of the moment (or longer). I’m getting old, getting slow, and my brain is probably shrinking, as old brains are wont to do. But that’s an impediment in everything I do anymore. But I do less these days, and do it more slowly. It takes me a couple of days, at least, to parse and understand the philosophical concept of necessary and sufficient conditions, whereas years ago I might have understood it quickly. Of course I find that I want to thoroughly understand such a thing before I move ahead in the philosophy textbook I’m currently using, so I may be slowing myself down unnecessarily. The other current obstacle is my cat, Binky, the oldest of the four I have left. I just found out that her kidneys are failing, and that has entailed considerable anxiety and sadness, which, given my rather slow lifestyle, tends to chew up a considerable amount of mental and emotional resources, and to diminish my ability to concentrate my thoughts to focus on the more ephemeral elements, such as a blog about Stoicism.

So, I have some decisions to make on how to proceed here, and as soon as I make them, I’ll begin. It could be soon. Or not. If you’re interested I hope you’ll bear with me. My blogs don’t always pan out, I realize, having allowed some to peter out, possibly before their time. Always an adventure.

Be calm, it’ll be here soon…

There’ll be a post here soon, or soonish, introducing the blog and all that good stuff. I’m just procrastinating for the moment while I wait for my mind to put things together.

Post Navigation