The trait of self-sufficiency was one that I always admired, so I felt a sense of affirmation when I read in Seneca’s letters that the good life was comprised of self-sufficiency and tranquility. Although he lists those two things separately, self-sufficiency is actually a large, necessary cause of tranquility (which is the end goal. See earlier post On Tranquility).
There are two kinds of self-sufficiency: one pertaining to the outside world and the other to the inner world of the mind. The first kind is practical and physical and means, basically, being able to take matters into your own hands effectively. I might revere that trait because I am an American and admire the iconic pioneer who set out in a covered wagon entirely self-sufficient. Of course, importing that image into the modern world too literally can lead to Jeremiah Johnson delusions: people who think they have to hunt animals, inflicting pain and suffering–as if those acts were part of any meaningful self-provision or necessity and not just plain old cruelty. For physical self-sufficiency, the paradigm for me is Aaron Ralston. Not only does he navigate in the wilderness, but, when all else fails, he cuts off his own arm, rappels down the side of a mountain, and survives.
Aside from self-sufficiency in the physical, outside world, self-sufficiency in the inner realm has even greater relevance for current, everyday life and is the trait which Seneca praised–a mind that can abide itself when left to itself. That means having inner resources, such that your tranquility is not dependent on the outside world. Seneca observed: “A man is happy when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained by a bolster is liable to fall. If this is not so, then many factors outside ourselves will begin to have power over us.” One such outside influence that we should not be dependent upon if we are to maintain our tranquility is the opinion of others. Trust to your own reason. First of all, who says that such and such other person, or group of people, is right or worthwhile. Seneca warned about heeding the mob: “It is so easy to go over to the majority. Neither become like the bad because they are many, nor hostile to the many because they are different. Retire into yourself, as far as you can. The many admire you, but do you have grounds for self-satisfaction if you are the kind of man the many understand? Your merits should face inward.” It is against the backdrop of inner self-sufficiency that Seneca offered one of my favorite phrases, which I have quoted before: “Do not ask why you learned these things; you did it for yourself.” And he reminded one of his followers of the aphorism of another philosopher, that no number of readers is necessary for a writer or thinker to be self-satisfied: “Few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.”
Even if achieving mental self-sufficiency may be challenging, is it harder than physical self-sufficiency? Regardless, it is a worthy and helpful goal to avoid being elevated or cast down by every wind that blows, since winds are always blowing. Given that the power to reason is our special gift, why sacrifice it to emotion or to others to define us or think for us. Jeremiah Johnson finds his own food, Aaron Ralston his way out of the canyon, and we our own self-worth and tranquility.
This is a great blog! I’ve been learning Latin off and on for a couple years because I want to read the classical philosophers in the original. I’ll have to pay particular attention to Seneca when I get there.
I had some similar thoughts when I read this passage in Moby Dick:
It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.
What an appropriate and great quote. Thanks for reading and for commenting.
I have always been an admirer of self-sufficiency. It creates a type of home sickness in me, in which I reminisce about my childhood on the banks of the Willamette River in the forest covered hills just outside Creswell, Oregon. I didn’t know it, at the time, but I was living a 1970’s version of Jeremiah Johnson. I still taste the wonders of adventure and peace within myself whenever I day dream about those experiences. Perhaps these experiences of the past are what makes one a writer or a poet, or maybe even a mystic. And perhaps it is why I’ve never really cared if someone found joy or inspiration in my writings. The writings are really for me. I think they are an artists rendition of things longed for but have been lost as we march further down the perceived freedom of technological wonder. But every once in a while I find a dreamy wonderer, such as myself, that reads my writings as if they are some kind of sweet meat that is no longer found at the dinner table.
The real truth is that the old saying “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” has been an ever present chapter in the story of my life. It was unbeknownst to me that my self-sufficiency would some day depart and only be seen in the pictures that were impressed on my mind at the time. Every once in a while I capture the perfection of those memories on paper, and I am reminded of what once was, but is now forever gone. And then it is brought to my attention that I am just another human being that has suffered loss, just as others have…just as great quantities of people, and nations, and tribes have lost self-sufficiency. I sometimes see myself on the river bank and then I also see a Native American who felt just as empty and sad when he/she was driven from their homeland. I see the Palestinian in the refugee camp whose pictures of the past are just as real as my own. I see the Pole who lost his homeland to the Soviet Union and had to flee the Russian armies. In a sense I guess we are connected. History and distance means nothing to home sickness, and time does not stamp it out. If there is a heaven I’m sure it will be just like my experiences on the banks of the Willamette River.
Thanks for your thoughts. I have a few reactions. I believe in writing for myself; after all, why is soemone else more important than I am and why shouldn’t the creative, edifying, and enlarging experience or writing be enough. The person who looks for affirmation and happiness in the external world and the opinions of others is going to be unhappy most of the time. As for all the suffering in the world, it is beyond comprehension, and my thnking about things that I can’t control or effect in any way is pointless thinking. Does my suffering for others in any way ease theirs? No. However, it is helpful to me to remember that we all suffer–it is the common fate of all humanity.
One last idea straight form Seneca: through the exercise of reason we can with some success make the effort to love what we have more than what we just gave up; we can realize how wonderful what we have is before it is gone, and in doing that it is useful to remember there is such a thing as death and we don’t have all the time in the world.