December 4, 2013
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Dear Seneca, or should I say, “Salve Magister,”
You have on many occasions given Stoic advice through letters to friends, so perhaps I might impose upon you with my own particular difficulty in achieving the tranquility that is the Stoic goal. I have no philosophical school where I can gather with young and old students of philosophy under a columned portico, as you have, to refine or rehearse my philosophy. I have only your essays and letters to read and, I might add, the book of one other acolyte: a tidy and modern compendium of Stoic thought that is helpful. You, unlike him, however, seem genuinely interested in helping others create their own Stoicism: to develop the faculty of reason as the tool to blunt the brutality of negative and excessive emotion, curtail pointless thinking, vitiate the power of external events, and find the present moment satisfactory.
So what is my problem? It is one of practice more than of understanding. I am too often at the whim of external events and I am at times at a loss to keep my thoughts from wandering into the past and future with painful consequences. As for the first, I suffer too much my external losses more than I am jubilant about any external gratifications. Actually, I have few gratifications and minimal expectations, so going overboard with joy is less of a concern than withstanding the blows that fate has handed to me. With regard to my thoughts drifting to the past and present (those two vast regions over which I have no control) I have fears, yes that would be the word, of the future, although Reason repeats the senselessness of that: how do I know there is such a future? After all, I might die tomorrow. Such thoughts of possible future pain and losses are pointless and serve only to disturb my tranquility. And the past—I have cured myself to a large extent of the worst symptoms of nostalgia, but transience can still afflict me. That nocturnal creature still waits for the dark and quiet moment to spring.
How troubled am I by these two weaknesses in my philosophical practice? To do my feeble Stoicism justice, I will point out that I understand that the mind is its own place—an apt summation of the centrality and vitality of the internal world, penned by John Milton, a writer centuries after your time. A mind, i.e. the rational part of a human being, has the power to create its own tranquility, and the “place” is the world within ourselves, free from the buffets of daily events. As you have noted, the person who is raised up or cast down by external events is bound to be cast down much of the time and made miserable. And why should such externalities enjoy sych great weigh and power anyway when so much is trivial? For the external world, I try to confront events as an inevitable series of pleasant and unpleasant curiosities, knowing that things can always be worse, and that I have not been bereft of much good fortune, even in my misfortunes. My misfortunes have made me who I am, and the person who has not known suffering is as limited in mind and character as an infant. Also, I discount the views and opinions of others, valuing only those belonging to a few people who create with me an audience unto ourselves. Yet, I find myself “hoping for good news” –a compliment, an acknowledgment, recognition, a job.
Further to my credit, regarding emotions, I will say that Stoicism is a bulwark, and without it I would flounder in a morass of emotion, even worse tangled in the belief that such an emotional state was necessary and typical. To that end, I do keep death in mind to lend perspective in its own unique way, and I do remember that suffering forms the common lot of us all; I do grasp the usefulness of suffering, the triviality of most occurrences, and the pointlessness of pointless thinking and that dwelling on the unchangeable past and remote future, over which I have no control, constitutes the most pointless kind of thinking. I do cling to reason as what we have that distinguishes us from other animals and I do see emotion for the evil that it is. However, I do not do any of those things with sufficient consistency.
Have you any techniques for teaching Reason how better to confront and conquer these errant thoughts and encroaching feelings? Or maybe you could state the same ideas, just packaged in a new, handy aphorism, or made accessible through comparison, anecdote, or example?
I await your response in the certainty that your thoughtful words will lead to greater wisdom and tranquility and I will be less of a burden to myself and others. If not, I will re-read your writings, take recourse to literature, stick to Reason, and attempt to carry on with the given day as if it were my last.