Thinking About Thinking

Seneca gave advice on how to achieve tranquility through the use of reason, which means  thinking rather than feeling. We see from Seneca’s letters and essays, that there are various ways to exercise reason to gain tranquility depending on the situation.  For example, one can reason that there are things over which we have no control, and if we do not have control, then dwelling on those things is completely pointless.  Remember the axiom: there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking. When faced with the really cruel strokes of fate (death of a loved one, disease, disaster, just to name a few), it might be useful to also think about the reality of suffering: we all suffer, suffering is the way of nature of which we are a part, and however horrible things seem to be, they could be worse.  Suffering also could be reckoned to have its benefits in improving us as human beings.  There is a Latin phrase that states, not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child.  I would say that not to have suffered is to always remain a child.

Another bit of advice to maintain tranquility when tested by external events is to consider how trivial most of the things that we fret about actually are. Seneca unequivocally states that most things are trivial.  To support that statement, we need only gain perspective by comparing our modern day situation with that of other people struggling to survive in harsher places or even people in earlier times. Such a reality check with what the human condition can be like should help restore our tranquility when faced with trivial disturbances.

I have recently expanded that line of thinking to consider most of what affects us as trivial when considering the dire circumstances of other species. To me (post Animal Liberation) the human species is not the only one that counts:  it is not the only one that has interests, relishes life, or suffers. The human species is superior only in certain ways (other species are superior in other ways), but no aspect of human superiority justifies the principle of  “might makes right,” extending carte blanche to oppress because we can. Therefore, I need only think of the confinement and torture of nonhuman species to realize how trivial my concerns are. Unless I am a prisoner of a cruel tormentor who confines and tortures me and threatens me with a brutal death—and of course there are unfortunate humans in that situation—my life, as compared to that of farm animals, poses only trivial problems.

One difficulty results from reckoning how much worse life could be by looking at the miserable lives of others; to foster tranquility, that line of thinking requires a degree of selfishness. In contemplating the abuse of other species, I can realize how trivial my problems are, but at the same time, unless I am entirely self-centered, I become very disturbed.  Such a disturbed mind is antithetical to tranquility, particularly at night when trying to sleep.  I guess that Seneca would remind me, as I mentioned at the beginning, that the reasonable mind does not dwell on things beyond one’s control, and saving other species in one fell swoop, or even saving one pig (apparently from my experience), is beyond my control.  Seneca did address the idea that one could fall into a state of disgust with the world when taking a look at humanity at work.  I must advise myself (as Stoics are responsible for making their own additions to their philosophy) to reduce the pointlessness of such thinking by taking action, however little, and by thinking that the world has changed for the better.  There is the potential for the slaughter-house to close because it doesn’t take everyone, just enough people with a conscience. No great change ever saw unanimity, just a sufficient number. Someday, perhaps, one will wonder how we ever tormented fellow creatures with the revolting goal of cutting up their bodies into parts and putting their flesh, teaming with bacteria and on the way to rotting, into our mouths to chew and digest.

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