Stoics and Romantics: A Review of Two Books

Anyone who likes to write must spend time reading because there is no writing without reading. Of the many books that I have taken up recently on the search for ideas or entertainment, two rise above the rest as thought-provoking and engrossing. (Footnote to self regarding the rejects: do not bother reading anything else by Harold Bloom.  One book by him is enough; he reworks the same stuff in the same manner, and his identity looms large: from childhood he has been unbearably brilliant, he is unable to write without the word “daemon,” and thinks Shakespeare is the greatest.)  My two favorites center the frame of my interests in Stoicism and Romantic literature: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm and Romantic Lives by Daisy Hay.

To the Stoics among us, Seneca must be of interest, and the outlandish and horrible antics of the Roman emperors wonderfully described by Romm, through whose reigns Seneca managed to survive for many years, should captivate a historically-minded reader of any philosophical persuasion. The author writes in an engaging and fast-paced style, anticipating and addressing the questions that come to mind about the motivations and inner most thoughts of Seneca, a Stoic who had to reconcile his philosophy with the actions he took to survive and possibly to maintain some check on the cruelty of his one-time pupil, Nero. For anyone who remembers the PBS series of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius or who read the book, the joys of learning fact (or most likely fact) from fiction abound in this book.

Romantic Lives hits the most interesting biographical points of the lives of a number of Romantics — Hunt, Shelly, Mary Shelly, a little bit of Keats, Byron — and the parts of their lives that intersect. In some cases, Hay gives an equally or even more vivid picture of the personalities of her various subjects than biographers manage in hundreds of more pages on a single individual. Keats plays a small role in this book, so he needs his own biography, but Hunt, Byron, Shelley, and Mary Shelly are fully developed. Hay zeros right in on the details that reveal the most and interest the most. What I found as the special treat is her attention to the “ordinary” people (ordinary only to distinguish them from the literary greats) who existed within the orbit of Shelley and Byron. I had developed a particular curiosity about the post-Shelley existence of Claire Claremont, which the final pages of this book fully satisfied.

With a focus on the intersecting lives during a certain period of time, the author is not obliged to treat at much length or at all the childhood or forbears of any individual, but only those parts relevant to a rather limited period of especial interest.  Having read the several biographies of the personalities involved, there was some repetition, but more often Hay used common material to clarify the events, motivations, and relationships of the parties and to depict the iintense drama, of which there is no short supply, as well as a canonical 19th century novelist. Again, beyond basic biographical endeavor, Hay digests the difficulties of a situation of complexity and long duration into a perfectly insightful and (seemingly) accurate pithy assessment. For example, she sums up the Shelleys’ marital problems: “The tragedy of Shelley and Mary’s marriage lay in her inability to convey to him the depths of her emotional attachment, and in his failure to understand how much pain his actions caused her.”  Likewise, her voice is an added value when she steps back to assess the impact for better and for worse these individuals had on each other.

It is always a wonderful side effect if a book does more for the reader than the author meant to achieve or the reader had reason to expect. That statement assumes that Hay did not mean for us to evaluate the importance of sociability in our own lives. Such was my experience in the following way. A major premise of the book is the importance of a “co-operative sociability” to creative influence.  She definitely makes that point stick in the case of Percy Bysshe Shelley, although at times she concedes that it is in solitude and only through thinking about or corresponding with friends that he derives his inspiration.  The notion of the importance of friends to creativity struck me as worthy of consideration because I had been a proponent of the opposite, believing that genius leads to solitude and in that state the great writer sounds his or her imagination.  I had embraced that paradigm from the example of Emily Bronte, who, in her amazing self- resourcefulness, seemed to find within herself the inspiration for her novel and poetry.  However, even in her case, one could point out that she did have the creative camaraderie of her sister Anne, who was her partner in Gondal. Closer to home, the idea that connecting with others is an essential source of inspiration reminded me of my own isolation. I have no like-minded coterie to share literary or philosophical ideas. My mother was a literary compatriot, but by the time I got around to developing my interests, I had scant years before she could not even recollect who Walter Pater was. The two professors from literature classes to whom I made overtures ran for the hills — or would have, but saved themselves the trouble by just ignoring my emails.

My isolation brings me back to the first book on a beleaguered Stoic, as Stoicism again proves useful. I have no “co-operative sociability,” but the dispassionate mind can accept that reality because sociability has its drawbacks as well as its benefits, there is no changing the situation so liking it is better than lamenting it, and I share that situation with many others, past and present. Last, there are books such as these to offer the eternal, virtual cooperative sociability of reading.

Things Stoics Think About

A group of Stoics walk into a bar and fall into a lively discussion about the ways in which Stoicism has helped and the ways in which it has fallen short.  Or there could be a survey: “Which of the following best describes the ways that Stoicism has had a beneficial effect on your life…” (a) controlling my emotions in petty daily circumstances; (b) bringing an acceptance of the larger vicissitudes of life; (c) clarifying general goals to aspire to in my conduct for myself and in relation to others; (d) understanding the pitfalls in seeking joy, etc. . . Or conversely, in what situations do you feel Stoicism does the least good?

I will start the ball rolling by addressing the two ways in which I encounter the most difficulty in effectively bringing my philosophy to bear to enhance tranquility and self-sufficiency.

I have a problem with the really big picture. Stoicism proposes that nature is an unassailable given.  I find myself pointlessly pondering why it must be this way from start to finish.  As Woody Allen said, if there is a god, he must be an underachiever. Given the context in which we exist, I can set about making sense of suffering and death—but the context itself fails miserably by any common standards.  Suffering, pain, illness, decrepitude, injustice, acrimony, stupidity, self-serving insincerity, laziness, greed (and other grim nouns) define existence just because. And, please, let’s not say that there are many wonderful things as well—there are a few, but why are they not predominant?

Seneca delved into this question of a miserable context for individual existence, and it is clear from his discussion that he had the incidents of the daily life of an upper class Roman in mind when he laments the state of things. By the way, I cannot imagine how anyone would have kept a modicum of sanity in the Rome of Seneca’s day.  One trip to the Coliseum on circus day would have done me in—I despair of mankind at the thought of boiling lobsters alive and force-feeing geese so some pretentious palette can enjoy a delicacy; how would I tolerate the slaughter of scores of caged African animals, not to mention the hapless human victims.  He writes: “But to get rid of the causes of personal sorrow gains us nothing, for sometimes hatred of the human race possess us. When you reflect how rare simplicity is, how unknown innocence, how seldom faith is kept unless keeping it is good policy, when you recall the long calendar of successful crime, the profits and losses of lust, alike odious and ambition that no longer keeps its proper confines but rises to eminence though skullduggery, then the mind is plunged into black night and darkness envelops us, as if the virtues were overthrown and we could no longer possess them or aspire to them.”

He then continues to counsel to accept the world as it is with a dispassionate state of mind and with whatever tolerance you can muster.  That does not entirely address my underlying concern about why the world must be this way—but I can imagine Seneca’s response would boil down to acceptance of those things that we cannot control.  That is valid and must be coupled with a true, inner resignation, a degree of apathy, a letting go. By the way, Seneca, at that juncture of the above quote, veers into a related statement that I have pulled out of my pocket on many occasions, perhaps on a daily basis: “To be tormented by other people’s troubles is misery.” Considering that other people’s misery is usually something over which I have no control, dwelling on it is pointless—it does not help them and only disturbs me.

My second problem area is with the little things in life—and I know precisely why these situations test severely my Stoicism; because they are founded on expectations.  I expect my lap top to work every morning, I expect air travel to get me to my destination on at least the day of the scheduled arrival. Stoicism warns that expectations threaten tranquility; like having hope, expecting is living life in suspense, like a person in fear. That understanding is at odds with commonly accepted modes of thought, however. We feel very justified in these expectations; indeed when we doubt ordinary expectations we are blackly labeled pessimists. Therefore, to mitigate the distress of the common nit-picking annoyances of life I must paradoxically accord them a greater importance—the expectations associated with them must be diminished, just as those expectations and hopes on a larger scale (like having a good marriage or a fulfilling career or good health) and their unpleasant arrival must be greeted as in the ordinary course and as something over which I have only a small degree of, or no, control. Meeting the small distresses in that way might blunt their power to disrupt my tranquility.


Putting Stoicism Back Together Again

Whatever happened to Roman Stoicism, the practical scheme for living a tranquil life that formed the backbone of the Roman Empire? It was a malleable, yet cohesive, philosophical school that began with Socrates in Ancient Greece and reached its clearest articulation in the essays and letters of the Roman writer, statesman and playwright, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC –Ad 65).  It seems to have survived only as an adjective with a not all-together positive connotation. However, in fact Stoicism lives, just in a fragmented state, as evidenced by glancing at the media. In particular, inadvertent Stoicism appeared recently in New York Times articles and a documentary aired on HBO.

A few weeks ago, glancing at the pages of the Sunday New York Times, I came upon two personal accounts demonstrating essential Stoic ideas.  One man, who had achieved great wealth, discovered the joy of living simply and without the weight of material goods; the other, a woman who gave up her career stated that she learned “to appreciate life” and “to be grateful for the life I had.” She summed up her wisdom as follows: “Whatever advice I can give about managing a career, I am only now learning how to manage a life.”

Here are two individuals who have come upon Ancient Stoic ideas and are voicing them as noteworthy and revelatory, even surprising and new.  Perhaps every generation needs a restatement of certain core ideas.  It reminds me of every generation producing and reading its own biography of a historic or literary figure about whom biographies have never been wanting.  Every era has its own take on the person.  With these ideas, though, the most surprising thing is how they echo the past—how little there is new.

Regarding the wealthy man who discovered the joys of scaling back on his lifestyle to achieve simplicity, I am reminded of Seneca’s warnings about the excesses of wealth and his praise of simplicity in lifestyle.  He called property “the greatest source of affliction to humanity.”  He proceeded to recount anecdotes illustrating how great wealth did not bring happiness and urged that we be content with thrift: “We must habituate ourselves to reject ostentation and value things by their utility, not by their trappings.”  He continued to link the idea of moderation in lifestyle to another core idea, the importance of self-reliance; he stated that we should make it our business “to get our riches from ourselves rather than from Fortune.”

As for the woman who left Wall Street, I honestly have to wonder if maybe she has read Seneca because she so precisely echoes his words (not that she need credit him because, as Seneca said, ideas are free commodities that we can all appropriate). Seneca wrote repeatedly in the following vein: “Many fine people have abandoned all their encumbrances, have renounced riches and business and pleasure, and have made it their one object, during the remainder of their span, to learn to live.”  Further, he stated: “Experts in other disciplines are numerous and common but the science of living requires a whole lifetime.”

More recently, occupying a section of the front page of the New York Times was a piece on “death cafes”— groups of people meeting in a café or diner to discuss death from practical and philosophical perspectives.  Meeting to discuss any single, given topic would not command such attention—think about groups of new parents to discuss child- raising, the PTA groups, or bible study groups. The surprise and novelty of the meetings arises from the topic– death, which our society apparently does not consider discussion-worthy or the topic for passing a convivial hour or two. These death café goers have stumbled upon a Stoic notion: to keep death in mind, indeed, study death.

In the Stoic view, death establishes perspective as no other notion can. Seneca describes in an essay how life is not short at all if one lives life fully and points out that the way to do that is to keep death in mind.  If you live like you will live forever, you are far more likely to fritter away your time and be left feeling that life was too short or unfulfilled.  Secondly, the reality of death fosters deeper, closer, and more patient and loving ties with our loved ones:  it is axiomatic if you think about it in this way—if you knew that your child would not live out the month, how would you act towards him?  That would pertain to many relationships and no doubt make you more appreciative of your relationships and a kinder person.  However, one might ask: is it really possible to go around imagining that each time you see a loved one it could be the last?  A thought does not take much effort, is free, and quiet– so, yes, the thought is not too burdensome.  But, is it a foolish thought, such as any number of notions that we could entertain throughout the day?  It is far from foolish when you consider parents who have sent their children to school only to have them gunned down and movie-goers who have died in the rapid rattle of the semi-automatic; add to that, natural disasters, illness, and the risks that we accept from trains, planes and automobiles.  A basic Stoic idea: what can happen to someone can happen to you.  Last argument in favor of entertaining thoughts of death: even if you play the odds and think how unlikely it is that you and your loved ones will die soon, if you were to nonetheless focus on death, you stand a great chance of valuing life and acting like a better person. In addition to defeating procrastination and making us cherish loved ones, death, when contemplated, gives us an appreciation for our own paltry existence; truly one’s life is terminable.  Or–if things are really bad, then death is a huge relief. In support of that positive take on death, try to imagine immortality.  At that juncture, one remembers the poem by Swinburne: “We thank with brief thanksgiving / whatever gods may be/ that no life lives forever / that dead men rise up never / and that even the weariest river / runs somewhere safe to sea.”

Last in Stoic sightings, a documentary on Ethel Kennedy (and unavoidably in large part about Bobby Kennedy), made and narrated by his posthumous daughter Rory, brought to light, without the least intent to do so, one of Seneca’s greatest and nearly unique consolatory thoughts in dealing with grief (an emotion that even he had to admit as stubborn in yielding to reason.) Seneca advised his grieving mother to take recourse to the liberal arts—basically reading poets and studying were the way to achieve the perspective on death that would bring solace. How did this notion surface in the television program? The Kennedys are almost synonymous with personal tragedy, and Ethel (although she married into the Kennedy curse) suffered many profound losses. Her parents both died in a plane crash while she was young. The death of her brother-in-law Jack was a loss not only as her relative and the beloved president, but also was a huge vicarious loss through her husband, Bobby, for whom Jack was the right and left arm; the film made clear to me the degree to which Jack paved the way for Bobby.  Ethel would later lose two sons, one to drugs the other to a reckless accident. In response to all the loss, a subject to which Rory devotes a substantial amount of time, she comments on the support of religion and lingers over images of her mother, Ethel kneeling in worship and lighting candles.  At one point, Ethel states that she is sure that all the departed are “up there” happy together.

On the other hand, when Bobby loses Jack—his beloved brother, his livelihood, his inspiration, his confident, his political base of support and more—he takes to reading poetry.  Where was his Catholic faith?  Rory of course could not interview him to see if he refers to anyone being happy in heaven, but she makes a large point of relating that in his grief he withdrew and read Aeschylus. Even when we see Bobby comforting a crowd of African-Americans upon informing them of the death of Martin Luther King, he quotes Aeschylus. I did not get the sense that the filmmaker was making any tacit statement about her father’s loss of faith, yet clearly, if he isn’t kneeling and lighting candles, but reading Greek poets, then res ipsa loquitur. Bobby apparently came upon the same advice that the Stoics offer –have recourse to pursuits of the mind, particularly of the literary kind–or had he read Seneca?

Moderation in lifestyle, putting aside a career to study life, keeping death in mind, and having recourse to literature –can I justly claim those precepts as essentially or originally Stoic ideas?  Not only are they plainly and clearly discussed by Seneca as essential to the Stoic plan, but also they do not jointly form a fundamental part any other philosophical system. These elements are necessary to Stoicism, but of course there are more tenants: the importance of reason and using reason over emotion, accepting what we have no control over (in particular the past and the future) and not pointlessly dwelling on such matters. What I find as probably the most important and certainly liminal notion is that we are all charged with developing our own philosophy. As Seneca exhorted his friends—don’t remain a subaltern to others. There is no monopoly on ideas– appropriate those that ring true and create. We are all philosophers with study. The point of identifying the skeins of Stoic thought that have been woven into the fabric of so many half-fitting approaches is to remake the whole cloth that has as much use and value today as in Ancient Rome to fit us with tranquility, a state better for ourselves and more agreeable to those who deal with us.




From the Rubble

From the Rubble

I discovered Stoicism roughly a year ago and became a convert. I am amazed and vexed that I cannot remember what led me to search on for a book on Stoicism.  I do  know that only after I read several books on the philosophy did I discover that John Keats (one of my household gods) was a natural or accidental Stoic (or so I believe and have endeavored to establish in my essay “the Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” which is a static post on this blog). Why was I, someone who was interested in developing a personal philosophy, unaware of Stoicism as a working philosophy that offers a plan for living?

I knew of Humanism, and I would say that I agreed with the ideas embodied in that term; however, no Humanistic notion gave me a way to approach life on a daily basis. I could agree with Existentialism, although only up to a certain point. It made sense to me that I was responsible and was defined by my actions (for the most part) and I was in the existential camp when it came to god. But again, how did any of those ideas provide a basis for a life free of torment from forces without and within, large and small? Likewise, I found little to shape my life in nihilism, Epicureanism, or hedonism. Where was Stoicism all those years when my personal philosophy consisted of only two precepts (regret nothing, and everything is an end in itself)–when I was adrift in highs and lows, self-indulgent of feeling, victim to the whims of the external world, targeting my “fair share” of joy, and regaling in (yet suffering from) excess?

As an answer, I learned through the books that I have cited below that Stoics became extinct when their niche was taken over by a fitter survivor, Christianity. Stoicism could not compete with a happy eternal life and a caring god. Actually, it is not right to call it extinct, since, like a few tribesman who survive an invasion and marry with the victors, some Stoic ideas fit into Christianity and survived until it could be more thoroughly unearthed from the rubble of a fallen Rome. It is still, though, a rather exotic and rarely spotted creature.

I mentioned hedonism, above, as one of my rejected philosophical schemes. One present-day Stoic, Dr. William Irvine, who wrote “A Guide to the Good Life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy,” described his orientation before his Stoic conversion as one of enlightened hedonism. That seems an apt description for the American of today who places a high value on “enjoyment,” believes contentedness comes from pleasure and external success, and that one’s feelings are to be indulged and fostered. I highly recommend this book for the basics of Stoicism and to see how one person has used Stoicism for a path in life. I have a high regard for Dr. Irvine, which could only have increased if he had read my paper on John Keats, which I had sent to him, believing that one Stoic would like to make the acquaintance of another, especially such a poetic and brilliant one (I am referring to Keats there, not myself, ha!) I felt that Keats’s endorsement would benefit the philosophy of Stoicism, but then I am a Keats worshiper and apparently Dr. Irvine has not yet had the pleasure of knowing Keats.

While I am on the subject of recommending books on Stoicism, there are two others, and then really, you will be all set in developing your own brand of Stoic thought: The Letters and Essays of Seneca, translated by Moses Haddas, and The Mediations of Marcus Aurelius. Now, please remember, there is no dogma; reason is your guide and you appropriate what makes sense—Reason is all.
I will restrain myself from ending with a testimonial; obviously I feel that I have benefitted from learning some Stoic ideas and trying to keep them in mind through the vicissitudes of life. As John Keats wrote, “Now you must bring your philosophy to bear, as I do mine, or, really, how should I be able to live.” Amen


On Reason, Continued

On Reason, Continued

There is a previous post on “our special talent” for background reading.

Reason is a constant refrain in Seneca’s Stoic writings because it is our special talent. He deduced that we should exploit our reason because it is the attribute that man enjoys over other species. He stated that other animals have swiftness, great strength, endurance, and keenness in tracking. Humans share many traits with other species, usually in an inferior capacity, but they, alone, have reason. “If nothing but reason is peculiarly man’s, then reason is his sole good and balances all the rest,” concluded Seneca.

Reason is also the way to achieve tranquility in our lives. In the old head versus heart struggle, emotion is not only at odds with reason for the most part, but also is detrimental to tranquility. Emotion, not reason, gives us anger, jealousy, anxiety, remorse, and cruel hope. If one can exercise reason and waylay such emotions, and any excessive emotion, from controlling us or even playing a notable part of our lives, we can achieve tranquility, which makes us more bearable to ourselves and to others. Reason fosters tranquility because it tells us which things we can control and which we can’t and to leave off pointlessly thinking about such things. I sometimes phrase the process as giving myself permission not to dwell, lament, regret, or try to control because I understand the pointlessness of all that.
On the personal level, the opportunities for exercising reason over emotion are ever-present. In dealing with our own past and future and in interacting with others, particularly those closest to us, opportunities to question whether emotion is disserving us and defeating reason are rife. Remember even a “good” emotion can be detrimental and painful when it increases to excess. As Seneca stated, “All excesses are injurious.”

Applying reason in the context of social issues, raises the following question: reason according to whom? Reasonable minds can differ, right? I have a few tests for whether reason is at work or emotion, masquerading as reason. First, in justifying an action or opinion can you state the basis? For example, I object to hunting because it inflicts pain and suffering on animals; it is not needed for the provision of food; it involves the use of guns that are in turn used for human violence and death; it reveals a deep lack of compassion and encourages the worst in human nature, that side that enjoys pain, suffering, and death, just as was or is the case with bull fighting, bear baiting, cock fighting and such other activities. On the other side, one might say, hunting is good because it keeps the animal population down, which is needed because otherwise they would be overrunning our human spaces. That is a reason—a very selfish one for our species, granted, but it does not then lead to wearing camouflage and putting heads on walls. What is the reason for that? If we really must cull the herd we might consider the most humane way to accomplish it. But must we have reasons for everything we enjoy? No, but we might question our enjoyment. A lot of people greatly enjoyed gladiatorial shows in ancient Rome. Seneca described the joy of the spectators at the following event: “The men have nothing to protect them; the whole body is exposed and every stroke tells. Why armor? Why skill? Such things delay the kill. The conclusion of every fight is death; no quarter is given. ‘But the fellow was a highwayman; he killed a man!’ So what? Because he killed a man he deserves his fate, but what did you do, poor man, to deserve having to look on?”

If, on the other hand, in stating a justification, the words following “because” are elusive, a person must resort to objecting or promoting something “on principal,” “just because,” “because it has always been that way,” or “because that’s just the way I feel!” Why should your feelings, detrimental to you and others, formed without recourse to your special talent as a human and larded with self-indulgence have any bearing at all? Most importantly there is one touchstone for whether one is offering valid reasons: are the points offered as justification self-serving to the proponent and detrimental to others. If so, then the “reasons” even if stated succinctly probably have sprouted from emotion and of the worst kind.

One last thought—individual liberty. Why should any reasonable justification at all be necessary, given that we should all be free to do as we wish? John Stuart Mill, in his essay “On Liberty” develops that point from start to finish very well, and when it comes to government interfering with our lives, his thoughts are a cornerstone of what we think of as individual freedom in a democratic society. Two limitations: Mill was writing about society rather than individual self-help. He was not giving any advice on a person achieving tranquility and living the good life. Second, he makes no bones about limiting individual liberty when it infringes others. In determining the line between individual liberty and the noxious impact on others, Mill has recourse to Reason, as much as Seneca could have ever wanted.