Another Biography, Another Opportunity

There seems to be no such thing as the definitive biography of an individual. However, any biographer describing a life, already treated numerous times, must establish what new information justifies yet another work. Rarely does the discovery of new facts play a part. Perhaps developments in psychology or science, such as medicine, allow a different analysis of events.  A purportedly more thorough approach starts at an earlier point in time than its predecessors, or ranges into issues tangential to the person’s life, such as political events. More commonly, new scrutiny justifies itself from the passage of time, such that the subject appears through the perspective of a new age, with different mores and sensibilities, which might allow, for example,  a more probing and revealing treatment of certain aspects of the subject’s life.  In that regard, it could be said that each generation “deserves” its own biography of those most intriguing individuals immortal of interest. The possibility that a noted scholar will offer an interesting interpretation even of a well-known subject leads to another book on the shelf.  Last, certain subjects are so fascinating that their life stories bear repetition.

My expectations of Nicholas Roe’s take on the life of John Keats were in keeping with the foregoing realizations of the limited yet potential virtues of repetitive biography —  virtues particularly suspect in this case because John Keats’s life and work had fairly recently received a thorough, modern, and compelling analysis by Andrew Motion. Nonetheless, there were a few points in the life of Keats for which I desired more information or even further informed speculation. And I welcomed an excuse to once again plunge into the story of the life of John Keats.

First, I wanted to know what in the world was going on with Keats’s mother; she leaves her children and disappears for five years. There is no indication that she was not a loving mother before her husband’s death, yet she abandons her four children. After the new biography I remain curious.  Although Roe speculates that Frances, Keats’s mother, might have known and even had an affair with Rawlings, her second husband, while married to Keats’s father, no new material about her personality, character, actions or motivations explains her absence. As I recall, Motion depicts her more sympathetically as a bereft and beleaguered person who turns to Rawlings to help her run the family business, now entirely her responsibility, along with four little children.  A profligate floozy, a half- mad widow, an alcoholic, something in-between?  Two biographies down, and I would still like to know.  Roe makes a new (to me), but light-weight, suggestion on the topic of Keats’s mother, later in the book: Keats felt a connection with Hamlet because his mother too was unfaithful.  The resemblance ends there, since Hamlet’s mother does not run away and leave Hamlet as a little child. Roe does not offer any convincing evidence (or really any evidence) that Keats saw such a connection.

Second, I wanted to know more about Isabella Jones and whether she was as important influence on Keats emotionally as Robert Gittings suggests, or not so much, as Motion believes. The jury is still out on whether she was one of the great loves of his life, an inspiration, or just a friend.  Let us have a little more informed guessing on this topic. One clue to her importance is that after Keats dies she re-emerges in letters excoriating Severn for thinking too much about himself and his own difficulties while taking care of Keats in Rome. At least give me her appearance — no one knows what she looked like?  Even as only a passing dalliance, such information would be of interest.

Keats’s use of mercury still baffles me from a medical perspective. If Keats was taking it for a sexually transmitted disease, did it work?  According to Keats, in a letter, the mercury did help; that throws into question whether he was indeed suffering from a STD because mercury does not cure STDs — or so my internet research indicates. Did he just feel a little better from the mercury, but was left uncured such that he would have died or gone mad from syphilis? Roe, more than Motion, focuses on Keats’s use of mercury and asserts that, as a highly toxic poison, it was doing him in as much as his consumption. That is interesting; however, Keats knew from his medical training how harmful it was, so that creates a question why he would continue using it. I raise my hand to ask an even more urgent question raised by Roe: if Keats knew he had venereal disease how did he think he could ever marry Fanny Brawne?  Was it known to be contagious?  Roe suggests that Keats did know it was contagious and held off from Fanny for that reason; but he did not hold off – he became engaged to her.  Is Roe suggesting that one reason Keats went to Rome was to leave Fanny because he knew he could not be with marry her? How does that square with his engagement and plans to marry her if he recovered?

I also wanted more details on what Keats did during his time at Guy’s Hospital and how he reacted personally to the horribly gruesome state of affairs there. Roes gives a clear rundown on the courses that the students followed, but nothing more than Motion on how his experiences there affected him.  We know from his letters that he found the suffering of women hard to bear, so he might have found surgery on female patients particularly awful; but others students at the time, who are used as stand-ins for Keats’s reaction, spoke about the horrors of surgery on children.  How did that affect Keats?  Does a teenager, which he was at the time, with the soul of a poet, glide through days of cadavers, putrefaction, and suffering?  If so, that ability or personality trait bears some analysis. His silence about Tom’s death – the last days and how he felt — and that his statement that “our own suffering touches us too nearly for words” might suggest that he found his surgical experience too horrible to translate in any verbal form at any time of his life.

In sum, Roe tantalizingly ruffled those areas of special interest to me, but stopped short of answers or even meaningful informed hypotheses. As for my reactions to Roe’s work on the whole, any minor revelations were mixed with a number of irksome ongoing and loose suggestions about how various details of Keats’s life surfaced in his work.  Roe’s major addition to Keats’s biography was to insist on the importance of Keats’s father’s death on his life and work.  A parental death would be expected to have a residual impact, but the connection of the event to any statement by Keats or poem is not proven or supported, just announced.  Of the many sorrows and difficulties in Keats’s life, Roe takes up his father’s death and the anniversary of it as influential; however, everything is influential.  Far less notable events are also considered to underlie Keats’s poetry—almost everything figures. Every museum, ruin, field, cliff, street, room Keats has seen lies behind a description in a poem.  In a way that might be true because writers blend their own experience with imagination, but Roe does not offer any argument showing the meaning of such a purported connection to enhance one’s understanding or appreciation of the poem. The worst instance of an unsubstantiated connection between Keats’s life and his poems pertains to eating. Roe opines that Keats ate for consolation, although he offers no proof ( in fact food and any “palette affair,” as Keats called an interest in food, did not mean much to Keats.)  Maybe if he had suffered from an eating disorder, a focus on food would have had some relevance. Nonetheless, any time there is food in a poem, Roe points to a hungry Keats, eating for comfort, and Roe twice interjects that the word “eats” figures in his name “Keats.”  Saying such a thing once would have been too much, but he gives it to us twice.

Another distinguishing approach of Roe was to say less on some points to which Motion gave special attention.  For example, one gets the sense of the dire and relentless financial straits that Keats was under from Motion, whereas money is mentioned far less by Roe and without imparting a sense of the strain and turmoil those problems posed for Keats. Similarly, Motion gives the reader a very dim view of Abbey; in Roe’s book, Abbey plays a much smaller role and does not seem in the least villainous. Roe also does not address the events following Keats’s death, the epilogue, which serves valuable purposes. At this point, we need to know what became of the other characters in the drama: Fanny, his sister Fanny, George, and Brown, among others. Also some words on Keats’s legacy are needed as one can hardly bear to bid him farewell after so many hundreds of pages without considering the destiny of his poetry as consolation.

Roe raises a few tantalizing ideas, but overall Motion’s work gives a more complete and painful sense of Keats’s identity.  The differences between biographies does not slight the achievements of the respective authors, and they would, I suspect, understand the keen interest  of my foregoing enquiries because they of course fell under the spell of Keats’s life and relished every minute spent considering and reworking the mysteries of the greatest story ever told.  One could safely say that the final words have not been written — there will be other biographies, probably within my lifetime.

With full appreciation for the research complied and presented in biographies on John Keats, I am also very thankful that I can indulge my fascination and construct my own concept of him as a living being through his own words, immortal in his letters and poetry.

The Self-sufficiency of Emily Brontë

I would not make a case that Emily Brontë was an accidental Stoic, as I did for John Keats in the article “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” that appears in this blog under “ Start Here.”  The expressions of philosophy in Keats’s life and poetry echo Seneca’s Stoic statements so precisely, it would seem that Keats had been influenced by him, although he never read a word of any Roman Stoic and held his philosophical notions through his own invention. One can only feel that there must be arch-ideas in the human realm that great minds discover coincidentally and naturally. Emily Brontë wrote no letters, as Keats did, but her view-point on life, if not her philosophy of life, can be discerned from her poetry. That process of defining her character from the lines of her poems figures largely in my book The Poetic World of Emily Brontë, published by Sussex Academic Press, which will appear in August 2014. On the whole, Bronte does not fit even unevenly into the Stoic pattern.

However, there is one truly Stoic element to Brontë’s personality, which is of great interest not just because it is Stoic but because it explains an essential character trait: she was exceedingly and unusually self-sufficient.  As I have written before, the value of self-sufficiency of a personal and intellectual nature is one of the most modern and invigorating ideas Seneca propounds as a Stoic virtue. He exhorts his acolytes not only to read or listen to others, but to develop a philosophy, guiding principles, and a way of living for themselves, independent of what others have stated. “Don’t be led, create something of your own,” he suggested vehemently.  It is in this context that he reminds his readers that ideas belong to no one, so that in formulating one’s own scheme for living, any idea that is good is available for adoption.

Why was self-sufficiency of spirit such a formative and essential trait for Emily Brontë? Consider that she had almost no formal education, learning mostly from her father and on her own at her home. She had no encouragement in her writing: no mentors, no college associates, no editors, no apprenticeships, no validation from the outside world, literary or otherwise. She, herself, relying only on her own powers and inner resources wrote Wuthering Heights, a giant in the literary canon, and a large work of powerful, distinctive, and intriguing poetry. That epitomizes a kind of magnificent self-sufficiency.  Not surprisingly, that character trait of self-fostering cropped up in other areas, and those are more precisely of the kind Seneca had in mind. She developed her own religion in which she, through her imagination, answered her own prayers and reconciled herself with death.  More on how she accomplished that can be found in my book.


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Sonnet 30, William Shakepeare

Is there a distinction between seeking happiness and working to avoid or allay unhappiness?  I have the impression from newspaper articles and radio programs on psychological studies and self-help books that the goal is to achieve happiness—to figure out how happy people got that way and emulate them or undertake some practical exercises to achieve a state of happiness.

In reading Seneca’s letters and essays (my primary source for Stoic thought), it appears that Seneca addressed ways to counter unhappiness more than ways to find happiness, which he calls tranquility, as distinguished from an excited state of joy or immersion in pleasure that some might equate with happiness.  Although he does not categorize the kinds of unhappiness, per se, I have gleaned them from Seneca’s writings and added  my own observations, which would meet with Seneca’s approval, as he strongly advocated each thinking person to extrapolate, appropriate, and create his/her own philosophy. By the way, I think that view is one of Seneca’s most distinctive and valuable.

To each of the following categories of unhappiness there is a multifaceted use of reason applicable, which may be equally useful to the other categories, just as there is some overlapping among the types of unhappiness: a current tough situation; remorse; defeated hopes; anger, general ennui, and grief.  In the following discussion, when I speak of “you” I am simply addressing myself, since making use of a philosophy for living takes repetition and work.

A Current Tough Situation

This is one of the few instances where matters might still be somewhat within your control. Stoicism does not advocate apathy, so do all you can.  In fact, while we can do something we are usually not emotionally overcome and unhappy.  If control is waning and we are stuck in a situation beyond our control, then think:

1. Things can always get worse. All the alternatives to your current situation are not knowable and any number of them might have occurred and have been worse than the present situation. If one knew of them, then what a relief this predicament really is. Anything that can happen to others can happen to you.

2.  Is it really so bad?  With effort, a dispassionate mind will find some consolation in it. If the situaion includes any of the other “bad situations” set forth below, apply the respective remedies set forth for them. In the scheme of things for humanity, how bad is it?  Are you enslaved, about to be thrown to the lions, sent into exile, writhing in pain from an incurable disease? The poor wretch who has nothing but a loin cloth can still be glad he has the loin cloth.

3.  Time to take inventory.  If you think you are bereft, think realistically about what you have.  Probably many things you have as consolation you are taking for granted. What you have is as good as what you no longer have or think you want.

4.  Study death and never lose sight of it.  Those things that you take for granted might fall into the hands of death at any moment; have you lived this day as if it were your last in your endeavors and your relationships?  If not them you have deluded yourself about mortality.


This is the category of things past: that vast realm of regret, nostalgia, sentimentality and yearning so perfectly described in Shakespeare’s sonnet.  Any events that are passed are things over which you have absolutely no control. I wonder how many times in a day I have to tackle this brand of emotion. Reason tells us that thinking about such things to our detriment serves no purpose; it is unreasonable because there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking.  Does it get anyone from point A to point B? I think sometimes we almost feel obliged to engage in such pointless thinking, as if we owe it to someone or to ourselves; but again that is in our own minds and achieves nothing purposeful.  If you feel so obligated, give yourself permission to stop thinking about such things.  The exercise of thinking about what you have control over and don’t is fundamental; reason will discern one from the other and guide you to drop the pointless. One other minor thought—regret about a past action taken or omitted is particularly vacuous because given the situation, who you are, and that you acted at the time with reason, then, you would do it again.

Disappointed Hopes

Think about hoping and understand what it is.  It is not preparation, it is not fate dealing you a blow—it is all in your perception of things in the uncontrollable future or views of others.  Nothing has really occurred except in your own mind; the mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Living in hope of something is a life lived in anticipation and derelict of the living moment. It is akin to living in fear. Seneca described it as follows: “Fear keeps pace with hope.  Nor do I find it surprising that they keep company, for each belongs to a mind in suspense, a mind hanging on what the future might bring.  The cause in both cases is failure to adjust ourselves to the present and a tendency to project our mental processes into the future.  Foresight . . . is turned to mankind’s disadvantage.  No one confines his misery to the present.”

Anger and Various Forms of Dissatisfaction with Others

Dwelling on an incident caused by another that makes you angry is in the category of things that are past and beyond your control so that continuing to think about them is pointless (unless you can take some purposeful action to vindicate yourself and if you can you will be less troubled by the insult or injury caused). Even if you would describe the situation as-ongoing, do you really have control over another person in this instance?  Probably not. These negative feelings are an example of attaching importance to the outside world and its opinion.  Self-sufficiency and your own inner resources should be your bolster, not the external world which will always change.  Anyone who is raised up or cast down by the external events handed by fate is bound to spend much time cast down. You have also handed over to another person the power to make you feel uncomfortable; that person is not thinking about you, why should you devote any thoughts to him?

General Ennui

A general lack of enthusiasm and restlessness is, I suspect, what a lot of people feel when they say that they want to find happiness. A blasé or jaded attitude or even a melancholic one has enjoyed a certain cache at times and in certain circles.  If you engage in the thinking outlined in the first category of unhappiness, you should come out of it.  If not, Seneca says that nature has given us all a way out, should we want to get the jump of death.  Above all, don’t complain—comfort thyself; why should anyone else have that responsibility?


Here we come to that strange, behemoth, and pointless emotion, grief.  It has no evolutionary value to us as a species or to any of the animal species that suffesr from it.  A case can be made for anger or fear having some value—grief is valueless. Seneca admitted that sorrow is stubborn and that reason must capitulate for a time.  That is not to say that thinking does no good at all—it is a critical as ever.  Thoughts I have found that help (particularly in poetry) make clear the naturalness of death and the shared experience of all humanity.  As John Keats wrote in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law when the death of Tom, his younger brother, was imminent: “ I have Fanny (his sister) and I have you—three people whose Happiness to me is sacred—and it does annul that selfish sorrow which I should otherwise fall into, living as I do with poor Tom who looks upon me as his only comfort—the tears will come into your eyes—let them—and embrace each other –thank heaven for what happiness you have, and after thinking a moment or two that you suffer in common with all Mankind, hold it not a sin to regain your cheerfulness.”  Amen. When Tom died, the letter bearing that news was notably brief for a wordsmith like Keats—he declined comment. He hardly ever mentioned the experience of his brother’s death again in his letters, even though his brother died in his arms after he had cared for him through his illness. Only in his last letter did he make a reference to him, when he wrote that his sister reminded him of Tom.  I think that exemplifies the truth that some things can be beyond words.

Concluding Observations

The direct prescription for happiness that Seneca does offer, and which I came across as a predominate notion in David Hume’s essay on Stoicism, is devotion to intellectual pursuits. A mind engaged in the higher order of thinking that only the human brain is capable of induces happiness.  Amen.

How much does any of this work?  There is nothing I am more skeptical of than the testimonial, so I hate to invoke “my own experience.”  Skirting the personal, I will point out that I, or anyone, certainly have the ability through thought of becoming miserable and therefore ought to have the power through thought of feeling better.  If I give myself over to thoughts of the past, mistakes, shortcomings, failures, losses, I have gone down the path of the sonnet by Shakespeare; the sighing and weeping and moaning and ruminating, will ensue for me, just as for the speaker of that poem–all pointless.  In the poem by the way, the consolationat the end is thinking  of what is present and worthy; in the sonnet it is a particular individual.  Stoics would continue to point out that placing all your happiness on one person is fraught with problems, but that is another trail to follow.  Right now, I want to establish that using reason–thinking and not thinking pointlessly– is not an empty exercise.  Feelings are rarely helpful, often painful, and no negative or excessive emotion should run riot in our lives. Freedom from being roiled by emotion, attended by the prescribed use of intellect, sets the best course for tranquility that I have ever come across and is the truth lying under so many current psychological approaches and their layers of anecdotes, data, studies, and chapters.






Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?

Happiness for Sale / What would Seneca say?


On the front page of a section of The New York Times this weekend was an article about a psychologist who has studied happiness and gives advice on how to achieve it. The piece revealed very little of her secrets to happiness (I guess they might be called), but one observation of hers is that renters are happier than homeowners. Maybe that is indicative of other conclusions she might propose, like married people are happier or people in a certain region are happier. Maybe people find that kind of thing interesting, like knowing somebody’s astrological sign. However, in terms of providing the basis for a way to live life, how could such conclusions have any validity or worth? Were the renters and homeowners in question alike in all respects (even most) with regard to happiness except for their status as renters or homeowners, such that the difference in this one aspect could be the cause in a cause and effect relationship? The article also made note of “hedonistic adaptation,” which Stoics routinely recognize as a reason not to pursue pleasure per se as a route to happiness because it invariably cloys or simply wears out. Probably the article was short on details about happiness so as not to preempt the book, which should lure readers searching for happiness in their lives. They might find a couple of mildly interesting observations, and then forget all about them when confronting failure or hardship, those things that life generally has in store that tend to undermine happiness.

What is happiness? Maybe the psychologist-author defines it front and center in her guide to happiness. For Stoics, it is tranquility, which is freedom from negative and excessive emotion– or rendered poetically by John Keats in Hyperion: “To bear all naked truths, / And to envisage circumstance, all calm, / That is the top of sovereignty. Mark well!” If one exalts in and strives for giddy highs and devastating lows and thinks that such a pendulum existence is desirable, then Stoicism is not the answer. The longer I live, and it has been quite a while now, the more I value emotional calm: I value it in others, I like the way it feels, and I work at obtaining it, although it does not come naturally to me. Tranquility does not depend on renting or home owning, but does come (or comes in some degree greater than it would otherwise) through keeping the following ideas in mind, all of which are discussed and, at times, reduced to handy aphorisms, in The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, Essay and Letters, translated by Moses Hadas. I set them out to remind myself.

Strive for mental self-sufficiency.
You have to be able to abide yourself, to comfort yourself, and to use your own powers of rational thought. The inner world is as valid as the external world. Read, study, exploit your talents and realize that when it comes to accolades, few are enough, one is enough, none is enough. There is no absolute good goal; many things are valid and complete ends in themselves. One quick glance at life and it is easily apparent that anyone who looks for happiness from external events is destined to be unhappy much of the time. Such a life is a version of lottery game.

Apply Reason to Emotion
Reason is the one attribute that sets humans apart from the other animals; they have their special talents, and we have ours, reason. First, use reason over emotion and understand that your feelings are not all-important, worth indulging, or determinative for yourself or others. Second, use reason to prevent yourself from thinking pointlessly, which is thinking about situations over which you have no control—those include all of the past, a lot of the present, and much of the future. If you think you can act with effect, then do so, and when you know that you can’t, stop occupying your mind with it; there is nothing more pointless than pointless thinking.
Also, reason, formed from experience and logic, establishes that things can always be worse, what can happen to anybody can happen to you, and that death is life’s neighbor; thus, realizing those things, you are at once prepared and appreciative for each peaceful moment or in finding the consolation in a difficult time. In the category of things that we cannot control and should not waste our energies thinking about to the detriment of our tranquility includes the suffering of others—it achieves nothing for the others or for ourselves, as we must all ultimately comfort ourselves. As Arthur tells Bedevere at Camelot’s demise in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: “Comfort thyself, what comfort is in me, the old order changes and gives way to new and fortune fulfills itself in many ways” (my paraphrase).

Understand what we are dealing with
Adversity besets us all and creates us in large part, for better or worse. I don’t have a lot of respect for or usually like much people who have not known adversity; how would anyone know what they are capable of, what they are truly like, when everything is nice and easy. We are at the mercy of fortune and all we have is on loan from fortune; our best efforts are worth doing, but will only take us so far. Reason will remind us that such is the lot of humanity and we share in common pain and suffering. If the moment at hand brings an opportunity for tranquility, take it; if not try to find the consolation in it. As Seneca said, “All life is bondage. Man must therefore, habituate himself to his condition, complain of it as little as possible, and grasp whatever of value is within his reach. No situation is so harsh that a dispassionate mind cannot find some consolation it.”


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

This Living Hand



I am posting this poem by John Keats for two reasons.  The opening words of the poem are the inspiration for the name of this blog and it conveys an essentially Stoic message of the greatest importance to living well.

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—

I hold it towards you.

Seneca expressed the importance of directing our thoughts on the present and on matters over which we have control and for which our minds would not be engaged in pointless thinking; simply stated, there is nothing more pointless than thinking pointlessly.  By ruminating on the past, over which we have no control, or hoping about future events that depend on circumstances that also are in whole or in great part out of our control, we pursue pointless thinking and, with regard to the future, we also prepare the way for disappointment.  Those are not the only ills attendant on ruminating and hoping; those kinds of thoughts necessarily divert out minds from the present, from the living moment.  While thinking about the hand that has been withdrawn or the one we might hope to touch in the future, we miss the one that is held out to us now.  Everything we have is on loan from fortune, but there is still much at this moment, within our control, within our grasp.

As I contend with various losses that I have experienced lately and others that are imminent, I try to exert my reason to not accord the past and the future what I owe to the present.