As all Stoics know, excessive emotions, such as passion, are detrimental because they set us up for a fall, either from the aftermath once the thrill is gone or from disappointment in not having the thrill. Avoiding passionate emotion, such as irrational love (perhaps lust is the better word), anger, high pitched excitement, etc… makes sense in the Stoic ethos, and I have no quarrel there. I see a slight difference, however, between passion in its adjectival form and “a passion,” meaning a pursuit or interest to which one invests a great deal of time, effort, self- esteem, and other costs. Although less obviously detrimental, such passions do have a side that threatens tranquility (the Stoic goal). The easy answer is to pursue an interest but avoid going to extremes and allowing it to assume too big a part of one’s life. That certainly sounds like the reasonable (and therefore Stoic) approach. I have identified for myself another problem: the difficulty lies not in my excessive love for the pursuit, but rather in how much of the burden of my life the pursuit is shouldering. Stated otherwise, it is not so much a question of loving too much the particular pursuit, but in how much I am asking that pursuit to fill voids, take up slack, and otherwise make up for the shortcomings or difficulties in life. When that burden lands on an interest, the interest can become a love/ hate experience. Not only might I love doing something—maybe I don’t at all — but I place an undue amount of energy and focus on it because I am running away from some very troubling realities. I can start to even feel somewhat a victim of my passion—the safe harbor I have created has thorns, but where else can I sleep?
So often we feel called to action–to make statements, implement plans, or take measures. I would wager that more often than not we would be better off doing nothing at all. Delaying action in the hope that the urge to act will dissipate is one prescription for anger management and likewise the antidote to all the troubles that come from indulging one’s negative or excessive emotions. Just do nothing and the situation might resolve itself—take action and a series of unfortunate events unravel. This holds true on all levels—from an individual to a national entity—but I am interested in the personal level. It would seem that inaction would require less fortitude than action, but that is a complete misconception because doing something is a short-term relief and an indulgence of insistent emotion, whereas not acting requires the prevalence of reason. What helps achieve unspoken words, unsent messages, untraversed space? Intellectual honesty about the consequences of taking action and the self-serving nature of the proposed act. Perhaps also a relinquishment of any sense of the importance of the thing at issue would help as well—most things are trivial. What if we took action only if we reasonably believed it would produce on balance a beneficial outcome. If we subjected our actions to that test how inactive we might become and how many meddlesome, officious, histrionic, time-wasting, rash and passionate words and deeds we would be spared and would spare ourselves from having to regret.
And so it came to pass, that my husband desired a car that would be inexpensive, yet sporty—useful, but fun. He made his way to the Jeep dealership calm of heart because he was not certain that he really desired a jeep—it was not comfortable, had the reputation for tipping over, and would be another car to dwell in the driveway. Moderate of mind, he entered the dealership and soon fell into discussions with the salesman on how much every extra feature would cost. He found unacceptable the prices and voiced that view consistently and without fear because the deal held no sway over him. The salesman observed and stated that it appeared that my husband didn’t really want the car. And when my husband returned to our dwelling, he spoke unto me, “What a great feeling it was to not really want the car—to not care that much one way or the other.” Verily, though you enter the dealership, let not the desire for the earthly goods overwhelm you—have your dreams but remain their master.
The factual conclusion of this tale might or might not be that he closed the deal on terms wholly satisfactory to himself. Actually, the former did occur, but this is not a guide to skilful negotiating, but rather an illustration of a Stoic ideal.
Stoicism is frequently impugned by the uninitiated as advocating an unhealthy frame of mind that vitiates the very fiber of life—the ups and downs, the thrills and pains of existence. Bah! It feels good not to be on that rollercoaster, to be in control. Oh! that all of life could be approached like the purchase of that red jeep. Here ends the Stoic lesson of the day. Amen.
I have never felt at a loss for opportunities to bring my Stoic philosophy to bear, but I have recently had special need for it, as I have been in the throes of and am slowly emerging from what would generally be regarded as a tough time. On the surface, my circumstance is not particularly noteworthy—I can even remember at least one time more challenging, so I would not be tempted to say that fate has doled out any trump cards; however, it has been a protracted and stressful time. The mere statement, “I broke my ankle,” does not reveal the variety or depth of the experience: the pain and suffering, the mounting costs and inconveniences, the perceived lost opportunities, and the drawing down of blinds on a way of life—that last vicissitude being for me the worst. I broke my ankle on July 30th and now on October 16th, I think I might have chronicled the stages of my ordeal, like Aaron Ralston in the cave (although I readily admit he, as well as innumerable others, had it far worse). I question whether it is pointless to reflect and attempt to commit to paper the experience. I can think of no immediate purpose, except that, as a Stoic, the only real reason to learn anything or to write is for yourself, and I, myself, have a hankering to spend time remembering.
Life always changes in an instant; however long the preamble, there is the defining moment. My moment came without warning, I might say, except as a Stoic I know that anything can happen to me if it can happen to others. Also, horseback riding is dangerous and the horse involved was not fully known and had hinted that he had a quirky side. Without provocation during a forward but controlled canter up a slope in a familiar field, he made a sudden, violent, dip and dart out to the right, leaving me suspended in mid-air waiting for gravity. My position changed so little that I landed as if still in the saddle, except that my right leg was lightly more extended than the left. Maybe if my knees had been equally bent I would have broken two ankles instead of one. Falling entirely on my right foot, the ankle snapped into pieces on both sides. I knew instantly of course that a dreaded event had befallen me. While the ankle swelled my mind calculated the most pressing logistical problems: I was over an hour and a half from home, with my puppy; I needed to get to a hospital and then find an orthopedic surgeon as quickly as possible. I made my phone calls for help, to my husband who had one foot out the door to leave town and my son who luckily was able to make the trip upstate with him to retrieve me, the puppy, and my car. I called my parents to let them know that I would have to cancel the long-awaited trip to visit them in early August, causing me to make a large donation to American Airlines.
Then comes the series of necessary events: ambulance, emergency room, getting home, sobbing at night alone with my new reality; live on the sofa in the family room; realize that this is not permanent and think about those who lost limbs in the Boston bombing– cry anyway; relive the fall again and again—the jump, the canter up the slope the fall, the snap; remember my axiom that we never know what else might have happened, that to lament one occurrence assumes knowledge of all of the other possibilities.
First visit to the orthopedist; I acquire another heavy cast that feels like a block of concrete against which the unset bones swell; days later, another emergency room for relief from the cast and better drugs where I dispense with all decorum and cry in pain with abandon. Surgery at last and the skillful and amazing fix: two little scaffolds of screws and plates on both sides of my ankle to put the pieces back together again; anesthesia dream in which I am passing over to the great beyond and don’t want to wake up; another cast; immobility, helplessness, bad detective novels—how do they get published? bad television. The knee walker arrives and I can wheel around the kitchen. Crawling upstairs works; a bath is possible. I miss the radio from the car and buy a radio. The caregiver shows up—I learn all about her pecuniary difficulties, her family, her religion, and her stream of consciousness thoughts; dispatch her to the grocery store. Fight the urge to complain—what good does it do? Remember that I must comfort myself, complaining is pointless. Opportunity presents itself: I find new dog walkers for the puppy, better than the previous one. Another opportunity: discovering who is helpful and who is not: wonderful neighbor who walks the puppy every day, not so wonderful sister- in- law who doesn’t visit. Phone calls from people who just want to check up, not helpful—have an entertaining anecdote, if not an invitation to get me out of the house.
The end of every day is the best part–another one down. I am living a posthumous existence of unrelenting dullness, marking time like all prisoners must do. Tipp over on the knee walker twice and fall for added mortification and bruising. Disregard doctor’s orders and take walking cast off at night—what a cruel proposition to sleep with a ski boot on for over four weeks. Go out with a friend, try to drink away my suffering and realize that three margaritas on one leg and crutches is a bad idea. Take recourse to the classics and find an essay by Seneca not yet read. Thoughts of how much worse it could be—at least I am at home, I have my husband and two sons, I only broke one ankle, it will heal.
I start to be able to put weight on the ankle. Weight bearing in increments over three weeks and the big event–physical therapy begins–wonderful physical therapy. Some place to go, albeit in a cab of course, still not driving. I have the distinction there of being the most injured. My fellow patients want to play tennis or get the kinks out of the neck; I yearn to get to the bathroom at night without crutches. Driving is a week away, but doesn’t happen on schedule. October 13, I can drive; October 16, take steps without debilitating pain shooting up the inside of my calf; develop deep love for my physical therapists. The bliss of putting my foot under the covers and rolling onto either side has not diminished yet. Still can’t walk the dog or make it to the basement; I ration my walking. Am I up to 100 steps a day?
Yet, strangely to me, I wonder, in the waning days of this debacle, about regaining my non-injured lifestyle. Have I become attached to my injury? It has become a way of life and has taken the place of everything else and has been self-defining. Like Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon, have I adjusted to love my confinement? What happens now that I am pretty normal, but just can’t walk very far or much? I am just a dull, slow mover missing a big part of my life. For more than twenty years horseback riding formed my identity and occupied my time. It provided exercise, activity, camaraderie, challenges, self-satisfaction, thrills, life lessons, contact with nature and animals–but also, over the last two years, particularly, it has meant frustration, difficulty, great expense, and way too much driving. How could I ask my family to tolerate all the cost again and the risk for that matter, after I put them through this? How much would I want to resurrect my old life; it is one thing to miss an aspect of the past and another to go to great lengths to revive it. A good horse does not show up like a stray cat, and even if I had one at my disposal, would my mind allow me to enjoy it?
If riding is gone, I will have to adjust to this in the same way I adjusted to not putting my leg on the ground. One adjustment after the other. Seneca noted our ability to adjust as one of the great gifts of nature: “Reflect that men newly shackled chafe at the ball and chain on their legs, but necessity teaches fortitude and habit indifference. Nature has done better by us here than in any other department, knowing that man was born to sorrow she invented habit as an anodyne to calamity, thus reducing extreme hardship to the level of the ordinary. If adversity kept the force of its first shock, no one could bear it.” Amen. By the way, if I have sounded like an underachiever as a Stoic, given I cried, had a breakdown in the second emergency room, and fell into despondency, I will point out that I could d have been much worse. At least I understand the best way to act to benefit myself and others who must live with me. I have the knowledge to try to reign myself in. Like the chubby guy at the gym, how much fatter might I be without it? I am not a sage, but as Seneca queried, “Who is?”
Soon I will return the rented knee walker and get rid of the crutches. Physical therapy will end and walking will seem normal. This episode will fade and be followed by the next defining moment of gravity, convergence, hapless timing, inevitability, or other force, already in motion.
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.
And now, retracing his steps, he evaded all mischance,
and Eurydice, regained, approached the upper air,
when he stopped, and forgetful, alas, on the edge of light,
his will conquered, he looked back, now, at his Eurydice.
In that instant, all his effort was wasted. ‘Orpheus,’ she cried,
‘what madness has destroyed my wretched self, and you?
See, the cruel Fates recall me, Farewell, now: I am taken,
wrapped round by vast night, stretching out to you, alas, hands no longer yours.
The departure lounge at the Tucson Airport had changed very little over the last thirty years that Gwen had arrived at and departed from it. All departure gates plotted a u-shape at the end of one concourse, after the gift shop, the Mexican restaurant, and the shoe shine alcove.
“Is this seat taken?” Gwen asked eyeing a single seat between a dispirited, worried-looking woman, her feet guarded by three bags pretending to be carry on size, and the column marking the end of that row of plastic seats. A barely audible “no” was the answer.
“We will start boarding flight 742 shortly, beginning with first class,” declared a distant microphoned female voice.
Gwen pulled the boarding pass half-way from her sweater pocket to confirm that she was part of “group two” of coach and still had a few minutes to delve into the book that she had been hauling along in her carry-on bag. Although it was the size of a dictionary, she had selected it to bring on the airplane from among the many books that she had sorted through to keep for her mother, leave for the estate sale, or appropriate for herself. She had spent much of the last three days triaging books as part of moving her parents into their downsized apartment after fifty years in the family home: the scene of the lives of an English professor, with the inability to discard any relic of the past, including books; her two children, who had not only been avid readers but gone through the university and left their course books; and a school principal, who had read and shelved away his fair share of books, particularly those on American history.
When Gwen had walked through the kitchen doorway on her mission, a thick nostalgia filled her senses like a miasma from a swamp. From the kitchen to the hallway, she quickly glanced to her right at the living room, a space of lonely beach at lowest tide, a few items of detritus left clinging after the movers had receded. Down the still hallway, memory lurked like the intruder that she used to fear might be waiting in the shadows when she came home at night alone years before. To her right was the study, where a worn and sad carpet bereft of furniture could not hide its discolorations. Entering it was attending a euthanized pet at its last moments, when the world is only memories and relics. With all the strangeness of a nightmare, the room held no expectation except of quiet and loss. Gwen felt herself the raider of a sepulcher, and gave herself brief minutes, as if the heavy stone would roll back to cover the opening. The raid also had to be carried out surgically, since many books would have to stay behind, not because there would not be space as much as bringing them was futile, a postponement until a later and certain purge.
Gwen surveyed, flipped through, and reached a decision on books in all possible currents of life: books used for teaching, for learning, for pleasure; books purchased because the author was an acquaintance, colleague in the department or the field; books of poetry, fiction, women’s studies, gay studies, history; literary criticism; books in French and even a few in Arabic, including a decorative Koran from Cairo. There were the beautiful Romantics; the Victorians–early, late, and middle–with their lyrical verses, sprawling novels, and essays in elegant long-sentences; the Edwardians, and a few that snuck in from 20th Century, particularly if they were written by women; anthologies and editions; books bound in hardcover with decorative cardboard cases for display and old paper backs with yellowed pages that smelled like the stacks of the library; books studied, perused, underlined, hardly used, or beloved. Art books that Gwen remembered seeing as a little child spread on the kitchen table late at night as the backbone of a developing Humanities lecture and she had wondered out loud: “Why are the private parts so small? Why does the statue have such large hands? Why are the women so fat?” Clustered under the Victorians were books showing in color plates the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, dreamy-eyed figures with short upper lips and abundant wavy hair–images that were scarcely contained by the edges of the canvass. And then there reigned on the shelf her mother’s household god, the pole star of her mother’s career, the great Walter Pater. Gwen had snatched a set of his works to remain enshrined in her mother’s new bedroom bookcase, albeit destined to remain unopened for the years ahead.
The books were helplessly waiting on the shelf, subject to her draconian decimation. She knew them well; not all were old friends but there was not a new spine in the lines. The most recent she noted was the biography of John Keats that she had given to her mother about three years before; she had become disconcerted then saddened that her mother had not finished it, had simply forgotten about it.
She took a volume of the poetry of John Keats from the shelf and had to decide if this older version was worth saving, given that she owned a newer one. She saw her brother’s marginalia from an English class. In faint pencil, in a seeming attempt to not permanently deface the pages, he had noted the date of the Eve of St. Agnes; he had jotted next to the third part of Ode to a Nightingale, “The only way to be happy is to be unthinking.” She paused, despite her haste to escape, at this kindred statement connecting a moment in an English class from the 1970s to this moment, when she could proclaim such a thought as near gospel. Well, she thought, the wrong kind of thinking, yes, must be avoided, any thoughts dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. He had been the English major not her; he had been the one to write a poem or clever story, a screenplay or a memoir before and in between the bouts of alcoholic madness. Her eye fell on the book’s neighbor, the Poetry of Swinburne. Swinburne was known to her by name and she had, even without personal knowledge of him, conceived a measure of respect for him, as for a relative she had heard talk of but had never met. She flipped through to evaluate and found that her mother’s pencil had visited many pages in uniform and tidy cursive writing. Gwen indulged a few moments of perusing the pages and stopped at one notation. In the margin her mother had written “These 3 lines” next to a few lines in the middle of a long poem: “There is no help for these things; none to mend / And none to mar; not all our songs, O friend, / Will make death clear or make life durable.” Gwen memorized them. As a teenager, at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis, she had begun memorizing poetry, thinking that if she was ever taken hostage it would be good to be able to recite poetry to herself. She had never been taken hostage or even been trapped in an elevator or a car in a snowstorm, but it turned out such extraordinary circumstances were not a necessary prerequisite to needing poetry in her head. She put Swinburne in the pile to keep for herself.
Then from the shelf to the drawers, there were the fledging books: eager manuscripts resting in slender boxes typed on onion skin paper, the product of meticulous editing and skilled striking of the keys of the Underwood typewriter marking the minutes into the deepest night when class preparation gave way to scholarship. How could they, of value to no one, be cast into oblivion?
“Any passengers who are platinum or gold or in the military, in uniform, please board at this time.”
This hefty tome of literary criticism that now filled her hands was not the only book she had selected to take for herself—many would be shipped or were set aside for her return trips that promised to be every other month. She had decided this book was worth taking on the airplane despite its size because she had read another work by the same author, a sweeping survey of great literature that had brought to mind several authors scarcely known or forgotten whom she rediscovered with a passion. She was hoping to find a reference to a writer who addressed her important questions or offered a kindred spirit. However, after a glance at the opening chapter, the table of contents and a few random pages, she found that this book was a prequel to the great work she had already read. Of course she thought; the magnum opus is the product of a lifetime of writing on the same subjects. The grand finale would be nothing new as much as a compilation of various previous forays into scholarship, such as this hefty fellow. Now what to do with it? Glancing around she saw a trash can over her left shoulder, but the opening was a circle too small to accommodate the book. Putting it in the trash seemed inappropriate anyway, not to mention a gross infraction of recycling. After a moment’s reflection, she casually and surreptitiously let it slide down from her chair and rest on the ground between the chair and the column separating her row of seats from another. She nearly looked up to see if she had been caught in the act. Then she realized that anyone would assume that she had dropped it unintentionally and might point that out to her. After seconds, she was certain no one had noticed.
That left her with one book to read. She extracted a small paperback from her bag– her lesson book, her guide to living. Just perusing certain lines refreshed her precepts: value the living moment because death can happen to anyone at any time; appreciate that adversity makes us who we are; know that things can always get worse and that there is scarcely a situation on which the dispassionate mind can gaze without some consolation if reason is brought to bear; there is no point in thinking pointlessly and reflecting on the past the past and anticipating the future, neither of which we can control, constitutes pointless thinking. She reflected on the natural and common suffering of all humankind.
“We are now ready to board passengers in group one.”
Still time to find a few choice passages of Seneca and take in his direct, simple and profound observations. Like a book mark, resting between pages 50 and 51 of Essays and Letters of Seneca was another boarding pass from another trip to Tucson. She was not surprised that she had made sure to bring Seneca on that trip. December 6—the date of the trip made from Tucson with her parents. Why could she not visualize their all three being at this very point, ready to board the airplane, probably through the same gate, at the same time? Although that flight was a void, the three days preceding the departure was a montage of scenes as clear as those of a movie watched for the fourth time the night before. The scenes had all the horrible wrongness of a nightmare and they ran one into another in a frenzy. Relatives and acquaintances to contact, the coroner to call, funeral arrangements, choosing a casket, packing her mother for the tip to Oklahoma, going out to dinner and trying for a few minutes to cheat pain. She wondered if any other event could rival funeral arrangements for the degree of logistical planning. A wedding didn’t compare—for that, there were long stretches of time to prepare and no jumping up to busy one’s brain. With death, activity was necessity– get things done, get worn out, and don’t stop to reflect or the surreal sadness will catch you.
She glanced up from Seneca and made a note to herself to remember how it felt to know something had happened but to have no clear memory of it at all as a window to understanding in some small degree what it must be like for her mother. She had gone well beyond her impatience from the earlier days of her mother’s dementia in describing in surprised or frustrated tones to her some event that it would seem impossible to forget or some conversation that had just taken place. She took it for granted now that most of what transpired would be forgotten. The culminating point of that trip was as vivid as the prequel: Dallas airport where they met up with her husband and fifteen-year old son. What a relief she had felt to see them and to let her husband take over some responsibility and drive them all in the rented van to the rural wilds of Oklahoma for her brother’s funeral. Their rendezvous was easy and precise. It would turn out that all of the events of the next two days would luckily be that way. People would gather on time, from near and far, without the drama of a delay or impediment, under a vast western sky of grey, warming clouds and slivers of sun. Four months ago…not long, but long enough to dull the shock of sudden death and break down some of the old links—still recent enough to reflect on the sad beauties of a gathering of people so disposed to remember only the best and pour out a love for his sake that would have been denied him while he was living.
Time to board, but with her trusty Seneca placed on the top of the unzipped bag.
“The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. Please make sure that all of your carry-on baggage is securely stowed in the overhead compartment or the seat in front of you.” After a pause, the young male flight attendant continued: “We have found a book in the departure lounge. If anyone has lost The Literary Canon please ring your attendant call button.”
Gwen felt a sharp surprise and a sudden twinge of guilt as if she had been caught in a wrongdoing, such that she almost, without thinking, reached for the button prepared to pretend to she had lost the discarded item.
The voice resumed in a jocular tone after a space of silence, “Okay, if not, it will stay in Tucson.”
Reason quelled her feelings, and the book with many other things stayed in Tucson.
Seneca advised keeping death before our eyes basically because the certainty of death gives us perspective. In particular, keeping the reality of death in mind causes us to value the people in our lives, and doing so consequently waylays regrets after their death. It also reminds us to make the most of every day, countering the notion that life is short. Further, remembering the value of any living day helps to silence complaining and procrastinating because death always looms a possible occurrence at any time. Another related way of describing the value of death is the phrase that I came across in the book Genius by Harold Bloom: “Death makes life beautiful.” Those views of death are helpful in how to live more than in how to cope with the death of another, which is the realm of death where I find myself wandering and wondering. There, poetry emerges from the shadows as a guide, since there is no more poetic topic than death. I wanted an arresting and memorable articulation of the idea that death is natural and that immortality is not a thing anyone would wish for—an idea of true consolation. I found the following lines from Swinburne that serve that purpose perfectly.
From too much love of living,
From fear and hope set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
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 Amazon.com 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
The lines I have set forth below, from Emily Bronte’s poem, “Thou standest in the greenwood now,” came to mind early this morning when I was thinking about replacing one love with another.
I gazed upon the cloudless moon
And loved her all the night
Till morning came and ardent noon,
Then I forgot her light.
No– not forgot–eternally
Remains her memory dear;
But could the day seem dark to me
Because the night was fair?
I always liked to imagine Bronte coming upon the image of these lines as she actually gazed upon a cloudless moon. She was a lover and observer of nature and, from her small bedroom, with the bed pushed against the wall and under the window, she no doubt did gaze upon the moon. Even so, my literal interpretation of the poet’s appreciation of the moon and its beauty gives way to a metaphorical one, particularly with the lines, “eternally remains her memory dear.” The moon will come back, through its phases night after night, so there is no need to keep the memory eternally. Eternal memories are for the dead.
In the seamless web of ideas, the theme here is connected to the Stoic principal that I hold true and have written about several times in this blog: don’t miss the living moment by letting the past steal what belongs to the present.
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.