Thought over Culture

The controversy over whether to dissociate Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton is of far less importance than (just to name a few) climate change, terrorism, gun absolutism, racially motivated police shootings, and speciesism, that last of which ruins the environment, damages our health, and makes us cruel. Nonetheless, the question of whether or not to remove Wilson’s name has gained attention and might have more importance than it seems in revealing just how unthinking a species we tend to be. Why not step back and consider why we have a mania for naming buildings, bridges, roads, and concert halls after some man (and I mean man as opposed to woman, although I am not suggesting that the practice would be more defensible if only it were more gender neutral). I would hate to be called upon to write the essay explaining in 500 words or less why it is important that we put mens’ names on things. On the other hand, I could write the essay why it makes little sense that we memorialize men, from the old days and recent times, in this way.

Any man who has received this “honor” did whatever it was he did in his own self-interest and reaped the rewards. Why must we reward someone who was doing what he wanted and probably succeeded at least to some degree whether president, senator, mayor, or baseball player. Second, we did not need the example of Woodrow Wilson to know that there is no such thing as a “great man.” I have no reverence for a slave owner. I don’t think a single founding father who owned slaves could be seen as a positive sum of very negative parts. They did some notable things (again, of their own volition and to their own aggrandizement while alive), but if they owned slaves, they were not moral in that regard, which is not hindsight given it was the age of reason and enlightenment, that most of the Western world at that time did not own slaves, and that England was on the verge of ending, or had abolished slavery. They also of course were sexist, appropriating for themselves power and rights and depriving women of pursuing meaningful lives. As with abolition, ideas of the equality of women were also available; there was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, if they needed help in understanding why subjugating half of the population was wrong.  Leaving the “great man” idea aside, I must wonder what does anyone, particularly the deceased, gain by having his name attached to a structure. It must be for the gratification of his heirs, who certainly have no right to special treatment by the accident of their relationship to one of these successful men.

Vaguely sensing that “honoring” someone in this way is the “right” approach probably just counts as one of those things that we do without any real thought at all—it’s just what we do.  However, although it no doubt figures as a lapse in the exercise of reason, it might be more than a cultural eccentricity or neutral practice of no importance, like shaking hands rather than saluting, bowing, or embracing. The practice can lend itself to a more insidious use because the name can reflect not so much the famous “great” man per se as much as what he stands for, and the group in favor of emblazoning his name on the roadways uses the name to promote its self-serving and recondite agenda.

The only exception to the pointlessness of naming buildings, bridges, and roads is when a large donor of funds insists on having his name attached to the project. Okay, if there is quid pro quo attached to the money, then it must be done; spend the money and leave for no one to bother with the question, “What petty thrill of fame does that donor get from seeing his name on the placard?”


Thinking About Thinking

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

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

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

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

The Act of Doing Nothing: One Battlefield of Reason and Emotion

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.

Dear Seneca

December 4, 2013

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Rome, Italy


Dear Seneca, or should I say, “Salve Magister,”

You have on many occasions given Stoic advice through letters to friends, so perhaps I might impose upon you with my own particular difficulty in achieving the tranquility that is the Stoic goal. I have no philosophical school where I can gather with young and old students of philosophy under a columned portico, as you have, to refine or rehearse my philosophy.  I have only your essays and letters to read and, I might add, the book of one other acolyte: a tidy and modern compendium of Stoic thought that is helpful. You, unlike him, however, seem genuinely interested in helping others create their own Stoicism: to develop the faculty of reason as the tool to blunt the brutality of negative and excessive emotion, curtail pointless thinking, vitiate the power of external events, and find the present moment satisfactory.

So what is my problem?  It is one of practice more than of understanding. I am too often at the whim of external events and I am at times at a loss to keep my thoughts from wandering into the past and future with painful consequences. As for the first, I suffer too much my external losses more than I am jubilant about any external gratifications.  Actually, I have few gratifications and minimal expectations, so going overboard with joy is less of a concern than withstanding the blows that fate has handed to me. With regard to my thoughts drifting to the past and present (those two vast regions over which I have no control) I have fears, yes that would be the word, of the future, although Reason repeats the senselessness of that:  how do I know there is such a future?  After all, I might die tomorrow. Such thoughts of possible future pain and losses are pointless and serve only to disturb my tranquility.  And the past—I have cured myself to a large extent of the worst symptoms of nostalgia, but transience can still afflict me. That nocturnal creature still waits for the dark and quiet moment to spring.

How troubled am I by these two weaknesses in my philosophical practice? To do my feeble Stoicism justice, I will point out that I understand that the mind is its own place—an apt summation of the centrality and vitality of the internal world, penned by John Milton, a writer centuries after your time. A mind, i.e. the rational part of a human being, has the power to create its own tranquility, and the “place” is the world within ourselves, free from the buffets of daily events.  As you have noted, the person who is raised up or cast down by external events is bound to be cast down much of the time and made miserable.  And why should such externalities enjoy sych great weigh and power anyway when so much is trivial? For the external world, I try to confront events as an inevitable series of pleasant and unpleasant curiosities, knowing that things can always be worse, and that I have not been bereft of much good fortune, even in my misfortunes.  My misfortunes have made me who I am, and the person who has not known suffering is as limited in mind and character as an infant.  Also, I discount the views and opinions of others, valuing only those belonging to a few people who create with me an audience unto ourselves. Yet, I find myself “hoping for good news” –a compliment, an acknowledgment, recognition, a job.

Further to my credit, regarding emotions, I will say that Stoicism is a bulwark, and without it I would flounder in a morass of emotion, even worse tangled in the belief that such an emotional state was necessary and typical.  To that end, I do keep death in mind to lend perspective in its own unique way, and I do remember that suffering forms the common lot of us all; I do grasp the usefulness of suffering, the triviality of most occurrences, and the pointlessness of pointless thinking and that dwelling on the unchangeable past and remote future, over which I have no control, constitutes the most pointless kind of thinking. I do cling to reason as what we have that distinguishes us from other animals and I do see emotion for the evil that it is. However, I do not do any of those things with sufficient consistency.

Have you any techniques for teaching Reason how better to confront and conquer these errant thoughts and encroaching feelings?  Or maybe you could state the same ideas, just packaged in a new, handy aphorism, or made accessible through comparison, anecdote, or example?

I await your response in the certainty that your thoughtful words will lead to greater wisdom and tranquility and I will be less of a burden to myself and others. If not, I will re-read your writings, take recourse to literature, stick to Reason, and attempt to carry on with the given day as if it were my last.




“If” Reason Prevails

A fellow blogger posted the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling as part of her goal to post a poem and accompanying commentary every week. I had never read the poem and was struck by the wealth of Stoic sentiment in the poem, so that I have in my mind changed the final words of the poem to “and then you will be a Stoic my child.”  Forget the loss of scansion and rhyme–the change is felicitous and eliminates the male bias, as there is certainly nothing in the poem that pertains exclusively to males.

I take this as a paean to Stoicism and wonder if there is anyone who would read the poem and simply disagree with the list of qualities as advisable and admirable. Would anyone think it is better to live subject to the whim of circumstance, complain, follow the worst examples of human conduct, and be roiled emotions, both negative and excessive?  The poem has as its underlying assumption that there is a benefit in living a life as described—ostensibly to become “a man”, but what exactly does that mean? Here Kipling, aside from the sexism, falls short in not recognizing the real reason to behave as he has described. It is not to be admired or to have people speak well of you.  That would be the exact opposite of what is recommended because it would place your self -worth in the hands and foibles of others and the external world.  It isn’t even so you can feel proud of  yourself at night. Stoicism makes it clear that the benefit of controlling your emotions and freeing yourself from the buffets of the external world is achieving tranquility—a state beneficial to ourselves and those around us, which is a kind of calm happiness or a freedom from the weight of unhappiness.

Kipling also does not provide the means to achieve the desired qualities.  He leaves the effort to a big “if”. Seneca, my main Stoic source, writes that reason, our special talent as humans, the only thing that not only distinguishes us from other animals but makes us in some degree superior, counters emotions.   Feelings are not our friends; emotions and feelings—the negative ones and any emotion in excess–can torment us, make us act regrettably and even against our best interests.  On the other hand, we benefit from thinking (1) that things could always be worse, (2) that certain things (past, much of the future and some of the present) are beyond our control so that dwelling upon them is pointless thinking, and there is nothing more pointless than thinking pointlessly, (3) that every day could be our last, and (4) that we share suffering in common with all humanity.  Reason will also allow us to not be raised up or cast down by many externals, such the opinions of others, by questioning why the opinion of others should matter.  Reason allows the consolations of literature and philosophy to make inroads into our lives and gives us the chance to comfort ourselves. Without reason we run amok, indulge our own worst qualities, complain bitterly and make others miserable around us.

This poem’s tacit allegiance to Stoicism is not surprising when considering the stereotypical Britain—dispassionate, with a stiff upper lip. I am sure cultural anthropologists must have studied how one group of people develop a set of qualities or at least hold them as ideals.  I can’t see how or why the precepts of the Ancient Romans lingered and spread on the British Isles.  Strange to think how on their native soil, Italy, how much less Stoic ideals pertain, at least according to the stereotypical idea of the Italian population. It must be a phenomenon of the coincidence possible in human thought, rather than influence, that would make Seneca nod his head in agreement with this poem from a future, unimaginable world. I have included the poem below:

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!


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.






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.