At Least You Have a Loin Cloth: does thinking about worse circumstances help?

In the Stoic view there are no circumstances so bad that dispassionate thought will not bring tranquility or at least diminish anguish. That palliative role of thinking in the face of hardship stands as one explanation why Reason (synonymous with thinking as opposed to feeling) is so vital to Stoicism. If we reason with ourselves we can make ourselves less miserable. That reasoning process includes certain specific kinds of thoughts, including (perhaps not limited to) the following: I never know what else might have happened in the erratic course of events, so I cannot be sure I have anything to lament, not knowing what else might have happened; death can come at any time, so I should appreciate whatever is afoot; what torments me is beyond my control and even might not happen; suffering is the way of the world and life; much of what is considered unfortunate is simply a matter of perspective or opinion and might simply be a product of disappointed expectation.  Last, and most at issue here, is the thought that things can always be worse.  To the destitute slave in ancient Rome who has nothing but a loin cloth, the mitigating thought is: How much worse would you be without the loin cloth?  If the answer is nothing could be worse—there is no consolation—then, the Stoics would say, Nature has given you a way out, which we can either wait for or hasten, suicide being an option.

            That phrase in the Stoic thought-kit is in common and current use, of course.  People routinely say as a platitude, “things could be worse.” Frequent usage does not necessarily devalue the phrase; however, not really understanding that things could be worse makes the phrase meaningless. So, if one, Stoic-wise, actually bears in mind that things could be worse, does that help?  One might petulantly protest, to heck with thinking it could be worse, I am damned miserable right now.  That would be indulging the emotion, however, and would not be conducive to anything except more misery.  Any emotion that is indulged flourishes.  That realization sets up the analysis of this Stoic thought as effective or not in the context of life and its limitations. The question is not whether thinking how things could be worse is a wholly satisfying cure– rather, whether it is better than the alternatives. One alternative is the one just mentioned, abandoning thought and wallowing in emotion.  That can go to different levels from short term whining to total capitulation and viewing yourself as fortune’s fool, destined to suffer and powerless to dismiss any of your tormenting feelings. Joined to those states of mind would be complaining to others—that worst of offenses. To clarify–complaining to others is something other than asking for help or advice. If there is a real goal—some ascertainable point—to the conversation, it is not complaining, even though the content resounds of hardship. Even statements of fact about all the unpleasant things that have happened are not complaints, as long as it stops there. I see the following as the litmus test for complaining: can the hapless listener work with you to a decision; hatch a plan; offer  a way of thinking about a situation; give, or point out resources of, advice?  If not, then why have the conversation? Hint—this dialogue usually has a future component, and if the matter is entirely in the past, or a “matter of principle” then it belongs in the rubbish heap of complaining. Everyone has his or her own problems and if one starts up complaining, it is usually an invitation for the other to join in—to no avail to anyone involved. (One exception is grief—it is sui generis, but even it must be finally kept within ourselves).

            What are the alternatives to indulging one’s misery and complaining? There are drugs, I guess, but they come at a high price and are temporary. Certain kinds of exercise help, especially if they require thought.  Seneca suggested liberal arts study (literature and philosophy). Emily Brontë lost herself in her imagination. One might play an instrument or have some other kind of activity.  The problem with exercise and activities is that we might not be in a situation to have recourse to them.  That leaves using our brains—something always available. By pondering that platitude-encapsulated notion of how things easily could be worse, we are reminded at least to not indulge our emotions and to try to think; further, we must accept the axiomatic nature of the idea—if one looks at the world and life through time and in the present, of course things could be worse. However, after engaging our reason over our emotions and appreciating the immutable truth, does realizing that things could be worse actually work any magic to dull the blow? Without question it helps, I would say, the perennially dissatisfied, and is better than not doing it to combat a cohort of undesirables.  Thinking is free, bothers no one, and might bring an acceptance bordering on restored tranquility. I would conclude, then—yes, take that well-worn phrase to mind and possibly find relief where there was consternation. A loin cloth can be a wonderful thing.

The Philosophical Commencement Address

The commencement speech is one of the few times when students, faculty, and illustrious members of the community are asked to state their philosophy of life.  The assignment is not phrased in those words, but that is the gist and result because the commencement speech asks what is important in life and how life is best lived. That is eudemonistic philosophy in a nutshell. I heard a number of commencement addresses recently. I found some advice thought-provoking or inspiring, such as the analogy of navigating the demands of a corporate a job to the rigors of national diplomacy, and the simple advice “to be not afraid.” The words of these speeches aspire to wisdom, at times slump into platitudes, or simply go awry. On that last score, I heartily disagreed with one student speaker who declared that one should “chase joy.” Chasing joy is in my book the last thing one should do.  Joy comes as a by-product of meaningful endeavors; a life spent chasing it would be unfulfilling and wrought with frustration.  At best, if you were ever to get your hands on one of those plastic rabbits, the result would be, in the words of John Keats, “a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed, a burning forehead and parching tongue.”

In commencement addresses, one also must hear a great deal about “passion,” as that word must raise its insipid head anytime college and young people are in the picture. I object to passion as being at all important; why this insistent advocacy of enslavement to desire or dreams buoyed by that insidious and much touted state of hopefulness. The answer is, I think, that those advocates of passion have not thought it through and the word has become a stock phrase that unfortunately has not lost all of its meaning. Instead, I would suggest, if I were ever to be at the front of a field of caps and gowns, that interest, reasonable enthusiasm, and a nimble mind, able to leave one path for another as need be, serve one better than passionate devotion. Not to mention what happens to that high pitched emotion once it deflates—a likely possibility since the “success” it envisions might well not materialize. Obviously that is a basic Stoic idea, and one could draft a speech entirely from the values of Roman Stoicism. I would do so if I had the chance. Such a speech would emphasize the following:  use reason, be moderate, exercise intellectual self-sufficiency, create something of your own, learn for yourself without reference to external goals, remember that death is for everyone at any time, and comfort yourself because complaining to others assumes that you are suffering more than your hapless listener. Those phrases are all starting points, but our job in living is to understand and expand on those liminal ideas. But what about that other really big word in the commencement lexicon—“altruism.” No day at graduation exercises omits the call to do for others. Is there room for that in a Stoic commencement address? In living a life in accordance with the basic Stoic precepts just listed, the net effect would be a boon not only to yourself but others—our immediate inmates and associates would be spared excessive and unreasonable emotion, complaining, and would have the example of a moderate, intellectual, honest individual in their midst. That is of great value. Further, here is the truth about altruism that is shoved behind the curtain; nobody does anything without self-interest. Albert Schweitzer fulfilled himself and his interests in pitching his camp in Africa; every missionary that ever got on a ship to an unknown land was fulfilling his or her own agenda. In fact, the truth of self-interest at work in altruism comes out when people promote altruism by pointing out how much one will benefit and how good one will feel in helping others.  Therefore, a philosophical plan that focuses on the self is as likely, or more likely, to lead to altruistic acts as any other—unless that system counsels sitting in a cave and meditating. I don’t see that promoting anyone’s wellbeing, from the meditator to others.

One last realization that graduates must face that does not typically take center stage at graduation—there are impossibilities in this world. Despite all the goals one is supposed to strive for, heedless of failure, there are things that will never take place, such as being called upon to deliver a commencement address. As a Stoic, I know that not receiving that invitation is all right.  I have written my own — here it is — with the words of Seneca in mind on the topic of undertaking creative pursuits without regard to the external world –“Don’t ask why you did such things, you did them for yourself.”

I enjoy graduations more than any other ceremony we are from time to time called upon to attend. I could put that in even stronger terms; they are for me important and memorable and meaningful.  Unlike any other convocation it marks academic accomplishment and a turning point in life; it reflects on the past, present ,and future all at once.  It celebrates learning and fosters inter-generational warmth and goodwill. It calls upon us for an hour or so and maybe longer to be philosophical.

Salve et Vale Class of 2014.

Things Stoics Think About

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.




A Few Stoic Basics

From Seneca’s letters and essays

On Adversity

“You are a great man, but how can I know if Fortune has never given you a chance to display your prowess? For self-knowledge testing is necessary; no one can discover what he can do except by trying.  I account you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate.”

On Moderation:

“All excesses are injurious.”

On Seizing the Day:

“How much of your life has been pilfered by others, how much of it you have lost, or dispensed on groundless regret, greedy desire, foolish gladness, polite society—only then will your death seem premature.  Why should this be? It is because you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your mind.  You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone else may be your last.”

On the Shortcomings of Pleasure:

“All very great blessings involve anxiety; good fortune is less to be trusted than any other.  To preserve felicity new felicity is needed.  Anything that comes by chance is unstable, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall.”

On Hoping:

“When men dare not or cannot attain as much as they crave and rest wholly on hopes, they are unstable and vacillating, as is inevitable for persons in suspense.”

“Expectancy is the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow it loses today. Everything future is uncertain.”



On Meditation

While listening to the radio show “on Being” broadcast on public radio on Sunday mornings, I heard an interviewed guest mention meditation and in particular the mantra used by a group of meditators.  It stuck with me because if Stoics had a mantra, that would be it. Before I explain what is essentially Stoic about the mantra, let me say up front that I have found little if any value in meditation– sitting in one spot and letting some word rattle around my brain is not Stoic per se or useful in my opinion, that view being based on experience with transcendental meditation (TM) in the late 1970s—TM, that cleverly marketed version of ancient practices. To learn how to do TM, I paid my fees and got my mantra, which was a German woman’s name, Inge.  It turns out now I have a friend and neighbor from Berlin whose name is my mantra.  The TM gurus cautioned the initiates strongly not to ever reveal one’s mantra.  Why?  It would weaken it, they said.  And why should that be?  I came to understand that if the TM folks aren’t handing out mantras they are offering little in exchange for their fees other than the chance to gather to watch video tapes of a bearded man rattling on about cosmic consciousness in an abstruse and boring dialogue heavy with repetitive metaphors. There was another element (which philosophy does not have): the gathering together to share experiences in meditation and to meditate together—the latter of which is a bizarre and uncomfortable experience.  In the end, I found meditation in the morning was simply an invitation to fall back to sleep; I felt no benefits, doubted the attainability or the existence of cosmic consciousness, and concluded that if there were such a state of mental improvement it waited at the end of other methods than repeating “ Inge” to myself twice a day. These many long years later, I recognize the similarity between cosmic conscious and a Stoic sage—a person whom Seneca readily admits is not to be found except in the rarest of cases!

So, back to the radio show. I am listening to an interview of a Catholic brother (a member of another group of people whose notions do not square with mine) who mentions a group of meditators and he reveals that their mantra (apparently they are free to divulge their mantra) is “here.” Given that he spoke that word on the radio he had to spell it to distinguish it from “hear.”  As a Stoic, I right away saw the value of that word as something one might focus on.

“Here” denotes the present moment, denying the importance of the uncontrollable past and the uncertain future.  Any happiness (or more moderately phrased, any respite from trouble) can be found only in the present moment; confine whatever miseries we have to the present without compounding them with the ones that have not yet arrived.

I feel particularly under attack these days by anticipation and call upon my reason to stop thinking pointlessly, knowing that by living in the future I miss this day and whatever good it might bring, or, if little good, at least more tranquility  than if I import past and future ills. Hence I need to focus on “here” — this day, this moment.  Lying awake a few nights ago, unable to sleep, a common occurrence, the word “here” popped into my head. I used it as my mantra, corralling my wandering thoughts repeatedly back to that word as they ran riot around my too-busy brain.  It worked—I fell asleep.


“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!

Death Cafes

An article on the front page of the New York Times last week discussed a new type of social gathering that the reporter found to be surprising and, evidently, newsworthy: a “death cafe”—a group of people meeting in a café or diner to discuss death from  practical and philosophical perspectives.  Meeting to discuss any single, given topic is not unusual—think about groups of new parents to discuss child raising, PTO groups,  or bible study groups. The surprise and novelty of the meetings come from the topic– death, which our society apparently does not consider discussion-worthy or the topic for passing a convivial hour or two.

As a practicing Stoic, I find a focus on death normal and advisable.  I similarly find it droll that people are intrigued by the question, “What would you do if this were your last day?” Surely you should live every day as if it were. Roman Stoicism, as I have extrapolated and adapted it from Seneca, puts death at the heart of how to live a tranquil life and teaches the value of keeping death in mind and living every day as if it could be your last.

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 so that you and your loved ones will die soon, if you were  nonetheless to 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 our life is terminable, and then there will be nothing (an end or a transition, but certainly not the same thing).  Or–if things are really bad, then death is a consolation.

One author put it generally that “Death makes life beautiful.”  Indeed, although it is really incomprehensible, try to imagine immortality.  Then, 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.”

Even according death such a central role in my life, I would not necessarily get excited about death cafes because the value of the discussion depends on what is being said about death. There could be discussion about it it that would not be beneficial, but simply depressing because something as potent as death, something that can give such a perspective on life, has to be powerful and it is– powerfully awful.  I can’t like death, which takes away people I love; I can only make use of it.  Not ever having attended a “death café” I can’t know what others say about death, but I suspect there is a lot of trying to reconcile death with life, i.e., trying to feel okay about dying or having others die.  As a Stoic, I will simply be pragmatic about it.


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.





Thoughts Provoked by a Fellow Blogger: Creativity and Emotion


I had imagined that having a blog would lead to a back and forth with others of similar interests, and it seems that is finally happening to some degree.  Two instances of inter blogging have provoked some thoughts leading to the following reactions. This is the first one.

A fellow Keatsian blogger discussed in a post and in a response to my comment that a state of depression fueled Keats’s creativity and that adhering to the golden mean would vitiate the creative expression of writers, who, like Keats, experience intense feelings and pour them into their art. The question of whether moderation (and its goal of tranquility) is at odds with creativity has puzzled me for a while.  I am almost led to propose a conundrum: if everything is to be taken in moderation does that include moderation?  Leaving such tail-chasing aside, I would agree that an emotional maelstrom might appear an artistic catalyst. Seneca allowed a passionate and immoderate mindset for writing: he referred to the statements of Plato and Aristotle and their views on the mixture of madness and genius typical to great poetic creativity, then articulated his own belief: “ . . . in any case only a mind that is excited is capable of great and transcendent utterance. . . . It must tear itself from the trodden path, palpitate with frenzy. . . ” Similarly, Keats,  in a poem included in a letter to his brother George, described the poet as being in a “trance,” capable of perceptions like no other person.  Keats also stated in his letters that, when immersed in writing, he was in a sort of fever and that the presence of any person, “burst on him like a thunderbolt.”  It might seem, then, that there is an exception to the golden rule of moderation when it comes to writers or other creators—that for them, being in the thrall of non-moderate emotion is important.  I, however, don’t think that is exactly the case.

First, the truly agitated person, spinning in giddy delight or sunk into despair, does not do great work, generally. Personally, I could think of nothing less conducive to productive writing than just having found out some news that would send me into the transports of joy (whatever such news might be I have trouble imagining) or just having received one of those inevitable and dreadful phone calls.  I might try to escape those high or low feelings by writing, but they would not be driving or aiding the process. I think writers get into the zone, such as the state of mind that Keats described for himself and that such a state is a form of tranquility because the mind is engaged and life is purposeful.  Simply stated, for those who like to write, there is nothing that feels better than getting lost in the act of writing, which is a focused but not immoderate emotional state–it is not one of exaltation or despair.   That is not to say that Keats did not know suffering, feel depressed, and wish for death. Without his loses, he would not have written what he wrote, would not have been who he was. As he described it, one can only know what is tested on the pulses. He knew those experiences, but he did not feel them while writing, and he struggled, by recourse to his philosophy, to keep his head above them—to fight his “horrid morbidity of temperament.” That is the most anyone can do, unless a sage (Seneca admitted that such persons were scarcely to be found).

Therefore, aiming at moderation and the resulting tranquility will not ward off misery at all times. We will still suffer and have enough experience to supply our work, should we turn poetic. With the tool of our reason and our goal of tranquility, there is some way out at least and we need not succumb to ragged emotions, irrationally charging around like King Lear, seething with anger, gnawed by remorse, or simply whining and complaining.