Recalling Philosophy is not Living Philosophy

Those who pioneered the old paths are guides, they are not our masters. Truth lies open to all, for there is no monopoly on the truth. And there is plenty of it for future generations to uncover. -Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 33

I've been thinking a lot about Stoic progress. It's been on my mind since I started creating Episode 16 of the podcast and I finished that in April of 2018 so, as I said, it's been a while. Primarily I want to know that I am growing. Because if I'm not, what's the point? But I also think about the Stoic community. What helps advance the philosophy? What moves practitioners further towards flourishing and what, conversely, creates roadblocks?  While thinking on such things, I have been rereading Seneca's letters to Lucilius. A few days ago Letter 33 drew me in, because the theme overlaps with my present fixation. In it, Seneca shoots down "soundbite Stoicism," pooh-poohs veneration of the early Stoics, and advocates for a lived, embodied Stoicism.

Seneca did not use the term soundbite, of course. Instead He speaks against the use of quotes and aphorisms. First, he claims that pithy quotes are the sign of an uneven philosophy. Apparently good quotes stand out because the writing around them is subpar? He goes on to say that memorizing such sayings is immature. In the modern context this is quite a statement. Today's Stoics certainly enjoy a good ancient quote. One of the easier ways to gather likes on social-media is to post a simple quote from one of the Stoics. "I needed to hear that today," and, "wow," will soon flood the comments. Even in Seneca's own time, Stoic students were definitely using memorization as a tool for growth. I mean, what's pithier than the famous, "Bear and forebear?" And yet, Seneca didn't trust memorization. This is because he believed there was a wide divide between remembering something and knowing something. As he said about memorizers, "they never venture to do for themselves the things they have spent such a long time learning." Here is Seneca's real issue with quotes. He saw a danger in believing that memorizing philosophy was as good as wise action. The teacher, Musonius Rufus, would have agreed. As he said, "practicing each virtue always must follow learning the lessons appropriate to it, or it is pointless for us to learn about it." It doesn't matter if we can recall philosophy, it matters that we embody philosophy. It's this idea of embodied Stoicism that I tried to speak on in Episode 16:Progress, and that has remained with me for nearly a year.

On the theme of living out our philosophy, Seneca finds reason to deride the veneration of earlier thinkers. "But in the case of an adult who has made incontestable progress it is disgraceful to go hunting after gems of wisdom, and prop themself up with the briefest of the best-known sayings, and be dependent on memory as well; it is time they stand on their own two feet. They should be creating such maxims, not memorizing them. It is disgraceful that one who is old or in sight of old age should have a wisdom deriving solely from their notebook. 'Zeno said this.’ And what have you said? 'Cleanthes said that.’ What have you said? How much longer are you going to serve under other's orders? Assume authority yourself and utter something that may be handed down to posterity. Produce something from your own resources." What does it matter what Zeno once said if we don't have thoughts of our own? Seneca saw such “notebook philosophy” as not only dangerous for the individual but for the philosophy. First, Zeno-said, or Epictetus-said Stoicism calcifies the philosophy. As he put it, "these people who never attain independence follow the views of their predecessors even in matters in which everyone else without exception has abandoned the older authority." Second, those who simply parrot the philosophy can never expand it. "No new findings will ever be made if we rest in the findings of the past."

It's Stoicism's capacity for growth that excites me; whether it's an expansion of practices that help individuals flourish, or the expansion of our ethics as we apply Stoicism to modern social issues. Seneca had a similar wish for a vital Stoicism. We also share a concern that the world marks progress incorrectly and, therefore, leads people to a pallid stoicism that can not fulfill the full promise of philosophy. Letter 33 is certainly worth a read. After that though, it’s fine to forget the words if, instead, we act with the freedom we have to be our own guides.

Living What Can Be Lived

I've been having trouble finding peace. Both my wife and I need to change jobs soon and I'm not certain how that's going to happen and what it will entail. Because of this I've been spending a lot of time dwelling on the future, which is a terrible idea. In fact, I'd say that the reason I'm not at peace is specifically because I'm thinking about the future. Stoicism would tell me the same thing.

It's fundamental to Stoicism that the only moment we ever have access to is the present moment. The past is out of our reach and can never be changed, the future simply isn't, and there's frankly no guarantee that it ever will be. As Seneca put it, "These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concern me, and the future does not concern me yet."  When we Stoics think about what we can and can't control, it should be obvious that we can only use our energy in the here and now. And yet it can be so very difficult to keep our thoughts in the present.

I find it interesting that Seneca uses, "cutting away," when addressing the past and future because another Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, would speak similarly over a hundred years later. In Meditations 12:3 he writes, “If you can cut yourself - your mind - free of what other people do and say, of what you've said and done, of the things that you're afraid will happen...” Again we are advised to cut ourselves free from past regrets and future worries. The effort, even violence, of the imagery speaks to me right now. I definitely feel the entanglement that comes with a focus on either the past or the future. I would love to gain some tranquility in the present moment, but cutting away the thoughts I’m wrapped up in will take real effort.

Stoicism is present-oriented, and yet it doesn't ask us to live only for the moment. We all have projects, we are part of things that continue on (hopefully). We have to expend effort towards future events if we're going to flourish in our lives. But there's a way to do this that focuses on what we control rather than on what we don't. In my job hunt, I can't get someone to pick up my resume and call me for an interview, but I can send out that resume. I can't make my wife's work load any less, but I can take on tasks that ease the work at home and also make myself available for any other support she needs. And why wouldn't I do these things? After all, the things Stoicism asks us to cut away are wastes of our time and attention. They are things that we can never control. They are what Stoicism refers to as impressions and, in the case of imagined future events, these impressions can only be wrong ones. Latter in the same passage, Marcus also writes, "If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past...and concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present)...then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you." Concentrate on living what can be lived. It's tremendous advice, if also difficult. I've known the tranquility, and peace, and also kindness, that comes from concentrating on the present. It's something I want and need to get back to.

Hopefully soon.

Perhaps right now?