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.