Stoicism

heracles_lion_1

Today I graduated from the Marcus Aurelius School of the College of Stoic Philosophers.  The following eleven aphorisms were written by me during my final quarter.  We call this practice hypomnemata, a term perhaps best translated as “remembrances”.  More than simply well wishes, or expressions of hope, hypomnema are records of struggle.  Each “remembrance” is an application of Stoic dogma to a real problem we encountered in our day.  I hope you enjoy them. 

 

Remember that eudaimonia is more than a pleasant subjective state.  Not only is it the goal of all our actions, well intended or misguided, but also our fulfillment and the state of harmony with the universe.  It is in eudaimonia that we act in keeping with the divine logos and our own individual nature.  How do we achieve eudaimonia?  By keeping in mind what is “up-to-us” and “not-up-to-us”.  By disciplining our desires and examining our judgements.  By doing these things we fulfill our duty to ourselves as rational beings, to the social web in which we live, and to the divine cosmos.  Through this we achieve arete – excellence of character.  Through excellence we achieve human flourishing and happiness.

The universe being ruled by divine providence, consider your part.  It is not to predict accurately some far future state, nor are you responsible for understanding all of antiquity.  Your assigned part in the universal drama is only this present life – even less burdensome than that, only the present moment.  Fulfill your duty and resolve the action before you with honor.  Is that not enough for any man?

Your character, as you presently find it, you have inherited from yesterday.  What shape it takes tomorrow will depend on your actions and judgements today.  The care of your future self, it has been placed in your charge as a sacred duty.

Begone vain fantasies!  Dreams of fame and fortune, even if your subjects are to be preferred over their opposites, they are only so if gained through personal excellence.  But you, puffed up soap bubbles that you are, have no part in labor, or discipline, or prudence, or wisdom.  That is to say, you take me further away from the very things you feature!  Despite this, I should not be angry with you, for you are the products of an imagination I have trained.  I should not even be angry with myself, for by catching you mid-stream, I am making progress.

Always consider this before any course of action: ‘Will this activity make me better or worse?’  If better, then you should pursue it gladly, even if it requires effort and some trouble.  If worse, you should turn away from it, even if it seemed pleasant before you examined it.

Happiness is not a possession or a construction – even a mental one.  Happiness is a state of the soul.  We usually notice it only in passing from it, in hindsight.  While we are happy, we are usually too absorbed in it to mentally comment on our condition.  Perhaps it is this lack of a need for comment that characterizes happiness?  We could describe it as a self-sufficient configuration of the universe.  It does not lack our psychic participation, but is filled up by it, leaving no remainder.  It is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, a great ‘Yes’ to life as it is. Happiness is therefore theoretically possible in every moment, since assent lies entirely within our power.

Certainly, no one wishes to be ill.  Health is preferred by all, but in our culture it has become an obsession among a certain class of people.  Care of the body is almost a new religion where we equate physical well being to moral goodness, and seek to propitiate the forces of decay with arcane diets and rituals.  Instead, we should regard this body as an inheritance from the gods – certainly to be cared for, but ultimately to be used.  It is a physical thing, and it is the nature of physical things to be subject to wear.  We may not enjoy illness, but it should not surprise or alarm us.

On what target do you set your aim?  Consider the father of philosophy himself, Socrates.  Socrates thought little of riches, and while he had fame he did not seek it, nor did he fear death.  Throughout his life he followed the charge laid upon him by the god Apollo at Delphi.  This was his highest duty, and yet he did not abandon his fellow man but lived among them, married, raised children and served his city.  Why would he do these things except that they too were in keeping with his duty to God? What do we learn from this?  That our highest duty is to follow the divine, to do nothing contrary to reason, and like a good soldier to not abandon our post.

Are even arguments and feuds according to divine providence?  Yes! For anger is an emotion and therefore the child of judgement. Perhaps the reason for the judgement has been twisted or long forgotten, so do your part and drag it up to the light!  Examine it and see if you cannot find some valid point in it, something good, true, and beautiful.  Remember that you cannot be harmed by truth, but go gently here.  Remember that self-care is the first imperative of all beings, and no one willingly gives sway to an enemy.  Even wives will concede a point if it is made in a fair and kindly manner… eventually.

You will never know with certainty what any great mind of the past intended. Wisdom is not something you can hold, like a possession, rather it holds you, lifts you up, carries you through life, for the world is reason and you are a part of the world.  You can no more take it all in then you can drink the ocean.  The great thinkers you so admire will not give you answers.  They can only show you the way someone once traveled to find their own answers.  By all means, read their words, but do so as a guide for your own thoughts. As the greatest in wisdom have said, “Know thyself”, “Inquire within”.

A statue cannot be carved in a single blow.  It emerges from the rock slowly, freed by increment –  blow after persistent blow.  Each tiny change reveals the work of art within.  Be diligent, and patient with yourself.

 

I will be continuing on with the College as a Faculty member for our beginner’s  Stoic Essential Studies program.  If you are at all interested in Stoicism, or learning classic philosophy in its original context, please consider joining us.

seneca

I wrote this piece during my 3rd term of the Marcus Aurelius school.  My goal was self-instruction through dramaturgy, to capture the voice of Seneca’s excellent letters on virtue.  Seneca wrote these letters to various friends and confidants expressing the principles of Stoic philosophy in practical terms.  The largest extent collection we have is his letters to Lucilius.  Rather than insert myself into this venerable and enlightening conversation, I invented an imaginary interlocutor, Pugilius.   Anything the reader finds enlightening in this exercise can be attributed to the Stoic school and the wisdom of the imitated author Seneca.  Anything that grates on the ear or rings false is the fault of the actual author. 

Dear Pugilius,

Thank you for your recent letter. It pleased me to hear that you completed your most recent period of military service honorably. As you know, the importance of duty is a key tenant of our philosophy. In fulfilling our duty, we choose our own happiness. I don’t have to tell you that many find this sentiment strange. They imagine we advocate a life of drudgery. You and I know that this is not the case at all. Every man who shirks his duty feels the pain of regret, and every man who chooses to fulfill his rational obligations to that of which he is a part – that is to say the whole universe, knows the satisfaction of having fulfilled his purpose as a man. We do not suggest that one invents duties, but only fulfills the few simple things that nature asks of us – eating and sleeping with moderation, caring for our family, discharging our social obligations, acting rationally, and choosing excellence whenever possible. Truthfully it is only this choice that is up to us. The results are in the hands of the gods, but I am now drifting off topic.

In your letter you ask me if I think you should pursue elected office. You point out that so many elected officials seem to lack virtue – how true a statement; and suggest you may be able to serve the people better, thus improving the state and through it the whole of mankind. This is a noble sentiment, but you quite rightfully raise some concerns. Your father is aging and, as his eldest son, management of the family estate falls upon your shoulders. Also you have recently taken a wife, and dreams have recently suggested that you should return to your country home, focusing your energies there, for the betterment of your family. You note that doing so will no undoubtedly provide you with more time for reading and study. In short, you feel caught between two goods, unable to choose the better! Of course, all of our mental struggles are like this: weighing and judging between two of the same kind of thing. No one loses sleep over whether they prefer good things to bad.

And what is good? To live in accordance with nature; first our own rational nature, then our shared human nature, and finally what is natural to all. So first I must ask you, do you know your own nature? I do not have to ask you if you know the difference between seasoned military men and raw recruits. How both strive for the same goals: to show courage in the face of the enemy, to maintain discipline, to watch over their companions in the unit; yet how the scale of challenge appropriate to each is different. Recruits lack the seasoning of veterans. War is new to them and they cannot help but shake, while the older centurion bares even his wounds with patience. Experience makes us resistant to fear and experience cannot be rushed. For this reason the good commander places the veteran in the front and the recruit several ranks behind him, so he is not overwhelmed by the first sight of the enemy. The question we must ask therefore is not which choice is better, but which choice is better for you. In which of these realms: Rome or the country, will you best be able to practice virtue? It is true that this choice is not always up to us, but when a choice is before us, we should choose wisely. A brave commander must occasionally trust to the charge, yet it is foolish if he does not use strategy to gain the surest likelihood of victory. We should therefore be good strategists, and begin by consider the challenge before you, your own skills and abilities, and always keep in mind the goal of the campaign, namely excellence of character.

Politics first consists of seeking office, then in keeping office, and finally of leaving it. Let us consider each of these in turn, examine what choices are before us in each of them, and then reflect on what promises or challenges they hold for us in the pursuit of virtue.

Seeking office first consists of gaining money. Either you spend your own private fortune, or you gather it from wealthy men. If from the former, you deplete the resources of your own family. If you fail to return these resources you have neglected that which the universe has set in your care. If you succeed in your election campaign, and use your new position for financial gain, you have violated the trust which placed you in office. You should spend, therefore, only the money you can afford to lose. For most men, the cost is simply too high. For this reason, the politically inclined seek out wealthy benefactors; yet they forget these benefactors are in exactly the same position. Why should rich men spend wealth on a political campaign except to see some benefit? It is a rare man who devotes his wealth to the care of the Empire for its own sake. Unless you know such a modern day Cato, you will be forced to raise money from men of lesser character. Here again you face the same difficulty as before. If you do not repay their investment willingly, they will seek repayment through other, less savory, means. If you misuse your exalted position, you have betrayed the public trust. A difficult position, plotting the course between Charybdis and Scylla, a problem we find again and again in the political realm.

Here you must certainly be thinking, “My dear friend, it cannot be all that bad. Did you not yourself apply your philosophy in the palace, the very heart of the State?” Yes, I did. Fate put me within the palace and I did my best to do good in that place, but finding oneself in the palace and bending all of one’s energies to put oneself there are very different things.

Even if you gain office and keep your honor, you must somehow manage to keep both. Once in office the worst traits of others assail us. All the problems of seeking election are returned an hundred fold, for before you only held the promise of power whereas now you hold it in fact.

If you believe, as I know you do, that virtue is the only good worth pursuing other men in their ignorance do not. Misguided and lacking philosophy they believe their material and social benefit to be all important, mistaking as good what is only to be preferred.

Few men would be tempted to betray a friendship, or rob their neighbor for a few more square feet of farmland, but when provinces, armies, and temples are at stake, men lose their wits and all sight of what is truly worthwhile in life. To gain what they suppose good they will assault you with lies, flattery, seduction, fawning servility, greed, a hydra of temptation. It take a veritable Heracles to snuff it out! I will not insult you by dwelling upon the risk to your very life and security, for I know that you hold these in little esteem, but in gaining a full tally of the dangers we should not omit the pain that exile may cause on your family, whether it be to Sicily or Hades.

Undoubtedly, a man of your character can do some good, but it is a dangerous battlefield. Even our private conversations in barber-shops, in the square, the theater, or around our dining tables, are fraught with political debate and discussion. The universe has made all creatures to seek their own good, but unlike the solitary tiger, men are social creatures made for co-operation. Politics is the place where these two potentially conflicting impulses – care of self and social co-operation, meet. Who has not seen this first-hand? How often does political discourse end friendships, or cause strife between father and son? Even in the best of circumstances imagine the life of an elected official: making speeches, nodding politely at the opinions of ignorant but powerful men, bargaining with the mob. Some men excel at these things. I must admit that despite my best efforts to serve the Empire, I never developed a taste for it. Have you ever been persuaded to change your mind about some principle by a beggar or a bully? If we are honest with ourselves, how much of politics is begging and bullying? Now I am acting the politician and making speeches! Let us return to the topic with sober minds, remembering that the approval or disapproval of the crowd does not matter, for it does not make a man any better or worse than he is already.

Now I think I have said enough about the risks, with many hoary warnings from an old man. What of the benefits you ask? The common and uneducated men will here list wealth, fame, and power. We know, however, that these are not good, but merely indifferent, for they are potentially good or ill depending on our character. The improvement of our community is certainly a benefit, but again here we must remember that what other men think and believe is not up to us. Remember that community does not exist as a thing in itself. It is just a grouping of men, all living together in a society. Remember also that the opinions of other men are not up to us. Socrates, the very best of us, met each man as a friend. He did not assume that he knew what was best for his friend, only what was best for himself: to pursue virtue in all situations. If he found himself in the street, or in the council chamber, or on the battlefield, or in the bedroom, or in court, or even in a prison cell, he did not waiver or allow himself to be lead astray. Nor did he fall victim to hubris, but always told his friends, when pressed on an uncertain subject, that he did not know. Can we imagine a better example for emulation? And yet, even he failed to convince his generation of Athenians of their folly, and they killed him for his friendship to them. The only thing which is truly up to us is the improvement of our own character. It is here that the political realm may offer some benefit to us. By resisting those forces of corruption we encounter, we can improve ourselves, but this is a hard road that so few are able to walk, and opportunities for self improvement can be found everywhere.

Let us consider the second: management of your family estate. Of what does it consist? It requires living away from the excitement of cities, managing the estate itself, and living peaceably with your neighbors. The first item often seems unattractive to young people, imagining that every cry or whisper in the city holds some secret delight or intrigue. Yet we know it is merely the noise of many people going about their lives in a relatively small space, doing perfectly ordinary things: baking bread, washing clothes, gossiping with their neighbors, trundling goods to market, and so on. Unlike the country it goes on at all hours in the city, but is this of some benefit? Is life that much different at night than during the day? What is to be gained from staying up with the bats and thieves, drinking wine and babbling inanities with dinner guests until the small hours? We wake with a splitting head and a heaving stomach, and call for remedies like an invalid. Remedies for a disease we ourselves have created. Books and letters can be had in the country, and time to read them! Friends can be invited to visit, and the food – while often simpler, satisfies. What have we lost but smelly gutters, crowded streets, and the never ending noise?

Managing the estate itself is a complex thing, requiring very many skills, such as rising early, seeing things accomplished in their due season, being careful with accounts, managing servants with care, looking to the well being of the family, observing the festivals and praising the Gods. All of these tasks are worthy of philosophy. All of them are fertile ground to be planted with the seed of virtue. Rising early is easy for a man such as yourself, who has been on campaign. Besides, there is a very clever trick to accomplishing it – retiring at a reasonable hour. Punctuality and attentiveness to proper timing are excellent habits to cultivate, regardless of one’s place in life. No man is thought worse for possessing them. The management and care of the household – servants and family, this is the chief practice of all fathers. In cultivating this we emulate the very highest ideals. Is this wisdom and care not what we wish to see exemplified in our Senators? In the Emperor? In the Gods? Speaking of the Gods, when we bless crops or observe the seasons, are we not calling our attention to their creation – nature? By placing ourselves in the patterns of nature do we not accomplish our duty as men?

Finally, by coming to friendly terms with our neighbors, do we not accomplish everything that politics sets out to do? Namely to bring our own personal interests in harmony with our fellow man? If we wish to exercise a positive influence over our community, here is the place where we can do it. Yet here you must exercise the same care which we spoke of earlier, remembering that the only good is to pursue excellence of character, and not to refute or correct your neighbors – even when they speak from ignorance. Likewise you should not fear speaking your mind, if called for. It is only slaves who cannot speak their own thoughts.

It is true that the country farm has other challenges. Small mindedness often plagues village life. Men who have never traveled sometimes forget that we are citizens of the world; that men everywhere desire the same things and fear the same things. They believe that civilization starts and stops at their border. Likewise while the city has more people, men are not of different character in the country. The village has it’s own drunks, troublemakers, gossips, leches, thieves and prudes. Forgetfulness is perhaps the chief danger. In the pattern of country life it is possible to forget oneself and no longer live philosophically, but like a wagon on a bad road, to fall into a groove and trundle along mindlessly. These risks, however, can be found everywhere. But the country life is not for everyone. I, myself, found it difficult at first. You must adjust yourself to the slower rhythm of nature, and learn to enjoy your own company. Hot blooded men often find this difficult, and make a nuisance of themselves.

I hope I have not wearied you with the opinions of an old man, nor let you believe that along one road lies certain good, while down the other evil. Life is not as the Epicureans suppose, made for pleasure. If it were, surely we would find fault with the Gods and providence for introducing so many troubling things – wars, hunger, disease, stinging insects, earthquakes, storms, and the like. Finding our way through life is also trouble at times. It is hard to know which road to choose, and harder still to keep it once chosen, yet this too is according to nature, for men have been made with the power of choice, and charged with executing it. Blessings and challenges are found everywhere the same, and while I may state my preference and the reasons for it, we go where fate leads us.

Yours in friendship,

Lucius

If you are interested in the work of the New Stoic College, our  introductory course can be found here

A personal exegesis on Cleanthes “Hymn to Zeus”.

cleanthes

Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,

The name of Zeus is not the name of a celestial “person”.  It is in fact a title, the etymological equivalent to the Latin “Deus”.  Zeus was often called “God of the gods” and the father of all.   He is not merely one deity among many, but God himself.

Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,

The familiar story of his birth, how his mother Rhea concealed him from his father Cronus, who consumed a stone instead of his holy son, reveals his identity as the active creative force within the universe.  He is that which has conquered time – which time seeks to swallow but cannot hold, and in his power he forces time to vomit up all the other gods into the universe.  Yet creation also occurs within time (Cronus), and the fertile ground (Rhea) of being – hence his titanic parents.  Our God is not some abstract and distant hypothetical “creator”.  He is the force of creation itself. Therefore he is Law, since all things move according to the foundational creative energy.

Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you.
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.

Since our God is the active force within the world, we reject the so-called “negative theology”, which seeks to discover God through a removal of all “limiting” attributes and images.   Rather, we use all art and artistry as a fitting symbol of God, for those things that remind us of God move us closer to him, through participation with our own divine essence.

Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.

We praise God and the other deathless ones not because it is good for them, but because it is good for us to be brought closer to our highest nature.

The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.

Since all things follow their own first cause and nature, the world is ruled by providence.

So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.

The divine thunderbolt steers all things.  The stars are the great regulators of nature. This doctrine is expounded in great detail by Heraclitus.

O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.

Although the world is ruled by providence, we posses free-will.  When men misunderstand themselves, and their fellow man, and do evil, that is not the fault of God.  The possibility of error is but the price we pay for independence.

But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.

Yet even the possibility of error is part of the divine order and beautiful.  No great work of art, no great game or story, is without tension.

For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.

Existence is beautiful.  The world is divine.  We are not cast out of the majesty of God.  We are not alien from ourselves.  Even our most human and ordinary needs are part of the wonder of creation.

This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.

It is a misunderstanding of the nature of the world that leads men to evil.  If they would turn to wisdom, and live in accord with nature, they would have a good life.  Zeus does not “punish” in the human sense.  He is above such pettiness.

But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.

What makes these things evil is not the acts themselves, but misunderstanding them.  Fame earned through great deeds is the definition of nobility.  Wealth gained through orderly principles is harmony with yourself, the laws of nature, and society.  Pleasure is health and well-being of the body.  By themselves these things are indifferent – neither good nor bad, but to be intent on them, to seek to gain them AS IF they were good in themselves, and to sacrifice that which is truly good: godliness, principles, and the well-being of one’s character, that is evil.

They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.

By doing evil you do not harm Zeus, but yourself.  You defeat your own happiness.

O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.

Amen.

circa 1920: Jupiter, the Italian sky-god connected with rain, storms and thunder, who was identified with the Olympian Father of the gods, Zeus. A Colossal statue found on the shores of Lake Alba Longa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

circa 1920: Jupiter, the Italian sky-god connected with rain, storms and thunder, who was identified with the Olympian Father of the gods, Zeus. A Colossal statue found on the shores of Lake Alba Longa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

heraclitus
All things resolve into Unity and from Unity resolve all things – binding wholes and parts, things combined and distinct, in harmony and disharmony.

Nature’s law is the Will towards Unity.

Wisdom is oneness with the purpose that steers all things.

To learn this, listen not to me but to the cosmic reason.

For of letters and writing the way is both straight and crooked.  Like the working of a loom, words go upward and back again, spin around and return, spiraling around their meaning like a snail’s shell.

Rising up, and coming down, we move on the same path.

Of this eternally existing order people lack understanding, both before and after they hear of it.  Everything comes to be through the universal reason, but even when it is spoken of plainly most people remain ignorant.  They do not notice or remember what they do when awake, just as if they were sleeping.

Thus it is necessary to seek out and follow the universal reason.  Although it is common to all, many act as if they alone had purpose.

You will never discover the limits of your soul by wandering, even if you tread on every path – so deeply do you partake of the cosmic mystery.

For the soul is a law of being that increases its own power.

The cosmos was made by neither gods nor men, but always was and is and will be – like ever-living fire, flickering and rekindling itself forever.

This fire moves in an endless sea of alterations – half solid, half storm.  The solid is dispersed into the storm and measured out again, as it was before.

For a great thunderbolt steers all things.

This God is day and night, winter and summer, war and peace, satiety and hunger.  He changes as fire changes when it is mingled with various spices.  Men name the scents according to the various delights of each of them.

For God all things are beautiful and good and just, but humans have supposed some things to be unjust, other things to be just.

What is in opposition is secretly linked, and the most beautiful harmony comes out of things in apparent conflict.  Individual striving is the father of all things.

This is like a bow or lyre: its form depending on a harmony of opposing forces.  Being at variance, it agrees with itself.

This hidden harmony is superior to what is visible.

The sun is commander and guardian of the cycles of changes and the seasons, which bring to light all things.

Human character grants no inborn purpose.  That is reserved for the Gods.

The Gods consider men, as men consider children.

Night-roaming wizards, drunken mystics, howling preachers, those frightened by death… by their customs people are initiated into mysteries less than holy.

They purify themselves in vain by staining themselves with blood, as if a man having stepped in dirt tried to wash himself in dirt.  They pray to objects, just as crazy people are observed talking to houses.  They do not know what gods and heroes really are.

In life we see death as an impenetrable nothing, but when sleeping all we see is sleep.

What awaits us in death we neither anticipate, nor can even imagine.

Life is a child playing, moving the pieces of a game.  Kingship belongs to this child.

A man’s divine fortune resides in his character.

All things are compensation for fire, and this fire in turn for all things, just as goods are exchanged for gold.

goldlightning

cicero

Political allegiance in the West has an taken on an aspect of religious devotion and fervor.  Perhaps because religion no longer occupies the same space within our society, we have simply replaced that “god shaped hole” in our hearts with the nearest available ideology?  To be sure, there is a messianic tendency at play.  I’ve fallen into it myself, believing if I just converted the right people the world could be saved, or at least stopped from getting much worse.  We have, after all, been told all our lives that we, the people, are the government – or at the very least determine its decisions.  Strange then that the government seems to do very little that we actually want, and a great many things we emphatically do not want.

All societies have systems of governance: methods of resolving disputes between members, adjudicating the use of common resources, and representing that society to the outside world.  All of these functions are predicated on the boundary between “us” and “not us”.  The political theorist Carl Schmidt laid out that the fundamental function of politics was the distinction between friend and enemy, including various degrees of neutrality or uncertainty.  This may seem harsh or overly militaristic to some, but if you consider it you will discover that no government decree can be meaningful without weighing on this distinction.  Hence the apocryphal quote attributed to George Washington, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force.” This shocks many middle class Americans because there are layers and layers of bureaucracy between their many transgressions and the application of force: notices, fines, extensions, court dates, etc… etc…  At the end of that process however there is always the threat of force or, to put it another way, the possibility of sliding over the line from friend to foe, from “us” to “not us”.

Yet in our real lives the distinction between “us” and “not us” is not political but rather personal.  Our family, our friends, our town, our work – these are our things.  It is on the quality of these things that our well-being depends.  It is within the system of these things that we are judged and remembered.  What dispute does the average American have with the average Chinese that requires the intervention of a massive bureaucratic apparatus? What common resources (other than Federally created ones) exist to be fought over between California and Florida?   Political discussions and symbols, especially in this age of the sound-byte, the re-post, the 128 character limit, take on the role of substitute tribal markers, but without physical substance.  They are purely symbols of conceptual, rather than actual, allegiance.  As such they may weigh on philosophy, but have very little to do with real politics – that is, the distinction between friend and foe, unless we let them.

This is one of the great side-effects of our bureaucratic age: that conceptual politics effaces the natural allegiances and friendships between men.  First political power is removed from its natural scope. No longer are disputes handled within the organic community in which they arise, on the smallest reasonable level.  Next political power is vested in agents entirely removed from the consequences of their decisions. A rotating cast of elected charismatics and disinterested pencil-pushers takes over functions that were once aristocratic and honor based.  This massive political apparatus, Nietzsche’s “coldest of cold monsters”, fails utterly to provide on a human scale that which politics must by definition provide – the ability to adjudicate friend and foe in complex and uncertain situations. As a result, the political process wells up in other spheres, out of its natural bounds, and ruins everything.  Activism becomes our final refuge. The demand of the perpetual infant replaces measured discourse, because discourse absent from power fails to satisfy the political need.  In truth, what is activism other than making enemies by choice, and seeking friends through conceptual alliance?

The solution is to put things back into their proper place.  Conceptual struggles must be grounded in philosophy, not politics.  Politics is influenced by and dependent upon philosophy, not the other way around.  Politics qua politics should be engaged in on the local level, if at all, and intrusions from distant bureaucrats treated with all the contempt and loathing reserved for a foreign occupier, for that is what they actually are – foreigners, strangers, not us, the enemy.   For us, and our kind, if we are inclined to the political we should seek it out where it matters.  Before we make common cause with strangers on some televised stage, can we make it with the people in our actual lives?
socrates2

jupiterwvictory

All beings chase their own good
Will rising from judgements,
Of all things in the world,
Our success or failures.

Happiness is our choice,
Virtue ever close to hand.
Mind is always up to us,
And with it our emotions.

To live in harmony
With all sacred nature,
Means first and most of all
Being joyous in your self.

For excellence in action,
Regardless of outcome,
And steadiness of soul,
Lie always in our power.

seneca

trans. Robin Campbell

To be everywhere is to be nowhere. (Letter 2)

The spirit and the intellect cannot be of different hues. If the spirit is sound, if it is properly adjusted and has dignity and self-control, the intellect will be sober and sensible too, and if the former is tainted the latter will be infected as well. (Letter 114)

If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person. (Letter 94)

‘No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificance creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination. Superstition is an idiotic heresy: it fears those it should love: it dishonours those it worships. For what difference does it make whether you deny the gods or bring them into disrepute? These are things which should be learnt and not just learnt but learnt by heart.(Letter 123)

I do not agree with those recommend a stormy life and plunge straight into the breakers, waging a spirited struggle against worldly obstacles every day of their lives. The wise man will put up with these things, not go out of his way to meet them; he will prefer a state of peace to a state of war. It does not profit a man much to have managed to discard his own failings if he must ever be at loggerheads with other people’s. (Letter 28)

Give your whole mind to [philosophy]. Sit at her side and pay her constant court, and an enormous gap will widen between yourself and other men. You’ll end up far in advance of all mankind, and not far behind the gods themselves. Would you like to know what the actual difference between yourself and the gods be? They will exist for longer. (Letter 53)

I’m suffering severe pain you may say. Well, does it stop you suffering it if you endure it in a womanish fashion? In the same way as the enemy can do far more damage to your army if it is in full retreat, every trouble that may come our way presses harder on the one who has turned tail and is giving ground. (Letter 78)

We mustn’t take on more than we can manage. You shouldn’t attempt to absorb all you want to – just what you’ve got room for; simply adopt the right approach and you will end up with room for all you want. The more the mind takes in the more it expands. (Letter 108)

The many speak highly of you, but have you really any grounds for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand? Your merits should not be outward facing. (Letter 7)

An ordinary journey will be incomplete if you come to a stop in the middle of it, or anywhere short of your destination, but life is never incomplete if it is an honourable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole. (Letter 77)