Permanence and Impermanence

A recurrent theme in Stoicism (repeated often by Marcus Aurelius) is that nothing is permanent and everything is subject to decay, and so becoming attached to things is a recipe for unhappiness. In one of Seneca’s longer letters (number 65), it emerges that in fact there is something that is permanent, namely Reason (or we could say the Logos).

This point arises from quote a long discussion of the cause(s) of things. Seneca contrasts the Stoic doctrine of causes, in which there is just one cause (Reason), with Aristotle and Plato’s theories. In particular, Plato identified five causes, one of which was the Idea or Pattern of a material thing (I am fairly sure that here Seneca is referring to the platonic Forms).

Seneca describes some interesting features of the Pattern, while arguing (in paragraph 13) that it is not actually the cause itself, but only “an indispensable tool of the cause”. In paragraph 7 he says that patterns/ideas come from the mind of God:

… his mind comprehends the harmonies and the measures of the whole totality of things which are to be carried out; he is filled with these shapes which Plato calls the “ideas,” – imperishable, unchangeable, not subject to decay.

Thus people (men) can die but idea of humanity lives on:

And therefore, though men die, humanity itself, or the idea of man, according to which man is moulded, lasts on, and though men toil and perish, it suffers no change.

As the Stoic God is identical with Reason and we all have a (divine) spark of Reason within us, it surely follows that we ourselves also contain something imperishable and unchanging. Thus while externals are perishable and impermanent, what we have internally, Reason or Virtue, is not. So while we shouldn’t become attached to externals (which are indifferent), we should on the contrary become attached to “internals”, i.e. Reason and Virtue.

I think this is a very therapeutic notion – the injunction to accept change can be quite unsettling, despite counter arguments for why it should not (for instance, that accepting change helps put things into context). I suspect most people have an inner longing for something fixed and secure in their lives. It can’t be things themselves but it can the causes of things, embodying the inexorable laws of Reason.

Evening Review

Compared with the morning preview, we have more detail from the ancient texts about the evening review in Stoicism. Seneca gives quite a full account of his evening routine:

All our senses should be educated into strength: they are naturally able to endure much, provided that the spirit forbears to spoil them. The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? what vice have you checked? in what respect are you better?” Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? how sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? how calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.” A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance. (Seneca, On Anger, 3.36)

Sextius Quintus referred to above, was a 1st century BC philosopher who espoused a combination of Stoicism and Pythagoreanism – so again we have a link to Pythagoras. Seneca’s evening routine seems to have served a number of functions: correction of future mistakes (“see that you never do that anymore”); prevention of anger (“Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat”; and improvement of sleep quality (“how sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination”). As we saw above, the Pythagoreans also thought the evening review improved memory functioning.

Furthermore the evening routine was perhaps more important to Seneca than the morning preview. At the very least, reviewing past actions is a prerequisite for planning future ones:

I shall keep watching myself continually, and – a most useful habit – shall review each day. For this is what makes us wicked: that no one of us looks back over his own life. Our thoughts are devoted only to what we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future always depend on the past. (Seneca, letter 83.1)

In the passage partly quoted in my post on the morning preview, Epictetus also refers the evening review, again how not to do it and then how to do it:

The saying of Pythagoras

Let sleep not come upon thy languid eyes

he transfers to these things. “Where have I failed in the matters pertaining to flattery?” “What have I done?” Anything like a free man, anything like a noble-minded man? And if he finds anything of the kind, he blames and accuses himself: “Why did you say this? Was it not in your power to lie? Even the philosophers say that nothing hinders us from telling a lie.” … [Instead] reflect on your acts. “Where have I omitted the things which conduce to happiness? What have I done which is either unfriendly or unsocial? what have I not done as to these things which I ought to have done?” (Epictetus, 4.6.32-36)

The three basic questions — what did I do wrong? what did I do? what didn’t I do? — are from the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, which Epictetus quotes elsewhere:

When the need of each opinion comes, we ought to have it in readiness: on the occasion of breakfast, such as relate to breakfast; in the bath, those that concern the bath; in bed, those that concern bed.

Let sleep not come upon thy languid eyes
Before each daily action thou hast scann’d;
What’s done amiss, what done, what left undone;
From first to last examine all, and then
Blame what is wrong in what is right rejoice.

(Epictetus, 3.10.1-3)

Porphyry also quotes the Golden Verses, in the passage quoted in part above:

He advised special regard to two times; that when we go to sleep, and that when we awake. At each of these we should consider our past actions, and those that are to come. We ought to require of ourselves an account of our past deeds, while of the future we should have a providential care. Therefore he advised everybody to repeat to himself the following verses before he fell asleep:

“Nor suffer sleep to close thine eyes
Till thrice thy acts that day thou hast run o’er;
How slipt? What deeds? What duty left undone?”

(Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, 40)

Here they are relevant lines extracted from the full text of the verses given by Wikipedia:

40. Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
41. Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
42. In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
43. If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
44. And if you have done any good, rejoice.

Seneca notes the positive result of a day well lived in one of the letters:

Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say:

I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me
Is finished.

And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus. (Seneca, letter 12.9)

And so the cycle begins again!

Here are a couple of other blog posts on the morning and evening meditations.


Morning Preview

As is well known, there are various references in the ancient Stoic (and other) texts to performing a morning preview to set the scene for the day, and then an evening review to round it off. The aim of the next two posts is to collect these passages together in order to provide guidance and a basis for these daily practices. I am indebted to Malcolm Schosha who cited most of these passages, as well as others from non-Stoic sources, in a related post. My aim here is to focus on the application to Stoicism, so I give only Stoic sources or those referenced by them (Pythagoras). I begin with the morning preview, and continue with the evening review in the next post.

Morning preview

Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius both note the importance of “booting up” in the right frame of mind each morning, that is one that is in accordance with nature and prepares you for the work of the day. The job begins as soon as you awake:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm? (MA, Meditations 5.1)

When thou risest from sleep with reluctance, remember that it is according to thy constitution and according to human nature to perform social acts, but sleeping is common also to irrational animals. But that which is according to each individual’s nature is also more peculiarly its own, and more suitable to its nature, and indeed also more agreeable. (MA, Meditations 8.12)

Inquire of thyself as soon as thou wakest from sleep, whether it will make any difference to thee, if another does what is just and right. It will make no difference. (MA, Meditations, 10.13)

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. (MA, Meditations, 2.1)

Return to thy sober senses and call thyself back; and when thou hast roused thyself from sleep and hast perceived that they were only dreams which troubled thee, now in thy waking hours look at these (the things about thee) as thou didst look at those (the dreams). (MA, Meditations, 6.31)

There is an emphasis here on a reluctance to getting started, and on the need to counteract these barriers by reminding yourself of Stoic principles, especially that you are made for cooperation with other people and that their lack of cooperation or reciprocation is nothing to you.

Epictetus also refers to the need for a morning “reboot”. In this passage he contrasts the right and wrong ways to start the day:

He who has risen in the morning seeks whom he shall salute, to whom he shall say something agreeable, to whom he shall send a present, how he shall please the dancing man, how by bad behavior to one he may please another. … But do you, if indeed you have cared about nothing else except the proper use of appearances, as soon as you have risen in the morning reflect, “What do I want in order to be free from passion, and free from perturbation? What am I? Am I a poor body, a piece of property, a thing of which something is said? I am none of these. But what am I? I am a rational animal. What then is required of me?” (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.6.32-36)

Marcus says we can take inspiration from the wider cosmos:

The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies which continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (MA, Meditations, 11.27)

Apparently the Stoics were heavily influenced by the Pythagoreans, so it is worth looking at Pythagoras’ advice:

He advised special regard to two times; that when we go to sleep, and that when we awake. At each of these we should consider our past actions, and those that are to come. We ought to require of ourselves an account of our past deeds, while of the future we should have a providential care.
… On rising:
‘As soon as ere thou wakest, in order lay
The actions to be done that following day’ ”
(Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, 40)

Such were some of his precepts: They were to get up before sunrise…They were to adore the rising sun. Pythagoras ordered them never to do anything without previous deliberation and discussion; in the morning forming a plan of what was to be done later, and at night to review the day’s actions, which served the double purpose of strengthening the memory, and considering their conduct. If any of their associates appointed them to meet them at some particular place and time they should stay there till he came, regardless of the length of time, for Pythagoreans should not speak carelessly, but remember what was said and regard order and method.” (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, 35)

As well as rejoicing in the sunrise, the morning preview includes a plan for the day (and according to Porphyry, a review of past actions). There is a general emphasis on careful and methodical consideration before going through with an action. Both Porphyry and Iamblichus’ accounts also include advice on the evening review, which I’ll come to in the next post.

Additional sources

Complete Pythagoras, including Porphyry, Life of Pythagoras, and Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras
Guthrie translation reproduced in the Complete Pythagoras

Breathing in the cosmos

Here is a very beautiful passage from Marcus Aurelius (8.54 in full):

No longer let your breathing only act in concert with the air which surrounds you, but let your intelligence also now be in harmony with the intelligence which embraces all things. For the intelligent power is no less diffused in all parts and pervades all things for him who is willing to draw it to him than the aerial power for him who is able to respire it.

A note (by Gill) in the Hard translation points out that in Stoicism the mind functions via ‘breath’ (pneuma) – so MA’s comparison here seems apt.

But also, while not an exact comparison, the image recalls meditation techniques that focus on the breath as a means of liberation from individual attachments and elevation to a more universal perspective.

The stress here, though (as befitting Stoicism), is on the cognitive: we are still thinking and using our intelligence – but now it is harmonised with the cosmic intelligence, and moreover we are accessing its “power”. Note also that this power is always there and available to us – we only have to want to draw it in to us.

The sphere revisted

Following my post from 2012, I thought I would collect together all the references to (Empedocles’) sphere in the Meditations.

From 8.41:

The things however which are proper to the understanding no other man is used to impede, for neither fire, nor iron, nor tyrant, nor abuse, touches it in any way. When it has been made a sphere, it continues a sphere.

From 11.12:

The spherical form of the soul maintains its figure, when it is neither extended towards any object, nor contracted inwards, nor dispersed nor sinks down, but is illuminated by light, by which it sees the truth, the truth of all things and the truth that is in itself.

From 12.3:

Therefore if you will separate from yourself, that is, from your understanding, whatever others do or say, and whatever you have done or said yourself, and whatever future things trouble you because they may happen, and whatever in the body which envelops you or in the breath (life), which is by nature associated with the body, is attached to you independent of your will, and whatever the external circumfluent vortex whirls round, so that the intellectual power exempt from the things of fate can live pure and free by itself, doing what is just and accepting what happens and saying the truth: if you will separate, I say, from this ruling faculty the things which are attached to it by the impressions of sense, and the things of time to come and of time that is past, and will make yourself like Empedocles’ sphere, “All round, and in its joyous rest reposing”; and if you will strive to live only what is really your life, that is, the present, then you will be able to pass that portion of life which remains for you up to the time of your death, free from perturbations, nobly, and obedient to your own daemon (to the god that is within you).


Retreat to yourself

Now is the time and here is the place. There is no need to seek solace in faraway places and idyllic spots. Your best retreat lies within and you will return from it refreshed and ready to resume your duties:

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and you too are wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. Nowhere does a man find more quiet or more freedom from trouble than in his own soul, particularly when, by looking into his own inner thoughts, he is immediately in perfect tranquility. And I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to yourself this retreat, and renew yourself; and let your principles be brief and fundamental. Then as soon as you recur to them, they will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send you back free from all discontent with the things you return to.

From Meditation 4.3

Familiarity breeds content

Continuing with Meditation 3.1 (or 3.2 depending on the translation), Marcus argues that only those who are fully familiar with nature will see the true beauty of all these ‘unintended consequences’. Seeing beauty everywhere also helps to put conventional beauty (for example the beauty of youth) in perspective.

[…] if a man should have a feeling and deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly one of those which follow by way of consequence which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure. And so he will see even the real gaping jaws of wild beasts with no less pleasure than those which painters and sculptors show by imitation; and in an old woman and an old man he will be able to see a certain maturity and comeliness; and the attractive loveliness of young persons he will be able to look on with chaste eyes; and many such things will present themselves, not pleasing to every man, but only to him who has become truly familiar with nature and her works.

I don’t know how much of a key component of ancient Stoicism this contemplation of nature was; there is less of it in Epictetus and Seneca. However, it seemed important to Marcus – and so it is to me.

Seeing the beauty in everything: things that please the mind

In Meditation 3.1, Marcus notes that there is beauty even in the side effects and ‘unintended consequences’ of natural processes. Their fleeting nature almost intensifies their beauty. He has a true artist’s eye:

We ought to observe also that even the things which follow after the things which are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive. For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker’s art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating. And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit. And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion’s eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things — though they are far from being beautiful, if a man should examine them severally — still, because they are consequent upon the things which are formed by nature, help to adorn them, and they please the mind.

The problem with travel is you can’t leave yourself behind

Seneca (letter 104) credits Scocrates with this insight:

Socrates is reported to have replied, when a certain person complained of having received no benefit from his travels: “It serves you right!  You travelled in your own company!!” Oh what a blessing it would be for some men to wander away from themselves! As it is, they cause themselves vexation, worry, demoralization, and fear! What profit is there in crossing the sea and in going from one city to another?  If you would escape your troubles, you need not another place but another personality.

I’m a reluctant traveller myself, so Seneca’s critique really hit home:

What benefit has travel of itself ever been able to give anyone?  No restraint upon pleasure, no bridling of desire, no checking of bad temper, no crushing of the wild assaults of passion, no opportunity to rid the soul of evil. Travelling cannot give us judgment, or shake off our errors; it merely holds our attention for a moment by a certain novelty, as children pause to wonder at something unfamiliar.


There will be no benefit to you in this hurrying to and fro; for you are travelling with your emotions and are followed by your afflictions.

The real solution to all this anguish is not travel but philsophy:

We ought rather to spend our time in study, and to cultivate those who are masters of wisdom, learning something which has been investigated, but not settled. By this means the mind can be relieved of a most wretched serfdom, and won over to freedom.

Philosophy holds out a much higher promise than the fleeting relief of travel. By making the mind “fully master of itself”, philosophy allows us to “find seclusion even in the midst of business“.

The only harbour safe from the seething storms of this life is scorn of the future, a firm stand, a readiness to receive Fortune’s missiles full in the breast, neither skulking nor turning the back.

The letter is worth reading in full.

On prosocial behaviour (2)

Marcus then responds positively to the question:

Must a man then be one of these, who act like this without observing it?

The next part of the text is not completely clear and seems to differ subtlely between the Long, Hard and Staniforth translations. My interpretation is that Marcus deals with an objection from his interlocutor, that as a social being one necessarily knows one is behaving prosocially:

But this very thing is necessary, the observation of what a man is doing: for, it may be said, it is characteristic of the social animal to perceive that he is working in a social manner, and indeed to wish that his social partner also should perceive it.

Marcus acknowedges this as true, yet claims it still falls short of the full truth.

It is true what you say, but you do not rightly understand what is now said: and for this reason you will become one of those I spoke of before, for even they are misled by a certain show of reason. But if you choose to understand the meaning of what is said, do not fear that for this reason you will omit any social act.

In other words (I think) we have a delicate balancing act to perform. Prosocial behaviour is a conscious philosophical choice, yet we need to get into the habit of doing it unconsciously – or perhaps not let it “go to our heads”?