All is transient

Here is Meditation 5.23 in full:

Often think of the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are and the things which are produced. For substance is like a river in a continual flow, and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still. And consider what is near to you, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear. How then is he not a fool who is puffed up with such things or plagued about them and makes himself miserable? For they vex him only for a time, and a short time.

I am no expert but this view of the transient nature of all things seems very close to Buddhist ideas that everything is in a state of flux and that constantly shifting conditions lead to an endless arising and falling away of things.

True worth

Here’s a final quote from letter 88:

It is at the cost of a vast outlay of time and of vast discomfort to the ears of others that we win such praise as this:  “What a learned man you are!” Let us be content with this less fashionable recommendation:  “What a good man you are!”

Does education make us into better people? (Part 4)

Seneca grudgingly concedes that education may be necessary for the attainment of wisdom, but even so the relationship is only indirect:

… you cannot attain virtue without food, either; and yet food has nothing to do with virtue. Wood does not offer assistance to a ship, although a ship cannot be built except of wood.

And in some cases education may not be needed at all:

What reason have I for supposing that one who is ignorant of letters [books] will never be a wise man, since wisdom is not to be found in letters?  Wisdom communicates facts and not words; and it may be true that the memory is more to be depended upon when it has no support outside itself.

(This also recalls Socrates, who is said to have mistrusted writing as a medium.)

Seneca then argues that the search for wisdom is too big and important an undertaking to be cluttered up with a lot of superfluous details.

[People] fail to learn the essentials just because they have learned the non-essentials. Didymus the scholar wrote four thousand books.  I should feel pity for him if he had only read the same number of superfluous volumes.

He finishes the letter with a rather delicious (though non-stoical!) rant (satire?) about the failings of philosophers themselves, and the perils of obsessive hair-splitting:

Protagoras declares that one can take either side on any question and debate it with equal success — even on the question of whether every subject can be debated from either point of view! Nausiphanes holds that in things which seem to exist, there is no difference between existence and non-existence.  Parmenides maintains that nothing exists of all this which seems to exist, except the universe alone. Zeno of Elea removed all the difficulties by removing one; for he declares that nothing exists.  The Pyrrhonean, Megarian, Eretrian, and Academic schools are all engaged in practically the same task; they have introduced a new knowledge, non-knowledge… If I cleave to Protagoras, there is nothing in the scheme of nature that is not doubtful; if I hold with Nausiphanes, I am sure only of this – that everything is unsure – if with Parmenides, there is nothing except the One; if with Zeno, there is not even the One.

Earlier in this passage, Seneca criticises philosophers who have “[by] their own accord … descended to determining the true meaning of conjunctions and prepositions”. This is significant because one of the three branches of classical Stocism — now largely forgotten in contemporary, popular treatments of the subject — was logic. The Stoics actually made advances in propositional logic, so Seneca’s attitude is interesting. I’ll return to the ‘forgotten Stoic logicians’ in a future post.


Whatever tomorrow may bring…

Still from letter 88:

“What,” you say, “does tomorrow never prove me wrong?  Whatever happens without my knowledge proves me wrong.” I, for my part, do not know what is to be, but I do know what may come to be.  I shall have no misgivings in this matter; I await the future in its entirety; and if there is any abatement in its severity, I make the most of it.  If the morrow treats me kindly, it is a sort of deception; but it does not deceive me even at that.  For just as I know that all things can happen, so I know, too, that they will not happen in every case. I am ready for favourable events in every case, but I am prepared for evil.

Seneca on self-control

Seneca is full of hidden gems. Still in his letter on education, he outlines a number of individual character traits which, he says, owe nothing to liberal studies! Here he is on self-control:

Self-control* takes command of our desires; some it hates and routs, others it regulates and brings within healthy limits; nor does it ever approach our desires for their own sake.  Self-control knows that the best measure of the appetites is not what you want to take, but what you ought to take.

*Translated as “temperance” in the Gummere passage above, but as “self-control” by Campbell.

Does education make us into better people? (Part 3)

I’m back after an unplanned break, which is mainly owing to a detour into Buddhist thought (on which more later, perhaps) . But now back to what I know better.

Seneca’s complaint about the liberal studies is that they teach us nothing that helps us achieve wisdom; instead they just distract us with tangential details:

Do you raise the question, “Through what regions did Ulysses stray?” instead of trying to prevent ourselves from going astray at all times?  We have no leisure to hear lectures on the question whether he was sea-tossed between Italy and Sicily, or outside our known world … we ourselves encounter storms of the spirit, which toss us daily, and our depravity drives us into all the ills which troubled Ulysses.

He also gives a prescient warning about the dangers of trying to measure everything:

You [geometers] know how to measure the circle; you find the square of any shape which is set before you; you compute the distances between the stars; there is nothing which does not come within the scope of your calculations.  But if you are a real master of your profession, measure me the mind of man!  Tell me how great it is, or how puny!