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.

You can have it all now

The route to tranquility is straight and direct, not long and winding, if only we realise that the only thing that counts is behaving properly in the present moment. This is the start of Meditation 12.1:

All those things you want to reach by a circuitous road, you can have them now, if only you do not refuse them to yourself. By this I mean if you take no notice of all the past, and trust the future to providence, and direct the present only to piety and justice.

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.