Seneca’s World-Weary Wisdom

“There is only one liberal study that deserves the name—because it makes a person free—and that is the pursuit of wisdom.”—Seneca, Letter LXXXVIII

The epistles of the Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca are full of jaded charm and acidulous wit. Having lived a privileged life we wonder if he was not like so many insincere celebrities today who inveigh against the evils of money and fame. We have no idea if Seneca put his theories of moral austerity into practice. Perhaps over time he grew weary with his upper class existence and discovered in philosophy a refuge for mind and spirit. In any event, he bequeathed to subsequent generations priceless insights into ancient society and enduring reflections on the human condition.

In a letter to his friend Lucillius, Seneca discusses the nature of the “liberal arts”—so called because they were subjects “worthy of a free man.” This included the study of literature, music and mathematics. Seneca was certainly a erudite individual, known in his day as both a statesman and a successful playwright. Yet he asks, “What is there in all this [learning] that dispels fear, roots out desire or reins in passion?” Speaking of geometry’s practical applications, he wonders if it is possible  to “measure a man’s soul.” It is not that he dismisses the value of learning. It is necessary to the intellectual life as food is to bodily health.

Why then do we give our sons a liberal education? Not because it can make them morally good but because it prepares the mind for the acquisition of moral virtues.

That said, he admits it is quite possible for a person to be wise without book learning. If we care for nothing more than acquiring knowledge it is just as possible to be an intellectual glutton as it is to be a physical one, with equally debilitating results. Putting that knowledge to use is a different matter. Seneca discusses the importance of such qualities as courage, self-restraint, modesty and kindness.

Finally, in addressing the pedantry and speculative triviality of many thinkers, he ends his letter on an appropriately sardonic note:

To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance…. The scholar Didymus wrote four thousands works: I should feel sorry for him if he had merely read so many useless works. In these works he discusses such questions as Homer’s origin, who was Aeneas’ real mother, whether Anachreon’s manner of life was more that of a lecher or that of a drunkard, whether Sappho slept with anyone who asked her, and other things that would be better unlearned if one actually knew them!

Excerpts are taken from Letters from a Stoic (Penguin Classics). For related commentary see my earlier post.

Posted in Philosophy, Stoicism

A Book for All Seasons

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis is, after the Bible, perhaps the best-known work of Christian spirituality, and one that I continually return to, not only in the penitential season of Lent but all year long. It is a work alternately blunt yet consoling, spiritual yet realistic. Here then are some excerpts from recent meditations:

A truly spiritual man does not consider by whom he is tried, whether by his superior, his equal, or his inferior; whether by a good and holy man, or by a perverse and wicked person. But however great or frequent the trial that besets him, and by whatever agency it comes, he accepts it gladly as from the hand of God, and counts it all gain (III.19).

Gratitude is one of the great hallmarks of the noble mind, a fact attested to by Christian writers like Samuel Johnson and pagans like Epictetus. It is also interesting how closely gratitude is allied with humility. On this score, Thomas writes:

[W]hoever has received abundant gifts may not on that account boast of his merits, nor exalt himself above his fellows, nor despise  any who are less richly endowed; for the greater and better a man is, the less he attributes to himself, and the more humbly and devoutly he returns thanks to God (III.22).

And perhaps most pertinent is Thomas’ chapter “On the Evils of Curiosity,” which seems attuned to today’s world of limitless preoccupation, however irrelevant, with the affairs of others:

Beware of vain curiosity… and do not busy yourself in profitless matters; what are they to you?…. What concern is it of yours whether a man is good or evil, or what he says and does? You will not be called on to answer for others, but you will certainly have to give a full account of your own life.  Why, then, must you meddle where you have no need? (III.24).

This is a sober antidote to the increasing censoriousness and invective of the public square, especially in an age when the notion of “tolerance” (contrary to the original sense of the word) has become hypocritical and politicized. Along similar lines I direct readers to this fine meditation by a blogger I have long followed. Pax vobiscum.

Posted in Religion

Raul Hilberg: Documenting Genocide

For over thirty years I have read accounts of Nazi Germany, including Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), the first comprehensive history of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Of interest to me at the moment is a lesser-known monograph written toward the end of Hilberg’s life: Sources of Holocaust Research (2001). Being an evaluation of Holocaust documentation, this concise technical work actually achieves more by understatement than many more dramatic chronicles.

In dealing with this or any other historic catastrophe one often encounters incredulousness at their sheer scale of malevolence.  Many Jews at the time felt that no one would believe them. According to one anecdote:

David Olère was… a skilled painter who lived in France. He was deported to Auschwitz in March 1943. There he was employed as an illustrator, but he also emptied gas chambers of corpses. After the war he recounted to his wife the things he had seen. When she could not believe him, he sketched or painted his recollections (p. 167).

Hilberg’s sober categorization of the mass of corroborative evidence shows that Germany’s widespread killings of Jews, and others, was not haphazard. There are laconic reports by officials at all levels detailing the execution of non-combatants, including the number of bullets used or the size of mass graves for various “operations” by German police units and SS death squads. As the ever objective historian, Hilberg dispassionately accounts for exaggerations, errors and deliberate falsehoods—on the part of fake “survivors” like Binjanin Wilkomirski or German officials denying involvement in Nazi policies.

Nor does the author shy away from questions of collaboration and opportunism on the part of some victims. There were Jewish auxiliary policeman who, in return for certain exemptions, corralled people onto trains headed for the camps, and Jewish doctors who took part in the selection process determining which individuals would be gassed and which would be allowed to live. The author cites one account in which a Jewish policeman gave up his protected position to be with his wife on the death camp transports. In yet another example a man was glad to be rid of his spouse since she might lessen his own chances for survival. In conclusion, Hilberg’s book offers a more subtle and nuanced view of this human cataclysm than one is apt to get from more popular sources.

Posted in History

A Skeptic for the Age

In the same vein as my previous entry on George Orwell are some equally contrarian observations on the human condition by British author Theodore Dalrymple. He has written recently about the spate of candle-lighting ceremonies in Europe in the wake of terrorist attacks. These would seem a laudable form of remembrance for victims of Islamist violence. But as for the underlying mentality, Dalrymple the atheist is as much a (genuine) skeptic of modernist orthodoxy and conformity as Mr. Orwell.

The population of cities like Berlin, he explains, are “proud of their lack of religious belief.” They proffer the common platitude that they are spiritual, not religious. What does this mean?

The reason… that so many people claim to be spiritual rather than religious is that being spiritual imposes no discipline upon them, at least none that they do not choose themselves…. It is the gratification of religion without the inconvenience of religion.

Dalrymple says all that needs to be said. Read the essay. On a related note, see his critical take on the “New Atheism.”

Posted in Art and Culture, Religion

Orwell on Socialism and Happiness

“All efforts to describe permanent happiness… have been failures.” That is the opinion of  George Orwell in his perceptive essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?” (Tribune, 1943). He adds that Utopias “seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.” The socialist author was enough of a realist to question the smug assumption that bliss is achieved through altered economic or political arrangements. And he touches on a psychological fact. Happiness is not a state of continual pleasure (or absence of pain, for that matter).

Referencing Dickens’ Christmas Carol Orwell says, “The Cratchits are able to enjoy Christmas precisely because it only comes once a year…. Their happiness is convincing just because it is described as incomplete.” Of course there are theological implications to all this, which Orwell would have disagreed with. But suffice it say that he is right in stating that worldly beatitude is not the normal human condition. I would, nevertheless, venture a step further. Bob Cratchit can enjoy his goose, pudding and gin punch only in the knowledge he’s lived an essentially blameless life; whereas Scrooge, for all his miserly wealth, is clearly unhappy.

Real happiness is not disconnected with physical contentment, but is ultimately an intellectual condition shaped by our long-term moral choices, which prepares us for something enduring that we can only partially glimpse in this life. As Orwell says, we can readily relate to Dante’s Inferno and find it much more interesting than his Paradiso. But that is because our notion of joy, while often profound and sincere, is still very sporadic and limited (almost two-dimensional on might say) compared to its real potential as described by St. Paul. I agree with Orwell that

One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. At this moment, for instance, the world is at war and wants peace. Yet the world has no experience of peace, and never has had, unless the Noble Savage once existed.

There remain these persistent innate dreams of a better future, of peace and brotherhood, that seem to point to something. Why is that? With Orwell we may well wonder. At the same time, we can agree whatever the primal source, such visions can never be fulfilled through ideological short-cuts to salvation.

Posted in George Orwell, Philosophy, Politics

Deep Feelings Seek for Solitude

Having finished the first part of Thomas de Quincey’s memoirs, I came across this passage in his autobiographical sequel, Suspira de Profundis, in which the author discusses his bereavement following the death of a beloved sister.

Interesting it is to observe how certainly all deep feelings agree in this, that they seek for solitude, and are nursed by solitude. Deep grief, deep love, how naturally do these ally themselves with religious feeling; and all three – love, grief, religion – are haunters of solitary places. Love, grief, the passion of reverie, or the mystery of devotion, what were these, without solitude?

With so many writers encouraging us to “unplug” from the world, so that we can calmly sort through the jumble of daily experiences – especially ones that are emotionally demanding – it is interesting to see how few people prefer not to avail themselves of virtual private space. I am thinking of a study reported in The Atlantic magazine:

Considering the many challenges life has to offer, entertaining yourself with your own thoughts for a few minutes seems like one of the easier hurdles to overcome. You could recall your favorite childhood memory, plan your weekend, or try to solve a problem from work. But it turns out that people find this assignment incredibly hard. And, according to new research, they’ll even resort to giving themselves electric shocks to keep themselves entertained.

Not long ago I borrowed a copy of Solitude: A Return to the Self, which treats of this subject at length. It was written by psychologist Anthony Storr in 1988 at a time when personal electronica was just beginning to take over our lives in the guise of portable cassette players and handheld games (though we were blissfully ignorant of smartphones!). The comparatively bucolic pace of life during my youth is no doubt highly subjective hindsight. In the long run, people are capable of denying the blessings of solitude even in the most primitive conditions: it is a state of mind one must cultivate with deliberation.

For related commentary, see The Love of Retirement and Solitude and the Private Life.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy

Memento Mori

“A frequent and attentive prospect of that moment, which must put a period to all our schemes, and deprive us of all our acquisitions, is indeed of the utmost efficacy to the just and rational regulation of our lives; nor would ever any thing wicked, or often any thing absurd, be undertaken or prosecuted by him who should begin every day with a serious reflection that he is born to die.”–Samuel Johnson, Rambler, No. 17

Johnson’s essay is a classic “memento mori” (reminder of death). However, unlike the postmodern fascination with skulls and the macabre – which only trivializes the facts of human mortality – it is intended instill a sense of humility and moral proportion to our actions in the light of eternity. The same sentiment was more bluntly stated by Cicero and Montaigne: “to philosophize is to learn how to die.”

This sobering meditation was brought home to me during a recent illness. As Johnson states, “a sharp or tedious sickness” tends to have a salutary effect. In this case it was a fairly mild indisposition that made me more reflective. Sickness may not hold out many advantages, yet one benefit is that by dulling our appetites it causes us to view life with slightly different priorities. Epictetus the Stoic (whom Johnson frequently quotes) reminds us that if we must “suffer a fever” we should at least “undergo it in the right spirit” using it as an opportunity to strengthen and purify the soul even in the midst of physical weakness.

For related comments, see my previous entry on Johnson’s ethical writings.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

A Delicate and Honourable Reserve

Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), in the introduction to his famous memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, presents us with an enviable model of restraint. Such reserve – dignified without being aloof – used to be the norm among educated authors.

I here present you, courteous reader, with the record of a remarkable period in my life… I trust that it will prove not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive. In that hope it is that I have drawn it up; and that must be my apology for breaking through that delicate and honourable reserve which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities.

Here is a writer dealing with sordid and humiliating facts of his private life, yet always conducting himself like the perfect gentleman. Some would condemn this as hypocritical, but I think we can grateful for an author who elicits our sympathy rather than our disgust.

De Quincey says that nothing “is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that ‘decent drapery’ which time or indulgence to human frailty may have drawn over them.” He says that the majority of self-revelations, being gross and sensational, are the products of “adventurers” and “swindlers.” Today they are the effusions of celebrities and talk show hosts. The author links the literary fashion for “gratuitous self-humiliation” (really a perverse form of vanity) to “French literature,” by which is inferred the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Needless to say, much has altered since De Quincey’s time. For my part, I will gladly escape for awhile into this Georgian literary world, which for all its hardships (undoubtedly surpassing what most of us will ever experience), is a remarkable, and ultimately consoling, study of human nature by an intelligent and sensitive observer.

Posted in Literature

The Motives Behind Our Actions

“The recollection of the past is only useful by way of provision for the future.”—Samuel Johnson

Picking up my old copy of the Yale edition of Johnson’s essays, I perused the entry for The Rambler No. 8 titled “The thoughts to be brought under regulation; as they respect the past, present, and future.” Even if one is too busy to study more convoluted philosophical treatises, Johnson’s brief essays make for ideal daily meditations.

In line with the ancients, like Socrates and Epictetus, the English writer stresses the importance of examining the motives that precede our actions:

He therefore that would govern his actions by the laws of virtue, must regulate his thoughts by those of reason; he must keep guilt from the recesses of his heart, and remember that the pleasures of fancy, and the emotions of desire, are more dangerous as they are more hidden, since they escape the awe of observation, and operate equally in every situation, without the concurrence of external opportunities.

In addition to the Yale volume, Penguin Classics offers an affordable and extensive collection of Johnson’s periodical writings (including the aforementioned selection). For related comments, see my earlier post, Life and Ethics According to Johnson.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Samuel Johnson

Hermann Hesse’s Pilgrimage

“Your soul is the whole world.”― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

This saying best sums up the message of Hesse’s famous novel of ancient India. Set in the fifth century B.C., when the aged Gautama Buddha is nearing the end of his spiritual career,  the main character, Siddhartha, journeys from Hindu asceticism to worldly sensuality and finally achieves a Buddhist-inspired “enlightenment.” Hesse’s prose is flawless. The characters are sympathetic and the story is compelling. That said, the novel’s ultimate philosophical trajectory is disappointing.

Siddhartha contains much aphoristic wisdom. For instance, I find myself repeatedly pondering this insight tendered by Siddhartha to his friend Govinda:

“When someone is seeking… it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal… You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

The ascetic practices that Siddhartha acquires from the Samanas are admirable. When faced with difficulty he often says, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” Unfortunately, in the end the protagonist’s pantheism extends even to the moral realm.

And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

The great river, where Siddhartha eventually makes his home when he befriends Vasudeva, the aged and kindly ferryman, is Hesse’s metaphor for life. The flowing water represents the continual flux of existence, in which everything merges into everything else. In a similar way, the main character rejects the notion that anyone can be our teacher, whether Hindu Brahmans or Buddha himself: “I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone.” Wisdom apparently stems from a passive satisfaction with existence as it comes to us.

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew.”

Such things are true to a point. Our spiritual judgments must mature in the course of our own experience; they cannot be acquired second-hand from books or gurus. But neither can we do without authority. Those who renounce the latter merely set themselves up as a new “god” to be worshiped. Likewise we can draw good from evil only if we acknowledge a clear distinction between the two. Hesse’s hazy sense of the numinous is enchantingly narrated, yet provides little motive to live differently other than perhaps from a sense of emotional weariness and intellectual novelty.

Posted in Literature, Philosophy