Tag Archives: Stoics

Nothing Against Logicians! Promise!

A properly functioning mind can destroy itself. It can think itself, in a logical and rational pattern, into madness. But that’s really more about the motive than the mode. It’s not logic and rationality themselves that are the source of the problem. In that respect, my recent quotation of G.K. Chesterton might have been misleading in regards to my outlook. Chesterton wrote, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But I don’t have anything against logicians! Promise! I have no campaign against logic or rationality. From classical Stoicism to contemporary psychological therapies like logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and rational emotive behavior therapy, logical and rational thinking has been a sturdy pattern for healthiness. But logic and rationality also could be used in an unhealthy way. In quoting Chesterton there, my point was to identify a problem that was once explained by an evangelical psychologist, Larry Crabb. “There is an enormous difference between the joy of discovery and the passion to explain,” Crabb wrote. “The former gives life a sense of adventure. The latter makes us hate mystery.” And, I think, as Chesterton suggests, that passion to explain gets exhausting, overwhelming, and eventually, devastating. So his single metaphorical dichotomy provides me inexhaustible help: I’m not trying to get the heavens into my head; I’m just trying to get my head into the heavens. And by heavens, I’m thinking figuratively. I’m thinking about all the questions and all the data and all the good theories and all the history and all the apparent unknowns—better to sit within it all than to insist upon a perfectly systematic account for it all. The former is wonderful; the latter is exhausting. I think someone could simultaneously say discovery in any field is an amazing, exhilarating journey, and logical, rational methods help discovery on its way. Motivation makes the difference.

The Latest Self-Help Advice? “F*ck Feelings” | Acculturated

Old Stoic psychology can be a good thing — Saint Paul probably was influenced by it — and in that vein here’s a contemporary, popular book, reviewed by Acculturated:

A new book called F*ck Feelings is, well, all the rage.

On its face, the volume cries out for disdain…. The genre—self-help—practically invites ridicule. And the bloated text, which oscillates between tough love and outright fatalism, could be boiled down to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

There just isn’t much original material here. Are you wondering if a problem is not what happens, but your reaction to it? Marcus Aurelius got there first: “If you are distressed by anything external,” he observed, “the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

If the issue is a false perception of reality—and isn’t that so often a plausible diagnosis?—well, this news was delivered in the middle of the last century by Albert Ellis, who emphasized unrealistic thinking when he pioneered cognitive behavioral therapy…. Ellis in turn got the news from Socrates, who found ignorance (and perhaps worse yet, ignorance of one’s own ignorance) to be at the bottom of various ills. People did bad things out of ignorance about what is good, for instance, or succumbed to cowardice due to ignorance about the nature of death.

Yet lots of people who never got the memo from Socrates or Ellis can still benefit from this message, and that is where a book like F*ck Feelings establishes its usefulness. Why sneer? It should be clear by now that self-help books aren’t necessarily bad; they aren’t even new. Ben Franklin, Samuel Smiles, and Arnold Bennett wrote interesting self-help manuals long before any of us were born.

Read the rest of this review: The Latest Self-Help Advice? “F*ck Feelings” | Acculturated

Living well is not a gift from God (but the ability to live well is): Seneca on God & wisdom

I should start with three quick notes on Seneca’s relevance in Christian history because some background will give reasons for considering his writings as relevant to thinking about God.

First, a general assessment of Seneca’s point of view in relation to Christianity:

His [Seneca’s] writings represent Stoicism at its best and have been much studied by Christian apologists for the similarities as well as the contrasts of their moral teaching with the Gospel ethic.  — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Second, John Calvin’s interest in Seneca:

In 1532 he [John Calvin] issued a Latin commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia’. — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

And third, a translator’s note on Seneca’s importance to four Christian thinkers:

While scholars and schoolmasters in the century following continued to condemn Seneca, early Christians were taking to this kindred spirit among pagan writers, so many of who ideas and attitudes they felt able to adopt and share. Anthologies were made of him and he was frequently quoted by such writers as Jerome, Lactantius and Augustine. Tertullian called him saepe noster, ‘often one of us’.  — Robin Campbell, in the introduction to his translation of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Furthermore, as Campbell also notes, Dante frequently quotes Seneca.

So, as I was recently reading Seneca’s Letter XC, I came across something that helped me think about what God does and what God doesn’t do for humans.

In a way, the following passage sounds like an overview of the biblical book of Proverbs.

From Seneca’s Letter XC, as translated by Campbell:

“Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? A corollary of this would be the certain conclusion that our debt to philosophy is greater than the debt we owe to the gods (by just so much as a good life is more of a blessing than, simply, life) had it not been for the fact that philosophy itself was something borrowed by the gods. They have given no one the present of a knowledge of philosophy, but everyone the means of acquiring it. For if they had made philosophy a blessing, given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her. What would have have worth looking up to in philosophy if she were handed out free?

“Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience, the sense of duty, justice and all the rest of the close-knit, interdependent ‘company of virtues’, never leave her side. Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belong authority, and among human beings fellowship.”

My takeaway:

Life is a gift from God. Living well is a gift of philosophy. Philosophy is also a gift from God, and philosophy has taught us to worship “what is divine.” But living well is not a gift from God. We must engage philosophy to learn how to live well.

The Penguin Classics edition of Letters from a Stoic, selected, introduced, and translated by Robin Campbell

“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell

Paradoxes for Better Living, 3

Seneca, part of double-herm, Antikensammlung B...

Seneca, part of double-herm, Antikensammlung Berlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“But I wish to share with you today’s profit also. I find in the writings of our Hecato that the limiting of desires helps also to cure fears: ‘Cease to hope,’ he says, ‘and you will cease to fear.’ ‘But how,’ you will reply, ‘can things so different go side by side?’ In this way, my dear Lucilius: though they do seem at variance, yet they are really united. Just as the same chain fastens the prisoner and the soldier who guards him, so hope and fear, dissimilar as they are, keep step together; fear follows hope. I am not surprised that they proceed in this way; each alike belongs to a mind that is in suspense, a mind that is fretted by looking forward to the future. But the chief cause of both these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves over that which is to come as well as over that which is past. Many of our blessings bring bane to us; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them. The present alone can make no man wretched.” — Seneca, Epistle V

Paradoxes for Better Living, 2
Paradoxes for Better Living, 1

Paradoxes for Better Living, 2

A letter on friendship leads to an observation about fear and victimization:

“…you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend+ the right to do wrong.” — Seneca, Epistle III

See Paradoxes for Better Living, 1


Paradoxes for Better Living, 1

“Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of masterthinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.” (emphasis added) — Seneca, “On Discursiveness in Reading,” Moral Epistles

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Marcus Aurelius: Do you live in chaos or order?

“Either everything is a confused gathering and scattering of atoms, or else it is all a great unity and design. If the former, why am I so eager to go on living in such a swirling chaos? Why should I care about anything but how I will finally ‘return to the soil’? and why am I disturbed? For whatever I do, this scattering will come upon me as well. But if it is the other alternative, I am reverent, I am calm; I place my trust in that which governs all things.” — Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations