The Death of Marcus Aurelius

The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Abandoned Places 40

Romain Veillon, Nara Dreamland 

Nature 42

IMAGE by Harrison Candlin 

Sayings of Ramakrishna 189

A jar kept in water is full of water inside and outside. 

Similarly the soul immersed in God sees the all-pervading spirit within and without. 

Seneca, Moral Letters 38.1

Letter 38: On quiet conversation 
You are right when you urge that we increase our mutual traffic in letters. But the greatest benefit is to be derived from conversation, because it creeps by degrees into the soul. 
Lectures prepared beforehand and spouted in the presence of a throng have in them more noise but less intimacy. Philosophy is good advice; and no one can give advice at the top of his lungs. 
Of course we must sometimes also make use of these harangues, if I may so call them, when a doubting member needs to be spurred on; but when the aim is to make a man learn, and not merely to make him wish to learn, we must have recourse to the low-toned words of conversation. They enter more easily, and stick in the memory; for we do not need many words, but, rather, effective words. 

—from Seneca, Moral Letters 38 
For all the wonders of the written word, there’s nothing quite like a good conversation. I’m not sure I remember the last time I actually sat down with someone and had a decent chat, not some formality for work or a staged performance to sell something, but a sincere engagement where I give of myself, and I learn something new in return. We seem to be swapping more and more information, while making less and less of an effort at building personal bonds. 
I have now made myself an outcast among many of my colleagues, because I resist the lazy urge to run our classes online. I hardly object to the technology, which is simply another tool, though I do see a problem with reducing the act of learning to the lifeless transmission of data. 
No, it is not enough for the teacher to spew out the “facts” and for the student to memorize them—education must be a dialogue, a back and forth of ideas where the process of debate is the very means toward an active understanding. 
We are living creatures of reason and will, not machines. We are made to think for ourselves, not regurgitate what has been feed to us. We thrive in the company of our fellows, and we wither away when we are locked into separate boxes. 
I’m also not too keen on those who “teach” by reading a lecture from their notes, or are constantly flipping through PowerPoint slides, but I’d best save that for another time. 
As Seneca argues, learning must be intimate, a close relationship where the immediate presence of others inspires us to truly become ourselves. You say it is sentimental hogwash, and not efficient enough? I can only ask you to go back to your first principles about the human good, and to ask yourself if life is meant to be a formulaic routine or an invigorating experience. The definition of “cost effective” depends entirely on whether we are dealing in the currency of cash or of character. 
A timeless book, or a rousing speech, or a poignant film can stimulate an interest, and yet nothing can replace the dialectic for getting the job done. We learn best by doing, and we do our best work face to face. Don’t just dictate, have a talk. 

—Reflection written in 1/2013 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Stoic Snippets 177

Nothing can happen to any man which is not a human accident, nor to an ox which is not according to the nature of an ox, nor to a vine which is not according to the nature of a vine, nor to a stone which is not proper to a stone. 

If then there happens to each thing both what is usual and natural, why should you complain? 

For the Common Nature brings nothing which may not be borne by you. 

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.46 

IMAGE: Jan Asselijn, Head of a Bellowing Ox (c. 1650) 

Stockdale on Stoicism 29

This self-knowledge that you have betrayed yourself, destroyed yourself, is the very worst harm that can befall a Stoic. Epictetus says:

—"No one comes to his fall because of another's deed." 
—"No one is evil without loss or damage." 
—"No man can do wrong with impunity."

I call this whole personal guilt package that Epictetus relied upon, "the reliability of the retribution of the guilty conscience." 

As I sometimes say, "There can be no such thing as a 'victim'; you can only be a 'victim' of yourself." Remember:

—Controlling your emotions can be empowering. 
—Your inner self is what you make it. 
—Refuse to want to fear, and you start acquiring a constancy of character that makes it impossible for another to do you wrong. 

Somebody asked Epictetus: "What is the fruit of all these doctrines?" 

He answered with three sharp words: "Tranquility, Fearlessness, and Freedom." 

—from James B. Stockdale, The Stoic Warrior's Triad 

IMAGE: Theodoor Galle, Epictetus (1605) 

Seneca, Moral Letters 37.2

"Then how can I free myself?" you ask. You cannot escape necessities, but you can overcome them.
“By force a way is made.”
And this way will be afforded you by philosophy. Betake yourself therefore to philosophy if you would be safe, untroubled, happy, in fine, if you wish to be—and that is most important—free. There is no other way to attain this end.
Folly is low, abject, mean, slavish, and exposed to many of the cruelest passions. These passions, which are heavy taskmasters, sometimes ruling by turns, and sometimes together, can be banished from you by wisdom, which is the only real freedom. 
There is but one path leading there, and it is a straight path; you will not go astray. Proceed with steady step, and if you would have all things under your control, put yourself under the control of reason; if reason becomes your ruler, you will become ruler over many. You will learn from her what you should undertake, and how it should be done; you will not blunder into things.
You can show me no man who knows how he began to crave that which he craves. He has not been led to that pass by forethought; he has been driven to it by impulse. 
Fortune attacks us as often as we attack Fortune. It is disgraceful, instead of proceeding ahead, to be carried along, and then suddenly, amid the whirlpool of events, to ask in a dazed way: "How did I get into this condition?" Farewell. 

—from Seneca, Moral Letters 37 
The liberty that comes from moral courage won’t make the hardships of the world go away, but it will allow me to bear my burdens with dignity and peace of mind. 
When Seneca quotes Virgil here, I initially feel uncomfortable, because I have little use for appeals to blunt force. If someone yells at me to “Man up!” as I hesitate, it does no more than irritate me. Perhaps you could advise me on howit is done? 
Although fortitude is the virtue concerned with resolution, merely demanding that the will push harder is much like yelling at a car for failing to start. Have I looked under the hood? Did I forget to fill the tank? My motivation to make a choice can only be as strong as my understanding of why this action brings about the greatest good, and so the key to a robust will is the direction of an informed mind. My courage is in direct proportion to my conviction. 
To fall back on my Aristotelian training, while the will is the efficient cause of the act, which pushes forward, the intellect is the final cause of the act, which pulls it along. To become inspired, driven to sacrificing everything else for the sake of a goal, I will find my direction by knowing the merits of my cause.
Put another way, what use I there in being the fastest runner if I can’t see where I’m going? 
Laugh all you like, but it is philosophy, in its vital sense, that makes for a genuinely brave man. A fool may have an iron nerve, but without the guidance of wisdom, everything he undertakes will be thoughtless and reckless. He rushes into danger, though he has no idea why he fights. His passions drag him about, and he fails to look before he leaps. 
My thoughts turn to Boethius, one of my heroes, who was overcome with doubt and fear when he faced his impending execution. He had hardly lived a cowardly life, yet when Fortune has unexpectedly taken everything away, he did not know where to turn. 
As he sat in his cell, it was only his reason, symbolized as Lady Philosophy in his last writings, The Consolation of Philosophy, that saved him from despair. She spoke to him about the relationship of our own freedom to the workings of Providence, and she explained how happiness is in our own thoughts and deeds, not in our circumstances. To the Stoic, it should sound all too familiar. 
If I am just working from my gut, I am acting without any deliberate awareness. If, however, I am conscious of the true and the good within me, then no situation, however severe, can stand in the way of my happiness. My allegiance to the virtues is the one thing they can’t take away from me. 

—Reflection written in 12/2012 

IMAGE: Mattia Preti, Boethius and Philosophy (c. 1650) 

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Dhammapada 273-276

The best of ways is the eightfold; the best of truths the four words; the best of virtues passionlessness; the best of men he who has eyes to see. 

This is the way, there is no other that leads to the purifying of intelligence. Go on this way! Everything else is the deceit of Mara, the tempter. 

If you go on this way, you will make an end of pain! The way was preached by me, when I had understood the removal of the thorns in the flesh. 

You yourself must make an effort. The Buddhas are only preachers. The thoughtful who enter the way are freed from the bondage of Mara. 

The Four Noble Truths
Dukkha: Life is suffering  
Samudaya: Desire is the cause of suffering 
Nirodha: Suffering can be ended by overcoming desire 
Magga: This can be achieved by the Noble Eightfold Path 

The Noble Eightfold Path 
Right View
Right Intention 
Right Speech 
Right Action 
Right Livelihood 
Right Effort
Right Concentration 
Right Mindfulness 

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ 3.53

That the Grace of God does not join itself to those who mind earthly things 

1. “My Son, precious is My grace, it suffers not itself to be joined with outward things, nor with earthly consolations. Therefore you ought to cast away all things which hinder grace, if you long to receive the inpouring thereof. Seek a secret place for yourself, love to dwell alone with yourself, desire the conversation of no one; but rather pour out your devout prayer to God, that you may possess a contrite mind and a pure conscience. Count the whole world as nought; seek to be alone with God before all outward things. For you cannot be alone with Me, and at the same time be delighted with transitory things. You ought to be separated from your acquaintances and dear friends, and keep your mind free from all worldly comfort. So the blessed Apostle Peter beseeches, that Christ’s faithful ones bear themselves in this world as strangers and pilgrims. 

2. “Oh how great a confidence shall there be to the dying man whom no affection to anything detains in the world? But to have a heart so separated from all things, a sickly soul does not yet comprehend, nor does the carnal man know the liberty of the spiritual man. But if indeed he desires to be spiritually minded, he must renounce both those who are far off, and those who are near, and to beware of no man more than himself. If you perfectly conquer yourself, very easily shall you subdue all things besides. Perfect victory is the triumph over oneself. For whoso keeps himself in subjection, in such manner that the sensual affections obey the reason, and the reason in all things obeys Me, he truly is conqueror of himself, and lord of the world. 

3. “If you desire to climb to this height, you ought to start bravely, and to lay the axe to the root, to the end that you may pull up and destroy the hidden inordinate inclination towards yourself, and towards all selfish and earthly good. From this sin, that a man loves himself too inordinately, almost everything hangs which needs to be utterly overcome: when that evil is conquered and put under foot, there shall be great peace and tranquillity continually. But because few strive earnestly to die perfectly to themselves, and do not heartily go forth from themselves, therefore do they remain entangled in themselves, and cannot be raised in spirit above themselves. But he who desires to walk at liberty with Me, must of necessity mortify all his evil and inordinate affections, and must cling to no creature with selfish love.” 

Seneca, Moral Letters 37.1

Letter 37: On allegiance to virtue 
You have promised to be a good man; you have enlisted under oath; that is the strongest chain which will hold you to a sound understanding. Any man will be but mocking you, if he declares that this is an effeminate and easy kind of soldiering. 
I will not have you deceived. The words of this most honorable compact are the same as the words of that most disgraceful one, to wit: "Through burning, imprisonment, or death by the sword."
From the men who hire out their strength for the arena, who eat and drink what they must pay for with their blood, security is taken that they will endure such trials even though they be unwilling; from you, that you will endure them willingly and with alacrity. 
The gladiator may lower his weapon and test the pity of the people; but you will neither lower your weapon nor beg for life. You must die erect and unyielding. Moreover, what profit is it to gain a few days or a few years? There is no discharge for us from the moment we are born. 

—from Seneca, Moral Letters 37 
In the quest for self-confidence, some will turn to a physical courage, the will to rush into the fray and to take the pain. I should never underestimate its power, but in itself it is only a tool, becoming beneficial or harmful by how I choose to employ it. Behind it there must first be a moral courage, the will to stand firm with a judgment of what is right. Superman without a conscience is a villain, not a hero. 
Accordingly, if anyone derides you for exercising your principles more strenuously than your muscles, know that he has his wires crossed. 
Not being born with the strength of an ox, I do find myself struggling with certain brute tasks, and yet those challenges never come close to the difficulties I confront in taming my habits of thinking. Those who believe a change of character to be a piece of cake are in for a big surprise, since the resistance to be overcome can bring more agony and require more forbearance than any pressure on the bones or muscles. 
The Roman gladiators made an oath “to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.” The commitment to virtue makes equally terrifying demands, though the man fighting to be good is not kept in line the way a gladiator was ruled and disciplined by his master. He must hold fast on his own, and if he falls in the face of overwhelming odds, there is no one who can grant him mercy. If he is faithful to his task, he will not abandon his responsibility. 
I must bite my tongue when I hear decent people be so assured that their efforts at integrity will win them worldly success. They should not be discouraged, but they will also have to learn how self-improvement will inevitably meet with bitter opposition from those who are sick with resentment and envy. Whether I find myself with riches or poverty, fame or disgrace, a long or a short life is quite secondary to the state of my soul. 
Fighting pain is hard. Fighting wickedness is even harder. The most valuable accomplishments are always the most difficult. 

—Reflection written in 12/2012 

IMAGE: Fyodor Bronnikov, The Dying Gladiator (1856) 

Friday, December 2, 2022

The Life of Cato the Younger 3

He was so celebrated that, when Sulla was preparing for exhibition the sacred equestrian game for boys​ which is called "Troja," and, after assembling the boys of good birth, appointed two leaders for them, the boys accepted one of them for his mother's sake (he was a son of Metella, Sulla's wife), but would not tolerate the other (who was a nephew of Pompey, named Sextus), and refused to rehearse under him or obey him; and when Sulla asked them whom they would have, they all cried "Cato," and Sextus himself gave way and yielded the honor to a confessed superior.

Now, Sulla was friendly to Cato and his brother​ on their father's account, and sometimes actually asked them to see him and conversed with them, a kindness which he showed to very few, by reason of the weight and majesty of his authority and power. 

So Sarpedon, thinking that this conduced greatly to the honor and safety of his charge, was continually bringing Cato to wait upon Sulla at his house, which, at that time, looked exactly like an Inferno, owing to the multitude of those who were brought thither and put to torture. 

Now, Cato was in his fourteenth year; and when he saw heads of men reputed to be eminent carried forth, and heard the smothered groans of the bystanders, he asked his tutor why no one slew this man. 

"Because, my child," said the tutor, "men fear him more than they hate him." 

"Why, then," said Cato, "did you not give me a sword, that I might slay him and set my country free from slavery?" 

When Sarpedon heard this speech, and saw also the look on the boy's face, which was full of rage and fury, he was so frightened that in future he kept him under close watch and ward, lest he should venture on some rash deed.

When he was still a little boy, and was asked whom he loved most, he answered, "My brother"; and to the question whom he loved next, likewise, "My brother"; and so a third time, until, after many such answers from him, his questioner desisted. 

And when he came to maturity, he maintained all the more firmly this affection for his brother. Indeed, when he was twenty years old, without Caepio he would not take supper, or make a journey, or go out into the forum. 

But when his brother used perfume, Cato would decline it; and in his habits generally he was severe and strict. 

At any rate, when Caepio was admired and praised for his discretion and moderation, he would admit that he had those qualities when tested by reference to most men; "But when," he would say, "I compare my life with that of Cato, I seem to myself no better than Sippius,"—mentioning one of those who were celebrated for luxury and effeminacy. 

The Dance of Death 2

Bernt Notke, The Tallinn Dance of Death (c. 1475) 

By the same artist who created the Lübeck Dance of Death, this fragment survives in St. Nicholas' Church, Tallinn, Estonia.