Seneca – On the Endurance of Suffering (Letters from a Stoic)

37712_stdI’m 37% of the way through this work, and what keeps me going is that I think most reviewers on Amazon suck, and if they’re all giving it 4 stars, then…then…then…it’s not that the work deserve praise, it’s something else entirely.

This chapter begins with a perfect example of the whole book: he begins by complaining that he’s always very cold, therefore, he’s exempt from having to endure the suffering of taking cold baths, because he’s enduring the cold all the time on account of being very old. And then he goes on to preach how important it is to endure suffering.

So, in short, the bulk of his letters consist of his a) complaining about his life, and b) preaching how others should live so that they’re more like him.

Truly, the real thing that keeps me going is that it’s difficult for me to not finish a book, even when it takes me a decade. Unfinished books, even ones I hate (i.e., Ovid, which I’ve been working on since 2004) weigh on me. But beyond that, Seneca’s suicide seems to have followed his philosophies well (bravery, honor, and courage). When I think on that, I think, well, he must have been wise after all—but when I read his letters, all I see is a rich old guy going on vacations and complaining about his life.

Okay, it’s a waste of time to be reading this for me. What do I do? How about I return to the top of the letter and paraphrase each paragraph—that’ll at least force me to pay attention to it.

  1. It’s spring, but I have a feeling it’ll get wintry again, so I’m not taking cold baths because I’m always cold because I’m old. Thanks for sending me a letter.
  2. Is every good desirable? That is, if it’s good to endure torture courageously, is torture desirable? No, you stupid fuck. Seneca: No, but if one is to be tortured, then one should desire being able to bear it with courage.
  3. Some pray for “unalloyed” good—i.e., bravery — period. When the truth is that bravery often requires danger. So, generally, you can’t pray for bravery without its accompanying danger.
  4. Who prays for danger? It’s indirectly prayed for—if you pray for bravery, you’re also praying for danger.
  5. There are a bunch of virtues, and they pretty much come as a package deal. Endurance of suffering, bravery, foresight, steadfastness, resignation.
  6. Virtue is not merely “beauty and grandeur”—but rather, “sweat and blood”.
  7. Virtue comes with great difficulties, but anything achieved in virtue’s name is good and desirable.

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Melville: Chapter XI: Nightgown. (Moby Dick. 1851)

32636-le-rire-1901-n-357-henry-gerbault-d-ostoya-scottish-dance-hprints-com“Truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

Compare with Chapter 2 of Tao Te Ching (tr. J. Legge, 1891):

1. All in the world know the beauty of the beautiful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what ugliness is; they all know the skill of the skilful, and in doing this they have (the idea of) what the want of skill is.

2. So it is that existence and non-existence give birth the one to (the idea of) the other; that difficulty and ease produce the one (the idea of) the other; that length and shortness fashion out the one the figure of the other; that (the ideas of) height and lowness arise from the contrast of the one with the other; that the musical notes and tones become harmonious through the relation of one with another; and that being before and behind give the idea of one following another.

3. Therefore the sage manages affairs without doing anything, and conveys his instructions without the use of speech.

4. All things spring up, and there is not one which declines to show itself; they grow, and there is no claim made for their ownership; they go through their processes, and there is no expectation (of a reward for the results). The work is accomplished, and there is no resting in it (as an achievement). The work is done, but how no one can see; ‘Tis this that makes the power not cease to be.

This last line reminds me of a concept I learned from James Altucher: by replacing goals with themes, you never cease to succeed. Rather than have a goal ‘to make a million dollars’, your theme is ‘to provide value to other people in such a way that is also financially beneficial to me.’

Melville: Chapter X: A Bosom Friend. (Moby Dick. 1851)

bosomfriends4“If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies. He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply.”

Reminds me of when I was in living in the library of a guesthouse of an Oxfordshire MP, and sitting up one night eating my first Indian food with a real Indian man, who explained to me that the problem with Americans is that they’re the only people on earth who you can stay up talking to all night, become closest friends with, and the next time you see them they treat you as if it never happened. I could never understand what his name was, because everyone drops their R’s in England anyway, so it sounded to me like Nasa. Anyway, his analysis was correct, at least going forward in our own friendship.

“I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.”

Melville: Chapter IX: The Sermon. (Moby Dick. 1851)

jonah“As with all sinners among men, the sin of [Jonah] was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

Notes on Composing

  1. If I go to sleep thinking “what a load of shit, what a wasted evening,” I can usually count on waking up the next morning loving last night’s work. (The opposite is also true).
  2. If I’m doing it as a work-for-hire, and thereby giving up the copyright, there’s a good chance it’ll be my finest work ever. (The opposite is also true).
  3. If I’m writing symphonies over breakfast and conducting them with my spoon–there’s a good chance that I’m cluelessly stealing from something I heard too many times as a reference track two years ago. (i.e., that time I stole an entire guitar solo from Duran Duran and didn’t know it until years later).

Mumford: The Road Through Magic (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

The Fountain of Youth
The Fountain of Youth

Between fantasy and science is magic. Magicians were necessary to reach science, as they were the first to both believe in marvels as well as seek to “work them”. It’s difficult to define precisely where magic ends and science begins, but two unscientific qualities of magic are: “secrets and mystifications” and “a certain impatience for results.” Regarding the latter, fraudulent acts of magic were commonplace amongst alchemists of the 1500s, (as is sometimes the case amongst scientists today) for the sake of achieving immediate results. But, what the alchemists and magicians could be thanked for is working with their hands, in their laboratories, with real tools and real substances, and most of all, on demonstration. The alchemists, magicians, and early scientists lacked systems. “As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology: it was chiefly a lack of direction that was fantastic: the difficulty was not in using the instruments but in finding a field where it could be applied and finding the right system for applying it.”

Von Neumann: The Brain: The Problem of Memory within the Nervous System (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

firebrainMost likely, the nervous system contains one or more memory organs. We don’t know what or where they are any more so than did the Greeks, who believed it was in the diaphragm. We just know that if it exists, then it must have a great capacity.

In a computing machine, memory size can be quantified. It has a maximum capacity, which can be expressed in bits. A memory that can hold a thousand letters has a capacity of 6,450 bits, for example.

How much? How much!?!?!?! Assuming a 60 year human lifespan, a bunch of neurons, each able to receive 14 distinct digital impressions per second, and that we never truly forget things—we just focus away from them–lands us at around 35 million terabytes of data stored in the brain (aka 2.9 billion iPhones).

What is the physical embodiment of memory? One proposal is that it’s the variability of stimulation criteria—that is, the threshold of stimulation changes depending on frequency of the cell’s use. Another proposal is based on distribution of axons connecting cells—in disuse, an axon becomes ineffective over time, while in frequent use, a stimulation is facilitated by a lower threshold over a given path. Another proposal is genetic memory—chromosomes and their genes have memory elements, so perhaps this is the case in an expanded sense. There are many other suggestions also.

“Systems of nerve cells, which stimulate each other in various possible cyclical ways, also constitute memories”—this would go hand-in-hand with the “strange loops” of Gödel, Escher Bach. Likewise, vacuums-tube machines can do the same via “flip-flops”.

But we have good reason to believe that the active organs do not function also as the memory organs. That’s how early computers (the ENIAC) began, with small memory components, and with time memory components have become larger and “technologically entirely different” than active organs.

Mumford: The Obstacle of Animism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine
Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine

While the natural world came as a great inspiration for technology (hornets nests: paper; rolling logs: wheels; lungs: bellows), technological development could only proceed slowly until the machine could be dissociated from living things. Airplanes were unsuccessful so long as they were designed to have bird (Leonardo da Vinci) or bat (Clement Ader) wings, bodies, and motion; Giovanni Branca’s human-shaped steam-engine was a nonstarter. In the meantime, circular motion, which we find infinitely useful, is only rarely seen in nature—perhaps most often by humans dancing. Dissociating life from actions resulted in the arm becoming a crane, firelight becoming electric light, human and animal work becoming mechanical work.

God, as clockmaker, had created and set an orderly world. If the world was nothing but God’s creation, wrapped in symbolism, and the Church the only path to the absolute, then there was no place for mechanical understanding or development unless Earth and Heavens could be divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that division became clear—there, the Heavens and the soul of man, and here, the earth. But even the monastery may be considered mechanical: its sterile environment, separate from the earthly world, temptations removed, strict rules and minimized irregularity as the self is replaced by the collective. A machine. And like a machine, it was “incapable of self-perpetuation except by renewal from without.” Hence, a great number of scientific discoveries came from monks. Further, Christianity’s teachings that the body is sinful, vile, and corrupt, to be mortified and subdued, meant that rather than celebrate the body, as pagans once did (gigantic symbols of fertility, etc.), it would be reasonable to move away from the body and toward the machine. Even as the Church would declare machines the work of the Devil, it “was creating the Devil’s disciples.”
The machine came about most quickly wherever the body was destroyed: monasteries, mines, and battlefields. It came about more slowly in places that gave life: agriculture.

Von Neumann: The Brain: Stimulation Criteria (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

This is just a picture of some cows. Has nothing to do with this post.
This is just a picture of some cows. Has nothing to do with this post.

Neurons function as basic logical organs, and basically digital organs: if a neuron requires only one incoming pulse (stimulator) to produce a response, then it is an OR organ; if it requires two incoming pulses, then it is an AND organ. These two, along with simulating “no” can be combined in various ways into any complex logical operation.

It’s not simple as this, though: a neuron may have hundreds of synapses connecting it to other cells, perhaps even to one other cell, receiving an enormous number of pulse combinations, and to further complicate things, pulses may be characterized not only by frequency, but also by spatial relations to one another.
Therefore, while there is a stimulation requirement, that is, a threshold, it may be simple, or it may be very complicated. And in the case of receptors, being neurons that respond to stimuli, there may be more than a simple threshold. Further: “if the nerve cell is activated by the stimulation of certain combinations of synapses on its body and not by others, then the significant count of basic active organs must presumably be a count of synapses rather than of nerve cells.”

Mumford: From Fable to Fact (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

fact-checking“‘In the Middle Ages,’ as Emile Male said, ‘the idea of a thing which a man formed for himself was always more real than the actual thing itself, and we see why these mystical centuries had no conception of what men now call science. The study of things for their own sake held no meaning for the thoughtful man. . . . The task for the student of nature was to discern the eternal truth that God would have each thing express.’”
“How far could the mind go in [science] as long as the mystic numbers three and four and seven and nine and twelve filled every relation with an allegorical significance.”
“Unfortunately, the medieval habit of separating the soul of man from the life of the material world persisted, though the theology that supported it was weakened; for as soon as the procedure of exploration was definitely outlined in the philosophy and mechanics of the seventeenth century man himself was excluded from the picture. Technics perhaps temporarily profited by this exclusion; but in the long run the result was to prove unfortunate. In attempting to seize power man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to eliminate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power.”