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.’

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.

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.”

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (21-25)


XXI: On the Renown Which My Writings Will Bring You

Your greatest difficulty is yourself; for you are your own stumbling block. You do not know what you want. You are better at approving the right course than at following it out. You see where true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.

The belly will not listen to advice; it makes demands, it importunes. And yet it is not a troublesome creditor; you can send it away at a small cost, provided only that you give it what you owe, not merely all you are able to give.

Mumford: Space, Distance, Movement (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

hereford_mapCultures can be differentiated by their unique conceptions of space and time. Europe in the Middle Ages understood space and time in terms of arbitrary, religion-based symbolism. For instance, medieval cartography presents land masses and water as arbitrary shapes (see the Hereford Map), related to each other allegorically. Further, time was understood as something fluid, where in storytelling the past is happening now, so that it’s realistic to the medievel mind to transport a story from a thousand years ago into the present, or as in Botticelli’s The Three Miracles of St. Zenobius, where three different times are presented at once. The result of this was the ability to understand what we presently only understand using science–ship’s drop off the horizon, demons drop down chimneys. Things in the world come and go in the same way as adults come and go in the eyes of children–things are all either mysteries or miracles. All things make sense through religion–“the true order of space was Heaven, even as the true order of time was Eternity.”

boticelliBetween the 14th and 17th centuries, space “as a hierachy of values” was replaced by “space as a system of magnitudes.” In painting, horizons, vanishing points, and visual relationships between things replaced symbolic relationships between things. Size no longer corresponded to divine proportions, but to distance, objects in relationship to one another. This meant a need to understand the world accurately. Space would now be measured in the same way time was measured with a clock. To understand something would be to place it, and to time it–how long to get there? By placing things geographically, there was now an incentive to explore and discover the world. And by graphing out the world, even while incomplete or inaccurate, there was now a basis of expectations, rather than the navigationally useless maps of the Middle Ages. Explorers did not need to hug the shoreline, as in the old maps, but could now launch into the open seas and return to roughly where they began. Eden and Heaven were no longer to be found on maps. The concepts of space and time require us to begin, arbitrarily, with here and now–their conquest is through measurement, and through their conquest, scientific advancement. And in conquering space and time, the importance of numbers and counting grew.

Mumford: The Monastery and the Clock (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

water-clock“The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age”

The clock “is a piece of power-machinery whose ‘product’ is seconds and minutes: by its essential nature it dissociated time from human events and helped create the belief in an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences: the special world of science. There is relatively little foundation for this belief in common human experience: throughout the year the days are of uneven duration, and not merely does the relation between day and night steadily change, but a slight journey from East to West alters astronomical time by a certain number of minutes. In terms of the human organism itself, mechanical time is even more foreign: while human life has regularities of its own, the beat of the pulse, the breathing of the lungs, these change from hour to hour with mood and action, and in the longer span of days, time is measured not by the calendar but by the events that occupy it. The shepherd measures from the time the ewes lambed; the farmers measures back to the day of sowing or forward to the harvest: if growth has its own duration and regularities, behind it are not simply matter and motion, but the facts of development: in short, history. And while mechanical time is strung out in a succession of mathematically isolated instants, organic time—what Bergson calls duration—is cumulative in its effects. Though mechanical time can, in a sense, be speeded up or run backward, like the hands of a clock or the images of a moving picture, organic time moves in only one direction—through the cycle of birth, growth, development, decay, and death—and the past that is already dead remains present in the future that has still to be born.”

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (11-15)

time usXII – On Old Age

Some hold that days are equal in number of hours, and this is true; for if by “day” we mean twenty-four hours’ time, all days must be equal, inasmuch as the night acquires what the day loses. But others maintain that one day is equal to all days through resemblance, because the very longest space of time possesses no element which cannot be found in a single day, –namely, light and darkness,–and even to eternity day makes these alterations more numerous, not different when it is shorter, and different again when it is longer. Hence, every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence.

XIII – On Groundless Fears

Some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Blench: v. make a sudden flinching movement out of fear or pain

What does it avail to go out and meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What will you gain by doing this? Time.

Mumford: Machines, Utilities, and ‘The Machine’ (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

technics1There are physiological processes, like growing hair in response to the cold. Then there are things that, rather, change the environment—tools and machines. Tools are flexible in function—a knife can be used to cut, shave, carve, etc. Whereas machines are inflexible in function—a drill can only drill.

Tools, however, function as extensions of the person who manipulates them. It takes considerable effort and skill to use a hammer properly, whereas regardless of how complicated a machine is, it requires little relative effort or skill to use (for instance, in driving a car, by pushing your foot down, you cause a number of processes to take place, and, ultimately, the wheels to turn and move the heavy car automatically).

In between these two, tool, and machine, is the machine-tool, which blurs the line between the human extension and the automatic—say, an electric handheld drill, which involves a number of processes effected only by pushing a button, and is run by electricity, yet still requires considerable skill to use, as it acts like an extension of the person.

Lastly, utensils and utilities, from baskets to kilns to roads, are important technological objects in the development of the modern environment.