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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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.

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (1-10)

divine retributionLetter 1 – On Saving Time

Recently we were in a bar, and he was telling me about this girl who seemed like she liked him, but wouldn’t let him ask her out, and puts him through all sorts of confusing games—they’re both PhDs working for maybe the best known company in the world and in their early 30s. My response was—doesn’t she know she’s dying? 

Why piss away your time on amusements unless you’re examining the hell out of them. Again, that’s the purpose of this blog in the first place, because too often I enjoy reading, and since I don’t think I should be spending time doing things just for the sake of relaxation, I began trying to examine them so at least I could look back and say ‘oh, right, I got something from that.’

Seneca:

“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.”

One of the messages of this chapter is: stop procrastinating. You’re going to die.

Reminiscent of Franklin:

“I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man.”

Letter 2 – On Discursiveness in Reading

In short, a painful lesson for someone who keeps this blog, Seneca suggests—don’t read lots of different authors and works…just focus on a few, revisit them, and digest them fully.

Of course, returning to Letter 1, I procrastinate now that I’m married, and I haven’t finished a real book in many years, so perhaps it’s not really an issue for me.

Letter 4 – On the Terrors of Death

Seneca:

“It is not boyhood that still stays with us, but something worse,–boyishness. And this condition is all the more serious because we possess the authority of old age, together with the follies of boyhood, yea, even the follies of infancy. Boys fear trifles, children fear shadows, we fear both.”

Letter 5 – On the Philosopher’s Mean

Seneca:

“Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.”

 

“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.”

IX – On Philosophy and Friendship

“The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself.”

This is the concept that I’ve tried to follow more than any other I’ve learned, but likely not to the extent that I ought—because I try following it to a single end, and not as a continual end within itself.

X – On Living to Oneself

“’Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.’ . . . ‘Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.’”

This calls to mind our thoughts on Yom Kippur—that we find repentance for our sins easier when we’re asking God for forgiveness than when we’re asking people for forgiveness. I don’t believe divine forgiveness is easily bestowed, which I can only assume means that I rarely deserve it because I don’t know how to repent, and also because I’m not sure which things I do are good and which are bad. One year I called an old roommate and apologized on his voicemail for letting the air out of all his tires and drawing a penis and writing DICK on his car with shaving cream to discolor the paint. Even now, I feel kinda proud that I went and did that, right? I mean, there was injustice to me, and I took it upon myself to exact retribution in some unequal fashion—which I couldn’t even convince him I did—but, bottom line is, I don’t feel badly enough. And why don’t I feel badly enough? Well, perhaps because somewhere inside me I don’t believe that God punishes the wicked. But I do believe this—don’t I? That in one’s own lifetime, you’ll be punished or rewarded as you deserve. I must not truly believe this if I take it upon myself though, right?

Well, for instance, let’s say the girl who lives downstairs is making the entire stairwell stink of her child’s feces. My retaliation is that I don’t mention ‘by the way—if your daughter grabs the bathroom sink, it’s going to tip, fall and crush her.’ The truth is that perhaps it’s better to just leave retribution to the divine, and then, in this situation, to paint the stairwell with ammonia on a daily basis until our eyeballs all melt.

It is so difficult to even try to be a good person. I need to try better.