Portland, Oregon – July 2017
~ Letters from a Stoic by Seneca (trans. Robin Campbell) ~
It’s an interesting exercise to read Seneca’s letters and Homer’s Iliad at the same time: you get a sense for how arbitrary our fashionable categories may be. Both ostensibly belong to “classical literature,” though eight hundred years separate them. Seneca and we are divided by a gulf of history more than twice that deep, but his world and our own have so much more in common with one another than either shares with the Achaean armies camped on the beach at Troy. Again and I again, while marking up my copy of this book I found myself muttering, “My God, we are still the Romans!”
Letters from a Stoic is a collection of Seneca’s Moral Epistles to Lucilius, superbly introduced, edited, and translated by Robin Campbell. I’d recently read James Romm’s Dying Every Day, a biography of Seneca, which first put me on the scent of the present title. I’d been looking for an entrée to Seneca for a long time, and this was the right one at the right time for me.
Seneca was both a philosopher and a statesman, and while serving as the young Nero’s tutor and defacto regent he was possibly the most powerful man in the western world. Seneca was also a great hypocrite – at least many of his contemporaries thought so. He preached the embrace of poverty while at the same time amassing enormous wealth. He championed a blameless life while abetting or at least turning a blind eye to Nero’s murder of his own brother and other family members. In the end, of course, Nero turned on him too. As an elderly man trying to live quietly in retirement, Seneca was commanded on the emperor’s orders to open his veins and end his own life, and he did so without complaint.
Was Seneca a hypocrite, and would being so make him unworthy of our consideration? Let’s say that Seneca is not for the youthful idealist; he will be better appreciated by someone with at least three or four decades under his belt. Seneca’s life was an especially powerful demonstration of the economizing we all engage in, to one degree or another, when we try to live according to our highest convictions in a world that requires everyone who would not be a monk in a cell to dirty his hands.
These letters (which read more like essays) Seneca wrote in the last years of his life. As they demonstrate, he was well aware of his failures, but they also prove his continued commitment to the life of philosophy – to philosophy as a practical pursuit of wisdom, of the honorable life, freedom from fear, joy in our own being, and compassion for our fellow creatures. There’s a humility and humanity in these letters that surpasses anything you may find in Seneca’s fellow Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. I took so many notes. I copied out so many passages. This is one of those books you want to loan to everyone, except that you can’t bear to part with it.
Some favorite passages:
Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.
It is not the man who has too little who is poor but the man who hankers after more.
In the case of some sick people it is a matter for congratulation when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick.
You must inevitably either hate or imitate the world.
All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.
Whatever is true is my property.
Natural desires are limited; those which spring from false opinions have nowhere to stop, for falsity has no point of termination.
A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.
Each man has a character of his own choosing; it is chance or fate that decides his choice of job.
With afflictions of the spirit…the worse a person is, the less he feels it. You needn’t feel surprised, my dearest Lucilius. A person sleeping lightly perceives impressions in his dreams and is sometimes, even, aware during sleep that he is asleep, whereas a heavy slumber blots out even dreams and plunges the mind too deep for consciousness of self. Why does no one admit his failings? Because he’s still deep in them.
The man whom you should admire and imitate is the one who finds it a joy to live and in spite of that is not reluctant to die.
Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface.
I should prefer to see you abandoning grief rather than it abandoning you. Much as you may wish, you will not be able to keep it up for very long, so give it up as early as possible.
At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is a whole.
There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.
You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive.
[A] life spent viewing all the variety, the majesty, the sublimity in things around us can never succumb to ennui: the feeling that one is tired of being, of existing, is usually the result of an idle and inactive leisure.
To want to know more than is sufficient is a form of intemperance.
It would be some relief to our condition and our frailty if all things were as slow in their perishing as they were in their coming into being: but as it is, the growth of things is a tardy process and their undoing is a rapid matter.
We’re born unequal, we die equal.
What good does it do you to go overseas, to move from city to city? If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.
To be feared is to fear: no one has been able to strike terror into others and at the same time enjoy peace of mind himself.
Alders. Oregon – July 2017.
~ Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) by Ron Hansen ~
There’s an old friction in Christianity between the longing for mystical experience and the keep-your-head-down plodding work of the humble, devotional life. Hansen’s book succeeds best when he keeps to this theme, exploring the jealousies and factionalism that erupt at an upstate New York convent when a teenage postulant suffers a series of increasingly intense mystical experiences.
Unfortunately, Mariette in Ecstasy also suffers from a bad case of what I like to call “Writer’s-Workshopitis.” I could smell Hansen’s MFA after just a few pages. In this particular case, symptoms include present-tense narration, an excess of lyricism and ambience and a corresponding dearth of story and character, and too much poetic neologizing. For example, a cruel wind “sharks” through the fields; and rather than gently touching or caressing an object, hands must be “tendering” them. The fact that this second usage occurs twice in a book of a mere 180 pages is, in my opinion, unforgivable.
I appreciate the theme of Mariette in Ecstasy, and I admire its final solution (and I do think Hansen offers one), but the book reads too much like an outline of the novel that it was supposed to be.
Portland, Oregon – 2017.
The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that the passions invariably lead reason about by the nose, that we want what we want before reason steps forward to build a scaffolding that justifies our desires. We then cling to that secondary work of reason in order to explain our desires as if we had settled on them by a process of sober logic.
We might apply Hume’s rule to our political opinions and religious beliefs as well as to our more tangible desires for material goods or influence over others. We come to many of our opinions and beliefs for reasons that have nothing to do with reason, and as a result, I suggest, we do not truly believe many of the things we claim to believe; we merely follow our passions.
For example, we often adopt specific opinions because persons we consider smart or sophisticated or successful tend to support them, and we want to be seen as smart, sophisticated or successful too. By a sleight of hand that fools even ourselves, we grab hold of convenient arguments to prop up our new opinions in order to obscure the actual motives of our endorsement.
From whom do we want to hide our motives? From God perhaps, but certainly from others and from that inward censor that tells us such motives are more often than not base or disgraceful.
What is a person to do?
We may try to hold as few opinions as necessary or to refrain from casually adopting new or fashionable ones. This is no small task when the prevailing culture teaches us that failure to publicly offer the correct judgement, even on persons or events with which we have no connection, is morally identical to endorsing evil or compounding the victimization of persons.
We might also investigate our opinions and beliefs by a process of cold self-examination, a method intended to determine what we believe in practice rather than what we merely select, consumer-style, from a shelf of beliefs and opinions arranged to flatter the purchaser or appeal to the eye.
Stand outside yourself as far as possible and consider the creature before you as you would a character in a novel or an animal under scientific observation. How does he live? What are his habits? How does he spend his time? What are the things he chases after and what are the things he avoids? What are his regrets?
Honest answers to questions of this sort may tell us more than we wish to know about what we believe. It may, for example, teach “liberals” that they live and think conservatively; it may show “conservatives” that they are often secret liberals. It may teach an “atheist” that he accepts a moral order that cannot be explained without a transcendent origin, and it may show a “Christian” that he is in fact a self-deluded atheist.
It is not possible to live without beliefs and opinions. The Greek philosophical school of the Pyrrhonists attempted something like it, but even to believe that forming opinions is undesirable is in itself to form an opinion. The trouble with opinions is that we’re tempted to hold them thoughtlessly or for the wrong reasons. “The heart is deceitful among all things,” said the prophet Jeremiah, and the bewigged Scotsman Hume would agree.
Klickitat County, Washington State – June 2017.