Delight Springs

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Stoic spirituality

Seneca's "On the Shortness of Life" is so full of practical wisdom and, for those in my line of work, positive reinforcement:
Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only... We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. Since Nature allows us to enter into fellowship with every age, why should we not turn from this paltry and fleeting span of time and surrender ourselves with all our soul to the past, which is boundless, which is eternal, which we share with our betters?
I wouldn't put it in terms of "surrender" to the past, though. We study the old dead philosophers because the best that's been thought, said, and written better prepares us to meet present and future with equanimity and intention. For instance...

Before class yesterday my wife texted that a friend and her family had been involved in a serious automobile accident in Florda, with the little girls suffering serious injury. "I'm very upset." What would a Stoic say? Popular caricature suggests a cold and inhumane response like "Don't be upset. An emotional reaction changes nothing..." etc.

But the more time I spend reading and reflecting on the old Stoic texts, the less I think that's what Seneca and his school would say. Theirs would be a more measured judgment: "Your upset is understandable, and natural for our kind. Our humanity is a hybrid of reasoned reflection and feeling, we must allow both their due. Acknowledge your emotions, register their practical instruction, and move forward." Something like that.

Similar issues arise in Happiness this afternoon, when we'll wonder about the extent to which it may be possible for persons to do the "internal work" of Stoic adjustment required for hybrid happiness. And, an aside in our reading today has caught my attention, the claim that religious/spiritual people add years to their lives. I'm prepared to believe that, if "spiritual" is construed in its full and natural signification. Andre Comte-Sponville:
The universe is our home; the celestial vault is our horizon; eternity is here and now. This moves me far more than the Bible or the Koran. It astonishes me far more than miracles (if I believed in them). Compared to the universe, walking on water is a cinch!
Why would you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why would you need faith? Experience suffices. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality
The Stoics entertained a range of religious views, but "experience suffices" pretty much captures what they had to tell us of our hybrid nature. Sufficit.

5:30/6:36, 53/84

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