Seneca On Leisure

“What an advantage it will be to retire into the society of the best of men, and to choose some example by which we may guide our lives! This cannot be done without leisure: with leisure we can carry out that which we have once for all decided to be best, when there is no one to interfere with us and with the help of the mob pervert our as yet feeble judgment.” (I) So says Seneca near the beginning of his essay on the topic of leisure, one that may seem rather frivolous for a philosopher, but which is instead crucial. It is, after all, because of the ample leisure offered me by my academic position that you are now reading essay n. 266 on this blog…

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Stoic advice: I can’t get over my breakup, now what?

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please consider that the column has become very popular and there now is a backlog of submitted questions, it may take me some time to get to yours. Apologies.]

A. writes: “It’s been almost a year since my girlfriend broke up with me, We were not together for long (about two months), but we had a special connection, one I was not able to find with another woman since. So although I know that there is nothing really to do about it — the past is gone and out of my control — I still often find myself missing her and feeling sadness. The thought that maybe there were things I could have done otherwise and therefore she wouldn’t have broken up with me only adds to that. I tried to move on and find another partner, but I can tell you it’s not that easy for me. I often find myself making comparisons between a woman I intend to date and this past girlfriend. So, is there any relevant Stoic advice for me?”

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Seneca to Nero: On Clemency

Seneca is controversial even within Stoic circles, because of his association with the emperor Nero, which has been marred by alleged complicity in some of Nero’s most egregious crimes, chiefly the murder of his mother, Agrippina. As I have written in the past, Seneca was no Sage, and indeed he himself pointed that out several times, but that shouldn’t diminish his stature as a Stoic writer. Indeed, he is by far the ancient Stoic from whom we have most extant writings, which constitute an invaluable resource for Stoic practitioners and anyone else interested in Roman culture and philosophy. Still, it is also important to inquire as much as the historical record makes it possible into what roles Seneca played during Nero’s reign, something that is explored in two recent biographies of the philosopher (Dying Every Day, by James Romm; and The Greatest Empire, by Emily Wilson. Check out also the earlier, and more sympathetic, The Stoic, by Francis Caldwell Holland.)

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What Would a Stoic Do? Response to Jean-Paul Sartre

In 1946 Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he presented an argument that neither Christian ethics nor Kantian deontology are very helpful with actual, real-life ethical dilemmas. He sketched one such dilemma for his audience, about a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother, concluding that the answer to ethical questions always depends on the details of every particular case, and that therefore we need to go the Existentialist route and “trust in our instincts.” The question I wish to explore here is that of what a Stoic would do in the scenario imagined by Sartre.

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Stoic advice: my parents are elderly and losing their autonomy

[To submit a question to the Stoic advice column send an email to massimo at howtobeastoic dot org. Please consider that the column has become very popular and there now is a backlog of submitted questions, it may take me some time to get to yours. Apologies.]

J. writes: “I’m nearing fifty and my parents are around eighty (Mom is 78, Dad is 81) and they are starting to fall apart. My mom is seeing neuro-doctors for a sudden onset of memory loss. Not sure it’s Alzheimer’s but it’s not good and it’s getting worse. My dad is a Type II diabetic and as careful as he tries to be he periodically has highly fluctuating sugar numbers and while my wife, daughter and I were there visiting them this past weekend he crashed and we had to call paramedics to work on him and revive him in the middle of the night. It’s happened before but in the past if he ended up needing help or even had to go to the hospital for a while my mom could help him out or drive to visit him. Now it is impossible for her to drive and I believe if we hadn’t been there and the paramedics had taken him to the hospital it wouldn’t have been safe for her to stay home alone.”

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Chrysippus’ cylinder: agency in a material universe

Do we live in a material universe governed by cause and effect? I believe so. Do we, then, have free will? It depends on what you mean by that term. The so-called problem of free will is one that keeps intelligent and well intentioned people arguing in circles forever, and there is of course a huge philosophical literature about it (see, for an introduction, this article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Heck, some misguided scientists even think they can, and indeed have, solved the problem experimentally! (This article by Adina Roskies explains why that’s problematic.) I will not defend the above assertions here, but accept them as given and proceed with what I think is a more interesting discussion. Please note that this post should be of far wider interest than just to people attracted to Stoicism in particular, as the messy issue of “free will” arises for any philosophical position.

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Marcus Aurelius and the Christians

Marcus distributing bread to the people

I’m going to conclude this mini-series on Marcus by briefly addressing the question of whether he persecuted the then novel Christian sect. (Part I of the mini-series was on Marcus’ speeches, and part II on his sayings. Check this link for all my writings about Marcus.) If you have a particular interest on this topic, also take a look at Don Robertson’s comprehensive post. My notes here are based on the Delphi Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius, translated by C.R. Haines.

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