Thoughts on Letters from a Stoic

I mentioned that I was reading The Obstacle Is The Way. Good book. It’s a very approachable introduction to Stoic thought, and the author works at making it applicable to modern day life. A very tactical understanding.

I’ve been reading Seneca lately, since I finished up Obstacle. I’ve not read a lot of Seneca previously, but his Letters from a Stoic have caused me to want to remedy that. It’s very readable, but weighty at the same time. I read it and it speaks to me. It seems truth-full, as it were. I’ve cherry picked three passages that I highlighted from the first few letters that I want to make sure I don’t forget.

“Lucilius… we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defense. She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.”

Lucilius is a younger friend of Seneca’s. It’s to him that the Letters are addressed. Seneca acted as something of a mentor in the Stoic philosophy to him, but there was more of a give and take relationship there, as opposed to Lucilius just sitting at Seneca’s feet and taking it all in. Granted, I’m unaware if any of Lucilius’ letters to Seneca survive, so we can assume that Seneca had more of lasting value to say, but the fact remains that we get one side of a conversation that provides evidence of plenty of back and forth. Seneca was always learning, from everyone. Just something to keep in mind.

Seneca was most likely an atheist, or perhaps an agnostic, and yet the times and society in which he lived required him to acknowledge the possibility that there may be a Higher Power. For him, if God did exist, He was unknowable and His ways inscrutable. Seneca acknowledged that God would be able to dictate events and circumstances through His power, and he (Seneca) would simply have to follow along. In this way, whether there is a divine dictate or random chance that governs human events, all that is left to one is to accept what comes and react in the appropriate manner.

I know that I am constantly wondering at why things turn out the way they do, but what I really need to focus on is my reaction to them. I believe that there’s a reason for the circumstances that I find myself in, but my obligation isn’t always to understand it. It’s to function as I should in response to it.

“Each man acquires his character for himself, but accident assigns his duties.”

I’ve begun working in a ministry at my church called Freezing Nights. A warm meal and a safe place to sleep is offered to folks off the street from November through April.

Working with the homeless makes me recognize the fact that a lot of them aren’t really that different from me. Accidents, choices and circumstances lead similar people to radically different outcomes. I know this, of course, but this opportunity to be around and talk to these men and women who are seemingly less fortunate than me reinforces it. “Accident assigns his duties.”

A homeless person didn’t start out in life planning to be homeless, I’m sure. It just happened. Maybe random luck, maybe some bad choices, but the intent was never to end up in the situation in which they find themselves. There but for the grace of God go I.

“For a man, however, whose progress is definite, to chase after choice extracts and to prop his weakness by the best known and the briefest sayings and to depend upon his memory, is disgraceful; it is time for him to lean on himself. He should make such maxims and not memorize them. For it is disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a note-book knowledge. “This is what Zeno said .” But what have you yourself said? “This is the opinion of Cleanthes.” But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock.”

Ha ha ha! Can you spot the little joke here?

I’ve always wanted to be a thinker. Someone who provides their own opinion and makes their own judgments on what they encounter, rather than leaning on the crutch of platitudes and quotations. And yet, it’s tough. I can be uncertain in my convictions, or unable to make clear my own thoughts, so I think of a quote from another philosopher and say, “Yeah, that’s good stuff! I’ll take that as my own.” I don’t want to do that.

“Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember.” I want to leave behind something of myself. I want to make an impact on someone who comes after me. I want to blaze my own trail to have others follow.

Stoicism For Beginners

I recently picked up a book entitled The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, by Ryan Holiday. I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far, and will probably write more once I’ve formed more opinions on it.

But, I just wanted to jot down this thought, more to have it personally available for quick reference than anything else. Holiday is speaking about our attitude when we encounter obstacles in our chosen path:

“It’s not just: How can I think this is not so bad? No, it is how to will yourself to see that this must be good — an opportunity to gain a new foothold, move forward, or go in a better direction. Not “be positive” but learn to be ceaselessly creative and opportunistic.

Not: This is not so bad.

But: I can make this good.

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