Thoughts on Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Image result for letters from a stoic senecaPenguin Classics has produced a collection of the selected letters of the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca. I was first introduced to Seneca in an introductory Latin course last year. My textbook included a highly dumbed-down version of a passage from Letter XII (known as De Senectute or On Old Age). In the letter, Seneca compares himself to his now dilapidated villa. His servant tells him that his house  is in need of repairs, but Seneca remembers when his villa was first built. How could he be so old? He can no longer recognize his childhood friend. The passage from Letter XII inspired me to read Seneca’s other letters.

Letters from a Stoic includes meditations on the body, death, liberal arts education, and slavery. A tutor to Nero, Seneca was a celebrated but controversial philosopher. In 65 C.E., Nero accused him of treason. Seneca was compelled to commit suicide. Seneca’s letters bear witness to the philosopher’s turbulent life. In more than one letter, he admits to having contemplated suicide. Obsession with suicide seems also to have been quite commonplace in Stoicism. The Stoics viewed the body as a prison of the soul. Consequently, the death of the body was the ultimate liberation. Seneca does not think his students should sorrow over death. Fate determines everything. The wise Stoic is indifferent to fame, riches, suffering, and even torture. Still, the Stoic is allowed to enjoy life:

And this is what we mean when we say the wise man is self-content; he is so in the sense that he is able to do without friends, not that he desires to do without them (Letter IX).

Not all of Seneca’s letters, however, deal with such unpleasant subjects. While he never pushes for the abolition of slavery, he condemns the mistreatment of slaves. Slaves are human too, so they should be allowed to eat with their masters. In general, people should make friends for self-less reasons to avoid becoming dependent on others and because there is freedom in living virtuously.

Seneca encourages his students to celebrate Truth wherever it may be found and to forge their own paths in life. In multiple letters, He positively cites his opponent Epicurus. The thought is always more important than the thinker. Seneca disapproves of cults of personality.

Ultimately, life is a play. No matter how long a person lives, he/she will eventually die. Viewed from eternity, all life is short, so live well:

Someone, though will say, ‘But I want to live because of all the worthy activities I’m engaged in. I’m performing life’s duties conscientiously and energetically and I’m reluctant to leave them undone.’ Come now, surly you know that dying is also one of life’s duties? You’re leaving no duty undone, for there’s no fixed number of duties laid down which you’re supposed to complete. Every life without exception is a short one. Looked at in relation to the universe even the lives of Nestor and Sattia were short. In Sattia, who ordered that her epitaph should record that she had lived to the age of ninety-nine, you have an example of someone actually boasting of a prolonged old age – had it so happened that she had lasted the hundredth year everybody, surely, would have found her quite insufferable! As it is with a play, so it is with life – what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will – only make sure you round it off with a good ending (Letter LXXVII).

This last quote reminds me of the following passage from Erasmus’ Praise of Folly: 

Now what else is the whole life of mortals, but a sort of comedy in which the various actors, disguised by various costumes and masks, walk on and play each ones part until the manager walks them off the stage?

Indeed, Erasmus and other Renaissance humanists were highly inspired by Seneca’s teachings.

Review of The Moviegoer

What was it about?

Binx Bolling is an injured Korean War veteran and a stockbroker in New Orleans. When he is not working he is either going out with his most recent secretary or visiting his aunt and his niece Kate, a young woman who struggles with depression. One Mardi Gras, Binx decides to take a trip across America to break out of his everyday routine and to “find himself”. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy’s debut novel, is centered around one man’s quest to find clarity in his life.

What did I think of it?

The Moviegoer is a surprisingly fast-paced novel although hardly anything happens by way of plot. I had to get adjusted to the writing which was Southern-style with a dash of stream-of-consciousness. I don’t recall ever having read another work by a Southern author. On the whole, though, reading The Moviegoer was a pleasant experience. I enjoy introspective novels and this is certainly one. But, I am still not sure about my feelings toward the narrator. Binx is a thirty year old man who has one existential crisis after another. He is so much like Antoine Roquentin from La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre, but, I was more drawn to the character of Antoine than I was to Binx. Binx’s thoughts sometimes resembled those of an angsty teenager. I think part of the reason for my ambivalence toward Binx may be the philosophy that underpinned the whole novel. Walker Percy was heavily inspired by the writings of Kierkegaard; in fact, it is through reading Kierkegaard that I learned about Percy. Unfortunately, Percy is not too subtle in this novel. I could list at least four of Kierkegaard’s works that I am certain influenced the characterization and dialogue in the book. The use of Kierkegaard motifs was too heavy-handed for my liking. At one part of the book, Binx even references him as “the great Danish philosopher”. One of the front pages contains a quote from Sickness Unto Death. If you need a lighthearted introduction to Kierkegaard, The Moviegoer could be a good place to start. But if you are are not a fan of explicit philosophical references, this may not be the book for you. While I enjoyed reading the book, there was nothing really memorable about the narrative.

Favorite quote

“What is a repetition? A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts and brittle.”

Introduction to Kierkegaard

I know that  a few bloggers have recently been interested in reading the works of Søren Kierkegaard. I have been reading his books off and on for almost 4 years, and I find the experience very rewarding. Because he was such a prolific writer, it is hard to give a brief introduction to Kierkegaard’s opus, but I am going to try to do that now:

Who Was Kierkegaard?

Søren Kierkegaard (pronounced ‘Surn Kierkegore’) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 5, 1813 (yes, last year was his 200th birthday), the son of the hosier Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard. Søren was the youngest of seven children, but five of his siblings passed away before reaching adulthood. Michael was a strict pietist; a “very stern man, to all appearances dry and prosaic, but under his ‘rustic cloak’ demeanor he concealed an active imagination which not even his great age could blunt.” There has been much speculation concerning the reason(s) for Michael’s temperament and the extent to which he influenced Søren’s personality and authorship. According to Søren’s journal entries, Michael spent his childhood as a shepherd on the moors of Jutland. His life was hard; he was constantly cold and hungry. One day, in a bout of desperation, Michael stood on a hill and cursed God. In later years, due to the death of his wife and children, Michael became convinced that God had cursed his whole family in punishment for his one great act of defiance. His father’s deathbed confessions caused Søren great anxiety.

Michael wished for his sons to become pastors in the National Church. Søren obeyed his father, studied philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, and eventually was ordained. However, Kierkegaard felt called to a different vocation: writing. He suffered from anxiety and depression principally caused by a knowledge of his own sinfulness. Kierkegaard ultimately felt that he could not fulfill the duties required of a husband and broke up his engagement to a woman named Regine Olsen (pronounced ‘Regina Elsen’ with a hard ‘g’). The breakup was painful for both people because Søren loved his fiancée and Regine never learned the real reason for the breakup.

Although Kierkegaard was ordained in the Danish National Church (full name: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark), he only preached two sermons in his whole life. A profound conversion experience along with an increasing dissatisfaction with the state of Christianity in the National Church prompted Kierkegaard to write a series of books under a variety of pseudonyms. In this so-called first authorship, Kierkegaard employed the Socratic dialectic. The pseudonymous authors of these works do not fully share Kierkegaard’s life views. In fact, it seems to me that Kierkegaard vehemently disagrees with some of the authors. Although he would be upset with me for blowing his cover, I think it is important for you to know that Kierkegaard is trying to deceive the reader into Christianity. In Denmark, where everyone was Christian from birth, Christianity had become nothing more than a label. It was merely a cultural and national identity. He felt that established Christianity (what he called “Christendom”) had “abolished Christianity”. He hoped that people, through his pseudonymous works, would start asking themselves the tough questions about self, life, truth, special revelation, and authority. In addition to his dislike of cultural Protestantism, Kierkegaard was very critical of Hegelianism. Hegel had placed faith as one stage in world history, but it wasn’t the highest stage. The Hegelian system had influenced the Danish theologians and pastors to the detriment of Christian truth.

Kierkegaard’s second authorship was written under his own name and included a series of unspoken sermons which he refers to as “upbuilding discourses”. These are my favorite of Kierkegaard’s works. There is so much more that I could say about his books, but Kierkegaard writes for “that singular individual”. He doesn’t deny objective truth, but truth must become subjective (must be truth for me) otherwise knowing the truth is pointless. I plan on re-reading (or reading for the first time, as the case may be) all of his pseudonymous works this year. Some of his books are reasonably priced on Amazon. Others are quite expensive. Not everyone has access to a research library so I will propose a few lists to get you started. There is no correct reading order. Any order will do; however, always take into account the author. If it is a pseudonymous work remember that Kierkegaard may not completely agree with the author. That work may only explore one side of a debate.

 

What I Will be Reading in 2015

Either/Or Vol. I and II – edited by Victor Eremita (in Latin: “Victorius Hermit”)

Fear and Trembling – Johannes de Silentio (in Latin: Silent John)

Repetition – Constantin Constantius

Prefaces – Nicolaus Notabene

Concept of Anxiety – Vigilius Haufniensis (in Latin: The Watchman)

Philosophical Fragments – Johannes Climacus (in Latin: John of the Ladder)

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments – Johannes Climacus (5x longer than Philosophical Fragments!)

Sickness Unto Death – Anti-Climacus (the only Christian pseudonym; also the author of Practice in Christianity which I reviewed here)

The Book on Adler by Petrus Minor (Lesser Peter)

 

Recommended Pseudonymous Works 

If you do not have access to a research library, these are the pseudonymous works I recommend:

Either/Or – an abridged version translated by Alastair Hannay (Note: I do not recommend you begin with this work as you can become easily discouraged. He is really deceiving you here.)

Concept of Anxiety – translated by Alastair Hannay or Howard & Edna Hong (arguably his most difficult work; you are introduced to Angst)

Fear and Trembling – translated by Alastair Hannay (I recommend you start with this one. It is an exploration of the story of Abraham and Isaac.)

Practice in Christianity and/or Sickness Unto Death – translated by the Hongs

 

Favorite Upbuilding Discourses

If you are interested in his overtly Christian works (the upbuilding discourses), I recommend:

Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing

Works of Love (this work and Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing are, in my opinion, some of the greatest Christian devotionals of all time)

For Self-Examination/Judge For Yourselves (reminds me so much of Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (an anthology of quotes from Kierkegaard’s works. I warn you that some may come from his pseudonymous works, but it is still a fantastic collection, comparable to Pascal’s Pensées. Incidentally, it is available online here.)

 

Miscellaneous 

A work that doesn’t fit in either authorship is The Present Age: The Death of Rebellion. If you only read one work by Kierkegaard, read this one. It is very prescient.

 

The Translations

And finally, a note on the available translations.

Walter Lowrie was instrumental in introducing Kierkegaard to the English-speaking world in the 1940s. Kierkegaard has influenced so many movements: the Neo-Orthodox and Liberal theological schools, Phenomenology, Christian existentialism, and (to a lesser degree) atheistic existentialism. Lowrie’s contribution to Kierkegaard scholarship is great, but his translations are clumsy and archaic. Kierkegaard is hard to read even in the original language. I don’t want to deceive you. His writing is repetitive and adjective-rich. You need patience, but like I said before, reading his works is rewarding. Many of Lowrie’s translations will make you pull your hair out so avoid him if you can.

David and Lilian Swenson have translated many of Kierkegaard’s upbuilding discourses but almost all of them are out of print. They are a bit easier to read than Lowrie’s translations, so if you are forced to choose between Lowrie and the Swensons, take the Swensons. Walter Lowrie did work with David Swenson for years.

Howard and Edna Hong are the greatest translators. Their translations include extensive endnotes as well as entries from Kierekegaard’s journals. They can be very expensive, but you can sometimes find relatively cheap used copies on Amazon. They are the best.

Alastair Hannay has not translated most of Kierkegaard’s works, but his books are the least expensive. The translations are good although not as excellent as the Hongs’ translations. Last March he published a new translation of Concept of Anxiety. I haven’t read it yet though.

 

A Great Online Resource

This is an extremely long post, but I hope what I wrote is helpful. There is an amazing blog on Kierkegaard that you should reference when you have questions. The blogger made very thorough posts about each and every one of Kierkegaard’s works. Unfortunately, he passed away some years ago.

 

Review of La Nausée (The Nausea)

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After years of traveling the world, Antoine Roquentin returns to France. He stays in Bouville for three years to write a book about a revolutionary figure of the late 18th century (Le Marquis de Rollebon). Antoine spends his days eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, discussing travel with a self-taught man (l’Autodidacte), and attempting to reconstruct the life of the marquis. At times, he thinks of Anny whom he hasn’t seen in years. In general, Antoine experiences a dissatisfaction and boredom which he calls “la nausée” (the nausea). La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre is the story of a man who has one existential crisis after another.

What did I think of it?

There are two books that I have difficulty reviewing because I find it hard to justify my feelings toward them. The first is Candide by Voltaire. I have read it at least three times, but I always end up giving it two stars. While I think certain scenes are brilliantly constructed, the story always rubs me the wrong way. And this comes from someone who loves satire and unpolitical correctness. The second book is La Nausée by Jean-Paul Sartre, which I have also read at least three times. But unlike Candide, I actually like La Nausée. My reaction to Sartre’s fiction is surprising as I do not share his philosophical views. This book may be to me what J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is to other teenagers and young adults. Antoine Roquentin in La Nausée is a hard character to decipher. Is he merely dissatisfied by life or does he have a mental illness? There are certain scenes in the book that make me question Antoine’s sanity.

“Seulement, tout de même, je suis inquiet : voilà une demi-heure que j’évite de regarder ce verre de bière. Je regarde au-dessus, au-dessous, à droite, à gauche : mais lui je ne veux pas le voir.”

[My translation]: “Even so, I am worried: for a half-hour now I have avoided looking at this glass of beer. I look over, under, to the right, to the left: but it, I don’t want to see.”

The narrative style is a blend of stream-of-consciousness and linear action. But I can understand Antoine’s quest to reconstruct the life of Le Marquis de Rollebon. I have spent years trying to reconstruct the life of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. After reading hundreds of pages of his journals and letters (in addition to his philosophical/religious works) I have come to the same conclusion that Antoine comes to in La Nausée: I don’t know the individual. But what’s the point of reconstructing the life of a historical figure? How does that have any bearing on my existence? La Nausée follows a character who is imprisoned by the past. When all’s said and done, the only reason I can give for enjoying La Nausée despite Sartre’s  philosophy and the few unpleasant/objectionable scenes is that I can relate to a character who is self-reflective and who seeks to understand his/her place in the world. La Nausée is a good introduction to Sartre’s existentialist philosophy

Favorite quotes

“Mais quand on raconte la vie, tout change; seulement c’est un changement que personne ne remarque: la preuve c’est qu’on parle d’histoires vraies. Comme s’il pouvait y avoir des histoires vraies; les événements se produisent dans un sens et nous les racontons en sens inverse.”

[My translation]: “But when one gives an account of life, everything changes; only it is a change that no one remembers: the proof is that one speaks of true stories. As if there could ever be true stories; events produce themselves in a certain way and we tell them in reverse.”

“Voici ce que j’ai pensé: pour que l’événement le plus banal devienne une aventure, il faut et il suffit qu’on se mette à le raconter. C’est ce qui dupe les gens: un homme, c’est toujours un conteur d’histoires, il vit entouré de ses histoires et des histoires d’autrui, il voit tout ce qui lui arrive à travers elles; et il cherche à vivre sa vie comme s’il la racontait.”

[My translation]: “Here’s what I thought: so that the most ordinary event becomes an adventure, it is necessary and it is enough that one starts telling it. This is what tricks people: a man, he’s always a storyteller, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them [the stories]; and he tries to live his life like he was telling it.”

Note: If you have ever read Vol. I of Either/Or by Kierkegaard (particularly the Diary of a Seducer), the above quotes should remind you of the aesthete who tries to live in such a way that he can look back at events in his life with great pleasure. He tries to live “interestingly”.

 

Review of La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland)

What was it about?

The Franks under Charlemagne (King Charles) have conquered all of Spain except Saragosse. Saragosse is still under Saracen rule. The Saracen King Marsile, realizing that Charlemagne’ army is so much more powerful than his own, decides to defeat the Franks through deception. Marsile informs Charlemagne that he would like to get baptized. He claims that he is interested in becoming Christian and will give all of Spain to the Franks. After consulting his knights, Charlemagne decides to accept Marsile’s offer. Charles’ nephew, Roland, is a brave and loyal warrior. But, he is also prideful. His pride has resulted in many wars between the Christians and the Muslims. Roland nominates his godfather Ganelon to convey Charlemagne’s response to Marsile. Ganelon accepts the baton and the glove from Charlemagne, but he comes up with a plan to kill Roland. He betrays the Franks by allying with Marsile. He tells Marsile that if Roland is killed, the Franks will no longer fight the Saracens because Charlemagne is powerless without his nephew. Marsile sends word to Charlemagne that he will follow Charles to Aix where he will become Christian. Charles leaves behind Roland, the twelve pairs, and thousands of other knights to protect his Spanish territories. Without warning, Charlemagne’s rearguard is attacked by the Saracens.

What did I think about it?

How can one claim to know anything about the Crusades without having read The Song of Roland? True, it is fictional. But, the story was written in the 12th century, during the First Crusade. It served as war propaganda. If only for that reason, La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) should be read for its historical relevance. Roland is the ideal knight. He is willing to die for his God and his king.

The Song of Roland rewards a reader who understands and can identify Christian imagery. Charlemagne is a very wise and saintly figure. This 200 year old man with a long white beard is definitely an impressive character. Roland, Ganelon, ad Olivier are not one-dimensional. This is difficult to accomplish in a poem but the author succeeded in creating complex characters. However, the battles drag on for 50-100 pages each. Although I know that the repetitions in the poem serve to underline tension in the story, these repetitions (especially in the battle scenes) can be irritating at times. Because of the extremely boring final battle scene , I give the book 4 stars. But this rating should not dissuade you from reading this epic poem. Anyone interested in Medieval Europe should read The Song of Roland. It is comparable in fame to Homer’s Odyssey.

Candide Read-Along Week II

Summary of Chapters 9-16

This week’s reading began with Candide killing both Don Issachar and the Inquisitor. The old lady, Candide, and Cunégonde then escape to Cadix. Along the way, the old lady recounts the great misfortunes that befell her. She was born Pope Urban X’s daughter but prior to being the servant of Don Issachar, she experienced untold atrocities. She watched her family be cut into pieces and lost a butt cheek to cannibalism. The old lady challenges Candide and Cunégonde to tell her story to all the sailors on the ship. Candide and Cunégonde confirm that people everywhere think that they are the most miserable people in the world.

The ship they are on arrives at the port of Buenos Ayres. There, they meet the governor Don Fernando d’Ibaraa, y Figueora, y Mascarenes, y Lampourdos, y Souza. Candide loves Cunégonde and asks him to marry them. Suddenly, a Franciscan recognizes Candide as the man who killed the Spanish Inquisitor, so Candide is forced to escape once again, except this time with his valet Cacambo. Cunégonde stays behind and becomes the governor’s mistress. As they are escaping, Cacambo asks Candide to fight a war for the Jesuits in Paraguay.

In Paraguay, Candide is the only one who is permitted to speak to the head Jesuit because he is German and the Spanish Cacambo is not. During the meeting, Candide learns that the Jesuit is Cunégonde’s brother who had heretofore been mistaken for dead. At first, the Jesuit and Candide are happy to see each other again. But, once Candide tells him that he will be marrying Cunégonde, the Jesuit becomes infuriated and tries to kill him. Candide strikes back and kills Cunégonde’s brother. Candide and Cacambo escape yet again. To cover up the murder, Candide puts on the Paraguayan Jesuits clothing.

Finally, they find themselves in the land of les Oreillons(The Mumps). The first people Candide encounters on this land are two women whose rear-ends are being bitten by monkeys. Candide kills the monkeys thinking that the animals are threatening the women. However, the women are upset and angry because the monkeys are their lovers. They notify the other people in their village of Candide and Cacambo’s presence. The two men are tied up and are about to be cannibalized for being Jesuit when Cacambo informs them that Candide is not Jesuit. The Oreillons release the men and welcome them into their tribe.

What did I think about it?

The reading from this week is not different than the reading for last week except that in chapters 9-16 Candide kills people for the first time. The naïve Candide is now the murderer of three people – Don Issachar, the Spanish Inquisitor, and Cunégonde’s brother. Voltaire definitely must have enjoyed writing Candide. He also seems to have an obsession with rear-ends.

In this reading, he continued to criticize Leibniz’s philosophy and the Roman Catholic Church.

A word about the way the Catholic priesthood is presented in Candide: None of the priests in the story are respectable men. But I wonder, is Voltaire really successful in convincing his readers that the Church is corrupt? After all, every scene in Candide is extremely exaggerated and all characters are mere caricatures. Therefore, Voltaire only succeeds in criticizing the fictional priests in his work. While I do not doubt that there was corruption in the Church of the 18th century, I don’t know how representative Voltaire’s fictional priests are of the Catholic priesthood of his time. Voltaire has created characters that we all hate but I think that creating such characters actually hurts his argument. Of course, the priests in Candide are corrupt. They are disgusting. We can all agree on that. But none of Voltaire’s characters are believable.

 What do you all think?

Great Introduction to Candide by Plethora @ Plethora of Books

Here is a link to a great introduction to Candide written by Plethora @ Plethora of Books: http://bookchallenges.weebly.com/9/post/2014/03/candide-ral-update-1.html

Check it out! The post gives us a brief biography of Voltaire and explores the etymologies of the names of the major characters in the text.