16 May 2012


Seneca advises Lucilius, his correspondent, to acquire each day something “which will help you to face poverty or death, and other ills as well.” What he urges is that Lucilius gather something in his present moments that would offer him succor when those moments of poverty, death and other ills would oppress him. I think Seneca draws some of these items of support from the material of his daily study. “After running over a lot of different thoughts,” Seneca chooses one on which he will mull for the day: “Out of the many bits I have been reading I lay hold of one.” How disciplined and how efficacious! This practice keeps him to his study and carries out that study practically into the world. “A person who surrenders and subjects himself to [philosophy] doesn’t have his application deferred from day to day; he’s emancipated on the spot, the very service of philosophy being freedom.” Study maintains Seneca in the present.
But Seneca opposes reading too many books at one time: I take it that he advocates that there ought to be around me no books left lying to be read in some unnamed future. There should be in the study only what I read now. “You have enough when you have all the book you are able to read.”  Alas, my floor is cluttered with too many books.
In Letter #5, he offers Lucilius his thought of the day drawn from the Stoic writer Hecato.  Now, the Stoic takes pleasure in what he or she has and does not long for that which s/he does not yet possess. The stoic is engaged wholly in the present: like Thoreau’s artist of Kouroo, the Stoic’s whole attention is focused on the work on which he is presently engaged. Seneca approvingly quotes Attalus who asserts, “an artist derives more pleasure from painting than from having competed a picture.” I know too many who would rather have finished a book than to be reading one! Unlike too many of us, the Stoic wants to write the book but not to have written it. Thus, Seneca cautions Lucilius to live wholly in the present. He advises: do not hope and you will not fear. Both hope and fear, he says, are projections into the future, and in hope and fear we occupy ourselves with some unknown future rather than engage fully in the present, Hope and fear are products of our memory, both anticipate an end to our present. “A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight bring it on prematurely.” We hope for change but fear it will not come. To live wholly in the present is not to avoid danger, but to escape the bondage that memory and foresight inspire. “No one confines his unhappiness to the present,” says Seneca, for to live in the present is to make unhappiness impossible; to be unhappy requires being somewhere else than to be here now.
I am not so wise so much of the time. Too often, I bring my unhappiness into the present and despoil it. 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find myself in a state of pensiveness after reading your post on Seneca. I, too, have at times, many books cluttering my space...but, alas, they comfort me somehow. They are morsels waiting to be studied and digested!
I need to be more like the ancient Stoics and live more fully in the present. I struggle with that daily. I can be so much "in the flow" as I am working, studying, reading but too often my thoughts take great gulps into the future and anxiety or fear prevail.
I am not so wise so much of the time either.

20 May, 2012 18:52  

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