Wednesday, May 5, 2010


StoicSpirit is a small collage of essays about how various
philosophical elements of the Ancient Stoa might impact
upon our own lives here and now. But the essays begin
with a small philosophical history of Stoicism and notes
how this early history played into the thinking of the
Fathers of Early Christianity.

It would probably be useful to start with the oldest essay and
then work your way forward.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

(25) Ideal Agency

Years back I took a graduate course in Moral Theology and I
learned that ethics are generated by the community (of a given
people or culture). There's seemingly an innate recognition
that there is a need for rules of conduct if a given society is to
survive and thrive. In archaic societies more than often these
rules of conduct were mythologized into their religious creeds.
The rules were endowed with "divine authority," thus propa-
gating their adherence amongst the populace.

In Stoicism, however, there is this idea of the "Perfection of
Agency" or "Ideal Agency." What this means is as follows:
the means to the optimal integration and realization of our
ends. It is about virtuosity, that of "an ability developed to
the limit of human capability, and not merely to the limit of a
given agent's capability."
[Lawrence C. Becker, A NEW STOCISM, Princeton University
Press, 1998, pp. 107, 133-134.]

As Professor Becker puts it: "Virtuoso agents are made, not born,
and they are made by having to learn to cope with passion, fear,
pain, loss, depression, disappointment, malevolence, failure, and
so on as well as the opposites." And "they must know as much as
is humanly possible about things relevant to integrating all of the
endeavors that they themselves might have, and optimizing their
success in the entire range of circumstances they might possibly
face." [Ibid, p. 108.]

The ancient Stoics were well-known for their stable character
traits. And they stressed benevolence, persistently so! And though
cooperative, they remained "committed to their own agendas,
principled but not rigoristic." [Ibid, 110.]

So what we are talking about above is the highest Virtue for the
Stoic, the perfection of that *ideal* one holds of oneself. Coming
to know what that ideal might be for yourself must be the single
focus around which all other, more communal forms of virtue
must circulate. These other virtues are the foundational edifice
for making the "ideal" in you "real."

These ancient Stoics, however, believed that we simply did not
approach this foundational edifice from a base utilitarian perspective.
These other virtues were not to be used just only as props, but they
were to become *traits* of Ideal Agency.

As for their foundational edifice, the ancient Stoics fell back on an
even older ethical set of virtues called traditionally the "Cardinal

The ancient Cardinal Virtues are as follows: Justice, Wisdom,
Bravery, and Moderation. And there are also the "Three Treasures"
that undergird the Cardinal Virtues: Beauty, Truth, and Love.

Once I did a dictionary hunt into the finer meaning of the Cardinal
Virtues, and I found this effort quite helpful. So if I may, I'll present

JUSTICE: the Quality of being Righteous; Impartiality; Fairness;
Sound Reason; Reasonableness; Rightfulness; Validity; and Lawful.
WISDOM: the Quality of being Wise--sound judgment, judging rightly
and following the soundest course of action, based on knowledge,
experience, and understanding; Discretion--careful about what one
says or does; Sagacity--penetrating intelligence, perceptive;
Erudition--having wide knowledge, learned, scholarly; and Wise
Discourse or Teaching.
BRAVERY: Gallantry--nobility of behavior or spirit; Brave--
Fearlessness in meeting danger or difficulty; Courage--stout-
hearted; and Valor--a heroic quality in the courage or fortitude
MODERATION: Moderate--within reasonable limits, avoiding
extremes; Mild, calm, gentle; and Temperate-- deliberate

Besides the Cardinal Virtues, the later Stoics of the Roman Period
surely also concentrated on the practice of what is commonly
called the "Roman Virtues."

The "Roman Virtues" were those qualities of life to which every
Roman citizen should aspire. They are the heart of the Via
Romana--the Roman Way. They are rods, standards by which
we can measure our own behavior and character.
AUCTORITAS; "Spiritual Authority," the sense of one's social
standing, built up through experience, Pietas, and Industria.
COMITAS: "Humor;" ease of manner, courtesy, openness, and
CLEMENTIA: "Mercy," mildness and gentleness.
DIGNITAS: "Dignity." a sense of self-worth, personal pride.
FIRMITAS: "Tenacity," strength of mind, the ability to stick to
one's purpose.
FRUGALITAS: "Frugalness," economy and simplicity of style,
but not to be miserly.
GRAVITAS: "Gravity," a sense of the importance of the matter
at hand, responsibility and earnestness.
HONESTAS: "Respectability," the image that one presents as a
respectable member of society.
HUMANITAS: "Humanity," refinement, civilization, learning.
and being cultured.
INDUSTRIA: "Industriousness," hard work.
PIETAS: "Dutifulness," more than religious piety: a respect for
the natural order socially, politically, and religiously. Includes
the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.
PRUDENTIA: "Prudence," foresight, wisdom, and personal
SALUBRITAS: "Wholesomeness," health and cleanliness.
SEVERITAS: "Sternness," gravity, self-control.
VERITAS: "Truthfulness," honesty in dealing with others.

So--perhaps old, ancient--the combination of the Stoic's "Ideal
Agency" along with the Cardinal Virtues and the Roman Virtues
might serve today as an acceptable ethical system for not only
the evolution of the community but for the personal development
of the individual.

And none of these perspectives of Virtue/virtues have ever been
mythically clouded. They are innately universal-- presented as
such in the Hellenistic World, and just as easily could be employed
in the Modern World.

In the end, however, it's all a matter as to whether we truly believe
in and honor the Virtuous Life.
[This essay was originally posted in my "Stoa del Sol" website.]

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

(24) Attitude, Adversity, & Affirmation

Occasionally the question is asked as to why "bad things
happen to good people?" And usually accompanying this
question comes another: "How could a loving God" allow
such to happen? Theologians refer to this issue of evil in
our life as the Theodicy Problem.

There have always been answers, rarely good ones, to the
Theodicy Problem. Regardless, I thought I might present a
set of answers that may seem provocative--since they seem
so different from what we so oft hear.

I'll be quoting from the Stoic philosopher--Lucius Annaeus
Seneca (c. 4 b.c.e.-65 c.e): [God] "does not treat the good
man like a toy, but tries him, hardens him, and readies him
for himself."

"Adversity [does] not affect the spirit of a stalwart man. He
maintains his poise and assimilates all that falls to his lot to
his own complexion, for he is more potent than the world
without. I do not maintain that he is insensible to externals,
but that he overcomes them."

"Good men...must not shrink from hardship and difficulty or
complain of fate; they should take whatever befalls in good
part and turn it to advantage. The thing that matters is not
what you bear but how you bear it."

"No one is more unhappy, in my judgment, than a man who
has never met with adversity. He has never had the privilege
of testing himself."

"For self-knowledge, testing is necessary; no one can discover
what he can do except by trying..."

"Why do you wonder that good men are shaken to make them
strong? No tree stands firm and sturdy if it is not buffeted by
constant wind; the very stresses cause it to stiffen and fix its
roots firmly."

"Scorn poverty: no one is as poor as he was at birth. Scorn
pain: either it will go away or you will. Scorn death: either it
finishes you or it transforms you." [Above quotations derived
from the following book: THE STOIC PHILOSOPHY OF SENECA,
translated by Moses Hadas, W.W. Norton & Company, 1958,
pp. 29, 36-37, 40, and 44.]

Seneca's approach to the Theodicy Problem is really about
turning the bad into the good. It's about honing one's self.
Rather than just stressing the stiff upper lip, Seneca sees this
world and its challenge as a stage where we *learn* how to
act out the play. For Seneca, the Theodicy Problem is a
contingent of lessons that a good person will come to learn
in order to evolve and prepare himself spiritually.

But, as always, Seneca's answer to the Theodicy Problem is
commendable but incomplete--like all those, since, who have
also tried to answer such. Seneca talks of bravery, courage,
and maturity in meeting the challenge. But he does not broach
the loss of innocents to what we perceive as evil in this world.

Still, Seneca's explanation is perhaps to be admired. He does
not dally in victimization, but rather stresses courage, thinking,
cunning, and fortitude in the face of these as of yet unexplained
Forces of Nature. If a person has to go down, they should try to
go down well. Perhaps this is what some of the old monks meant
about the importance of "dying right?"

As that ancient Stoic philosopher discovered for himself--as do
we--this business of living and dying isn't simple. Seneca endured
years of Imperial-dictated exile on a stony, lonely island. Later, in
the end, he was ordered to die by suicide by the Emperor Nero.
In both situations, Seneca practiced what he preached bravely--
overcoming the adversity involved, but surely it wasn't a simple

Seneca and other Stoics, like Epictetus, talked about *attitude.*
No doubt all of us have practiced this--overcoming adversity
through our attitude.

But Epictetus warned that we must come to realize what we
"can and cannot control" in this world. To attempt to exercise
control where you really have none is truly vain and illusory,
but exercising right control when you have the capacity to do
so is a form of wisdom. The challenge is being able to discriminate
the difference. And I think this has real significance when it comes
to the Theodicy Problem--and our very own individual theodicy

Some respond to Seneca saying: "Simple isn't it? Yes, but....!"
Speaking out loud the ideas, how we can overcome the
adversities of life, is the simple part. Living out such isn't as
simple. According to Seneca there is a formula involved,
which is about the measure of our *greatness.* The great
souls somehow have learned how to "grow beyond" the
fear and chaos of adversity.

I should think this process is linked with coming to a greater
comprehension about that with which we are dealing in
adversity, and it's about coming to know inside *who we are.*
It's really somewhat akin to Carl Jung's idea of the "individuation
process." Not simple, but rather very, very challenging!

And, "Yes, but...! " There's the trap of the Theodicy Problem.
Perhaps Seneca was wise enough not even to allude to the
disasters and death perpetrated upon innocents. How can
one speak of attitude or challenge regarding such events as
tornadoes sweeping people to their death--or air disasters
that evaporate people in mid-air?

Perhaps the only attitude we can hold at this point, concerning
the innocents, is to try to understand better what has happened,
to not so quickly blame "God" or Nature and thus fall into the
"victim syndrome," but rather investigate the event(s) more
thoroughly for future prevention.

A case in point is mechanical neglect or human negligence
involved in aircraft disasters. More careful attention to one's
duty or more careful workmanship perhaps could prevent such
tragic disasters. As for the Forces of Nature, human efforts are
busy at work trying to learn the processes and course of these
forces--but long-range forecasting and alert still remain in its

Nonetheless, the above effort towards greater comprehension
and prevention falls into Seneca's idea about *attitude.* A
courageous and intelligent attitude can bring us a long way
towards comprehending and thus defeating both our individual
and our collective Theodicy Problem.

But it's not simple! Courage is required to maintain such a Stoic
attitude against adversity on the part of an individual.

Paul Tillich, the great theologian best known for his concept of
the "Ground of Being," takes this Stoic attitude a few steps further.
He shows the transformation from individual courage in the face
of adversity to an affirmative courage expressed at the cosmic
or "God" level. To quote:

"Stoic courage is neither atheistic nor theistic in the technical
sense of these words. The problem of how courage is related
to the idea of God is asked and answered by the Stoics...The
courage to be transcends the polytheistic power of fate. The
[Stoic's] second assertion is that the soul of the wise man is
similar to God [hence a microcosm]...who is indicated here
[as] the divine Logos in *unity* with whom the courage of
wisdom conquers fate..." [Paul Tillich, THE COURAGE TO BE,
Yale University Press, 1952, p. 15.]

"Seneca says that while God is *beyond* suffering the true
Stoic is *above* it. Suffering, this implies, contradicts the nature
of God. It is impossible for him to suffer, he is *beyond* it. The
Stoic as a human being is able to suffer. But he need not let
suffering conquer the center of his rational being. He can keep
himself *above* it." [Ibid, p. 16.]

But Tillich takes these steps into another place! "Courage of
wisdom and resignation [can] be replaced by the courage of
faith in salvation, that is by faith in a God who paradoxically
participates in human suffering. But [ancient] Stoicism itself
can never make this step." [Ibid, p. 16.]

And Tillich takes yet another step! Though Stoicism seemingly
disappeared by the 3rd Century c.e., there was a... "revival of the
ancient schools of thought at the beginning of the modern
period...not only a revival but also a *transformation.*" [Ibid, p. 18.]

"While the ancient world valued the individual not [just] as an
individual but as a representative of something universal, [e.g. a
microcosm, a virtue]...the rebirth of antiquity [especially during
the Renaissance period] saw the individual as a *unique
expression of the universe,* incomparable, irreplaceable, and
of infinite significance." [Ibid, p. 19.]

Later--in Neo-Stoicism, particularly as expressed by Spinoza,
'the courage to be is not one thing beside others. It is an
expression of the essential act of everything that participates
in being, namely self-affirmation." [Ibid, p. 20.]

"Virtue is the power of acting exclusively according to one's
true nature...Self-affirmation is, so to speak, virtue altogether.
But self-affirmation is affirmation of one's essential being, and
the knowledge of one's essential being is mediated through
reason, the power of the soul to have adequate ideas."
[Ibid, p. 21.]

And "self-affirmation, according to Spinoza, is participation
in the divine self-affirmation." [Ibid, p. 22.]

"If the soul recognizes recognizes its being in God...
Perfect self-affirmation is not an isolated act which originates
in the individual being, but is participation in the universal or
divine act of self-affirmation which is the originating power in
every individual act..." [Ibid, p. 23.]

Reading through this small section of Tillich's thought, he
illustrates the historical development of ideas about the
movement from just suffering and adversity to learning and
overcoming to self-affirmation. And as the human soul does,
so does "God." Echoing from the ancient world to our own
times, the microcosm and the macrocosm is all of the same
fabric: God is Kosmos!

This above idea that "God is Kosmos" permeated the ancient
world--and, today, this great consideration is returning to enrich
not only our concepts of relationship between our self and "God,"
but of our relationship with what we deem as Creation.

The original meaning of Kosmos was the patterned nature or
process of all domains of existence, from matter to math to theos,
and not merely the physical universe, which is usually what both
"cosmos" and "universe" has meant until recently.

The Kosmos contains the cosmos (or the physiosphere), the
bios (or biosphere), nous (the noosphere), and theos (the
theosphere or divine domain)--none of these separately
being foundational. This holistic view was held by the great
ancient philosophers right through to Hegel. And, happily,
work in Holistic Science and the new philosophical paradigm,
Deep Ecology, has led in part to systems thinking, to ecological
thinking, and to thinking directed towards a new organic

[This item was originally posted in my "Stoa del Sol" website.]

Saturday, March 27, 2010

(23) Aging Well

Many of the great Stoic thinkers, like Seneca, were quite
down-to-earth and talked in a universal language that
holds meaning for most of us today. These philosophers
spoke to and wrote for their friends, for the citizenry of the
Greco-Roman world, and maybe they just might speak to us!

As for aging in this life, that's one item we all have in
common. As for aging *well,* that's not so common. This
is an area where the words of Seneca might seem quite
applicable. Let us proceed with his good, practical wisdom.

"Often an old man will have nothing but the calendar to
prove that he has lived a long time." [Moses Hadas
W.W. Norton & Co., 1958, p. 84.]

So many of us complain that life is so short, but for Seneca
it's only short "when it is squandered through luxury and
indifference, and spent for no good end..." For him it's all
a matter of how we use our life, how we engage in life.
"The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are
not ill provided but use what we have wastefully."
[Ibid, p. 48.]

Rather "it takes a great allow none of his time to
be frittered away; such a man's life is very long because he
devotes every available minute of it to himself. None of it lies
idle and unexploited, none of it is at the disposal of another."
[Ibid, p. 55.]

I don't think Seneca is advocating a narcissistic selfishness
in this above statement. In this case he is talking about a
person who is sufficient unto himself, a person who knows
his likes and dislikes, a person who can carry out pursuits
effectively, and a person who can plan ahead.

For Seneca "the man who puts all of his time to his own
uses, who plans every day as if it were his last, is neither
impatient for the morrow nor afraid of it." [Ibid, p. 56.]

Conversely, those "busy over nothing" can never restore
their years--and no one can gain lost time back.

Seneca is especially discussing how we employ our leisure.
Naturally, as a Stoic, he considers that the best way to engage
in this time we have to ourselves is to "take time for philosophy."
In a sense he is referring to our grasp of great human works
down through history, and how we may take such unto
ourselves and make it part of our own life's continuum!

"Only men who make Zeno and Pythagoras and Democritus
and the other high priests of liberal studies their daily familiars,
who cultivate Aristotle and Theophrastus, can properly be said
to be engaged in the duties of life." [Ibid, p. 66.]

As for these ancient philosophers, as for all the great modern
thinkers in many fields, whose disciplines we select to study
today, "It is not their lifetime alone of which they are careful
stewards: they annex every age to their own and exploit all the
years that have gone before." [Ibid, p. 65.]

Interestingly, Seneca draws an analogy regarding these
studious pursuits. "It is a common saying that a man's parents
are not of his own choosing but allotted to him by chance. But
we can choose our genealogy. Here are families with noble
endowments: choose whichever you wish to belong to."
[Ibid, p. 67.]

The more we connect to great and noble thinking, the more
noble we become, and the more noble our efforts as life unfolds.

Moving even more precisely, towards a deeper personal level,
Seneca believes that in order to age well we need also to develop
a stability of mind. By this he means the "well-being of soul,"
which he calls *tranquility.*

Seneca puts the question: how can the mind "maintain a
consistent and advantageous course, be kind to itself and take
pleasure in its attributes...[and] abide in its serenity, without
excitement or depression?" [Ibid, p. 80.]

For Seneca it's easy to observe the general populace, full of
people "who are afflicted with fickleness and ennui and
continual shifting of aim." These are people who blow with the
wind and oft are blown away by the wind, so to speak. They are
not able to settle. They don't know their own mind. And many
abhor innovation. Seneca realizes that this common malady "
has countless symptoms but its effect is uniform--dissatisfaction
with self." [Ibid, p.80.]

This ancient malady is also extremely modern, as Mihaly
Csikszentmihalyi--the exponent of "Flow" psychology-- points
out: "In normal everyday existence, we are the prey of thoughts
and worries intruding unwanted in consciousness...
Consequently the ordinary state of mind involves unexpected
and frequent entropy interfering with the smooth run of psychic
energy." [Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY
OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE, Harper Perennial, 1991, p. 58.]

This common condition reflects the vacillation of minds that
seemingly can find no outlet. Seneca describes such minds in
that they are "naturally restless, and obviously without internal
resources." These are people who are never at rest, always in
need of entertainment--and when this is "withdrawn, their
mind cannot endure home,loneliness, walls, and cannot
abide itself left to itself." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY OF
SENECA, p. 81.]

So, is there a remedy?

Yes, but the responsibility for aging well rests squarely upon
the individual. Seneca provides a general outline for a
balanced life: though a man may seemingly lead a life of
"insulated" leisure, it still is his duty "to be of service to
individuals and to mankind by his intelligence, his voice,
his counsel." [Ibid, p. 83.]

For those embarking on such a noble course, Seneca stresses
that "our first duty will be to examine ourselves, next the
career we shall undertake, and finally our associates in the
work and its beneficiaries."What he is describing is that we
develop an ability for strategic thinking, quietly studying and
determining our course before we set sail from one point in our
life to the next. [Ibid, p. 87.]

Beyond this, be realistic! Regarding any endeavor, Seneca
stresses that you "put your hand to one you can finish or at
least hope to finish..." [Ibid, p. 88.]

And realistic goal-setting, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is
psychologically positive and enjoyable---because "clear goals,
stable rules, and challenges [that are] well matched to skills
[present] little opportunity for the self to be threatened."
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 63.]

Of course life is not all work and service to others. We need
to well serve ourselves also. If we are to lead a successful
life, one of our crucial choices will center upon friendship. "
Nothing can equal the pleasures of faithful and congenial
friendship." But Seneca gives warning! We need to be mindful
over the choice of our friends. Rather than moving into
diatribes about choosing good or bad people as friends,
Seneca puts it simply: "To mingle the healthy with the sick
is the beginning of disease." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY
OF SENECA, p. 89.]

Seneca's wisdom is reflected by Csikszentmihalyi when he
exclaims that besides enjoyable work, "studies on Flow have
demonstrated repeatedly that more than anything else, the
quality of life depends on...our relations with other people."
He proceeds: "We are biologically programmed to find other
human beings the most important objects in the world." And
as Seneca stressed, and Csikszentmihalyi states, we need to be
discerning about our choice of friends..."because they can
make life either very interesting and fulfilling or utterly we manage relationships with them makes
an enormous difference to our happiness."
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 164.]

It pays to be thrifty, too! Of course there's the woes of
materialism and ostentation, but Seneca focuses especially
on spiritual thrift. "We must learn to strengthen self-restraint,
curb luxury, temper ambition, moderate anger, view poverty
calmly, cultivate frugality...keep restive aspirations...and
make it our business to get our riches from ourselves rather
than from Fortune." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY OF
SENECA, p. 91.]

Not forgetting that a balanced life is a better life, Seneca
alerts us that we must also engage in solitude as well as
service. "It is important to withdraw into one's self." We
need respite for ourselves, time to relax and enjoy life. So
go ahead and pursue the joys of the intellect or the athletic
life. Pursue, too, simplicity: "We ought to take outdoor
walks, to refresh and raise our spirits by deep breathing
in the open air. Sometimes energy will be refreshed by a
carriage drive, a journey, a change of scene, good company,
and a more generous wine." [Ibid, p. 105.]

But Csikszentmihalyi realizes that solitude is a major
concern for modern people. Talking about ways to grow,
about ways of creating higher forms of order in our lives in
order to forestall entropy, he points out that we need to take
time for quiet learning and improving our skills. And,
especially, when "physical vigor fails with means
that one [should] be ready to turn one's energies from the
mastery of the external world to a deep exploration of inner
reality." But--"it is difficult to accomplish any of them unless
one has earlier acquired the habit of using solitude to good
advantage." We need to "tame" solitude, and Seneca's excellent
suggestions above provide a fine foundation.
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 172.]

Nonetheless, Seneca is no Pollyanna. He realizes the
adversities that all of us must face in this life. It's seemingly
our condition in this world. Still we have the ability to cope
and adapt, if we so choose--even with this! "Man must...
complain of it as little as possible, and grasp whatever good
lies within his reach." Again, "apply good sense to your
problems; the hard can be softened, the narrow widened,
and the heavy made lighter by the skillful bearer." And for
what is seemingly impossible, leave it alone! [Hadas,

For Csikszentmihalyi, Seneca's above advice is about
"taming chaos." As he puts it, "sooner or later everyone
will have to confront events that contradict his goals:
disappointments, severe illness, financial reversal, and
eventually the inevitability of one's death." Thus, "It is for
this reason that courage, resilience, perseverance, mature
defense, or transformation coping--the dissipative structures
of the mind--are so essential. Without them we would be
constantly suffering through the random bombardment
of stray psychological meteorites."
[Csikszentmihalyi, FLOW, p. 202.]

And, finally, any life well spent must look bravely at the
issue of death. If we fear too much and dwell on death, it will
bring us down. "A man afraid of death will never play the part
of a live man." Rather than dwell on death, depression, and
discouragement, Seneca wisely advises that we "take the
lighter view of these is more civilized to laugh
at life than to lament over it." [Hadas, STOIC PHILOSOPHY
OF SENECA, p. 102.]

(The above essay of mine was originally posted in my "Stoa
del Sol" website.)