Oh, Those Savvy Ancient Greeks

A couple of years ago, I got on a kick of reading through some classics that I’d never read before. I wrote about that in a couple of posts at the time — Epicurus, Seneca, and Jesus, and More from Seneca: Unhappiness, and Grief — and recently I dug up some notes I made on a few more gems that seem quite appropriate to today’s world.

Consider, for example, this excerpt from The Nichomachean Ethics (Book III, section ii) by Aristotle:

… our characters are determined by our choice of what is good or evil, not by our opinion about it.

Let’s stop right there, before we get to the rest of the passage, and focus on the last phrase: not by our opinion about it. In this age when opinions are shared frequently and widely in all manner of social media, it’s good to be reminded — by someone who lived about 2300 years ago, no less! — that our opinions do not form our characters. Rather, our choices do: Our choices of how we do our jobs, whether well or shoddily; of how we treat people, whether with respect or with disdain; of how we live, whether nobly or basely.

Aristotle continues,

… a choice is more properly praised for choosing the right object than for being correct in itself; but an opinion is praised for being in accordance with the truth. Also we choose what we know very well to be good, but we form opinions about things that we do not really know to be good. It seems, too, that the same people are not equally good at choosing the best actions and forming the best opinions; some are comparatively good at forming opinions, but … fail to make the right choices.

Far be it from me to say that Aristotle was wrong here, but he may give us too much credit when he says we “choose what we know very well to be good.” Rather, in my experience — i.e., based on my personal choices and the choices I’ve observed others make — we choose what we believe will be good, in the sense of being beneficial. But that’s not the most damning thing about this passage.

The thing in this passage that finds us lacking is his assertion that “an opinion is praised for being in accordance with the truth.” Certainly we should strive to make sure our opinions reflect truth, and I’m enough of a fan of humanity to believe that most of us think our opinions accord with truth as we know it; certainly, we should praise those opinions which most closely align with truth; but these days many opinions are praised not because they represent the truth but because they align with the hearer or reader’s perhaps petrified beliefs.

(Image: “Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition,” from Wikimedia Commons.)

Moving on,

I mentioned social media above, and in Book III, section iii we find something that, if we adhered to it a little bit better, would make our lives much more peaceful. After stating, “what we deliberate about is practical measures that lie in our power,” Aristotle continues,

Not even all human affairs are objects of deliberation; thus no Spartan deliberates about the best form of constitution for the Scythians; each of the various groups of human beings deliberates about the practical measures that lie in its own power.

Oh, how quiet X (nee Twitter) would be, and how uplifting our Facebook and other feeds would be, if each group only deliberated about things in its own power, instead of deliberating about other groups and the things that lie in their power. The wider world itself might be a bit quieter, if nations likewise deliberated about their own dealings more than others’.

To a certain extent, the same could be said of each of us as individuals — as my mom used to say, we should tend to our own knitting. I have been guilty of it myself, more times than I care to admit. I have been guilty of it on this blog, and on the socials, and probably will continue to be. But I will try to be somewhat more aware of it — and perhaps I can reform myself.

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More from Seneca: Unhappiness, and Grief

I don’t mean by that title the small town near Clemson in South Carolina, where we lived in the early 1990s and where our son was born, but Seneca the Younger. Let’s examine a snippet of first century Greek wisdom that particularly spoke to me from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.

From letter seventy-eight, for instance:

A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.

As one who has been battling unhappiness, lack of joy, and even a bit of depression for a while now, I’ve been thinking long and hard about how many of my woes have been, to put it mildly, my own damn fault. Seneca continued,

What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then? What is more, doesn’t everyone add a good deal to his tale of hardships and deceive himself as well in the matter? Besides, there is a pleasure in having succeeded in enduring something the actual enduring of which was very far from pleasant; when some trouble or other comes to an end the natural thing is to be glad.

It is interesting that, because of Seneca’s earlier admonitions against grieving for very long, his reflection here on physical illness — how to treat it and bear up under it — does not include any component of bearing up under grief or other deep, lengthy emotional struggles. I gather from this that Seneca would disapprove of my prolonged grieving, and in particular the up-and-down nature of my grief: its waxing and waning at irregular intervals, its sudden onslaughts and slow, creeping pounces.

But, I don’t need Seneca’s (or anyone else’s) approval for the manner of my grief. We all grieve in different ways, and our griefs are affected by different things we encounter as we go along. My path is my own.

Perhaps Seneca even allows for that, though. I find his phrase “when some trouble or other comes to an end” to be particularly apt, because when does grief end? Some of the stronger emotions may subside, and even the awareness of the absence may fluctuate, but if the separation cannot end, neither can the grief. It may contract, and at times expand, but if grief is the difficulty then it is not a matter of “dragging up sufferings which are over,” but of enduring sufferings which continue.

On the subject of grief itself, something Neil Peart wrote in Ghost Rider (which I finished reading this weekend) struck quite close to home:

I understood that feeling…. Perhaps the first responsibility of a husband and father is to protect his wife and child, and deep inside myself I felt that I had failed at that, too.

I could relate to that because no matter how often people tell me it’s not my fault that Jill died, and also not my fault that I couldn’t revive her, I still feel responsible. And I may feel that way for a long time.

In the penultimate paragraph, of Ghost Rider, Peart wrote,

Sometimes I can almost sustain the high-minded sentiment that it was worth the pain of losing Jackie and Selena [his wife and daughter] for the joy of having known them. I don’t know if I will ever be able to embrace that notion, but the important thing is that I embrace today….

Was it worth the pain of losing Jill, for the joy of having known her? I need to consider that question in more depth. It was worth the pain to avoid her having to go through anything like it; that much, I can say. And the joy of having known her, the privilege of being her husband, were immeasurable. Worth the pain of losing her? That is, better to have never known her than to have lost her? No, not at all. But Peart is right: It is a “high-minded sentiment,” and not one to bear (or perhaps even to think about) for long.

Bust of Seneca
(Image: “3rd century marble bust of Seneca, after a 1st century original,” from Britannica.)

To again return briefly to Seneca, a few notes on some of his other letters: I thought his letter 88, about what constitutes a liberal education, was excellent. Letter 90, on philosophy and the history of mankind, was laughable, and the kind of “back to basics” thing that only someone who has never had to (or tried to) do hard physical labor would write. Letter 114, on literary style, seemed just as true now as it was then.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with his declaration in letter 108 that “The more the mind takes in, the more it expands.” I wish for you immense pleasure as you take in more and more to expand your mind!

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