Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ancient Wisdom and Modern Sensibilities - Reading Seneca

For a Non-Fiction writing class, I recently began reading the writings of the forerunners to the personal essay. Specifically, the works of the Stoic philosopher Seneca. I always stayed away from the classics because in my occasional forays into their writings the foreignness of their culture and their assumptions drove me away from immersion. Instead I lived in the world of contemporary writing certain of its relevance and wisdom. I read what feels important, what makes my nervous system tingle, which is usually limited to contemporary literature. But ancient literature provides a certain type of pleasure that eludes contemporary writing. Mainly, in both the similarity and difference it makes from the assumptions we carry about life.
Each generation claims to have recreated the wheel. We pride ourselves on our voracious progress, unaware of the history we climb over to stand on our singular perch. (A wise man once said that each new theory that emerges must present itself as sui generis, without precedence, in order to gain acceptance despite the fact that few, if any, theories remain untainted by the pervasive influence of the past.) Nowadays, I imagine, most people do no think in this manner. The past decade has shattered much of our self-image, as people, as a nation, and as a generation, that instead of the staggering pace of progress most of us feel lost, uncertain how in the year 2011 much our of internal and external world appears to be crumbling at its foundations. In times like these, when our economy stubbornly stagnates, when jobs evade even the most qualified candidates, when you can spin a globe, stop it with your finger, and bet with good odds that this country is entangled in some sort of war, a return to the classics, to the wisdom of yesteryear provides a humbling perspective on life.
In a sense, similar to the study of history, reading ancient literature allows us to transcend these transient times of ours. Not as a means of escape, but as method of gaining perspective on the exigent issues of our times. History, in allowing us to detach ourselves from this moment, in offering the larger mural of time, helps us put into perspective our troubles, our issues, our struggles. Think of the countless people who starved to death during the industrial revolution, the great depression etc, think of the World Wars, then return home to your life. Usually, this detachment and reattachment evokes some sort of gratitude at our position in life.
Additionally, and this might lie in the realm of a personal stereotype, I tend to assume that people in the past lacked a certain complexity in their thinking, in their humanity. While we do live in what appears to be an unprecedented age of complexity, one in which the overflow of information challenges our ability to form opinions, to think clearly, I find it increasingly hard to say that we’ve progressed as human beings, in our personality, in our capability of thought when reading ancient literature. Here is a piece from Seneca’s letter on Noise. It reads like contemporary wisdom, but written thousands of years ago, well, it makes me feel less unique, less complex, more humble, and more connected to a long chain of human beings attempting to understand life, some with success some with failure, but no longer alone. Here Seneca discusses how external noise need not distract a person from the task at hand:
For I force my mind to become self absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within, so long as fear and desire are at loggerheads, so long as meanness and extravagance are not at odds and harassing each other. For what is the good of having silence throughout the neighborhood if one’s emotions are in turmoil?
The peaceful stillness of the night had lulled
The world to rest
This is incorrect. There is no such thing as, “peaceful stillness” except where reason has lulled it to rest. Night does not remove worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.
Now, with the hindsight of history and experience I find it slightly easy to pick apart this contention. (Very few theories of life, of how to live, remain whole under the skeptical eye of reason. I’m not sure if that speaks to the weakness of our philosophies of life or to the weakness of reason in the realm of experience) Calm places do evoke calm thoughts. External actions affect our thinking at the same time that our thinking affects our bodily functions. Our rational minds rarely use rationality to the extent we imagine, or even use it effectively. Talk rationally until the end of days to your chemical imbalance and you will not prevail. The existence of a subconscious, a being separate but tied to ourselves, possibly not under the dominion of rationality, the need for acceptance and indulgence of the spectrum of emotions often without moderation as a form of catharsis, all of these theories, or lifestyle choices belie this Stoic wisdom, and yet, so much of what rely on today partakes of it.
Cognitive therapy, that second wave in psychology, basically regimented Stoic advice. Yoga, the rise of meditation, mindfulness practice, all of these resuscitations of old waves started, even if they branch out in different directions, on the same ground of Stoicism. Keep calm and carry on, that famous sign put up in Britian during the Second World War. Mind over matter. You create the reality you want to live. We often feel controlled by emotions we don’t understand, emotions that feel more real than the wisdom of ages, but just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s real, or there. So many slogans and clichés, so much of the wisdom of our stories, our culture, our self help books all preach some form of stoicism, some form of control and moderation, and each time a person usually feels as if they’ve stumbled upon some new found element in the period table.  
And yet, despite the soundness of this advice, it often cannot compete with that other, somewhat higher value of our culture. Mainly, the value we place on personal and artistic expression. Imagine telling an artist to keep calm and carry on, or not to indulge in their passions? Art, culture, for so many of us has taken the place of religious wisdom, of prophecy. Artists peer into the souls of our century, see its beauty and flaws and attempt, sometimes, to guide us, or at least illuminate the maps of minds. How then do we reconcile these two conflicting, but sound ideas? How does stoicism fit in with our need to let loose, to lash out, to rage, to celebrate without inhibition, to let off steam, to black out, to be our true selves, to confront the darkness?  How do we know when to explore and when to retreat. The problem with clichés lies not only in their simplistic nature, but in the conflicting accounts of life. Most of these questions depend on the person, the context, the infinite number of variables, I think.
Now, the plethora of wisdom out there can make engender distress. Who do we listen to? Can we trust our intuition, should we rely more heavily on rationality. Is moderation the key to life, or just a cowards rationalization for not challenging themselves? Now true, the ambiguity can catch a person up in an endless loop of what ifs, but they also provide hope. They offer proof to the contention of the liquidity of life. Of our ability to choose different circumstances. Of the life given not needing to be the life we live. This is a particular gift of history and of ancient literature: to realize both amorphous and persistent nature of humanity.
Just as a side note, many criticize the stoics for their ostensible embrace of the status quo, regardless of the conditions. Seneca, like Socrates, killed himself as per the command of the country. He did not foment revolution, nor did he fight his sentence. He accepted his death with the calm and dignity that he preached all his life. Something about this grates against our collective personality which demands that we fight against injustice, that when we see something, we not only say something, but we do something. Fair enough. In hindsight, it’s much easier to criticize, but I find something courageous and admirable in the self-restraint displayed by these Stoics. In our culture steeped in freedom, we rarely discuss the beauty of self-control, of self-transcendence. We are a people of unprecedented access to freedom, flailing around in a sea of openness. For all intents and purposes so many of us can live any lifestyle we want. Freedom removes hindrances but fails to provide guidance even if in the end it’s something as simple as Seneca’s final answer to the problem of noise:
“This is all very well,” you may say, “but isn’t it sometimes a lot simpler just to keep away from the din?” I concede that, and in fact it is the reason why I shall shortly be moving elsewhere. What I wanted was to give myself a test and some practice. Why should I need to suffer the torture any longer than I want to when Ulysses found so easy a remedy for his companions even against the Sirens (earplugs...)

Thanks for reading,

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