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071 - On The Greatest Good - Moral Letters for Modern Times

The greater your desired change, the larger will be the necessary expenditure of your personal resources. Nature rewards us only grudgingly, after we have paid our respects by paying our dues.
An elaborate onion-domed palace with spires - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I taught my course on Common Law Contracts today, and because we’re not done with social distancing yet, my class attended via Zoom. Do I fool myself that their faces were as eager as when they cannot hide because they are sitting in front of me in the classroom? Though I am delivering the same message that I have many times before, are my messages as clear as when I can look into the pupils of my pupils’ eyes? A conversation face-to-face gives countless imperceptible cues, body language relays agreement, confusion, impatience, boredom, and more.

On the screen, I must have greater faith that though I cannot see my students seeing me, still they listen and hear me. I have learned to trust the power of imagination by writing these letters to you, my dear Deuteros. I can now call you to mind as easily as if I am speaking to you directly. I hope you will take it as a compliment then, and not as a sign that you need further instruction, when I tell you that I enroll you virtually in all my Zoom classes so that I can speak directly to you for the benefit of all the others. In return for your service, I will reward you today by discussing what is the greatest good that we can attain, and why.

If the world were an easier place for humankind, perhaps we would not need the lessons of philosophy so much. But why is it so difficult for the lessons to take hold? Just because the world is hard, does that mean the solution must be hard as well? Fortune is fickle and scatters benefits unevenly, which means that some encounter only good luck while others seem to have only bad. If you wish to more reliably change the course of things, it seems clear that you will need to expend effort. The greater your desired change, the larger will be the necessary expenditure of your personal resources. Nature rewards us only grudgingly, after we have paid our respects by paying our dues.

We sacrifice now for the chance of future benefit. And before you bemoan that you hate the phrase “no pain, no gain,” consider how much worse it would be to suffer the fate that many otherwise do: “pain and no gain.” Because pain is in store for us all, it is a matter of how much we will feel and not whether we will feel it. The question, then, is how to best prepare ourselves for inevitable setbacks, disappointment, and pain. This is, I believe, the prize held out to us by philosophy, the thing that we should seek above else. It comes in the form of a well-ordered mind, living according to reason.

The Stoics called the supreme good I am describing as that which is honorable. They felt this virtue was found in true and consistent judgment about the nature of things. While I can accept this as the core of the answer, Deuteros, it does not feel complete. Do you become inert upon learning to accept that which you cannot avoid? Do you cease to desire to do anything when you have ceased to desire specific things? Are you indifferent to suffering to the extent that you do not seek out pleasure?

If we do not become uncaring, then why not, and what are the principles guiding us? For me what’s missing so far from our discussion is the ultimate aim or direction of the person who is in the pursuit of mastering themselves by mastering their mind.

The Stoics gave a great deal of attention to cultivating the well-ordered mind because we are surrounded by temptations that lead us astray and fears that paralyze us. Seneca himself in describing his progress to Lucilius says:

When will it be our privilege, after all the passions have been subdued and brought under our own control, to utter the words ‘I have conquered!’ Do you ask me whom I have conquered? … greed, ambition, and the fear of death that has conquered the conquerors of the world.

The Stoics are celebrated precisely because successfully navigating their path is an achievement. The understandable response by many to the unfairness and pain of the world is to pursue pleasure and to give in to impulse. If life is hard, why shouldn’t we seek enjoyment wherever and whenever we can find it? Isn’t that at least better than meekly suffering whatever evils arise in the world? You have heard my answer to this before, and I will not repeat it here, other than to simply say you have control over your reactions more than what happens externally, so focus on the former to be better prepared for anything arising in the latter.

Knowing that hardship and evil exist so abundantly in the world, humans have struggled to find meaning in life and to make meaning of their lives. Although others have made suggestions across the ages, there is a modern day thinker among us who in my view has found a significant piece of the puzzle. He is Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Peterson has given much thought to the question of how humankind might respond to the conditions of the harsh world we find ourselves in.

I can only recommend to you his book “12 Rules For Life, An Antidote To Chaos.” No, Deuteros, I have not mislaid my general aversion to self-help books, but every now and then even a landfill yields up a treasure. I am not so dogmatic as to refuse to acknowledge genius in insight, even though it springs from a dubious source.

Peterson starts as the Stoics do, with instructions for us to first heal ourselves. I leave his detailed guidance to your own good study. Knowing though that we each have the capacity to make the world worse and to hurt others, he goes on to say we should make our ultimate aim the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering. He says

Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability, I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

This then, can be our aim, our direction, the thing that gets us up off the couch and out the door.

While we are working to make ourselves better and insulate ourselves against the pain of life, can we not also help make the world a better place? We can do this now, even though we are not yet and may never be perfect ourselves. I believe everyone can make a contribution in their own way. Some will heal the sick, others will protect the weak, or bring certainty to the enforcement of laws. Others will provide food, care for the infirm and elderly, and invent new technologies. How many ways there are for us to ease the suffering of our fellow humans and improve the lot of humanity!

When I look across time now with this fresh thought in mind, I see that indeed others have also arrived at the same answer. To close this letter, but I trust not the thought from your contemplation, I will call upon two fellow travelers to continue to inspire us. First, and although it makes me sad to think of her fate, I am happy that Anne Frank’s words live on:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

And finally, to give us comfort that we can find personal meaning in easing others’ suffering, that the effort is worth the sacrifice, let us listen to the Dalai Lama when he says:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Be well.

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