124 - On Reason Of The Well-Ordered Mind - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Public opinion has great power to wash away reason, like a dye, from the soul of man … unless one is right well on his guard when he engages himself in things external, and is resolved to participate only in the things themselves, and not in the feelings attendant upon them.
These words come courtesy of Plutarch. I am relaxing my strictures against sayings today, my dear Deuteros. You may rightly ask why, when I have been so stern in warning you of seeking wisdom lightly. It is because you have been a diligent student and have put in the time and effort of serious study. I know now that when you read a saying from a wise person, the summary will stir up your own thoughts of the substance behind it.
You have developed your reason to such an extent that I trust you with the temptation of these sweet vices. For though I myself have to be strict in regulating pleasures, today I will only draw upon healthy sources. Aside from Plutarch, I have a few other favorites. Here is our old friend Marcus Aurelius, talking to himself in words that we could profitably use ourselves:
It is in your power whenever you shall choose to retire into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom does a man retire than into his own soul … and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.
No recitation of condensed wisdom would be complete for me without paying tribute to Seneca himself. By seeking to be true to himself and focusing on things he could control, he served as an example to countless who came after him. Would that we become such shining examples ourselves, Deuteros.
Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your own time. While we are postponing, life speeds by.
We are conducting our studies for a purpose. If we have resolved not to be idle, and even in our free time to obtain some good for ourselves, then surely it is for the aim of living good lives. Not in the future, or at some point when we will have attained a more perfect state. Right now, today and every day. We have but the one life and what a shame it is to be living unhappy or, worse, to be living in a form of suspended animation.
What can bring about this state? It is the same thing that disturbs it, namely our minds. We mistakenly place the blame on external things, but this is an illusion that we can penetrate by careful contemplation. Thus, our highest purpose is to order our minds so that we can follow reason in all things.
It is reason that distinguishes us from all other creatures. But for all that this makes us unique, we have much more in common with other creatures than differences. We are both driven by instincts, and our appetites serve to keep us alive. They are indispensable to life. These same appetites become insatiable when they are given too free reign. That which is instilled in us to preserve us becomes the agent of our undoing if we are unable to control ourselves. Our reason is the means by which we exercise control over our instincts and our appetites.
Our desires give us motivation to act, and in acting we find meaning. Without meaning, we may as well be like the animals. Our desires thus serve a critical purpose in giving our lives direction. But our single-minded pursuits can also lead us astray. It is all too easy for us to mistake the attainment of a goal for the purpose of our actions. Living rightly is its own reward. In contrast, for many achievement of that which they sought so desperately is its own form of punishment by bringing new troubles with it. Our reason is the means by which we keep our desires in check.
Our critics say that we take the joy out of life by mastering our appetites and our desires. The exact opposite is true, my dear Deuteros. The well-ordered mind following reason is filled with happiness because it is not distracted by extraneous things or burdened with wrong opinions.
We do not eliminate appetites and desires, but rather turn them to serve our purposes. No meal is so enjoyed as that consumed by a hungry person. It is not the composition of the food as such, but the composition of the mind, that allows for the greatest enjoyment. So it is with all the things that we humans pursue with such avidity. We believe the thing itself will bring us satisfaction, but we are only satisfied when the mind is in the right condition.
If you sometimes felt I have given you new burdens by asking you to think and to study, you now know it was to free you of the burden of accepting what everyone else does. Never for the sake of being contrary alone, but for the sake of seeing a better way. Some time ago in On Friendship And Philosophy I quoted the saying “a friend is a gift you give to yourself,” and I feel I have been blessed by your friendship, Deuteros. In return I tell you that the reason of a well-ordered mind is its own gift, and I sincerely wish that gift for you.