We start by noting the next entry in the Guest Post series, Peripatetics, from the wonderful Panagiotis Perysinakis. Panagiotis hails from Crete, and if this makes you want to break into a limerick you're not alone:
There was a young man from Crete
Whose thought process was quite complete.
When he gave an opinion
All others threw their hat in,
Because none of them could compete.
Panagiotis's post takes us walking with him. What starts as a simple journey builds in layers until we end together feeling profoundly moved.
This week also marks the end of the Moral Letters series, with its 124 compact lessons on Stoic philosophy. I benefitted from studying Seneca's original letters, and it was a joy for me to craft a modern version. Many days I felt like I was channeling Seneca's muse. As much fun as I had, the best reward in sharing Stoic lessons is the sincere hope they will help you and others live a good life.
Perhaps you were motivated to read all the letters as I published them over the past fourteen months. If not, or if you are looking for vacation reading that will stay with you long after you return home, you can find all the letters in order here: Posts in Chronological Order and by Topic.
The final two letters in the series provide a summary and a powerful incentive to pursue the lessons Stoicism offers us, so let's spend a little time on them today.
In Moral Letter 123 On Thinking For Yourself, we discuss why some types of nonconformism are good. While we are rightly critical of unthinking rebellion, or fighting the system for the sake of it, that is not what Stoicism expects. Stoicism asks us to challenge blind conformity to the current system, i.e. doing what everyone else does without questioning the underlying values of what everyone is doing.
The Stoic's task is initially the harder one: taming one's own passions and desires is a greater challenge than looking to change others. But the reward in determining the proper value of things is greater. The Stoic finds happiness by putting it firmly under the control of their own reason.
Thankfully, we don't need to address all our needs at once. We make the most progress by taking little steps consistently. Here's what Letter 123 tells us:
My advice is to consider every day as a session in the classroom of life. I feel confident in predicting that on most days you will be confronted with inconveniences, annoyances, or irritants. The varieties are endless. By applying your reason, you will put each stimulus in its proper place, and you will not be put out of sorts against your will. Either there is some validity to the thing that irks you or there is none. In the first case, you have been given an opportunity to better yourself. In the latter case, you have been given an opportunity to practice placing the true value on things. Over time it becomes easier to distinguish false harms and, so identified, they lose their ability to hurt you. Or better said, you stop inflicting harm on yourself.
The same mechanisms that trick us into adopting bad habits allow us to give up those habits. If doing something regularly for a few weeks makes it habit-forming, then not doing it for a few weeks also becomes habit-forming. This sounds so trivial as to be useless, but I tell you it transformed my life. My iron willpower is nothing more than the accumulation of little habits, including refraining from things that I have targeted for extinction. I use my reason to determine the deeper value of things and to think for myself. The main thing I am trying to uncover is what makes me unhappy, so I can do it less. At the same time, I hypothesize about what will make me happy, so I can do it more.
Thus, in our journey to finding happiness, thinking for ourselves is the key to unlock and then banish all the bad habits that may have crept into our lives.
In Moral Letter 124 On Reason Of The Well-Ordered Mind, we start with a reminder of why we study philosophy at all:
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.
And we conclude by describing how one attains the desired state of living a good life:
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.
I will end today with one of my favorite gems of advice from Seneca himself. It is a lesson that bears repeating, because so much of modern life pulls us in other directions and causes us to forget:
Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your own time. While we are postponing, life speeds by.
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