July 29, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Actions Are More Important Than Words
Key ideas of this discourse
- Each person or thing is strengthened and preserved by actions that reflect its nature: Modesty is preserved by modest actions, and trustworthiness is preserved by trustworthy behavior.
- Each person or thing is weakened and destroyed by actions that are contrary to its nature: Modesty is destroyed by shamelessness, and trustworthiness is destroyed by untrustworthy behavior.
- Over time, we start behaving in a way that is contrary to what we learnt.
- We are quick to recite the principles of Stoicism but don’t live by them.
- This is because we are trying to be a philosopher when we can barely fulfill the role of a human being.
How human being are preserved and destroyed
It is not easy to fulfill our role as human beings.
“What is a human being?”
“A rational, mortal animal.”
“What does our rational nature distinguish us from?”
“From wild animals and animals like sheep.”
“Then take care not act like sheep and thus destroy your humanity. When we act to satisfy our gluttony and sexual desires, when our actions are random, dirty, and thoughtless, to what level have we sunk?”
“To that of wild beasts.”
Some of us large wild beasts. Others are small animals, little evil-natured creatures, which make us say, “I would rather be eaten by a lion.” All such actions destroy our calling as human beings.
A complex thing is preserved when it fulfills its functions and when different parts of a complex thing are true. A discrete thing is preserved when it fulfills its function. When are flutes, a lyre, a horse, a dog preserved? Why then, are we to be surprised if humans are preserved the same way and destroyed the same way?
Everything is strengthened and preserved by actions that reflect its nature
Each person is strengthened and preserved by actions that reflect his nature: A carpenter by the art of carpentry, a grammar expert by grammatical studies. If the grammar expert starts writing ungrammatically, his art will be destroyed. Modesty is preserved by modest actions, but destroyed by shameless ones; trustworthiness is preserved by trustworthy behavior while behavior contrary to it destroys it.
Acts of opposite character preserves the opposite character. Shamelessness by shameless behavior, dishonesty by dishonest behavior, slanderous behavior by slander, bad temper by anger, and miserliness by disproportionate taking as opposed to giving.
This why we shouldn’t be content just to learn, but add practice, followed by training. Over time, we get into the habit of doing the opposite of what we learn and use opinions that are the opposite of correct ones. So, unless we apply the correct opinions, we will be just be interpreting other people’s judgments.
Anyone can talk the talk
We can all talk the talk: What is good and evil? Some things are good, some evil, and others indifferent. Virtues and things related to them are good. Evil is the opposite. Indifferents are things like health, wealth, and reputation. Then we are interrupted. There is a loud noise. Someone laughs at us. We are immediately upset! Tell me, philosopher, what happened to the things you were just talking about? Where was it coming from? Your lips. That’s all. Then, why do you pervert helpful thoughts that are not yours? Why do you gamble with important things?
Can you walk the walk?
Storing wine and bread in your pantry is one thing, eating them is another. What you eat is digested and distributed around your body and it becomes sinews, flesh, bones, blood, a good complexion, and easy breathing. What is stored away is ready and available for display whenever you choose. But you get no benefit from it, except a reputation for owning it.
So, what difference does it make whether you talk about the teachings of this school or some other school? Maybe you will give a better account of the teachings of Epicurus than Epicurus himself! Why call yourself a Stoic and deceive others? Why act the part of a Jew when you are a Greek? Don’t you know the reason a person is called a Jew, a Syrian, or an Egyptian? When someone wavers between two faiths, we say, “He is no Jew. He is just acting the part.” But once he makes his choice and assumes the attitude of one who is baptized, he is really a Jew and we call him one. So also, we are fake Baptists; Jews in name only, but something quite different. We do not follow our principles, but are proud we know them.
Don’t try to be a philosopher when you can barely be a human being
We take on the role of a philosopher when we can barely fulfill the role of a human being, even though it is a massive burden. It is like a person who can’t lift ten pounds wanting to lifting up the rock of Ajax!
Think about this
Modest acts preserve the modest man, whereas immodest acts destroy him; and faithful acts preserve the faithful man while acts of the opposite character destroy him. Discourses II.9 [WO]