Reason and the True Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #124, Seneca engages the fountainhead of the ‘true good’ in human action. He concludes that virtue is the cradle of happiness, and the cradle of virtue is reason.

Excerpts:

“And what is this good? I will tell you: It is a free and upstanding mind which subjects other things to itself and itself to nothing.

“We assert that ‘happy’ is what is in accordance with nature, and what is in accordance with nature is directly obvious, just as wholeness is obvious.

“As far as perception of good and evil is concerned both are equally mature; an infant is no more capable of the good than is a tree or some dumb animal. And why is the good not present in tree or dumb animal? Because reason is not.

“Confusion is applicable only where non-confusion can also occur, as anxiety is applicable only where serenity can obtain. No man is vicious unless he is capable of virtue.

“Pronounce yourself happy only when all your satisfactions are begotten of reason, and when, having surveyed what men struggle for, pray for, watch over, you find nothing to desire let alone prefer.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC – John D. Grainger

Synopsis:

In the final book of his three part series charting the rise and decline of the remarkable Seleucid Empire, John D. Grainger hammers out the pressing causes of the dissolution of the once great empire founded by Seleucus I Nicator. Among the many Hellenistic successor states established after the death of Alexander the Great the Seleucid Empire would most closely resemble the Empire of Alexander in geographical magnitude, and would maintain that integrity for most of its history.

Following the death of Antiochus III the empire slowly withered away amid uncontrolled internecine warfare. These wars were brought about by succession disputes that commenced after Antiochus IV usurped the throne. This event set forth a new succession norm – i.e. the only thing necessary to rule was a powerful army to back the claimant. These dynastic civil wars weakened the state enough to allow separatist movements on the edges of the empire to gradually snowball into legitimate states – e.g. Parthia, Bactria, and Armenia. Ultimately, the once great empire would shrink into a regional kingdom mostly encompassing Syria, and would remain this way until its conquest by the Romans.

Excerpts:

“Seleukid disintegration, it must be noted, was unique among the fates of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Only Macedon was broken up, by the Romans in 167, and this was reversed within twenty years, first by the rebellion of the Macedonians and then by Roman annexation of the whole and its conversion into a single Roman province. The Attalid kingdom’s main regions were taken over complete by Rome, with minor regions being awarded to allies, and Egypt fell as a complete unit to Rome in 30 BC.

“Rome, it seems clear, had no part in this disintegration. Occasional Roman visitors arrived for over a century and more, inspected the kingdom, and then went away. Occasional Seleukid claimants or enemies turned up in Rome, were heard, and received no help.

“Partly the disintegration which the Romans found was due to the sheer size of the original kingdom, so that breaking off fragments – Baktria, Parthia, Asia Minor – did not seriously damage the essential heartlands of Syria, Babylonia and Iran. And partly it was due to the inability of the Seleukid kings to maintain control over the more distant parts of a kingdom which was 2,000km long and more, and which could only be crossed at the speed of a marching soldier. Or to put it the other way around: it was due to the ambitions of governors installed by these Seleukid kings, who were able to develop a local interest network which enabled them to strike for independence and make themselves into kings at a time of central government weakness.

“Until 175 the royal succession had been reasonably clear: the king nominated his successor, who was always his eldest surviving son, a practice which, having been followed for a century, might be considered to be a rule. Antiochos IV’s ambition broke that sequence when he murdered his nephew and stepson; it then became clear that the kingship was available to whoever could seize it.

“…the kingdom was doomed from the start. By basing his power on a very narrow population base, Seleukos I had made it certain that the first succession dispute – and there was bound to be one – would begin the process of collapse. And yet unless he had based his power on the Greek and Macedonian settlers he would not have survived and there would have been no kingdom. Without the promise of land and cities to live in, the settlers would not have come; and without the settlers Seleukos and his successors would not have a kingdom to rule. The essential basis in the kingdom, the unifying element, was the king. When disputes about the occupation of the throne arose, disintegration happened. The kings made the kingdom, held it, and let it fall. In its origins was the kingdom’s ending.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC, Pen and Sword.

Crowds – Seneca

52

Synopsis:

In letter #7, Seneca grapples with the nature of crowds. He catechizes the influence crowds have on the human soul, and traces the remedies for its negative effects.

Excerpts:

“Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it. In every case, the larger the crowd with which we mingle the greater the danger.

“A single example of luxury or avarice works great mischief. A comrade who is squeamish gradually enervates us and makes us soft; a neighbor who is rich pricks up our covetousness; a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust off upon us, however frank and ingenuous we may be.

“Retire into yourself, so far as you can. Associate with people who may improve you, admit people whom you can improve. The process is mutual; men learn as they teach.

“There is no reason why ambition to advertise your talents should lure you to the public platform to give popular readings or discourses. I should agree to your doing so if your wares suited such customers, but none of them can understand you. A solitary individual or two may come your way, but even him you will have to educate and train to understand you. ‘Then why did I learn all this?’ Never fear that you have wasted your effort; you learned for yourself.

“When asked the object of applying himself so assiduously to an art which would reach so very few people, he said: ‘For me a few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Sole Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #76, Seneca underscores the element of reason in human existence. He also surveys the subjects of wisdom, virtue, bravery, and what ingredients aggregate into the human soul.

Excerpts:

“Wisdom is never a windfall. Money may come unsought, office may be bestowed, influence and prestige may be thrust upon you, but virtue is not an accident.

“What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods. Perfect reason is, then, his peculiar good; his other qualities are common to animals and vegetables.

“The sole good in man, therefore, is what is solely man’s, for our question does not concern the good but the good of man. If nothing but reason is peculiarly man’s, then reason is his sole good and balances all the rest.

“Folly may creep toward wisdom, but wisdom does not backslide to folly.

“…men bear with fortitude, when they have grown accustomed to them, things they had thought very difficult.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Synopsis:

The 6th century AD Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius ascended the peak of power and influence amid the post-Roman state of Theoderic the Great. After the dissolution of Roman authority in the late 5th century AD,  Theoderic seized control of Italy and formed a successor state to the Western Roman Empire, which would maintain the ancient traditions, offices, and formal structure of the old Roman heartland. This continuity allowed Theoderic to pacify the Roman population, as well as permitted him to concentrate his power and influence over the Italian peninsula.

Late in the reign of Theoderic, the career of Boethius would come to an abrupt end with the latter being charged with treason by the former. In prison Boethius would go on to write The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting his own execution. The book is written in dialogue form between Lady Philosophy and Boethius. The subjects of the dialogue include: the origin and preservation of happiness, pursuit of virtue, inconstancy of fortune, as well as time and free will.

Excerpts:

“…I shall present you with this corollary: since men become happy by achieving happiness, and happiness is itself divinity, clearly they become happy by attaining divinity. Now just as men become just by acquiring justice, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so by the same argument they must become gods once they have acquired divinity. Hence every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity.

“The outcome of human actions is entirely dependent on two things, will and capability. If one of these two is absent nothing can be accomplished. For if the will is lacking, people do not even embark on action which they have no wish to carry out; on the other hand, if they are incapable of doing it, it is vain to will it. It follows from this that if you observed someone wanting to acquire something but totally failing to get it, you can be certain that what he lacked was the ability to attain what he desired.

“…he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal.

“Since goodness alone can raise a person above the rank of human, it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition.

“God must not be visualized as prior to the created world merely in length of time; rather, it is by virtue of possession of his simple nature. This condition of his, unchanging life in the present, is imitated by the perpetual movement of temporal things. Since that movement is unable to achieve and to match that unchanging life, it degenerates from changelessness into change. From the simplicity of the present it subsides into the boundless extent of future and past.

*All excerpts have been taken from Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, Oxford University Press.

On Clemency – Seneca

Synopsis:

In his essay On Clemency, the stoic philosopher Seneca defines the requisite qualities of an ideal ruler relevant to the notions of justice and mercy. The motive for which Seneca wrote the essay was to instruct the young emperor Nero on how the consummate ruler ought to govern. Nero would of course go on to become the antagonist of nearly all the ideas representing virtue in the essay, thereby defining his legacy in history.

Excerpts:

“The true fruit of right deeds is, to be sure, in the doing, and no reward outside themselves is worthy of the virtues…

“No one can long hide behind a mask; the pretense soon lapses into the true character. But where the basis is truth and where the roots are solidly planted, time itself fosters growth in size and quality.

“…in full view for all to see is the happiest of administrations in which the only limitation upon the completest liberty is the denial of license for self-destruction.

“Lightning’s stroke imperils few but frightens all; so chastisement by a mighty power terrifies more widely than it hurts, and with good reason, for where power is absolute men think not of what it has done but of what it might do.

“It is a mistake to think that the king is safe when nothing is safe from the king; one bargains for security with security.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

Julius Caesar – Movie Review

Synopsis and Review:

Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz and released in 1953 this adaptation of the preeminent Shakespeare play of the same name is nearly seamless in its production of the classic. The acting triumvirate of Marlon Brando as Antony, James Mason as Brutus, and John Gielgud as Cassius dominate the attention of the viewer. The only casting selection that could have been bettered would have been that of Julius Caesar himself – played by Louis Calhern. Mr. Calhern is ostensibly not quite as comfortable with the Shakespearian language as some of the other actors, and often comes off as stilted – as well as lacks the famous charisma that the ‘bald-headed lecher’ Caesar was noted as having. In retrospect, Charlton Heston who had played Mark Antony in the 1950, and 1970 film versions of Julius Caesar may have made a better Caesar. Heston and Brando in tandem would have made quite the pair, and might have possibly taken the film to an even greater echelon of performance.

Shakespeare leaned on Plutarch’s biographies for many of his historical plays, and Julius Caesar is no exception. In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch discusses how the Roman people after the assassination of Caesar were given a speech by Brutus instructing them on the reasoning involved in the murder. After hearing Brutus speak, the people concluded that although they loved Caesar, if he truly wished to be king – as Brutus alleged – then Brutus was just to murder him. However, once the people of Rome are shown the mutilated corpse of Caesar and how many times he had been stabbed they turned on Brutus – he was then compelled to flee the city.

The film impressively exhibits the dynamics leading up to and following the assassination of Julius Caesar, and is indeed a worthy addition to any Shakespearian film library.