What “Letters From The Porch” Really Means

March 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

photo courtesy of P. Medina

This blog has occasionally focused on becoming an altar for which to preach to myself about self-improvement. It’s title has always had something to do with that. For if you are wondering, these things that I write are literally the “letters” that I write and preach to myself from my “Porch”, therefore, “Letters From The Porch”. Why a porch? In a previous post, I had hinted on my reliance on Stoic philosophy as a guide for self improvement. Stoic comes from the latin word “Stoa”, which means porch.

Stoic philosophy is best defined by Robin Campbell, who translated Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic:

Quote From Robin Campell’s Introduction To Letters From A Stoic

“The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers, ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even ‘the gods’. It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him. Only by living thus, and not setting too high a value on things which can at any moment be taken away from him, can he discover that true, unshakeable peace and contentment to which abition, luxury and above all avarice are among the greatest obstacles.

Living ‘in accordance with nature’ means not only questioning convention and training ourselves to do without all except the necessities (plain food, water, basic clothing and shelter) but developing the inborn gift of reason which marks us off as different from the animal world. We are meant to set free or perfect this rational element, this particle of the universal reason, the ‘divine spark’ in our human make-up, so that it may campaign against and conquer pain, grief, superstition and the fear of death. It will show us that ‘there’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so’, discipline the pleasures and the passions, and generally subordinate the body and emoitions to the mind and soul.

In this way we shall arrive at the true end of man, happiness, through having attained the one and only good thing in life, the ideal or goal called arete in Greek and in Latin virtus – for which the English word ‘virtue’ is so unsatisfactory a translation. This, the summum bonum or ‘supreme ideal’, is usually summarized in ancient philosophy as a combination of four qualities: wisdom (or moral insight), courage, self control and justice (or upright dealing). It enables a man to be ‘self-sufficient’, immune to suffering, superior to the wounds and upsets of life (often personalized as Fortuna, the goddess of fortune). Even a slave thus armed can be called ‘free’, or indeed titled ‘a king’ since even a king cannot touch him. Another example of these ‘paradoxes’ for which the Stoics were celebrated is one directed at the vanity of worldly possessions: ‘the shortest route to wealth is the contempt of wealth’.

***

Stoic philosophy is also about living for your fellow man as well. While avoiding the madness and logic of the crowds, being independent of thought, one’s actions are directed not for selfish means but for the benefit of others around us.

Marcus Aurelius is perhaps one of the more famous practioners of Stoic philosophy. He once said this of the characteristics of a rational soul:

“Affection for its neighbors. Truthfulness. Humility. Not to place anything above itself – which is characteristic of law as well.”

What Gregory Hayes (translator of Modern Library’s version of Meditations) thought of Marcus Aurelius:

Quote From Gregory Hays’ Introduction To Meditations:

“Marcus gimself more than once compares the world ruled by logos to a city in which all human beings are citizens, with all the duties inherent in citizenship. As human beings we are part of nature, and our duty is to accommodate ourselves to its demands and requirements- “to live as nature requires,” as Marcus often puts it. To do this we must make proper use of the logos we have been alloted, and perform as best we can the functions assigned us in the master plan of the larger, cosmic logos, of which it is a part of active cooperation with the world, with fate and above all, with other human beings. We were made, Marcus tells us over and over, not for ourselves but for others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish. In our relationships with others we must work for their collective good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals.

***

In J.K Rowling’s moving commencement speech at Harvard, she mentions

“If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

Here’s to a life of meaning, purpose, good company, and a healthy contempt of material possessions.

***

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