“These are the cruel beliefs that need to be excised, what we need to focus on completely. What is weeping and groaning? A kind of judgment. What is bad luck? A belief? What is conflict, nitpicking, accusation, sacrilege, nonsense? These are all just beliefs and they are also beliefs that sit outside the selection of what is actually good and evil. Have someone change their focus to these real things and I promise they will stand fast no matter what things change around them.
The soul is a bit like a bowl of water and its experiences are like the ray of light that dances on the water’s face. When the water is rough, it seems like the light is disturbed too, even though it isn’t touched. Just so, whenever someone suffers a moment of darkness, their skills and virtues aren’t all mixed up, just the breath in which they subsist. When it finds peace again, so do they.”
Seemingly every card-carrying Greek in antiquity bemoaned the workings of chance in human affairs.
Stobaeus (5th century AD) preserved a fragment by one Hermolochus (no biographical facts are known) who expressed the familiar idea with admirable simplicity.
Aristotle too rehearsed the theme, but shifted the emphasis from the facticity of chance to the character traits necessary to weather it.
Hermolochus: Fr. 846 (PMG)
All of life bewilders.
Nothing in it secure,
And chance takes it off course.
Hope cheers the heart,
But exactly what’s to come,
And which way one’s carried,
No mortal knows.
A god guides all . . . and yet,
Often, some terrible breeze
Blows against good luck.
Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, I.1100b.22-b.32
Things of varying magnitude happen by chance, and little bits of luck, good or bad, are clearly not the decisive things in life.
However, when a multitude of great chance events are favorable, life is more blessed, for by their very nature such events lend it beauty, and they are put to noble and good use.
Conversely, some chance events crimp and spoil our bliss, for they bring pain and interfere with many things we do. But all the same, even in these instances, nobility shines through whenever someone good-naturedly bears a multitude of great misfortunes, and does so not because he’s numb to pain, but because he’s noble and great-souled.
“For this reason we must examine whether or not it is possible for the study of the philosophers to bring us [happiness].”
Quare hoc videndum est, possitne nobis hoc ratio philosophorum dare.
Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics, 2.1 (1219a25)
“Let the work of the mind be the performance of life—and what this means is using life and being awake (for sleep is some kind of a rest and cessation of life). As a result, since the work of the mind and its virtue are identical, then the work of virtue is an earnest life.
This, then, is the complete good, which is itself happiness. For it is clear from what we have argued—as we said that happiness was the best thing; the goals and the greatest of the goods are in the mind, but aspects of the mind are either a state of being or an action—it is clear that, since an action is better than a state and the best action is better than the best state, that the performance of virtue is the greatest good of the mind. Happiness, then, is the action of a good mind.”
ψυχή: can be translated into English as “spirit” or “soul” instead of “mind”. I avoided the former to sidestep the implication that Aristotle is making some kind of a mystical argument; I avoided the latter because it has such strong religious associations in English.
Seneca De Beneficiis 22
“A just reason for happiness is seeing that a friend is happy—even better, is to make a friend happy.”
iusta enim causa laetitiae est laetum amicum videre, iustior fecisse
“I admit that I now have a bit of a different opinion from what I believed before. Perhaps it would be safest for my reputation to change nothing which I not only believed but also approved for many years. But I cannot endure knowing that I misrepresent myself, especially in this work which I compose as some help for our good students. For even Hippocrates, famous still for his skill in medicine, seems to have conducted himself very honorably when he admitted his own errors so his followers would not make a mistake. Marcus Tullius did not hesitate to condemn some of his own books in subsequent publications, the Catulus and Lucullus, for example.
Prolonged effort in research would certainly be useless if we were not allowed to improve upon previous opinions. Nevertheless, nothing of what I taught then was useless. These things I offer now, in fact, return us to basic principles. Thus it will cause no one grief to have learned from me. I am trying only to collect and lay out the same ideas in a slightly more sensible fashion. I want it made known to all, moreover, that I am showing this to others no later than I have convinced myself.”
Ipse me paulum in alia quam prius habuerim opinione nunc esse confiteor. Et fortasse tutissimum erat famae modo studenti nihil ex eo mutare quod multis annis non sensissem modo verum etiam adprobassem. Sed non sustineo esse conscius mihi dissimulati, in eo praesertim opere quod ad bonorum iuvenum aliquam utilitatem componimus, in ulla parte iudicii mei. Nam et Hippocrates clarus arte medicinae videtur honestissime fecisse quod quosdam errores suos, ne posteri errarent, confessus est, et M. Tullius non dubitavit aliquos iam editos libros aliis postea scriptis ipse damnare, sicut Catulum atque Lucullum et… Etenim supervacuus foret in studiis longior labor si nihil liceret melius invenire praeteritis. Neque tamen quicquam ex iis quae tum praecepi supervacuum fuit; ad easdem enim particulas haec quoque quae nunc praecipiam revertentur. Ita neminem didicisse paeniteat: colligere tantum eadem ac disponere paulo significantius conor. Omnibus autem satis factum volo non me hoc serius demonstrare aliis quam mihi ipse persuaserim.
“Certainly those who are overcome by emotions are predisposed in this way. For their rages and desires for sex and other types of enticements obviously transform the body too and creates madness in some. Hence, we must call those who are like this the same as those who are uncontrolled.
For being about to speak words is not at all a sign of understanding. For people who are in these states of mind often recite proofs and the verses of Empedocles. But people who have just learned something will repeat the words when they don’t yet understand them. For knowledge needs to be integrated and this requires time. So, those who talk when they are uncontrolled must be considered as if they were actors reciting their lines.”
“May the gods grant as much as you desire in your thoughts,
A husband and home, and may they give you fine likemindness,
For nothing is better and stronger than this
When two people who are likeminded in their thoughts share a home,
A man and a wife—this brings many pains for their enemies And joys to their friends. And the gods listen to them especially”
“To exact vengeance from someone was thought to be more important than not suffering at all. If oaths were ever taken in turn, were strong because each person was at a loss and had no power at all. But as soon as one of them had the advantage, he attached if he saw anyone unguarded: it was sweeter to take vengeance despite a pledge than to do so openly. It was thought generally to be safe and to have won a prize for intelligence, prevailing by deceit. Many wicked people become famous for being clever than good people do for being ingenuous. Men are ashamed by the latter but delight in the former.
To blame for all of these things the love of power and a love of honor. From both, they fell into a voluntary love of conflict. For those who were in charge of the state each claimed identities for themselves, some the equal rights of the masses, the others the wisdom of the aristocrats; while guarding the common goods in word, they were making them the contest’s prize, competing with one another to be pre-eminent, they dared the most terrible things—and they surpassed them with greater acts of vengeance too. They did not regard either justice or advantage for the city…”
“Knowledge has little or no impact on [acquiring virtues] while the other conditions are not of limited importance but are critical since virtue emerges from doing just and wise things. So, acts are called just and wise when there are the sorts of thing which a just or wise person might do but the just and wise person is not the one who does these things but who does them as wise and just people do.
So, it is well said that a person becomes just and wise from doing just and wise acts and that no one could become good without doing them. But the majority of people don’t do these things, instead they take refuge in talk, thinking that this is philosophy and that they will become good people in this way. They act like injured people who listen carefully to doctors but then do nothing of what they’re told to do.”
“It was necessary that those who readily accept the wealth that sees should give up the senseless wealth to those who still are lacking in perception. The Greeks sing the praises of Anaxagoras and Democritus because they were so struck by philosophy that they allowed their fields to be ground down by sheep.
I do admire those men myself because they showed that they were stronger than wealth—but how much better would it have been if they had not given up their possessions to feed beasts but instead used them for the needs of people, their friends and family, transforming their loss of interest into wealth for someone else.
That first action is negligent—it would be considered nuts if Greece did not admire those people—while the second is sober, something carefully thought out.”
Plutarch’s “To the Uneducated Ruler” has no relevance today, at all (780a-c)...
“The majority of kings and rulers are stupid–they imitate those artless sculptors who believe that their over-sized figures seem large and solid if they make them with a wide stance, flexing their muscles, mouths gaped open. For these types of rulers seem merely to be imitating the impressiveness and seriousness of leadership with their deep voice, severe glance, bitter manners and their separate way of living: but they are not really any different from the sculpted colossus which is heroic and godly on the outside, but filled with dirt, stone or lead within.
The real difference is that the weight of the statue keeps it standing straight, never leaning; these untaught generals and leaders often wobble and overturn because of their native ignorance. For, because they have built their homes on a crooked foundation, they lean and slide with it. Just as a carpenter’s square, if it is straight and solid, straightens out everything else that is measured according to it, so too a leader must first master himself and correct his own character and only then try to guide his people. For one who is falling cannot lift others; one who is ignorant cannot teach; one who is simple cannot manage complicated affairs; one who is disordered cannot create order; and one who does not rule himself cannot rule.”
“Among the weak, base and private citizens, ignorance when combined with a lack of power yields little wrongdoing, as in nightmares some trouble upsets the mind, making it incapable of responding to its desires. But when power has been combined with wickedness it adds energy to latent passions. And so that saying of Dionysus is true—for he used to say that he loved his power most when he could do what he wanted quickly. It is truly a great danger when one who wants what is wrong has the power to do what he wants to do.
As Homer puts it “When the plan was made, then the deed was done.” When wickedness has an open course because of its power, it compels every passion to emerge, producing rage, murder, lust, adultery, and greedy acquisition of public wealth.”
“It is not possible to hide wickedness in power. But, as when someone with vertigo* might go up in a high place and move around, only to become dizzy and uncertain, thus revealing their suffering, so fortune amplifies the untaught and ignorant a little with some wealth, reputation or offices and, once they have risen up, it shows them falling. Or rather, it is the same as when you cannot tell which of some containers is solid and which is cracked but when you pour water into them, the culprit leak is clear: rotten minds cannot manage power, but they ooze out random desires, rages, improprieties, and base manners.”
“We use ‘self-sufficient’ not to mean a person alone—someone living in isolation—but to include one’s parents, children, spouse, friends, and even fellow citizens, since a human being is a social creature by nature. Now, some limit needs to be observed in these ties—for it will go on endlessly if you extend it to someone’s ancestors and descendants. But that’s a problem for another time.
We posit that self-sufficiency is something which in itself makes life attractive and lacks nothing and for this reason we think it is happiness, since we imagine that happiness is the most preferable of all things when it is not counted with others. It is clear that it is desirable even with the least of the goods—the addition of goods increases the total, since the greater good is always desirable.”
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.