One True Life - The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions
How much do I want to read more? 8/10
This one book about stoicism starts with the three main stoics, then move to saints and the beginning of Christianism. To ask the question: are they compatible or two uncompatible way of Life one has to choose?
At its heart, this book is about the fact that we can live only one life. The track from birth to death can be run—or walked, or crawled, or held in the arms of others—only once.
no human being has ever grown from an adult to an infant. We all go only one way, toward death.
How we should travel this one-way road—if in fact there is a should—is a ques- tion as old as human reflection on the journey itself. Is there a best or right or true way to live?
there are mutually incompatible and competing answers. The human condition is such that you have to choose how to live from among options that rule one another out.
The path from birth to death is simultaneously, therefore, a path of lived affirmation and of negation, and not one without the other.
Part I is exposition of the literature of the Roman Stoics: the texts of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Part II carries the same burden for the early Christian saints: Paul, Luke, and Justin Martyr.
Part III I construe the relation of Part I to Part II as a juxtaposition of rival traditions of life.
a tradition of life is a morally grained, historically situated rationality, a way of asking and answering questions.
1 - SeneCa
"Philosophy . . . moulds and constructs the soul."
The letters he wrote during the last two years of his life to his friend Lucilius were highly polished;
Seneca’s letters are not isolated notes to a friend but instead constitute “one long rich exemplum” of what the Stoic way of life has to offer.
We will focus on five such areas: death, Fortuna, God, the passions, and philosophy. We begin with death for the simple reason that for Seneca it is death above all else that requires philosophical response.
Our lot is to die.
death, so Seneca says again and again, is nothing less than the greatest cause of our dread and unhappiness.
death is the “abyss into which everything slips”. or the “precipice over which we all must fall,”
Seneca says that “we never think of death except as it affects our neighbor”.
Seneca’s psycholog- ical point here is that human beings know they will die, but nevertheless deny their deathward existence by projecting it onto their fellows.
we know that we are mortal and must die, and yet we organize our lives to a stunning degree in an attempt to avoid it. For Seneca, this is a sickness from which we need to be healed.
Death, Seneca reminds Lucilius, is not an event that happens only once, at the end of his life; it is, rather, something that happens to us all the time. “Every day a little of our life is taken from us; even when we are growing, our life is on the wane. We lose our child- hood, then our boyhood, and then our youth. Counting even yesterday, all past time is lost time; the very day which we are now spending is shared with death.”
It is not “the last drop,” he continues, “that empties the water clock, but all that which has previously flowed out; similarly, the final hour when we cease to exist does not of itself bring death but only consummates it. We reach death at that moment, but we have been a long time on the way”.
“You do not know where death awaits you. So be ready for it everywhere”.
“I have looked on every day as if it were my last”.
acquiring a life that is shaped by the daily recognition of death.
Like any good psychoanalyst, therefore, Seneca knows that distraction from that which worries us only increases our anxieties, while facing directly their deepest source can (paradoxically) release them.
“No man,” says Seneca, “can have a peaceful life who thinks about lengthening it”.
Presuppose our death instead, and the fruitlessness of all the planning that goes with worry can appear in plain sight. There is no need to worry and frantically plan “to eternity,” says Seneca, when in fact death could be directly over our shoulders.
the contemplation of death should show us that we really have nothing to dread. What did we dread before we were born? Seneca asks. Nothing, of course, since we did not exist prior to our birth. It will be no different with death, for death is “whatever condition existed before our birth”.
Don’t worry, Seneca thus says to Lucilius, death either frees us or annihilates us - either way, there’s nothing to fear.
the contemplation of death destroys human pretension.
to acknowledge the fundamental equality of humankind: in death, we are one. “Death alone is the equal privilege of humankind,”
“Who can complain when he is governed by terms which include everyone?”
“We are unequal at birth,” admits Seneca, “but are equal in death.”
Focusing daily on our coming death, he reminds Lucilius, helps to overcome the distractions from death that human pretension requires to sustain its silliness and illusions.
“I’ll leave it to death,” Seneca writes, “to determine what [philosophical] progress I have made”.
thinking about our coming death implicitly forces us to examine the life we are currently living in order to see what verdict death will render upon it.
Such scrutiny may well uncover areas of our existence that call for deeper philosophical transformation.
“My dear Lucilius, begin at once to live, and count each day as a separate life”
Life, Seneca tells Lucilius, is like a play—it matters not how long the action runs or at what precise point it ends. What matters is “how good the acting is,” the philosophical quality of the life played out on the earthly stage.
To “think on death” is to “think on freedom”.
no progress toward freedom can be made while the fear of death is in place.
The very first step to freedom is to cast off the yoke of this fear.
“If the courage to die is lacking,” Seneca bluntly says, “life is slavery”.
“a wise man should live as long as he ought, not as long as he can”.
to produce a radical acceptance of death and its consequences. Such acceptance would lead to existential peace: despise death each and every day and “you will be able to depart from life contentedly”.