Sunday, September 7, 2014

On Providence

This is the second analysis of "On Providence", an essay by Seneca, that I have done. I did the first three years ago.

So. This essay is written in the form of a response to a question. Lucilius asks "why, if the world is governed by providence, it is still the case that good men suffer from many misfortunes?" In other words, why do bad things happen to good people? In Seneca's day as today, morality is a construct, a system, present because it is rooted in a divine presence. Thus, the very discussion of 'good' or 'bad' inevitably calls for a reference to God (or gods). It is for the this reason that this question can't really be discussed without religion - which will come up again and again.

First, a small foundation. Stoicism did champion a higher power, though monotheism and polytheism were used mostly interchangeably (sometimes by the same person). They believed, for the most part, in a strict determinism which disallowed free will. Happiness for them was living in accordance with nature - Seneca himself defined it as 'perfecting reason'.

The essay is split into six sections. I have tried to select quotes representative of Seneca's argument.

Section 1

He captures the reason for the essay (Lucilius' question) and then writes a long passage on how the universe is deterministic. "... [T]his great edifice of the world does not stand without some power to guard it... the stars that assemble and disperse above us are not propelled by chance."

"[I]t is not Nature's way to let good ever do harm to good; between good men and the gods exists a friendship sealed by virtue." First, Nature here is the higher power (God). Now this introduces an interesting question, based entirely on the definition of good and bad. What is 'good'? There's no good answer to this, especially because even the Stoics couldn't agree on it. Early (strict) Stoics maintained there was no good beside virtue. Later Stoics relented and allowed that things which make life easier, like good health and shelter, are 'minor goods'. (Compare Diogenes Laertius to Aristo of Chios.) Today, most would agree that many things are 'good' which don't directly impact a man's morality. The good health and prosperity of one's family is unquestionably 'good', whereas the loss of a family member is unquestionably 'bad'. Again - this is a modern view and incompatible with Stoic doctrine.

To return to Seneca's quote, then, he must assume that a 'good' (virtuous) person can only have things done to him which will increase his virtue. I think this is indefensible. Granted, Stoics didn't believe anybody could be TRULY good, since every man had a defect, but I think we can do away with hedging our bets. Take a farmer who is, for the most part, virtuous. He is 'good'. Would a bad harvest drive him towards greater morality? I think not. We would be lucky if he maintained his virtue, and would not be surprised if he lost some of it.

""[H]e does not pamper a good man like a favorite slave; he puts him to the test, hardens him, and makes him ready for service." This quote is interesting because it establishes that Seneca assumed God to be directly involved in every man's life. That is, God constantly watches each man and allots him trials and tribulations as necessary. This poses an interesting clash with rigid determinism and the absence of free will, which I will not go into.

Section 2

" 'Why do many reversals of fortune happen to good men?' Nothing bad can happen to a good man: opposites do not mix." Again with this.

"... Adversity's onslaughts are powerless to affect the spirit of a brave man... all adversity he regards as a training exercise." There is an important distinction to be made here, and perhaps I am not sticking to the Stoic party line. Some bad things are 'adverse', and some bad things are 'senseless'. By that I mean that many bad things build character. A poor grade on a test strengthens a student's resolve (hopefully) to do better, and teaches him the value of effort. But not all bad things build character. If a drunk driver hits you and kills your wife, I would be interesting in hearing how that builds your character. I submit that it does not, except in extreme cases. Thus, there are bad things which do not produce any good.

Seneca now goes into a long discussion of why adversity improves character. I think this requires no argument - I completely agree. The question at hand is why it happens, not why it might be justified.

Section 3

More on 'no bad thing can happen to a good man'.

" 'Is it to our benefit', you ask, 'to be thrown into exile, to be reduced to poverty, to follow the funeral procession... to be broken in health?' If you are surprised that these things are of benefit to a man, you will be surprised that surgery and cautery... and abstinence from food and drink, sometimes make sick men whole." BS. Cutting a man with a knife does sometimes make sick men whole, but most of the time it hurts and degrades one's health. Abstinence from food and drink leads to death if taken in excess - it only improves health if the man was fat to start with. So it is with adversity. Throwing one into exile can certainly bring about soul-searching which would reinforce virtue, but even then the adversity is only the indirect cause. You might try to make a case that exile/poverty/hunger removes the distracting effects of immoral people/wealth/excess, but a truly 'good' person wouldn't be susceptible to those distractions. In modern terms, a truly 'good' person doesn't need exile to avoid becoming bad - he is already good!

"Nothing... seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity." Couldn't agree more!

Seneca lists several famous Romans who were unhappy because of excess or happy because of privation.

"The human race has surely not become so subject to vice that there is any doubt that more men would prefer to be born a Regulus than a Maecenas, if fate permitted them a choice." That is, Seneca believe most men would prefer to be born poor than rich if they could choose. Very few modern people choose to live below their means, so Seneca would be disappointed in us. In any case, the underlying argument is that living well makes one less likely to be 'good'. I venture that this is a product of human psychology, not of logic. I imagine an expensive and thorough study could identify whether people born into well-off families are more or less likely to exhibit a few carefully selected virtuous traits, but I don't know of any such study.

Section 4

"... [O]nly a great man is able to triumph over the disasters and terrors afflicting mortal life." This raises an interesting question. Can non-great men be good? Stoics included courage in their virtues, so maybe this wasn't a problem for them. But modern morality has little, on the surface, to do with the ability to overcome adversity. I can fulfill all of God's commandments (as many as are possible, anyway) while being a complete coward. If my life is easy and my faith untested, nothing in the morality construct itself makes my 'good' life any less 'good'. Extending this further - is there a minimum amount a person must be tested to confirm they are 'good'? That would be a window into God's own playbook, and I don't think Seneca meant to go that far.

"Why does God afflict the best men with bad health, or grief, or other misfortunes? Because in the army, the bravest men are ordered to carry out dangerous missions." This implies God has a fixed amount of adversity to hand out, and thus selects people up to the task. This removes God's absolute power and, frankly, seems ridiculous. "Hmm, another year. How to divvy up three million cases of infant death?"

"God has judged us worthy instruments of his purpose to ascertain how much human nature can bear." God is omnipotent - any power capable of endowing humanity certainly knows its limits.

In the rest of this section, Seneca makes the case that God is only testing us by submitting us to hardship. As in the previous case, I think an omnipotent power already knows to what depths our faith goes. In any event, Stoicism is deterministic - what you do is already ordained, so why examine? In a non-deterministic world this idea is more valid, but still implies a God with partial knowledge.

Section 5

"Take into account the further fact that it is to everyone's benefit that all the best men become soldiers, so to speak." See above. Adversity is not synonymous with development.

"... [I]t will appear that there are goods, if these are granted only to good men, and that there are evils, if these penalize only bad men." I think these is one of the more-thought provoking parts of this essay. As you might have guessed from above, I hold that people are in a large part 'determined' by the rules (though we may not know them) of psychology. Yet the universe could still be changed to provide different inputs to those rules. Seneca uses the example of blindness - if it only afflicted good people, would it be desirable? Probably. I'm having trouble coming up with a more applicable example, but I think there's something to this argument. There remains those unquestionable 'bad' events, however - losing a family member, for instance. In the end, however, this brings up another problem. If a person's moral character could be ascertained from what happens to them, how would faith and free will be changed? And if a higher power necessarily sprinkled in random occurrences of the good and bad events to 'throw us off the trail', then we've simply returned to the original question.

Seneca spends a couple paragraphs expounding a very Stoic principle, that none of this life was ours to start with and the loss of any one part is merely a reduction in what was given to us. Agreed.

" 'But why was God so unjust in allotting fate that he assigned poverty and wounds and cruel deaths to good men?' The creator cannot alter matter: this is the law to which it has been submitted." Seneca means that some people have a character which naturally begets adversity - ridiculous, in my opinion. Taken another way, however, one might think that Seneca was saying that God has to play by his own rules. The universe was made and operates according to rules. The bacteria that infects and kills you does so by the same physics that every other organism uses. This half-answers the question of why bad things happen to good people, but it also somewhat kicks the can down the road. Partially because God could have changed the rules at the beginning, and partially because every religion holds that miracles happen(ed). Since the rules can always be changed, why weren't they changed to prevent the bad thing from happening to you? Back to the original question. Besides, a hands-off determinism is so impersonal, don't you think?

Section 6

"Why, then, are you surprised that God allows the good man to experience something that the man sometimes chooses for himself? ... They are killed: why not, as sometimes they choose to take their own lives?" So, because some choose to commit suicide (which I don't feel makes you a bad person), the rest of the good people are now opened to having it forced upon them? What about before the first suicide - were good people immortal? No good people (for this would make you bad) give children cancer, so why does that happen? Et cetera.

"This is where you may surpass God: he is beyond the endurance of evil, you triumph over it." Nice quote.

Seneca closes with a couple paragraph on how death is much quicker than birth, and thus you should not fear it. Agreed, for the most part. Though this does nothing to further the argument.


I don't think Seneca answered the question. Not even an answer that I could disagree with, just no answer. He makes many arguments about why bad things can be beneficial (half-agreed) and why bad things should be beneficial (agreed with some exceptions). But no coherent explanation of why.

So why can bad things be allowed to happen to good people?

1.  Everything that happens is random. I don't think this is true - we may not understand all the rules, but we know there are rules. It is logical that more rules, however many and indecipherable they are, will explain everything else.

2.  Everything that happens is pre-determined. So God could not change the rules to eliminate this question? Of course not, so the rules must have been put in place with this dilemma already known. Could there be some necessary reason for bad things to happen to good people? We'll go into that in a second. And all religions believe God can break the rules at will anyway, so this can't be so.

3.  God simply doesn't care what happens. Nonsensical.

4.  God wants to test us. Doesn't he already know our resolve and our faith? A truly all-powerful presence could. This sort option is amply demonstrated by the biblical story of Job, a story which theologians still disagree on whether it is factual or fable. I don't think this is the case, though perhaps it is the second-most likely option.

5.  God is building us up through adversity. As I wrote above, too many 'bad' things have no positive effect that I can't believe this is true.

6.  My final explanation, and the one that I believe, comes from a book I once read by Rabbi Waldman. I call it the Settling Account explanation. No good person is entirely good, and no bad person is entirely bad. When a good thing befalls a bad person, it is simply God saying, "There, that's for the few good things you did - now I don't owe you a thing." Likewise, God might be saying to a good person, "Alright, sorry, but now you've atoned for the few bad things you've done."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Andrew Jackson and Nationalism

As I read my biography of Andrew Jackson tonight, I realized that his foreign policy was characteristically nationalist. That is to say, he shares much with the typical nationalist of the twentieth century. Yet, is there such a thing as a typical nationalist?

From the book, regarding the removal of Indians from their land in Florida, "Jackson believed in removal with all his heart, and by refusing to entertain any other scenario, he was as ferocious in inflicting harm on a people as he often was in defending the rights of those he thought of as the people." Jackson was also predictably a bit racist in his justification for removal, but that can be ignored in favor of his nationalism. It is clear that he thought of Americans only - all other races and peoples were obstacles in the way of his people's growth. To remove whole tribes of Indians, then, was preferable to the stifling of a single pioneer's development.

In some ways, this is parallel to the nationalism that has been dragged through the dirt by the middle school education I received. That is, the civics class that began in middle school, but continued on through college. Nationalism, at least in the twentieth century, is blamed for two world wars and a host of unfriendly governments. Perhaps that is partially true. But I feel that Jackson's nationalism is different. Jackson was not focused on the betterment of his people at the expense of other peoples. Rather, he was focused on the betterment of his people. Period. His nationalism was a sense of family rather than a sense of entitlement or superiority. He genuinely believed his people was his family, and thus should be lifted up - much as one might wish for his own actual family to succeed.

I share Jackson's philosophy, in this regard at least. I have no wishes or designs against other nations of the world. But I will root for the American team until the end. Seeing peers of mine with less ardent support for the flag distresses me in a rather unique way; my feeling would most aptly be described as consternation. For, what right do they have to disregard the hand that feeds them? There is a reason I have been and continue to be willing to self-flagellate for my country. This is something I feel Jackson would readily understand. Not that this is a unique or even particularly noteworthy characteristic, of course.

Examining nationalism from philosophy, does it make sense? I am afraid to say I doubt it. I suspect nationalism is psychological and little else. A utilitarian case could be made for patriotism, mostly in the sense that supporting one's country enables one's country to provide support. Yet in the overwhelming majority of cases I would say people stand to lose far more than they might gain. Nationalism requires a keen sense of altruism. For what reason would a person rally against their twin for the sole reason they were born across a border? For what reason would a battle for competing national-level interests be justified on an individual level? Questions like this accompany nationalism and cannot be separated.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Andrew Jackson

So far this Westpac deployment, I've been reading mostly fiction. The Nook that M got me for my birthday 18 months ago has now proved its usefulness. I preloaded it with Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Thoreau, and a few individual classics prior to getting underway. Although I don't have the free time I would like, I still have devoured Treasure Island, A Comedy of Errors, Tao te Ching, a book about cyberwarfare, a book about the history of nuclear power, and Les Miserables. The majority of those were great, especially Victor Hugo's masterpiece, but I have missed the nonfiction I normally read. To that end, after finishing Les Miserable yesterday, I bought American Lion by Jon Meachem, a biography about Andrew Jackson.

I read His Excellency, a biography of George Washington, shortly before I left. I have never been much for biographies. I read one of Alfred Nobel half a year ago, but that's all I can think of. After reading about Washington, I'm more than open to more biographies. Especially when they resonate so well with me, like Andrew Jackson's. Although he would always have been my answer if asked my favorite president, I never knew we had so much in common. I feel a distinct kinship with him that I doubt I would feel with any other president.

I feel that my own outlook on life is most closely paralleled by his. Jackson grew up with family difficulties, hardship, and with hate in his heart towards those threatening the only thing he had left: his country. He favored ideals while selectively ignoring transgressions of similar moral values. He placed great importance in his religion and in Scripture, while deriving autonomy and independence from his own abilities. I feel that I, at least in part, can say the same about myself. I too, for better or worse, overlook individual aspects of issues to approach the larger whole more simply. I too feel devotion, loyalty, and fealty are part of my set of virtues.

Beyond abstract qualities, him and I have a number of similar external characteristics as well. Jackson was nominally a provincial goon, while actually being well read and articulate. I now recognize my own mental acuity, yet I still strive at all times to be a people's man; to repress the tendency to be haughty, clever, or annoyingly intelligent. Him and I are both quick to analyze others and act on our interpretations, whether that takes us to anger towards an enemy or uninterrupted love for a wife.

This is not to say there is not a plethora to learn from his biography. Indeed, I am only barely through the first 50 pages. It is only the sparsity of information about his early life that has allowed me to proceed thus far this quickly. As I read, I'd like to pay greater attention to his selflessness, devotion to the public good, perseverence of opinion, and many other virtues less easily named. The next 50 pages should be instructive.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Stoic Determinism 3

The collection of primary sources regarding 'moral responsibility' once again triggered anguish over determinism. Chrysippus favored complete determinism, encompassing even attitudes and impressions - this view became the party line after a few generations. The question that this early Stoic debate piques is about partial determinism. Is such a system possible? In a completely determined world, I would agree that there cannot be moral responsibility. To borrow from a recent Dinosaur Comic, a completely undetermined (random) world would also lack moral responsibility. Hence, only a partially determined world can have morality.

But is such a thing possible? The only way I can see this possibility arising is if consciousness is not deterministic. Does human consciousness violate the laws of the science, of the universe? Can there be results without antecedent causes? I have a hard time grasping the possibility of this, but I concede it could be. Only if this is true can morality have any meaning.

Chrysippus argued, "The result is that neither commendations nor reproofs, nor honors nor punishments are just." I do disagree with this, however, even if moral responsibility is nonexistent. I say this because incentives are a method by which fate can work. The existence of incentives change the calculus of decisions ex ante. Even in a fully determined world, then, punishment must exist. For even if the world proceeds according to preset laws, like a ticking watch, the structure of incentives is then like the cogs of the watch - affecting how it operates.

The necessity of incentives in any system does beg the question - is such an incentive just? Is it just to punish a criminal if he was 'fated' to have committed the crime? Overlooking the fact that punishment was necessary to dissuade untold numbers of other would-be criminals, is it right to punish the actual criminal? Does the appearance of freedom of action make positive or negative incentives right? These are not easy questions.

Diogenes Laertius writes, "The story goes that Zeno was flogging a slave for stealing. 'I was fated to steal', said the slave. 'And to be flogged', was Zeno's reply."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

On Studying Military History

I've never really been interested in military history. It's not that the subject matter itself isn't interesting, it's more that I haven't ever seen the utility of such studies. I do enjoy history, so of course military history has always been interesting as far as that goes. But as it pertains to my career - would a business executive derive much from reading business history?

I've lately been reading The Ghosts of Cannae, by Robert L. O'Connell. Besides presenting an interesting and well-written look at the Second Punic War, specifically the battle at Cannae, and also driving home to me how to pronounce the Latin -ae, the book has also made me a bit more interested in reading more military history. The attention paid to the personal virtues and vices of the major players in the war, as well as their individual decisions on the battlefield, presents many similarities to those I might see today.

I realize enormous land battles share few common aspects with modern submarine warfare. Hannibal's troop positioning at Cannae will undoubtedly contribute nothing to my own tactical competence. But a careful study of why and how he arrived at those decisions might. Examining his thought process, his education, and his personality would certainly be a useful endeavor. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cultural Consumption

I have noticed that no philosophy, to my knowledge, places much importance in embracing humanity. I don't mean acknowledging rights, but rather immersing oneself in the tapestry of mankind. I think this could easily be extended to, or derived from, a devotion to study of natural philosophy. Human achievements are as much a part of the world at present as volcanoes are - why do they warrant any less enthusiastic study?

Since my senior year in college, I have been returning to classical, and sometimes just important, fiction. I read the Odyssey, and the Shahnameh, and The Gallic Wars. Perhaps a few others. Graduation put a small stop to it, but I've returned recently. Yet, I wonder why I read these works of fiction. I believe there is some truth in everything, something to be gained in everything. But admittedly, fiction isn't the most efficient road to self-achievement. I could be racing through philosophy books, and perhaps even writing my own. I could develop expertise in a subject or two. But I don't.

I feel as though classical fiction, the stories that have been in print for hundreds or thousands of years, shape our consciousness. They are a handbook to being a person, to existing as people do. It's similar to reading anthropological studies or histories; a difference of degree, not of kind. Philosophy seems to have overlooked this important duty - to not only act correctly, and study correctly, but know what oneself is. To be conscious of the framework around us, which produces and sustains us.

The last few weeks have seen me complete, in order, Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert, Brave New World by Huxley, A Room With A View by Forster, and currently Dune by Herbert. Each of these books is different and offers a new insight into how people should, or at least do, act. A new perspective. The consumption of culture is my name for it, and I mean it positively.

I read these books with the cognizance that care must be kept not to stray, or justify wastes of time. I can't claim I don't watch worthless TV shows or read snuff sometimes, but there must be a distinction between why The Odyssey is a cultural achievement, and why The Simpsons is not. I admit that must development is called for along this line of thinking.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Stoic Determinism 2

Origen, On Principles - "Ensouled things are moved 'by' themselves when an impression occurs within them which calls forth an impulse . . . A rational animal, however, in addition to its impressionistic nature, has reason which passes judgment on impressions, rejecting some of these and accepting others, in order that the animal may be guided accordingly."

Alexander, On Aristotle's Prior Analytics - "They hold that after the conflagration all the same things recur in the world numerically, so that even the same peculiarly qualified individual as before exists and comes to be again in that world, as Chrysippus says."

One of these things is not like the other. Men are rational, and can decide whether or not to assent to impressions. At the very least, we can choose the impulse that is derived from an impression. Yet, somehow, the eternal recurrence of the universe will produce the exact same situation, infinitely. If a given set of starting points produces identical intermediate points, then obviously the decision has been taken out of man's hands. Our 'reason' is no more than a complex set of instincts and natural programming - far to complex for us to understand, but necessarily obedient to a higher order, a mathematical explanation. Perhaps the Stoics themselves were unaware of how deterministic some of their beliefs were.