Seneca was a wealthy Roman philosopher, poet, playwright and teacher (most notably of Nero). He wrote extensively on philosophy and its nature, and his ideas coincide with those of Stoicism, some agreeing, some not.
Seneca was deeply concerned with anxiety and toil. Anxiety was for Seneca one of the greatest troubles of mankind, an idea perhaps developed from Lucretius, and he dealt with it exponentially, writing that we suffer ‘more from imagination than from reality.’ It is our minds that cause us most trouble. A strong mind, therefore, is invaluable. In his letters to Lucilius, he says that if we were physically ill we would take time out to strengthen ourselves so that we are healthy and ready to take on our work once more. Likewise, he says that we should take time to constructing a strong and healthy mind as well as a healthy body, since the man of strong mind is unbreakable. For Seneca, a man with a strong mind, able to free himself from fear, anxiety, and detach himself from his concerns in the world, is like a god. He claims that the only difference between a god and a man who practices philosophy as his main concern is that a god exists for longer: ‘Look at that for an achievement. To have all the frailty of a human being and all the freedom from fear of a god.’ Owning our minds is of the greatest urgency for Seneca, and this is the key to happiness-‘true happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence on the future.’ Seneca’s view of the importance of mindset and of one’s state of mind is emphasised here: ‘A man is as miserable as he thinks he is.’ Happiness is within the mind and a matter of thought, an idea derived, it seems, from Marcus Aurelius (happiness depends on the quality of one’s thoughts). To be happy, then, is to be able to control one’s thoughts and to have such a mind which cannot be broken by circumstance. And what, Seneca asks, should we use to empower ourselves with such indestructability? Philosophy.
Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, and was a biologist, zoologist, physicist and philosopher among other things. He believed that happiness lay in eudaimonia, most commonly translated as flourishing. Eudaimonia is a life of virtue in accordance with reason. Happiness is a ‘state of activity.’ Virtue is to be found within a Golden Mean, which lies between two vices-the vice of excess and the vice of deficiency (e.g. courage is the mean between the excess of rashness and the deficiency of cowardice). The mean is discovered through practical reasoning (phronesis). Aristotle did believe that some kind of fortune was required for happiness-one must be healthy and not ugly and have some kind of wealth as well as being self-sufficient, yet he maintains that ‘happiness depends upon ourselves.’ It is up to ourselves to work towards happiness. Eudaimonia is a state acquired over a long period of time rather than a fleeting feeling or moment. It is not an easy acquisition, but worthwhile and it justifies the pain experienced. Happiness lies in virtuous activities rather than pleasure, although Aristotle does acknowledge the important role of pleasure and pain in our lives-acting virtuously should become pleasurable over time.
Happiness is not something easily attained for Aristotle, yet for him it is the telos of human existence, and although it may be a tough and harsh road, the outcome makes all the toil worthwhile.
Jeremy Bentham was a utilitarian philosopher who believed that an action is right if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (the principle of utility). Happiness is the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. He wrote that nature has placed mankind under two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain. From this Bentham concluded that pleasure is the sole good and pain the sole evil. Bentham grounded his theory of morality upon these terms, and his guide for happiness is to ‘create all the happiness you are able to create; remove all misery you are able to remove.’ The happy life consists of as much pleasure and as little pain as possible, not just for oneself, but for others also (for the greatest number). Bentham believed that the foundation of morality lay not in reason (like Kant), nor in language, but in pain and pleasure, hence: ‘The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?’ Bentham constructed the hedonic calculus in order to measure pleasure so that it could be maximized to the greatest extent possible. The components of the action to be measured were certainty, duration, extent, intensity, purity, fecundity and propinquity. Though specific, it has been criticised as impractical and not useful as a tool for deciding how to act.
There are problems with this theory. Firstly, it can justify actions which we would usually think to be completely immoral (most people cite gang rape as a pertinent example), and A.MacIntyre even argued that the Nazi regime could be justified if it were shown that it could have produced more pleasure than pain. Many dislike Bentham’s theory because they see Bentham as making human morality too base, and he lowers our nature to that of swine. Moreover, the utility principle gives little thought to minorities, which would not be accepted today. Finally, the hedonic calculus is not practical, is time consuming, and does not account for events when it is not possible to measure all the different components (if it is at all possible to pleasure in any satisfactory way).
Although there are many problems with Bentham’s theory, it founded utilitarianism and was developed exponentially both the J.S. Mill and more recently Peter Singer. Bentham made insightful observations about human nature, although he may seem to have ignored other parts of human morality and nature. Aristotle was perhaps the first to recognize the importance of pleasure and pain (Nichomachean Ethics Book 1), but he maintained that reason was also crucial in the make-up of humanity, which Bentham saw little room for. His theory of happiness may be effective for a short time, but chasing any kind of pleasure for prolonged periods of time will inevitably lead to destruction and unhappiness.
Christianity is all for responsibility and owning up for one’s actions, yet the concept of Christ’s death as the greatest act of redemption and forgiveness is troubling. Jesus sacrificed himself for the good of humanity in order that we could attain eternal life (I have come that they may have life Jn 10:10b), and Jesus’ soteriological crucifixion enabled us, according to Christianity, to eventually be with God. It is our responsibility to act as best as we possibly can, yet our nature as humans means that we require Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice in order the attain ultimate reality.
Christianity does not strip us of our accountability for what we have done immediately, but it does so if we are sorry and if we repent. If we feel guilt for what we have done and we repent, then we are forgiven. There is a certain amount of responsibility present in this-we must recognize that we have done wrong and that therefore we should turn back to God, and away from the sins we have committed. Yet the concept of forgiveness is also lax on its concept of responsibility. Just because we feel guilty and sorry does not mean that we can lose any sense of responsibility and we can escape punishment. We cannot ever come out of a confessional genuinely clean and ‘pure’ from our transgressions, since our actions, good or bad, are still in effect. Responsibility is not something which one has and loses time and time again. Responsibility is ever-present (or ever-absent). The death of Jesus has been interpreted as a sacrifice which frees us from sin once we truly repent, yet this seems nothing more than a ideology. Complete forgiveness cannot exist, since this would mean sins and transgressions are removed completely from our responsibility and placed either into nothingness or into God’s hands, and this just isn’t possible in the world we live in-our actions affect the future in ways we cannot know and no action can be singularly taken from it and supposedly removed as if were not there at all. We must accept responsibility for every knowing action that we take, and we cannot expect that it be removed completely from our past. There is no clean slate. Our responsibility does not subside once we repent, and Jesus, if he really was the son of God, could not have bore that responsibility for us. Forgiveness is not a cessation of accountability. We are no less guilty and are no less free from our mistakes or the effects that they have. Forgiveness is an acknowledgement in the mind of another that we have made a mistake and that it will not be held against us unjustifiably. What justifiable accountability is, however, is another question altogether. Christ cannot carry your cross for you, and you must carry yours like he did-continuously until the moment you die.
There is no alternative to genuine sacrifice and responsibility. Like Jesus, the results may be far beyond you could possibly imagine. Jesus’ death should not be seen as a sacrifice, but rather as an example of what humanity should embody-acting for the good of humanity and fighting through the suffering that comes with it.
Too easy is it to give way to others and not to stick by yourself and your decisions. It is more difficult to go one way when everyone else is going down the other, or when they try to push you their way. Standing your ground and not giving way to the wants of others both requires respect and earns respect. You must respect yourself, and once this becomes apparent to others, they too will respect you like you respect yourself.
Giving way to people endlessly and doing what others want you do to rather than doing what you want to do is weak, and it reveals to others that you do not trust yourself and are easily swayed by others, making you seem meek-minded. All respect is lost to those who do not respect themselves and seek only to please others. Not giving way, as Thucydides writes, is a sign of strength and mental fortitude, therefore deeming oneself worthy of respect.
What else can be taken from this? That maintaining one’s frame and not aiming to please others is a desirable trait when meeting people. That even though being praised may seem like something that people want, not always giving people what they want may lead to a greater degree of regard for a person.
‘I’m tired.’ ‘I cant be bothered.’ ‘It’s too hard.’ ‘I don’t have the time.’ These are common excuses to avoid doing things we don’t want to do, but that we know would be good for us if we did. Instead of doing things which further us and move us towards becoming better versions of ourselves, endlessly we watch Netflix, mindlessly we browse social media, and purposelessly we scour the internet for anything that might distract from doing what we know would be good for us in the long run, be it reading, studying, or exercising.
We are all the product of millions and billions of years of evolution. Each individual is the product of millions of years of hardship, toil and struggle. Your ancestors all had to fight to survive and to reproduce, and to undergo all kinds of hardship. Every single ancestor, from simple cells to humans, had to endure every kind of difficulty in order that their genes would continue to survive in their descendants. And now here we are. The product of all this effort. In some ways, we are at our weakest today. We can’t bear even the smallest amount of mental or physical pain, and so we spend our days distracting ourselves from anything even a little bit challenging. This isn’t to say that life isn’t hard-it is. Life is difficult and is by nature a struggle filled with toil, suffering and hardship. Yet this does not mean that it is worthwhile or meaningless. The product of suffering is what justifies it, and the product of toil is always more valuable than the product of apathy. Without suffering, nothing worth anything is achieved.
One’s mindset affects one’s acting a great deal. A mindset that is passive and lazy will reap actions that are perfunctory. The way you view things influences heavily the way you do things. For example, sleep can be viewed in different ways. For some sleep is a haven, others an obstacle, others a tool. The view of waking life affects the view of sleep just so. Those who desire little or nothing may see sleep as a haven which is then overused. But for those who see life mainly in terms of their waking life, sleep becomes a necessary function in the grand view of waking life. Sleep is not something to look forward to, waking up is- sleep is simply recharging one’s batteries. Like a phone, a human works best when rested and recharged, but the purpose of a phone is to be awake and provide information, and recharging makes this possible. Likewise, a human being who views waking life as most important will see sleep as a function that enables us to enhance our waking life.
Some people believe that the realization that nothing matters necessarily means falling into despair, laziness, and apathy. Believing that nothing matters means nothing without consequent action, and it is up to each individual to determine how they react to this realization. Again, the belief that life is meaningless comes, at times, as a complaint against the world and against existence itself. Some people say that nothing matters and then throw everything in the air, as if this belief suddenly makes everything uncontrollably arbitrary, yet this is not the case. You exist, therefore some action must be taken, and this action will either enforce your belief that your existence is useless or whether you are doing something with your time that you think is worthwhile. Refusing to do something that is potentially worthwhile is not the right thing to do. It is an act which is portrayed as intellectual superiority, yet is in fact a result of cowardice. Nietzsche said that suffering, and only suffering, has created ‘all enhancements of man so far’.
Experience is wholly unique. Your experience of life is hugely different from mine, and the same goes for each person. We can only experience life through our own body, our own person and self (if such a thing exists). There is no way of completely escaping subjectivity while conscious. Many things ‘take us out of ourselves’, such as music and sport, yet they do not relinquish subjectivity as a whole. In this sense, our subjective experience is always with us while conscious, and complete objective experience is not possible. This circumstance can be interpreted in different ways: it can appear to be wonderful, as our consciousness allows a unique way of life to be experienced, yet it can, contrastingly, appear to be troublesome and undesirable-sometimes we may feel a need to exit our own experience of life, maybe because we are not in a sound state of mind, or because loneliness has taken over and we wish to be able to experience something with another conscious being fully. Both of these, however, are mere interpretations, and the self can be seen in different lights. Yet it is clear that our conscious experience has limitations-we cannot experience the past again, nor can we experience what the future holds, and it is this which we do not like to accept-we feel somewhat powerless because we cannot change what we did yesterday and we cannot know what will happen tomorrow. Likewise, it is difficult, at times, to accept that only we can experience what we are experiencing right now, and that others’ experiences are, ultimately, inaccessible to us in their utmost being. This is not, however, something to be distraught about, but is rather something that must be accepted. The self is inescapable, but it does not follow that this is necessarily a problem. At times it may even feel like a blessing.
New year expectations always seem to be somewhat unrealistic. We seem to want to change ourselves so much over such a short period of time that when we realise that our hopes and expectations are not becoming a reality in the time we wished, everything collapses and we fall back into the old habits we so desperately wished to remove or replace. Heraclitus, one of the most notorious pre-Socratic philosophers, wrote that everything is in a state of change except change itself. We ourselves will change, whether we will it or not, and so it is not whether we change, but how we change. You can never become the person you once were, yet what is possible is that you begin to become the person you want to be, yet to do this it is necessary to start directing change in a positive direction at a pace that is realistic and attainable-‘once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed’ Schopenhauer. A sprint will not get you to the top, but a steady jog will, and once you reach the summit, things will become easier and easier.