Seneca, Solomon, and the Happy Life

Lucius Seneca and King Solomon were two men who lived centuries apart, in two different parts of the world-Solomon in ancient Israel, Seneca in First Century Rome. Solomon was King of Israel and Seneca is considered to be one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy, along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Though over a thousand years of time separated Solomon and Seneca, both men posed to themselves the question,  What makes a happy life?

Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone deserves a chance to be happy. However, defining happiness is as diverse an answer as there are people on the planet. Some people define happiness with such things as love, possessions, a successful career, good health, faith, or family. Just as happiness means different things to different people, it meant different things to Solomon and Seneca.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon, (though it could have been written at a later date) and details Solomon’s pursuit of happiness. Solomon denied himself no pleasures as he literally had it all- wisdom, knowledge, political power, gold, silver, property, servants, singers, a harem of women, all of the wine he could drink- everything one might have at their disposal if you were the king or queen. Despite all of this, Solomon wasn’t happy, as he called his pursuits “meaningless,” “vanity,” and “chasing after the wind.”

Seneca, like the other Stoics, did not believe that “the externals,” i.e. fame, fortune, good health, reputation, are not what makes us happy.

“…the happy life depends solely on our reason being perfect. Only perfect reason keeps the soul from being submissive and stands firm against Fortune; it assures self-sufficiency in whatever situation. It is the one good which can never be impinged upon. A man is happy, I maintain, when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained by a bolster is liable to fall. If this is not so, then many factors outside ourselves will begin to have power over us.”1

If only Seneca was around at the time of Solomon! Solomon searched for happiness in external things- the money, the power, the women, that he lost sight of what was important and his heart was turned away from God. Solomon allowed his spiritual life to be compromised as he worshiped the foreign gods of his many, many, wives.

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not shunning material possessions, we must be careful not to allow the possessions to own us. What we have- our families, our homes, our money- can be taken away in an instant through death, disaster, bad investments, job loss, sickness, and a myriad of other circumstances which may beyond our control.

Ecclesiastes reads like Solomon is telling his story from the perspective of old age, essentially saying, “I’ve had it all, I knew it all, I did it all, and it didn’t make me happy.” Solomon became shortsighted because of his pursuits of pleasure, to which Seneca states:

“…Pleasure actually unstrings the soul and blunts all its force.” (pg 241).

“But it is our vices that reduce us to despair, for the junior partner in reason is of lower rank, too unstable for surveillance over choice wares, with judgment still unsteady and unsure.” (pg 245).

Solomon later came to realize that no matter if you were rich or poor, wise or foolish, the same fate would overtake everyone, the same as the animals: death, thus we must follow God and enjoy the life we’ve been given. In the following verses, Solomon echoes a lot of Stoic ideals concerning the pursuit of the happy life:

“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them-for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil- this is the gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, NIV).

Seneca teaches us that the happy life is also determined by our reason and sound judgment:

“What is the happy life? Self-sufficiency and abiding tranquility. This is the gift of greatness of soul, the gift of constancy which perseveres in a course judged right. How can these attitudes be attained? By surveying truth in its entirety, by safeguarding in every action order, measure, decorum, a will that is without malice and benign, focused undeviatingly upon reason, at once amiable and admirable.” (Pgs 239-240).

Happiness and contentment come from within, thus we cannot passively expect, possessions, people, or even God to make us happy. Think of time that you wanted a certain gift and received it for  Christmas or birthday. How did you feel about the gift a few days, weeks, or months later? Don’t wish away your life for the things you don’t have, but rejoice over what you currently have. Don’t let someday or the promises of heaven and the afterlife to dull your senses about living life in the hear and now. God has given you everything you have, enjoy it. Exercise good reason and judgment, so that you will be the same person, despite your current circumstances. God bless you.

1Moses Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. New York: W.W. Norton & Company (1958): 239.

 

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Perfect the Ordinary Things

“Everything’s not going to go perfect. You’re going to have some losses that you’re going to have to bounce back from and some things that are a little unforeseen that you’re going to have to deal with.” Tony Dungy
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/search_results?q=tonydungy

Why are there constant obstacles in our paths?

You run late for work and get caught at every stop light; There’s construction on the highway; People are driving slow to get you upset, so you think.

You decide to escape the hustle and bustle by taking a well-deserved and long overdue vacation. Your flight gets delayed or cancelled due to inclement weather; the screener pulls you out of line to ask you questions; You’re on your way to Denver, but your luggage is going to Miami. Maybe you try to pray, curse, mutter under your breath, or reach for a pill bottle because you have a headache or anxiety, maybe both. UGGGGH!

More than likely, there isn’t a global or cosmic conspiracy against you- God’s not after you, neither is the devil. It’s not the Republicans, Democrats, or a secret cabal- it’s just life. There will always be obstacles, but we must do our best to deal with them.

Of course, these events are trivial matters of the course of our lives, but little aggravations can add to bigger aggravations and pretty soon we can become bitter, hardened, or cynical about life. What if we were take a rational and logical approach to these situations, which can give us an understanding of what’s happening:

The stoplights– In order to keep traffic going smoothly, stoplights are timed as to when they turn red and green, so you’re caught in that time.

Construction- Construction is done in order to keep the roads in working order and drivers safe.

Slow Drivers- Some people are more cautious drivers, or maybe you’re going too fast.

The delayed or cancelled flight- Although you had control over which airline and the day you wanted to leave, you cannot and could not have controlled the weather. Plus, there are thousands and thousands of planes in the air all over the world, one of them is going to encounter a problem. Plus, you could be one of those people stranded on that plane.

The Screener- the screener is there to keep everyone safe and from time to time they will pull people aside just to make sure everything’s okay- it’s nothing personal.

The Lost Luggage- think of the thousands of bags that go through the airport, all of the flights, and only a handful of people handle the luggage-there’s bound to be an issue.

These are oversimplified examples of how to handle obstacles, but they can help us achieve gradual goals in handling adversity in life. If you are not a runner, but set a goal to run a marathon, would it be wise to start with 26.2 miles? No, you want to build up your body to accomplish that goal- run to the end of the street, the block, run one or two miles a day and increase from there. Perfect the ordinary things then work your way up to the extraordinary things. God bless.

 

 

 

Living Life without Expectation

What if we were to live life without expectation? I’m not talking about a hopeless life, where we are broken and faithless, but a life where we can be at peace no matter the circumstances.

Think about this for a moment: how many times have the events of your life matched the expectations in your mind?  These misplaced expectations lead to disappointment, which can lead to discouragement, which can develop into depression, which can make us feel hopeless and purposeless. We shut out God, our loved ones, and our friends because they let us down. We loathe our jobs because the grass wasn’t as green as was promised. We are financially strapped because we decided to take a leap of faith on a new career, a bigger house, that car we always wanted, etc.

If you feel this way or spent part of your life feeling this way, it’s okay. Just take a few deep breaths. Don’t condemn yourself, but find it in your heart to forgive yourself. Ask God to forgive you. Forgive others who hurt you. You made the best choice you could at the time with the information you had. That’s life. We have to make decisions sometimes without knowing what the results will be.

What would be a good example of living life with expectation? Let’s say you have a friend who has fallen on hard times and asks you for $100 to buy groceries for his family. Maybe your friend says he’ll pay you back or you expect the money back as soon as possible. Time goes by and your friend has not given you the money. You ask about it, the friend can’t pay it back now. More time passes and you begin to resent your friend over the money. A possible lifelong friendship could be ended over $100 all because of misplaced expectations. How could this situation be handled without expectations? Your friend, who has fallen on hard times, ask you for $100 to help buy groceries for his family. You have the money and give it to your friend. Your friend offers to pay back the money, but you say, “Don’t worry about it, consider it a gift.” This changes the dynamic of the situation because you have truly been generous with no stipulations. You also have the satisfaction that your friend’s family will have food in their home.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about how we are to give to others without expecting anything in return:

“Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:31-36, NIV).

Speaking strictly from the Christian perspective, The Bible spends a lot of verses describing how God has blessed us spiritually in Christ and the ways He will bless us when we are obedient to Him. We must tread very lightly when we read and teach these verses, because we can open up ourselves and others to disillusionment and disappointment, which can lead people to becoming soured on God and the church. There must be a balance so that unmet sky high expectations will not send believers into a soul crushing abyss.

What happens when something doesn’t work out the way it was supposed to work out? What if there is no miracle? What if the financial windfall never comes? What if our or a loved one’s suffering is never eased despite a bevy of fervent, faith-filled prayers?

As Christians and people in general, we are too prideful to say,  “I don’t know.” When it comes to matters of faith, no one wants to say, “I don’t know.” So, in order to save face or relieve the pressure of having to give an answer for why God didn’t answer a prayer, we may say such things as, “It must not have been in God’s will, plan, or timing.” “God must have something better for you” “Maybe you just need more faith.” “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” I admit that I have been on both sides of this situation- as the one with the unanswered prayer and the finite being trying to explain why the infinite and sovereign God did what He did or didn’t do. It is not comforting to be in either situation.

Is it possible for us to live a life of faith without expectation? I believe so because faith by definition is unknowable. If we knew everything coming our way (a sense of expectation), we wouldn’t need faith.  Instead of worrying about what might happen, such as What if I get cancer? What if I lose my job? What if my spouse leaves me? what if we lived life as it came to us? What if we could have peace in the midst of the unknown? I will leave you with the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace.” (Enchiridion, 8).

Seeing Things as They are

What if we lived life by viewing everything at its most basic level? I wonder how much fret, worry, anxiety, frustration, and misplaced expectations we could save ourselves? Life will never be stress-free, but we can stress less by seeing things as they simply are.

Car broke down? Though car repairs are costly and time consuming, think of your car as simply as a machine. A machine created by man- a combination of steel, plexiglass, rubber, glass-a series of replaceable parts held together by nuts and bolts. These parts are not designed to last forever and will require maintenance. Add to this thought the notion that all of the time, effort, and money put into the vehicle may come to nought as you will sell it to someone else, it can get stolen or wrecked, or it ends up in a junkyard, rusting away with the passage of time. I am not saying not to own a nice car- just don’t let your possessions own you.

The car is just one example of many in how we can approach the everyday problems we face in this life. Also keep in mind that everything we have in this life- our loved ones, friends, pets, jobs, and possessions are only ours for a short time- we have to give it all back at the end. The “toys” so to speak, go back in the toy box. So, instead of building up our material toyboxes, what if we could focus more on our spiritual and philosophical morality to leave this planet better people than when we arrived?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where theives do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, NIV).

Marcus Aurelius echoes Jesus’ thoughts:

“Keep constantly in your mind an impression of the whole of time and the whole of existence-and the thought that each individual thing is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig-seed; on the scale of time, one turn of a drill. Consider any existing object and reflect that it is even now in the process of dissolution and change, in a sense regenerating through decay or dispersal: in other words, to what sort of ‘death’ each thing is born.” (Meditations 10.17-18).1

Jesus reminds us that our lives are not based upon material possessions:

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions…Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.” (Luke 12:15, 22-23, NIV).

Once again, remember when you come to the end of this life, the name sown onto your clothes won’t matter, neither will the house you owned. What will matter is how you lived your life. We must be thankful for what we have as opposed to longing for what we don’t have. If we break down this life on the simplest level, we should embrace each day that we have and be content with our assigned place on this rightly positioned planet in this universe.

Marcus Aurelius once again paralles Jesus’ thoughts:

“The salvation of life lies in seeing each object in its essence and its entirety, discerning both the material and the causal: in applying one’s whole soul to doing right and speaking the truth.There remains only the enjoyment of living a linked succession of good deeds, with not the slightest gap.” (Meditations 12.29). 2

God bless you all.

1Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated by Martin Hammond. London: Penguin Books (2006): 99.

2Ibid, 121.

The Mountains

By Michael W. Raley

I close my eyes and retreat into my mind.

I can see the mountains as if I am there.

The majesty, the beauty, the only place

Where my spirit, mind, and body are at peace.

The winding roads,

The gorgeous blue skies

Seemingly untouched by industry.

The snow-capped peaks at the height of summer.

Nature’s grandeur of wildlife-

Elk, big-horned sheep, and marmots

Living out their existence.

How my soul longs for the mountains!

The mountains are not obstacles,

But a point of perspective.

For when viewed from the mountain top,

Our problems become small and insignificant.

Saturday Morning

By Michael W. Raley

The allure of a Saturday morning

Is where I find my spiritual retreat.

The house is quiet.

The coffee is brewed.

The pressures of life lift off of my shoulders

As I reconnect to the moment

And shut out the clatter.

I seek the voice of the Spirit,

The Ancient of Days,

That still, quiet voice,

Who will serve as my guide

And lead me through this life.

The Virtue of Fortitude

Ever heard the expression “It builds character?” The “it” is what you are going through at the present moment. Though “It builds character” is often used flippantly and sarcastically, there is a golden nugget of truth we can mine from this statement.

Character is who you are- your mentality, values, beliefs, judgments, perceptions, which shape your responses to life and circumstances. Your character is fully within your control. Much like gold and silver, character will go through a refinement process.

“Take away the dross from the silver, and there comes out a vessel for the smith.” (Proverbs 25:4, NASB).

We are the silver. The dross is our impurities or imperfections. The vessel is what we will be and the smith is God. It is the smith who helps shape the silver into what it is supposed to be.

Our character can also evolve over time, much like how a writer may go through multiple rewrites before the novel, script, or comic book is complete. (For instance, in the original draft of Star Wars, Han Solo had green skin and gills).

The Stoics also believed in the importance of character. The Stoics believed that we can improve ourselves and that we should strive every day to be better people. In his discourse, “On Providence,” Epictetus discusses the proper perspective we should have in life.

“It is easy to praise providence for everything that happens in the world provided you have both the ability to see individual events in the context of the whole and a sense of gratitude. Without these, either you will not see the usefulness of what happens or, even supposing that you do see it, you will not be grateful for it.”1

Epictetus also links our character with fulfilling our purpose:

“And so for the beasts it is enough to eat, drink, sleep, breed and do whatever else it is that satisfies members of their kind. But for us who have been given the faculty of understanding, this is not enough. Unless we act appropriately, methodically, and in line with our nature and constitution, we will fall short of our proper purpose.”2

Since we are created by God for a purpose, we are called to acknowledge God:

“Man was brought into the world, however, to look upon God and his works- and not just look, but appreciate…Come to look upon and appreciate God’s works at least once before you die.”3

Take a moment to watch a sunrise or sunset. Look at the stars. Travel to the mountains. Look at the oceans. Take a breath and enjoy the moment.

One of the things that attracted me to read about Stoicism was the pragmatic and realistic nature of the philosophy. For the Stoics, it’s about the process. It’s acknowledging that bad things will happen and being prepared for them when they happen. Because you have lived through previous trials, you have built up a reserve of character, or what Epictetus referred to as “the virtue of fortitude.”

“Furthermore, you have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry about what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it.”4

Epictetus goes on to mention about how we do not realize that we have the resources to conquer whatever we are facing. When circumstances do not go our way, we become bitter, complain and resent God, but God has provided a way out. You have the tools, you have to work with them. You might get greasy or hit your thumb, but keep working. What good is a toolbox of the best tools if they are never put to use?

God bless you all.

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings. Translated and Edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008): 16.

2Ibid, 17.

3Ibid, 18.

4Ibid, 18-19.