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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Book Review- Meditations

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Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) is considered to be both one of the last great emperors of Rome and along with Seneca and Epictetus, one of the pillars of Roman Stoicism. Aurelius’ book Meditations serves as a great insight into the mind of Aurelius and provides a framework of Stoic philosophy. However, Meditations is not a book written for the public, but was Marcus Aurelius’ personal journal, written on the war front and during his quiet time at the palace.

Book One of Meditations details the list of people who have influenced Aurelius on his life’s journey and what he received from each of them. For example: “From my grandfather Verus: decency and a mild temper. From what they say and I remember of my natural father: integrity and manliness. From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrong doing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich.”1

Aurelius’ note on Appolonius really embodies Stoic aspects: “…to be always the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness…”2

Stoicism as a philosphy is about focusing on improving our inner character, controlling the things within our control (thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions) and not worrying about what’s not in our control (our reputation, whether or not we’ll be famous, the weather, to give a few examples). Aurelius is what we could call a reluctant politician, but he recognized that we cannot control how people act, we can only control our response to them. Book two starts off with this applicable nugget of wisdom:

“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling,ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own- not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong.”3

Other major themes throughout Meditations:

*Live each day as if it was your last, not with reckless abandonment, but careful thought given to your ways andwords, doing all with excellence.

*Look for the beauty in everything.

*Minding our own business,working on improving ourselves, not worrying about what others are doing or being judgmental.

*Being adaptable to whatever circumstances come our way.

*No matter how long we live, the same fate, death, awaits us all, as it did the generations before us and the generations after us.

*Manage our perceptions, thereby, we manage our judgments of events.

*What happens to you as an individual affects the whole of humanity.

The Stoics have often been characterized as being emotionless, which is far from the truth. The Stoics were people of great inner reflection and who were able to manage their emotions, thereby keeping their perspective of circumstances. As Aurelius wrote:

“Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being,are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this it must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot-as if this was anything lasting likely to trouble him for long.”4

Where do we fit into this scheme?

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny-what fraction of that are you?”5

Stoicism began to decline after Aurelius’ death, which coincided with the rise of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Stoicism, however is making a comeback of sorts, as there are business leaders, athletes, and everyday people who are putting its principles to practice. I also find that Stoicism is compatible with my Christian faith, as some of Aurelius’ passage echo themes found in Solomon’s Ecclesiastes and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

You don’t need to have any extensive background in philosophy or religion to read Meditations, as Aurelius brings forth his points that are still relevant almost 2,000 years later. What if we were to focus our limited time on improving ourselves and not pointing the finger or bickering with each other? What if we could see that others are like us, they too are on their own journey, trying to find their place in the world? I will leave you with the perspective of Aurelius- we are all in this together, let’s make the best of it.

“All things are meshed together, and a sacred bond unites them.Hardly a single thing is alien to the rest: ordered together in their places they together make up the one order of the universe. There is one universe out of all things, one God pervading all things, one substance, one law, one common reason in all intelligent beings, and one truth- if indeed there is also one perfection of all cognate beings sharing in the same reason.”6

1Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translation and notes by Martin Hammond. London: Penguin Books (2006): 3.

2Ibid, 4.

3Ibid, 10.

4Ibid, 42.

5Ibid, 42.

6Ibid, 59.

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.

 

 

 

The Deeper Wisdom

By Michael W. Raley

We live our lives amiss

When we believe that ignorance is bliss.

It is when we purposely shut out the possibilities of  our minds

That we live life stuck in an endless loop of time.

It’s safe and we loved being back there,

Thus anything new we don’t want to know nor do we care.

It is through life, experience, and learning that knowledge can be revealed,

But to the deeper wisdom, we must yield,

For truth is wisdom applied.

Thus, we must shine our light and not hide.

Since we are on such limited time,

Let us seek out this wisdom, both human and divine.

 

The Odd Duck

 

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By Michael W. Raley

There is a man who’s a bit of an odd duck.

Long ago he dispelled the myths of meritocracy and luck.

When the man turned forty,

He began to question the official agreed upon story.

He went in search for peace of mind,

As he wanted to make the best use of his time.

In spite of the obstacles, he set a new course,

Charging ahead and seemingly uphill with will, determination, and force.

There were days he wanted to quit,

But deep down his spirit wouldn’t dare hear of it.

The man didn’t seek fame, fortune, or glory,

He simply wanted to rewrite the chapters of his story.

 

Let’s Hold Off the Apocalypse

Let’s hold off the apocalypse for one more day.

If you’re anything like me,

There’s so much beauty left to see

And so many words left to say.

Even if someone would set a date,

More than likely the end would be late.

So why spend today’s precious moments

Worrying about tomorrow’s possible torments?

Why spend your day in fear and speculation

When you can now experience love and jubilation?

We don’t know what life holds in store,

Thus we must embrace everyone and everything that much more.

No matter what tomorrow brings,

Let us enjoy the beauty of life,

Listen to the song the free bird sings

And put aside the petty bickering and strife.

Lift up your head, Lift up your voice,

And find something for which you can rejoice.

 

Enduring Hardships with Strength

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https://motivationgrid.com/11-powerful-bruce-lee-quotes-need-know/

A common literary device rooted in human existence is the hero’s journey. The hero’s journey has been part of mythology, fairy tales, epic poems, plays, legends, even to our modern day equivalent of novels and movies. All of these stories follow an similar three act structure. Act 1-Introduce the hero. Act 2- Put the hero in the most adverse/perilous situation. Act 3- the hero overcomes the situation, gets the girl, fulfills his destiny and lives happily ever after.

If our lives were only that simple.

If you have lived for any length of time, you know that “happily ever after” is often reserved for stories and not our lives. Life is a constant struggle, an ebb and flow, the highest of highs and the lowest of the heart-breaking lows.

Just when we think we have slayed the dragon, turned Darth Vader back to the light side of the Force, found our purpose, peace, or forgiveness from God, we find ourselves facing a new or recurring difficulty. After years of struggle and sacrifice to get a hold on the family finances, a lay off, a forced retirement, or sickness occurs. You believe that you have overcome depression and anxiety, only for circumstances to throw you back down to the pit. After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, you do the best you can to be compliant with your care plan, only to suffer a flare-up or relapse. It feels as if all progress is lost.

We say and think such things as It isn’t supposed to be this way. This isn’t fair. I’ve already been through this. Why is God allowing this?

One of the things we must change when we go through difficulties is our perceptions, or judgments. We work under the assumption that life is fair. Do good, get rewarded. Do bad, get punished. We expect instant blessing for ourselves because we all perceive ourselves as good, while we expect the perceived evildoers to receive instant punishment.  Unfortunately, the innocent suffer and the wicked are rewarded. We live in an imperfect world that doesn’t always make sense.

Neither Jesus nor anyone else said it was going to be easy. Jesus told us that we have to “take up our cross.” That cross at times will get heavy as we walk through this life.

Numerous times throughout his epistles, the Apostle Paul compares being a follower of Christ to the life of a soldier. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul encourages him to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Christ.” (2 Timothy 2:3). A casual reading of the New Testament and its emphasis on suffering and persecution certainly deals a resounding defeat to the claims of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” where God grants all of our desires like a genie freed from a lamp, and life will be free from difficulty. Faith doesn’t free you from difficult times, it helps you get through them by creating within you a resilience, a persistence, the strength to fight no matter the circumstances.

Difficulties serve as a mirror as to our true reflection, our true strength, and whether we get tough when the tough gets going.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus parallels the Apostle Paul’s statement to Timothy, but uses the analogy of being a wrestler.

“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material. But this is going to take some sweat to accomplish. From my perspective, no one’s difficulties ever gave him a better test than yours, if you are prepared to make use of them the way a wrestler makes use of an opponent in peak condition.”1

In another discouse, Epictetus discusses an how to develop an acceptance of what God brings our way, a way to develop a sort of indifference to circumstances, or “going with the flow.”

“Lift up your head, like a person finally released from slavery. Dare to face God and say, ‘From now on, use me as you like. I am of one mind with you, I am your peer.’ Whatever you decide, I will not shrink from it. You may put me where you like, in any role regardless: officer or citizen, rich man or pauper, here or overseas. They are all just so many opportunities to justify your ways to man,by showing just how little circumstances amount to.”

Though it does seem counter-intuitive, the Apostle Paul, Epictetus, and Bruce Lee all concur- don’t  pray for difficult circumstances to flee, but ask God for the strength to get through the hard times. You will be a stronger and better person for it. God bless you all.

 

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, Translated and edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008):56.

2Ibid, 116.