On Philosophy as the Love of Giving
“In gratitude,” the note said. Inside the box was a book by Seneca, Epistles 1-65 of the Loeb Harvard Edition. The old man Seneca is writing to his younger philosophical friend and pupil Lucius, a Roman knight and civil servant. The letters were meant both to educate Lucius in the ways of Stoic philosophy, “the stern nurse of heroes during the first century of the Empire” (ix), writes Richard Gummere, and to be essays addressed to the general reader about the art of living. (Oh but how, in each line you write, to catch the personal and impersonal both?)
My note, which said “In gratitude,” was signed by one of my conversation partners. It damn near made me cry. “A small token,” he said later. Let me share a little with you.
Letter 34. On a Promising Pupil
“I grow in spirit and leap for joy,” writes Seneca to Lucius, “and shake off my years and my blood runs warm again, whenever I understand, from your actions and your letters, how far you have outdone yourself; for as to the ordinary man, you left him in the rear long ago. [Damn straight, I add.–AT] If the farmer is pleased when his tree develops so that it bears fruit, if the shepherd takes pleasure in the increase of his flocks, if every man regards his pupil as though he discerned in him his own early manhood,–what, then, do you think are the feelings of those who have trained a mind and moulded a young idea, when they see it suddenly grown to maturity?
“You know what I mean by a good man?” Seneca continues. “One who is complete, finished,–whom no constraint or need can render bad. I see such a person in you, if only you go steadily on and bend to your task, and see to it that all your actions and words harmonize and correspond with each other and are stamped in the same mould. If a man’s acts are out of harmony, his soul is crooked. Farewell.” (241-3)
On the Joys of Always Being in Debt
The worst part of my philosophy practice is that if I’m not indebted to one conversation partner, then I’m invariably indebted to another. In revenge tragedy, payback is assumed, demanded, for an instant it’s bloody sweet, but then cosmic justice (dike) can never be restored. Where revenge tears at the fabric of being, law seeks amends. Law–pale-eyed Athena–was invented so that dues, in principle, could be repaid. Only for the one who’s wounded there’s always a hang-up: something further always remains. The law, all too human, fails to make whole, and that is its flaw. But in Christian forgiveness, the beautiful dream is that the slates shall be wiped clean. Someday, it is said.
I own a business, this philosophy practice, this one down here, but it’s clearly not a good one. Because a good business bootstraps it from day 1, thereafter operating in the black. Well, I do and I don’t. So, mine has to be abysmal, “ass backwards,” says one conversation partner. My first thought–this, I think, being one of Zeno’s lost paradoxes–is that I’m always behind and can never catch up. Oh well.
Farewell, my friends. I’ll be leaving New York later today. Not for good. By plane.