Selecting a guide to assist our transformation starts with two questions. What do we want to change and what do we need to change? A stern guide like Seneca can be a great assistance when what we need to change feels daunting. Sartre’s Existentialism is useful when we are working on the things we want to change about the way we are living our life.
In Letter 22 Seneca provides an example of the freedom we have in this life. He urges his friend Lucilius to stop pursuing elected positions. He urges him to pursue philosophy and develop himself before it is too late. Sure there are social pressures to pursue ambition he acknowledges, but you are in fact free to choose not to.
In terms of day to day living, Seneca’s Stoic freedom is freedom from desires and emotions. Another dimension of Stoic freedom is ensuring your good life cannot be harmed or even affected by the vicissitudes of fortune and luck. So Stoic ‘freedom’ is the free acceptance of everything and anything that comes your way is the way it is meant to be. It is not even a sucked it up strategy, it is an absolute acceptance of fate. Therefore, Stoic freedom is in many ways, simply the freedom to choose what happens: one reason why in the twenty-first century it is a little weird wanting to be an actual Stoic.
Although, of course, only a little weird. When it comes to effects of climate change, environmental destruction, and the hyper-technologization of our food industries on our lived experience in the decades to come, we really will have no choice other than to accept the fate created by industrialization. As the likelihood of our globalized system of capitalism (the contemporary foundation of our civilization) collapsing increases year on year, accepting our prospects for what they are becomes an important life skill.
Contrasting Seneca’s freedom with that of the French Existentialism formulated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir can be instructive for our practical philosophy. Sartre thought we have the freedom to change our character traits by changing our projects. He thought we all have an initial project which, with our other projects, is influential in the way we see things and the way we act. He took our freedom to change our projects as demonstrative of our freedom to change our character traits.
For Sartre, our freedom derives from choosing the projects we pursue, and therefore what character traits we have. Sartre’s view in his Being and Nothingness isn’t without it’s own weirdness. He did not accept that our projects develop a momentum. So he thought chopping and changing was always possible. Simone de Beauvoir had a better idea. She understood that momentum carries us forward in our projects. Which is to say we build up a head of steam when we lean into something, and just stopping it cannot change everything.
An example of this theory is Sartre’s thinking that our projects influence on our character traits. If we change our projects, our character traits change. Well, yes, but to what extent and how quickly. If you are in your 50’s change is going to occur at a different rate from what it did in your late teens and early 20’s. Just as changes in musculoskeletal fitness occur at vastly different rates at 19 compared to 59, why would we not expect a similar slowing of the rate of change in our character traits when we change projects in our 50’s. It is worth remembering Sartre was still in his 30’s when he wrote Being and Nothingness, and by the time he wrote his masterpiece of Existentialism Saint Genet, he had accepted De Beauvoir’s theory.
Seneca acknowledges that if you keep on taking up responsibilities, there will come a time when you lose the freedom to be able to retire to a life of philosophy. In that sense, he is suggestive of Sartre’s view of freedom. Except that Sartre would say continuing or maintaining your choice, and the effect and outcomes in your life of those choices, are part and parcel of freedom. Sartre would also say you are in bad faith if you keep saying yes, and keep pursuing ambition because you believe your character traits are fixed, and that you must keep saying yes and pursuing your ambitions because of those fixed traits.
Age does weary us
Another way of thinking about Seneca’s views on not being able to escape to freedom if you keep taking on tasks and roles, is the running down of your entropic budget. This is a concept from Gregory Bateson that he identified as part of the degradation of ecological systems. Put simply, the degradation of a self-organizing system begins with a lessening of your ability to respond to change. Often this is presaged by a reduction in the interconnections you have with other presences in your environments. As we get older our ability to respond to changes often diminishes. This could be a simple fact of the decline in our fluid intelligence as we age. Depending on the content and development of an individual’s crystalized intelligence, they may or may not be able to respond to a range of changes in their environment – technological, social, political, inter-personal.
The world has changed
So when we ponder Seneca’s 22nd letter to Lucilius, we need to bear in mind what motive is behind acting on our desires of ambition. He notes several that are simply insufficient reason to pursue more money or responsibility. The trappings are hollow. Which does not mean there are not better reasons to pursue responsibilities. As California suffers through another drought, sacrificing a retirement to dwell on philosophy for further action on climate change could be a meaningful life choice.
The last thought Seneca leaves us with in the letter is very apt for our times. “No-one lives long but we are all obsessed with living longer.” The Stoics had a grand theory that the Cosmos is incinerated in a great conflagration on a regular cycle. On this grand scale it is possible to see the world through a perspective were the human species too does not live long.
When we assess our prospects for the next 15 – 25 years, we are learning we have nothing like the level of control 500 years of scientific purposiveness and 2,000 years of western philosophy would have us believe. In Bateson’s view, it is finding a path to freedom from the influence of scientific purposiveness and a western philosophical foundation of science that keeps us thinking we have dominion over the planet, and all it’s resources are ours to do what we like with, that is both our only prospect to escape eco-catastrophe and probably impossible. It just might be a species thing in his view. From Sartre we can take an understanding that the way we think, this purposiveness allied with hyper-technology that Bateson thought could be a fixed trait of our species, is in fact only a project, one that we do have the power to change.
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