Monday, June 25, 2012

A Stoic Exemplum of Self-Examination

As I am reading yet again Martha C. Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994) in conjunction with my research for the series of posts “on anger,” I thought to pause and share the following passage from Seneca’s De Ira:

“All your senses must be effectively led to a condition of firm endurance, if they are no longer corrupted by the mind—which must be called to account every day. This is what Sextius used to do: at the close of the day, when he retired to his nightly rest, he used to pose questions to his mind: ‘What fault of yours have you cured today? What defect have you resisted? In what way are you better?’ A person will cease from anger and be more moderate if he knows that every day he has to come before himself as judge. What therefore is more wonderful than this habit of unfolding the entire day? How fine is the sleep that follows this acknowledgment of oneself, how serene, how deep and free, when the mind has been either praised or admonished, and as its own hidden investigator and assessor has gained knowledge of its own character? I avail myself of this power, and plead my cause daily before myself. When the light has been removed from sight, and my wife, long since aware of this habit of mine, has fallen silent, I examine my entire day and measure my deeds and words. I hide nothing from myself, I pass over nothing. For why should I hide anything from my own errors, when I can say, ‘See that you don’t do that again, this time I pardon you.’”—Seneca, in De Ira (On Anger)

Nussbaum writes: “There follows an extended example of such minute self-confrontation, in which Seneca shows both the patience and the particularity with which the doctor of the mind or soul approaches his task. In this remarkable passage we see a new attitude to the self being forged.” Nussbaum cites the prominent features of this new attitude, one that bears astonishing resemblance to attitudes and practices in the Buddhist tradition:

[For one is a person with] “rich inner depths, a person who is to some extent hidden from himself until he turns on his doings and thoughts the patient light of medical reason. Seeing the complexity and fallibility of his own acts, seeing those acts as the product of a complex web of highly particular connections among the goodness of nature, the circumstances of life, and the complicated psychological reactions life elicits from the mind, he will learn to view others, too, in this light, as people whose every act and thought is worthy of keen attention, as people whose errors emerge from a highly complex narrative history rather than from a simply evil nature; he will moderate his rage toward their injustices and intensify his commitment to human solidarity and mutual aid.”

Seneca’s teacher was Quintus Sextius the Elder, who was probably a Pythagorean influenced by Stoic ideas. In any case, I was delighted to learn the latter was a vegetarian: “Sextius believed that man had enough sustenance without resorting to blood, and that a habit of cruelty is formed whenever butchery is practised for pleasure” (Seneca, Epistles).


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