Cicero, Seneca and Confucius


As I wrote in my last post, I have been reading a lot of the classic philosophers of late, particularly the Stoics. And I’ve been going further afield.

My classical readings have included a lot of Seneca and Cicero of late (plus Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius), as well as interpretations of same. While Seneca was a confirmed Stoic, Cicero seems sympathetic if not entirely convinced, and may have had strong sympathies for the Epicureans as well. 

My reading also includes what I’ve found is the best single book explaining Confucius and his views: Confucius and Confucianism: The Essentials, by Lee Dian Rainey (Wiley, 2010). If you want to understand the most important philosopher and political commentator in China’s history, this is the place to start. This book has shown me some common threads between the Stoics and the Confucian philosophers, and highlighted shared themes in the Analects. I’m also reading a translation of The Analects by Annping Chin (Penguin, 2014), which is not only in clear, modern English, but is accompanied by very useful explanatory notes. Both books I highly recommend.

(N.B. I’ve been engaged in an email correspondence with Prof. Rainey about source material, translations, and other issues. She has been most gracious and patient in responding to my layperson’s comments and questions I’ll come back to her.)

I suppose I’m looking for a sort of universal field theory for philosophy to help me sort them out, establish the common ground, and then find my own balance within this eclectic melange. While I currently lean toward the Stoics, I like to look outside the confines of Western thought in my humble effort to develop a synthesis of ideals and views that makes personal sense both intellectually and emotionally.

Not an easy task, I admit, since despite some parallel concepts, East and West were (are) separated by great gulfs of spirituality, governance, language, and culture that affect the interpretation and understanding. Language in particular is challenging since everything I read is a translation and the meaning is highly dependent on the translator’s choice of words and phrases to convey the original ideas (you have probably read my earlier comments on translation as an art).*

Still, the journey is the thing, isn’t it? And, of course, the reading to get there is enjoyable, as reading to learn always is. I’ve found a lot of seriously relevant material, some of which also parallels what I’ve learned in my studies of, and on-again-off-again practice of, Buddhism. So there are connections here; I just need to sort them out.

The major Greek philosophers (i.e. Socrates c.?470–399 BCE, Plato c.428–348 BCE, Epicurus 341–270 BCE, Zeno of Citium 333–264 BCE and some others) were roughly contemporary with many of their early Chinese counterparts (Confucius c. 551–479 BCE, Mencius 372–289 BCE, Chuang Tzu late 4th century BCE, Lao Tzu 4th century BCE, Han Feizi mid-3rd century BCE). Plus of course there was the Buddha in India, whose dates depend on the school you ask: Theravadin schools date his life from 624 – 544 BCE (623-543 BCE in Thailand), but other schools date his life from roughly 563 to 483 BCE, or 480 to 400 BCE. The latter is roughly contemporaneous with Socrates.

This was during the so-called “Axial Age”, dating roughly from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE, and a period of rich philosophical, scientific, legalistic, literary, artistic and social innovation and exploration that sprang simultaneously yet independently in the several civilizations. Later, trade routes and travel would encourage considerable cross-pollination of these ideas and an exchange of writing. According to Wikipedia:

During this period … new ways of thinking appeared in Persia, India, China and the Greco-Roman world in religion and philosophy, in a striking parallel development, without any obvious direct cultural contact between all of the participating Eurasian cultures. [Karl] Jaspers identified key thinkers from this age who had a profound influence on future philosophies and religions, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged.

I’m not sure whether the absence of contact idea still holds up. I suspect contact was much more broad. Herodotus apparently never visited India, but he wrote about the people and customs in Book II of The Histories, which means he had to get his information from someone who visited or received the information from someone who had. And we know there were later political and cultural contacts between India and Rome. The Indian emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to Egypt and Greece in the 3rd century BCE. It’s reasonable to assume contacts and trade existed between India and China at this time, and that there was some cross-pollination of ideas and views that likely also reached further to the west. Anyway, it’s a fascinating period to explore.

Marcus AureliusLater thinkers and philosophers (Marcus Aurelius, for example, lived 120-180 CE) would expand on, refine and explore the ideas first raised during the Axial Age, and sometimes redefine both the questions and the answers. But it was during this early period that the Big Questions of philosophy were first raised and debated.

Edward Craig, in his book, A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, lists the three Big Questions as, How ought we to live? What really exists? How do we know? There are others, of course, depending on who you ask, including: why is there something instead of nothing? Do we have free will? Why is there evil? What happens when we die? Does anything exist outside perception? Why are we here? How are we to govern/be governed? And so on.

All questions that seem to increasingly occupy my time as I age. Once you retire, you have more time to think about them. You’re not so preoccupied with questions like how do I make money? Who will my partner be? Should I buy this car or that one? Where shall I drink tonight? The more mundane issues of daily life are already sorted, at least for the most part in my life.

True, there’s always “How can I pay my bills on a fixed income?” “Where did I leave my glasses?” and “Why can’t I remember what was I supposed to buy in the grocery store?” At a certain age, you get to mix “Do I dare disturb the universe?” with “Do I dare to eat a peach?”

The Big Questions aren’t about the “I” or the Freudian ego: they’re about the All. The Big Picture. The Meaning. That which lies beyond the me. Things removed from the effects of human tinkering and the banal machinery of daily life. Pondering them takes one above the nattering, outside the cloistered selfishness. Like a Zen koan, they thrust the mind into another gear when you try to resolve them. Questions I cannot answer from any scripture because I am a skeptic; not a believer in the authority of same.

Stand back a moment and look at what philosophy meant to the Greeks and Romans a couple of millennia or more ago. Philosophy wasn’t simply an intellectual or academic exercise (that came much later). In classical times, it was an ongoing attempt to determine the best rules of life, and to live according to the what was determined to be the most appropriate ways to behave, to eat, to govern, to interact with others. Philosophy was practical.

The Big Questions also asked, in a quiet whisper, “what does this mean to me?” or “How does this affect how I live?” You couldn’t really deal with the Big Ones without integrating them into the practical aspects of philosophy. You get this from reading Marcus Aurelius and Cicero’s De Senectute.

And in part philosophy was a way to identify the role of the human as separate from the gods and the religious brouhaha of the time. Philosophy attempted to make sense of the world, to understand how it and we worked, how we fitted into it outside the confines of religion, and without the supernatural interference of deities. Thus it was also the beginning of scientific inquiry.

Not that many of the early philosophers were atheists as we think of the term today. There was a deeply religious aspect to the ancient world that was as intolerant of atheism as today’s Republican pseudo-Christians in Alabama are. While some openly expressed their doubts, many of them simply relegated the gods to roles where they didn’t interfere with humans or intervene on our behalf. That sort-of avoided confronting the question of whether the supernatural really existed.

For example, in his book, On the Nature of the Gods (De Natura Deorum), Cicero explored the Stoic versus the Epicurean views through the lens of Greek religion. Cicero uses a dialogue format, with views spoken by others, to express his own arguments and doubts, but doesn’t come out strongly in favour (at least in the portions not lost) of either. He concludes that the creation of the world seems unlikely by chance (denying the atomist theories of the Epicureans and Lucretius) but at the same time, he adds the Greek myths were likely just stories and that the gods had no part in creation or human endeavour. Cicero never really comes out firmly on either side. Typical lawyer, eh?

(Marcus Aurelius gave some thought to the gods in Meditations 9.40 and other sections, but never denied their existence. Some modern Stoics tend to ignore his polytheism or treat it as inconsequential; I think it shows the limitations of his cogitations. But perhaps the concerns of an emperor are different from the groundlings and he didn’t want to annoy the religious factions in the empire…)

Rather sadly, such intellectual debates as Cicero and other classical writers wrote about are few today (and not just in the question of religion); we tend to have polarized views and our “discussions” are coloured by confrontation and anger. It’s not just the pseudo-Christians, either, who are the angry, intolerant ones: there is an extremist streak in some modern atheists, too, albeit not as murderous or violent. That aspect, it seems, requires religious fervour. Social media is the furnace in which the madness, the intolerance, and the divisiveness of today burn the brightest.

Philosophy in the classical era was for the most part a secular pursuit, a very practical, mundane activity. But it was also a venue for discussion and debate, not just between schools, but within each school. Some of it may read a bit like the po-tay-to/po-tah-to argument, but think of it as a game of chess; each side pushing pieces forward, defending, attacking, staking claim to territory in the fight to determine the best way to be human. And in a mostly very civil fashion. I don’t think the west saw such civilized debate again until the salons of the 17th century.

The rise of (mostly monotheistic) religions in the late-Roman world swept away the intellectual debate and replaced it with answers and rules based not on intellectual exploration, but on fixed scripture. Intellectual discussion outside or about scripture was shut down. Answers are in the book and, since you can’t read it, we’ll explain it to you. No questions, mind… (okay, that was mostly Christian theology: Jewish theology permitted a wide-ranging intellectual approach to scripture, albeit not to doubt it but rather to interpret it. Hence the Talmud and Mishnah.)

In the early Christian times, you couldn’t debate how to live or act because scripture laid it out and answered all the questions (or at least was presumed to). Questioning scripture was not merely discouraged by the church: it could be lethal. Well, yes, it is still lethal to even suggest opposition to scripture in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Pakistan or any Southern US state. Some places in the world are not that far advanced from the late Roman period and the Dark Ages in their notions of freedom of thought and tolerance. I’m beginning to digress rather, aren’t I?

Other considerations to keep in mind while studying the classics are the economic, social and sexual situations of the authors. The classical era writers were mostly from the upper class – those who could afford the education. Seneca was among the richest men in Rome. Marcus Aurelius was the emperor. Cicero was a wealthy lawyer. It’s not hard to preach about the shallowness of the pursuit of material goods or power when you already have them.

Ancient Greece and Rome both accepted slavery as proper practice, and there were greater economic and social gaps between classes than even Marx could have imagined. Governments were run by the elite men. Women were often little more than chattel. There was no sense of equality, no rights or freedoms as we have. Keep that in mind: you can’t always transfer their views to our own condition without some filter.

And with very rare exception, the early writers and philosophers were all men. There was no gender equality in the ancient world. Regardless of the wisdom of the words, modern readers can’t ignore the culture or the backgrounds of the writers. It’s a bit like the Southern generals in the civil war: no matter how good their military skills, you can’t overlook their support of despicable slavery and oppression. Well, reasonable people can’t. I realize that there are those who can and do, because it suits their ideology. But for me, such context matters.

Where does Confucius come into all of this? Both Confucian and Stoic thinkers had well-defined views about life, governance, ethics, aging and passion. Stuff that matters to me, some of which has always mattered (aging is a more recent consideration…). And they debated them openly and rigorously.

Both believed in performing the rituals of society, but not necessarily as worship seen in the later Christians. Instead, ritual was part of a cultural glue that bound societies in shared activity, important for its communal aspect rather than what any god or gods might make of it. Ritual recognized was a shared act. Rainey explains that for Confucius, ritual was a moral act. Best to read her explanation to appreciate it.

It’s the strong ethical approach of both schools I find compelling. For the Confucians and Stoics, virtue and responsibility are pursued for themselves, not for any external reward. Virtue and responsibility are paramount in a ruler, but also in the individual. Both schools recognized the two-way relationship between ruler and ruled, that both had their own responsibilities to the other.  Very anti-Orwellian.

Cicero explored this in depth in his work, On Obligations (also called On Duties; De Officiis). The idea of responsibility and virtue by a leader is a far cry from the narcissistic regimes of Donald Trump or Doug Ford, where it’s all gimme-gimme grab for cash and power, narcissism and nepotism, with no sense of responsibility to the greater good. I suspect I may be digressing again.

Virtue for the Stoics was a rather more complex attribute than we assign to the term today, somewhat akin to the term ‘virtu’ in Machiavelli’s writing, some 1,500 years later. It lacked the later Christian baggage of reward and punishment, but had a deeply personal focus.

Prof. Rainey (see, I said I’d get back to her) commented to me on avoiding the problematic situation in my reading where a member of a privileged group – generally the classical writers – would express themselves along the lines of, “I’ve become morally virtuous through hard work and education and, having appropriated all the virtues, I get to tell everyone else how to behave and what is important in life.” Rainey called this “virtue-appropriation bossiness.” Nice term.

Holier-than-thou and do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do have long formed the vertebra of Christian (and more recently the evangelical pseudo-Christian) religion. From the debates going on in the USA today over abortion and women’s rights, they still are (at least among the white, male pseudo-Christians). It’s a trap to avoid: simply reading about virtue in a classical text doesn’t mean I practice it, nor does it grant the right to impose it on someone else. Virtue is not something you impose: it’s something you live. It is its own reward.

Bit of a thin line at times, though. The whole base of representative government has always been to impose rules and policies for the greater good on the minority. In theory, in a democratic society, the needs of the many always outweigh the wants of the few. (Even in pop culture: in he 1982 movie, The Wrath of Khan, Spock tells Kirk, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”). There’s a moral ambiguity in every level of politics.

Of course in the oligarchy (or kleptocracy) that has developed in some counties (the USA, for example, but lest we ignore Canada, look to Ontario for an example closer to home),  it’s all about the elites in power and their supporters. Personal gain dominates the dialogue.

Oligarchy is exemplified by tax breaks for the rich, cuts to important or essential services, tariffs on goods workers use, and the reduction or removal of controls and restrictions that keep corporations safe, honest and legal. So I suppose there is some justification in expressing moral superiority over them and their policies. But in general, it’s not a good position to take with one’s peers, friends or neighbours. It’s something to practice, not preach.

Anyway, the point of this long ramble is to say I’ve been including Confucius in my reading of philosophy because from what I’ve read so far, his view parallel and complement those of the Stoics. Confucius also offers a view from another culture that requires me to think and reason and study in order to appreciate it. It’s opening me up to a very different, rich history and philosophy, one I had only explored superficially in the past.

* Try this experiment to appreciate the complexities of translation: 1. Get a copy of the Tao Te Ching: The Definitive Edition (trans. Jonathan Star, Tarcher/Penguin, 2003). It includes a transliteration and the various translations of every Chinese character in the book. Some of the characters have 10 different meanings. 2. Without looking at Star’s own translation, craft several sentences or lines from the choices of meaning in a particular verse. 3. Put the result into a coherent statement. 4. Compare your result with Star’s (or another translation). 5. Humbly admit your lack of expertise.
I’ve done this and I can tell you that it’s difficult to even come close to the meaning of a single line that another translator managed.

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  1. Pingback: Seven Faces of Marcus Aurelius – Scripturient

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