Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

Posts Tagged ‘Thoreau

Seneca – Quotes on Adversity

leave a comment »

T

HE Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) knew a thing or two about adversity.  He was beset by adversity even when he tried to commit suicide after Nero turned against him. Here are some of his quotes on the topic I’ve collected over the years.  Seneca’s Moral Epistles make for great reading. Especially to recommend are On Anger and On Providence.

Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering, and yields to no misfortune.
~ Seneca, On Providence 2.6

Do you wonder if that God, who most dearly loves the good, who wishes them to become supremely good and virtuous, allots to them a fortune that will make them struggle? For my part, I do not wonder if sometimes the gods are moved by the desire to behold great men wrestle with some calamity.
~ Seneca, On Providence 1.2.7

It is the unexpected that puts the heaviest load upon us. Strangeness adds to the weight of calamities, and every mortal feels the greater pain as a result of that which also brings surprise.  Therefore, nothing ought to be unexpected by us.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.3-4

Chance chooses some new weapon by which to bring her strength to bear against us, thinking we have forgotten her.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.5-6

Oftentimes a reverse has but made room for more prosperous fortune. Many structures have fallen only to rise to a greater height. [Multa ceciderunt, ut altius surgerent.]
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.13

Let the mind be disciplined to understand and to endure its own lot, and let it have the knowledge that there is nothing which Fortune does not dare.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.15

Nevertheless, you should not believe those whose noisy clamour surrounds you; none of these things is an evil, none is beyond your power to bear, or is burdensome. It is only by common opinion that there is anything formidable in them.
~ Seneca, Epistle 91.19

Beware of aggravating your troubles yourself, and of making your position worse by your complaints.  Grief is light when not exaggerated by the idea, and if we encourage ourselves, saying “it is nothing,” or at least, “it is of small moment; let us endure it, it is about to stop,” we render pain light by thinking it so.  Yes; pain becomes light when we are able so to look at it, when we do not draw concentric circles around it, such as my patient ingeniously described; when we do not multiply it by fear.
~ Seneca, Epistle 68

Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.
~ Seneca, Epistle 27.3

Allow any man who so desires to insult you and work you wrong; but if only virtue dwells with you, you will suffer nothing.
~ Seneca, Epistle 71

The wise man, indeed, overcomes Fortune by his virtue.
~ Seneca, Epistle 71

But no wall can be erected against Fortune which she cannot take by storm; let us strengthen our inner defences.
~ Seneca, Epistle 74

Call it Nature, Fate, Fortune; all these things are names of the one and the self-same god.
~ Seneca, On Benefits 4.8

So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, — for the reward is not a garland or a palm or a trumpeter who calls for silence at the proclamation of our names, but rather virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time, if Fortune has once been utterly vanquished in any combat.
~ Seneca, Epistle 78

The acquisition of riches has been for many men, not an end, but a change, of troubles.
~ Seneca, Epistle 17

If a man is to know himself, he must be tested.
~ Seneca, On Providence

God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, whom he loves.  Those, however, whom he seems to favour, whom he seems to spare, he is really keeping soft against ills to come.
~ Seneca, On Providence

There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common.  And no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour, if you would live for yourself.
~ Seneca, On Quibbling

What was grievous to endure is sweet to  remember.
~ Seneca. Hercules Furens, Act 3, 656.

Shall I tell you what the real evil is? To cringe to the things that are called evils, to surrender to them our freedom, in defiance of which we ought to face any suffering.

There are more things to alarm us than to harm us, and we suffer more often in apprehension than reality.

He who is brave is free.

It is more fitting for a man to laugh at life than to lament over it.

It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.

When the odds are matched, blows fall light;

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.

Brave men rejoice in adversity.

Constant exposure to dangers will breed contempt for them.

No untroubled day has ever dawned for me.

Nothing is so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness is it to be expecting evil before it comes.

The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.

The pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of the brave man… It is more powerful than external circumstances.

There is nothing in the world so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage.

We become wiser by adversity; prosperity destroys our appreciation of the right.

You learn to know a pilot in a storm.

 

Written by John Uebersax

January 23, 2020 at 1:20 am

John Sullivan Dwight: The Religion of Beauty (1840)

leave a comment »

TRANSCENDENTALISM is notoriously difficult to define. But what it’s really all about is producing certain states of consciousness, including aesthetic, religious and mystical experiences, longer or shorter in duration.

Perhaps no better example of the Transcendentalist approach to beauty exists than an essay John Sullivan Dwight contributed to the first issue of The Dial. Dwight went on to become a prominent music critic. (He’s even better known, though, for supplying the English lyrics to the French carol O Holy Night.) In this essay, Dwight makes three important points: (1) Beauty reveals ones own soul; (2) it improves individuals and has practical social benefits; and (3) it proves the existence of and awakens natural religion. The essay is not especially well written, overdoing (in emulation of German Romantics) the ‘zealous manifesto’ style of prose. Yet individual sentences and paragraphs are brilliant. Here are some of the best.

Beauty reveals ones soul

The outward scenery of our life, when we feel it to be beautiful, is always commensurate with the grandeur of our inward ideal aspiration; it reflects encouragingly the heart’s highest, brightest dreams; it does not contradict the soul’s convictions of a higher life; it tells us that we are safe in believing the thought, which to us seems noblest.

When the skies and woods reveal their loveliness, then nature seems a glorious picture, of which our own inmost soul is the painter, and our own loves and longings the subject.

Beauty is the revelation of the soul to the senses.

We find the soul’s deep inexpressible thoughts written around us in the skies, the far blue hills, and swelling waters.

Beauty improves individuals and has practical social benefits

The instinct of obedience, of conciliation, of decorum, reverence, and harmony, flows into the soul with beauty.

It disposes to order. It gives birth in the mind to an instinct of propriety. It suggests imperceptibly, it inclines gently, but irresistibly, to the fit action, to the word in season. The beauty which we see and feel plants its seeds in us.

Gazing with delight on nature, our will imperceptibly becomes attuned to the same harmony. The sense of beauty is attended with a certain reverence; we dare not mar what looks so perfect.

This sense, too, has a something like conscience contained in it; we feel bound to do and be ourselves something worthy of the beauty we are permitted to admire.

This feeling, while it makes alive and quickens, yet is eminently conservative, in the best sense.

He, who has it, is always interested on the side of order, and of all dear and hallowed associations.

The presence of beauty, like that of nature, as soon as we feel it at all, overcomes us with respect, and a certain sensitive dread of all violence, mischief, or discord.

Again, the love of beauty awakens higher aspirations in us.

Beauty always suggests the thought of the perfect.

He trusts nature; for he has kissed her loveliness; he knows that she smiles encouragement to him.

The greatest blessing, which could be bestowed on the weary multitude, would be to give them the sense of beauty; to open their eyes for them, and let them see how richly we are here surrounded, what a glorious temple we inhabit, how every part of it is eloquent of God.

I hold, then, that without a cultivation of the sense of beauty, chiefly to be drunken from the open fountains of nature, there can be no healthy and sound moral development.

Beauty awakens and proves the existence of natural religion.

The devout mind is a lover of nature.

The love of nature grows with the growth of the soul. Religion makes man sensible to beauty; and beauty in its turn disposes to religion.

The love of nature ends in the love of God.

It is impossible to feel beauty, and not feel that there is a spirit there. The sensualist, the materialist, the worshipper of chance, is cheated of his doubts, the moment this mystery overtakes him in his walks.

This surrounding presence of beautiful nature keeps the soul buoyed up forever into its element of freedom, where its action is cheerful, healthful, and unwearied … and the call to worship, either by prayer or by self-sacrifice, is music to it.

In all this outward beauty, — these soft swells and curves of the landscape, which seems to be the earth’s smile; — this inexhaustible variety of form and colors and motion, not promiscuous, but woven together in as natural a harmony as the thoughts in a poem; this mysterious hieroglyphic of the flowers; this running alphabet of tangled vine and bending grass studded with golden paints; this all-embracing perspective of distance rounding altogether into one rainbow-colored sphere, so perfect that the senses and the soul roam abroad over it unsated, feeling the pesence and perfection of the whole in each part; this perfect accord of sights, sounds, motions, and fragrance, all tuned to one harmony, out of which run melodies inexhaustible of every mood and measure;—in all this, man first feels that God is without him, as well as within him, that nature too is holy; and can he bear to find himself the sole exception?

Does not the soul begin to dream of its own boundless capacities, when it has felt beauty? Does not immortality then, for the first time, cease to be a name, a doctrine, and become a present experience?

The beautiful, then, is the spiritual aspect of nature. By cherishing a delicate sensibility to it, we make nature preach us a constant lesson of faith; we find all around an illustration of the life of the spirit.

Everything beautiful is emblematic of something spiritual.

Is it not God revealed through the senses? Is not every beautiful thing a divine hint thrown out to us?

The close, unseemly school-house, in which our infancy was cramped, — of how much natural faith did it not rob us!

This should be a part of our religious education.

Source: The Dial (July 1840) pp. 17-22. Read the whole essay here.

What is American Transcendentalism?

with one comment

EmersonThoreau2

Bottom line. The core tenets of American Transcendentalism: (1) human beings have a higher, spiritual nature; (2) all people have common, innate Ideals (what things are True, Beautiful, Just, and Good?) and this is of vast importance for society; (3) life has definite moral meaning; (4) Nature can help connect us with God and with our own higher nature; and (5) we have supra-rational forms of knowledge: intuition, Conscience, higher Reason, inspiration, and creative imagination.  Transcendentalism is a development of the Western intellectual tradition (Plato, Socrates, etc.), and places considerable emphasis on intellectual and moral self-culture.  (Just walking around in the woods is not Transcendentalism!)  Transcendentalism per se is compatible with Christianity, and there were in fact many Christian Transcendentalists.

I’ve written this because I take pity on the many college students who struggle each year with the obligatory English term paper on American Transcendentalism.  I’m also motivated by the belief that, when your generation or a later one is ready for the challenge, it will find in Transcendentalist writings a well-developed ideology for changing the corporatist/globalist/materialistic status quo.

Transcendentalism might seem virtually incomprehensible, but it’s actually very common-sense.  The difficulty is precisely that it conflicts with the received opinions and disordered thought patterns of modern culture.  In other words, the irony is that Transcendentalism, as taught and written about today in the modern academic establishment, is presented through the lens of the very materialistic values it opposed!  The inevitable result is a selective, distorted, revisionist, and confused picture. The aim here is so supply a more accurate portrayal.

1. Transcendentalism was an explicit reaction against the modern rationalism of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The effect of these rationalist philosophies was to deny that human beings had innate knowledge and Higher Reason (or Conscience), and that people were divine — made in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ In short, rationalism led to materialism and loss of higher values.

2. The rationalist philosophy came just at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Rationalism, by denying transcendent values, justified reducing society to a vast a system of factories and banks where man is nothing but a cog in a machine. By claiming that man is merely a material creature (i.e., a machine himself), rationalism led to all the abuses of a radically commercial society. The social problems of modernity we see today actually began around 1790 in Europe and America. The Transcendentalists (and their allies, the Romanticists) understood this problem and tried to counter it.

3. American Transcendentalism was a revival of the Platonic heritage of the Renaissance. Transcendentalism, Emerson, is heavily indebted to Platonism and Neoplatonism, and the Greek tradition generally (Emerson tutored in Greek; Thoreau translated Aeschylus!)  Modern scholars have strangely lost sight of this. Instead, it became trendy in the 20th century to see Eastern (Indian and Persian) religions as dominant influences on American Transcendentalism. Eastern religions had a little effect, but nowhere near as much as Platonism. In short: Transcendentalism is a continuation and extension of a long-standing Western tradition in philosophy and religion.

One important part of this is the Platonic notion of innate ideas.  Locke denied that human beings have innate ideas (tabula rasa), and his view dominated Enlightenment-era thinking.  Kant, however, disproved Locke: he showed that our minds are so constructed as to see reality only in terms of pre-existing categories, rules, principles, and relationships.  For example, we automatically see the world in moral terms, e.g., constantly evaluating ourselves, other people, and events as good or bad, right or wrong, just or unjust.  It’s innate, part of our nature.

Kant’s rejection of Locke’s rationalism generated considerable excitement in Europe and America.  American Transcendentalism took this new enthusiasm for Kant, and blended it with earlier, traditional Platonist and Neoplatonist concepts.  Plato, of course, is most famous for his Theory of Forms (Forms = Ideals).  For example, he postulated that all human beings have common, innate Ideals concerning the nature of the True, the Beautiful, the Just, and the Good.

From this it’s just a short step to Emerson’s concept of genius and art (see Emerson’s essays, ‘Self-Reliance‘, ‘Plato‘, and ‘Shakespeare‘): Each of us has the full repertoire of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic abilities characteristic of our species.  For example, each person can look at a great work of art or wonder of nature and experience a sense of profound beauty or awe.  We are all, in short, geniuses by nature.  It’s just a question of accessing our latent abilities.  Any thought or insight that any great person has ever had, you can have too!  You have all the innate equipment necessary.  What makes great creative geniuses different is only that they are better able to access and communicate these innate ideas.

This is an immensely important concept, and it leads to an new vision of what human society can and should be:  a community of divine individuals (“gods in ruins”, as Emerson put it), who are helping each other towards self-realization. Sometimes, because of Thoreau’s reclusive reputation and Emerson’s essay, ‘Self Reliance’ (or, rather, its title), people get the impression that Transcendentalism was only about individualism, and that it denigrated society.  But, as explained there, that isn’t so.  Note that Transcendentalism itself only developed within a community of like-minded individuals.

It also means that, despite the incessant, distorting propaganda of governments and the materialistic status quo, we all have an innate idea (or Ideal) of what a true, just, beautiful, and good society should and can be.  If we trusted our natural inclinations, and, trusted that everybody else has these same natural inclinations, we might produce a more natural, harmonious society.

4. An example of the Platonist roots of American Transcendentalism is in the constant emphasis of the latter on self-development. The ancient principle, ‘know thyself’, is strongly emphasized. One implication of self-reliance is that you must take the initiative in developing your soul: your moral and intellectual nature. A representative example of this is the book on self-culture by James Freeman Clarke.  Modern self-help/pop-psychology literature, lacking a moral focus, is greatly inferior to Transcendentalist writings on self-culture.

5. Another major root of American Transcendentalism was New England Unitarianism. The wellspring of this influence was William Ellery Channing, a mentor of Emerson, and prominent teacher, minister, and lecturer at the time. Two of Channing’s more famous essays/speeches are Likeness to God and Self-Culture.

6. Another way of looking at American Transcendentalism is that it expresses what has been called the perennial philosophy — a set of core religious and philosophical ideas that crop up again and again across cultures and throughout history. These core principles include:

  1. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God
  2. Immortality of the human soul
  3. Human beings made in God’s image, and progress by becoming gradually more ‘divine’
  4. Human beings have higher cognitive powers: Wisdom, Conscience, Genius.
  5. Providence: God shapes and plans everything.
  6. Happiness comes from subordinating our own will (ego) to God’s will, putting us into a ‘flow’ state.
  7. And from moral development (virtue ethics)
  8. All reality (our souls and the natural world) are harmonized, because all are controlled by God’s will into a unity.
  9. Everything that does happen, happens for a reason. Life is a continuing moral lesson.

This perennial philosophy recurs throughout the history of Western civilization as an antagonist to materialism. In modern times Locke and Hobbes express the materialist philosophy. In ancient times the Epicureans similarly advanced a materialist philosophy in contrast with the transcendent philosophies of Platonism and Stoicism.

So there is a kind of Hegelian dialectic (i.e., thesisantithesissynthesis process) in history between materialism and transcendentalism. For this reason, the principles of American Transcendentalism will again come to the cultural forefront eventually. Indeed, it may be necessary if modern culture is to avoid worsening crises.

Emerson and Thoreau are literally our ‘tribal’ ancestors, speaking to us with inspired wisdom for the preservation, advancement, and evolution of our culture.

7. American Transcendentalism anticipated 20th century humanistic psychology (e.g., the theories of Abraham Maslow) and modern positive psychology.  However it is more inclusive than either of these two in its recognition of man’s higher, transcendental nature: man’s spiritual, moral, philosophical, intellectual, and creative elements.  The paradox (and failure) of modern positive psychology is precisely that it cannot extricate itself from its underpinnings in materialist/rationalist philosophy.

8. With these great ideas, why didn’t Transcendentalism continue as a major cultural force?  Partly the answer has to do with the dialectical process referred to above.  In the struggle between materialism and transcendentalism, things go back and forth, hopefully always working towards an improved synthesis (i.e., not so much a circular but a spiral process).

In addition, two specific factors contributed to a receding of American Transcendentalism.  One was Darwinism, which dealt a tremendous blow to religious thought in the 19th century.  Religious thinkers at that time simply weren’t able to understand that science and religion are compatible. People began to doubt the validity of religion and to resign themselves to the unappealing possibility that we are nothing but intelligent apes.  The second blow, perhaps much greater, was the American Civil War.  Besides disrupting American society and culture generally, the Civil War represented a triumph of a newly emerging materialistic progressivism over the more spiritual and refined Transcendentalism (which sought progress by reforming man’s soul, not civil institutions).  The high ideals of the Transcendental movement were co-opted by militant reformers, and this problem is still with us.  Modern progressives see themselves as the inheritors of Transcendentalist Idealism, but are in reality radically materialistic in values and methods!

9. A frequent criticism of American Transcendentalism is that it lacks a theory of evil: a nice philosophy for sunny days, not much help with life’s crosses and tempests.

10. Emerson resigned his post as a Christian minister over doctrinal issues, but arguably remained what might be called culturally Christian.  There were many Christian transcendentalists (e.g., Theodore Parker, Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, James Marsh, Caleb Sprague Henry). Orestes Brownson (and some others) eventually converted to Roman Catholicism.

11. This brings us to what transcendental means. In fact, it has a whole range of meanings — it’s something of an umbrella term. At the most general level, transcendentalism supposes that human beings do have a higher nature (see above).

Technically, there is an important distinction between the words ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendent’ (although in practice they are sometimes used interchangeably).  ‘Transcendent’ is a broad term that can mean almost anything higher or above (e.g., God, spirituality, etc.).  ‘Transcendental’ refers to the fact that, when we, say, look out and perceive the world, our actual mental experience is being filtered or conditioned.  By analogy, if we watch television, all we see are the images on the screen — not the inner circuitry of the television set that produces the images.  The part of ourselves that filters, conditions, and produces of our mental experience is, arguably, more our ‘real self’ than our experience itself — this could be called our transcendental nature or transcendental apparatus.  What it actually is, however, is a mystery, since we don’t experience it directly.  Emerson was content to simply accept our transcendental nature as part of Nature, generally.

On the other hand, ‘transcendental’ could also be understood merely as an adjectival form of the word ‘transcendent’.  Thus to some extent the two terms are hopelessly confounded and we cannot insist too strongly on a definite or consistent definition.

12. Historically, the term was borrowed from the transcendental philosophy of the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant developed his philosophy in opposition to the British empiricists (Locke, Hume).  Kant’s philosophy generated a great deal excitement, first in Europe. In particular, two new transcendentalist movements — one in France (Victor Cousin) and one in England (Coleridge and Wordsworth) — emerged.   These movements were broadly aligned with the spirit of Kant (e.g.,. rejection of Locke), but were distinct in their ideas. English transcendentalism was (1) more Platonic (see below), and (2) more Romantic.

American Transcendentalism was aware of Kant, but it was much more closely aligned with some of Kant’s German followers (e.g., Schelling), and English transcendentalism (e.g., Coleridge).

An excellent book about Transcendentalism written by a Transcendentalist is O. B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (1876).   I also recommend the chapter by Howe (2009) shown in the references below.

Here is a related paper on materialist vs. transcendentalist values in modern higher education.

Transcendentalist Works

Websites

Books/Chapters/Papers