If a man knows not what harbor he seeks, any wind is the right wind.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Here is a WikiPedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seneca_the_Younger
I admire the stoics. I always have. I admire stoicism in modern day people. Who doesn’t? Stoics never have been whiners. Stoics make the best out of whatever their situation. Stoics make do with what they have. Stoics never mourn for whatever it is they lack.
As you might expect, stoicism was never very popular, politically, for what politician ever prospered by telling his constituency to get over it and grow up? Stoicism does not translate well into votes, which is stoicism’s great failure…at least to some. Stoics also make for formidable enemies because they are not easily dismayed when things don’t go their way. I suppose a stoic was the one who first used the phrase, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” which is often attributed to Vince Lombardi, though the idea is much more ancient than the great coach, and likely the words, too. It is a useful phrase, but worn to triteness with overuse, with little placards and posters adorning football field-houses all around the country. We like to think of ourselves as tough. We admire our own toughness until its limitations are sorely tested.
Given its excesses, there were many stoics in Rome, and many rose to great prominence in Roman society, with one of the greatest among them, Marcus Aurelius, becoming emperor. We still have Aurelius’ “Meditations” to read today, but it is read only by students forced to read it and those with a stoic bend, because it is reflective and pensive, not an action packed thriller. Aurelius could have used some pointers from Tom Clancy or John Grisham, though I daresay a thousand years from now we will still know who Aurelius and Seneca were, and they are likely to still be relevant.
Seneca had his share of troubles. After having been a teacher and tutor to Nero, he eventually ran afoul of him and was forced to commit suicide. Imagine the disappointment of Seneca, the stoic, as he witnessed the excess and madness of his most famous pupil.
The second century Christian giant, Tertullian, referred to Seneca as “our Seneca”, indicating that he had converted to Christianity. Seneca wrote a lot about the sins of men and their conscience. If he was not a Christian then he was a good candidate to have become one. If Tertullian thought he was a Christian, that is good enough for me. Legend even has it that Seneca was led to Christ by St. Paul, himself. If so, then he was one of hundreds of millions whose conversion to Christianity can be directly or indirectly attributed to St. Paul. I share this with Seneca.
Whatever his religious affiliation, Seneca left us with a lot to think about. The opening quote is one of my favorites. I’m sure I have written about it before, and if so, then my writing about it now means that I am not quite finished with the subject or its author. From across the millenia, Seneca still speaks to us. Such is the power of a great thinker, enabled by one of the things that make men special among creatures…the ability to write. The other thing? The ability to make and use fire. These two things are something that only men can do.
That ability does not translate well wisely to all, however. While Seneca made great use of his pen, his student, Nero, made rather poor use of fire. I hope Nero was a better fiddler than he was a fireman, though I suspect he was about as good at the one as he was the other.
If your voyage is aimless, then one wind filling the sails of your ship is as good as another. It is only with a desired destination that the wind becomes a factor. Naturally, a true stoic would merely make mention of it in passing. A true stoic might mention it again as the fresh water supply on the ship diminished to dangerously low levels. Eventually, the dying stoic might make a passing comment that, “We could have used a fairer wind, or a little rain, but no matter. Here we are!”
But Seneca’s quote is not just about being carried by the wind, for good sailors can sail with the wind abeam, across the quarter bow, or tack against a headwind. The only two things that thwart good sailors is no wind, or too much wind, either of which can be perilous. Sailing ships have nothing to work with in the case of the former, and perhaps no ship left to work with in the case of the latter. Both can be vexing, but the vexation occurs at different rates. The calm leads to a slowly increasing vexation, and perhaps death. The hurricane is vexing, too, and deadly, but leaves one too little time for an extended vexation.
The captainless ship, though, is a different kind of vexation. There may be a pilot manning the rudder, but no one is minding the compass, because there is no destination…no plan…no aim. Surely a vessel is going somewhere, and for a fact, to somewhere it is bound whether it is aimed or not. We are all bound for somewhere, but we fare better with an aim even if we miss the mark.
“Just keep wind on the stern, mate,” said the captain.
“But sir, the wind keeps changing. We’re sailing in circles,” the mate protested.
“Never you mind,” said the captain, “I am in command of this vessel. We’ll sail a fair wind or we’ll not sail at all.”
The captain had no destination in mind, and no other goal than to stay on the wind, whatever the wind may be. It is the very illustration of the politics of testing the wind to see which way it is blowing before making a decision, minding only the direction, never the destination. It’s hard to make progress against a headwind, but a person with a destination in mind will prepare his tack and stick to it, his eye on his goal, not his finger in the wind.
“Don’t write about stoicism,” I’m likely to hear back from someone. “It’s not a bit funny.”
No, stoicism is not too funny. Neither is wisdom. Neither is a ship sailing with no direction. If we are going to be tossed about, let us be tossed about while trying to achieve some purpose. May we be lucky enough to know what it is, determined enough not to be diverted by circumstance, and strong enough not to be diverted by treachery. I suppose the biggest part is persuading ourselves of the right destination. Our vision of it can fade like a Mojave mirage when faced with obstacles, sometimes even the most trivial of obstacles. Our vision can become lost to memory entirely if the obstacles are significant. This is why a clear vision is so important. Perhaps that is why the bible says that a lack of vision is perishing to a nation and its people.
What would we make of ourselves? That is a hard question.
How do we get there from here? That one is even harder.
And it’s not the least bit funny, unless it’s as contemplated in a Buster Keaton movie. Buster’s characters always had a goal. They were temporarily thwarted but never retired. They pressed on in spite of many obstacles, sometimes aided by good luck, but nearly as frequently beset by bad. They never quit because they had a purpose, and a man with a purpose, aided by his own determination and persistence — well, formidable seems too mild a term, but it will have to suffice.
Funny sailed right past me today. Maybe tomorrow.
©2014 Mississippi Chris Sharp