There is a chapter in Seneca’s book Letters to Lucilius in which he speaks about blindness and its cure.
Seneca tells the story about what he called one of his wife’s female clowns. Harpaste (the name of the clown) was funny because she was blind, but she also was sure that she could see, and so she kept asking her attendant to change her rooms to another one because that one was to dark, funny story. But what is really funny is that most of us are blind to our faults and vices and that is why it is so hard to get ahold of virtue, the sole good.
For what else are you
busied with except improving yourself every day,
laying aside some error, and coming to understand
that the faults which you attribute to circumstances
are in yourself?
This should be our sole aim, no doubt.
If we only knew in our heart that the most intense power is already within us, why do we go then living lives of vice? Because we do not know we are sick, we don’t see our faults.
In the cave allegory of Plato (image above), everyone is chained inside a cave, there is a fire inside the cave, and the only things visible inside the cave are the shadows that form from the fire. A man sets himself free breaking his chains and goes outside the cave, he is amazed to see what the world is really like, so then he comes back and tells everyone about the true world, but he is deemed as a mad man by the people that has only seen the shadows their whole lives. The same thing happens with virtue and vice, vice is easy, we fall into it and we don’t even know it. Virtue is difficult, we have to exert ourselves to get a grip on it and accept that we are not perfect and never will be, which is a hard thing to accept, but nevertheless virtue is also seeing the world in the most beneficial way possible, we are no longer waiting to live, with virtue we begin to really live.
The people inside the cave blame their circumstances to everything but themselves, how could they do otherwise? They are blind. How can they even know there is anything they can actually do something about?
It’s easier to blame than to take responsibility. And by doing this we remain blind to our powers. Seneca further says.
I am not extravagant, but mere living
in the city demands a great outlay. It is not my
fault that I have a choleric disposition, or that I have not settled down to any definite scheme of
life; it is due to my youth.” Why do we deceive
ourselves ? The evil that afflicts us is not external,
it is within us, situated in our very vitals ; for that reason we attain soundness with all the more difficulty, because we do not know that we are diseased.
We can blame our families, money, people, our life situation and basically everything, but we have to understand that the fault is never outside but on our estimation of it. Once you become aware of this, you can actually start doing something about it.
This reminded me of the shadow and projection concepts form Carl Jung.
It’s relatively hard to know why or when we are being mischievous for most of the time we are blind to them, but a good exercise to practice is what Jung called the projection of the shadow. A quick overview, the shadow is a part of ourselves that has been repressed in our subconscious because we believe it is socially unacceptable and so we hid it inside, but nevertheless it still acts from the dark places of our mind. The idea of a shadow projection is that we put the blame of something we don’t like in ourselves unto something or someone else. An example is every time you get frustrated by the behavior of someone, if it makes you react with disgust or anger, you yourself are guilty of the very same thing that makes you mad. This is hard to comprehend and difficult to accept, but very true. This is why Marcus Aurelius said:
The best revenge is to be unlike the one who performed the injustice. – Marcus Aurelius
Just as Seneca knew so long ago what needs to be worked is not in the thing or the person, but in us. This is the paramount self enlightening psychology of stoicism, everytime something or someone makes us mad or angry, we have to fix that disposition on ourselves. Projections can be used for us to become a little less blind, they show us what we have to work in ourselves.
You must not deny the shadow however, you have to incorporate it. If you get angry easily you have to pay attention to that part of yourself and analyze it, and incorporate it into your self, that way you get the power and force of being angry which is quite useful, but you are no longer blinded by it, you control it and use it to your benefit.
If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against… Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.
Stoicism shows us to deal with everything correctly, from the inside out, it is our dispositions that we can control, not what is outside and if we need to take heed in turning our vices into virtues as Nietzsche famously said:
Once you had passions and called them evil. But now you have only your virtues: they grew out of your passions.You set your highest goal in the heart of those passions: then they became your virtues and joys. And though you were of the race of the hot-tempered, or of the lustful, or of the fanatical, or the vengeful; in the end, all your passions became virtues, and all your devils, angels. Once you had wild dogs in your cellar: but they changed at last into birds and charming singers. Out of your poisons you brewed soothing ointments for yourself; you milked your cow of sorrow – now you drink the sweet milk of her udder. And nothing evil grows out of you any longer, unless it be the evil that grows out of the conflict of your virtues.
So there it is, the task for freedom, the task that will give us our sight back so that we know ourselves for the first time and become the giants that we really are.
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
To end the article I’ll leave you with a quote from Seneca and I sincerley hope that you’ll find the strenght to turn your vices into virtues and live freely.
therefore proceed to the task of freeing ourselves from faults with all the more courage because, when
once committed to us, the good is an everlasting
possession ; virtue is not unlearned.
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