The Danger of Stereotyping by Greek Philosopher Seneca

 

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Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens. Via: (Artstor)

 

If there is a book that I treat like a sacred text, it is Letters from a Stoic (Public Library)–a collection of letters originally penned by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – 65AD), one of the most towering figures in the ancient Greek school of philosophy, Stoicism. Every once in a while when I find myself mortified over trivial things such as a WiFi outage and when a cyclist overtakes me on the road, I think of Seneca and this book. This book, which I revisit frequently, will always bring me solace in the midst of chaos and some new teachings that are extremely practical. Although Seneca was penning all the letters between 4 BC and 65 AD for his own private reflection and for the people that he loved, they surprisingly have survived two millennia later against all odd and have helped modern people to comprehend the notion of what it means to live a meaningful life.

In one of those letters in the book, I came upon a letter titled Letter CXXIII that addresses the problem that is so common in our modern world. It is our chronic habit to be seduced by stereotypes. Stereotyping someone is not only a pathway to racism, but according to Seneca, once we plant the seed of it in our lives, “the evil would follow us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future”. The letter is not only advising us to avoid the act of stereotyping but also to avoid the people who spread this harmful and misleading association.

Writing the letter to his friend, Lucilius, after a long exhausted journey that he had, Seneca wrote:

[…]

“With all such people you should avoid associating. These are the people who pass on vices, transmitting them from one character to another. One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we’ve said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future. In the same way as people who’ve been to a concert carry about with them the melody and haunting quality of pieces they’ve just heard, interfering with their thinking and preventing them from concentrating on anything serious, so the talk of snobs and parasites sticks in our ears long after we’ve heard it. And it’s far from easy to eradicate these haunting notes from the memory; they stay with us, lasting on and on, coming back to us every so often. This is why we must shut our ears against mischievous talk, and as soon as it starts, too; once such talk has made its entry and been allowed inside, it becomes a good deal bolder. Eventually it reaches the stage where it says that ‘virtue and philosophy and justice are just a lot of clap-trap’.”

[…]

 

More on Seneca and Stoicism:

  • School of Life, one of my favorite intellectual channels on YouTube discussed this school of philosophy, Stoicism, in a very catchy visual and understandable language:

 

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Tomb of Seneca by Charles Le Brun. Via: (Artstor)

 

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Sokrates and Seneca. This sculpture is owned by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Germany). Via: (Artstor)

 

Legendary Indonesian Feminist and Educator R.A. Kartini on Her Javanese Traditions

 

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Kartini

 

R.A Kartini (April 21, 1879–September 17, 1904) had a lasting and an enormous impact in championing women’s rights in Indonesia, especially for her own tribe, the Javanese. At the time when the Dutch colonial system had enveloped Indonesia for more than two centuries, the Dutch looked down the Javanese and regarded them as an inferior race. Women had a very limited option to stretch their fate beyond being obedient and submissive housewives. A few Javanese girls had an access to go to school but mostly only those who were of exceedingly high status, and willing to learn Dutch (Kartini, interestingly, was born into an aristocratic family and spoke and wrote Dutch impeccably). The rest of the people were living under illness, poverty, and heavy mysticism. Kartini had to be withdrawn from school into her own culture when she was twelve and a half years old to take on her prescribed role as a noble Javanese girl. She was being a prisoner in her own house, out of sight of everyone but her closest family, to be in readiness for someone who might ask her father to marry her. 

All of those unfortunate circumstances did break her heart but from that she discovered her inner strength. Though her formal schooling abruptly ended, she was not finished with her own education. With the generous support from her beloved father, a regent in one of the towns in eastern Java, and polymath brother named Kartono, Kartini was able to construct her own style of education by excessively reading Western literature and penning letters in Dutch to her Dutch friends. Her letters vocalized her longing to be an independent and intellectual woman, and to see the Javanese women being treated equally and intelligently. She and her letters were inseparable. More than a mere tool of self-expression, Kartini’s letters allow us to travel back to her confined but courageous life as a young Javanese woman living in the transition of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century in the land of Java, Indonesia.

In 1904, she died very young, only twenty-five years old, four days after her only son was born named Soesalit. A few attempts had done to compile and translate her letters into a book. One of which is this old-forgotten book that I had read titled Letters of a Javanese Princess (Public Library), translated into English from Dutch by Agnes Louise Symmers. This book contains everything from her thoughts on marriage (she was clearly against a forced marriage which was pervasive at the time), religion, education, women’s rights, humans’ sufferings, Javanese arts, and most importantly, her unflinching search for her self, for a meaningful and a viable life.

Buried deep in her letters, once in a while, I came upon some entries in which she described her Javanese traditions to her Dutch friends. Here I gathered some of the most compelling descriptions of the Javanese culture through Kartini’s point of view.

On November 20th, 1901, she wrote a letter to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri about a popular belief in Java that said someone who couldn’t keep his or her promise would eventually be visited by a dangerous snake:

“There is a belief among us Javanese, that those who break a promise will be visited by a poisonous serpent. The serpent comes to remind them of their promise, if they do not quickly fulfill it, they will be visited by another more venomous serpent, whose bite is deadly. If they delay longer, misfortune will surely overtake them. The serpent only lives upon the promises of holy spirits, as the souls of the righteous who are dead are nourished by flowers, perfume, and incense. The serpent is sent by the departed souls of the righteous to remind men of their forgotten promises.”

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Javanese Traditional Masks. Via: (NYPL)

 

The Javanese are a superstitious people fond of myths and fairy tales. In an entry from March 5th, 1902, a 23-year-old Kartini wrote to Mevrouw Abendanon-Mandiri, one of her Dutch friends:

“It was most difficult to take a photograph in the kampong [village]. A superstition says that one shortens one’s own life when one allows a photograph to be taken, and that a photographer is a great sinner; all the portraits that he makes will demand their lives of him in the afterlife.”

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A girl wearing a traditional Javanese costume. 1938. Via: (NYPL)

 

Written to Stella Zeehandelaar*, her beloved radical feminist Dutch friend whom Kartini never met, on August 18th, 1899, Kartini lamented the rigidness of her Javanese traditional culture:

“I have always been an enemy of formality. I am happy only when I can throw the burden of Javanese etiquette from my shoulders. The ceremonies, the little rules, that are instilled into our people are an abomination to me. You could hardly imagine how heavily the burden of etiquette process upon a Javanese aristocratic household. But in our household, we do not take all the formalities so literally.

[…]

Javanese etiquette is both silly and terrible. Europeans who live years in India*, and who come in close contact with our native dignitaries, cannot at all understand it unless they have made a special study of it.

In order to give you a faint idea of the oppressiveness of our etiquette, I shall mention a few examples. A younger brother or sister of mine may not pass me without bowing down to the ground and creeping upon hands and knees. If a little sister is sitting on a chair, she must instantly slip to the ground and remain with head bowed until I have passed from her sight. If a younger brother or sister wishes to speak to me, it must only be in high Javanese*; and after each sentence that comes from their lips, they must make a sembah; that is, to put both hands together, and bring the thumbs under the nose […]

They are [Kartini’s little brothers and sisters] forbidden to touch my honorable head without my high permission, and they may not do it even then without first making a sembah.

[…]

Should you speak against your superiors, do it softly, so that only those who are near may hear. When a young lady laughs, she must not open her mouth. (For heaven’s sake! I hear you exclaim). Yes, dear Stella, you shall hear stranger things than these, if you wish to know about us Javanese.

If a girl runs, she must do it decorously, with little mincing steps and oh, so slowly, like a snail. To run just a little fast is to be a hoyden.”

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Marriage Procession in Java. ca. 1862. Via: (NYPL)

 

On the Javanese traditional wedding, written to Mevrouw de booij-boissevain, on March 29th, 1902, after having celebrated her sister’s wedding, Kartini wrote:

“A native marriage entails a heavy burden upon the family of the bride. Days and weeks beforehand, the preparations for the solemnity are begun. Sister’s wedding was celebrated very quietly on account of a death in the family.

[…]

The Javanese give presents at a marriage; things to wear such as kains [clothing material], stomachers, headdresses, silk for kebajas [kebaja is a traditional Javanese outfit for women], cloth for jackets; and also things to eat, such as rice, eggs, chickens, or a buffalo. These are merely meant as marks of good will.

[…]

When a buffalo is killed at the time of a wedding—and usually more than one is needed for the feast meals—a bamboo vessel filled with sirih [the betel leaves], little cakes, pinang nuts, and pieces of meat must be mixed with the running blood of the slaughtered buffalo. These vessels, covered with flowers, are laid at all of the crossroads, bridges, and wells on the estate, as an offering to the spirits who dwell there. If these bridge, road, and water spirits are not propitiated, they will be offended at the festivities, and misfortune will come of it. That is the belief of the people. Its origin I do not know.”

Some notes:

India*: Until 1949, five years after Indonesia had gained its independence from the Dutch, Indonesia was known as the Netherlands East Indies, Dutch India, Netherlands India, and simply called India. India in this letter means Indonesia.

High Javanese*: The Javanese language has different distinct levels. High Javanese is being used to address someone who is higher in status, age, education, and occupation such as: parents, grandparents, professors, and those who possess nobler blood. In return, these people will speak “low Javanese” for whoever they think are lower than their personal status. “Middle” level Javanese is often being spoken by peasants or peers who are in the same level for intermediate social situations. There is also a “very-high” level of the Javanese language which is heard only in the royal court. Each level of the Javanese language uses a very different vocabulary that most non-Javanese speakers would think that they hear different languages being uttered. 

Stella Zeehandelaar*: Stella came to know Kartini after she came upon her advertisement in De Hollandsche Lelie (the Dutch women’s magazine), inviting someone to correspond with her from Indonesia. Stella responded the ads and wrote to her frequently, infusing Kartini’s hunger mind with some western perspectives that slowly shaped her liberal ideas.

Some of the vintage pictures displaying Javanese culture that I found on New York Public Library Digital Collections:

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Girl from Java by Charlton B Perkins (Photographer). 1909. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Three dance poses. Dancer: Bagong Kussudiardjo. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Part of the gamelan at the court of H. H. Mangkunagara of Surakarta. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Wayang Kulit (used for shadow plays) in Central Java. Via: (NYPL)

 

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Dancer with gamelan orchestra at Garut, Java, ca. 1921. Via: (NYPL)

 

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A Surakarta style dance. A female dancer playing a refined male character. Via: (NYPL)

 

 

The Great Stoic Philosopher Seneca on the value of time

 

 

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Seneca. Via: (Classical Wisdom)

 

Something extraordinary happened last week. One of my favorite thinkers, and a self-proclaimed “human guinea pig” aka Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, gave away freely three volumes of pdf version of some of the most remarkable Stoic writing, starring Lucius Annaeus Seneca or Seneca the Younger. Seneca was born circa 4 BC in present day Spain, and grew up to be one of the most towering figures in the ancient Rome. From being a Nero’s advisor, successful playwright, one of the wealthiest people in the Roman empire, until he was being exiled to the island of Corsica for eight years on the premises of supposed adultery with the emperor’s niece; Seneca had experienced the sweet taste of success and the bitter taste of failure. 

In this first volume of the book titled The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master, there is a letter that shifted the way I think about the value of time. Written centuries ago for Seneca’s friend, Lucilious, the substance of this letter is timely and timeless, reminding us that our time in this world is very short and yet most people are squandering it as if it were replaceable. This letter is a poignant reminder of what we know so deeply but chronically fail to put into practice.

Seneca wrote:

“Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius–set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose.”

Seneca was absolutely correct when he said, “Make yourself believe the truth of my words–that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach”. Sometimes we have tried to protect our time but once in a while something beyond our control steals it from our possession. It is normal and occurs all the time. However, Seneca, extracting exclusively from the core of stoicism, wanted us to think critically about the distinction between the things that we can control and we cannot control. Stoicism, the school of Hellenistic philosophy that was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC, teaches us to accept what we cannot change, and control what we can control–ourselves and our responses.

Touching on humans’ chronic habit to procrastinate, Seneca wrote:

“Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.”

Thinking differently than Seneca, Adam Grant, one of the most influential management thinkers of the 21st century, has counter-intuitive thoughts on the topic of procrastination. In his recent remarkable book titled Originals: How Non-comformists Move The World argued that “strategic procrastination” is necessary to formulate more creative ideas.

 

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Grant, one of Fast Company’s 100 most creative people in business, wrote:

“Along with providing time to generate novel ideas, procrastination has another benefit: it keeps us open to improvisation. When we plan well in advance, we often stick to the structure we’ve created, closing the door to creative possibilities that might spring into our fields of vision.”

In another page of the book, Grant wrote:

“Great originals are great procrastinators, but they do not skip planning altogether. They procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities.”

His video below from Ted-Talk is a worth to watch.

 

 

Returning to our main topic, Seneca, he continued to speak about humans’ chronic habit to waste time. It is funny to ponder that we, humans, are heavily obsessed with protecting our replaceable material possessions such as cars, money, phones, from being lost and stolen. The irony is we are rarely thinking of protecting the most precious and irreplaceable resource that we have, which is our time. 

Seneca wrote:

“Nothing, Lucilious, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity–time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.”

 

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Seneca

 

Seneca, just like the rest of human beings, was far from perfect, but he knew how to articulate his imperfection. The rest of the letter he spoke about his own failure to be in control of his own time and continued to offer his unshakeable truth about the value of time to his dear friend, Lucilious. He wrote:

“You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practicing. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of may who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.”

 

 

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The Death of Seneca, 1773 – Jacques-Louis David. Via: (Wikiart.org)

 

 

A Moving 1832 Letter from the father of American psychiatry, Dr. Benjamin Rush, to his son

 

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Benjamin Rush via (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

I wholeheartedly believe that what we write reflects what we think. Words evolve as we evolve. A letter, as one of the form of written texts, has always been a great source, at least for me, to understand the person behind it and the truth that he or she stands for. Especially, if a letter is being written by parents to their children, a letter is not merely a construction of words, rather it transforms into a package of wisdom that springs from an unselfish parental affection. 

In May 25 1802, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) sent a letter for one of his thirteen children named James Rush (1786-1869), lending him his abundant wisdom on writing and what it means to be a successful person. Educated at Princeton and then went on to the University of Edinburg in Scotland to obtain a Medical Degree, Dr. Benjamin Rush was a prominent name in the field of medicine in the 18th century of United States. Besides his extraordinary involvement in the field of medicine, he was the first professor of chemistry in U.S, an ardent abolitionist, an advocate for scientific education for the masses, a fighter for public education, a writer, and the most memorably was he signed the declaration of independence. The letter that he wrote back to his son, James Rush, was one of the exquisite letters that Alan Valentine included in his book titled Fathers to Sons: Advice without Consents (Public Library) that was published in 1963.

Here is the letter:

                                                                                                       Philadelphia, May 25, 1802

 

My Dear Son,

Your letter which we received on Wednesday morning last gave great pleasure to all the family. I examined it critically and do not recollect to have met with but one word improperly spelled–and none improperly written. Continue to cultivate a taste for correctness in everything that comes from your pen. A man’s future has sometimes been made by his letters’ being seen by persons of judgement, and on the contrary many men have lost their characters for good sense and education from the same cause. Never write in a hurry. Even a common note upon the most common business should be written as if it were one day to be read in court or published in a newspaper.

I was much pleased to find that you begin to appreciate time. Recollect, my dear boy, your age and the years you have lost. Improve every moment you can spare from your recitations in reading useful books. Your uncle’s library I presume will always be open to you, where you will find history, poetry, and probably other books suited to your age. The last King of Prussia but one used to say, “A soldier should have no idle time.” The same thing may be said of all schoolboys. Their common plays and amusements I believe instead of relaxing, often enervate their minds and give them a distaste to study. I do not advise you against such exercises as are necessary to health, but simply to avoid sharing in what are commonly called “plays”. The celebrated Mr. Madison, when a student at the Jersey College [The College of New Jersey became Princeton University] never took any part in them. His only relaxation from study consisted in walking and conversation. Such was the character he acquired while at college, that Dr. Witherspoon said of him to Mr. Jefferson (from whom I received the anecdote) that during the whole time he was under his tuition he never knew him to do or say an improper thing.

Remember the profession for which you are destined. Without an extensive and correct education you cannot expect to succeed in it. Do not, dear my son, disappoint my expectations and wishes of bequeathing my patients to an enlightened and philosophical physician. If you can discover a relish for knowledge, your wishes shall be gratified to the utmost of my power in your education after you leave college. You shall visit Europe, if my life be spared, and draw from foreign universities all that you require to enable you to settle with advantage in Philadelphia. Think of these things and act up to them. But above all, preserve a conscience void of offense toward God and man. All true wisdom begins in true religion. Adieu! All the family join in love to you, my dear son, you affectionate father.

                                                                                                                          BENJN: RUSH

 

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My left hand holding the book

 

Suggested readings about Benjamin Rush’s life:

Via (History.com)

Via (PBS)

Via (UpennLibrary)

 

An Eclectic Cover Letter From Robert Pirosh

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There was something aspirational and heart-warming when I accidently came upon a letter of Robert Pirosh–an American screenwriter whose work for the war movie Battleground won him an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay in 1949. As a someone who is about to exit from higher education and enter into this perplexing uncertain world, I’m reminded by his letter that he too was also scared, anxious about his future yet he persisted.

In 1934, after he decided to quit his well-paid job in a New York advertising agency, he bravely went to Hollywood to fulfill his dreams as a screenwriter without knowing any single person in the movie industry. Once he arrived, he gathered all the names and addresses of movie producers, directors, and studio executives he could think of and sent them a letter that he had written about his interests of being a screenwriter. His letter was engaging, concise, and the arcane words that he chose stunned me, showing his immense creativity and intelligence. Not too long ago I read an article about one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, saying that if our talents want to be discovered, we must not wait for people to come around but we must knock on doors to get to where we aspire to be. What Robert Pirosh did was the true embodiment of what Gilbert said.

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Robert Pirosh. Photograph: Bill Allen/AP (via theguardian )

 

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grappler, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh

385 Madison Avenue

Room 610

New York

Eldoardo 5-6024

 

As I was doing a research about Pirosh’s life and work, I found a picture of humorous letter typed by Sidney Sheldon congratulating Robert Pirosh for the Academy Award that he won. Here is the letter:

 

 

 

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For more heart-warming collections of forgotten letters, treat yourself by visiting Shaun Usher’s wonderful website Letters of note or if you prefer the physical book, I would recommend to check it out from your nearest (Public Library).

 

Via: (LettersofNote)