Oct 13, 2023, 06:27AM

For the Love of the Work

Some things are up to us and some things aren’t up to us. It’s best to learn the difference as soon as you possibly can.

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In Book V of his exceedingly repetitive treatise On Benefits, Stoic philosopher and scheming Pax Romana-era courtier Seneca the Younger continues to explore the complex dynamics of giving, receiving, and reciprocating acts of kindness or charity. Here, Seneca is concerned with refuting the idea that one's worth or moral standing is tied strictly to one's capacity for tangible reciprocation. He seeks to disentangle the act of bestowing and receiving benefits from a purely transactional framework that’s too often applied to social interactions today.

Seneca’s contemplation transcends the materialistic view of social exchanges by placing significant emphasis on intention. He posits that the moral weight of a "benefit," or what might today be labeled a favor or act of kindness, isn’t necessarily in the objective, material value of the act but in the subjective, emotional realm of the givers' and receivers' intentions. The act of giving, in Seneca's philosophy, is in itself a reflection of virtue, one that shouldn’t be marred by the expectation of an equally tangible return. It’s not just about how much you give, but how willingly and selflessly you do so. Moreover, it's not just about what you receive, but how earnestly and sincerely you intend to reciprocate, even if circumstances don’t permit an equal return.

He takes this argument further by asserting that a person should not be judged as being "conquered" in a "contest of benefits" solely because they can’t give back as much as they’ve received. This introduces a nuanced idea of moral relativity: Your worth isn’t diminished if you’re not capable of reciprocating to the same degree, provided your intentions to reciprocate are genuine. Seneca broadens this idea to relationships with figures of great power, like kings or philosophers like Socrates and Diogenes, suggesting that the inequality in material or spiritual power doesn’t necessarily mean one is “worsted” in the relationship, as long as the intention to reciprocate remains strong. The Spartans, who forbade their young men from participating in athletic contests that required the defeated to verbally acknowledge their defeat, understood that the real triumph was in never admitting defeat, in never yielding, which was a mindset attainable through virtue and goodwill.

This understanding liberates us from the shallow waters of transactional social dynamics and encourages a more fulfilling form of interaction. Seneca urges us to recognize the immeasurable value of goodwill and moral integrity, not just as abstract virtues but as practical guides in how we navigate the complex web of social relationships.

This concept extends beyond just the sphere of giving and receiving benefits; it can be applied to almost every other endeavor in life—from lifting weights to the cultivation of trade skills to assorted highbrow or middlebrow intellectual pursuits. For example, most people who frequent the gym aren't destined to become the world's strongest humanzee. Still, that shouldn’t discourage them from showing up day after day to pump iron. Why? The answer lies in an intrinsic value system, not an external scoreboard. The pursuit itself is an exercise in self-discipline, a way to cultivate "the strength of strength,” and an avenue to honor the body that’s both temple and tomb. While the weights lifted may not break any records, the intent behind each lift—to be a stronger, more disciplined person—is itself a victory. Here, you're not vanquished by the Herculean, steroid-gorged behemoths of Instagram; your aim elevates you beyond their level in spirit if not in actual physical strength.

The same principle applies to artisanal or cultural pursuits. You may labor diligently without necessarily becoming a master craftsman or world-beating intellectual. But the yardstick of your worth doesn't lie solely in the recognition you receive for your intellectual feats. Are you enriching your understanding of the world? Are you improving your environment or enriching a broader discourse? If the answer is yes, then your pursuit holds value, irrespective of whether you've achieved public acclaim. In this realm, as in Seneca's contest of benefits, it’s your intent—to learn, to contribute, to engage—that marks you as unconquered. You're not defeated by failing to win, say, a Nobel Prize in Literature—itself a grass crown bestowed in recognition of decades of “right-thinking politics” and little else—because your persistent effort to contribute to something greater than yourself is your real triumph.

In our journeys through the gym, the machine shop, the library, or life itself, we may not always emerge as winners in a conventional sense. But, borrowing from Seneca, we should find solace in knowing that as long as we're committed to giving our best—in spirit if not in kind—we're never truly defeated. This outlook transforms every endeavor, however inconsequential it may seem, into an arena where we can always emerge victorious, as long as we hold steadfast in our intentions. Only a handful of things, like the intent we have or the effort we exert, are up to us—while most everything else is “weak, enslaved, subject to impediment,” and thus not up to us. So even if the world insists on measuring us via spurious metrics we cannot match, we're not conquered; we're simply participating in a different kind of contest, one where the spirit triumphs over the tangible.


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