Bernard Williams famously argued we need to bring back old words from virtue ethics. We need, in other words, concepts and language that is nuanced and textured to fill the sparse philosophical void we have.
I agreed when I came across this argument. But I agreed even more when I was doing some reading from Seneca’s On Tranquility of the Mind.
Seneca, of course, is a Stoic. And tranquility of the mind is something I’ve been experiencing a lot lately.
Stoics are famous for arguing about knowing what’s in ones control (and attending to that) and what’s not in one’s control (and leaving that be). Many humans have control issues. Some simply mistake what’s under their control. But some are actually very controlling.
External things are often not the focus in Stoicism. It’s mostly about how to tune oneself so that one is in harmony with nature and the world. Except when that’s not the case.
In one portion of On Tranquility of the Mind, Seneca argues that constant work leads to a feebleness and dullness of the mind:
“The mind must be given relaxation–it will rise improved and sharper after a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced–they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break–so constant work on the anvil will fracture the force of the mind. But it regains its powers if it is set free and relaxed for a while. Constant work gives rise to a certain kind of dullness and feebleness of the rational soul.” Seneca, On Tranquility of the Mind, 17.5
Now, our work environments are not always under our personal control. So you’d think a Stoic would argue some other way. But this is an important insight coming from Seneca about the nature of the mind. It must be set free and relaxed sometimes in order to maintain its fertility.
This quote from Seneca came to mind as I watched a short video on Finland, the current “happiest country in the world.” The video explained that happiness in this sense doesn’t mean laughing and smiling all the time. I took it to mean something more like tranquility. And tranquility of mind is certainly something to aspire to.
As we look to things like politics and how we want our (U.S.) society to be, we absolutely should look to other countries and how they are doing. If Finland produces more tranquil minds–count me in! And if by ‘happiness’, they don’t really mean happiness, they should change the name of the Happiness Index to reflect what they do mean. If it’s something more like tranquility, name it that. Let’s not be afraid to introduce these words into our vocabulary.