Sunday, October 31, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 120 - More about Virtue

More about Virtue

Seneca explains how it is that humanity was able to deduce the Good and then he spends quite a bit of the letter providing examples of the sage and what it is we should be striving for.

He briefly re-states that he sees little difference between the Good and being honorable.

only the honourable can be good; also, the honourable is necessarily good. I hold it superfluous to add the distinction between these two qualities, inasmuch as I have mentioned it so many times.  But I shall say this one thing – that we regard nothing as good which can be put to wrong use by any person. And you see for yourself to what wrong uses many men put their riches, their high position, or their physical powers.

We came to learn of the Good by observation.  We observed the body and applied similar reasoning to the mind.

We understood what bodily health was: and from this basis we deduced the existence of a certain mental health also. We knew, too, bodily strength, and from this basis we inferred the existence of mental sturdiness. Kindly deeds, humane deeds, brave deeds, had at times amazed us; so we began to admire them as if they were perfect.

Being disposed to recognize greatness, we observed what was great about the characteristics of certain people.

Nature bids us amplify praiseworthy things: everyone exalts renown beyond the truth. And thus from such deeds we deduced the conception of some great good.

He provides an example;:

Fabricius rejected King Pyrrhus's gold, deeming it greater than a king's crown to be able to scorn a king's money.  Fabricius also, when the royal physician promised to give his master poison, warned Pyrrhus to beware of a plot. The selfsame man had the resolution to refuse either to be won over by gold or to win by poison. So we admired the hero, who could not be moved by the promises of the king or against the king, who held fast to a noble ideal.

Deeds of people, as we have observed them, reveal the Good.

But we have to be quite discerning when it comes to identifying excellence of soul.

vices which are next-door to virtues; and even that which is lost and debased can resemble that which is upright.

For example,

Carelessness looks like ease, and rashness like bravery.  This resemblance has forced us to watch carefully and to distinguish between things which are by outward appearance closely connected, but which actually are very much at odds with one another.

Then he details, in many ways, what the wise human looks like:

we have marked another man who is kind to his friends and restrained towards his enemies, who carries on his political and his personal business with scrupulous devotion, not lacking in longsuffering where there is anything that must be endured, and not lacking in prudence when action is to be taken. We have marked him giving with lavish hand when it was his duty to make a payment, and, when he had to toil, striving resolutely and lightening his bodily weariness by his resolution. Besides, he has always been the same, consistent in all his actions, not only sound in his judgment but trained by habit to such an extent that he not only can act rightly, but cannot help acting rightly. We have formed the conception that in such a man perfect virtue exists.

We have separated this perfect virtue into its several parts. The desires had to be reined in, fear to be suppressed, proper actions to be arranged, debts to be paid; we therefore included self-restraint, bravery, prudence, and justice – assigning to each quality its special function. How then have we formed the conception of virtue? Virtue has been manifested to us by this man's order, propriety, steadfastness, absolute harmony of action, and a greatness of soul that rises superior to everything. Thence has been derived our conception of the happy life, which flows along with steady course, completely under its own control.  How then did we discover this fact? I will tell you: that perfect man, who has attained virtue, never cursed his luck, and never received the results of chance with dejection; he believed that he was citizen and soldier of the universe, accepting his tasks as if they were his orders. Whatever happened, he did not spurn it, as if it were evil and borne in upon him by hazard; he accepted it as if it were assigned to be his duty. "Whatever this may be," he says, "it is my lot; it is rough and it is hard, but I must work diligently at the task."

Necessarily, therefore, the man has shown himself great who has never grieved in evil days and never bewailed his destiny; he has given a clear conception of himself to many men; he has shone forth like a light in the darkness and has turned towards himself the thoughts of all men, because he was gentle and calm and equally compliant with the orders of man and of God.  He possessed perfection of soul, developed to its highest capabilities, inferior only to the mind of God – from whom a part flows down even into this heart of a mortal. But this heart is never more divine than when it reflects upon its mortality, and understands that man was born for the purpose of fulfilling his life, and that the body is not a permanent dwelling, but a sort of inn (with a brief sojourn at that) which is to be left behind when one perceives that one is a burden to the host.  The greatest proof, as I maintain, my dear Lucilius, that the soul proceeds from loftier heights, is if it judges its present situation lowly and narrow, and is not afraid to depart. For he who remembers whence he has come knows whither he is to depart.

We are merely passing though this life, borrowing the things which should be indifferent to us - our body, possessions, husband, wife, children, career, etc.  What we are to demonstrate is duty and honorable use of these indifferents and circumstances.  We ought not to get hung up on mortality, but "we [are to] set eternity before our eyes."  Therefore,

the noble soul, knowing its better nature, while taking care to conduct itself honourably and seriously at the post of duty where it is placed, counts none of these extraneous objects as its own, but uses them as if they were a loan, like a foreign visitor hastening on his way.

The noble soul is steadfast, constant.  "It is indeed consistency that abides; false things do not last."

Whereas, "The greatest proof of an evil mind is unsteadiness, and continued wavering between pretence of virtue and love of vice."

it is a great role – to play the role of one man. But nobody can be one person except the wise man; the rest of us often shift our masks.


force yourself to maintain to the very end of life's drama the character which you assumed at the beginning. See to it that men be able to praise you; if not, let them at least identify you.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 119 - On Nature as our Best Provider

On Nature as our Best Provider

The theme of this letter is: enough; Nature provides with with enough.  People, though, introduce excess.

Seneca writes variations on this them.

it does not matter whether you crave nothing, or whether you possess something. The important principle in either case is the same – freedom from worry.


If I am hungry, I must eat. Nature does not care whether the bread is the coarse kind or the finest wheat; she does not desire the stomach to be entertained, but to be filled.


Look to the end, in all matters, and then you will cast away superfluous things. Hunger calls me; let me stretch forth my hand to that which is nearest; my very hunger has made attractive in my eyes whatever I can grasp. A starving man despises nothing.


The wise man is the keenest seeker for the riches of nature.


Would you rather have much, or enough? He who has much desires more – a proof that he has not yet acquired enough; but he who has enough has attained that which never fell to the rich man's lot – a stopping-point.

Lack of contentment is a vice.  It leads to gluttony, luxury and decadence and leads further to others' resentment.

Enough is never too little, and not-enough is never too much.


But that which is enough for nature, is not enough for man.  There have been found persons who crave something more after obtaining everything


He ... who has arranged his affairs according to nature's demands, is free from the fear, as well as from the sensation, of poverty.


Wealth ... blinds and attracts the mob.


measure all things by the demands of Nature; for these demands can be satisfied


The Builder of the universe, who laid down for us the laws of life, provided that we should exist in well-being, but not in luxury. Everything conducive to our well-being is prepared and ready to our hands; but what luxury requires can never be got together except with wretchedness and anxiety.


whatever we want because of sheer necessity we accept without squeamishness.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 118 - On the Vanity of Place-Seeking

On the Vanity of Place-Seeking

Have you ever seen someone do something for mere status?  In a way, we are all seeking status - we want to be relevant; admired; a cut above the rest.  And we are willing to sacrifice our character for the sake of status.

Examples of status seeking are: pursuing a promotion, buying a product that the vast majority cannot afford and which one does not necessarily need, name-dropping (i.e. telling others you know a senator or the VP or CEO of some company), bragging about one's fame or education or other achievement.  This desire to seem relevant and to have influence is what drives us to seek and acquire status.

Seneca advises we don't seek status if we are indeed pursuing equanimity.

This, my dear Lucilius, is a noble thing, this brings peace and freedom – to canvass for nothing, and to pass by all the elections of Fortune.

To seek nothing in terms of status, is noble.  He later continues:

I say, to stand idle and look on at this Vanity Fair without either buying or selling?  How much greater joy does one feel who looks without concern, not merely upon the election of a praetor or of a consul, but upon that great struggle in which some are seeking yearly honours, and others permanent power, and others the triumph and the prosperous outcome of war, and others riches, or marriage and offspring, or the welfare of themselves and their relatives! What a great-souled action it is to be the only person who is canvassing for nothing, offering prayers.

Those who seek and constantly pursue status, will never find contentment.  As soon as they've achieved something, it's on to the next thing.

the restless multitudes of men, who, in order to attain something ruinous, struggle on through evil to evil

Contentment; equanimity; happiness do not come about via status seeking.

Happiness is ...  a lowly thing; for that reason it never gluts a man's desire.

Where does the status seeking end?  It doesn't!  It is a never-ending ladder and as soon as you get to one step, you will realize there is another.  And if you think you've reached the top, all too soon you will realize there is something else which you do not have.

that which you regard as the top is merely a rung on the ladder.

Even those who pursue and chase endlessly, will eventually wake up and realize it was all a sham.

after having won their wish, and suffered much, they find them evil, or empty, or less important than they had expected.

This was the whole point of the movie Citizen Kane.  A life of pursuits, fame, status and accolades ends up with the main character simply wanting to return to a the time he was happy with this snow sled Rosebud.

Are we to be monks, then, and sit around all day and meditate in contentment?  If you are a Stoic, the answer is: no.  Rather, engage with the world of indiffernts, while at the same time, focusing on the virtues of your character.  What virtue can you practice in your pursuits?  Your career, schooling, day-to-day living is all material for demonstrating excellence of character.  We are to use and engage with these indifferents honorably.  Doing so is the Good.

there are certain things which are neither good nor bad – as military or diplomatic service, or the pronouncing of legal decisions. When such pursuits have been honourably conducted, they begin to be good, and they change over from the "indifferent" class into the Good. The Good results from partnership with the honourable.

For someone to become good, it can take an entire lifetime.  Seneca seems to allude to the fact that the pinnacle of achieving wisdom is recognizing that one's unique will has come in alignment with the Cosmos - that one truly lives in agreement with Nature.  This would be the mind recognizing it is a part and in one with the Whole or infinite.

Some things, through development, put off their former shape and are altered into a new figure.  When the mind has for a long time developed some idea, and in the attempt to grasp its magnitude has become weary, that thing begins to be called "infinite."

I'll end with a quote I came across in a Facebook group recently.  I'm hoping to get this book sometime in the future and read it - seems interesting!

It is...possible to imagine a man whose knowledge and understanding is co-extensive with the complete structure of the Universe, the "objective content" (the lektón) of his systems of cognitions being identical with the objective content of an ideal account of Nature. The mind of such a man certainly still has its centre or focus in his own body, but the process of adaptation (oikeiosis), of fitting himself into the Whole, has gone beyond his own body, beyond his family or nation, to become all-inclusive: he is, in a sense, God. He is really living consistently with himself and with Nature, having "knowledge of whatever happens by nature", because he is Nature. Such a man is good, because his mind is identical with the only thing that can be called good. His state of mind is virtue, that strength which is a "tension capable of [always] judging and acting [correctly]". He is truly happy, because he is all a human being can be. He is independent (autarkes), as God is independent, because he needs nothing, and there is nothing outside him to affect him or contain him. Since his mind has become good by becoming completely fused with Nature, he cannot will anything to be different from what it is, as it would be self-contradictory for the good to want to be not good. Therefore he is also free, since for him what is desirable is what is real.

Johnny Christensen, An Essay on the Unity of Stoic Philosophy, p. 68-69

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 117 - On Real Ethics as Superior to Syllogistic Subtleties

On Real Ethics as Superior to Syllogistic Subtleties

The question in this letter is: "whether the Stoic belief is true: that wisdom is a Good, but that being wise is not a Good."

He summarizes the Stoic school position:

They (the Stoics) declare that wisdom is a Good; it therefore follows that one must also call wisdom corporeal. But they do not think that being wise can be rated on the same basis. For it is incorporeal and accessory to something else, in other words, wisdom; hence it is in no respect active or helpful.

He then uses the remainder of the letter to disagree and provide ideas supporting his position and to hold the stance that talking about such inane quibbles mean nothing and are a waste of time and energy.

Here are various quotes of him expressing distaste for discussing this difference.

wasting words on a subject that is perfectly clear.


How will it profit me to know whether wisdom is one thing, and being wise another?


Fortune has set before you so many problems – which you have not yet solved – and are you still splitting hairs? How foolish it is to practise strokes after you have heard the signal for the fight! Away with all these dummy-weapons; you need armour for a fight to the finish.


Let us rush past all this clever nonsense, and hurry on to that which will bring us real assistance.


are you taking time for matters which serve merely for mental entertainment?


Nature has not given us such a generous and free-handed space of time that we can have the leisure to waste any of it.


so short and swift, that carries us away in its flight, of what avail is it to spend the greater part on useless things?

What he finds of value is practical use of philosophy.  Understanding what wisdom is, and then being wise, are productive uses of time and energy.  But focusing on minutiae about whether being wise is a Good or not, is a waste of brain cells.

Practical knowledge and use is focused on applying remedies.

show me the way by which I may attain those ends.  Tell me what to avoid, what to seek, by what studies to strengthen my tottering mind, how I may rebuff the waves that strike me abeam and drive me from my course, by what means I may be able to cope with all my evils, and by what means I can be rid of the calamities that have plunged in upon me and those into which I myself have plunged. Teach me how to bear the burden of sorrow without a groan on my part, and how to bear prosperity without making others groan; also, how to avoid waiting for the ultimate and inevitable end, and to beat a retreat of my own free will, when it seems proper to me to do so.


Tell me by what means sadness and fear may be kept from disturbing my soul, by what means I may shift off this burden of hidden cravings. Do something!


Make me braver, make me calmer, make me the equal of Fortune, make me her superior.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 116 - On Self-Control

On Self-Control

To topic of this letter whether it "is better to have moderate emotions, or none at all."  Seneca notes two views on the topic of emotions.  The Stoics "reject the emotions" and "the Peripatetics keep them in check."

Seneca imagines someone who argues,

it is natural for me to suffer when I am bereaved of a friend; grant some privileges to tears which have the right to flow! It is also natural to be affected by men's opinions and to be cast down when they are unfavourable; so why should you not allow me such an honourable aversion to bad opinion?

While Seneca agrees that emotions do come from Nature in order to "make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes" we should nonetheless acknowledge that "this very interest, when overindulged, becomes a vice."

Vices start with good reason and with some modestly, but then can grow into a vice.

There is no vice which lacks some plea; there is no vice that at the start is not modest and easily entreated; but afterwards the trouble spreads more widely. If you allow it to begin, you cannot make sure of its ceasing.

Therefore, Seneca advocates for cutting them off before they get a foothold.

resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart.

While a wise man can control himself and his emotions, we who are not yet wise should not trust ourselves to think we can control them so easily.  He quotes Panaetius:

you and I, who are as yet far removed from wisdom, should not trust ourselves to fall into a state that is disordered, uncontrolled, enslaved to another ... Let us not expose this unstable spirit to the temptations of drink, or beauty, or flattery, or anything that coaxes and allures.

Panaetius was referring to the emotion of love but Seneca observes this advice may be applied to all emotions.  He advises strong caution when it comes to dealing with emotions.

let us step back from slippery places; even on dry ground it is hard enough to take a sturdy stand.

Seneca then takes on the claim that the Stoic philosophy is too hard!  One may argue,

Your promises are too great, and your counsels too hard. We are mere manikins, unable to deny ourselves everything. We shall sorrow, but not to any great extent; we shall feel desires, but in moderation; we shall give way to anger, but we shall be appeased.

He thinks humans are perfectly capable of keeping motions in check, but instead our love of our vices is so strong we make excuses for ourselves.

And do you know why we have not the power to attain this Stoic ideal? It is because we refuse to believe in our power. Nay, of a surety, there is something else which plays a part: it is because we are in love with our vices; we uphold them and prefer to make excuses for them rather than shake them off. 


The reason is unwillingness, the excuse, inability.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 115 - On the Superficial Blessings

On the Superficial Blessings

The superficial blessings, of which Seneca discusses are riches and power.  The rub of the letter appears towards the end, where he notes that we should consider the prayer of those who possess riches and power.  If we could be a fly on the wall of those who possess such things, when we hear them pray, then we would know that these "blessings" are indeed superficial.  The gist of the letter is: be careful what you ask and prayer for.

The beginning of the letter discusses one of the important aspects of writing.  We write to impress upon our minds.

You should seek what to write, rather than how to write it – and even that not for the purpose of writing but of feeling it, that you may thus make what you have felt more your own and, as it were, set a seal on it.

He returns to the topic of 'style' and calls certain styles defects.

Style is the garb of thought: if it be trimmed, or dyed, or treated, it shows that there are defects and a certain amount of flaws in the mind.

Then he tries to paint a picture of a virtuous soul and how if we saw such a soul, we would be enamored by them, rather than by riches and power.  Note the various virtues in the passage below (I've italicized them).

If we had the privilege of looking into a good man's soul, oh what a fair, holy, magnificent, gracious, and shining face should we behold – radiant on the one side with justice and temperance, on another with bravery and wisdom! And, besides these, thriftiness, moderation, endurance, refinement, affability, and – though hard to believe – love of one's fellow-men, that Good which is so rare in man, all these would be shedding their own glory over that soul. There, too, forethought combined with elegance and, resulting from these, a most excellent greatness of soul (the noblest of all these virtues) – indeed what charm, O ye heavens, what authority and dignity would they contribute!

Later he lists things which cut off our vision of virtue, namely the body, poverty, lowliness, disgrace, unloveliness, the gleam of riches.

We need to become fully grown, rational adults.  We should consider what pleases children, as there is an analog in fully grown adults too.

how contemptible are the things we admire – like children who regard every toy as a thing of value, who cherish necklaces bought at the price of a mere penny as more dear than their parents or than their brothers. And what, then, as Aristo says, is the difference between ourselves and these children, except that we elders go crazy over paintings and sculpture, and that our folly costs us dearer? Children are pleased by the smooth and variegated pebbles which they pick up on the beach, while we take delight in tall columns of veined marble brought either from Egyptian sands or from African deserts

Then too, is status - how much we are driven to gain status among others.  Much of the high status in Seneca's time as well as our own, is mere falsities; it's all rot underneath.

all the famous men whom you see strutting about with head in air, have nothing but a gold-leaf prosperity. Look beneath, and you will know how much evil lies under that thin coating of titles.  Note that very commodity which holds the attention of so many magistrates and so many judges, and which creates both magistrates and judges – that money, I say, which ever since it began to be regarded with respect, has caused the ruin of the true honour of things; we become alternately merchants and merchandise, and we ask, not what a thing truly is, but what it costs; we fulfil duties if it pays, or neglect them if it pays, and we follow an honourable course as long as it encourages our expectations, ready to veer across to the opposite course if crooked conduct shall promise more.

Money, riches, power, fame - these give people status.  We are a culture obsessed with gaining it.  We grab at money and wish to 'go viral' in order to gain a position of status off which to influence others.  We fail to focus on becoming a better virtuous person.  We fall into the trap of thinking that by gaining status we help ourselves and others, when in fact we perpetuate the problem of producing "style" on the outward, while we rot on the inside.

Most likely, our parents, or teachers, or co-workers or friends trained us to think this way.  The culture of "prosperity" rolls forward and an entire nation, which argues over virtually everything, will agree on this one thing.  It will take an exceptional effort to overcome the desire infection.

Our parents have instilled into us a respect for gold and silver; in our early years the craving has been implanted, settling deep within us and growing with our growth. Then too the whole nation, though at odds on every other subject, agrees upon this; this is what they regard, this is what they ask for their children, this is what they dedicate to the gods when they wish to show their gratitude – as if it were the greatest of all man's possessions! And finally, public opinion has come to such a pass that poverty is a hissing and a reproach, despised by the rich and loathed by the poor.

He quotes Ovid and this one part stood out to me:

All ask how great my riches are, but none
Whether my soul is good.

Seneca continues,

What tears and toil does money wring from us! Greed is wretched in that which it craves and wretched in that which it wins! Think besides of the daily worry which afflicts every possessor in proportion to the measure of his gain!


though Fortune may leave our property intact, whatever we cannot gain in addition, is sheer loss!

And here is the part of the letter where Seneca asks us to consider the whole perspective of those who chase greed.  If we could peer into their souls, me may not then desire riches and power.

Do you think that there is any more pitiable lot in life than to possess misery and hatred also? Would that those who are bound to crave wealth could compare notes with the rich man! Would that those who are bound to seek political office could confer with ambitious men who have reached the most sought-after honours! They would then surely alter their prayers, seeing that these grandees are always gaping after new gain, condemning what is already behind them. For there is no one in the world who is contented with his prosperity, even if it comes to him on the run. Men complain about their plans and the outcome of their plans; they always prefer what they have failed to win.

What is the cure for greed and this desire infection?  Philosophy.

philosophy can settle this problem for you, and afford you, to my mind, the greatest boon that exists – absence of regret for your own conduct.


Let words proceed as they please, provided only your soul keeps its own sure order, provided your soul is great and holds unruffled to its ideals, pleased with itself on account of the very things which displease others, a soul that makes life the test of its progress, and believes that its knowledge is in exact proportion to its freedom from desire and its freedom from fear.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 114 - On Style as a Mirror of Character

On Style as a Mirror of Character

The gist of this letter is found towards the end of the middle.  While Seneca spends a lot of time talking about style of speech and other styles, his point is that the outward stems from the inward.  A sound soul leads to a sound body and style.

take care of the soul; for from the soul issue our thoughts, from the soul our words, from the soul our dispositions, our expressions, and our very gait.  When the soul is sound and strong, the style too is vigorous, energetic, manly; but if the soul lose its balance, down comes all the rest in ruins.

Early in the letter, he cites a Greek proverb and then expounds a bit more on it.

"Man's speech is just like his life."  Exactly as each individual man's actions seem to speak, so people's style of speaking often reproduces the general character of the time, if the morale of the public has relaxed and has given itself over to effeminacy. Wantonness in speech is proof of public luxury, if it is popular and fashionable, and not confined to one or two individual instances.  A man's ability cannot possibly be of one sort and his soul of another. If his soul be wholesome, well-ordered, serious, and restrained, his ability also is sound and sober. Conversely, when the one degenerates, the other is also contaminated.

Does this apply to all?  I've seen some people who seem to not have a well-ordered gait or even fit body or style of speech, but upon talking with them, they seem to be wise and virtuous.  Conversely, I've seen people who are able to speak very well and their outward appearance and style seems to be fit and ordered, but upon talking to them, they only had appearance and not substance.

Is Seneca's analysis a hard and fast rule?  Perhaps not.  He does have a point, that if you take care of the soul and strive to keep it ordered, logical, virtuous and resilient, then perhaps the style will follow.

Sometimes, as individuals, we have to overcome the sentiment of the time.  When culture and all around us has focused on the wrong things for so long, we have to strive, even harder as individuals, to rise above the polluted air and breath the fresh, clean air.

This fault is due sometimes to the man, and sometimes to his epoch.  When prosperity has spread luxury far and wide, men begin by paying closer attention to their personal appearance.

Take care of our own soul first.  Appearances will follow.  Don't focus on your appearance and style, rather focus on what is virtuous, what is good.  Strive for courage, wisdom, and temperance.

Here are a few more quotes from the letter which stood out to me.

Just as luxurious banquets and elaborate dress are indications of disease in the state, similarly a lax style, if it be popular, shows that the mind (which is the source of the word) has lost its balance. Indeed you ought not to wonder that corrupt speech is welcomed not merely by the more squalid mob but also by our more cultured throng.


The soul is our king. If it be safe, the other functions remain on duty and serve with obedience; but the slightest lack of equilibrium in the soul causes them to waver along with it. And when the soul has yielded to pleasure, its functions and actions grow weak, and any undertaking comes from a nerveless and unsteady source.


We should be sensible, and our wants more reasonable, if each of us were to take stock of himself, and to measure his bodily needs also, and understand how little he can consume, and for how short a time! But nothing will give you so much help toward moderation as the frequent thought that life is short and uncertain here below; whatever you are doing, have regard to death.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 113 - On the Vitality of the Soul and Its Attributes

On the Vitality of the Soul and Its Attributes

The letter answers the question: are virtues living things?  In sum, Seneca replies they are not; the soul is a living thing, which possesses virtues.  He discusses this somewhat extensively, and then ends the letter with some thoughts on bravery and discipline.

Seneca doesn't think talking about this question is a good use of time, but nonetheless answers it.

You wish me to write to you my opinion concerning this question, which has been mooted by our school – whether justice, courage, foresight, and the other virtues, are living things.  By such niceties as this, my beloved Lucilius, we have made people think that we sharpen our wits on useless objects, and waste our leisure time in discussions that will be unprofitable.

He gets directly to the answer.

The soul, men are agreed, is a living thing ... But virtue is nothing else than a soul in a certain condition; therefore it is a living thing. Again, virtue is active, and no action can take place without impulse. And if a thing has impulse, it must be a living thing.

The soul is a living thing with impulses.  Virtue is active and prompts us to have an impulse, which we then act on.

We may have multiple virtues (or vices) in our soul, but we are still one living soul.  Just like the hydra has many heads, it is still one soul.

each separate head fighting and destroying independently. And yet there is no separate living thing to each head; it is the head of a living thing, and the hydra itself is one single living thing.

Later in the letter, Seneca repeats and succinctly states his answer to the main question.

Every living thing acts of itself; but virtue does nothing of itself; it must act in conjunction with man. All living things either are gifted with reason, like men and gods, or else are irrational, like beasts and cattle. Virtues, in any case, are rational; and yet they are neither men nor gods; therefore they are not living things.

To conclude the letter, he makes the very important point that use of knowledge is what matters; not discussing and nitpicking.  He focuses on the virtue of bravery to make this point.

Teach me, not whether Bravery be a living thing, but prove that no living thing is happy without bravery, that is, unless it has grown strong to oppose hazards and has overcome all the strokes of chance by rehearsing and anticipating their attack.

What is bravery?

It is the impregnable fortress for our mortal weakness; when a man has surrounded himself therewith, he can hold out free from anxiety during life's siege.

He quotes Posidonius:

"There are never any occasions when you need think yourself safe because you wield the weapons of Fortune; fight with your own! Fortune does not furnish arms against herself; hence men equipped against their foes are unarmed against Fortune herself."

Then he focuses on Alexander the Great, who conquered nations, but could not conquer himself and ended up killing his own friends.

he, the conqueror of so many kings and nations, was laid low by anger and grief! For he had made it his aim to win control over everything except his emotions.

Seneca writes a few, excellent reminders, which we all would do well to repeat to ourselves often.

Self-Command is the greatest command of all.


I must be just without reward.


May I take pleasure in devoting myself of my own free will to uphold this noblest of virtues.


Those who wish their virtue to be advertised are not striving for virtue but for renown.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 112 - On Reforming Hardened Sinners

On Reforming Hardened Sinners

According to Seneca, some people are very difficult to reform.

Now this person, concerning whom you have sent me your message in writing, has no strength; for he has pampered his vices.   He has at one and the same time become flabby and hardened. He cannot receive reason, nor can he nourish it.


Luxury has merely upset his stomach; he will soon become reconciled to it again.


Men love and hate their vices at the same time. It will be the proper season to pass judgment on him when he has given us a guarantee that he really hates luxury; as it is now, luxury and he are merely not on speaking terms.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 111 - On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

On the Vanity of Mental Gymnastics

The intent of philosophy is flourishing - eudaimonia - in which the Stoics claim that one's personal virtue, reasoning and actions are aligned with Nature.  If the philosophy is not lived, and instead simply held in a theoretical paradigm, then did you really learn anything?

In this vein, Seneca attacks the practice of sophismata - he calls them mental gymnastics.  Speaking of sophismata or mental gymnastics, he writes,

If a man has surrendered himself to them, he weaves many a tricky subtlety, but makes no progress toward real living; he does not thereby become braver, or more restrained, or loftier of spirit.

But one who applies what he has learned is the one making progress.

He, however, who has practised philosophy to effect his own cure, becomes high-souled, full of confidence, invincible, and greater as you draw near him.

He goes on,

our true philosopher, true by his acts and not by his tricks. He stands in a high place, worthy of admiration, lofty, and really great.


He is therefore above earthly things, equal to himself under all conditions, – whether the current of life runs free, or whether he is tossed and travels on troubled and desperate seas; but this steadfastness cannot be gained through such hair-splittings as I have just mentioned.

If you are going to play these mental games, Seneca advises to

let it be at a time when you wish to do nothing.

He further cautions that if you practice sophismata, be sure to not get caught up in thinking that since you can work out these puzzlers, you think you are wise.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Letters from a Stoic 110 - On True and False Riches

On True and False Riches

In Seneca's time, many believed a personal god or protector accompanied each person.

the present the belief of certain persons – that a god is assigned to each one of us as a sort of attendant – not a god of regular rank, but one of a lower grade – one of those whom Ovid calls "plebeian gods."

This is not unlike the Stoic view of deity.  The Stoics believe that there is a bit of god in each of us - our own daimon.  Marcus refers to the daimon often and this is where the word eudaimonia comes from - to have a good god-soul within us; to align our unique part of us with the Whole or Nature.

Seneca makes the point that regardless if you have a bit of god in you or not (and we are therefore neglected), he observes, 

you can curse a man with no heavier curse than to pray that he may be at enmity with himself.

If we are at enmity with ourselves, then we deny our very existence!

He then pivots to the observation that 'evils' do not really turn out to be evils, especially if we take the perspective of the view from above - seeing things from the perspective of God or Nature.

evils are more likely to help us than to harm us. For how often has so-called affliction been the source and the beginning of happiness!

Our lives may be built up over many years; we may enjoy decades of health and savings and prosperity.  But then along comes some misfortune.  We may become ill or lose a job.  How often do we see people reinvent themselves and start anew?  Was the illness or job loss really a misfortune?

But let us also never forget that regardless of the 'highs' and 'lows' of life, the very end for everyone ends up the same.  When compared to our final state (death), all 'lows' and 'downs' in life (e.g. illness, job less, exile, etc.) are nothing.

But this very fall has in it nothing evil, if you consider the end, after which nature lays no man lower.

Wise people consider the Whole.  The wise aim for equanimity - neither tormented by the fears of 'lows' nor overcome with joy by the 'highs.'

measure all things according to the state of man; restrict at the same time both your joys and your fears.

Wise people also remember that externals are nothing to us.  They do not depend on us.  Therefore, we should never get worked up about them!

All these things which stir us and keep us a-flutter, are empty things.

Referring to externals, Seneca observes,

how fleeting, how unsure, and how harmless are the things which we fear.

What is the antidote to succumbing to externals?  To learn what is truly good and evil: our moral choice.  We can learn this.

we acquire by knowledge this familiarity with things divine and human, if we not only flood ourselves but steep ourselves therein, if a man reviews the same principles even though he understands them and applies them again and again to himself, if he has investigated what is good, what is evil, and what has falsely been so entitled; and, finally, if he has investigated honour and baseness, and Providence.

Furthermore, we may frequently take flight and return often to the view from above; and ignore what the majority incorrectly deem as good: riches, fame, status.

The range of the human intelligence is not confined within these limits; it may also explore outside the universe – its destination and its source, and the ruin towards which all nature hastens so rapidly. We have withdrawn the soul from this divine contemplation and dragged it into mean and lowly tasks, so that it might be a slave to greed, so that it might forsake the universe and its confines, and, under the command of masters who try all possible schemes, pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up therefrom – discontented with that which was freely offered to it.

When Seneca admonishes us to 'explore outside the universe' it sound very familiar to Marcus:

Further, the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole. It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future" (Meditations 11.1.2).

Hadot often speaks of this practice of 'taking flight' and traversing the Cosmos.  See this entry on my blog.

Returning to the Seneca quote above, he also notes that greed is the cause for humanity to turn away from the heavens and towards the earth - to dig for gold, silver and minerals.  Our greed drives us to 'pry beneath the earth and seek what evil it can dig up' as we are 'discontented with that which is freely offered.'  Seneca says something similar in Letter 94.  In this letter he adds,

we have brought to light the materials for our destruction, against the will of Nature, who hid them from us. We have bound over our souls to pleasure, whose service is the source of all evil; we have surrendered ourselves to self-seeking and reputation, and to other aims which are equally idle and useless.

Our goal; and what is freely ours, is

to see clearly for yourself what is necessary and what is superfluous.  What is necessary will meet you everywhere; what is superfluous has always to be hunted-out – and with great endeavour.

We ought to despise greed, gluttony and luxury.  These are all for show.  These are externals and truly are not a part of us nor 'up to us.'  To acquire, to eat to excess, to bask in riches are merely activities of display, but do not demonstrate actual human excellence.

Seneca closes with a quote from Attalus, who speaks of a procession of wealth by an empire, of which a few parts I've copied below.

What else is this, I said to myself, than a stirring-up of man's cravings, which are in themselves provocative of lust? What is the meaning of all this display of money? Did we gather merely to learn what greed was? For my own part I left the place with less craving than I had when I entered. I came to despise riches, not because of their uselessness, but because of their pettiness


the riches seemed to me to be as useless to the possessors as they were to the onlookers.


It is all show; such things are displayed, not possessed; while they please they pass away. 18. Turn thyself rather to the true riches. Learn to be content with little


Do you ask what is the cure for want? It is to make hunger satisfy hunger


freedom comes, not to him over whom Fortune has slight power, but to him over whom she has no power at all. This is what I mean: you must crave nothing, if you would vie with Jupiter; for Jupiter craves nothing.

Think often of these things.

If you are willing to think often of these things, you will strive not to seem happy, but to be happy, and, in addition, to seem happy to yourself rather than to others.