The Stoic motto "live according to Nature" has multiple levels of meaning. This letter discusses one of those levels
He speaks of a friend, who's body is feeble and weak, but who's spirit and character is great. He contemplates how Nature (i.e. the Universe / Cosmos / God) proves to us (humanity) that it is the soul - the character - that matters more than the body.
For Nature acted unfairly when she gave him a poor domicile for so rare a soul; or perhaps it was because she wished to prove to us that an absolutely strong and happy mind can lie hidden under any exterior. ... A great man can spring from a hovel; so can a beautiful and great soul from an ugly and insignificant body. For this reason Nature seems to me to breed certain men of this stamp with the idea of proving that virtue springs into birth in any place whatever. ... Nature does a still greater thing, for she produces certain men who, though hampered in their bodies, none the less break through the obstruction.
This last part, when he speaks of certain men who "break through the obstruction" reminds me of Marcus Aurelius speaking of the obstacle being way. To be clear, the body is a Stoic indifferent. It is not the Good, as it is a thing that does not depend on the truly unique part of us. In the example of Seneca's friend, his body is the obstacle and the way for him to demonstrate excellence of soul or character is to prove that one can demonstrate courage, justice, diligence and wisdom regardless of the condition of your body. I think of Stephen Hawking as a modern example.
The next section is about his conversation with his friend.
how can goods be equal if they are of three kinds? For certain of them, according to our philosophical tenets, are primary, such as joy, peace, and the welfare of one's country. Others are of the second order, moulded in an unhappy material, such as the endurance of suffering, and self-control during severe illness. We shall pray outright for the goods of the first class; for the second class we shall pray only if the need shall arise. There is still a third variety, as, for example, a modest gait, a calm and honest countenance, and a bearing that suits the man of wisdom.
When he talks of three kinds of goods, I think he's referring to Stoic indifferents. The first kind would be preferred indifferents. And when he says "pray" I interpret that to mean more like 'prefer' or 'wish' as opposed to formal prayers.
A Stoic does not act indifferently to Stoic indifferents. These Stoic indifferents are the material for demonstrating excellence of character. In all three types of indifferents Seneca mentions, our goal is to rise above them. Seneca elaborates:
the soul that gazes upon truth, that is skilled in what should be sought and what should be avoided, establishing standards of value not according to opinion, but according to nature, – the soul that penetrates the whole world and directs its contemplating gaze upon all its phenomena, paying strict attention to thoughts and actions, equally great and forceful, superior alike to hardships and blandishments, yielding itself to neither extreme of fortune, rising above all blessings and tribulations, absolutely beautiful, perfectly equipped with grace as well as with strength, healthy and sinewy, unruffled, undismayed, one which no violence can shatter, one which acts of chance can neither exalt nor depress, – a soul like this is virtue itself.
If I were to rephrase briefly, I would say an excellent soul is neither overcome with joy nor defeated by pain, but retains equanimity in all things and strives to see all things and events from the perspective of Nature; of God.
For the Supreme Good cannot diminish, nor may virtue retrograde; rather is it transformed, now into one quality and now into another, shaping itself according to the part which it is to play. Whatever it has touched it brings into likeness with itself, and dyes with its own colour. It adorns our actions, our friendships, and sometimes entire households which it has entered and set in order. Whatever it has handled it forthwith makes lovable, notable, admirable.
I may be wrong and perhaps others will inform me of how to comprehend this passage. But it seems to me, that Seneca is saying that the "Supreme Good" is Nature; and as we humans are a part of Nature, we exercise what is truly ours - choice and attitude - to understand our part to play and then to play it well. Nature "touches" us - it impacts us through events and circumstances - we might call it Fate. And our part is to exercise our virtue. We shape ourselves according to the part we ought to play. As Nature proceeds and as we act with virtue, we are dyed with Nature's color - we live according to Nature.
And for humans to be good - to be a part of the Supreme Good - we are to be good ourselves, by exercising moral virtue. Moral virtue is absolute and cannot be improved.
You will find nothing straighter than the straight, nothing truer than the truth, and nothing more temperate than that which is temperate. Every virtue is limitless; for limits depend upon definite measurements. Constancy cannot advance further, any more than fidelity, or truthfulness, or loyalty. What can be added to that which is perfect? ... Honour, also, permits of no addition; for it is honourable because of the very qualities which I have mentioned. What then? Do you think that propriety, justice, lawfulness, do not also belong to the same type, and that they are kept within fixed limits? The ability to increase is proof that a thing is still imperfect.
Seneca invokes the scala naturae again by noting the virtues of plants, which are perishable, and the virtues of humans, which are as enduring as Reason itself, since we have a portion of it within us.
to human virtues only one rule applies. For right reason is single and of but one kind. Nothing is more divine than the divine, or more heavenly than the heavenly. Mortal things decay, fall, are worn out, grow up, are exhausted, and replenished. Hence, in their case, in view of the uncertainty of their lot, there is inequality; but of things divine the nature is one. Reason, however, is nothing else than a portion of the divine spirit set in a human body.
Seneca paints a picture of human excellence, regardless of circumstances.
the other virtues are also equal as compared with one another: tranquility, simplicity, generosity, constancy, equanimity, endurance. For underlying them all is a single virtue – that which renders the soul straight and unswerving. ... Virtue is not changed by the matter with which it deals; if the matter is hard and stubborn, it does not make the virtue worse; if pleasant and joyous, it does not make it better. Therefore, virtue necessarily remains equal. For, in each case, what is done is done with equal uprightness, with equal wisdom, and with equal honour. Hence the states of goodness involved are equal, and it is impossible for a man to transcend these states of goodness by conducting himself better, either the one man in his joy, or the other amid his suffering.
Retaining equanimity and being constant in any circumstance and event is a difficult proposition. This is why there are no sages. This is why previewing the day and then reviewing it at the end helps us contemplate the many different scenarios we face. The practice of premeditatio malorum also helps us prepare to respond to the many different curve balls life throws at us.
Doing the morally correct thing must be done for the right reasons and it should be done willingly. Just doing the right thing, but unwillingly, is not a demonstration of excellence.
no act is honourable that is done by an unwilling agent, that is compulsory. Every honourable act is voluntary. Alloy it with reluctance, complaints, cowardice, or fear, and it loses its best characteristic – self-approval. That which is not free cannot be honourable; for fear means slavery. The honourable is wholly free from anxiety and is calm ... when a man is about to do something honourable, he should not regard any obstacles as evils, even though he regard them as inconvenient, but he should will to do the deed, and do it willingly.
While a Stoic may prefer the indifferent of joy and dis-prefer the indifferent of pain, when it comes to demonstrating excellence of soul, the good man will do the right thing regardless if joy or pain are involved.
the good man will hasten unhesitatingly to any noble deed; even though he be confronted by the hangman, the torturer, and the stake, he will persist, regarding not what he must suffer, but what he must do; and he will entrust himself as readily to an honourable deed as he would to a good man.
The good man can demonstrate virtue whether he is rich or poor. Whatever Fortune or Fate has given him, he will make good use of it.
virtue is just as praiseworthy if it dwells in a sound and free body, as in one which is sickly or in bondage. ... For all those things over which Chance holds sway are chattels, – money, person, position; they are weak, shifting, prone to perish, and of uncertain tenure. On the other hand, the works of virtue are free and unsubdued, neither more worthy to be sought when fortune treats them kindly, nor less worthy when any adversity weighs upon them.
The next section (24-27) is a bit obscure, but to me it seems Seneca is simply saying that virtuous (excellent) acts of moral behavior are equal, regardless of the "accessories" that surround the individual. These "accessories" would be nothing more than indifferents. You admire a good person because they are morally good; and you do not differentiate your love for the poor, weak good man and the wealthy, healthy good man. Good is good. He compares this equality to a loving parent. A parent loves all her children. If, however, a child faces hardships, there may be more care or help given to them.
Virtue, too, does not necessarily love more deeply those of her works which she beholds in trouble and under heavy burdens, but, like good parents, she gives them more of her fostering care.
Returning to the "good is good" concept; Seneca makes a finer point, which somewhat hits on the "preferred indifferents" aspects of Stoicism, when he says the first example of virtue is "desirable" and the second is "worthy of admiration."
there is an equality between feeling joy with self-control and suffering pain with self-control. The joy in the one case does not surpass in the other the steadfastness of soul that gulps down the groan when the victim is in the clutches of the torturer; goods of the first kind are desirable, while those of the second are worthy of admiration; and in each case they are none the less equal.
Philosophy helps us aim higher than the pursuit of indifferents. What most people chase and admire is foolishness and brings nothing but "empty joy." Also, we often fear that which is irrational. Those who are educated in these two very important aspects of life can find a path to live rationally knowing not to chase one and avoid the other. Many other people use these two facts to manipulate others; either to pursue indifferents or to instill fear into them in order to sell a solution to address that fear. To avoid not being played by this sort of person, open your eyes to the reality of the situation and be rational.
those things which are thoughtlessly praised, and are goods in the opinion of the mob merely puff us up with empty joy. And again, those things which are feared as if they were evils merely inspire trepidation in men's minds, for the mind is disturbed by the semblance of danger, just as animals are disturbed. Hence it is without reason that both these things distract and sting the spirit; the one is not worthy of joy, nor the other of fear.
Seneca plays the preferred indifferents pretty strongly.
certain goods which reason regards as primary, to which she addresses herself purposely; these are, for example, victory, good children, and the welfare of one's country.
I would agree with him about "good children" and "welfare of one's country", but I'm not so sure about the "victory" one. I tend to think that preferred indifferents ought to be beneficial for all people in the world. We all want our children to be good; good children is good for the world. The same would be true for the welfare of the country - we want people to have food, to generally be healthy and be afforded an opportunity to live a good life. As to "victory" this would imply someone or some other people lost. Therefore, how could this be beneficial for all?
He makes a finer point on this topic. While we prefer some indifferents, we still nonetheless can demonstrate excellence in the face of adversity.
being wounded, wasting away over a fire, being afflicted with bad health, – such things are contrary to nature; but it is in accordance with nature for a man to preserve an indomitable soul amid such distresses.
Later on he says that he would actually prefer the harsher hardships.
if any goods could be greater than others, I should prefer those which seem harsh to those which are mild and alluring, and should pronounce them greater. For it is more of an accomplishment to break one's way through difficulties than to keep joy within bounds. It requires the same use of reason, I am fully aware, for a man to endure prosperity well and also to endure misfortune bravely.
He ends by alluding to some story of Mucius, who willed his maimed hand to be held over some fire, defying his enemy. And his enemy, fearing that the fame of Mucius would be greater, ordered that the fire be removed. Thus Mucius became victorious over his enemy.
This was a very long, rambling letter and was somewhat difficult to follow. It took me a few days to read it and try to understand what Seneca was trying to convey. I hope this was useful in some way for anyone who comes across this post.