The Stoics were big on both real life (Socrates) and fictional (Heracles) role models. That’s because virtue ethics is focused on the improvement of the individual character, something that can be achieved only by practice after other people’s examples. For the Stoics (unlike for Aristotle) virtue is both technē (i.e., craftsmanship) and epistēmē (i.e., knowledge), which is why John Sellars famously suggested that Stoic virtue is a kind of “performative art of living.” (For more on the specific Stoic version of virtue ethics see here and here.) For Seneca (not a role model himself), the most recurrent example of someone to emulate was Cato the Younger, the famous arch-enemy of Julius Caesar. (See here for my multi-part series on Cato.) So this post is an homage to both Seneca and especially Cato, listing the best quotes from all the works of Seneca (Delphi complete edition) that I could find in which the Roman statesman mentions his fellow Stoic. Enjoy.
I spend a significant amount of time discussing all aspects of Stoicism over at the wonderful Facebook Stoicism Group, currently counting over 17,000 people, and one of those exceptional places on the Internet where there is little trolling and a lot of emphasis on civil and constructive discussion. (Of course the fact that Don Robertson is such a dedicated moderator surely helps…) One of the topics that never fails to come up is whether one should really read Seneca, considering his, shall we say mixed reputation as a politician and businessman. Seneca was indubitably sexist, unarguably failed to rein in Nero, and possibly triggered the bloody Boudica rebellion by suddenly calling in a vast amount of loans he had made to the Britannic aristocracy. How does that square with being a Stoic, let alone with someone at least aspiring to be a Sage?
Regret is a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors. It is accompanied by feelings of sadness, shame, embarrassment, depression, annoyance, or guilt. Recently, Gordon Marino (a philosopher who specializes on Kierkegaard) has written an op-ed in the New York Times in praise of regret. This is going to be my Stoic response to it, where I argue that regret is never a useful reaction to past events.
[This guest post is a response to a critical essay by E.O. Scott, who wrote it in response to W. Irvine’s original post in the Oxford University Press blog. My commentary on Bill’s post and his subsequent talk at STOICON ’16 can be found here.]
By William Irvine
Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk on what I call “insult pacifism.” As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.
Time to tackle Seneca’s On Providence (the translation I used is by Aubrey Stewart, full text here), which he wrote shortly before he was “invited” to commit suicide by Nero. The six sections of the book deal with the issue of how to reconcile the Stoic idea of Providence with the observation of evil in the world — very much the same problem faced by Christians, though the metaphysical backgrounds, and to some extent the responses to the problem, are obviously different. Seneca basically says that adversity is to be taken as a way to sharpens one’s virtue (similar, but not quite the same motivation of the Christian God). For him, the wise person can tackle whatever the world throws at her with equanimity precisely because she understands how the universe works (contrast this to the Christian take, which relies on a fundamental mystery about God’s plans). Ultimately, the wise person already has the only thing that matters, her virtue (while the Christian is seeking what he lacks most and foremost and can be provided only by God: salvation).
On this blog, I don’t like to write about either politics (but here is an example) or religion (example here), because one of the main attractions of Stoicism, for me, is precisely that it is a big tent in both those areas: one can be a virtuous conservative or progressive, and similarly one can be religious or atheist and still practice the four cardinal virtues. When I do talk about these topics, it is only from a broad Stoic perspective, and making a very conscious effort to respect other people’s opinions. That said, of course, to welcome a variety of opinions under the same tent does not mean that one doesn’t have one’s own opinion, nor does it mean that one thinks all points of view are equally valid. It is therefore with great reluctance that I take up the topic of climate change which, while technically a scientific issue, has in fact become a highly divisive ideological one. But a fellow Stoic asked me to weigh in, partly because I am a scientist and philosopher of science, and therefore more acquainted with the details than many. So here we go.
The US Presidential elections are over, and Donal J. Trump is the unlikely winner. Moreover, the Republican party now has control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, giving it pretty much absolute power to pursue its agendas. Add to this the recent “Brexit” vote in the UK, and this hasn’t exactly been a good political season for socially progressive cosmopolitans such as myself. So be it, reality is what it is, and there is no sense in wishing it away.