On surviving a change of place



Chapter 16 of Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life deals with a subject matter that was of common concern among the ancient Stoics: exile.

Indeed, he reminds his readers that philosophers in general were expelled from Rome three times: in 161 BCE, and then again under the emperors Vespasian and Domitian. Stoics were a particularly frequent target, with several of them either killed or exiled, including Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Seneca (Irvine mentions others as well: Posidonius, Helvidius Priscus, and Paconius Agrippinus).

The Stoics accepted such fate, well, in typical Stoic fashion:

“When [Paconius] was informed that he had been condemned, he asked whether it was to banishment or death. “To banishment,” came the reply. He then asked whether his property at Aricia had also been confiscated, and when he was told that it hadn’t, he replied, “Let us go to Aricia then and dine.””

As Irvine points out, most people in Western societies these days are unlikely to face exile — though it must also be said that this is definitely not the case, for instance, for political activists in many other parts of the world (and, come to think of it, even in the US: think of Edward Snowden, for instance).

But it isn’t at all uncommon nowadays for people to be forced by external circumstances, be they related to job, family or whatever, to move in places where it wouldn’t otherwise be their choice to go. And some of the challenges are similar to those experienced by the ancient Stoics: one might find oneself without his friends, familiar surroundings, his house, and so forth.

Seneca advices us to remember that regardless of where we go, we still have with us what is most important: “It is the mind that makes us rich; this goes with us into exile, and in the wildest wilderness, having found there all that the body needs for its sustenance, it itself overflows in the enjoyment of its own goods.”

Musonius thought similarly: exile (or, more generally, a change of place forced by the circumstances) cannot deprive us of anything that is truly worth having, namely our virtues. One can be courageous, wise, self-controlled, and just anywhere one goes. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that exile can actually improve people, helping them to cut down on luxurious living.

Irvine concludes the chapter by mentioning another, altogether different, kind of exile, increasingly faced by a number of people in modern society: a nursing home, where one is forced by relatives who are unwilling to, or are in no position of, taking care of their elderly. More on this next week…


Categories: Psychology

1 reply

  1. Indeed. Learning to appreciate solitude, not to require company, is useful in such situations. Funnily enough I mentioned that in my most recent piece over at the SBA. There I noted that generally one would expect the appreciation of solitude to be more a Buddhist than a Stoic recommendation, but this piece of yours confirms it can be useful in either case.

    Solitude may also be useful for its own purposes: it makes meditative self-reflection easier, for example.

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