Seneca: on the firmness of the wise person

Cato the Younger

Seneca’s essay on the firmness of the wise person presents the Stoic idea of the Sage in very clear and practical terms, as a role model to aspire to. The author is very clear that the Sage is not a hypothetical, unreachable by actual human beings, as is the case for instance in Christianity, where the equivalent of the Sage, Jesus, is literally a God. In a sense, the role of the Sage in Stoicism is similar to that of Buddha: showing the way.

Seneca’s way to make clear that he is talking about real people is to mention one in particular:

“You have no cause for saying, as you are wont to do, that this wise man of ours is nowhere to be found; we do not invent him as an unreal glory of the human race, or conceive a mighty shadow of an untruth, but we have displayed and will display him just as we sketch him, though he may perhaps be uncommon, and only one appears at long intervals; for what is great and transcends the common ordinary type is not often produced; but this very Marcus Cato himself, the mention of whom started this discussion, was a man who I fancy even surpassed our model.”

Seneca begins the essay by reminding his friend Serenus — to whom he is addressing his words — that progress requires effort, and yet that it isn’t as difficult as so many people think to become a Stoic. He then proceeds to introduce Cato as an example of a Stoic Sage (compared to mythological ones, like Ulysses and Hercules), explaining that no injury or insult could touch him, though at the same time we are indirectly reminded of the price that sometimes needs to be paid to keep one’s moral integrity: “for Cato did not outlive freedom, nor did freedom outlive Cato.”

In section V Seneca claims that not even Fortune can take away what she has not given, and that therefore nothing can take away from us virtue, because virtue is not given to us, it is something that comes from within. That being the case, then no real injury can be done to the wise man.

The theme of Fortune returns in section VI, where Seneca says: “bear adversity with calm and prosperity with moderation, neither yielding to the former nor trusting to the latter,” which is a nice summary of the Stoic attitude toward “indifferents,” i.e., things that are outside of out control. (Whether Seneca was able to follow his own advice, of course, is a matter of historical dispute.)

Another characteristic of the wise man (section IX) is that he is free from fear, because fear originates from the perception that one can be injured, but as we have seen, nothing can truly injure the Sage. Later on (X and XVI) Seneca further clarifies what he means, making a very good point that is often missed by critics of Stoicism:

“Some other things strike the wise man, though they may not shake his principles, such as bodily pain and weakness, the loss of friends and children, and the ruin of his country in war-time. … We do not deny that it is an unpleasant thing to be beaten or struck, or to lose one of our limbs, but we say that none of these things are injuries. We do not take away from them the feeling of pain, but the name of ‘injury,’ which cannot be received while our virtue is unimpaired.”

In XI and XII Seneca elaborates on the point that the Sage cannot possibly be insulted. He reminds us that young children do all sorts of things to us that are not pleasant (pulling their mother’s hair, strike their father’s face), and yet we do not feel offended by their behavior. Analogously, the Sage treats people who attempt to injure him through insult as children, to be ignored, or corrected, if at all possible. This, of course, may come across as a bit of an elitist comment, reminiscent of Aristotle’s attitude, and not typically Stoic. But remember, we are talking about the Sage here.

In section XIII we learn that the wise man does not take pleasure in being admired, especially if the admirer is a rich person, because rich people always want something for themselves, usually a great deal of something.

Moreover, not even physical assault perturbs the Sage: “what will the wise man do when he receives a cuff? He will do as Cato did when he was struck in the face; he did not flare up and revenge the outrage, he did not even pardon it, but ignored it, showing more magnanimity in not acknowledging it than if he had forgiven it.”

Yet another powerful passage comes at XVI, when Seneca considers two possible reasons why something bad happens to us, and how, as Stoics, we should respond: “Do these things befall me deservedly or undeservedly? If deservedly, it is not an insult, but a judicial sentence; if undeservedly, then he who does injustice ought to blush, not I.”

At XVII the suggestion is to use self-deprecating humor to deal with insults, because it is hard to laugh at someone who laughs at himself first, and also because that’s a very effective way to simply spoil the fun for your opponent. In general, “the success of an insult lies in the sensitiveness and rage of the victim.”

All in all, the picture of the Sage emerging from this essay by Seneca is, as he promises at the beginning, that of someone who can be emulated with some, but not an impossible, amount of effort. Sagehood is not unachievable, and striving toward it is certainly the goal of the student of Stoicism.

P.S. There is an unfortunate aspect to this otherwise fascinating essay: it nakedly displays Seneca’s sexism, which was not uncommon among Romans, but that was certainly not universal among Stoics. Indeed, Cato’s own daughter, Porcia, was a model Stoic in the way she lived and died. But this didn’t stop Seneca from making the following remark, right at the beginning of On the Firmness: “I might truly say, Serenus, that there is as wide a difference between the Stoics and the other sects of philosophers as there is between men and women, since each class contributes an equal share to human society, but the one is born to command, the other to obey.” But we already knew Seneca was far from being perfect…

27 thoughts on “Seneca: on the firmness of the wise person

  1. I have a different view. The Stoic Sage is impossible since it would require infallible judgement; so it can be approaches but never reached. You cannot become a Buddha (for most sects) since there is only one per world age and we’ve already had one. It is possible to become a saint in many versions of Christianity although some do say that you can never overcome moral crookedness. (Hmm).


  2. Considering Seneca was committing adultery with married women which is unacceptable even for non-Stoics, his balatant sexism isn’t surprising to me. Contrast this to Musonius who was a contemporary of Seneca and who stated women are equal to men. Seneca to me fails on so many different levels and are only exacerbated by his fine, sage-like words.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jbonnicerenoreg,

    while the early Stoics did argue that the Sage would have infallible judgment, the later Stoics clearly didn’t, as evidenced from Seneca’s writings, for instance. Notions about the achievement of Enlightenment in one’s lifetime vary from Buddhist sect to sect, as I understand it, and at any rate of course that bears little on what Stoics should think of Sagehood. As for Sainthood, yes, that is possible, but my Catholic catechism never emphasized that, only Jesus…


    it is historically highly questionable that Seneca actually engaged in adultery. A number of courses suggest that that was a trumped up charge to get rid of him. And as you probably know, I have a more, shall we say, nuanced view of his personal failings than you seem to.


  4. Massimo, regarding him committing adultery, if there was only one I’d understand but I believe there were at least three charges against him about the same matter.

    Seneca was at the very least a willing participant in the killing of Nero’s mother Agrippina. How can someone who calls himself a Stoic be part of a scheme that has a son murdering his own mother? Immoral, hypocritical, and unacceptable.


  5. “We do not deny that it is an unpleasant thing to be beaten or struck, or to lose one of our limbs, but we say that none of these things are injuries. We do not take away from them the feeling of pain, but the name of ‘injury,’ which cannot be received while our virtue is unimpaired.”

    I find much to like in Stoicism, but not calling an injury an injury strikes me as the kind of words games that gives philosophy its pad PR. Maybe in makes more sense in Latin.

    And, of course, not literally true even if Seneca is taling about injuries too the mind.

    I would think a Sage can be affected by PTSD if you injure him/her enough.


  6. Suntzu,

    Again, the historical record simply does not support your extremely negative view of Seneca on adultery.

    As for Agrippina, a number of pragmatic interpretations have been suggested, such as the Seneca was still trying to steer Nero – to whom there were no credible alternatives at the time – toward a path of least damage. And there is no historical support for the idea that Seneca was directly involved in Agrippina’s death (moreover, Agrippuna herself was no saint). In other words, the whole shebang is just too complicated for simple moralizing.


    “Injury” for Stoics has a technical meaning, and one needs to take them at their words, using their meanings, or one ends up being uncharitable to the philosophy, and nobody learns anything of value as a result.


  7. As a counterpoint to Seneca’s misogynic remarks in De constantia, I would like to invite all of you to take a look at Letter 97 of the Epistulae ad Lucilium.

    Seneca’s character and political activity were always a very disputed matter, but I believe the sort of death he chose to himself is a powerful testimony against those charges, at least those ones which suggest incurably base inclinations. Since we cannot be certain about those things, lost in the past, we have suppose it would require a really rare mendacious condition of mind in order to make the brilliant writer of moral treatises and the cold-hearted, vain politician inhabit the same soul. It seems to me that the simplest alternative, in our case, is the best: Seneca was a fallible human being, but a passably honest proficiens, and a very acute writer from the psychological point of view.

    If you sincerely believe that Seneca was a conspirator and an adulterer because he was so accused in his times, why not to believe those who said Dante Alighieri was a corrupt politician? But we know, by the kind of work Dante has bequeathed us and his own life style during his exile, that he was not a crook. I think a similar case can be done in favor of Seneca. Hypocrisy has its limits.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nero was a young man. Seneca was an older more cunning man. Yet somehow Seneca now becomes the unwilling participant? At the very least as a respectable Stoic he should have refused to write fine words to justify why Nero had to kill his mother, which Seneca did. Ultimately, the role of a teacher, which Seneca was supposed to be for young Nero was to be an example. Musonius and his famous student Epictetus drove the point again and again: you have to apply the principles. Everything else is useless. Why? As a teacher this gives you more leverage, to have an impactful effect on the student. A picture is worth a thousand words. In the end even Seneca’s fine words didn’t help Nero and the rest is history. Could he have turned Nero around? He could have had a philosopher’s chance. Musonius was largely successful with Vespasian and Titus.


  9. suntzu,

    once again, I’m not here to defend Seneca, who was surely a flawed man. But your portrait is both historically inaccurate (e.g., the alleged infidelity) and a bit too simple. Yes, Nero was young. He was also the most powerful man in the world, to whom there was no alternative in Rome save for a bloody civil war (which is what happened when he died). The historical record is clear that Seneca and the head of the Praetorian guard kept him in check for the first five years or so, which was in fact a good period for Rome, despite Nero’s crimes. After that Seneca saw that the emperor was becoming more and more unhinged and attempted to retire more than once, unsuccessfully.

    As for philosophers kings, Musonius may or may not have had anything to do with Vespasian’s behavior, but certainly Aristotle failed with Alexander and Plato with Dionysius II. Kings, like the rest of us, have to *want* to be educated, the mere presence of a philosopher won’t do.


    uhm, I already tend to fail a significant percentage of my students, I doubt that embracing existentialcomics’ version of Epictetus would improve things…


  10. synred,

    oh there has been a lot of empirical evidence from cognitive science that bears on Stoicism. As you might know, a number of modern, evidence based therapies, such as logo-theraphy and CBT, were inspired by Stoic techniques.

    And the Stoics would have welcome empirical challenges. After all, “living according to nature” means living like a social being who brings reason to bear on problems, and reason means also science.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Massimo, we’ll have to agree to disagree here. There are at least three contemporaries of Seneca who have accused him of hypocrisy. One was exiled as a result thanks to Seneca. I think their accounts shouldn’t be dismissed. You can say they are biased but what account of any human being isn’t biased in history? You see no such charge of hypocrisy of Musonius who too was part of the Roman political circus. In fact Vespasian who hated philosophers because of their idle chatter (I read Seneca here) banished them all except for one. That one was Musonius. It’s too bad Seneca has to be compared to Musonius but I have to in order to give us context. For example Seneca’s sexism cannot be forgiven because Musonius believed equal treatment for both men and women. If Seneca chose the path of a typical Roman politician and rhetoric, then I wouldn’t be so stringent. But he claimed to be a Stoic. He is a great writer and I love his letters and moral essays but he is also hypocritical to his claim of being a Stoic. He is at best a theorist.

    Another point I want to make. We owe a lot to Seneca for material about the late Stoa period. In contrast Musonius like Epictetus and Socrates didn’t write anything. All we have are fragments and re-written material. But let’s not confuse quantity with quality, especially when a reader is looking to effectively apply Stoicism. Seneca isn’t necessarily wrong about what he wrote but I am wary about someone who didnt or wasn’t able to apply in the real world what he espoused. Thank you for hearing me out Massimo. I appreciate the work you do and I’m grateful for our exchange.


  12. The practical consequence of what suntzuspeaks is proposing would be purging the stoic corpus of Seneca’s work, since his adhesion to stoic principles was, so to speak, questionable. Yet, much of the richness of the school’s heritage would be lost in a such case because what Seneca represents, among other things, is an attempt to apply the lessons of the Porch in a very troublesome political arena.

    Even if I prefer Epictetus’ “calculated obscurity” and solidity, I don’t think it is right to diminish the importance of Seneca. Flawed as he was, the old Lucius faced a challenge few philosophers really experienced: tyranny. And, again, his death was a somewhat dignifying event, and is representative of the autonomy that philosophy must attain relatively to political power.

    People seriously committed to stoicism gain a lot by meditating on Seneca’s flaws. When stoics say that only the Sage is perfect, they really mean it: human nature must be considered in its complexity. Stoicism is interesting because it cannot be confused with a poor form of puritanism.

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  13. Dsf, I like Seneca’s prose too much to propose a purge which would be ridiculous. His writings are superior to Arrian’s and Lucius’s who transcribed the discourses of Epictetus and Musonius, respectively. What I’m proposing is the awareness that the writer himself was so deeply flawed that we should all be skeptical about the effectiveness of those lessons. The feudal Japanese took into account who makes a sword. Their concern was if the swordmaker was unstable so too the sword. This applies to teachers too. Being firm in instruction means one has knowledge and experience in the matter. Could it be that our Seneca didn’t have the force to drive home Stoic lessons to Nero because he didn’t have conviction of application himself? Remember every time Nero offs someoene, Seneca got a piece of wealth or property from it, like when Britannicus and Aggripina’s belongings were divvied up. And there is no doubt imo Seneca was addicted to wealth despite his claim of indifference to wealth. There are simply too many problems with our Seneca. I wish he was the personification of his soaring prose. In contrast when I read Musonius talks about marriage and the procession of a family, I can take comfort that he knew what he was talking about because Musonius lived it and can preach to anyone from a slave (Epictetus) to an emperor (Titus) about it.


  14. Suntzuspeaks, your position is totally defensible. It inscribes itself in a very old lineage of skepticism about Seneca. Nevertheless, without a critical density (which is absolutely not your case, as I can notice), I am afraid it could lend to “purifying solutions” which are not compatible with the lessons of the Porch.

    I think both our views can be harmonized if we resort to a kind of hierarchical vision of the stoic corpus, ascribing to the sayings/writings of Musonius Rufus and Epictetus the first place, and to Seneca a more modest, supplemental position.

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  15. Dsf, that would be something I can agree with you on. I find it ironic Seneca’s admiration for Cato because Cato was the consummate hero in a losing effort yet he bravely chose paths that were supposedly against his interests but in conformity with his principles. We tend to admire those who succeed but more specially those who succeed in applying their principles regardless of outcome. This to me is what Stoicism is about. Controlling what you can control and leave the rest to God. Hence it is then easy to accept what is given you because you have fully done your part. Thank you for our discussion dsf. Take care.


  16. Gentlemen, if you don’t mind, I would like to extend my appreciation to you both for conducting an exemplary exchange, even when we agree to disagree on some issues.

    This is something that I noticed to be common within the Stoic community, and so refreshing from the harsh criticism and counter criticism that are typical of the sort of atheist or “freethinking” blogs I used to frequent.

    So, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I see the Heidegger isn’t thrown out of philosophy because he was a Nazi. I would tend to ignore him because he was a Nazi, but as I can’t understand him anyway it’s a moot point.

    It’s not exactly analogous, of course,. Heidegger was not in a position to influence Hitler much, one way or the other.


  18. Synred, I think the analogy with Heidegger does not work very well because in his period both the function of philosophy and the nature of tyranny were drastically different from what we observe in Antiquity. Twentieth century philosophy was rarely committed to a sort practical wisdom, focusing on social critique or the building of systems that should be capable of reproducing what is most relevant in reality, for example. Moreover, ancient tyrants were dysfunctional, passion-driven individuals whose reign of cruelty was based on voluntarism and caprice; when they died, the political problem was solved. Modern tyrannies rely on things like ideology, propaganda, partisanship, State apparatus, etc. The tyrant as a person is not important, since he/she is merely a part of a machine.


  19. . Twentieth century philosophy was rarely committed to a sort practical wisdom,

    Sartre ? Marx? Hegel (for Kings)? Edmund Burke? Locke?


  20. Synred,

    Besides the fact that several of those philosophers don’t belong to the 20th century, the point is still valid: Marx proposed a systemic social criticism, but definitely not a practical personal philosophy as it was done in antiquity.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Well I t guess I took 20th century to mean ‘modern’ as apposed to ‘ancient’. A little careless!, perhaps.

    I think Edmund Burke is alive and well at the Cato Institute :_)


  22. My impression is that existentialist propose a ‘way to live”, right?

    I seem to recall some discussion of Stoics being a precursor to existentialism, but don’t remember where.


  23. @synred, re: “I would tend to ignore him because he was a Nazi, but as I can’t understand him anyway it’s a moot point.”

    That was funny. I laughed.

    @jbonnicerenoreg, re: “You cannot become a Buddha (for most sects) since there is only one per world age and we’ve already had one.”

    …Massimo’s remarks, vis-à-vis a sage, seem entirely consistent with the notion of a bodhisattva ideal – he even took care to distinguish between the sage as Stoic versus the unique Christian sage that is Christ, so I think we may be charitable enough to assume the same distinction holds as relates any creature that may achieve buddhahood in the spirit of the Lotus Sutra, versus age-Buddhas like Shakyamuni or Maitreya.

    Actually, a reading of this sense of a Stoic sage, together with the Lotus Sutra, would probably be an enlightening exercise, IMO.

    Besides, L. Ron Hubbard said he was Maitreya – so that more or less closes the book on it. 😉

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