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…