The 11th letter to Lucilius, in the translation by Richard Mott Gummere published in the Delphi Classics edition of Seneca’s Complete Works, deals with a couple of crucial Stoic tenets: the distinction between impressions and assent, and the idea of role models.
Seneca begins with the unlikely topic of blushing, which one simply cannot avoid doing, no matter how hard one tries. He tells his friend Lucilius that “by no wisdom can natural weaknesses of the body be removed. That which is implanted and inborn can be toned down by training, but not overcome” (XI.1).
This is a remarkable insight and an immediate acknowledgement of the limits of philosophy: wisdom itself, the chief good according to the Stoics, cannot overcome our natural predispositions and innate reactions. If we experience embarrassment we blush, if we feel fear or anger, we cannot avoid the rush of adrenalin. This is all outside of our control, and therefore, Epictetus would later say, of “no concern” to us (meaning that we can’t do anything about it, and to attempt it is foolish).
Seneca goes on to reinforce the point: “Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe … we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them” (XI.6). This leaves no illusions in his interlocutor: if you think wisdom is going to make you super-human, you are in for a disappointment, my young friend.
This established, however, Seneca continues with what he thinks is good advice for Lucilius nonetheless, which is to cultivate wisdom despite its limitations, because it is, after all, the best that human beings can do. But how do we cultivate wisdom, exactly? Can it be taught? Is it itself innate? Seneca’s answer is quintessential Stoicism:
“Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them” (XI.8) … “Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit … For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler” (XI.10).
I love the concluding sentence, “you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler,” which encapsulates a fundamental Stoic insight that can be considered valid for any type of virtue ethics: we don’t learn how to be virtuous by obeying rules (like a deontologist would do), or by calculating the possible outcomes of our actions in order to maximize a predetermined quantity (like a utilitarian would). Rather, we learn virtue the same way in which Renaissance artists learned their trade: by associating — virtually, if not physically — with those who already practice at a high level, learning from them by using them as examples to guide us in the molding of our own character. The choice of your personal daimon, is up to you, but choose well, keep practicing while imagining him or her always looking over your shoulders, and your crooked stick will gradually be straightened with the help of the right ruler.
(Incidentally, if you are curious about the above mentioned Laelius, his relationship to Seneca and to Cicero, go here.)