Is it possible to teach virtue? Opinions differed among the Greco-Roman philosophers, as I have discussed in an earlier post. The Stoics, of course, answered in the positive, but they were not blind to the difficulties inherent in the task, as is clear from letter XXV from Seneca to Lucilius, which in the wonderful Chicago Press edition carries the title “Effective teaching.”
Seneca recounts the situation of two mutual friends, who, he says, need to be treated differently because of where they are in their life stages. With one of them, Seneca thinks harsh measures ought to be put in place, adding that if he doesn’t offend his friend, then he doesnt’ love him. I suspect this sort of attitude is difficult to implement nowadays, given our culture’s current penchant for easy offense. Then again, Seneca was talking about a friend who he genuinely wanted to help, not a stranger he actually aimed at hurting.
Seneca anticipates Lucilius’ objection: are you seriously thinking of taking on a pupil who is 40 years old? He is set in his ways, and one can mold things only whey they are soft. To which comes the reply:
“I don’t know if I will succeed, but I would rather fail in my endeavor than in my duty to him. Nor should you give up hope: even long-term invalids can be cured if you take a stand against intemperance, and if you force them repeatedly to do things and put up with things against their will.” (XXV.2)
Notice the standard Stoic analogy between philosophical and physical health, but also the acknowledgment that, while it may be more difficult than if one starts earlier in life, it is still possible at any age to help people we care along the path of virtue.
The second friend needs a gentler treatment, continues Seneca, because he is still capable of blushing, which means he has retained a sense of right and wrong, and is concerned about it:
“We must nurture that sense of shame: once it has solidified in his mind, there will be some room for hope.” (XXV.2)
The second part of the letter turns to helping out Seneca himself, as well as Lucilius: just because they are conscious of the importance of virtue it doesn’t mean that they are ipso facto virtuous. As he often does in the early letters, Seneca quotes the rival Epicurus, not being shy to borrow from the latter’s philosophy, since the truth is public property. The quote is rather indicative of Epicurus’ own approach to things (recall that he was among the few ancients who actually went around claiming to be a sage): “do everything as though Epicurus were watching you.”
This is interesting because it’s a clear indication of an exercise that modern Stoics refer to as “the sage on the shoulder,” the idea — supported by empirical evidence in social psychology — that we behave better if we imagine that there is someone watching what we are doing. And Seneca is explicit in his instructions to Lucilius:
“Put yourself under the guardianship of men of authority. Let it be Cato, or Scipio, or Laelius, or someone else at whose coming even desperate characters would suppress their faults, while you go about making yourself the person in whose company you would not dare to do wrong.” (XXV.6)
Cato, of course, is Cato the Younger, the arch-enemy of Julius Caesar, and a frequent role model for Seneca. Scipio is the legendary Scipio Africanus, a Roman general and consul who defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama in 202 BCE, during the Second Punic War. And Laelius was Gaius Laelius Sapiens (Laelius “the wise”), a Roman statesman of the II century BCE. The point is that all these people were known for their virtuous character, and are therefore apt to be role models for Lucilius (and the rest of us). Seneca even suggests that the choice of a role model depends on our own personality: for some a hardened soul like that of Cato will do, others might want to go with the gentler Laelius.
Role models play a huge part in Stoic ethical teaching, because — as Seneca says elsewhere — they provide us with a ruler against which to measure just how crooked our own character still is, as well as a pointer for the direction to take in order to further our self-improvement. So, pick your Cato, Scipio, or Laelius; or perhaps a modern role model, like Susan Fowler; or a fictional one, like Spider-Man (the ancients often used Odysseus); or simply look up to a friend or relative you think is doing the right thing for the right reasons. Role models don’t have to be perfect, no human being is. But it’s precisely because of their imperfection that their examples provide us with realistic goals, helping us to become better human beings here and now.