Seneca, Moral Epistles, Blog 4, Stoic Concepts of Virtue and the Good

Seneca was praised by early Church Fathers as being the most Christian of the Stoic Philosophers

What distinguishes the virtuous soul?  Seneca says It is “the soul that penetrates the whole world and directs it contemplating gaze upon all its Phenomena, paying strict attention to thoughts and actions, rising above both hardships and flatteries, yielding neither to poverty nor to fortune, rising above all tribulations and blessings, absolutely beautiful, perfectly equipped with grace and strength, unruffled, never dismayed, unmoved by violence, neither exalted or depressed by chance events – a soul like this is virtue itself.”  Virtue is not like the house built on sand that is swept away by the first storm, virtue is the house built on the rocks, the house that stands firm against the waves and the storms that crash against the rocks, this house is never moved.  Seneca lists the other virtues, “tranquility, simplicity, generosity, constancy, equanimity, endurance.”

Letter LXVI – On Various Aspects of Virtue

Neither extreme moves the stoic philosopher.  “’What then,’ you say, ‘is there no difference between joy and unyielding endurance of pain?’  None at all . . . For joy there is a natural relaxation and loosening of the soul, for suffering there is an unnatural pain. . . Virtue does not change by either extreme, hard and stubborn suffering does not make virtue worse, and pleasant joy does not make virtue superior.”  Seneca says that “every honorable act is voluntary.  But if the honorable act is done with reluctance, complaints, cowardice, or fear, it loses its best characteristic – self-approval.”

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“You may ask, ‘Are you trying to make us believe that it does not matter whether a man feels joy, or whether he lies upon the rack and tires out his torturer?’  I might answer, ‘Epicurus also maintains that the wise man, though he is being burned in the bull of Phalaris, will cry out, This is pleasant, and concerns me not at all.”  Seneca refers here to an ancient torture, the hapless victim is forced into a hollow iron bull in which he is roasted alive over a blazing fire.  You may prefer being served roasted beef at a banquet over being roasted in a red-hot iron bull, but the virtue is same whether it comes through joy or sorrow and pain.  As Seneca says, “There is an equality between feeling joy with self-control and feeling pain with self-control.”  Joy is more desirable, but enduring suffering is more admirable.  While joy is more desirable than suffering, the virtue that enables us to patiently endure hardships is more desirable.

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Seneca asks, “what is the purpose of all this?  That you may know that virtue regards all her works in the same light, as if they were her children, showing equal kindness to all, and still deeper kindness to those who encounter hardships; for even parents feel more affection towards her children whom she pities most.”  The father loves both his older son and his prodigal son, he loves his older son and all that he has will be his, but for the prodigal son who was lost in a faraway land but has now returned, he forgives and rejoices, killing the fatted calf for a celebration.

Virtue shines like the sun.  Seneca says, “Vexation and pain and other inconveniences are powerless, for virtue overcomes them.  Just as the brightness of the sun dims lesser lights, so virtue by its brilliance shatters and overwhelms all pains, annoyances, and wrongs.  Wherever virtue’s radiance shines all other lights are extinguished, inconveniences are like clouds over the sea.”[1]

Lord, may we be virtuous, may we not complain, may we seek to lights unto men, not hiding our light under a bushel, may we be kind to all, may we not be become complacent in good times, may we not lose our faith when we must endure sadness and suffering, may we be thankful for both, may we truly want to love our neighbor as ourselves, may our love and concern always be a freedom than a burden, may all those whom we meet be slightly better people because we were in their lives.

Letter LXXI On the Supreme Good

For our life to have purpose, for us not to have lived our life in vain, we must purpose our lives towards the Supreme Good, that which is honorable.  Seneca says “our plans miscarry when they have no aim.  When a man knows not what harbor is his destination, no wind is the right wind.”

For a Christian, what does it mean to live an honorable life in service of the Supreme Good?  To love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul and with all of our mind and with all of our purpose, and not only to love our neighbor as ourselves, but to eagerly seek to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be eager to forgive the faults and shortcomings of our neighbor.  Seneca does not say this exactly, he is a bit vague as to what he means by honorable, but yet this reading fits the hands of Seneca like a glove.

Seneca says, “That which is honorable is the only good, all other goods are alloyed and debased,” the honorable is like hardened steel rather than pot metal.  When you “love virtue with devotion, for mere loving is not enough, anything that has been touched by virtue will be fraught with blessing and prosperity for you, no matter how it shall be regarded by others.”  Those evils you suffer, including torture, when you are calmer than your torturer, and illness, when you curse not Fortune, all the sufferings of life “which others regard as ills will become manageable and will end in good, if you succeed in rising above them.”  Seneca quotes Socrates, “Allow any man who wishes to insult you and harm you, but if only virtue dwells within you, you will suffer nothing.”

Indeed, Seneca says the wise man in happy in his sufferings, “for unless a man is happy, he has not attained the Supreme Good.  If only virtue exists in a man, and if adversity does not impair his virtue, and though the body be injured, virtue abides unharmed.”  Seneca observes, “the happiness of those who are still shy of perfection whose happiness can be aborted, but the joy of a wise man is a woven fabric, a joy not rent by chance nor by a change in fortune, for at all times and in all places a wise man is at peace.  The joy of a wise man depends on nothing external and looks for no boon from man or fortune.  His happiness is something within himself, it is born there.”[2]

As St Augustine teaches, those who are truly happy are those who Love God, and who love their neighbor as themselves, they never complain of their sufferings, they are as happy when they are blessed as when they endure suffering, always loving, always forgiving, always compassionate, always enduring, always happy.

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[1] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter LXVI, 333-341

[2] Seneca, Moral Discourses, Letter LXXI, 350-354.

About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.