Stoic Philosophy

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, portrait by Peter Paul Rubens

  • "And among the other reasons for marvelling at the genius of the Divine Creator is, I believe, this,— that amid all this abundance there is no repetition; even seemingly similar things are, on comparison, unlike. God has created all the great number of leaves that we behold: each, however, is stamped with its special pattern. All the many animals: none resembles another in size — always some difference!"
  • (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter 113).

There is a school of stock-market analysis which touts the significance of 'earnings surprises:' those companies whose reported earnings exceed expectations receive a nice little bounce in the market. Realizing this, some companies, looking for a short-cut, get into the habit of purposefully low-balling their earnings estimates. The Stoic philosophy encompasses a similar set of strategies. If you reduce your expectations for happiness in this life, then these very low expectations might well be met or even exceeded.

One exponent of the Stoic philosophy was Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the Younger), a leading luminary of Emperor Nero's brain trust:

Seneca On Benefits
  On the Brevity of Life
  On Consolation to Helvia
  On Consolation to Marcia
  On Consolation to Polybius
  On Firmness
  On the Happy Life
  On Leisure
  On Mercy
  On Providence
  On Tranquility of Mind
  Pumpkinification of Claudius
  On Wrath

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

In addition to his treatises on philosophy, Seneca wrote numerous letters to friends and disciples:

Letter Reader

Seneca I On Saving Time
  II On Discursiveness in Reading
  III On True and False Friendship
  IV On the Terrors of Death
  V The Philosopher's Mean
  VI On Sharing Knowledge
  VII On Crowds
  VIII On the Philosopher's Seclusion
  IX On Philosophy and Friendship
  X On Living to Oneself
  XI On the Blush of Modesty
  XII Letter On Old Age
  XIII On Groundless Fears
  XIV Withdrawing from the World
  XV On Brawn and Brains
  XVI Philosophy, the Guide to Life
  XVII On Philosophy and Riches
  XVIII Festivals and Fasting
  XIX On Wordliness and Retirement
  XX On Practicing What You Preach
  XXI On the Renown of my Writings
  XXII The Futility of Half-Way Measures
  XXIII On the True Joy of Philosophy
  XXIV On Despising Death
  XXV On Reformation
  XXVI On Old Age and Death
  XXVII On the Good Which Abides
  XXVIII On Travel as a Cure for Discontent
  XXIX Critical Condition of Marcellinus
  XXX On Conquering the Conqueror
  XXXI On Siren Songs
  XXXII On Progress
  XXXIII The Futility of Learning Maxims
  XXXIV On a Promising Pupil
  XXXV The Friendship of Kindred Minds
  XXXVI On the Value of Retirement
  XXXVII On Allegiance to Virtue
  XXXVIII On Quiet Conversation
  XXXIX On Noble Aspirations
  XL Proper Style for a Philosopher's Discourse
  XLI On the God Within Us
  XLII On Values
  XLIII The Relativity of Fame
  XLIV Philosophy and Pedigrees
  XLV Sophistical Argumentation
  XLVI A New Book by Lucilius
  XLVII Letter On Master and Slave
  XLVIII On Quibbling as Unworthy
  XLIX Letter on the Shortness of Life
  L On Our Blindness
  LI On Baiae and Morals
  LII On Choosing Our Teachers
  LIII On the Faults of the Spirit
  LIV On Asthma and Death
  LV On Vatia's Villa
  LVI On Quiet and Study
  LVII On the Trials of Travel
  LVIII On Being
  LIX On Pleasure and Joy
  LX On Harmful Prayers
  LXI Meeting Death Cheerfully
  LXII On Good Company
  LXIII On Grief for Lost Friends
  LXIV On the Philosopher's Task
  LXV The First Cause
  LXVI Aspects of Virtue
  LXVII Letter On Illness
  LXVIII On Wisdom and Retirement
  LXIX On Rest and Restlessness
  LXX Slipping the Cable
  LXXI The Supreme Good
  LXXII On Business
  LXXIII On Philosophers and Kings
  LXXIV Virtue as a Refuge
  LXXV Soul Diseases
  LXXVI Wisdom in Old Age
  LXXVII On Taking One's Own Life
  LXXVIII The Healing Power of the Mind
  LXXIX Letter on Scientific Discovery
  LXXX Letter on Worldly Deceptions
  LXXXI Letter on Benefits
  LXXXII Natural Fear of Death
  LXXXIII On Drunkenness
  LXXXIV On Gathering Ideas
  LXXXV Vain Syllogisms
  LXXXVI On Scipio's Villa
  LXXXVII The Simple Life
  LXXXVIII Liberal and Vocational Studies
  LXXXIX On the Parts of Philosophy
  XC Progress of Mankind
  XCI Burning of Lyons
  XCII The Happy Life
  XCIII The Quality of Life
  XCIV Value of Advice
  XCV Basic Principles
  XCVI On Facing Hardships
  XCVII On the Degeneracy of the Age
  XCVIII Fickleness of Fortune
  XCIX On Consolation to the Bereaved
  C Writings of Fabianus
  CI On the Futility of Planning Ahead
  CII Intimations of Immortality
  CIII Dangers of Association
  CIV Peace of Mind
  CV On Facing the World
  CVI On the Corporeality of Virtue
  CVII Obedience to the Universal Will
  CVIII Approaches to Philosophy
  CIX Fellowship of Wise Men
  CX On True and False Riches
  CXI Vanity of Mental Gymnastics
  CXII Reforming Hardened Sinners
  CXIII On the Vitality of the Soul
  CXIV Style a Mirror of Character
  CXV Superficial Blessings
  CXVI On Self-Control
  CXVII On Real Ethics
  CXVIII Vanity of Place-Seeking
  CXIX Nature as Best Provider
  CXX More on Virtue
  CXXI On Instinct in Animals
  CXXII Darkness as a Veil for Wickedness
  CXXIII Conflict Between Pleasure and Virtue
  CXXIV On the True Good

Philo Library

One fascinating issue that comes up with Seneca are the numerous near-quotes of the gospels found in his writing. I don't mean to imply much synergy between Stoicism, with its furthermost goal of earthly tranquillity, and Christianity, looking toward a heavenly hope; but there are in Seneca's works several near-quotes of humble gospel similes. He was undoubtedly a well-informed, if unsympathetic, witness to the rise of Christianity; his brother Gallio is even mentioned in the New Testament, in Acts 18:12. Given that Seneca committed suicide in the year 65 A.D., his near-quotes of gospel themes and illustrations further confirm the reader's skepticism of the prevalent 'liberal' dates of these documents, which are invariably post-70 A.D. Contrary to what some might generously assume, these late dates are assigned not as a function of any tangible documentary evidence, but solely owing to the presumed impossibility of prophecy:

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Seneca was also a dramatist, though some of his offerings are not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Why a man devoted to the quest for tranquillity of mind wrote like this, I can't say:

Seneca Agamemnon
Anonymous Octavia

Other Stoic authors who find a place in the Thriceholy Library are the slave Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

Cleanthes Hymn to Zeus
Epictetus Manual
Marcus Aurelius Meditations

Critics of Stoicism have complained the Stoics are throwing out the baby with the bath-water. They rid us of the pains of life only at the cost of ridding us also of the joys. Christians do not find it possible to obey the Stoics' injunctions and also do like the song says,

"We share each other's woes,
Each other's burdens share,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear." (Blest Be the Tie that Binds)

But this is after all Paul's advice, "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep." (Romans 12:15). Telling people they are foolish for becoming so attached to their children in the first place is not, after all, quite the same thing.

The Greek philosophical paradigm, that virtue is educable, has its successes, and its failures: "If education or warning were of any avail, how could Seneca's pupil be Nero?" (Arthur Schopenhauer, The Complete Essays, Psychological Observations, Kindle location 6659). Speaking for the pagan anti's, Plutarch and Herodes Atticus:

Plutarch Abstract of a Discourse

  • "I heard Herodes Atticus, a man of consular dignity, speaking at Athens in Greek, in which he far excelled every one within my memory in solemnity, copiousness, and elegance of diction. He spoke against the apathy of the Stoics, having been attacked by a Stoic, for not supporting the death of a son whom he loved, with wisdom and fortitude. As far as I recollect, the tendency of what he said was this, 'That no man who felt and thought naturally, could so entirely divest himself of those affections of the mind (which he called παθη) namely sorrow, desire, fear, anger, joy, as to be wholly insensible of them, and not in some degree suffer grief; and if even he could so strive against them as to annihilate them, it would be no advantage, for the mind would languish and become torpid, when deprived of those necessary stimulatives which are found in the influence of the affections.
  • "'For,' said he, 'those senses and impulses of the mind, which when unrestrained become vices, are yet united and bound together with the powers and energies of the mind: if, therefore, we should ignorantly pluck them out all together, we may happen to destroy the good and useful tendencies of the mind together with the rest.' He was of opinion, therefore, that they were to be regulated and purified by skill and deliberation, in order that those qualities which appear injurious and unnatural, and which have sprung up to the injury of the mind, may be separated; lest perchance that should happen which once did (as the story goes) to a Thracian rustic, in the cultivation of a farm which he had bought.
  • "'This fellow (said he) coming from a barbarous country, unused to agriculture, after he had migrated into a cultivated region, in order to enjoy more civilized life, bought a farm planted with olives and vines: as he knew nothing about vineyards or plantations, and happened to see a neighbor cutting down thorns, which had spread themselves high and wide, trimming his ash-trees at the top, plucking up the suckers of his vines, and amputating the spreading shoots from the fruit-trees and the olives; he approached him, and enquired why he made such havoc among his wood and leaves. His neighbor replied, that the land might be clean, and the vineyard more productive. He went away then, thanking him, and rejoiced at his acquisition of agricultural knowledge: taking up his pruning-hook and his hatchet, he immediately, like a simpleton, falls to trimming his vines and his olives, lops off the strongest branches of the trees, and the most flourishing shoots of his vines, and roots up, in order to purify his ground from thorns, the fruit-trees, the shrubs, and every thing that bore corn or fruit, together with the briars. He had dearly bought self-sufficiency, and by injudicious imitation, had learned confidently to plunge into error.'
  • "'So,' adds he, 'these preachers of apathy, who wish to appear at ease, undaunted and immoveable, while they wish for nothing, are grieved at nothing, angry at nothing, and rejoiced at nothing; cutting off all the more powerful energies of the mind, grow old in dragging on a life without exertion, and without capacity for action.'"
  • (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Volume III, Book XIX, Chapter XII, pp. 398-400).

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