Seneca on Virtue

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Stoicism is a doctrine of equanimity. We are in control of our own happiness, and in his 74th letter to Lucilius, Seneca shows how the cultivation of virtue makes this possible.

There are two types of experiences: those which we cannot control and those which we can. Virtue allows us to distinguish between the two, living in passive acceptance or active pursuit.

“…there is but one road, – to despise externals and to be contented with that which is honourable. For those who regard anything as better than virtue, or believe that there is any good except virtue, are spreading their arms to gather in that which Fortune tosses abroad, and are anxiously awaiting her favours.”

Her favors often come in the form of temptations contrary to our path. Virtue, however, allows us to use each moment to strengthen our resolve as a weight lifter strengthens his body.

Whatever we pursue we become. Religion warns against the worship of false idols. With so many things vying for our attention, with so few being worthy of our acknowledgment, the pursuit of virtue may indeed be the only safe-haven for reverence.

Consider David Foster Wallace from his essay, This is Water:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship-be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles-is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

We are dogmatic creatures and our dogmas act as subconscious default-settings, shaping the way we derive meaning from experience. In this hyper-connected age, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of someone else’s values. Material wealth, the favorable opinions of our peers, and the common prescriptions of the multitudes easily become the heading for our compass. We find direction but lose ourselves.

“Whoever makes up his mind to be happy should conclude that the good consists only in that which is honourable.”

The Stoic needs nothing from the external world to find such happiness. As both the sculptor and the clay, he shapes his soul with the tools of thought and action.

“Do you ask why virtue needs nothing? Because it is pleased with what it has, and does not lust after that which it has not. Whatever is enough is abundant in the eyes of virtue.”

There will be countless obstacles in our path, many of which will go unnoticed– those environmental influences which insidiously nudge us off course. Hold fast. External forces pale in comparison to sound reason.

As Seneca reminds us:

“Love reason! The love of reason will arm you against the greatest hardships.”

And be the source of your greatest triumphs.

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