A stoics's guide of conduct

seneca

“Philosophers do not carry into effect all that they teach.” No; but they effect much good by their teaching, by the noble thoughts which they conceive in their minds: would, indeed, that they could act up to their talk: what could be happier than they would be? but in the meanwhile you have no right to despise good sayings and hearts full of good thoughts."


Seneca: Of a happy life – Book XX

“Philosophers do not carry into effect all that they teach.” No; but they effect much good by their teaching, by the noble thoughts which they conceive in their minds: would, indeed, that they could act up to their talk: what could be happier than they would be? but in the meanwhile you have no right to despise good sayings and hearts full of good thoughts. Men deserve praise for engaging in profitable studies, even though they stop short of producing any results. Why need we wonder if those who begin to climb a steep path do not succeed in ascending it very high? yet, if you be a man, look with respect on those who attempt great things, even though they fall. It is the act of a generous spirit to proportion its efforts not to its own strength but to that of human nature, to entertain lofty aims, and to conceive plans which are too vast to be carried into execution even by those who are endowed with gigantic intellects, who appoint for themselves the following rules:

“I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance: I will submit to labours, however great they may be, supporting the strength of my body by that of my mind: I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not; if they be elsewhere I will not be more gloomy, if they sparkle around me I will not be more lively than I should otherwise be: whether Fortune comes or goes I will take no notice of her: I will view all lands as though they belong to me, and my own as though they belonged to all mankind: I will so live as to remember that I was born for others, and will thank Nature on this account: for in what fashion could she have done better for me? she has given me alone to all, and all to me alone. Whatever I may possess, I will neither hoard it greedily nor squander it recklessly. I will think that I have no possessions so real as those which I have given away to deserving people: I will not reckon benefits by their magnitude or number, or by anything except the value set upon them by the receiver: I never will consider a gift to be a large one if it be bestowed upon a worthy object. I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience: whenever I do anything alone by myself I will believe that the eyes of the Roman people are upon me while I do it. In eating and drinking my object shall be to quench the desires of Nature, not to fill and empty my belly. I will be agreeable with my friends, gentle and mild to my foes: I will grant pardon before I am asked for it, and will meet the wishes of honourable men half way: I will bear in mind that the world is my native city, that its governors are the gods, and that they stand above and around me, criticizing whatever I do or say. Whenever either Nature demands my breath again, or reason bids me dismiss it, I will quit this life, calling all to witness that I have loved a good conscience, and good pursuits; that no one’s freedom, my own least of all, has been impaired through me.”

He who sets up these as the rules of his life will soar aloft and strive to make his way to the gods: of a truth, even though he fails, yet he ”Fails in a high emprise.”* But you, who hate both virtue and those who practise it, do nothing at which we need be surprised, for sickly lights cannot bear the sun, nocturnal creatures avoid the brightness of day, and at its first dawning become bewildered and all betake themselves to their dens together: creatures that fear the light hide themselves in crevices. So croak away, and exercise your miserable tongues in reproaching good men: open wide your jaws, bite hard: you will break many teeth before you make any impression.

* The quotation is from the epitaph on Phaeton. It reads: ‘Here Phaeton lies who in the sun god’s chariot fared. And though greatly he failed, more greatly he dared.’


Discussion

From the first paragraph:

“(…) Why need we wonder if those who begin to climb a steep path do not succeed in ascending it very high? yet, if you be a man, look with respect on those who attempt great things, even though they fall.”

Maybe we should resist the temptation of being dragged by public opinion, and aim at what, inwardly, we consider virtuous, or of “higher good”. What other reason could be that Seneca seems to insist on “respecting those who attempt great things”? If such endeavours were common and popular, he wouldn’t even mention it.

Then, he goes on to propose a code of conduct for this purpose, with very interesting points:

"(…) I will look upon death or upon a comedy with the same expression of countenance”

It’s very easy to enjoy a sunset at the beach, and some calm of a beautiful day, eating a fine piece of steak. But, can we develop our capacity for enjoying a fine steak with the same intensity as when we’re sick, as when tragedy and chaos catches up with us? For this it’d be necessary to re-examine the meaning of “enjoying”, by ourselves.

“(…) I will despise riches when I have them as much as when I have them not; if they be elsewhere I will not be more gloomy, if they sparkle around me I will not be more lively than I should otherwise be.

Worthy of some introspection: When was the last time I got inflated by some object that didn’t inherently belong to me? Not only objects as “things”, but also “objects” of our affection. One thought exercise taken from Zen Buddhist practices, which is very fit for this, is to see everything we can perceive through our senses (Even our own body and its movements) just as the clouds passing by. Not trying to disassociate or detach from the experience, but exactly the opposite.

“In eating and drinking my object shall be to quench the desires of Nature, not to fill and empty my belly”

How many times we use eating as entertainment? How many times we reach out to food for comfort? What we’re looking here is to nurture ourselves with good food; not to eat and drink compulsively. If nutrition is our main focus when looking at food, it may even start looking differently as it did before. Some junk food, and nutrient-void foods can stop being so appealing.

“I will do nothing because of public opinion, but everything because of conscience”

When pondering about a course of action, it’s sometimes different what we think it would be pleasant or acceptable, and what is right in our “hearts”.

“I will not reckon benefits by their magnitude or number, or by anything except the value set upon them by the receiver”

It’s a popular opinion to measure gifts by their monetary value. But what about those times when a good book, a cup of coffee and good advice, is better than giving a pair of fine shoes, a flight ticket to Bermuda. Here again, what is right > what looks right.

Then, he closes this section:

He who sets up these as the rules of his life will soar aloft and strive to make his way to the gods: of a truth, even though he fails, yet he “Fails in a high emprise.”

Not only on such a worthy ideal to strive to live for, but the fortitude that virtue develops:

“So croak away, and exercise your miserable tongues in reproaching good men: open wide your jaws, bite hard: you will break many teeth before you make any impression.”


This was an amazing topic of discussion, and I hope it has sparked some ideas in you as it did with me.


Resources:

“There are eyes so accustomed to darkness, that in clarity they see darkly” -Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius, letter 3


Written By

Argandov

Cybersecurity professional and IT enthusiast with a passion for technology, music, personal growth, and Eastern philosophy. Transitioned from mechanical engineering to IT in 2020, with a full-time interest in Technology, Cybersecurity and recent advances in AI. Seeks to integrate eastern philosophy, mindfulness and a growth mindset into daily life and work.