If you would enjoy real freedom, you must be the slave of Philosophy.

The Stoic Failure

“I shall take every liberty; for I do not love this one if I am unwilling to hurt his feelings.”

Recently I managed to scrounge up enough time to make it through the Letters of Seneca. Truly a worthy classic, and another one to add to list of books I’m going to force my kids to read. You should read it too. It’s short, and all the shorter because it is divided into letters of only a few pages apiece. It’s also highly quotable; I found myself highlighting dozens of pithy sayings for later usage.

“‘If you wish,’ said he, ‘to make Pythocles rich, do not add to his store of money, but subtract from his desires.'”

Anybody who knows me would agree that “stoic” is a good way to describe me, so it’s no surprise that I would find Seneca and the original Stoicisim which he represents appealing. But that’s not merely my temperament talking. The Stoics really did strike pretty close to the truth, especially when it comes to ethics and their embrace of reason. Early Christians recognized this as well, applying bits of their philosophy where appropriate, and sometimes even trying to induct them into the ranks of “pagans so close to the Truth that they were really basically Christians” (Plato got similar treatment). Even the term “logos” probably comes to us through the Stoics.

“I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, -not as a deserter, but as a scout.”

I was enjoying Seneca so much that I decided to learn more about him, and what do I find but this:

He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero.

That really puts a damper on my admiration. Seneca had noble ideas, but when it comes to implementation, you can’t fail much worse than bearing responsibility for Nero. (Yes, he probably didn’t approve of Nero’s actions, and yes, Nero eventually had him killed, but still.)

“You are better at approving the right course that at following it out. You see where the true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.”

This is a repeated problem with the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is another Stoic classic which I will force-feed my children, and has rightly been highly regarded throughout the Church. But if you look at Aurelius’ reign as emperor, his record is not nearly so great. He is credited with initiating the fourth persecution of Christianity, and it was under his reign that the Lyon massacre occurred.

“Let another say ‘Perhaps the worst will not happen.’ You yourself must say ‘Well, what if it does? Let us see who wins!'”

It’s a sobering reminder of the limits of human effort. Even having seen and understood so much about virtue, the Stoics still fell dangerously short. We cannot get there on our own. Without a divine hand reaching down to pick us up, we really are lost.

“Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.”

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